Jeff Hummel on Classical Liberals and Libertarians
By David Henderson
Economist and libertarian Jeff Hummel, pictured above, sent me the following and I think it’s worth sharing:
In a Zoom session some libertarian friends and colleagues had a lively discussion of the correct usage of the term “libertarian.” Afterwards I had some additional thoughts. So I wrote this message to lay out my argument in more detail.
In the late 60s and early 70s, as the libertarian movement was just distinguishing and disentangling itself from conservatism, the terms “libertarian” and “classical liberal” had clear and relatively precise meanings, at least among the U.S. libertarians with whom I associated. These meanings were once very clearly articulated by libertarian philosopher Eric Mack at one of the IHS (or Cato?) summer seminars I attended.
He defined a classical liberal as someone who believes that maximizing individual liberty should be the highest (if not sole) goal of government (or the State). A libertarian is a classical liberal who further believes that government should have no morally privileged status with regards its powers. In other words, government and its agents could justly engage only in actions that were legitimate for individuals or groups of individuals. Thus, governments should be confined to using force (coercion) to the extent that individuals can rightfully do so for defense or restitution. Stating the libertarian constraint on government in this way gets around (or evades, if you prefer) some of the difficult problems defining the moral limits of legitimate defense and restitution, about which libertarians sometimes disagree, especially in the realm of so-called national defense. Yet nearly all moral philosophies, religious and non-religious, share certain broad outlines, disapproving of murder and theft, as much as they may differ on the borderline details of justifiable defense or restitution.
This way of putting the constraint also leaves open some room for the libertarian archipelagos of Chandran Kukathas, or for the proprietary communities that other libertarians favor. But in order to qualify as genuine libertarian social orders, such communities must be voluntary associations. The opposition to government taxation is also what distinguished libertarians from non-libertarian classical liberals, who in contrast believe that there is a difficult trade-off between liberty and coercion. In their view, government must impose taxes and perhaps exercise other coercive powers not derived from individual rights in order to effectively maximize total liberty. Libertarians, in contrast, held that government should be entirely voluntarily funded, a position that even Ayn Rand embraced at one point.
Libertarians then divided into limited-government libertarians (or to use Sam Konkin’s term, minarchists) and anarchist libertarians (or anarcho-capitalists, a term I never liked). Rand, among others, was a limited-government libertarian. Anarchist libertarians, such as myself and the younger Roy Childs, did argue that the limited-government libertarian position was inconsistent, pointing out that there is no sure way that a government (even if it eschews taxation) can maintain its monopoly without using some coercive powers that are illegitimate for individuals. But we never therefore denied that limited-government libertarians failed to qualify as libertarians, as long as they continued to believe that a voluntarily funded government was desirable and possible, no matter how mistaken we found that belief. Moreover, these distinctions were fairly widely recognized and accepted by libertarians of all varieties, whether primarily influenced by Rand or Rothbard.
I admittedly recognize two problems with maintaining these clear distinctions today. There is often a tension between prescriptive and descriptive definitions for words. I accept that the meanings of words spontaneously evolve over time. The word “libertarian” was used with a less precise meaning before the modern movement, even being embraced by some socialist libertarians. And in common usage today, the terms libertarian and classical liberal have become virtually synonymous. I attribute that evolution to two developments. (1) As some (many?) of the young libertarians of the 60s and 70s matured and aged, having to deal with real-world problems and issues, their views became less consistent or more nuanced and subtle, depending on your point of view. For particularly extreme cases of this intellectual evolution, I like Jeffrey Friedman’s term of “post-libertarian.” (2) The newer generation of libertarians is much more focused on current government policies, and has little interest in the fundamental but thorny philosophical and ideological foundations of their views. Even some of us in the older generation have gotten tired of those endless debates. So in casual conversation, I have to go along with current usage. Yet I still think the greater clarity of the original meanings should sometimes be maintained and specified for more serious discussions.
A second problem with a strict definition for the term “libertarian” is that in the past it led to endless internecine squabbles about who was a “genuine” libertarian, almost like the hair-splitting divisions and deviations that arose among early Marxists. I certainly have no interest in bringing back these counter-productive excommunications and denunciations. If someone wants to claim the label “libertarian,” there is not much to be gained from arguing about that, unless the self-identification is particularly outlandish. I’d rather focus on specific and concrete differences of opinion.
Some contend that one consideration should be whether people self-identify as libertarians, as Rand did not. For labels that describe people’s ideas there is a smidgen of validity to his claim. With respect to religion, we usually accept as definitive people’s self-identification as Christian, Muslim, atheist, etc. But that is simply a courteous and usually reliable rule of thumb. Lurking behind it is still some objective notion of what, for instance, a Christian believes. If, on questioning someone who claims to be a Christian, you discover that he or she does not believe in the historical existence of Jesus or in the existence of God, and also thinks the New Testament has less religious relevance than the Koran, you would be justified in doubting his or her self-identification.
By the way, by the strict standard that Jeff lays out for libertarians, I am not quite a libertarian.