Archive for the 'political philosophy' Category

Libertarianism and Classical Liberalism: Is There a Difference?

February 5, 2014

by Mario Rizzo

I consider myself both a libertarian and a classical liberal. I have been teaching a seminar in classical liberalism at the NYU Law School for six semesters. I am always asked about the difference.  My answer is basically this. Classical liberalism is the philosophy of political liberty from the perspective of a vast history of thought. Libertarianism is the philosophy of liberty from the perspective of its modern revival from the late sixties-early seventies on.

The philosophy of liberty has always admitted of gradations or degrees. Consider that in the nineteenth century there were such thinkers as Lysander Spooner, Auberon Herbert, and Benjamin Tucker. These thinkers are sometimes called “individualist anarchists.” Clearly, they espouse a political philosophy that would anathema to most who call themselves “classical liberals.” Yet they do begin from many of the same premises as mainline liberals. They disagree with those who advocated a limited state insofar as they believed that a completely voluntary order based on private property was possible and morally desirable. They elevated the individual to the primary place in their analysis just like the rest of the classical liberal tradition. Read the rest of this entry »

Let Wedding Cake Bakers Discriminate in Peace

December 8, 2013

By Mario Rizzo

“A Colorado judge says a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony must serve gay couples despite his religious beliefs, a ruling that a civil rights group hailed as a victory for gay rights.” Fox News 12/06/2013

Friedrich Hayek argues in his famous essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” that conservatives and socialists alike have no principled way of dealing with people whose moral views differ from theirs. Neither of them has absorbed the true lessons of toleration. Socialists (and I would add “progressives”) argue, in effect, for the imposition of their specific collective hierarchy of values including ideas about the allocation and distribution of resources in society. Conservatives often want to impose a hierarchy  of social values including restrictions on pornography, teaching of traditional values in the public schools (“creationism”), restrictions on entry into consensual social relations (“marriage is exclusively for one man and one woman”) and so forth.

The classical liberal insistence on a society that makes maximal room for a pluralism of values starts with the insight that markets permit individuals to make decisions according to their own hierarchies of values. Markets do not insist that we all share the same goals about the use of resources. And yet, subject to a few basic general rules, we can have coordination (not homogenization) of values through the price system. You can work , for example, for Amazon to help pay for your child’s clothing while the manager in your Amazon division is saving for a flat screen TV; the executive working for Amazon may be working for a vacation while the senior-citizen stockholder of Amazon is using the appreciation of stock-value to pay for copays on his medicine. And then there are all of the different goals of those working or investing in firms that deal with Amazon. And so forth as we spread our sights through the whole complex system of market interactions. Read the rest of this entry »

Questions for Free Market Moralists? Some Answers

October 22, 2013

By Mario Rizzo

A philosopher, Amia Srinivasan, fellow in philosophy at All Souls College, University of Oxford, writing in the New York Times Opinionator (online commentary) says that in order to be a consistent defender of Robert Nozick, the free market and classical liberalism, one must answer “yes” to all four questions below. And she believes that such consistent yes answers are not plausible. She is wrong that we are required to answer yes to all four and she is wrong that yes answers on any are implausible. She also misconceives the task of liberalism as a political philosophy.

Let us start with the last point. As Ludwig von Mises constantly reminded us, liberalism is not a philosophy of life. It does not deal with the ultimate questions of man’s place in the universe and the full range of choices human beings must make both in dealing with others and in guiding one’s own life. It is a philosophy about the role of the state in a world in which people differ in their life-philosophies or in the concrete application of a philosophy to different circumstances of time and place.

With this in mind we can briefly answer her questions: Read the rest of this entry »

The System of Liberty

July 18, 2013

by Jerry O’Driscoll

I have just completed George Smith’s The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism. I recommend it highly to all. It is a tour de force, and an essential read for all those interested in classical liberal ideas. Many of the debates today on the political right have their origin in the debates over classical liberalism.

The book is co-published by the Cato Institute and Cambridge University Press. This is the second book this year jointly published by Cato and Cambridge, and is a coup for Cato. The other one is Richard Timberlake’s Constitutional Money: A Review of the Supreme Court’s Monetary Decisions.

Smith tells us that “’classical liberalism’ refers to a political philosophy in which liberty plays the central role.” A great deal is packed into that definition, and much of the book is devoted to developing and explicating all the issues. These include, among other issues, concepts such as order, justice, rights and freedom. It includes such monumental controversies, some still with us, as natural rights versus utilitarianism.

Quoting Lord Acton in the Introduction, Smith observes that “the true liberal views liberty as an end, not merely as a means; it is a value that is not “exchangeable for any amount, however large of national greatness and glory, of prosperity and wealth, of enlightenment or morality.’” Historically, liberalism developed around concrete issues. “Liberty of conscience” was one such, and was bound up in the struggle for religious freedom. That struggle was played out in Britain, but influenced events in the United States.

Smith takes up many issues or themes, beginning with “Liberalism, Old and New.” What Smith terms the “Lockean paradigm” of natural rights, social contract, consent, property, and the rights of resistance and revolution dominated old liberalism. Even when criticized, the paradigm established the terms of the debate.

I will highlight two chapters. “The Radical Edge of Liberalism” is quite important. In it, he examines the key language of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration articulates the rights of resistance and revolution embodied in the Lockean paradigm. Smith asks of that paradigm: “Who has the right to judge when revolution is justified?” Locke answered: “’ The People shall be Judge.’”

