See Also: Liberals: Take Back the Flag

Religious Liberalism and the Founding Fathers

Libertarianism and Christianity

We Are All Liberals 



RIGHT  An opportunity to act (or refrain from acting) in some specified way. A right is guaranteed by law (natural law) or the consent of the community.

AUTHORITY  The right to control the behavior of others and to demand their allegiance. The right to coerce. The right to make laws and force compliance. "Weaker" version by J.H. Reiman: The right to stipulate punishment for certain acts and to enforce the laws pertaining to these acts.

POWER The capacity for humans to fulfill their desires, duties, and rights.  This applies to the ruling sovereign as well as to the people ruled.

AUTONOMY  A human state of rational self-determination. Richard Taylor states that a human is autonomous if "he/she is rational and free with respect to his/her conduct." (Freedom, Anarchy, and the Law, p. 48). Taylor defines rationality as "the ability to consider reasons pro and con for actions," and freedom as "the ability to act in light of those reasons,"

Human rationality and freedom together make it possible for humans to have moral responsibility for their actions. If another person does our reasoning and our deciding, then we can scarcely be responsible for our actions. In short, we are not autonomous.

There is then an obvious, prima facie opposition between autonomy and authority. No one is autonomous who is subject to the command of another. Autonomous beings are what Immanuel Kant called "self-legislating" beings—beings who act freely in accordance with "laws" that are derived from their own reason.

LIBERTY OR POLITICAL FREEDOM  Political freedom or liberty must be carefully distinguished from free-will. According to one theory of liberty, namely "negative" liberty, one can be politically free without having free-will. An example is a drug addict in a completely libertarian society.

GENERAL DEFINITION OF LIBERTY  Liberty is the action of a personal agent in the absence of restraints or obstacles that might lie in the path of that agent’s desired goals. Note the two things about this definition: (1) It does not state anything about the inner nature of human beings, i.e., whether they have free will or not; and (2) It does not stipulate what type of obstacles might constitute legitimate restraints of liberty.

POSITIVE LIBERTY (Plato, Epictetus, Christian theology, Kant, and Marx). Positive liberty means free from internal restraints, such as greed, lust ignorance, etc. Here expresses the rationality of the true soul that is uncovered when internal restraints are removed. Strict laws should be in effect to prevent people from irrational acts: laws against gambling (greed); laws against homosexuality (unnatural acts); laws against adultery (lust). Most orthodox theology, East and West, is founded on positive liberty. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. The motto for positive liberty is one must do what one ought (according to the natural law). Positive liberty morally prescriptive; it has positive moral content.

NEGATIVE LIBERTY (Ockham, Hobbes, Lock, J.S. mill, Libertarian Party.) Negative liberty means freedom from external restraints, which are embodied in unnecessary laws, etc. As J. Bentham states: "Every law is an infraction of liberty." Laws are only conventional and convenient, and should be kept to the bare minimum involving murder, physical assault, theft, and fraud. No other laws are legitimate. One is allowed to indulge in the passions and eccentricities of the "soul" as long as this does not affect anyone else, except perhaps a partner, who has consented to "sin" along with you. In short, you may freely enslave yourself, but no one else.

The motto for negative liberty is one can do what one pleases (within a minimal legal framework). There is an empirical test for negative liberty, but none for positive liberty. One can count the number of external obstacles as a measure of negative liberty. It is also empty (negative) of moral content.


(Arranged from no governmental jurisdiction to increasing governmental authority).

NA¤VE ANARCHISM assumes that humans would thrive without a government. It has a very optimistic view of human nature- that if humans are left alone, they would naturally limit their desires, demands, and aggressiveness. An example would be Thoreau’s Walden pond existence or communal existence.

MILITANT ANARCHISM holds that no government is justified and all governments should be resisted and overthrown if possible. Here there is not necessarily an optimistic view of human nature; no better existence is promised without government.

THEORETICAL ANARCHISM is the only philosophical view generally accepted and debated. A government is not justified on theoretical grounds, i.e. there is a fundamental opposition between true human autonomy and governmental authority. A most recent example is R.P. Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism. The theoretical anarchist does not resist or overthrow government.

In his book In Defense of Political Philosophy Jeffery Reiman criticizes Wolff’s form of anarchism. Reiman alleges that Wolff has confounded two quite distinct concepts: moral authority and political authority. The former involves that right to be obeyed, while the latter consists of the right to coerce. Reiman argues that no state, even if it thought it had the right and power, can in fact force people to obey.

If we are truly centers of individual sovereign power, and our highest obligation is to be morally autonomous, then the concept of moral authority turns out to be a meaningless concept. The Stoics recognized this two millennia ago. If I am gagged, bound head to foot with a huge chain, and thrown into solitary confinement, my freedom of action is definitely severely limited. But if I have free-will and am morally autonomous, then no amount of political authority in the form of imprisonment or torture could sway me morally. Indeed, if my soul is immortal, execution would liberate me and would allow me to triumph over any political authority which thought it had the right to make people obey.

If following passages from Reiman’s book sum up his point well: "Moral autonomy entails making final decisions about what one should do. Political autonomy entails having the liberty to act upon the decisions one has made. A defense of political autonomy can be an argument against coercion, against the authority of the state, but a defense of moral autonomy cannot—because one is not more morally autonomous when one is less coerced. I am not less able to make the final decision about what I should do when I can do nothing." (p. xxiv).

