Liberal vs Libertarian: Similarities and Differences

liberal vs libertarian, explained below

Liberalism and libertarianism both embrace freedom and liberty as core concerns.

However, liberalism tends to embrace the concepts of the social contract and mutual responsibility, while libertarians have a more radical embrace of the primacy of individual freedom over civic duty.

Libertarians see personal liberty as freedom from governmental interference, while liberals view government as a necessary tool for ensuring freedom and equality.

Summaries of both ideologies are below:

  • Liberalism embraces the idea of the individual as having natural rights and liberties. However, it also holds that there is a social contract in society that is upheld by democratic government institutions. In the American political sense, this is generally translated to a belief that the government has an important role in delivering freedoms to as many citizens as possible, reducing social inequities, and promoting social welfare. 
  • Libertarianism has similar roots to liberalism, holding that we all have liberties and natural rights. However, libertarianism stresses minimal government intervention and social coersion as a means for achieving personal liberties. Libertarians tend not to see a role for government in curtailing inequalities. As a result, libertarians tend to advocate for minimal government, minimal regulation, and unfettered free markets.

Liberal vs Libertarian

1. Liberalism

Liberalism, derived from the Latin “liber,” meaning “free,” is a political ideology that primarily embraces individual freedoms and equal rights.

Historically, liberalism is rooted in the Western Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, where thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant propagated ideas about liberty, progress, and the separation of church and state (Rosen, 2012).

Liberalism underscores the belief in human rights, democratic representation, and economic freedom. Unlike libertarianism, it does tend to embrace government oversight as a productive means for delivering rights, freedoms, and a social contract.

With is stronger embrace of the role of government, liberalism supports transparent democratic processes and institutions and backs regulated capitalism.

In essence, liberalism believes in harnessing the powers of institutions to safeguard individual freedom and promote social justice.

Additionally, liberals tend to favor policies that aim to reduce social inequity and to counterbalance the disadvantages experienced by marginalized groups.

Central to liberal ideology, however, is the belief in a balanced government that ensures freedom while enabling an environment that addresses systemic social and economic inequalities.

For instance, while liberals fundamentally support free-market economies, they also endorse judicious governmental regulation to prevent monopolies, protect consumers, and promote fair competition (Sandel, 2012).

In the political arena, liberals typically advocate for the expansion of civil rights and liberties, and in the economic sphere, they often support the regulation of markets and industries to protect consumers and the environment (Forst, 2013).

Read Also: Liberalism vs Leftism

1.1 Types of Liberalism

Liberalism as a political philosophy has evolved over the centuries. As a result, there has been a range of approaches and interpretations of the concept. Below are some of the core types:

  • Classical Liberalism: Originating in the 18th and 19th centuries, classical liberalism was primarily concerned with protecting individual freedoms from overreach by the state. Influenced by Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and John Locke, classical liberals prioritized individual liberty, limited government, and laissez-faire economic policies (Gaus & D’Agostino, 2012). For example, Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” provided the intellectual foundation for free markets and deregulation that classical liberals advocate. Classical liberalism is perhaps the closest to libertarianism of all the types of liberalis,.
  • Social Liberalism: Unlike their classical counterparts, social liberals contend that a larger governmental role is necessary to ensure social justice and prevent economic disparities. They see that government regulation can in fact increase, not decrease, personal liberties, because it protects us from exploitation from powerful structures (such as corporations). Originating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social liberalism emerged in response to the social inequities triggered by industrial capitalism. Social liberals argue for state intervention in economic affairs to regulate markets, protect consumers, and provide a social safety net for the disadvantaged. The New Deal policies implemented by Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression are prime examples of social liberalism (Eagleton, 2011).
  • Progressive Liberalism: Progressive liberalism, a more recent development, advances the liberal commitment to social justice and equality further. Progressive liberals support policies such as progressive taxation, environmental protection, and extensive civil rights protections. They also tend to view social issues through a global lens, advocating for international cooperation on issues such as climate change and human rights (King & Waldron, 2016).

These variants of liberalism highlight the ongoing debate within liberal philosophy about the extent and nature of governmental intervention in economic and social affairs. While all liberals agree on the fundamental importance of individual freedom and equal rights, they differ in their views on how best to realize these ideals in practice.

Go deeper: Read 15 Examples of Liberalism Here

2. Libertarianism

Libertarianism’s critique of liberalism is that it tends to rely too heavily on the government for delivering rights and freedoms (Boaz, 2015).

This ideology was birthed out of the classical liberal tradition, developing into a distinct philosophy in the mid-20th century.

Libertarians argue for the minimal intervention of government in the personal lives of individuals, defending robust rights to personal freedom.

Libertarians are fundamentally more skeptical of governments than liberals, seeing government as a major threat to individual liberty.

As a result, libertarians are disinterested in using government as a lever for achieving freedom and equality.

