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Am I Carlton’s lone libertarian?

By Andrew Norton - posted Wednesday, 31 January 2007


I’ve never won any competition I entered, but now it seems I have won a competition I did not know I was in: I have been named as one of Australia’s top libertarian identities. Don Arthur thinks that surely there must have been some mistake, citing these words I wrote last year explaining why I was not a libertarian:

Classical liberals are certainly at the libertarian end of the political spectrum. In practice, though, I am uncomfortable with the label. Libertarians tend to have a rights-based view of the world (in this they parallel modern left-liberals, though their lists of rights are different).

Personally, I don’t find rights theories or, for that matter any foundationalist theory, convincing. So while I favour the institutions of classical liberalism - limited government, the rule of law, protection of personal freedoms, the market etc - I have an more intellectually eclectic set of justifications than a simple assertion of rights. In practice, this leads to more pragmatic political positions than libertarians.

For example, while maintaining due scepiticism I basically agree with the line that Gerard Henderson has been pushing (eg today’s SMH) that in times of threat the government can reduce some people’s civil liberties if a strong enough case can be made that they are a threat to Australia’s security. In the libertarian view, rights are rights, regardless of circumstances.

Jason Soon thinks that in this passage I am defining libertarianism too narrowly as a rights-based philosophy, when it could have utilitarian derivations as well:

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On that reading, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman wouldn’t be classified as libertarians, nor would Friedman’s son, David Friedman who is fundamentally a utilitarian but has also written one of the most convincing books on anarcho-capitalism that I have ever read

John Humphreys agrees with Jason. He thinks that:

If somebody really wanted to make a distinction between “classical liberal” and “libertarian” it is probably fair to note that “classical liberals” are normally on the moderate corner of the libertarian circle (sic), but that doesn’t stop them from being libertarian.

If libertarianism and classical liberalism are not identical twins they are at least first cousins, which is why classical liberals can end up appearing like “moderate” libertarians. Yet I still think that there are some distinctions that often if not always apply, and mean I am more comfortable self-describing as a “classical liberal”:

1) Underlying philosophy. Jason insists that libertarianism can rely on utilitarian as well as rights-based arguments. I think he is right that libertarians use utilitarian arguments, but I feel more to find stronger justifications than natural rights theories for the same freedoms as rights protect than as a real inquiry into what would maximise utility. Libertarians end up arguing against things like seat belt laws, random breath testing or gun control, which I think are tough arguments on utilitarian grounds alone. I think classical liberals tend to be more open to going where utilitarian arguments might take them, which is why I made the point about national security laws in the passage that Don quoted.

2) Style. Whether utilitarian or rights-based in their underlying philosophy, libertarians like deductive reasoning - applying clear principles to almost any set of facts. This is one reason, I think, that neo-classical economics and libertarianism often appeal to the same people. Deductive reasoning gives libertarianism a dogmatic character (the Randians tend to be insufferably dogmatic). Early classical liberals like Adam Smith preferred inductive reasoning; the pleasure in reading them (and talking with living classical liberals) is not just in having aspects of one’s worldview confirmed, it is in trying to find patterns and meaning in social and economic life. Where libertarians have solid principles, classical liberals have rules of thumb derived from experience: governments tend to mess things up, individuals are the best judges of their own interests, private property is essential to freedom and efficiency, etc.

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3) Cultural attitudes. Libertarians tend to have a more anything goes attitude to culture than classical liberals. In this respect, classical liberals have things in common with conservatives, in believing that social order is desirable and that certain general cultural rules ought to be observed. Libertarians rush in to defend people’s freedom to say anything they like, no matter how racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. I’ll certainly argue against people who say such things being punished by law, but I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with them being ostracised for their actions. This is why I was not completely against “political correctness”. It is why I have a stricter comments policy than Catallaxy.

Political ideologies are very hard to pin down, and inevitably people will find exceptions - or even take exception - to my attempts to distinguish classical liberalism and libertarianism. But I have described the connotations attached to the two terms in my own mind at least. I have been called much worse things than a “libertarian” - indeed, a radical libertarian once accused me of “state worship”, which I found far more inaccurate and insulting. But given the choice, I prefer the label “classical liberal”.

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First published in Andrew Norton on October 10, 2006. It is republished as part of "Best Blogs of 2006" a feature in collaboration with Club Troppo, and edited by Ken Parish, Nicholas Gruen et al.



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About the Author

Andrew Norton is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the CIS' Liberalising Learning research programme.

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