Let’s Reject the Purity Test

All too often, individuals of the libertarian persuasion get caught up in debates over who is “more libertarian” than the other, or who is “actually libertarian.” The desire to “out-libertarian” one another can be a fun intellectual experiment born from a desire to take pride in our identity in the face of constant attack by others. And on the surface, it seems like this debate is of serious philosophical merit because it deals with the justification and practical application of the principles of liberty. In “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism,” Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi get caught up in this game. A common criticism of the Bleeding Heart Libertarian project is that it is not truly in the libertarian tradition because it does not defend libertarianism according to strict deontological grounds for property rights and because it potentially supports a social safety net and related public policies.

Z&T play the game, arguing that the “benchmarks for ideological purity” of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard should be replaced by a new standard: “[T]he fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system.”[1] Since Z&T want push to the side the question of which strain of thought is “is more defensible on philosophic and other grounds,” I shall do the same. I will argue that, in terms of the history of libertarian thought, the ideological purity game Z&T have been pulled into is deeply misconceived and should be rejected.

There are three components to a comprehensive political philosophy: justification, principle, and policy. The justification for a political philosophy is the standard used to ground one’s beliefs, such as maximizing the greatest good for the greatest number or respect for property rights. Principles are the mid-level values that articulate what a philosophy cares most deeply about. Policy is the practical application of those principles to specific, real-world problems. In daily political life, policy is the center of discussion and concern, dealing with questions like, “Should we raise or lower taxes?” The principles that underlie one’s policy positions sometimes come out when people ask, “Should we care more about following the restrictions of the Constitution or helping those in need?” Questions like this deal with the values people hold, which guide policy decisionmaking. The justification of those values is almost exclusively reserved for academic conversations (unfortunately), when people ask questions like, “Should liberty be of greater value than equality? By what standard can we make such a decision?”[2]

The libertarian intellectual tradition includes a wide-ranging diversity of justifications for libertarian principles as well as heated debates over the proper policy prescriptions of libertarianism. From the perspective of justification, the tradition includes the consequentialism of J.S. Mill, the deontology of Robert Nozick, the contractualism of John Locke, the anti-contractualism of Lysander Spooner, the natural rights theory of Ayn Rand, and the social progress of F.A. Hayek. Even labeling these luminaries with a single term to describe their justificatory system seems to not do them justice because it oversimplifies and to a certain extent misrepresents their views. What is important is that they do not share a common justification with one another, or even with themselves at times (as Z&T point out in their original post), but they are all part of the libertarian tradition. There is no single justification of political philosophy that is “pure” libertarianism.

Similarly, there are great divisions of opinion in the application of libertarianism to policy positions. There are open debates on topics like the death penalty, abortion, the ideal tax system, solutions to the damaging governmental education system in the United States, and so on. While many libertarians opposed the invasion of Iraq, Randy Barnett wrote a strong, libertarian defense of pre-emptive intervention.[3] While libertarians agree on things like the need for minimal government, there are many open debates on the specific policy prescriptions a minimal government would entail.[4]

What unifies libertarian thought is a set of commitments to mid-level principles that espouse the importance of individual liberty for all people in all areas of their lives, both social and economic, which must be respected by institutions with the power to use force in both domestic and foreign affairs. Even articulating the fundamental principles at this level will encourage debate amongst libertarians. Does Cato’s articulation of “individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace” do it best? Or is it wrong to segment these principles into different areas since “free markets” and “peace” are just different facets of the singular principle of individual liberty? This may too be up for debate, but the fundamental commitment to individual liberty to all individuals, in all areas of a person’s life, provides a recognizable framework from which to discuss the meaning and implications of libertarianism.

Z&T do not differentiate between justification, principles, and policy in their analysis of the consistency of various libertarian figures. This is why I agree with Roderick Long’s confusion over many of their interpretations and apparent misinterpretations of historical libertarian thinkers.[5] At times, Z&T argue that the purity test involves the justification for political philosophy, particularly with people like Locke, Mises, and Rand. At other times, Z&T argue in the realm of policy prescription, such as when dealing with the social safety net.[6] These are related but separate issues. The shift back and forth between them and the mid-level principles illustrates a natural confusion that comes with playing the ideological purity game.

What’s more, the purity game relies on limiting the scope of libertarian thought to particular figures, as Z&T do with Locke and Smith. Yet the history of libertarian thought is much larger and more diverse than that. In The Libertarian Reader, David Boaz argues that “the main thread of libertarianism goes back to the Jewish and Greek idea of a higher law, a law by which everyone, even the ruler, could be judged. The simple idea that the will of the ruler was not the ultimate source of authority…”[7], long before Locke was writing. A sampling of authors Boaz cites as influential libertarians includes Isabel Paterson, Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, John Stuart Mill, and Frédéric Bastiat. It would be wrong to claim these figures were “less libertarian” because they dealt with different policy issues or offered different justifications for their beliefs during different time periods.

