Libertarianism is a socialist political philosophy which has its roots in the socialist workers’ movements of the 1800s and 1900s. It is especially associated with ideas that came out of the First International (IWA – 1864-1876), especially those of Joseph Proudhon, Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin. It was upon these ideas, as well as some of those which came later like those of Peter Kropotkin, that the libertarian syndicalists in Spain formed the CNT union in the early 1900s, with the goal of creating a libertarian (socialist) and workers’ self-managed society. What this means is they wanted emancipation of the working class, recognizing that class struggle comes as a result of resistance to management power over workers, because business owners’ aims are profit-based. This means that managers will submit workers to rigid control in the workplace, cut corners and compensation, heap stress on them, etc., in order to maximize profit.
The inequitable distribution of wealth that comes as a result of wage labor creates an economic, political and social power imbalance, since in the market your vote is your dollar, and wage labor in the workplace is an apparatus to give a minority of people more votes in the market than the rest. Libertarians historically wanted to replace these conditions with workers’ self-management and create a socialist society where people have control over their own work and in all economic planning and decision-making, as arranged through popular associations like unions, assemblies, councils and federations. There are various concrete proposals for these types of economies from people like Cornelius Castoriadis, Peter Kropotkin, GDH Cole and others.
In the 1962 book “Capitalism & Freedom”, Milton Friedman says: “The rightful and proper label is liberalism…liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual; it supported free trade abroad as a means of linking the nations of the world…”. The word “libertarianism” became associated with right wing classical liberals in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s who sought to use the word for political opportunism. In “The Betrayal of the American Right”, Murray Rothbard said, “One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy…‘Libertarians’…had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over…”
An easy way to understand the major differences between libertarians and classical liberals is that libertarians prioritize positive liberty whereas classical liberals prioritize negative liberty. Positive liberty means having control over the decisions that affect you (self-management) and having access to the resources to fulfill your potential. Negative liberty means merely absence of external restraint. Because the employer doesn’t put a gun to your head to take a job, you’re supposedly “free” as far as the liberal is concerned. But in reality workers face a denial of positive liberty because they are forced to work for employers to afford access to resources they need to live their lives, and have no direct control over their own work or over economic planning decisions which affect their lives.
They also do not have direct control over how negative market externalities, like pollution, climate change and systemic risk, affect their lives. The freedom classical liberals desire includes the freedom to do things like exploit workers and pollute the earth. This contrasts starkly with the freedom desired by libertarians which is to create a political economy where people have direct control over their own work and over economic planning, as well as access to everything they need to fulfill their own potential.
Classical liberals’ prioritization of negative over positive liberty is taken to very extreme ends. Murray Rothbard said “…the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights… the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die…” It also led Ludwig von Mises to be an apologist for fascism: “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.”
Fredrich Hayek, in regards to the dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile, said: “…a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. At times it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form or other of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of liberalism. Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism.” Coincidentally, Milton Friedman was an unofficial economic advisor to Pinochet as part of the “Chicago Boys” economics group.
To conclude, classical liberalism, which prioritizes negative over positive liberty, leads to extremely despotic anti-democratic and anti-working class advocacy. This stands in stark contrast to libertarianism, which prioritizes positive liberty and has its roots in the socialist tradition. The word “libertarianism” in the U.S. was usurped by classical liberals for political opportunism, so it is important for actual libertarians, like those of us at WSA, to show this opportunism for what it truly is, and reject any and all association the word “libertarian” has with classical liberalism.