Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Errors of Classical Liberalism

Hey, those aren’t my words…

Property, Freedom, and Society: Essays in Honor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, edited by Jörg Guido Hülsmann and Stephan Kinsella.

Jesús Huerta de Soto has offered his contribution, with a piece entitled “Classical Liberalism versus Anarcho-Capitalism.”  In it, he captures one aspect of the error in classical liberalism very well and hints at – but doesn’t drive home – other, perhaps more important, considerations.

In this first decade of the twenty-first century, liberal thought, in both its theoretical and political aspects, has reached a historic crossroads.

Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, de Soto offers that freedom lovers find themselves more demoralized than ever, as statism continues to expand.

This revision must begin with an acknowledgement that classical liberals have failed in their attempt to limit the power of the state and that today economic science is in a position to explain why this failure was inevitable.

It is suggested that classical liberals made a fatal error by believing that their limited state would remain limited; de Soto offers that such a concept is “theoretically impossible.”  In this I agree.

It is time to thoroughly revise liberal doctrine and bring it up to date in light of the latest advances in economic science and the experience the latest historical events have provided.

Economic science, yes; latest historical events, yes.  But something is missing.

From economic science, de Soto offers the Austrian conception of the “spontaneous order entrepreneurship.”  Recent history has demonstrated the ability of entrepreneurs to resolve issues that today are deemed “public goods,” for example, lighthouses and defining and defending property rights in the early American West.

De Soto continues, making a good case in arguing the impossibility of a limited state; the arguments will be well-known (whether you agree or not) to anyone reasonably well-versed in the non-aggression principle and the human nature that is drawn to ruling over others.

And it is here where de Soto hints at an additional error – and in my opinion a more significant error:

Not even the most respectable churches and religious denominations have reached an accurate diagnosis of the problem: that today statolatry poses the main threat to free, moral, and responsible human beings; that the state is an enormously powerful false idol which is worshipped by all and which will not countenance anyone’s freeing himself from its control nor having moral or religious loyalties outside its own sphere of dominance.

I say “hints at,” because while de Soto mentions it, he spends precious few words on the matter.  Classical liberalism – and its offspring, libertarianism – requires a moral and responsible people to be maintained, just as to maintain capitalism also requires a moral and responsible people.  Yet classical liberalism – and libertarianism – has deemphasized (and portions of this community have purged), the concepts of moral and responsible.

De Soto offers an interesting footnote, offering, perhaps, one reason of many why Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) suddenly “voluntarily” stepped down.  Citing from Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth”:

The tempter is not so crude as to suggest to us directly that we should worship the devil. He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to a planned and thoroughly organized world, where God may have his place as a private concern but must not interfere in our essential purposes. Soloviev attributes to the Antichrist a book entitled The Open Way to World Peace and Welfare. This book becomes something of a new Bible, whose real message is the worship of well-being and rational planning.

I say it this way: replacing God’s reason (or the reason of countless generations to be found in culture and tradition, if you prefer) with man’s reason of today, man’s reason of the moment.

But here again, de Soto merely hints at another error of classical liberalism – certainly as it (and libertarianism) has evolved and developed over the decades.  Classical liberalism (and libertarianism) has deemphasized (and portions of this community have purged) the value of tradition, culture, and social norms in maintaining a relatively free social order.


Nothing more than…I am glad to find that I am not the only one making the point about shortcomings in classical liberalism; I guess I am in pretty good company.  Like de Soto, I do this not to destroy liberty but to enhance it; not to degrade the hope behind the philosophy, but to improve the possibility of success.

I don’t believe it is enough to say that the shortcoming is economic, or that the shortcoming is in the naiveté of believing that a minimal state can be contained.  The shortcomings are certainly here, but there is more.

Liberty requires a moral and responsible people if it is to be achieved and sustained; liberty requires general acceptance of a common cultural tradition.  It is an error when classical liberals and libertarians deemphasize and even eliminate these concepts when considering the possibility of liberty.


  1. Libertarianism in theory is the Principle of Subsidiarity in practice. As you know, most of our Bishops don’t even teach it, but pracyice the Open (borders and pocketbooks) to world peace and welfare.

  2. Jesús Huerta de Soto gave a speech last year where he spoke more to cultural and religious implications if you have not seen it yet.


  3. When I explained libertarianism to people unfamiliar with the concept I found that they will 'instinctively' recoil.These people are usually smart enough to 'get' the premise of the NAP. They might even agree on the intellectual level, but it (almost) never hit home. They reject it without being able to articulate why. Most of the time its something like "that can never work".

    I have -in the past- always taken that as a refusal to accept logic, as a sign of an inner problem that blocked progress.

    But now I am not so self-assured anymore. Seems to me these people were aware of something that I was not, or that I was able to override. These people were in essence aware that society is something else that just a collection of people. The gap between ants and the ant-colony. It is not possible to pick up an ant, study it in all detail and then derive conclusions about how the ant-colony is run.

    In short, I have come te realise that in all those discussions with non-libertarians, they were probably right, and I was wrong. As they say: the common denominator in all your failed friendships is you.

    And the interesting question is: where did we go wrong?

    1. Back in my misbegotten youth, I was a Republican. I thought if the silent majority of us liberatianish/conservative “real” Republicans could take it back from the RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) that always seemed to get elected, All would be right. It took me years to realize I was the actual RINO.

    2. "And the interesting question is: where did we go wrong?"

      "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." (I didn't look up the verse, but I am sure that I am close enough.)

      Libertarianism rightly offers that victimless (so-called) crimes are not "crimes" punishable by law, albeit we need not approve of such behavior. Jesus offers something similar with this statement, it seems to me.

      Jesus does not offer that such actions are good, healthy, moral, life-sustaining, etc. He was the greatest example in both word and deed of a just and moral life.

      Where did we go wrong? Might be as simple as: the NAP without a moral compass equals hell.

      And most civilized people recoil at the idea of hell.