The Difference Between Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism

Posted: May 31, 2021 at 2:28 am

I recently wrote a well-received piece about the political positions of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), and a ferocious discussion erupted in the comments regarding Dave Rubins political philosophy.

To a modern liberal, Libertarian basically means someone who cares only about themselves.

Rubin calls himself a Classical Liberal, but it turns out that people on Twitter and Reddit arent sure exactly what that means. Rubin himself says hes undergone a Conservative Transformation lately, leading many liberals to claim hes simply become a Libertarian. Meanwhile, Libertarians are saying those are completely different things.

I was confused myself.

A cursory look at the definitions of Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism had them looking nearly identical. So I decided to do a deep dive on the differences. Heres what I found, combined with my analysis of the situation.

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.

Mario Rizzo

Over the last week or so I watched a ton of Dave Rubin videos, and what I found will likely upset readers both on the left and the right.

First, I dont think Rubin is being academically or politically accurate in branding himself as a Classical Liberal. And from what Ive seen, he isnt actually claiming this.

Dave is a bit confused right now, but you probably would be too if you were gay, Jewish, previously liberal, and were currently going through a conservative awakening.

Hes not a Conservative in the common use of the word, and he doesnt want to use the term Libertarian because it has negative connotations. So I think hes reached back into history for a loftier-sounding synonym that doesnt make him feel as uncomfortable.

I make an argument here that the IDW is basically a collection of upset liberals looking for honest conversation.

Thats the part that will upset readers on the right. The part that will upset readers on the left is that Ive yet to find evidence of actual hatred or malice in his videos. Yes, he gives props to Trumpwho I cannot standand yes, hes all over the place on healthcare and climate change. But to me he is behaving exactly like a liberal with a severe case of PTSDnot like an evil or hateful person. I see him as good-natured and wrong, which is much different than someone like Rush Limbaugh or Trump.

Rubin is using Classical Liberalism because it gives liberals a tiny moment of confusion before they attack, but its really just new packaging for his individualand very fluidbrand of Libertarianism.

In short, Classical Liberalism is being used by some on the right today as a somewhat pseudo-intellectual way of claiming that their unwillingness to use taxation and government programs to help the ailing and unfortunate masses is somehow a superior policy because 1), the phrase is old, and 2) because the liber in Classical Liberalism (insert Kung-fu here) means freedom.

(eagle sound)

So its not that theyre selfish or uncaringits just that they value freedom from government more than they value helping people they dont know (and who should be helping themselves anyway).

But dont call them Libertarians. Theyre Classical Liberals.


Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism came from different times, and had different catalysts. The former was removing the oppression of theocracies, monarchies, and the very notion of it being permissible for a small group to rule over the masses, while the latter is addressing the overreaches of imperialism, bureaucracy, and progressivism.

The similarity is that both are movements to reduce the influence of powerful, centralized authorities over individualswhich is why both of them have freedom- (liber) at their center.

The issue is that not all centralized authorities are equally good or bad. While it might be great to be free of the King of England, thats not the same as desiring to be free of taxes to pay for public health and education.

Both terms are colored by perspective and context. Gaining freedom from something implies that its bad, but that judgment depends on who you ask. For some, taxation is a path to an ideal society, and for others its legalized government oppression.

Rubin is attempting to borrow the righteousness of the term Classical Liberalism to fight modern battles. They dont agree with how tax money is being spent in modern, 21st-century societies, and instead of calling themselves Libertarians (which makes them sound selfish), they prefer to be Classical Liberals.

Its as if the term will somehow remove the stain of selfishness, and replace it with the heroism of musketeers opposing the British.

The Difference Between Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism

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