Neoclassical Liberalism: How I’m Not a Libertarian

UPDATE: I didn’t realize that this blog was going to be read by so many non-philosophers. It’s pretty clear from reactions on some other blogs that many readers aren’t familiar with the terms or issues below and thus don’t quite understand what I’m talking about. So, thanks for reading, and I’ll make sure to re-write an entry on this topic in the future for non-specialists.

In academic philosophy, people tend to use the term ‘libertarian’ in a restrictive way, to refer to people who 1) hold that property rights and other rights are absolute or nearly absolute, 2) who ground their theories of rights and justice on the concept of self-ownership, 3) who reject social justice, and 4) who reject the idea that positive liberty really is liberty, and is a valuable form of liberty which society should project and promote. Libertarians hold that justice requires that we respect property rights, period, even if that means a large percentage of people will starve, lead poor and desperate lives, or have no stake in their society. If that’s libertarianism, count me out.

In a forthcoming paper on current trends in classical liberalism, John Tomasi and I claim that the classical liberalism is being reinvigorated by the emergence of what we call neoclassical liberalism. In this post, I just want to introduce and explain what neoclassical liberalism is. (I won’t defend it, nor will I try to explain just how all the pieces fit together.)

Neoclassical liberals combine a classical liberal commitment to economic liberty with a modern or high liberal commitment to social justice. A political philosophy doesn’t win points by being the most demanding. Still, it’s important to understand that neoclassical liberals are not simply classical liberals who (somewhat begrudgingly) accept some welfarist principles, thus making their theory of justice a little more humane than libertarians’, if not quite as humane as high liberals’. Instead, neoclassical liberals go “all in” in accepting strong principles of social justice, but at the same time has a broader, more expansive conception of personal liberty than high liberals do. From the neoclassical liberal point of view, neoclassical liberalism ups the moral ante when compared to high liberalism. High liberalism was supposed to be the culmination of the liberal movement—thus the ‘high’ in ‘high liberalism’–but Tomasi and I claim that neoclassical liberalism is a higher form of liberalism.

One way to distinguish among kinds of liberalism is by their differing conceptions of economic liberty.  Classical liberals and libertarians affirm what we might call a thick conception of economic liberty; high liberals, a thin conception.

Most liberals agree that some rights and liberties are more basic than others. All liberals include some economic liberties on their list of basic liberties. The purpose of these liberties is (at least in part) to protect citizens’ ability to act as independent decision-makers over a wide range of choices they face in their lives, to facilitate them facing each other as autonomous and equal citizens, and to allow them to develop their moral powers.

However, liberals disagree about the scope, nature, and weight of the liberties they consider basic. High liberals have a thin conception of economic liberty. They think that freedom of occupation and freedom to own personal property are among the basic liberties. In contrast, classical liberals, libertarians, and neoclassical liberals think that the basic liberties also include strong rights to freedom of contract, freedom to own and use productive property, freedom to buy and sell on voluntary terms, and so on. They regard these rights as on par with civil liberties, while high liberals regard them as lesser rights, or in some cases, not rights at all. High liberals tend to interpret the civil liberties broadly. They assume that the civil liberties have a wide scope and are quite weighty. Neoclassical liberals hold that economic liberties have the same weight and wide scope as the civil liberties. (High liberals will want to ask: Why?)

Tomasi claims, in his forthcoming book Free Market Fairness (Princeton University Press, 2012), that high liberals have adopted a platform of “economic exceptionalism”. What he means by this is that high liberals believe that citizens should, by right, have a wide range of freedom of choice in nearly all aspects of their lives, except decisions having to do with property, commerce, labor, money, and trade. High liberals think that citizens be afforded wide latitude in making decisions about property, commerce, labor, money, and trade only if doing so helps to serve social justice or only if such decision-making power is authorized by a democratic assembly. Perhaps in order to make room for social justice, high liberals relegated the economic liberties to a lower status than the political and civil liberties.

Neoclassical liberals reject this platform of economic exceptionalism. They think the economic liberties share the same high status as the other liberties. However, neoclassical liberals also believe that this need not come at the expense of social justice. (High liberals should ask: Why not?)

Another way to distinguish between different kinds of liberalism is by their commitment to social justice. At root, to be committed to social justice is to believe that in order for institutions, practices, and social norms to be just, they must be sufficiently to the benefit of all, including and perhaps even especially the least advantaged. To believe in *social* justice is to hold that the distribution of benefits and burdens in society matters as a matter of justice. To affirm social justice is to affirm that it is not enough that citizens have their formal liberties respected. Instead, in a just society, unless there is exceptional bad luck, citizens will have enjoy substantive liberty. Libertarians (including most left libertarians) and many classical liberals reject social justice; some even think the concept is ineradicably confused. Unlike libertarians and classical liberals, however, neoclassical liberals and high liberals affirm social justice as a substantive criterion by which to judge the basic structure of society and market outcomes.  On the neoclassical liberal view, part of the justification for a society’s basic structure is that it produces conditions where citizens have substantive liberty, and can confront each other as free and equal.  The basic structure of society is evaluable on the kinds of outcomes produced for citizens. (Orthodox libertarians: Why?)

