Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Liberalism is Not Yours to Relinquish

by , Doctoral student, American University Department of Economics

Two days ago, Kevin commemorated Liberalism Day, an annual holiday developed by Kevin Frei and Daniel Klein to celebrate classical liberalism. Liberalism Day is part of a larger effort by Frei and Klein called Liberalism Unrelinquished to reclaim the word “liberalism” from its current popular usage in the United States to mean (roughly) “left-liberal”. The effort involves a petition (of which Kevin is and presumably many readers are signatories), posted educational material, and a social media campaign. I am not a signatory of the Liberalism Unrelinquished petition, not because I don’t consider myself in the classical liberal tradition (I do), or even because I disagree that it would be nice if “liberalism” meant something more than left-liberalism. I didn’t sign it because I see it as another example of a long-standing tradition of using “classical liberal” or “liberalism” as a euphemism for “libertarian,” which I think is unfortunate.

We can think about classical liberalism in at least two ways. We can identify it (as Frei and Klein do in their “statement”) with a set of thinkers identified as “classical liberals” (typically the Scottish Enlightenment figures loom large in this group), or we can identify classical liberalism with a set of ideas. The latter, it seems to me, is the most conservative construal of the term so we’ll work with that. All liberals identify liberty as the principal political value. When liberals consider forms of social organization, their interest is in identifying the social order that maximizes human liberty. The distinguishing feature of classical liberalism is the close connection between political liberties and property rights, thus the strong connection with the Scottish Enlightenment and Adam Smith. Economic freedom is both an end in itself as a species of liberty, but also a means for exercising other liberties. A liberal order is therefore a market order for classical liberals.

So far so good. I don’t think I will get a lot of disagreement from either Frei or Klein at this point.

The problem comes in when libertarian assumptions about liberty start to color who counts as a supporter of a liberal market order. My chief complaint against libertarians is that they are inappropriately formulaic in identifying liberty maximization and market order with opposition to the state. Any liberal – libertarian or otherwise – sees the state as an enormous threat. This is precisely why all liberals support constitutionally bounding the state and guaranteeing rights, either through a literal constitution or through a constellation of liberal institutions like democracy, an independent judiciary, or a separation of powers. Once the low hanging fruit is plucked and the state is bound by liberal institutions, arbitrating what course of action maximizes liberty becomes trickier.

If you simply define state action as an affront to liberty as many libertarians do (either explicitly or implicitly), you get one answer to how liberty is maximized. If you are not quite sure that there is such a simple relationship between state action and liberty, the answers get more complicated. If the state can relieve the constraints that a person faces due to circumstances out of their control (parental neglect, discrimination, disability, etc.) it seems obvious to me and many others in the liberal tradition that certain state intervention may on balance maximize liberty, provided the means of relief are not too oppressive or confiscatory for other members of society. This sort of trade-off is relatively easy for a libertarian interested in maximizing liberty, but it is much harder for other non-libertarian liberals with the same goal of maximizing liberty.

A liberal seeks a political order that maximizes liberty. A classical liberal argues, with Smith, that a market order is a non-negotiable component of a liberal order. More could be said for each of these claims, but if we’re willing to work with them for the purposes of this short post then many left-liberals in the United States (though not all) are in the classical liberal tradition and virtually anyone identifiable as a left-liberal is in the broader liberal tradition.

My frustration with Frei and Klein is that I don’t think “liberalism” is theirs to relinquish. Liberalism signifies anyone in the tradition of the great liberals of the 18th and 19th century and this tradition is much richer and stronger than the narrow libertarianism Frei and Klein are interested in promoting.

Liberalism as a political philosophy doesn’t offer an easy solution to social problems. There is no simple answer to the question of how we maximize human liberty. Indeed, one of the virtues of the liberal and the market order is precisely that the institutions of these orders facilitate our search for solutions to the problems we face. If one person could tell you the right answer, what would be the point of liberty and choice? We wouldn’t need choice. We could just follow their plan. I’d rather not follow Frei and Klein’s plan. I think it would be a blow to human liberty. Not the worst blow imaginable of course. There are plenty of illiberal plans out there that would do far more damage than libertarianism. Frei and Klein clearly disagree with me, but this is precisely why a liberal order is so important. Since there are not obvious answers to the question “how do we maximize liberty?” that everyone agrees on we need to focus our efforts instead on institutions that allow people to coordinate and experiment with solutions without pre-identifying an answer to the problem.


Daniel is a doctoral student in American University’s Department of Economics and a research associate at Urban Institute. His blog is Facts and Other Stubborn Things