Are Libertarians Classical Liberals?

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By Dale B. Halling

November 9, 2015



My publisher has been asking me to do an article on this subject for months, but I couldn’t find the right angle, only obtuse angles. Part of the problem is that libertarians are not a truly monolithic group and part of the problem was a straight exposition seemed too much like a lecture. Then I came across a Wall Street Journal article by Matt Ridley, a darling of the libertarian crowd, which illustrated the differences perfectly. The article ostensibly was about government funding of science. I am sympathetic to the thrust of the article, however, in the second paragraph he states:

One of the differences between classical liberals and libertarians is that classical liberalism celebrates great people, particularly those who used reason in the areas of science and technology.

“Suppose Thomas Edison had died of an electric shock before thinking up the light bulb. Would history have been radically different? Of course not. No fewer than 23 people deserve the credit for inventing some version of the incandescent bulb before Edison, according to a history of the invention written by Robert Friedel, Paul Israel and Bernard Finn.”

This struck me as a very odd paragraph in an article on government funding of science. Edison was not funded by the government. Mr. Ridley and the people he cites may have never worked in fundamental research or with inventors. This may result in a misunderstanding of the differences between various inventions that lay people group together, which is the case with the paper cited in the article.

Ridley’s sole argument about Edison rests on the idea that other people were working on the problem. Thousands of people have tried to solve Fermat’s last theorem since 1637. Does that mean Andrew Wiles’ proof in 1994 was inevitable? Alternatively, only Edwin Armstrong worked on and invented FM (frequency modulation). Does that mean FM was not inevitable?

The article does stop there however, it goes on to denigrate the work of almost every great inventor and scientist since the Enlightenment, concluding with the statement:

“Simultaneous discovery and invention mean that both patents and Nobel Prizes are fundamentally unfair things. And indeed, it is rare for a Nobel Prize not to leave in its wake a train of bitterly disappointed individuals with very good cause to be bitterly disappointed.”

Ridley is not just attacking government funding of science, he is contending that discoveries and inventions are equally likely, given a range of researchers. If you take the statement above literally, it means that everyone working in technology and science are robots.

However, Ridley provides no evidence for his position and ignores the large variations in the rate of science advancement and inventions in both time and geography. This is not surprising, as Mr. Ridley did the same thing in his book The Rational Optimist, where he claims that most inventions were never patented, however a simple fact check showed that every invention he mentions is the subject of numerous patents.

The excellent book, The Most Powerful Idea in the World by William Rosen, shows that the Industrial Revolution, which was really an explosion in new inventions, was the result of property rights for inventions, i.e., patents, as does my book Source of Economic Growth.

One of the differences between classical liberals and libertarians is that classical liberalism celebrates great people, particularly those who used reason in the areas of science and technology. The Enlightenment was about celebrating the power of reason and rejecting faith and determinism. Thomas Jefferson said the two of the greatest people in the history of the world were Isaac Newton and John Locke.

Perhaps Ridley’s position is not shared by most libertarians. Yet, a recent panel discussion on Reason TV, part of the libertarian magazine Reason, shows Ridley’s position is widely shared. One panelist compared patents to slavery and taxi medallions. Another panelist made Ridley’s point that most inventions were never patented. But, if you eliminated everything in your house that was subject to a patent or made by a process that was once patented, your house would not exist. Most people will quickly understand that all the electronics would be gone, but so would the refrigerator, the electrical power, and even the glass in your windows, which was subject to patents extending back to Venice.

It would be easy to brand such a anti-intellectual-property stance as arising from jealousy or self-aggrandizement, however, I think that would be a mistake. These libertarians are advocating a version of F. A. Hayek’s cultural evolution. Hayek’s ideas on cultural evolution are based on the impotence of reason. Hayek argues, that the demand for rational, conscious (“political”) control of the concrete particulars of social life is based upon a misunderstanding of the process of cultural evolution and on a hubristic and dangerous overestimation of the capacity of the conscious reasoning intellect.”[1]

For many libertarians the anti-induction, anti-reason David Hume, is a hero.

Ridley is just applying Hayek’s ideas on cultural evolution to science and technology. He is not the only one; the libertarian/Austrian economist Peter Lewin from University of Texas at Dallas, sadly my alma mater, makes a similar point. He emphasizes that most technical knowledge is tacit knowledge which is something we know but cannot prove or of which we are not conscious. In other places Lewin discusses “social knowledge” which appears to be tacit knowledge we hold collectively. Both Lewin and Hayek are fans of David Hume, who said causation does not exist (or cannot be proved) and induction is invalid or could not be proven valid. For many libertarians the anti-induction, anti-reason David Hume, is a hero.

Classical liberals know that causation exists, that Induction as a methodology, is not only valid, but the source of all knowledge. The most important value to a classical liberal is Reason. They understand that there is no such thing as social knowledge or knowledge of which we are not conscious. Classical liberals understand each person’s mind functions independently and therefore they celebrate great inventors and scientists. They know that without these great people, it is entirely possible that we would still be living in the Dark Ages. One only need look at North Korea, Cuba, or the Middle East to understand that technological progress is not inevitable and is not the result of some determinist spontaneous order.