This is just a brief overview of the neoclassical liberal position. It should raise plenty of questions. I’ll be posting on some of these questions in this blog.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I’m fully aware that many people who call themselves libertarians would not fit the characterization of libertarians I gave in the first paragraph. I’m not here much concerned with coming up with the best definition of ‘libertarianism’. I’m just pointing out that philosophers tend to use the word ‘libertarian’ the way I described above, and on that account, I’m not a libertarian.

  • David Sobel


    I have recently become quite interested in assessing the libertarian project, yet I have not read terribly widely in that literature. Also I don’t have a good feel for the classical liberal position or the neo-classical liberalism you advocate. In short, I have energy but not knowledge about these topics, and I fear that could end up being annoying. But I was hoping you could spell out the contrast you (and others) have in mind between libertarianism as you explain it above (which I feel like I understand even if I disagree with it) and the (neo) classical liberal a bit more. One possible picture is that what unites the (neo) classical liberals is not an argumentative strategy or a shared bedrock moral commitment such as a commitment to full self ownership, but rather a shared set of conclusions, somewhat regardless of how one finds one’s way to them. On such a picture the relevant conclusions might be something like limited government, broad scope for the free market, and anti-paternalism regardless of whether one gets to these conclusions in the manner of Mill or Locke. Is that your take or would you build in more content into how one arrives at the conclusions into what it is to be a (neo) classical liberal?

  • Jason Brennan

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your question. As Tomasi and I define the term, ‘neoclassical liberalism’ refers to a set of conclusions rather than a set of premises. To be a neoclassical liberal, a person must first be a liberal. (What differentiates liberals from non-liberals is itself not perfectly clear, but I trust we know roughly who’s in and who’s out, even if some borderline cases are hard to judge.) A neoclassical liberal must hold that there is a some sort of principle of justice protecting basic liberties, that a broad set of economic liberties forms part of this set of basic liberties, and that these economic liberties are more or less on par with other liberties. Finally, the neoclassical liberal must advocate some sort of distributive principles of social justice, be they prioritarian, sufficientarian, welfarist, or whatever.

    However, different neoclassical liberals could reach these conclusions in different ways. So, for instance, Tomasi uses a Rawlsian liberal framework to get to these conclusions. We identify David Schmidtz as a neoclassical liberal, but he’s a kind of sophisticated rule consequentialist. (Also, for Schmidtz, what we call social justice is not itself a principle of justice, but rather forms part of a rule of recognition by which we figure out what the rules of social justice are.) As for me, I’m not really sure what my overarching philosophy is yet, as I am pretty torn between consequentialism of a sort and a kind of justificatory liberalism (like Rawls, Tomasi, or Gaus).

  • David Sobel

    So in thinking about whether Rawls counts as a neoclassical liberal, it seems clear that he passes the first and third test you offer in the first paragraph above, but I need help thinking about how he fares with respect to the second test (i.e. that one must think that a broad set of economic liberties form part of the set of basic liberties and that these economic liberties are more or less on a par with other liberties). I take it one need not think that such economic liberties are morally basic–they could presumably be justified via a consequentialist moral theory plus empirical facts about humans and still count as “basic liberties” in your sense. But does Rawls’ commitment to maxi-min or the lexical priority he attaches to some not obviously economic liberties count against his satisfying the second test? Maybe this is just a way of asking to hear a bit more about the second test.

  • Jason Brennan

    Rawls is a high liberal but not a neoclassical liberal. He has a thin conception of economic liberty. He thinks the right to own private personal property and the right to choose one’s occupation are basic. Other economic liberties (freedom of contract, right to own productive property, etc.) are not basic for Rawls. Instead, they are fully up to democratic deliberation. It may turn out that creating *legal* rights to contract and own productive property, given a society’s circumstances, is necessary to achieve social justice (e.g, to satisfy the difference principle), or that creating such legal rights is optional (because they don’t make any difference either way). But they are second tier for Rawls. For Rawls to be a neoclassical liberal, he’d have to give the economic liberties more weight and interpret them more broadly.

    That said, I think your pushing on an important point. The more a person is a thorough-going consequentialist, the more that whether they endorse high liberal vs. neoclassical liberal conclusions (if either) is a matter of circumstance and contingency.

    For this reason, we might want to add another requirement to the definition of neoclassical liberalism: At the level of ideal theory, when we’re trying to imagine what a perfectly just society would look like, a neoclassical liberal has to prefer certain kinds of market societies over certain kinds of non-market or highly constrained market societies.

    After all, given the right contingencies and circumstances, any non-absolutist might endorse almost any kind of regime. I think Mussolini’s regime was evil, but I can certain construct a sci-fi thought experiment in which both Rawlsian high liberals and neoclassical liberals would say that this regime is the most just among the feasible regimes.

  • David Sobel

    Good, that is helpful. I wonder if there are similar sorts of issues for non-consequentialists too. If Rawls thought that in fact economic liberties were necessary, given local conditions, for justice, then in one sense he agrees with the neo-classical liberal’s conclusions but for perhaps too contingent of a reason. Or that is how I interpret your remarks about it hurting Rawls’ status as a neo that economic rights are second tier. It begins to sound as if the grounds or robustness of certain conclusions, even conclusions about ideal theory (given contingent facts about humans), matters to whether one counts.

