Libertarians and Classical Liberals


At his Defining Ideas blog at the Hoover Institution, Richard A. Epstein has an important piece discussing the differences between classical liberals such as himself, and hard-core libertarians like Rand Paul.  He does this in order to draw some important intellectual distinctions, but also to identify some areas where libertarians appears to be sidelining themselves on policy discussions:

The renewed attention to Paul exposes the critical tension between hard-line libertarians and classical liberals. The latter are comfortable with a larger government than hard-core libertarians because they take into account three issues that libertarians like Paul tend to downplay: (1) coordination problems; (2) uncertainty; (3) and matters of institutional design….

…Again, strong libertarians are on solid ground in defending (most) private contracts against government interference…. Yet the hard-line libertarian position badly misfires in assuming that any set of voluntary contracts can solve the far larger problem of social order, which, as Rothbard notes, in practice requires each and every citizen to relinquish the use force against all others. Voluntary cooperation cannot secure unanimous consent, because the one violent holdout could upset the peace and tranquility of all others.

The sad experience of history is that high transaction costs and nonstop opportunism wreck the widespread voluntary effort to create a grand social alliance to limit the use of force. Society needs a coercive mechanism strong enough to keep defectors in line, but fair enough to command the allegiance of individuals, who must share the costs of creating that larger and mutually beneficial social order. The social contract that Locke said brought individuals out of the state of nature was one such device. The want of individual consent was displaced by a consciously designed substantive program to protect both liberty and property in ways that left all members of society better off than they were in the state of nature. Only constrained coercion can overcome the holdout problems needed to implement any principle of nonaggression.

(I don’t think the ellipses have done any violence to the main thrust of Epstein’s argument, but of course, you’ll want to read the whole thing.)

This is neatly encapsulated by Walter Russell Mead’s statement that having the Interstate Highway System makes us freer.  Epstein then goes on to provide concrete examples of the three classes of problems he cites above.  On taxes, for instance:

The classical liberal thus agrees with the hard-line libertarian that progressive taxation, with its endless loopholes, is unsustainable in the long run. At the same time, the classical liberal finds it incomprehensible that anyone would want to condemn all taxes as government theft from a hapless citizenry. The hard-line libertarian’s blanket condemnation of taxes as theft means that he can add nothing to the discussion of which tax should be preferred and why. The classical liberal has a lot to say on that subject against both the hard-line libertarian and the modern progressive.

Hard-core libertarians will retort that classical liberalism as espoused by Epstein hasn’t done anything to arrest the historical drift in the wrong direction.  I’d respond that the hard-core libertarians provide True North; indeed, it’s probably what Reagan had in mind when he famously said that libertarianism was the “heart and soul” of the Republican party.  It anchors the discussion, and acts as a conscience in some ways to classical liberals by constantly asking, “How much freedom are you trading away, here?”

However, as Epstein shows, right now it’s engaged mostly in discussion with itself, and it runs the risk of isolating itself from broader policy discussion by being unable to talk in concepts that 90% of the country uses.  This is what happens when hard-core libertarians insist that there’s “no difference” between the two major parties.  Of course, there’s a difference, and libertarians know it.  But for rhetorical effect, and to maximize their own leverage, they end up in effect arguing that there’s no practical difference between Progressive Leftism and Classical Liberalism, which is absurd.  Some people end up buying this, but in the end, it’s self-limiting, because they’re just not using the same political categories as everyone else.

 

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