What is the Philosophy of Freedom Called?

May 20, 2009

by Mario Rizzo  

As one who has taught courses in classical liberalism at NYU both at the college and at the law school, I cannot help take an interest in the discussion about conservatism over at the Becker-Posner blog and by my colleague William Easterly at Aid Watch. So permit me to add something.  

To the nominalists out there: What we call the philosophy of freedom is not simply a matter of stipulation. “Naming” is identifying with a literature, a history and an analytical core. It is no small matter.  

Gary Becker and Richard Posner each identify the philosophy of freedom with some aspect of conservatism. Becker writes of tensions within conservatism. Posner wonders about its intellectual decline. Bill Easterly complains, quite rightly, that many definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” say nothing about individual liberty.  

I do not believe that the philosophy of freedom has much to do, in an essential way, with conservatism. The relationship is largely due to historical accident. Furthermore, analytically speaking, the moral, political and economic basis of freedom does not fit coherently in the conservative intellectual framework.  

The central reason for confusion on this matter is due to the peculiarities of the American (and English) political context. Our heritage is filled with the language, the ideals and the reality of liberty. Our Constitution exhibits a great concern for division of power, rights and limitations on the Federal (and state) government, and the importance of contract. So to “conserve” is, to an extent, to conserve these traditions. So American conservatism seems like a philosophy of liberty.  

Another reason for the seeming identification of liberty with conservatism is the complex of compromises the political system has yielded. Those who are conservatives in a more literal sense found an uneasy alliance with those whose primary interest is liberty and only secondarily in the American traditions. There is much interesting political, sociological and even religious history here.  

Nevertheless, the spirit of liberty (and I would say classical liberalism) is very different from that of conservatism. The conservative fundamentally doesn’t want to rock the boat. One can see it now in the intrigue about Nancy Pelosi and the CIA.  The classical liberal (let me invoke the spirit of H.L. Mencken here) knows that both politicians and the CIA cannot be trusted. The true liberal is not afraid to recognize the corruption of power. The conservative, on the other hand, will say, “How can you question these hard-working people in the CIA who risk their lives for America?” Or: “How can you question the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Third-in-Line to the Presidency?”  

To the conservative Faith in Power is very important. The conservative believes that we ought not to release pictures of torture perpetrated by “our” interrogators. The classical liberal thinks the truth is vital. The American public should know just how widespread all of this was (is?). If it stirs up hostility to American troops both in places where they ought not to be or where they possibly should be, that is part of what defending our liberty is about.  

I could easily see a conservative cringe here.  (I have purposefully chosen edgy examples.)

 We could go on in the moral area. Conservatives are terrified at the prospect or possibility of moral evolution. The Truth was discovered at some early point in human history. Our task today is simply to apply it to our current circumstances.  

I am reminded of Frank Knight’s characterization of the (classical) liberal as open to relentless questioning: one who sees that life is partly about questioning our values and trying to discover better values. This is the skepticism of freedom. Yet the liberal knows that freedom is the sine qua non of this process. Perhaps this is James Buchanan’s (a student of Knight) relatively-absolute absolute.  

Not all liberals exhibit this fundamental skepticism. That is understandable. It perhaps the intellectualism of a J. S. Mill or Knight that gets over- emphasized here. For my own part, I plead guilty. Yet it is hard to imagine a liberal who doesn’t have some skepticism about institutions whether political, social or religious.  

The true liberal knows that human beings will make mistakes in using their freedom. They will not always do what is best for themselves either in the economic sphere or in the personal sphere. But these mistakes are the necessary price we pay for our development as individuals. Let me quote Wilhelm von Humbolt:  

“If men were left to their own deeds and devices, deprived of all outside help that did not manage to obtain themselves, they would also frequently run into difficulty and misfortune whether through their own fault or not. But the happiness for which a man is destined is none other than that which he achieves by his own energies. And it is these very situations which sharpen a man’s mind and develop his character.”  (The Limits of State Action [1792]).   

This is the spirit of the philosophy of freedom. (Obviously there is much more in the details.)  I have not said much directly about economic liberty. This is because I think it follows from more fundamental things: the freedom to develop one’s personality and voluntarily to associate with others. A free market is the locus of a broad interpersonal and international social cooperation. It is not simply an engine to produce material wealth. It often beneficially evades government; it has the potential to turn strangers into friends – but, if not friends, then at least into cooperators. 