  • Zach C

    I’m extremely happy to have found this blog, as a ‘bleeding heart libertarian’ myself.

    Do the concluding sentences of your essay suggest that Neoclassical liberalism is, in some sense, a consequentialist philosophy? By this I mean is it looking for ‘outcomes for citizens’ as opposed to ‘justice though the heavens fall’ natural-rights theorizing so common in libertarian thinking?

  • Zach C

    My apologies. It looks the answer is unfolding in the comments above me. Shame on me for not reading first.

  • Issue 1
    “… if that means a large percentage of people will starve, lead poor and desperate lives, or have no stake in their society. If that’s libertarianism, count me out.”

    Totally agreed on this. And yet, the data shows that the bottom quintile of Americans lives better than 80% of the rest of the world. Food, clothing and shelter were the traditional measure as basics. Those have been solved. I’m willing to accept the notion that 21st century life requires other “new” basics, but what? A violence free environment and equivalent educational opportunities?

    Issue 2
    I like the liberaltarian definition. I like the neo-classical liberal definition. But that begs the question: is political discourse lacking somehow because of (lack of) nuances between different strains of libertarians?

    Short answer: no. I’ve long thought that if liberals understood economics, they would become libertarians automatically. For example, if they understood arbitrage concepts, they would see that unions, are not in their long term interests. Garden variety liberals also do not understand the concept of “value” or “wealth” and measure strictly in nominal and relative terms versus their neighbors, and their neighbors 10 years ago. We know that trickle down economics works, it just doesn’t work necessarily work in relative terms. This explains the Louis CK disease for why “everything is amazing, but nobody’s happy.” They also insist on Marxist notions of capitalists exploiting and usurping laborers’ surplus output rather than recognizing that the entrepreneur creating a job opportunity whereby two individuals contract a relationship.

    Issue 3

    Reduced to their essence, liberals are egalitarians. Put in an unflattering way, they are jealous of their neighbors. I am a utilitarian, but also recognize that unhappiness, even if rooted in logic that I consider “flawed,” should be considered in the calculus. But I also think this problem can be solved by using existing capitalist and legal mechanisms. If all businesses offered either profit sharing or equity stakes to all employees, the “class divide” would disappear overnight. When businesses succeed, all persons operating within the organization would prosper together. This should result in happier people and a more robust capitalist economic system overall.

    • Joan59

      oh my. you assume liberals think our “neighbors” have anything we actually value. Sorry, “your cash – in all its useless, glittery manifestations – ain’t nothing but trash.”
      What we actually do value, what we want for ALL of us is merely: clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, liveable communities, unexploited majestic forests preserved for its living inhabitants to feed the souls of our children, freedom of hunger and despair, work that rewards the body and the soul.
      But hey our children will probably die desiring these things, once libertarians impose their materialist utopias upon all of us.
      Unless mother nature gets to all of us first.

      • G Trieste

        “We want for ALL of us is merely: clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, liveable communities, unexploited majestic forests preserved for its living inhabitants to feed the souls of our children, freedom of hunger and despair, work that rewards the body and the soul.”

        Even if those things are taken by force from people who have them, but don’t want to give them.
        Libertarians want those things too, but are not willing to steal them from people A, to give to people B.

        • Sylvia Wei

          The economic system of maximizing profit and minimizing cost is at the core about legalized stealing. The unfortunate imperfection of market force due geographical limitations, alliances, time, luck, delay of response, etc lead to accumulation of wealth thanks to imperfect competition and current law.

          Universal Basic Income is perfectly compatible with libertarianism, in that it is a reparation for the existing and growing inequal distribution of wealth in a wealthy world that’s earned through legalized exploitation. It’s especially true as of now.

  • You’re missing the point.

    In accordance with Lesvic’s First Law of Economics, that, for every action against the market, there is an opposite and more than equal reaction, taking from the rich to give to the poor cannot reduce but only increase income inequality and “social injustice.”

    • Sylvia Wei

      Taxing the rich to give to the poor is the reaction against the action of exploitation. It’s a reparation for past injustice.

      “In a world in which all property was acquired by peaceful processes of labor-mixing and voluntary trade, a tax-funded Basic Income Guarantee might plausibly be held to violate libertarian rights. But our world is not that world. And since we do not have the information that would be necessary to engage in a precise rectification of past injustices, and since simply ignoring those injustices seems unfair, perhaps something like a Basic Income Guarantee can be justified as an approximate rectification?”

  • Here’s a relevant thought experiment I recently posted on the conservative chat website, Ricochet. It seems in keeping with the theme of this blog.

    I have yet to provide my summation. Interesting tweaks to the thought experiment are possible.

  • The libertarian/Classical Liberal conflict is not a question of sentiments or ends. It is a question of MEANS.

    The propertarian research program is an attempt to solve the problem of the natural corruption of extra-market political bureaucracy through privatization so that economic calculation and individual incentives are constructed.

