What is the difference between liberalism and libertarianism?

  • According to wikipedia

    Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis) is a political philosophy or worldview founded on the idea of liberty and equality. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally they support ideas such as free and fair elections, civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free trade, and a right to life, liberty, and property.


    Libertarianism is the group of political philosophies which advocate minimizing coercion and emphasize freedom, liberty, and voluntary association. Libertarians generally advocate a society with significantly less government compared to most present day societies.

    From these definitions it seems that liberalism has a stronger focus on equality, while libertarianism is strongly associated with small government. Can anybody describe the differences more accurately? Might it be that the term libertarianism got more widespread as the meaning of liberalism in the USA shifted leftwards?

    There is a third term: libertine.

    A Liberal in most other places in the world would have more in common with a Libertarian in the United States, it is apparently just in the United States that the world Liberal was demonized.

    @gerrit - libertine is more of a moral/ethical term than political, I think.

    Since you didn't specify if you wanted Modern American (aka Welfare) liberalism or Classical Liberalism, I gave an answer that addresses both.

    Most liberal parties in Europe are for free markets, but not at all for free immigration, so they're rather akin to the business republicans in the USA (they lack the religious bit).

    This is one of the reasons why the term _liberal_ has been abandoned in favour of the term _progressive_ by the left in the USA.

    Found a textbook which referred to classical liberals as 'orthodox liberals' lol. As opposed to 'interventionist liberals' and 'institutional liberals'.

    As to "it is apparently just in the United States that the world Liberal was demonized" -- sadly, no. Speaking from Central Europe, "liberal" has become a curse word here, too, since like a decade or two after the Iron Curtain fell. And, as the EU crisis has been deepening, the whole original idea of a "*liberal* Europe" has become tainted, too.

    BTW, following up on the note at the end of the question: liberalism shifted leftwards here (in Central Europe) too. E.g. we got a governing coalition of a social and a liberal party in 1994. After their 4-year term, right conservatives won, and by today, the liberal party has vanished, and socialists have adopted liberal capitalism. Now "liberalism" is a perfect wildcard term for marking scapegoats. (Hence the infamous populist agenda of "illiberal democracy" of the Holy King Orban Vader of Hungary. Yeah, that's where I'm from, sorry. ;) )

    Let me know where that definition of liberalism applies. It doesn't even remotely resemble liberals or progressives in the USA.

    `..liberalism has a stronger focus on equality` don't confuse between liberty(freedom) and equality. Often, they are opposing forces.

    In terms of US politics, this question is fundamentally flawed, because the definition of "Liberalism" given is a mixture of the modern definition of "Classical Liberalism", and modern so-called Liberalism. Liberty and equality, unless your definition of equality is specifically referencing 'equal protection under the law' are antithetical. They are polar opposites, they cannot co-exist.

  • mootinator

    mootinator Correct answer

    9 years ago

    The word "libertarianism" was essentially invented because classical liberals felt that the word had become expropriated.

    Leonard E. Reed wrote in Castles in the Air:

    There was a word that I always liked; the classical economists used it: liberal. The word liberal really meant, in the classical sense, the liberalization of the individuals from the tyranny of the State. That word was expropriated by our opponents and it has now come to mean liberality with other people’s money. The word was taken over. And so I, more than anybody else, was responsible for introducing and publicizing and perhaps making world-wide the word libertarian. . .

    That quote actually continues, "I am sorry I ever did it. Why? Because the word libertarian has now been just as much expropriated as the word liberal."

    There's a such thing as "libertarian socialism" which makes as much sense to me as "vegan steakhouse".

    @StasM Libertarian socialists believe anarchy or minarchy will lead to socialism. Socialism is does not necessarily imply statism.

    @Eva Socialism implies state control over the means of production and central planning of the economy. How it can be done without statism?

    @StasM Socialism refers to the *social* ownership of the means of production. That's why Marxian stateless communism is a form of socialism. Americans are just more familiar with the USSR's government.

    @Eva A rose by any other name still smells the same. The country's economic model can not be called socialist if some people just voluntarily join to own something - this is called joint stock company, and it is a perfectly capitalist thing. Socialism means no private ownership - at least when it comes to means of production, etc. - and this can not be done without erecting specific state structure. If I build a house and it is declared "socially owned", that means somebody may deny me exclusive ownership of it - and somebody has to enforce it - e.g. throw me out if I do not comply.

    @StasM Some people think joint stock is socialist. No society currently in existence is 100% capitalist. (Ironically, the only two that have been in the past are France and China.) Your house argument is against the feasibility of libertarian socialism, not the definition.

    @Eva You seem to misunderstand what Mises is talking about. He's not saying JS is socialist, he is saying to tout JS as an example of socialist success is to tout exactly what is bad in JS and to ignore what is good in them and what actually underlies their success. He explicitly calls the idea that JS company is a socialist undertaking a "fallacy". I think he is entirely right in that :)

    @StasM You're right, I must have misread. I thought he was saying JS was an example of socialism's failings. In any case, those who he is opposing do think JS is socialist. The main point is that libertarian socialism is not inherently a contradiction. Whether it's realistic is a whole 'nother story.

    @Eva well, isn't the "contradiction" a situation where following the premises you arrive at something that can not realistically exist? That is exactly what "libertarian socialism" seems to be.

    "Socialism means no private ownership - at least when it comes to means of production, etc. - and this can not be done without erecting specific state structure. If I build a house and it is declared "socially owned", that means somebody may deny me exclusive ownership of it - and somebody has to enforce it...": Normally it is the other way around: it is the state that guarantees private property: you register your house with public administration and, if someone violates your property, you call the police. Without a state there would be no private ownership.

    @Eva Every single time that Marxism was attempted it turned into a Communist dictatorship. There's NEVER been a successful attempt at Marxism, where "social control of the means of production", has ever occurred without complete statism and absolute despotism.

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