Outside of the United States I do not hesitate to call this liberalism. In the United States I call it classical liberalism or even “laissez-faire liberalism.” I rarely call it libertarianism anymore. This is mainly because the latter term does not have the rich history of the former.  It is true that as names of a political party these liberal terms would be confusing in the United States. But I am not a politician. What I am concerned about is intellectual coherence and congruity with the tradition of liberal thought. In that sense, at least, I am a “traditionalist.”

30 Responses to “What is the Philosophy of Freedom Called?”


  1. I don’t know what it’s called, but I think I have my thumb on one of the important questions that differentiate between libertarians and “socialists”. The question would go something like “does the fact that other people exist, impact your actions?”

    note#1: I don’t dislike socialism or socialists. I think Marx would have advocated something more like systems thinking applied to economics and society but he was about 50 years too early for the tools of thinking and the jargon to express it clearly.

    note#2: we could easily replace “people” with “organisms” and shift to an ecological conversation instead of a political one


  2. Mario is right. It’s a foolish enterprise to specify necessary and sufficient conditions for an ideological position. First, there is too much internal diversity associated with a given ideology. Second, there is more fluidity than people realize between ideologies — so, for example, conservatism and socialism both have a communitarian element. It is the specific mix or clustering of a range of elements that gives an ideology a distinctive character. And as Mario says, the water is muddied when self-ascribed conservatives in the US are actually highly rationalistic; a high Tory, on the other hand, would have real problems with reconciling tradition with laissez-faire economics. Furthermore, there is a disjunction between the philosophical principles and political action. If at all possible, I no longer invoke the labels of liberal and conservative — they are vulgarized by self-ascribed adherents and their enemies. I think this same frustration was expressed by Hayek in “Constitution” and that was almost 50 years ago.

  3. Greg Ransom Says:

    Mario, you are right about this.

    Words, meanings, names, ideas, labels, whatever you want to call it are historical individuals, as philosopher David Hull explains in his book, _Science as a Process_.

    I always call myself a liberal, and I always call folks like Alan Wolf and Barack Obama leftists.

    That’s what I am and that’s what they are, and the history of ideas, the history of politics, and the history of words does matter here.

  4. Greg Ransom Says:

    William Buckley is dead. It’s time to bury his word “conservative” as well.

  5. Joe Calhoun Says:

    A true libertarian could never call himself a conservative in the current political environment. Being libertarian at this point amounts to being a revolutionary. And I wear the badge proudly.


  6. Mario raises an important issue and I agree with his main thrust. In America, the left, which had long been called progressive, appropriated the term liberal during FDRs reign. How can that term be re-appropriated? It’s not easy.

    I also hope the search for the right term — which Mario points out is a search for the tradition of liberty — does not lead to a purge of allies in the name of purity. There are multiple sources of liberty. Some go back to figures like Edmund Burke who most would call a conservative, though Hayek treats him as part of the great liberal tradition. Hayek famously wrote an essay on “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” But among some libertarians Hayek today is viewed as a conservative.

  7. Lucas S. Says:

    And where does the “american liberalism” (to refer to what you call liberal in the USA) start?
    And what are their links to classical liberalism, if there’s any, or the reason to call it liberalism?
    It would be interesting to know, since your political terms differ a little from what we use here in Peru (where Bush would be a neoliberal).

  8. Jeff Harding Says:

    Beautifully said. Nomenclature is so confusing because naming something is a way to diminish or enhance someone. My poly sci prof, Ebenstein, would draw a line with freedom (anarchy) on the right end and totalitarianism at the other end, and placed the various political philosophies on their proper places on the line. He started out as a socialist and ended up as a classical liberal. So much for “right” wing and “left” wing.

  9. David Says:

    I guess the reason that the terminology is somewhat confusing in the US is that socialism has never been popular enough for any major party to appropriate that label.