    That the Jewish wing of liberalism has appropriated the austrian school for it’s rather silly anti-social purposes is something that most libertarians understand as an attempt at obtaining security of trade routes at a discount. That the christian wing of liberalism has adopted propertarianism as a class-defense is well understood as well. That these positions are held by the common advocates of each wing of libertarianism among the middle class as a political philosophy is separate from how the thought leadership among libertarians pursues these ideas.

    There is no argument among libertarians that if socialism COULD work, that we SHOULD implement it. The problem is that it CANNOT work, because of the problems of economic calculation and incentives, as well as the natural corruption of all political bureaucracies, and the tendency of all people to privatize opportunities in an effort to escape participation in the market, and because innovation would be stifled and costs immediately begin to climb relative to more innovative societies.

    So I am not sure that your program is anything new. Among most libertarians we feel that we should combine austrianism with new institutional economics and attempt to find a solution whereby we privatize as much as possible, and have the most limited government, with the greatest number of services while remaining pareto-efficient in provisioning those services.

    To accomplish this end, we would have to adopt changes to our political order, and legal system that are sufficiently risky that it is doubtful such a program can be enacted, even incrementally.

    I’m glad you are trying to wet your feet in this debate, but really, there are any number of us that have been working on it for decades, and we cannot find a solution that is incrementally implementable. Why? Because the power structure would be so significantly altered the membership would fight it, and because the government is such a large portion of the economy now that the disruptions would be unpredictable. Under democracy, there is no stomach for change just as there is no stomach for war. Democracy is a form of entertainment, easily swayed by changes in real effects of one’s sentimental attachment to voting.

    So basically I support you but I think you have a long way to go in understanding the problem.

  • Jason Brennan


    Thanks, but to be clear, so far all you have seen is an account of what neoclassical liberals take to be valuable and how we understand justice. You haven’t seen any institutional proposals.

    I’ll probably post more about this some time in the future, but it’s worth noting here what force, if any, public choice economist, the calculation problem, and so on, have in undermining socialism.

    Many political philosophers take their primary tasks to be 1) identifying principle of justice by which to evaluate society and 2) identify broad regimes types that would, in principle fully realize these principles. When engaged in this second task (task #2), philosophers work on idealized assumptions. In particular, they ask what institutions would be best if people were always motivated to do what justice requires.

    Now, philosophers aren’t stupid pollyannas who think that it’s at all likely to that people will ever have such perfect motivations. Of course, they probably won’t. But that is irrelevant to evaluating what regimes would perfectly realize justice. When we want to know what a perfectly just regime would look like, we have to imagine a society where people have good motives.

    If, on the other hand, we want to know what we should do in the real world, where people have different motives, that’s a different question. Maybe you only care about this second question–about what we should do, all things considered, in the real world. As for me, I *also* care to know what a perfectly just regime would look like.

  • Mitch Thompson

    I think the argument (assumption) some libertarians would make is that social needs are met due to general prosperity. This of course is highly subjective.

    And to comment on some of the points other people made here about the negative impacts of wealth distribution and who apply a very simplistic rule / law to it. It’s more much complicated than that, because it depends how you view human beings within a society. Are they resources? If so what kind? How much do the wealthy reinvest in people to prop up a middle class in order to buy more goods which go back into the pockets of business owners, while at the same time promoting a smarter and more creative society? There is a selfish argument for educating the poor and stabilizing the middle class, because it creates a safe environment for business to flourish while allowing new people into the market place. There simply isn’t textbook way to manage such a dynamic socially stable yet competitive market driven country within a larger global economy.

    So do we want to reinvest (tax) more then 50% of wealth in order to gain and keep social stability? Also it seems to me, taxing too little (sub 30) would start to create a social noise that ends up being a drag human growth which in turn will have a drag on business growth long term.

  • Mitch Thompson

    I meant to say in my last comment that taxing more then 50% would seem to be an overreaching investment and insurance on stability. However Sub 30 seems to be too little.

  • Great start on a new blog!

    There is another division of rights that seems to me not quite surfaced in the various distinctions above. Many libertarians seem to have a peculiar blindness with regard to how government gets done. So long as what it does fits their minimalist conception of the state, they seem not to care so much whether the decisions are made by a dictator or through liberal processes. Related to this is the sometimes libertarian claim that the government has no legitimacy beyond any other institution or individual in what it does.

    Liberals, in contrast, have quite strong notions of what kinds of procedures legitimize a government. And that distinguishes certain kinds of rights, that are part and parcel of what makes those procedures important, or necessary to individual participation in them. So in the liberal conception, the various rights related to speech, thought, association, travel, and seeking redress, to jury trial and criminal justice, to voting and holding office, are in some sense prior to other rights. Not more important. But how other rights are maintained, as a practical matter.

  • Very interesting blog. Best of luck with it.

    I also am trying to re-frame political conversation in a philosophical point of view, though I use a little less academic-ese. I also use an existing philosophy — utilitarianism. The blog is called Mill’s Revenge, though it’s roughly fifth priority of various things I do. Other things actually pay me, and philosophers need to eat.

    I’ll be interested to see where your philosophy meshes with the concept of greatest happiness.

