Classical Liberalism ≠ Libertarianism

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations:

Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters. Thus the law which obliges the masters in several different trades to pay their workmen in money and not in goods, is quite just and equitable.

Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence:

The rich and opulent merchant who does nothing but give a few directions, lives in far greater state and luxury and ease and plenty of all the conveniencies and delicacies of life than his clerks, who do all the business. They too, excepting their confinement, are in a state of ease and plenty far superior to that of the artizan by whose labour these commodities were furnished. The labour of this man too is pretty tollerable; he works under cover protected from the inclemency in the weather, and has his livelyhood in no uncomfortable way if we compare him with the poor labourer. He has all the inconveniencies of the soil and the season to struggle with, is continually exposed to the inclemency of the weather and the most severe labour at the same time. Thus he who as it were supports the whole frame of society and furnishes the means of the convenience and ease of all the rest is himself possessed of a very small share and is buried in obscurity. He bears on his shoulders the whole of mankind, and unable to sustain the load is buried by the weight of it and thrust down into the lowest parts of the earth, from whence he supports all the rest. (emphasis added)


  1. David Golumbia September 25, 2013 at 9:58 pm | #

    i appreciate this and agree with it, but I think a little bit of additional history could be applied to the term “libertarianism.” While the early Hayek somewhat approximates and even endorses some of the views of Smith, and calls himself both “classical liberal” and “libertarian,” the view that we call libertarian today has veered very far away from that. I would amend your equation: “classical liberalism” ≈ “libertarianism” c1944; “libertarianism” c2013 is far away from “classical liberalism” ala either Hayek or Smith, and from “libertarianism” c1944 (Mirowski has an excellent history of how Hayek, Popper & others got swayed to an anti-classical liberal position that he identifies with neoliberalism in his recent stuff, but that cleverly continued to be called libertarianism despite having only a small amount in common with earlier doctrine), and in fact only approximates a political doctrine we aren’t allowed to name any more that begins with “F.”

    Much of contemporary libertarianism can also be seen as some adaptation of Randism/Objectivism, which until recently wasn’t really understood as a variety of libertarianism and has more to do with the more virulent, explicit US neoliberalism of the Friedmans and Murray Rothbard (also called “libertarianism,” and not that far away from the 2013 variety) (see e.g., (I also don’t consider Rand’s “thought” to comprise a philosophical system, as opposed to, e.g., Smith or the early Hayek. It’s just a bunch of nice, horrible slogans for people of a certain mindset to hang their hats upon while they pillage everyone else.)

    I say this as a committed Leftist and as no fan of Hayek c1944 or any flavor of libertarianism, let alone the horrors of objectivism, just someone interested in getting these doctrines as clear as possible. Although to be fair, the views of Hayek c1944, and those of Adam Smith before him even more so as your quotations show, are a darn site more palatable than the ones of those who invoke their names today.

    • E September 25, 2013 at 11:35 pm | #

      “Pillage everyone else”?

      I think you have that backwards.

  2. Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) September 25, 2013 at 10:00 pm | #

    Or this:

    “Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.” – Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 8


    “A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.” – Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 8

    I tell ya, dude was a socialist. If he was around today, Glenn Beck would be all over him.

  3. mordechaigaertner September 25, 2013 at 10:10 pm | #

    Hence Marxism…



  4. Critical Reading September 25, 2013 at 10:29 pm | #

    “Civil government so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” Book V, Chapter 1

  5. Critical Reading September 25, 2013 at 10:36 pm | #

    “The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.” Book I, Chapter 11

  6. Critical Reading September 25, 2013 at 10:42 pm | #

    “Although Adam Smith is usually considered to be the founding father of right-wing free market economics, a rising chorus of left-wing academics are claiming him for their own. The scholars, who argue Smith was a radical critic of the establishment of his day, would place the famed Scottish economist next to Jean Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx and the pantheon of left-wing thinkers.”

  7. Roquentin September 26, 2013 at 12:06 am | #

    While I in many ways agree, I’m not really sure classical liberalism is an ideology worth saving. I align more or less with Max Weber’s definition of the state as the monopolization of legitimate violence and don’t have a lot of patience for political discussions which want to talk about rights, civil or otherwise, outside of this. Monarchist though he was, I think Hobbes gets a worse rap than he deserves historically. His definition of how the state functions was basically correct and his willingness to face questions of power directly is noteworthy for anyone: left, right, or center. I can even forgive some of his monarchism when you consider how bloodthirsty Cromwell was, especially towards the Irish.