The principles of libertarianism are what tie these diverse thinkers together and allow us to understand the development of their thought against the background of the intellectual landscape of their time. Locke was responding to Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes, and he drew upon all the tools in his arsenal to do so, including the independence of human beings from the authority of others: “every man has a ‘property’ in his own ‘person.’ This nobody has any right to but himself.”[8] Bastiat was responding to Rousseau, whom he criticized for seeing, “between the lawgiver and the rest of mankind as great a distance, or rather as great a gulf, as that which separates the inventor of the machine from the inert matter of which it is composed.”[9] Smith’s targeting of mercantilism continually drew his focus back to the nation as a whole and the strategies for supporting the nation.

The 20th century was markedly different because socialism presented a new challenge to the philosophy of liberty. Prior justifications grounded in natural moral equality soundly defeated claims to the legitimacy of state-sponsored inequality. But socialist argument that legal equality was a threat to equality of outcome presented a new intellectual challenge that required a new response. Especially after the Second World War, the threat of socialism was liberty’s intellectual enemy number one. While Z&T describe this as “postwar” libertarian thought, a more apt description would be “Cold War Era Libertarianism.” Rand was driven in large part by an opposition to communism. Nozick was primarily concerned with John Rawls and anarchism.[10] A concern for the individual became paramount as the intellectual opponents of liberty focused on the all-encompassing power of the state to control society for the good of the collective.

With the end of the Cold War and the start of the 21st century, libertarianism has had a chance to become more attuned to sources of power that threaten liberty other than communism and appeals to the collective. As a result, many young libertarians are paying more attention to the role that group identity plays in forming our lives and our liberty.[11] BHL is one, but certainly not the only, version of that. If we can glean a historical narrative of libertarianism from Z&T’s article, perhaps it would be the following trend at the level of justification for libertarianism:

Society as a Whole –> Individual –> Individual within Society

In other words, up through the 19th century, the primary justification for libertarian political philosophy could be found in the claims it made for social order and the average well-being of the individuals within society. In the Cold War era of libertarian thought, opposition to socialism led libertarians to an emphasis on individualism. With the end of the Cold War, the rise in threats to liberty from government intervention in areas other than economics, and the ability to study the effects of policy not just on the average individual in society, but those on the wider margins, much thought is being given to a concern for the individual in the larger context of their society and subgroups within society.[12]

But even with this reading, it is not the case that BHL is more in line with 19th century thinkers. Their emphasis on the impact of libertarianism on individuals is an influence of the figures they often criticize. While sharing many of their views, BHL figures want to distinguish themselves from the arguments most readily accepted today as developed by Cold War libertarian thought.

While it goes unstated in the article, an obvious motivation for Z&T is to defend themselves against contemporary critics who want to challenge their break from the Cold War strain of libertarian thought. Yet many attacks on BHL are not motivated by serious philosophical scholarship, but by an antiquated theory of social change that required libertarians to associate with conservatives to defeat the threat of communism. The suggestion that libertarianism can be grounded in philosophical justifications or policy prescriptions more aligned with the left than the right is frightening to those who have grown accustomed to a particular way of viewing the world for nearly half a century.

BHL’s commitment to the mid-level principles of liberty, not its justifications or policy prescriptions, inducts it into the libertarian tradition. Its scholars do not need to defend their status by driving a wedge between other libertarian thinkers. Just as it is wrong for hard line deontologists to claim that you can only be a libertarian if you take self-ownership as your axiomatic starting point, it is also wrong for certain groups of Objectivists to claim libertarianism is philosophically committed to no underlying justification beyond principles. Claiming a certain justification or set of policies is “more libertarian” than another doesn’t make sense, not because there are no justifications or policy prescriptions for libertarianism, but because libertarianism includes a diversity of strains of thought with competing justifications and policy prescriptions. Libertarianism is a commitment to a set of principles of political philosophy, leaving much room for debate over the justification of those principles and the policy implications of those principles. Individuals outside the libertarian tradition often attempt to essentialize libertarian thought as a monolithic program of justification, principles, and policies. It is much easier for them to (mis)understand and so reject libertarianism that way. However, it is not an accurate description of our school of thought, and it is especially not something that should be encouraged by libertarian thinkers themselves.

