What is the distinction between classical liberalism and libertarianism?

  • See Libertarianism : "Traditionally, libertarianism was a term for a form of left-wing politics; such left-libertarian ideologies seek to abolish capitalism and private ownership of the means of production." Nov 28, 2018 at 10:52
  • Are you American? You don't have to answer, but you should know that those two terms mean something very, very different in American politics than they do in the rest of the world. In America, classical liberalism means what libertarianism means in the rest of the world. And in America, libertarianism is almost synonymous with anarcho capitalism. The context that you are using them or hearing them makes a big different in what they mean.
    – Not_Here
    Nov 28, 2018 at 12:40
  • What @Not_Here said. I'd add... That while Ron Paul et al may seem 'liberal' (even sensible) is some opinions.. they arrive at those opinions from very different starting points than a traditional liberal would. This is one of the great tragedies of politics.. Nazi's and Communists may agree on various low level policies regarding infrastructure or education etc. But a communist will suddenly find to their horror that Nazis only extend their 'socialism' to particular people. Thus it is with 'liberals' and 'libertarians'. Liberals have a broader church than libertarians.
    – Richard
    Nov 29, 2018 at 0:45
  • Essentially liberalism is about genuine freedom.. from fear.. oppression... Domination... Libertarianism is about a kind of freedom in which the 'strong' thrive at the expense of the weak. The problem is that rich people are only 'strong' in a world where the police prevent the poor from taking from the rich. Libertarianism is hubris. It advocates a kind of anarchy which requires unjust law.
    – Richard
    Nov 29, 2018 at 0:51

1 Answer 1


Neither classical liberalism nor libertarianism can be defined in ways everybody agrees on. The components of each position vary between different theorists. But some illuminating contrasts can be drawn.

Classical liberalism - 1

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. (Samuel Freeman, 'Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View', Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Spring, 2001), pp. 105-151: 105.)

I'd make only three comments on this. In the first place, 'intrinsic goods' can be but conceptually need not be objective goods; they can be intrinsic valuations. That is, they can encompass what is intrinsically valued rather than what is (if anything is) intrinsically good. Secondly, democracy is widely regarded as a proper medium for the political expression of freedom. Thirdly, since no single way of life can encompass the full plurality of goods, it is not the role of the state to promote social ideals which privilege a single way of life.

Classical liberalism - 2

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. (Samuel Freeman: 106.)

An appropriate addition here is that classical liberalism assumes a background of private property. It endorses the institution of private property but in allowing for redistribution does not regard private property as totally 'hands off' to the state.


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... (Samuel Freeman: 107.) ...

Initially it appears that libertarians assign liberty or freedom as the central political value:


Libertarians commonly announce their view with such claims as, "The only relevant consideration in political matters is individual liberty" (Narveson, p. 7); or "Libertarians agree that liberty should be prized above all other political values" (Machan, p. vii); or "The idea of libertarianism is to maximize individual freedom" (Narveson, p. 175). Nozick, more cautiously, makes no such general claim. But he does contend that "liberty upsets patterns" of distribution (ASU, p. 160), and argues as if anyone with a proper regard for liberty should see that patterned theories of distributive justice violate a commitment to freedom. (Samuel Freeman: 126.)

A patterned theory of distributive justice is committed to the distribution of assets, including property, in the interests of a social ideal such as 'to each according to their needs'. No, says Nozick : the rule should be 'to each according to their just acquisitions and transfers' (my phrasing), which results in a completely unpredictable distribution of property embodied no pre-set pattern, such as distribution according to need. You can't recognise people's liberty justly to acquire and transfer and also expect any particular pattern to emerge or not to be disturbed.

Or property ?

Libertarianism is grounded in a certain conception of people's individual rights; and in particular their property rights, that is, the kinds of rights and powers that individuals may exercise in the possession, use, transfer, and disposal of things. The centrality of the concept of property is evident in Rothbard's and Narveson's views. Both conflate all specific liberties into a general right to liberty. Then they argue that the right to liberty, along with all other rights, are in the end property rights, bolstered by an ultimate right, property in oneself. Narveson says: "Liberty is Property ... the libertarian thesis is really the thesis that a right to our persons as our property is the sole fundamental right there is." And Rothbard writes:

In the profoundest sense there are no rights but property rights.... Each individual, as a natural fact, is the owner of himself, the ruler of his own person. Then, "human" rights of the person ... are, in effect, each man's property right in his own being, and from this property right stems his right to the material goods that he has produced.

Nozick again is more cautious, avoiding such broad generalizations. Still he relies on what he calls the "classical liberal notion of self-ownership" The problem with all nonlibertarian principles of distributive justice, Nozick argues, is that they involve "(partial) property rights in other people" (ASU, p. 172; see also 281-83). As for democracy, it too violates the absolute ownership rights each person has in himself, for it is nothing but "ownership of the people, by the people, for the people" (ASU, p. 290). (Samuel Freedom: 127-8.)

Such claims and arguments as these confirm the suspicion that libertarianism is not so much about liberty as property. Libertarianism's regulative institutional principle is that individuals ought to have absolute rights to accumulate, use, control, and transfer rights in things. To ground these controversial institutions, libertarians extend the concept of property, via the notion of self-ownership, to each person's own person and powers. The fundamental libertarian claim is then that each person is absolute owner of herself, body and powers. Because we each have absolute property in our persons, it is supposed to follow that each has absolute powers over what she owns or acquires consistent with others' ownership rights. On this conception a person's liberties are among the things owned by that person; in this sense, "liberty is property." (Samuel Freedom: 128.)

Classical liberalism, while it recognises property rights as legitimate and important, does not place them at the absolute, non-negotiable centre of ethical and political theory as libertarianism does. This is the principal and I should say crucial difference between them.


Samuel Freeman, 'Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View', Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Spring, 2001), pp. 105-151.

R. Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia ('ASU'), NY: Basic Books, 1974.

J. Narveson, The Libertarian Idea, Broadview Press, 2001.

Murray Rothbard, Power and Market (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977.

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