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  • Illiberal Libertarians:Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View
  • Samuel Freeman (bio)

Liberalism as a philosophical doctrine can be distinguished from liberalism as a system of social and political institutions. Philosophical liberalism maintains that, first, there is a plurality of intrinsic goods, and that no single way of life can encompass them all. There are then different ways of living worth affirming for their own sake. Second, whatever intrinsic goods are appropriate for individuals, their having the freedom to determine and pursue their conceptions of the good is essential to their living a good life. Finally, necessary to individuals' good is that their freely adopted conceptions of the good be consistent with justice. All have an interest in exercising their freedom so as to respect others' basic rights and other requirements of justice. While this does not mean that justice is necessarily an intrinsic good (although it can be), it does mean that observing justice's demands is a normal precondition of living a good life.

Kant, Mill, Rawls, Berlin, Dworkin, Raz, Nagel, Ackerman, Barry, and many others endorse some version of these claims. Philosophical liberalism is but one way to argue for liberal institutions, including a [End Page 105] liberal constitution. Utilitarianism and other forms of welfarism historically have provided an alternative foundation for liberal institutions.1 Utilitarianism is philosophically non-liberal: since it affirms one ultimate good—overall utility or welfare—as the source of all value, it rejects the plurality of intrinsic goods and subordinates to utility the goods of freedom and the virtue of justice.

My focus is not philosophical liberalism but liberal institutions and the primary features of a liberal constitution. My aim is to situate on the map of political conceptions three contemporary views, each of which is called 'liberal': (1) classical liberalism, (2) what I will call 'high liberalism,' and (3) libertarianism. Major proponents of classical lilism include David Hume, Adam Smith and the classical economists (most of whom were utilitarians), and contemporary theorists such as David Gauthier, James Buchanan, and Friedrich Hayek. I use the term 'classical liberalism' in the Continental sense to refer to a liberalism that endorses the doctrine of laissez-faire and accepts the justice of (efficient) market distributions, but that allows for redistribution to preserve the institutions of market society. By 'high liberalism' I mean the set of institutions and ideas associated with philosophical liberalism, which I take to be the high liberal tradition.2 Its major philosophical advocates in each century from the eighteenth to the present are Kant, Mill, and Rawls. Locke, the original liberal in many regards, appears to accept philosophical liberalism as defined and thus also might be classified as a high liberal. But because of his account of property, [End Page 106] he is often read as a classical liberal.3 Locke's account of property has had a major influence on libertarianism too. By 'libertarianism' I primarily mean the doctrine argued for by Robert Nozick, and also in differing accounts by Jan Narveson, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, John Hospers, Eric Mack, and others. These and other libertarians have particular differences, but there are certain basic principles and institutions that they all endorse (see sections II and III below).

It is commonly held that libertarianism is a liberal view.4 Also, many who affirm classical liberalism call themselves libertarians and vice versa. I argue that libertarianism's resemblance to liberalism is superficial; in the end, libertarians reject essential liberal institutions. Correctly understood, libertarianism resembles a view that liberalism historically defined itself against, the doctrine of private political power that underlies feudalism. Like feudalism, libertarianism conceives of justified political power as based in a network of private contracts. It rejects the idea, essential to liberalism, that political power is a public power, to be be impartially exercised for the common good.

To appreciate these claims requires some stage-setting. I begin with a discussion of primary liberal institutions. Section II turns to libertarianism and discusses its interpretation of liberty as a kind of property. Then, in section III, I explain how libertarians' conception of liberty as a kind of property leads them to reject basic liberal institutions.5 [End Page 107]

Institutional Features of...


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pp. 105-151
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2003
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