    The situation in continental Europe (i.e. everywhere outside the UK) is less confusing, in my opinion. Basically, you have up to five choices in most elections:
    1 socialists/social democrats
    2 liberals/social liberals
    3 christian democrats/conservatives
    4 communists/left-wing socialists
    5 greens

    Generally speaking, on matters of religion, tradition, culture, civil liberties and so forth, 2 and 5 tend to be closest to the classical liberal tradition, 3 tends to be most distant, and 1 falls somewhere in between. On matters of economic policy, 2 and 3 tend to be moderately pro-market, while 3 and 5 are believers in a heavily regulated mixed economy, and 4 (obviously) wants to abolish markets. In continental Europe, therefore, 2 (the liberals) are closest to classical liberalism, and tend to cooperate with conservatives on fiscal and monetary issues and with socialists or greens on other issues (such as civil liberties, immigration, gay rights etc.) People within the broad liberal tradition are further subdivided into “social liberals” (similar to christian democrats on economic issues) and market liberals (similar to Thatcherite conservatives in the UK on economic issues). So there is no doubt that liberalism as commonly understood includes classical liberalism in continental Europe.

    In the US, my guess is that since there is no explicitly socialist major party, the Democrats correspond to a coalition of social liberals (the majority) as well as a large minority of those who would have classified themselves as social democrats/socialists in Europe. Meanwhile, most classical liberals have aligned themselves with either the Republican or the Libertarian parties.

    As a European, I have always found it very difficult to use the word “liberal” to refer to government activism.

  10. Eric H Says:

    I understand the classical liberal’s suspicion of Pelosi and the CIA. They are both creatures of a political process that has little use for any power originating from the individual. We should be suspicious of them. We should wonder at the motivations of a locally elected representative who claims to speak in “our” interests as a “nation,” and we should be suspicious of an unelected group of paramilitary agents ostensibly representing “our” “national” interests overseas.

    My personal difficulty with the conservative label stems from a matter-of-fact realization: the system I want to conserve brought us Nancy Pelosi and the CIA. If they are so worthy of the suspicions of the free citizens they were elected or appointed to serve and protect, why are they still around? Why, as a conservative, would I want to keep a system that produced such faulty devices?

    I considered myself a conservative, for whatever it was worth. It was not a label I would add to my business card or use to introduce myself to strangers. It was more of an internal calibration factor I used to understand the political and economic world around me. Self-identifying as a conservative gave me a basis upon which I could begin to build ideas about my own liberty.

    At first, I believed conservatism offered a well fleshed-out conception of the individual and his role within the state, a state presumably brought about to protect individual liberty. Certainly, I thought, some modicum of compulsion must exist in such a state. There will always be free individuals with little respect for freedom, and some kind of aggregate of those individual wills that respect freedom must spring up to keep it safe.

    But after doing a lot of thinking, and a little reading, I’m less sure. It seems to me that both Conservatives and Liberals, at least as far as their ideologies are popularly conceived, wish to define the individual in terms of the state. Both consider the state an absolute necessity for the realization of what they consider liberty. In the popular conception, this means that conservatives regulate the bedroom, liberals the boardroom. That’s an unfair conception, and it seems at times that classical liberals are fighting against these caricatures instead of the real things. Is it possible for the classical liberal to parse out the deeper philosophical positions within Conservatism and Liberalism, so as to appeal to them or refute them, or are we forever to condemn these groups because their caricatures are distasteful to us?

    As Mario wishes to conserve the tradition that preserves liberal thought, I wish to conserve the system, or a system, whether consciously designed or spontaneously emergent, that allows such a tradition to grow of its own accord and flourish. Can this be done without petitioning the government monopoly on force? If not, how can a coalition petition the government without attracting a label? Could such a coalition be trusted?

  11. Chris Crawford Says:

    Your statement about conservatives having “Faith in Power” is confusing to me. Who, after all, has more faith in power than an American liberal/progressive? An Obama/Clinton progressive thinks the answer to all problems is more government and more centralization of power. The Left only objects to government power if “conservatives” wield it. As an example, I submit that Pelosi criticizes the CIA because they were acting under a Bush presidency, not because she has firm moral principles.


  12. Hear, hear! I cringe at the phrase “ordered liberty.” Adjectives contain the power to eviscerate the nouns they modify.

  13. Mario Rizzo Says:

    Sheldon,

    How about *spontaneously* ordered liberty?