  • Javier

    First of all, great blog. I’m very glad to see people like Will Wilkinson and you developing this view.

    In my view, the most philosophically interesting move in “neoclassical liberalism” is the view that the economic liberties are basic. I tend to agree with the spirit of this view, but I wonder if this could be clarified a bit more.

    In particular: what does it mean to say that these liberties are “basic”? Just that they are really important? How do we tell which liberties count as basic in whatever sense you mean?

    • G Trieste

      If “an” economic liberty is the guarantee that people will have what they need to survive economically, whether they work for it or not, then that liberty means a direct counter economic enslavement another person to work for that entitlement.
      It is interesting to focus on the needs of people and the view that those needs will be provided, just will. It is emotionally satisfying to know that people’s real needs will be fulfilled.
      But that focus is at the expense of realistic thinking, where the question of “where the money come from” is simply not addressed.

  • Anon.

    “Libertarians hold that justice requires that we respect property rights, period, even if that means a large percentage of people will starve, lead poor and desperate lives, or have no stake in their society. If that’s libertarianism, count me out.”

    In a theoretical world where there exists a trade-off between property rights and people starving, that sentence might be relevant. However, in this one it’s just a horrible Krugmenesque straw man argument. Anarcho-capitalism + open borders is almost certainly going to be better for the world’s poor and starving than any of the nationalist redistributive alternatives.

  • Sorry about the above post; something weird happened there. I got a message that said “We Cannot Accept This Data” and then my post showed up as a link to the post itself.

    Anyway, this is a fracking great post, and I know it must have taken a long-ass time to write. Thanks for putting in the work.

    I put my reaction on my blog if you’re interested.

  • jason_brennan

    Hey Anon,

    I can see where you’re coming from, but you’re making a basic kind of mistake. I’m not strawmanning libertarianism or attacking markets. I am instead drawing out libertarianism’s moral commitments.

    Let me give you a parallel example. Suppose you offer me a moral theory. Call this moral theory “hedonistic act utilitarianism”. According to this theory, you should always do whatever produces the maximum net amount of aggregate pleasure for all beings.

    This theory seems to get the right answer in a lot of cases. But it also has bizarre consequences. For instance, suppose there were a “utility monster”, a sadistic creature with an unlimited capacity for feeling pleasure, and which took twice as much pleasure as the pain it inflicted on others. Hedonistic act utilitarianism implies, wrongly, that we should all sacrifice ourselves to the monster. So, here’s an argument against hedonistic act utilitarianism (HAU):

    1. If HAU were true, then we would be obligated to sacrifice ourselves to the utility monster.
    2. We are not obligated to sacrifice ourselves to the utility monster.
    3. Therefore, HAU is not true.

    Obvious, there is not utility monster. But HAU is defective as a moral theory because it has a false implication.

    Now do the same with orthodox, social-justice rejecting libertarianism.

    1. If libertarianism were true, then if it turned out that respecting property rights caused 20% of people to starve (even though things could be arranged to prevent them from starving), allowing them to starve would be just.
    2. It would be unjust to allow 20% of people to starve under those conditions.
    3. Therefore, libertarianism is not true.

    Now, I’d need to specify premise 1 better, and might need an argument for premise 2. But the fact that the situation described in premise 1 is unrealistic doesn’t matter–libertarianism is still to that extent a defective theory.

    • G Trieste

      Your propositions are not rigorous, nor is the structure of them.

      On point one, you have a compound proposition – [1] IF (some rendition of) libertarianism were true, AND then [2] IF it turned out that respecting property rights caused death to 20% of the people, then those deaths would be consistent with libertarianism.

      All points after that are purely dependent propositions, and cannot be used in a Socratic proof.

  • Anon writes:
    Anarcho-capitalism + open borders is almost certainly going to be better…

    Since anarcho-capitalism is a pipedream, it will be better than anything.

  • Tao Jonesing

    How would you classify Hayek, Mises and Friedman? Most mainstream people who self-identify as “libertarians” tend to be followers of these three fathers of neoliberalism.

  • Jason Brennan


    Good question. This is a case where philosophers tend to use the word ‘libertarian’ in a much more restricted way than non-philosophers, and perhaps for no good reason. For better or worse, if you tell the average political philosopher you are a libertarian, she will assume you more or less believe what Nozick believed. That is, she’ll assume you believe people have near absolute property rights grounded on their self-ownership, etc.

    For my purposes, I’m inclined to just give philosophers the word. If I were talking to other philosophers, I’d call Hayek and Friedman classical liberals rather than libertarians. I’m not sure about Mises–I don’t know enough about what moral values he thinks support the political and economic system he favors.

  • “In contrast, classical liberals, libertarians, and neoclassical liberals think that the basic liberties also include strong rights to freedom of contract, freedom to own and use productive property, freedom to buy and sell on voluntary terms, and so on. They regard these rights as on par with civil liberties, while high liberals regard them as lesser rights, or in some cases, not rights at all. High liberals tend to interpret the civil liberties broadly.”