What is interesting if you look closely at the arguments of Ridley, Hayek, and Lewin is that they are collectivist at an epistemological or cultural level. Their argument against a centralized government appears to be that it distorts this collectivist acquisition of knowledge.

Classical liberals base their support of capitalism in reason and natural rights, which are discovered by reason. Libertarians base their arguments for free markets based on collective acquisition of knowledge that is disrupted by government interference.

Classical liberals and libertarians both appear to support free markets or capitalism. Beyond this they diverge, especially for the modern beltway libertarians. Classical liberals base their support of capitalism in reason and natural rights, which are discovered by reason. Libertarians base their arguments for free markets based on collective acquisition of knowledge that is disrupted by government interference.

Libertarians often align themselves with Ayn Rand, and claim her as one of their own, however, their ideas are incompatible with Rand’s. Rand herself was highly critical of the creed of Libertarianism, calling them “hippies of the Right.” If Matt Ridley had written Atlas Shrugged, the economy would have hummed along based on spontaneous order and John Galt would not be a genius inventor.

Science Daily puts down the key issue as—“Classical liberalism is a political philosophy and ideology belonging to liberalism in which primary emphasis is placed on securing the freedom of the individual by limiting [not eliminating] the power of the government.”

Yet, like libertarians, classical liberals are not a monolithic group and the way historians and philosophers have categorized them does not help. For instance, John Locke and Jean Jacque Rousseau are often grouped together as classical liberals, however this is like a biologist putting wasps and eagles in the same family because they both fly. John Locke based his ideas on reason and tried to define the philosophical basis for the amazing accomplishments of science happening around him. In fact, Locke and Newton were friends. Locke saw his ideas on liberty as an extension of his work on reason and science and he was no anarchist. He saw that a proper government and civil society were both of great value to rational people.

Rousseau on the other hand was opposed to reason and thought formal education as a corrupting influence.

In the essay now known as his First Discourse, Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that manners and morals had been corrupted as the arts and sciences had advanced. The arts had encouraged sensuality and license, while science had set up strange gods against true religion. Reason had been elevated over feeling, learning over plain goodness and honesty.[2]

Some philosophical taxonomists have also considered Rousseau part of the Enlightenment. The only possible reasons for this are historical (the era when he lived) or that he was not pushing the same irrationalism as the Church and Dark Ages. Any biological taxonomist who made such an absurd connection would be fired.

Many philosophical taxonomists have grouped the French Revolution and the American Revolution together. However, the French Revolution is really based on the ideas of Rousseau and the American Revolution is based on the ideas of Locke. This is like putting the snowy owl in the same biological family as the arctic fox because they are both white.

The second phase of the French Revolution can be dated as it is in the revolutionary calendar from September 1792, or Vendémiaire of Year One, to Napoleon’s coup d’etat in November 1799, or 19 Brumaire of Year Eight. This is the republican phase, for which Rousseau not only furnished the terminology of revolutionary discourse, but was generally acknowledged to have done so.[3]

With this background I define a Classical Liberal as one who whose epistemology is Reason and whose political philosophy is Natural Rights. John Locke is the prime historical example. Other examples are the Founding Fathers, Ayn Rand, and Aristotle. Of course Aristotle preceded Locke’s Natural Rights and not all the Founding Fathers were pure classical liberals. I see Rand as the logical next step and refinement of Locke and Aristotle.

By this same reasoning it is incorrect to include David Hume and Scottish Enlightenment as part of classical liberalism and the Enlightenment.

Locke never discussed intellectual property, however his ideas on the source of property provide the justification for intellectual property as Sir William Blackstone points out in his Commentaries on the Law. Blackstone’s Commentaries was the basis of American common law at its inception as can be seen in United States Constitution, which names a single right in the original text: The right of authors and inventors to their works. Also early court decisions in the United States upheld the idea that patents are a Natural Right.

“… we protect intellectual property, the labors of the mind, productions and interests as much a man’s own, and as much the fruit of his honest industry, as the wheat he cultivates, or the flocks he rears.” (Davoll v. Brown, 7 F. Cas. 197, 199 [C.C.D. Mass. 1845].)

Ayn Rand stated that patents and trademarks are the basis of all rights. “Patents and copyrights are the legal implementation of the base of all property rights: a man’s right to the product of his mind.”[4]

For all the historical misclassification, Lockean classical liberalism principles do not let its advocates disintegrate into Marxism, anarchy, or the religious right-wing, but Libertarianism does.

Whatever else they are, Libertarians are not classical liberals.




[1], Hayek on the Role of Reason in Human Affairs, Linda C. Raeder, Palm Beach Atlantic University

[2], First Things, “ROUSSEAU & THE REVOLT AGAINST REASON”, by Mary Ann Geldon, October 1999.

[3], The French Revolution: Ideas and Ideologies, History TodayVolume 39 Issue 5 May 1989, by Maurice Cranston.

[4] Rand, Ayn, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Signet, New York, 1967, p. 130.


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