  14. A postscript to my original response.

    Liberalism is typically conjoined to democracy, i.e. liberal democracy. I know it’s a bitter pill for most to swallow, but there is nothing in liberalism that **entails** democracy. What’s happened is that a **procedure** has been elevated to a substantive theory of the human good. Insofar as one can specify what to be liberal means, I’d say it’s the Kant/Green notion of individual persons as the ultimate units of moral worth. On these terms my “liberals” include supposed “conservatives” such as Aristotle, Burke, Hume and Oakeshott. All ideologies have an historically specific, an indexical and a general sense. By indexical I mean that with the rise of perestroika, a communist who wished to preserve the essentials of communist rule, would be deemed a conservative. The left/right dichotomy of the 1789 meeting of Les États-Généraux has only faint relevance now.

  15. Mario Rizzo Says:

    Dear MWQ,

    It is quite true that as the 19th century went on classical liberals become more and more nervous about representative democracy. William Lecky, whom I consider an example of a classical liberal tending in the conservative direction, argued that democracy and liberty are incompatible. However, what else can classical liberals advocate today???


  16. I agree it’s very tricky specifying an alternative procedure. At best we need to be alert to the procedural paradoxes in social choice. I’m not out of sympathy with the notion of market democracy — but that’s an idea that would require some significant qualification.


  17. I offer a few additional thoughts in light of the excellent discussion. First, the term “Constitutionalist” has an attraction for some traditionalists on the Right. It has a uniquely American appeal and unites notions of tradition and liberty. Second, and related to the first point, many of these issues arose around the debates over Frank Meyer’s “Fusionism,” the fusion of conservative and libertarian principles. Third, I question any term that requires an adjective in front.

  18. D.W. MacKenzie Says:

    I find the propositions that “The conservative fundamentally doesn’t want to rock the boat” implausible. The Pelosi example is particularly telling. Contrary to what Mario wrote about reluctance to cricitize ‘the third in line’, self described Conservatives have been harshly critical of Pelosi, and are obviously moving to exploit the recent scandal, just like when they impeached Clinton last decade.

    Conservatives have been intent upon ‘rocking the boat’ in a number of areas- abortion laws, tax laws, welfare cuts, term limits, the line item veto… Conservatives realize that we must respect the constitution if it is to have any meaning, but they hardly want it fixed in stone, and would make some changes if they could muster enough political support.

    Nationalism and moralism put classical Liberals at odds with conservatives. It was their desire for change that gave us the War in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and the War on Drugs.

  19. RL Says:

    MR to SR: “How about *spontaneously* ordered liberty?”

    Thus proving that adverbs have the power to save nouns from the eviscerative harm that adjectives can do… :-)


  20. [...] Amen to Mario Rizzo: “I do not believe that the philosophy of freedom has much to do, in an essential way, with conservatism. The relationship is largely due to historical accident. Furthermore, analytically speaking, the moral, political and economic basis of freedom does not fit coherently in the conservative intellectual framework.” Digg it |  reddit |  del.icio.us |  Fark [...]

  21. Ken Says:

    @Eric H says:

    “My personal difficulty with the conservative label stems from a matter-of-fact realization: the system I want to conserve brought us Nancy Pelosi and the CIA.”

    Alas, it did. Unfortunately, any system made up of and run by human beings will, sooner or later, produce something equally bad if not worse.

    I think that is what makes Jefferson’s “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion” a statement of genius. Jefferson clearly recognized the fundamental imperfectibility of human institutions. If a rebellion every twenty years is no real solution (and it probably isn’t), nothing else is either.

  22. Sean Says:

    Byron: “…does the fact that other people exist, impact your actions?”

    I utterly disagree. As a libertari… I mean, classical liberal (I think I’ll try that on for a while) I absolutely think of others in my day-to-day as well as long-term actions. As a matter of fact, libertarians are BENT on being considerate of others. (How much more considerate could one be than to fight for the right for others to offend you?) It is the socialist, the leftists that believe their ideas are better for the masses than any others, which is the epitome of ego and selfishness.

  23. Bogdan Enache Says:

    All equivocations and differences notwithstanding, it can only be called liberalism, just liberalism.

  24. joel goodman Says:

    Well,

    At last someone has thrown the appropriate term “classic liberal” into the mix. As a supporter of Barry Goldwater back in the days, I was led to a study of the founding of this country.

    I find it anathema that the fascist, religious conservatives have been given a free ride in using the name “conservative” in any way or form in association with their motives; extremely un-American motives at that – unless of course one now considers fascism to be very American.

