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In my newest weekly column for the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, I look at the difference between hard-line libertarianism—of which I am not a proponent—and classical liberalism, the term for the philosophy that best describes my own political and economic thinking. As I note, the prominence of Senator Rand Paul has led to an improper conflation of the two schools of thought.
It is important to understand the differences in views between the strong libertarian and classical liberal position. Serious hard-line libertarian thinkers include Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess. Rothbard believes nonaggression is the sole requirement of a just social order. For Hess, “libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit.” There are large kernels of truth in both propositions. It is quite impossible to see how any social order could be maintained if there were no limitations against the use, or threatened use, of force to enslave or butcher other people, which Hess’s proposition of absolute self-ownership strongly counteracts.
Yet the overarching question is how does a group of people move from the Hobbesian “war of all against all” toward a peaceful society? Hess claims that stable institutions are created by “voluntary association and cooperation.” Again, strong libertarians are on solid ground in defending (most) private contracts against government interference, which is why Lochner v. New York (1905), reviled as it is by most constitutional thinkers, was right in striking down New York’s sixty hours per week maximum labor statute. 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 of 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.
There are important intellectual distinctions between the two outlooks, which deserve to be explored. Read the piece in full for my sense of where those lines should be drawn.Published in