    This seems to me to be too general a statement. Which economic rights are on par with which civil liberties? If that argument is saying that there isn’t a formal categorial difference between the freedom of contract and a freedom of speech, such that every right in the “civil liberties” category is superior to every right in the “economic liberties” category, then I agree with that argument. But nevertheless, if you do take seriously the idea that rights are of varying levels of importance (which I think is clearly true) then I think most ways of scaling the rights are going to put the economic rights *generally* below those of more fundamental social and political rights.

    The measuring stick, it seems to me, between different categories of rights is based on the degree to which the right emanates from something fundamentally personal, internal, within individual consciousness, versus something external, social, governing the way you interact with the broader world. Freedom of speech and religion, for example, both of which go to the core of free ideas, are close to the central ideas of what it means to be a rational being. That form of freedom is manifestly more important than the right to engage in a civil contract in which the state will enforce a promise that I make to someone else. I’m not really convinced that there is a right to contract at all in the sense of natural rights, to be honest, but it seems to me clearly that it’s a right that is far diminished. Nevertheless, even that relationship isn’t absolute. The fundamental freedom of contract is clearly more important than, say, a tiny subset of the freedom of speech, like the right to protest within 200 yards of a funeral.

    This article was very interesting. I’m hard time figuring out how neoclassical libertarianism doesn’t just collapse into high liberalism once you accept that rights are not of equal importance. Or, I suppose, it feels like the difference becomes one of slight degrees and semantics rather than a true categorical change.

    To me, there is only liberalism, it’s definition is to be rational in the way you approach political and moral problems, to respond to evidence and to the force of the better argument, and to accept no principle without question. Libertarians, in my view, are a category of liberals (and I would prefer they reclaim the word!) although I think that in many cases they violate the principle of honest and authentic self-examination by committing themselves to rigid and dogmatic principles which are to be defended rather than examined. I think a new libertarianism that breaks down the rigidity of libertarian thinking, while also challenging traditional liberalism on the inherent problems of excess government intervention, would be a very useful project.

    • G Trieste

      Feh, I have no problem examining libertarian principles first, that is in fact why I defend them.

      It is quite simple, do you own yourself? Then do you own your stuff?
      If you do, absolute property rights ensue, if not, then someone else has superior rights to them than you do.

      Of course in application libertarianism adds a few corollary expectations, that such rights are to be respected by all members of the society, and that the guaranty/protections of those rights will be defended by the state by default.
      Other corollaries then further ensue, but all axiomatically built upon the previous fundamentally derived propositions.

      Of course, if you don’t agree with the fundamental core premise of libertarianism, then there is no conflict in having a different view of personal and property rights.

  • Anon.


    Isn’t it possible to construct that type of thought experiment for every ideology and “draw out its moral commitments”? If the example used is not relevant or realistic, what’s he point? The following argument is identical to your own:

    1. If libertarianism were true, then if it turned out that respecting property rights required sacrificially killing a million puppies every year, killing puppies would be just.
    2. It is unjust to kill puppies.
    3. Therefore, libertarianism is not true.

    You can pretty much replace “libertarianism” with anything you want (except for whatever the PETA people are in to I guess), and suddenly we’re all puppy-killers! “More people starving” is not just “unrealistic”, it is the exact opposite of the actual outcome. Yes, libertarianism prioritizes property rights over starvation, but that trade-off will never have to be made and so should be irrelevant to your decision to “count yourself out” or not. In fact, since you have shown concern for the poor and starving and hardcore libertarianism will benefit them greatly, your conclusion should be to count you right in!

  • Jason,

    As I said in my own blog post, this blog is a very positive development. Also there is a ground-swell of renewed interest in PPE as you know and your blog stands to be at the forefront of that conversation in the blogosphere.

    The point you make about ‘motivation’ and ideal theory is of course the same strategy that Mises and Hayrk took in their engagement with respective models of socialism. And it was why they focused on the calculation/knowledge argument … Socialism would have to forego the “division of knowledge” in society by institutional design. This argument would be true even if only the saintly were in control.

    So I am intrigued to learn about the issue of ‘force’ that you bring up concerning public choice and also the calculation problem.

    Finally, one of the things I have found difficult in interdisciplinary discourse is to get non-economists to make a distinction between incentives and motivation on the one hand, and knowledge and information on the other, let alone the distinction between theoretical tracing of tendencies and direction, and empirical magnitudes.

    But again let me stress, this is a very welcomed development in the blogosphere and I hope the conversation stays at the level you set the standard for.

  • Gatti claims that freedom of contract should be prioritized at a much lower level than freedom of speech. He then identifies freedom of contract with having the state enforce contractual aggreements.

    Well, that is one way of looking at it. However, “freedom of contract” is usually taken to mean something much broader than having the state go after someone to make them pay their debts. Basically, it means permitting “capitalist acts between consenting adults” as Nozick put it. For example, a buyer and seller agree to exchange a lower quality good at a lower price.

    As I take it, neo-classical liberalism would require a very strong justification for having the state prohibit two individuals from making that exchange.

    Similarly, what would it mean that there is no fundamental right to own productive property? An apartment? A mansion? A hand saw? A factory? I use my apartment as a site for productive activity rather than just eating and sleeping, then I can be fined or jailed? I have a right to my mansion? But my hand saw can be seized by the state?