    I have said of late that there is fascism on the right and fascism on the left, but either leaning is fascist, by any account. And, I add it is classic fascism about which I am speaking.

    Funny isn’t it? In the 1930’s the American conservative wouldn’t support liberty in Spain because their freedom was secured by Socialists. It was up to the Liberal left to take up arms to defend liberty in Spain.

    Yes, of course, the conservatives back then didn’t want to get into a foreign involvement, but they did go out of their way to block all aid to the legally elected government of Spain; as did the other “Democracies.”

    How ironic hat today, we have the “conservatives” biting at the bit to support every foreign involvement they can rationalize into a cause for Liberty.

    Without getting onto another subject, it is good to read that there are those that understand that true conservatism in America is the descendant of Classic Liberalism; the movement that challenged the power of the state on every level in pursuit of liberty so that the individuals could assume their rightful place as the building block of the nation.

    Sad, how quickly that place was usurped by the state, and how little the results of their efforts are effectual today.


  25. P.P.S.

    Some conceptual ground clearing showing areas of confluence and dissimilarity.

    Five **typical** features of conservatism:

    >skepticism/complexity thesis
    >rejection of the politics of ideals
    >limited, role-based government
    >reliance on tradition
    >organicism and communitarianism

    Five **typical** features of liberalism:

    >individualism (moral primacy of persons)
    >universalism (psychological, ethical and political)
    >egalitarianism (rule of law)
    >meliorism and rationalism (notions of progress)

    and maybe

    >state neutrality (though not all liberals subscribe to this – e.g. Raz)

    A side issue. Whatever the philosophical shortcomings of fascism, discussion has long since degenerated into a vapid term of abuse (there is nothing specifically racist about fascism – Nazism uniquely added this component).

    Once again, some **typical** features:

    >anti-rationalism (shared with conservatism)
    >hierarchical conception of society
    >emphasis on a common culture
    >complete social and economic integration and control functional to the promotion of a political ideal (this is the totalitarian strain)

  26. koppl Says:

    MWQ:

    I’m not sure I completely agree with your lists. In particular, I would have said that liberalism is anti-rationalist. It depends on whom you’re reading, I know. But I think the heritage is generally traced back to David Hume and Adam Smith, isn’t it? Those guys were anti-rationalists. They were not irrationalists, which might describe Italian Fascism and German National Socialism. But the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers were anti-Cartesian fallibilist and in this sense decidedly anti-rationalist. That’s certainly Hayek’s stance.


  27. Roger,

    On liberalism as anti-rationalist.

    Its fair to say that liberalism tends to favor piecemeal incremental reform for two main reasons. Unlike marxist socialists they lack a philosophy of history that might enable a predictive science of politics. Second, large scale social and political change has tended to be motivated by an “enterprise association” rather than a “civil association” view of politics — the former specifying common purpose politics, the latter non-instrumental in character, which of course is congenial to liberal thought.

    So here’s the puzzle. From a conservative standpoint, liberalism is a form of rationalism. The liberal has a clearly conceived, large-scale political end, namely the transformation of society to embody liberal values; and incremental changes are for the liberal the efficient means towards it. In sharing a common incrementalist approach, liberalism does not shed its rationalism.

    A pedantic historical note. “Liberalism” was the viewpoint of the liberales, a Spanish group that sought to combine the virtues of British constitutional monarchy and the French revolutionary assembly in 1810. Yes, you’re right to say that the seeds of liberalism go back to Smith – to the older liberal pantheon I’d add Locke, Kant, Bentham, Constant, and de Tocqueville.

  28. dg lesvic Says:

    Prof Rizzo,

    You wrote,

    “A free market is the locus of a broad interpersonal and international social cooperation. It is not simply an engine to produce material wealth. It often beneficially evades government; it has the potential to turn strangers into friends – but, if not friends, then at least into cooperators.”

    Love that. Will be adding that to my personal archives, and co-opting it.

    By the way,my term for the liberty you are talking about would be Utilitarian Voluntarism, defined as the right to be let alone, to offer or withhold one’s own resources, and none but one’s own,


  29. Mario, touche. :)

  30. Unchiekun Says:

    Neo-feudal Casino Gulag Plantation Economy


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