This Month’s Cato Unbound: The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Liberalism

Ideologies grow and develop over time. Those that don’t die out. Where is classical liberalism headed next?

At Cato Unbound this month, Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi argue that we who favor limited government and strong private property rights can – and should – make our case in terms of social justice: Among its many other excellent traits, liberty is good for the least well-off, and this is a reason to insist upon it.

Does their so-called Bleeding Heart Libertarianism lead to a certain – shall we say – welfare-state squishiness? Not to philosopher Roderick Long. In his response essay, Long emphasizes that Murray Rothbard – Mr. Libertarian himself – argued in a similar vein. A power elite controls the government, Rothbard argued, and they use it to enrich and entrench themselves. Outsiders do poorly by contrast, and this to Rothbard was a reason for rejecting government altogether.

David Friedman dissents, however: On his reading, 19th century and earlier classical liberals weren’t really arguing about the lot of the least well-off as such. Instead, they were arguing about the largest group in their own societies, which also just happened to be unskilled laborers. Adam Smith, then, is more the ancestor of Jeremy Bentham than of John Rawls. And anyway, Rawls’ account of social justice is flawed in several important respects.

Alexander McCobin suggests that ideologies, and notably ours, are mostly tied together by a set of principles; the justifications for these principles can vary, and there is often room for disagreement about specific policy outcomes. Taking any small group of them as essential and rejecting all others as somehow impure would mean, in practice, that we enact fewer libertarian policies of any type at all. On the intellectual side, it might also mean giving up a lot of very productive dialogue: It’s actually a good thing when the contractarianism of a John Locke meets the anti-contractarianism of a Lysander Spooner – resulting, say, in the public reason liberalism of a Gerald Gaus, or the presumption of liberty as championed by Randy Barnett.

There’s clearly a lot here to discuss, which our participants will continue to do through the rest of the month, so be sure to stop by often and/or subscribe to Cato Unbound.