While the benefit of this approach is that we will be protected from tyrannical government, its downside is that there would be no powerful advocate protecting us from coercion, malpractice, or exploitation.

In economic affairs, libertarians espouse laissez-faire capitalism, the belief in an unregulated free market as the most effective and just economic system. They see governmental regulation as an unwarranted intrusion into the freedoms of consumers and businesses, arguing that free markets naturally correct themselves through mechanisms such as competition and supply and demand.

In the libertarian view, the legitimate functions of government are limited to protecting individuals from violation of natural rights and enforcing legal contracts. Beyond this, libertarians maintain that individuals and markets should be free from governmental interference (Nozick, 2013).

Libertarians also advocate for a non-interventionist foreign policy, grounded in their skepticism towards state power and commitment to individual liberty. They argue that military interventions, while perhaps well-intentioned, can have unintended consequences that further undermine peace and liberty.

This broad overview of libertarianism reveals its clear contrast with liberalism. While both share a common origin in the Enlightenment and a commitment to individual freedom, they diverge significantly in their views on the role of government, economic regulation, and social welfare.

2.1 Types of Libertarianism

Like liberalism, libertarianism has branched-out into several competing ideas under the one umbrella. Here are some distinct branches of libertarian thought:

  • Minarchism: Minarchists advocate for a ‘minimal state’ whose primary function is to protect individuals from aggression, theft, breach of contract, and fraud. They support a government limited to maintaining a police force, army, and courts, believing these services are necessary to safeguard individual rights and liberties. However, they argue against the state’s involvement in areas such as economic regulation or social welfare. Robert Nozick’s work, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” serves as a key text in this tradition (Nozick, 2013).
  • Anarcho-Capitalism: Anarcho-capitalists go one step further than minarchists, arguing for the abolition of the state altogether. They propose that all services, including law enforcement and courts, should be provided by voluntary interactions in a free market. Anarcho-capitalists strongly believe in property rights and see the free market as the foundation of a just society. Murray Rothbard, in “For a New Liberty,” expounds upon these principles (Rothbard, 2015).
  • Left-Libertarianism: This branch of libertarianism is characterized by its strong focus on both personal and economic liberty, as well as an emphasis on social justice. Left-libertarians typically support a market-based form of socialism and believe in equal access to natural resources. Unlike other types of libertarians, they often advocate for wealth redistribution, usually through some form of communal property ownership or a universal basic income (Vallentyne & Steiner, 2014).
  • Libertarian Socialism: This variant of libertarianism opposes both state power and the power of large corporations, arguing that both can infringe upon individual liberties. Libertarian socialists support worker self-management, direct democracy, and decentralized structures of political organization. Notable proponents include Noam Chomsky (Chomsky, 2013).

These different strands of libertarian thought underline the multifaceted nature of libertarian philosophy. Despite their differences, all types of libertarianism share a core commitment to maximizing individual liberty and minimizing state interference in citizens’ lives.

Go deeper: Read 15 Examples of Libertarianism Here

Liberalism and Libertarianism Similarities and Differences

1. Similarities

Despite their differences, liberalism and libertarianism share several key similarities.

Both are political philosophies that emerged from the Enlightenment, and they share a common foundation in advocating for individual liberties and human rights.

  • Individual Liberty: Both liberals and libertarians place a high value on individual liberty. They agree that individuals should have the freedom to make choices about their personal lives, from who they marry to what they choose to say or believe. This shared emphasis on individual autonomy is a key similarity between the two ideologies (Rawls, 2005).
  • Free Markets: Both ideologies also support free markets to varying extents. While liberals believe in some degree of governmental regulation to ensure fair competition and consumer protection, both liberals and libertarians believe in the power of the market to generate wealth and innovation (Friedman, 2002).
  • Democracy: Both liberals and libertarians champion democratic governance. They believe in the power of the people to elect their leaders and shape their government. They both support the protection of democratic rights such as free speech, a free press, and the right to peaceful protest (Mill, 2010).
  • Non-aggression: Both liberals and libertarians subscribe to a non-aggression principle, the belief that individuals should be free from violence and coercion. They both agree that the state should protect individuals from harm and that peaceful solutions should be sought wherever possible (Nozick, 2013).
  • Equality Before the Law: Liberals and libertarians both uphold the principle of equality before the law. They believe that all individuals, regardless of their identity or status, should be subject to the same legal standards and have the same legal protections (Rawls, 1999).

These similarities underscore the shared roots of liberalism and libertarianism in Enlightenment thought. They both champion the dignity of the individual and the importance of freedom, although they differ significantly in their views on the role of the state in securing these ideals.

2. Differences

While liberalism and libertarianism share a common heritage and some overlapping principles, they diverge significantly on a number of key issues.

These differences center primarily on the role of the state, economic policy, social welfare, and the interpretation of personal freedom.

