The Multi-Dimensionality of Classical Liberalism

[Note: This post is part of a series on the History of the Classical Liberal Tradition]

[See also another post on “Plotting Liberty: The Multi-Dimensionality of Classical Liberalism and the Need for a New ‘Left-Right’ Political Spectrum” (17 April, 2022) here.]

Another aspect to consider is the multi-dimensional nature of liberalism. The one dimensional political spectrum with two end points of total liberty at one end and total state power is better than the traditional “left-right” spectrum which hides this important feature, but it too has its limitations. As Bastiat and others recognized in the mid-19th century, liberty could take many forms or dimensions, and that “true liberty” was the sum of all these different forms freedom might take. To simplify matters, one could limit the analysis to just three dimensions which would include “political” freedoms (like freedom of speech, assembly, rule of law, constitutional limits on the power of the state, representative government, and so on), “social” freedoms (such as all kinds of voluntary and cooperative activity, freedom of religion, marriage, drug-use, behaviour, dress), and of course “economic” freedoms (such as free trade, choosing one’s career, property rights, free markets, freedom/protection of contracts, free market pricing).

More specifically:

  • political/legal freedoms
  • economic freedoms
  • social/individual freedoms

(One might have “legal freedoms” as the 4th dimension, but I have kept the list to three dimensions to make it easier to visualize.)

Political/Legal Freedoms:

  • freedom of speech and assembly (religion)
  • constitutional limits on the power of the state
  • representative government
  • the rule of (just) law
  • equality under the law
  • protection of private property and contracts
  • right to emigrate/immigrate

Economic Freedoms:

  • free markets
  • laissez-faire or minimal intervention/regulation
  • right to choose and enter a trade/profession
  • the division of labour
  • free trade & exchange
  • free movement of capital and people

Social/individual Freedoms

  • all kinds of voluntary and cooperative activity (family, civil society)
  • marriage
  • drug-use (“capitalist acts between consenting adults” (Nozick))
  • religion
  • toleration of different behaviour and dress

Thus, according to this way of looking at liberalism, one could say that “radical” liberalism embraces all three dimensions of freedom to their maximum extent; “moderate” liberalism might be strong on two out of the three dimensions, but allow for considerable restriction in one of the dimensions (such as paternalistic controls on private behavior, or tax-payer funding for unemployment benefits, or state compulsory education). Finally, what I have called “ersatz” liberalism (“false” liberalism, or LINO liberalism, i.e. liberalism in name only) would be that form of liberalism where the restrictions in all three dimensions of liberalism are so extensive that it has been transformed into some other kind of political philosophy.

The question then becomes how to determine the boundary line between “radical” and “moderate” liberalism (which I consider to be forms of “true” liberalism) from the “false” liberalism. This is a mater of personal judgement perhaps.

The various forms of “ersatz” liberalism which have emerged since the late 19th century are in many ways like a political smorgasbord, where politicians take a little bit of economic freedom, a pinch of social freedom, and combine it with a dollop of “political” freedom (“democracy”) and call this mixed plate “liberalism”. But is this “liberalism” in any meaningful sense of the term? How is it to be distinguished from welfare state socialism with some aspects of liberalism (usually social and political freedoms but not so much economic ones)?

I think the boundary between the two kinds of liberalism is much easier to see from a natural rights perspective than from a utilitarian one. Utilitarian calculations of what the state should or should not do can become very blurred with no sharp and clear ways of determining where the beginning and end points are. The exceptions to the NAP can be rather numerous and open-ended which results in a blurring of the political spectrum where there is no longer a clear distinction between non-coercive voluntary activity and state- sanctioned or state initiated coercion. A natural rights perspective brings the nature of state actions into much sharper focus as the use of coercion (or its threat) against individuals (life, liberty, property) I think is a much more objective thing (though not absolute as threats can be disguised or hidden or not always immediately apparent). But the radical liberal who wants to see the NAP applied as broadly as possible (absolutely and with no exceptions??) makes no distinction between coercive actions by the state or its representatives and other private individuals. All such acts, by whomsoever committed, are immoral, criminal, and should be banned, without exception. This perhaps is the sharp distinction which separates “radical” liberals and all other kinds of liberals. All other kinds of liberals, from “moderate” to “new” or “ersatz” allow (even require) varying degrees of state coercion as part of their political philosophy. The “radical” liberal does not do so. The issue for those “liberals” who do not want to go down the path of the “radicals” is to decide upon a non-arbitrary place to stop state coercion. How far does this path can one go and still remain a “liberal” in any meaningful sense of the word?

This also raises the question of “practicability”, is such an absolute form of liberalism even possible? or does necessity and practicability require coercive actions by the state from time to time (the moderate position), or always and constantly (the conservative and ersatz liberal) if society is to be prevented from falling apart (the conservative) or if society is to be a more just and fair one (the ersatz liberal and the socialist)?

Note: See also my previous posts on “hyphenated liberalism”:

  1. “ ‘Hyphenated’ Liberalism and the Problem of Definition” (9 Aug. 2021) here
  2. “Hyphenated Liberalism Part II: Utopian, Democratic, Revolutionary, and State Liberalism” (12 Oct. 2021) here
  3. “The Conservative and Revolutionary Faces of Classical Liberalism” (11 Aug. 2021) here