    There is some scheme by which social productive activity is directed to produce the “personal property” I desire. A tooth brush, for example. A bed. A neoliberal would say, I think, that prohibiting people from directing those resources from say, a chair to sit in, to instead a handsaw, (productive property) would be unjust.

    Or worse, if people secretly began constructive productive property out of their personal property, stamping this out by force. You know, like searching prisoners for the weapons they produce.

    On the other hand, strong reasons to restrict exchange or productive property isn’t the same thing as no restrictions are possible. Like shouting fire in the crowded theater being a restriction of free speech.

    As for Gatti’s claim about freedom of speech and the like being central to life as a rationale being–well, OK. But it seems to me that substantial limits of on free speech would allow people to develop their capacities as moral beings. And supressing vile heresies isn’t the same thing as indoctinating everyone with a set orthdoxy.

    I am pretty much a free speech absolutist, but that is for the same kind of reasons I support free exchange and private property rights in productive resources. Unrestrained democracy causes problems in both areas and voluntary association is remarkably effective.

  • brett

    Reposted for truth:

    “Libertarians hold that justice requires that we respect property rights, period, even if that means a large percentage of people will starve, lead poor and desperate lives, or have no stake in their society. If that’s libertarianism, count me out.”

    In a theoretical world where there exists a trade-off between property rights and people starving, that sentence might be relevant. However, in this one it’s just a horrible Krugmenesque straw man argument. Anarcho-capitalism + open borders is almost certainly going to be better for the world’s poor and starving than any of the nationalist redistributive alternatives.

    • Elroy

      Touché! When you disrespect property rights, the next logical step is to create a system that takes what people have earned, and gives it to the “poor and starving”. Once you’ve created that system, and given someone the power to take what is not theirs, the monster is unleashed. It’s amazing that seemingly intelligent people refuse to see this, and say “count me out”.

  • “2. It would be unjust to allow 20% of people to starve under those conditions.”

    I’m uncomfortable with the word “unjust.” Cannot one believe that it is undesirable, even wicked, without holding that it is a violation of justice? To put the point differently, I don’t think that a utilitarian needs to regard utilitarianism as a theory of justice at all, merely a normative theory–a theory of what one should do.

    Going back to the general issue of how libertarians/neo-classical liberals differ from high liberals, I don’t think the disagreement on rights is limited to thick vs thin views of property rights. A second disagreement is that Rawls, at least, thinks political rights, such as the right to vote, are on a par with (thin) property rights. Most libertarians, so far as I can tell, don’t see the right to vote as a moral right at all, merely a (possibly useful) legal right.

  • Jason Brennan


    On your second point, about the political liberties: Rawls seems to put these liberties up as having the highest status. He seems to think they are more important than other liberties or at least call out for a higher level of protection. In contrast, I would put the political liberties–by which I mean specifically rights to hold and exercise political power–down as having lower status. I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of democracy.

  • Bill Woolsley: “‘freedom of contract’ .. means permitting ‘capitalist acts between consenting adults’ as Nozick put it.”

    Capitalism, as actually practiced and as critical to the modern world for its material and technical productivity, is not so much about trade between consenting adults as it is about arrangements between corporations. Think investment banking, mergers and acquisitions, and equity markets, not just a deal between an individual fisherman and individual cooper. And I don’t see how corporate capitalism arises outside the framework of state law. The closest thing to a bourse in Somalia is pirates promising to let investors in on their next raid. And there was nothing like it in David Friedman’s “good” anarchy of ancient Iceland.

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  • I just noticed that there is no “Neoclassical Liberalism” page on wikipedia, and it is completely absent from other articles on liberalism.  Considering that most people (especially under 30) don’t do much research past wikipedia, to that group the neoclassical stance may as well not exist.  It’ll get lumped under neoliberalism in most people’s minds, even if not stated explicitly, and I think that would be HUGELY detrimental to the propagation of your ideas.  I strongly encourage you and other neoclassical liberal philosophers to collaborate on an encyclopedic overview of the position so that it moves beyond the circle of social/political philosophers and has a chance to be part of a public discourse.

    Thanks for your consideration!

  • Edward Miller

    Neoclassical economics is distinct from classical economics in that it intentionally obscures the difference between land and capital, and as such is one of the more corrupt doctrines around. I wouldn’t want your philosophy to be confused with that doctrine, if I were you.

    It is also ironic that you wrote above that  “I think Mussolini’s regime was evil, but I can certain construct a sci-fi thought experiment in which both Rawlsian high liberals and neoclassical liberals would say that this regime is the most just among the feasible regimes.”

    Considering that Pareto was one of the early neoclassicals and greatly admired by Mussolini.

  • “However, neoclassical liberals also believe that this need not come at the expense of social justice.”

    As a libertarian, I want to turn that around and ask how one could avoid social justice coming at the expense of economic liberty. If projects are only justified if they are for the benefit of all, that would seem to eliminate a lot projects that groups of people might want to undertake for their own benefit.

