CJay Engel

October 23, 2019

Ryan McMaken and Libertarianism

Ryan McMaken is always worth a read. He has two recent articles of note.

In the first, he does well in defending libertarianism against the mainstream onslaught. The left labels everyone remotely interested in capitalism as "libertarian" (the left has mastered the art of rhetorical manipulation), while conservatives, for their own part, dismiss libertarians for not caring about broader, cultural and social concerns. Of course, few people actually take the time to consider libertarianism on its own terms and ––especially!–– consider the debates among those who call themselves libertarians over the proper definition and application of the word. It's just to easy, it seems, to blame all sorts of troubles on libertarianism without proving a cause-and-effect relationship.

In the second, I'm not sure I'm 100% in agreement with McMaken. He makes the case that "'Libertarian' Is Just Another Word for (Classical) Liberal." This is actually a difficult topic and a strong case can certainly be made for his thesis. But here is why I am generally hesitant about making classical liberalism and libertarianism synonymous. First, I consider classical liberalism to be a broader program than the thinness of libertarianism as a legal-political theory.

If this is so, it is possible, as in the case of someone like Hans Hoppe, to be a libertarian but to combine this very specific theory of interpersonal relations and violence with a conservative sentiment on the world. By conservative sentiment, I mean that in all areas outside the strict legal references, there is a general demeanor against rapid change, a distrust of egalitarianism, a denial of the inevitability of civilizational progress, a rejection of political universalism, an enthusiasm for social hierarchy and structured religion, an emphasis on social virtue and familial continuity, etc. In this sense, libertarianism can be attached to a conservative view of the world.

The bigger project in my mind is whether, perhaps with reference to someone like Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, one should deny that being both a classical liberal and a conservative are somehow mutually exclusive. But in any case, while libertarianism may be an heir of classical liberalism, I don't think it makes sense to make the two synonymous. After all, as Murray Rothbard wrote of their relationship:

[Frank] Meyer's strictures against the utilitarian classical liberals were sound and well taken. As he put it, nineteenth-century liberalism "stood for individual freedom, but its utilitarian philosophical attitude denied the validity of moral ends firmly based on the constitution of being. Thereby, with this denial of an ultimate sanction for the inviolability of the person, liberalism destroyed the very foundations of its defense of the person as primary in political and social matters."
Meyer's mistake was in thinking that he was thereby indicting libertarianism per se when he was really attacking the classical liberal world-view underlying the underpinning for its own particular libertarian position. As Machan points out, "Classical liberalism may properly be regarded as far more than a political theory such as libertarianism, since it is philosophically broader, involving ideas about the nature of man, God, value, science, etc. Although libertarianism may indeed be defensible from a very specific philosophical perspective, it is not itself that perspective"

About the author

C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.

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