Often, libertarians will urge the recovery of the word liberalism away from the statist takeover in the 20th century. They express confusion as to why modern American conservatism has been associated with political liberty, arguing that conservatism has historically been anti-liberty, while liberalism has working for it both the historical roots and the etymology of the spirit of freedom. These topics are of immense difficulty and I am working toward a future essay –likely for the fall– to investigate these problems.
When we speak of liberty, there are two meanings: one has to do strictly with liberty from coercive interpersonal relations (which is not limited to the state– robbers and murders two are coercive– but the state represents the institutionalization of this coercion) and the other to do with a more general freedom from norms, expectations, traditions, institutions, social structures, and sometimes, the above stated interpersonal relations.
Largely speaking, the classical liberal tradition included thinkers and writers of both camps (Mises might be the most self-aware representative of the former camp, while John Stuart Mill, or even Thomas Paine, represents the broader version of liberalism.). Jared Lovell expressed this latter spirit well in his law school thesis (unpublished online), echoing the articulation of Paine’s liberalism presented by Yuval Levin, in writing:
Since freedom of choice is the ultimate aim of politics, the negative right to be left alone to pursue one’s own happiness quickly morphs into a positive right to remove any obstacles or social obligations that stand in the way of that right.
The classical liberal project is much broader than what libertarianism is supposed to be. There has always been two understandings of libertarianism: the first sees the libertarian as the heir of classical liberalism, proponent of freedom in a broad sense against social obstacles and obligations. This is the libertarianism of Reason Magazine, Cato, David Boaz, and the Libertarian Party. Then there is the libertarianism of Murray Rothbard and his disciples, what might be called the Rothbardian School. His intellectual move has been missed completely by traditional conservatives, paleoconservatives, mainstream libertarians in the broad sense (the heirs of classical liberalism). Rothbard did this: he sliced and slivered out the “liberty from the state component” of classical liberalism and made it into a distinct legal theory that could be combined with either more rightist or more leftist social frameworks.
Thus, libertarianism in the Rothbardian sense can indeed mesh with classical liberalism, but it could just as well mesh with a rightist, traditionalist demeanor as well. Murray Rothbard very clearly distinguished his libertarianism from classical liberalism in his interaction with Frank Meyer’s critique of classical liberalism. Rothbard:
Meyer’s mistake was in thinking that he was thereby indicting libertarianism per se when he was really attacking the classical liberal world-view underlying the underpinning for its own particular libertarian position. As [Tibor] Machan points out, “Classical liberalism may properly be regarded as far more than a political theory such as libertarianism, since it is philosophically broader, involving ideas about the nature of man, God, value, science, etc. Although libertarianism may indeed be defensible from a very specific philosophical perspective, it is not itself that perspective”.
(The careful reader should here note that Rothbard’s quotation of Machan for this point does not mean Machan and Rothbard saw eye to eye on social outlook).
This does not make Rothbardianism rightist, nor does it preclude the libertarian from also being a classical liberal. But it does make Rothbard’s libertarianism a possible component of classical liberalism, though libertarianism can exist independently of it.
This point is immensely important and has been missed by nearly everyone except the more careful and nuanced disciples of Rothbard (such as Gerald Casey and David Gordon) — even the great Paul Gottfried (a tremendous hero of mine) holds that Rothbard, because he holds to a natural order, is actually more conservative than libertarian after all, even if Rothbard himself didn’t see it. This interpretation misses the precise point of this post: Rothbard ensured his own libertarianism was not per se dependent on a liberal worldview.
One of the more fascinating implications of this is that while I implied that Reasonite libertarianism was technically a (in a general sense) “left-libertarianism,” Rothbardianism is not a “right-libertarianism.” This is because Rothbardianism is a rationalistic legal doctrine that must –unless nihilistic-libertarianism is to be preferred– be combined with, or integrated into, a general interpretive framework, whether this be generally rightist or not.
All this was motivated by Dan McCarthy’s, one of the best conservative voices of our time, pushback against Allen Mendenhall’s critical review of Patrick Deneen’s Liberalism (see also Gordon’s review of the book). It is not the point of this post to interact at length with all the difficulties inherent in both Mendenhall and Deneen, but the general observation is that liberalism is nothing if not so often ill-defined. Mendenhall observed that “Deneen is not interested in liberalisms, i.e., the multiplicity of concepts that fly under the banner of liberalism. He prefers casually to lump together varieties of generic ills (everything from industrialized agriculture to the infatuation with STEM, diversity, multiculturalism, materialism, and sexual autonomy) as products of the one common enemy of everything good that the classical and medieval periods had to offer. He then gives that enemy a name: liberalism.”
He offers this alternative to Deneen’s vague framework:
It isn’t correct that liberalism “requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community.” (p. 38) On the contrary, liberalism frees people from the tyrannical and institutionalized coercion that prevents them from enjoying local associations and relationships, including those in families, churches, schools, and communities. Liberalism properly understood empowers people to group themselves and define their experience by their own customs and mores. Thanks to liberalism, Deneen himself enjoys the freedom to critique the rapidly growing government that increasingly attempts to impose on him standards and rules at odds with his own.
The realization that liberty as a vague concept needs to be divided up in more meaningful and helpful ways is necessary. Mendenhall very clearly attributes to liberalism the very components that Rothbard had fleshed out during his own struggle with the meaning of interpretive social frameworks. Deneen is completely unaware of the Rothbardian contribution the laser-precise meaning of freedom (though I don’t fault him for this; Rothbard’s reformulation is hardly known by anyone), and Mendenhall wants to make liberalism into something its proponents didn’t necessarily limit themselves to.
It would be nice if liberalism, historically speaking, strictly referred to “free[ing] people from the tyrannical and institutionalized coercion that prevents them from enjoying local associations and relationships, including those in families, churches, schools, and communities.” If that is liberalism, let us be liberals. But since this is not the boundary to which so many liberals in the nineteenth century adhered, it would be unfair to pretend traditional conservatives have no point at all as to the failures of liberalism.
What we need to ask is: whose liberalism? Both conservatives and libertarians should recognize the “multiplicity of concepts” and proceed accordingly. McCarthy refers to the problems of “virtuous liberalism” (presumably, libertarianism combined with moral virtue as opposed to the more common libertinism of the contemporary age). But a classical liberal worldview isn’t the only option for those of us who deride the domineering influence in society. There are, after all, aristocratic libertarians, such as Anthony de Jasay, whom Gordon just overviewed in McCarthy’s Modern Age. Perhaps his fears could be resolved with the suggestion of a conservative, grounded, rightist, aristocratic libertarianism. This wouldn’t be a “virtuous liberalism,” but a Tory Anarchism.