    Incidentally, my problem with your definition of “libertarian” isn’t its direction but how extreme it is. Would you describe a “high liberal” analogously as someone who insisted that social justice be served, however great the cost in economic liberty? In other desiderata? This seems like a matter of overstating a position in a way that makes it untenable–and, incidentally, disqualifies me for the label.

    But then, I’m not a philosopher.

    • Will


      In a Rawlsian context at least, the requirement of being “to the benefit of all/least advantaged” only applies to the basic structure of the political, economic, and perhaps social institutions, so it’s not meant to be applied to specific programs or trades. Furthermore, I don’t think it would really apply to private contractual projects, unless they had a huge effect on society, but that’s just me speculating. In reality, however, I fully expect that politicians would use the benefit test to every single government program or economic/market-related practice. Just like they justify anything and everything with the Commerce Clause, I think they would try to link everything from car sales to affirmative action to health insurance, to the “basic structure.”When it comes to institutions, what I’m curious about is why “neoclassical liberalism” takes up the concern with “social justice” instead of focusing on asserting duties to aid others. As someone who identifies as a libertarian, more or less in terms of the definition given above, the natural thought for me was to acknowledge the importance of positive liberty and the aims of social justice, but to work on moral theory establishing duties rather than predicating the legitimacy of institutions and behavior–which may be completely voluntary and non-rights violative–on whether it benefits everyone.

      Guess I just need to read the book!

  • Will


    I first want to say that I think you and Tomasi’s project, and for that matter the entire BHL project is fascinating and the best course forward for libertarianism. I just want to make a suggestion I thought of when I saw the term “neoclassical liberal(ism)’: you may find it useful to distinguish it from “neoliberalism.” Wikipedia describes it as being committed to open markets, free trade, and economic liberalization. Since NeoC.-Liberalism is separate in substance but so similar in name, you may want to point that out at some point. Furthermore, I have the impression that many people (at least on the internet) have the impression that neoliberalism, as implemented by the Reagan, Bush (Sr.) and Thatcher administrations, while purporting to be “pro-free market” is actually in favor of carefully managed “free trade” agreements and “free” markets, and possibly “nudging” social and economic policies. I don’t know to what extent academics or regular people see that in neoliberalism, but if they do, that may be another reason to draw a distinction.

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  • I have always believed that people should be able to chose to do as they please but they may not impose those choices upon another. That is every human has a right to personal autonomy and no shall encroach on another’s right to autonomy. But having worked in behavioral health I have seen people at their lowest. I have seen people who really truly needed and deserved a helping hand. I have spent the last decade reconciling these two beliefs and attempting to develop ideas for programs by which both ideals can be maintained. Now I have found a place where others are engaged in this endeavor. For so long I thought I was alone in this quest and to simply know there are others that seek the same answers brings me comfort.

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  • John

    “I’m not a libertarian.” Thanks for admitting it. Do we need to copyright this to keep socialists from using it?

  • ObjectivistAisA

    In my view there is only one basic right, and that is your right to life. Life is an end in itself. Without it, values, and the rights necessary to pursue those values, would be impossible and irrelevant. All rights are a consequence, corollary, or restatement of your right to life. Rights simply give you the political freedom to TAKE THE ACTIONS necessary to sustain, further, and fulfill you life. To imply that some rights take precedence or are “higher” than others is false. All rights, whether economic or social, exist for the sake of allowing you to take action on what you deem is best for your life (so long as that action does not violate someone else’s rights through force.)

    Social justice is really a non-concept that clashes with an accurate view of rights. Justice of any kind, in essence means “getting what you deserve” or “getting what you have earned.” For example, a murderer deserves, or has “earned” by his choices and actions, to forfeit his rights and live a life locked behind bars. A great businessman has earned his riches and praise for the values he has created through his dedication, hard work, and adherence to reason. THIS is justice. It is reward for virtue, and punishment for vices. Social justice implies that those who are poor, or “unfortunate”, somehow deserve more. By what standard do they deserve more if they have not earned it through voluntary exchange with others?” This is not to imply that everyone who is poor is a bad person. It simply means that those who are not wealthy have failed to be productive and create wealth. If they fail in an effort to be productive, or to offer goods and services that others want, the just result is that they are not rewarded.

    Social justice implies that somehow (artificially) those who have not earned must be rewarded. The only way to do this is to violate rights. Rights are a green light to take the actions necessary for your OWN well being. If the primary concern is “how do we make sure ‘social justice’ is served, rights will necessarily be eroded.

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  • Del Boland

    Thank you. Having worked for several years with a former chair of the Libertarian Party and argued at length with my older son, an Ayn Rand guy, I’ve struggled to describe what you have written very well. Ultimately, I believe we need a balance.

    I leaned toward the market side until I had a special needs son, then social justice started to make sense to me. Through this process, I’ve come to believe that a purely market driven society ends like the game of Monopoly in which there’s only one winner. Given a derivatives market that’s roughly 17 times world GDP while carrying little of the tax load, I think perhaps it’s time to think about the Middle Class and some form of moderation while continuing to support the least among us without throwing free enterprise out the window. Balance is never easy.

    After ten years in authoritarian Chicago, I felt compelled to address this topic with some levity in my book .

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