The crux of Reiman’s refutation is that the proposition "everyone should determine his own moral duty" (Wolff’s anarchism) in no way implies the proposition "Everyone should be allowed to do what he determines his moral duty (political anarchism)" (p. xxiii). Reiman is successful in refuting Wolff’s moral anarchism, but not so fortunate when he tries to confront political anarchism. His redefinition of political authority along persuasive rather than coercive lines is weak and counter-intuitive. But his main point that moral autonomy can in fact enhanced by an enlightened, rational sovereign has some truth in it. But the state’s basic right to coerce is still without theoretical justification, at least until we come to social utilitarianism.

This also means that all forms of libertarianism are illegitimate children of political anarchism. They have prostituted themselves to some state control when they theoretically can give no justification for it. The only consistent libertarian position is political anarchism, for as Jeremy Bentham once said, "Every law is an infraction of liberty." Only by successfully establishing an alternative principle of utility can the challenge of anarchism begin to be met.

LIBERTARIANISM.  Libertarians are committed to maintain and preserve the highest amount of negative liberty possible. Government would be stripped down to a bare minimum: (1) police force; (2) standing army or perhaps just a militia; and (3) courts to adjudicate breach of contracts and violation of property rights. Legitimate laws would be strictly limited to the areas of murder, physical assault, theft, and fraud. There would be no laws against victimless crimes such as bribery, prostitution, taking dope, suicide, etc. There would be absolutely no laws pertaining to private morality: abortion (only if the fetus is not a person), homosexual acts (only if no minors are seduced), adultery, etc. All social intercourse would be based as much as voluntary consent as possible.

In economics there would be absolutely no governmental interference or control—strict laissez-faire economics. There would be no public institutions such as schools, universities, etc. Every institution would be organized on private basis. Examples are Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, and the Libertarian Party. West Germany has had a social democratic government since 1969 and the role of the government has been constantly increasing. Yet the West German Mark is one of the strongest currencies in the world and the inflation and unemployment rate has been consistently low. The success of the mixed economy in Europe and Japan represents at least an empirical disconfirmation of libertarian economic theory.

CLASSICAL LIBERALISM: Kant, Locke, Founding Fathers. Universal moral law, inalienable natural rights. No divine right of kings and atomistic view of reality and human nature. Still ethical objectivism in most of these figures, but also an incipient (and inconsistent) utilitarianism, especially in Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.  Free market economics.

SOCIAL OR WELFARE UTILITARIANISM. While the principle of negative liberty could not support any welfare programs at all, the principle of utility gives solid justification of the modern welfare state. Social Democrats split with orthodox Marxists when they decided that economic equality and justice could be better achieved through a non-violent compromise with capitalism and the existing power structure. Their programs involved standing for election in the existing parliaments, winning working majorities (as many social democratic and labor parties did in the 1920s and 30s), and then legally setting up welfare states. High progressive taxation was their substitute for the literal take-over of the means of production. Nationalization is rare in most social democracies (the exceptions are England, Israel, and Austria) and a large prosperous private sector remains in Scandinavia, Holland and Germany.

A CRITIQUE OF UTILITARIANISM. Critics of utilitarianism are not impressed with economic statistics, even when they do show the success of welfare states based on social utilitarianism. The alleged "theoretical" response to political anarchism by means of the principle of utility is only a disguised practical argument against it. Ultimately utilitarian theory boils down to: "If it works, it is right." Needless to say, many philosophers are not satisfied with such a theory. Welfare states appear to work reasonably well, but their success is won at great costs to classical liberal values: the sovereignty of individuals and their freedoms to do what they feel is right as long as they respect the rights of others. For example, the high tax rates of European welfare states severely restrict the freedom of people to do what they like with their money. The salaries of corporate executives, for example, are usually limited to that amount in the highly progressive tax scales where any additional income would go directly into the state treasury.

A social utilitarian theory calculates the greatest good in terms of the greatest value for society, individual rights and values are systematically compromised. Utilitarianism violates Immanuel Kant’s fundamental moral axiom: that people are always to be viewed as ends (values) in themselves, not as means to ends, e.g., some abstract notion of the good of society. The libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick phrases the point aptly: "There is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives, Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits others." Even when the principle of utility is applied to individuals, the theoretical implications are unacceptable, C.S. Lewis comments on utilitarian concepts applied to criminal justice: "When we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’" (Crime and Justice, 1972, p. 44).

A philosopher at WSU, Harry Silverstein, has written a devastating critique of utilitarianism entitled "Utilitarianism’s Basic Flaw." Silverstein criticizes utilitarianism for its "despicable treatment of individuals" and concludes that it belongs on the "philosophical trash heap." Critics have long pointed out this neglect of individual rights, but Silverstein claims to be the first to point out the real reason for this neglect. Silverstein begins his discussion by proving that there is no such thing as "recipient less" value, i.e., all values are "recipient relative." Therefore, happiness, the highest value for utilitarian, must have a recipient. Silverstein then shows that any value maximization on utilitarian grounds will not give coherent, univocal prescriptions—i.e., a clearness of one person or group of persons will always come as a result of some net unhappiness to others. Nozick puts it most bluntly: utilitarianism uses some people to benefit others.

NATURAL LAW THEORY (classical conservatism): Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, and Medieval Christians. Divine right of kings. Universal moral law, natural rights (esp. Stoics), and organic view of reality and human nature.   Medieval class division between the liberi (the free noble born) and the servi (those born to serve).  The French and American Revolutions were in essence declaring that all people are liberi, all are free and noble born.

Are we all children of classical liberalism? One could easily argue that most of today's political parties are all within the fold of classical liberalism and their differences are seen only in the virtues that each chooses to emphasize.  If we take the motto of the French Revolution "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity," today's libertarians obviously choose liberty, today's liberals emphasize equality, and contemporary conservatives focus on community, family, and tradition.