[This is something I wrote on my home site for Liberalism Day, today, which I understand was chosen because it is Adam Smith’s birthday. I wish I had been able to spread the word on Liberalism Day more, but I was on the road for the last month.]

Who Has a Better Claim to the Name “Liberal”?

To answer this question we first need to ask what it means to be a “liberal.” Historical definitions are garbage it turns out. See “conservative,” “libertarian,”, “anarchist,” and even “socialist.” So let’s go with the dictionary definition (in a political context):

Favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform.

To know what this means in practice we need to look further. How do you define “individual liberty.” What “reforms” are capable of achieving its maximization?

Most modern liberals and even conservatives would probably say they agree that we should have the maximum amount of individual liberty possible. But they disagree with libertarians (and each other) on the extent to which having individual liberty is possible. That is, they don’t want people having so much freedom that society no longer functions. But then, neither do libertarians. Even they want some restrictions on freedom. They think no one should have the right to murder or steal, for example. Having the right or ability to do these things with impunity is freedom for the person doing them, but it is not necessarily conducive to the freedom of anyone else, and certainly not to that of the victim. So libertarians tend to follow Herbert Spencer’s Law of Equal Liberty:

Every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty to every other man.

Note how this does not state what specific rights that liberty necessarily entails. Only that man should (in the sense that no one else should be able to keep him from it) have as much freedom as possible up to the point where having any more would necessarily infringe upon someone else’s rights to the same liberty. For libertarians this usually implies the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). However, at this point there is no reason the NAP can’t be so broad as to include prohibitions against any behavior that any person finds aggressive. So “aggression” must be defined. And if it means “a violation of property rights,” property rights too must be defined. If a person thinks that a given action infringes upon someone else’s (or his own) right to the same action, he will view it as “aggression,” even if no one else agrees to his definition of “property rights.” Obviously, this will cause conflicts.

The Lockean Proviso (which has a similar principle to the Law of Equal Liberty and may even have influenced it) says this:

For he that leaves as much as another can make use of does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.

But what if not “as much” is left? Should property rights fall by the wayside? Should they be redefined? And what if there is “as much” left, but because some plots of land may be more desirable than others, two or more people come to lay claim to the same plot?

Two people cannot stand in the same place at once. Assuming from the start they both have an equal right to stand in that spot, then one is necessarily violating the right of the other by standing there. To avoid conflict, some other convention for establishing and maintaining rights must be accepted, like homesteading (who was standing there first?), objective link (who has the least indefensible claim to stand there?), possession (who is currently standing there?), utility (who is/would be more productive or happier when standing there?), might (who can better defend their ability to stand there and/or to prevent others from standing there?), necessity (who needs to stand there more?), and so on. The only way around the possible meaninglessness, confusion, and contradiction that would arise in the application of the Lockean Proviso, the Law of Equal Liberty or the Non-Aggression Principle is to establish some sort of ground rules about how rights are first claimed, and then what those rights are.

So it is disagreement on what liberty is (and how/why it comes about) in the first place, and not necessarily disagreement over whether liberty is a good thing, or whether it should be maximized to the greatest extent possible, that is where perhaps most of the other practical differences between libertarians, conservatives, and liberals (and all their different factions) come from.

From this alone, we can see that pretty much anyone has a decent claim to the mantle of liberalism. But it is only fair if we remove from the list anyone who doesn’t actually claim that mantle. That essentially leaves us with modern liberals (including some socialists) and libertarians (including some anarchists). Most conservatives are out (although they may be “liberal” in some areas), and to a certain extent so are socialists and anarchists. To determine who has a better claim between these two groups, I think we need to look at, not their absolute differences (which may be irreconcilable or even impossible to explain to one group using terms and definitions used by the other), but at what they have in common. Do not modern liberals and libertarians both value peace and prosperity and (though they can not perfectly agree on the definition or the extent it can be practiced) some semblance of liberty?

Yes. But, whose proposed reforms/systems/policies/ideas are most suited to attaining those ends? Whether a given set of means are suited to an end or not is an economic consideration. Economics is a branch of knowledge concerned with production, exchange, and consumption of goods, including public goods (and therefore anything the state does). Modern liberals (the sincere ones anyways) seem to be either completely ignorant about economics or let their fears about what could happen under a system of laissez-faire get the best of them. But libertarians tend to pride themselves on their economic knowledge. This means that libertarians are able to be better liberals than most modern liberals, because they know of superior ideas for attaining liberal ends. Both camps have their roots in Classical Liberalism, so from a historical perspective they are both still liberals. But actually looking at what they advocate as means of achieving their common goals, it’s not even a contest.

Interestingly, even goals that are characteristic of modern liberalism, but not necessarily of libertarianism — things like “equality” and “fairness;” progressive rights like “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear;” ensuring that the downtrodden and needy are cared for, minorities are not discriminated against, unpopular ideas are tolerated, and private interests aren’t allowed to become too powerful — are better achieved through characteristically libertarian means (e.g., decentralization, free markets, property rights, nonaggression). The modern liberals’ means (e.g., taxation, regulation, propaganda, censorship, indoctrination, inflation, trust-busting, sometimes war), in fact, usually lead to either the opposite of what their stated goals are, or worse problems than the ones they initially thought they were dealing with. Although their means may perfectly serve the purposes of powerful elites that do not sincerely state their goals (except for in rare and surprising moments of candor). Or special interest lobbies seeking to legally plunder what they can for their cause.

Regardless of who benefits from it, the modern liberals’ ideas and policies tend not to serve the general welfare, or the public good, while those usually espoused by libertarians, do. Or as Albert Jay Nock once put it,

There are two methods, or means, and only two, whereby man’s needs and desires can be satisfied. One is the production and exchange of wealth; this is the economic means. The other is the uncompensated appropriation of wealth produced by others; this is the political means.

We could get into much more on who better represents the liberal tradition today: minarchists or anarchists, consequentialists or deontologists, right-libertarians or left-libertarians, and so on. But I don’t really think the answer would be so cut and dried, and it would defeat the purpose of Liberalism Day, which I think is to reclaim the word “Liberal” for a broad coalition of like-minded ideologies, not to further divide them. There may be many differences between them, some irreconcilable, but in comparison to the vast array of illiberals out there, on both the “left” and the “right,” they seem somewhat petty. Instead of going into all of that, I’ll share with you some of the other items that have been written on or for today so far.

Additional Liberalism Day Reading:

Eamonn Butler at the Adam Smith Institute: Liberalism Day

Julie Novak at Catallaxy Files: Liberalism unrelinquished, an Australian perspective

Jacques Delacroix at Notes on Liberty: Ultra-Libéralisme – A French Tale

Richard Ebeling at Liberty.Me: Before Modern Collectivism:The Rise and Fall of Classical Liberalism

Jason Pye at United Liberty: Scholars seek to reclaim the term “liberal” from governmentalists

Daniel Duarte at The Canal: Liberalism Day: Reclaiming a Freedom-Fighting Heritage

Also, the project that Liberalism Day is a part of: Liberalism Unrelinquished

[image credits: Red State Eclectic]