  • Role of the State: While both liberals and libertarians value individual freedom, they differ markedly in their views on the role of the state in protecting and promoting that freedom. Liberals believe that government intervention is necessary to protect individual rights, promote social justice, and create equal opportunity. Libertarians, on the other hand, see government intervention as a threat to individual liberty and argue for minimal state involvement in personal and economic affairs (Nozick, 2013).
  • Economic Policy: Libertarians advocate for laissez-faire capitalism, believing that the free market, if left to its own devices, will best promote prosperity and individual freedom. Liberals, however, support a mixed economy, arguing that some degree of government regulation is necessary to correct market failures, protect consumers, and reduce income inequality (Stiglitz, 2012).
  • Social Welfare: Liberals support social welfare programs, viewing them as a necessary means to mitigate social inequality and protect the well-being of all citizens. Libertarians, however, generally oppose such programs, arguing that they infringe upon individual liberty and should be replaced by private charity or not at all (Murray, 2006).
  • Equality vs. Liberty: While both ideologies value both equality and liberty, they prioritize these values differently. Liberals are more likely to emphasize equality, even if achieving it requires some sacrifice of individual liberties (e.g., through progressive taxation or affirmative action policies). Libertarians, meanwhile, prioritize liberty, even if the outcome is economic or social inequality (Nozick, 2013).
  • Collective Rights vs. Individual Rights: While both liberals and libertarians uphold the importance of human rights, they differ in their views on collective versus individual rights. Liberals often support collective rights, such as the right of a community to maintain its cultural heritage or the right of workers to unionize. Libertarians, however, emphasize individual rights and are skeptical of the concept of collective rights, which they view as potentially infringing upon individual liberties (Brennan & Tomasi, 2012).

These differences highlight the significant ideological divergence between liberalism and libertarianism, despite their shared roots and principles. They reflect distinct views on how society should be organized and how to best balance the competing demands of liberty, equality, and justice.

Comparison and Summary Table

LiberalismLibertarianism
Individual LibertyLiberals strongly believe in individual liberty and personal freedoms, including the freedom of speech, religion, and association (Rawls, 2005).Libertarians hold individual liberty as their highest political value, emphasizing personal freedom in all aspects of life, from economic activity to lifestyle choices (Nozick, 2013).
Free MarketsLiberals support free markets but believe in regulatory measures to prevent market failures, protect consumers, and promote economic fairness (Stiglitz, 2012).Libertarians advocate for a laissez-faire economic system with minimal governmental interference in the market (Friedman, 2002).
DemocracyLiberals champion democratic governance and the protection of democratic rights such as free speech, a free press, and the right to peaceful protest (Mill, 2010).Libertarians also uphold the importance of democratic governance and protect the rights that enable it, though they emphasize limited government overall (Nozick, 2013).
Role of the StateLiberals view the state as necessary to protect individual rights, ensure social justice, and provide public goods (Rawls, 1999).Libertarians believe in a minimal state, arguing that government intervention often infringes on individual liberties (Nozick, 2013).
Social WelfareLiberals support social welfare programs as a way to mitigate social inequality and protect citizens’ well-being (Stiglitz, 2012).Libertarians generally oppose social welfare programs, viewing them as infringements on individual freedom and economic autonomy (Murray, 2006).
Equality vs. LibertyLiberals often prioritize equality, even if it requires sacrificing some individual liberties (Rawls, 1999).Libertarians place a higher value on liberty, even if it leads to social or economic inequality (Nozick, 2013).
Collective vs. Individual RightsLiberals often support collective rights, such as the right of workers to unionize or the right of a community to maintain its cultural heritage (Rawls, 1999).Libertarians emphasize individual rights and are often skeptical of the concept of collective rights, viewing them as potential infringements on individual liberties (Brennan & Tomasi, 2012).

Read Next: Left-Wing vs Right-Wing

Conclusion

Liberalism and libertarianism have both branched out from Enlightenment philosophy, but they reach their point of disagreement when they start considering how best to deliver individual liberties. In essence, they differ on their focus on the two types of freedom: ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. From here, they disagree on whether government can be a trusted and productive mechanism for achieving individual freedoms. Liberals embrace the idea of well-regulated and accountable government institutions, while libertarians are more skeptical, wanting to minimize the role of the state as much as possible, recognizing that this may mean the marginalized and unfortunate may lack governmental support when needed.

References

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Friedman, M. (2002). Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

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Gore, A. (2013). The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. London: Random House.

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King, D. S., & Waldron, J. (2016). The Progressive’s Dilemma. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Rothbard, M. N. (2015). For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. Chicago: Ludwig von Mises Institute

Saez, E., & Zucman, G. (2019). The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay. Los Angeles: W. W. Norton & Company

Sandel, M. J. (2012). What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Stiglitz, J. E. (2012). The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

Vallentyne, P., & Steiner, H. (2014). Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics: The Contemporary Debate. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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