It is no wonder that liberalism engendered conflicts, even within the tradition. Natural rights were seen as too radical by some, like Jeremy Bentham, and utilitarianism was the outcome. In “Conflicts in Classical Liberalism,” Smith notes that, prior to Bentham, traditional thinking saw no conflict between utility and natural rights. “Thus if social utility is the general goal of legislation, natural rights are the standard, or rule, which must be followed if this goal is to be achieved.” As noted by Smith, “Bentham broke with this venerable tradition.” He made “social utility serve as both the goal and standard of political activity.”
Smith is scrupulously fair to all thinkers, including critics of classical liberalism.

In Bentham’s case, however, he reveals Bentham to be a confused thinker who ultimately failed to make sense of his hedonic calculus. As Bentham came to admit, it was impossible to add up happiness across individuals. That is not to say that utilitarianism as developed by other thinkers was subject to criticisms leveled against the Benthamite calculus. But the problem is that utilitarianism, by undermining natural rights, undermined classical liberalism.

There is a great deal more to this book, and I hope many will read it. Smith is an exceptionally good writer. But the ideas he examines are deep, and the book is not an easy read. Smith does not skip lightly over topics. I have a few quibbles with some of what he writes, but very few. Decide for yourself.

In Defense of Herbert Spencer

July 10, 2013


by Mario Rizzo

This my letter as it appears in today’s Financial Times (July 10, 2013):

Sir, John Kay (“Darwin’s  humbling lesson for business”, July 3) makes good points about evolutionary  theory and the social sciences. But he is wrong about Herbert Spencer, the noted  English philosopher and evolutionist. Spencer was not a Darwinist of any kind  nor an advocate of eugenics. He had his own theory of evolution that predates  Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species by a few years.  Spencer was broadly speaking a Lamarckian.

In other words, he believed in the heritability of acquired characteristics.  He further believed that a free market would produce a discipline on individual  actions that would, at once, make them more efficient and more moral. Since  these traits could be passed on to future generations, there was no need for  eugenics.

Income Inequality Matters

March 26, 2013

by Roger Koppl

Income inequality matters. Let me say that again so you know I meant it: Income inequality matters. This statement may be surprising coming from a self-described “Austrian” economist and a “liberal” in the good old-fashioned pro-market sense. It shouldn’t be. It should be one of our issues. The surprise should be that we pro-market types have not spoken up more on this central issue, thereby letting it become associated almost exclusively with more or less “progressive” opinion.

This indifference to income distribution is all the more mysterious because pro-market thinkers generally support a theory of politics that tells us to watch out for ways the state can be used to create unjust privileges for some at the expense of others. We should expect the distribution of income to be skewed toward the politically powerful and away from the poor and politically weak. In a representative democracy “special interests” engage in “rent seeking” to get special favors. Those special favors enrich some at the expense of others. That’s what they are meant to do! Read the rest of this entry »

After the Fiscal Imbalance is Resolved: What Then?

December 15, 2012

by Mario Rizzo

Let us suppose that not only the immediate fiscal cliff problem is solved but also the long-run fiscal imbalance is corrected. What then? Presumably federal spending will then be on a sustainable trajectory which is able to cope with cost-of-living increases. Ordinary trend economic growth will already have been figured into the sustainability of the spending trajectory.

So what room is there for more spending without derailing the whole “solution?”  Consider that the contemporary federal government – executive and legislature – exists for the purpose of giving favors to various groups in exchange for electoral support.  Thus, even assuming the unlikely event that the long-term imbalance is resolved, how do we stay within the solution range?  After all, we did not get where we are by accident.

Only a real change in the philosophy (ideology) of government will work. The pragmatic solutions of those who do not challenge the welfare-warfare state, root and branch, are not enough. They are not “pragmatic” enough!

The Great Ideas of the Social Sciences

August 31, 2012

by Gene Callahan

Let’s take social science broadly, in the sense of German wissenschaft, so that The Republic and Politics and The Social Contract are social science. (I would contend that they are, in fact, often much more scientific than the latest regression study of how detergent use correlates with the suicide rate.)

So what, then, are the most important ideas ever put forward in social science? I’m not asking what are the best ideas, so the truth of them is only obliquely relevant: a very important idea may be largely false. (I think it still must contain some germ of truth, or it would have no plausibility.) Think of it this way: if you were teaching a course called “The Great Ideas of the Social Sciences,” what would you want to make sure you included?

Here’s my preliminary list. What have I left off? What have I mistakenly included? Read the rest of this entry »

Using Sortition to Achieve Campaign Finance Reform

April 5, 2012

by Gene Callahan

I was sitting in a session of the British Political Studies Association Conference today, listening to several speakers talk about sortition (using random selection in the political process) when I was struck by a way to employ it to achieve campaign finance reform without any restriction on donations or campaign length. So, I share:

We have a problem with money corrupting the political process, and part of that problem is how long our campaigns run. How can sortition ameliorate the problem? Read the rest of this entry »

The Just Distribution of Income and Wealth

December 26, 2011

by Mario Rizzo

There has been a lot of talk this year, and especially during the holiday season, about the inequities in the distribution of wealth and income. But most of what has been written is quite simple-minded, if the writers mean to convey something more than their own personal preferences for a different distribution.

I have no objection to passive expressions of preference. But I do have objection when people attempt to bolster their case for intervention by the state under the banner of distributive justice, morality, religion or whatever is supposed to evoke some objectivity. Read the rest of this entry »


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