  8. Cleisthenes September 26, 2013 at 4:28 am | #

    It’s Adam Smith the tax and spender who recognised two objects of the economy:

    “first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services”- Book IV WofN

    It’s Adam Smith, the progressive taxationist:

    “The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.” ……

    …..”The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable.

    It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” – Book V.

    Someone get Fox news on the line, our college Economic departments are teaching communist propaganda.

    • Jim Farmelant September 26, 2013 at 8:55 am | #

      There is also Adam Smith, the supporter of public education, and critic of the deleterious effects of the intensification of the division of labor:

      “In the progress of the division of labor, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labor, that is, the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. . . . His dexterity at his own particular trade seems to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civiliised society this is the state into which the laboring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”

      “The education of the common people requires, perhaps, in a civilised and commercial society the attention of the public more than that of people of some rank and fortune. People of some rank and fortune are generally eighteen or nineteen years of age before they enter upon that particular business, profession, or trade, by which they propose to distinguish themselves in the world. They have before that full time to acquire, or at least to fit themselves for afterwards acquiring, every accomplishment which can recommend them to the public esteem, or render them worthy of it. Their parents or guardians are generally sufficiently anxious that they should be so accomplished, and are, in most cases, willing enough to lay out the expense which is necessary for that purpose. If they are not always properly educated, it is seldom from the want of expense laid out upon their education, but from the improper application of that expense. It is seldom from the want of masters, but from the negligence and incapacity of the masters who are to be had, and from the difficulty, or rather from the impossibility, which there is in the present state of things of finding any better. The employments, too, in which people of some rank or fortune spend the greater part of their lives are not, like those of the common people, simple and uniform. They are almost all of them extremely complicated, and such as exercise the head more than the hands. The understandings of those who are engaged in such employments can seldom grow torpid for want of exercise. The employments of people of some rank and fortune, besides, are seldom such as harass them from morning to night. They generally have a good deal of leisure, during which they may perfect themselves in every branch either of useful or ornamental knowledge of which they may have laid the foundation, or for which they may have acquired some taste in the earlier part of life.”

      —- The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter I, Part III, Article II.

  9. Benjamin David Steele September 26, 2013 at 12:46 pm | #

    Reblogged this on Marmalade and commented:
    Nice set of quotes from Adam Smith, both in the post and in the comments section. Contemporary American libertarianism is one of those endlessly fascinating creatures. A clear example of Corey Robin’s reactionary conservatism, creating something new to challenge the old for the sake of continuing the hierarchical status quo.

  10. Bart September 26, 2013 at 1:19 pm | #

    And one doubts that Smith coined “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

  11. Cleisthenes September 26, 2013 at 1:43 pm | #

    And here’s Smith on the hypocrisy of business leaders calling for wage restraint:

    “Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.” – The Wealth of Nations, Book I, ch ix.

    and on the ‘wage restraint to remain competitive’ trope

    “Our merchants frequently complain of the high wages of British labour as the cause of their manufactures being undersold in foreign markets, but they are silent about the high profits of stock. They complain of the extravagant gain of other people, but they say nothing of their own. The high profits of British stock, however, may contribute towards raising the price of British manufactures in many cases as much, and in some perhaps more, than the high wages of British labour.”- Book IV, ch.vii

  12. Natasha Petrova September 26, 2013 at 3:29 pm | #

    Classical liberalism is a broader term than libertarianism, but there are still some definite parallels.

    • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) September 26, 2013 at 3:53 pm | #

      “Classical liberalism” includes gay rights–even though it didn’t back in the day. Just as it includes women’s rights–even though it didn’t back in the day. And, of course, it includes the *individual* rights of minorities–even though it didn’t back in the day.

      It is, indeed, a most wondrous ideology, full of perplexities–but the very soul of lucidity and consistency when compared to libertarianism.

  13. Nicolas McGinnis September 26, 2013 at 8:40 pm | #

    A rising tide drowns the enshackled.

  14. Rich September 27, 2013 at 8:54 am | #

    Well, get acquainted with Libertarianism at

    Don’t think you really understand what it means, including several commenters.

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