What does this mean for the future of libertarian scholarship? Instead of arguing over who is “more libertarian” based on the justifications they make or the set of policies they advocate, greater value would come from clarifying the principles of human liberty, then analyzing what the most philosophically apt justifications for those principles are, and the best way to apply those principles to the problems facing people in their time. Instead of looking to the past to exclude arguments for the advancement of liberty, we should draw upon the rich intellectual tradition given to us, and from there debate what is “most defensible on philosophic and other grounds.”

Participating in the libertarian tradition is worthwhile, but it is not an end in itself. To put it in more personal terms: I am a libertarian because I care about liberty, not the reverse.


[1]Z&T do not explicitly state that this is their intention, but it is the apparent goal given their emphasis that BHL “has better claim to [the] title [of traditional libertarianism]” and that “classical liberalism, not axiomatic libertarianism, is the true heir of the liberal tradition.”

[2]It is not just that the mid-level principles determine the policy prescriptions, though. The justification of principles guides their policy prescriptions with insights to what the principles mean and how they can understand situations.

[3]Barnett, Randy. “Libertarians and the Iraq War.” Wall Street Journal. July 17, 2007.

[4]It is easier for libertarians to agree on what the philosophy does not mean.

[5]Long, Roderick. “In Praise of Bleeding Heart Absolutism.” Cato Unbound. April 4, 2012.

[6]The anarchist strain of libertarian thought seems to most eagerly embrace this maneuver: a principled opposition to the state means full-on opposition to the state. If you don’t agree that the existence of the state is immoral and unjustifiable, you are a statist, no matter the arguments or positions you proffer. While this may support their criticism of the Rothbardian tradition, this doesn’t fully fit Z&T’s account, as Mises and Rand strongly opposed anarchism.

[7]Boaz, David. The Libertarian Reader. The Free Press: New York, NY. 1997. pp. xi-xii.

[8]Locke, John. The Second Treatise on Civil Government. Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY. 1986. p. 20.

[9]Bastiat, Frédéric. “Property and Law.” As Bastiat put it, the legislators put themselves over the people, and Rousseau put himself over the legislators; see “The Law.”

[10]Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia was as much a response to Rothbard’s defense of anarchism as it was to Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Gordon, David. The Essential Rothbard. Ludwig Von Mises Institute: Auburn, AL. 2007. p. 124.

[11]See commentary by Students For Liberty leaders on feminism and race studies for a sense of what the next generation of libertarians are thinking about. Costa, Moriah. “Why Libertarians Should Embrace Feminism.” Students For Liberty. January 20, 2012. Padilioni, James. “The Law Perverted: A Libertarian Approach to Black History Month.” Students For Liberty. February 1, 2012.

[12] On this reading, neoclassical libertarians are developing the nonideal theory of libertarianism that supplements the work in ideal theory done by the postwar intellectuals. Nozick’s procedural account of justice argues that the ideal system of justice is based on the legitimate acquisition and transfer of property rights. However, he leaves the theorist wondering how we should best resolve violations of this line of property acquisition or transfer, especially ones that occurred long ago. He posits an ideal world for us to strive for, but with little guidance for how to reach it in our very nonideal world. Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books: USA. 1968.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi propose to refocus the libertarian movement. Although they agree that individual property rights are important, they propose to return libertarianism to its nineteenth-century intellectual roots. They argue that the classical liberals valued property rights for different reasons, perhaps, than we in the movement value them now: Property rights were intended to protect the least well-off workers in society. A “neoclassical liberal” would not advocate a welfare state, but would certainly value social justice; his means of attaining it would be through the institutions of property and contract.

Response Essays

  • Roderick T. Long criticizes the sharp distinctions drawn by Zwolinski and Tomasi between nineteenth-century classical liberals and the “Unholy Trinity” of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. He suggests many areas in which the earlier thinkers were not as Zwolinski and Tomasi characterize them, as well as several where Mises, Rand, and Rothbard don’t conform either. Long stresses the importance of class analysis in the thought of nineteenth-century classical liberals and points to its resurrection as a key aspect of Rothbard’s thought in particular. This, he suggests, points the way toward a “bleeding-heart absolutism” – an ideology critical of every form of state power, yet also prioritizing the moral claims of the poorest in society.

  • David Friedman argues that the pre-twentieth century classical liberals were motivated not by a concern for the poor per se, but by utilitarian reasoning. The “working poor” were a large majority of society in their time, and authors like Adam Smith must be read in their historical context. Doing so reveals Smith to be a progenitor of Jeremy Bentham, not John Rawls. Utilitarianism brings problems of its own, of course, but it should not be confused with social justice.

  • Alexander McCobin argues that libertarians often engage in unproductive debates about who or what is “more” libertarian. One thing lost in these debates is that, across the wide sweep of intellectual history, significant libertarian figures have usually felt free to draw from a wide array of justifications and policy approaches. Each was a product of a particular historical era, and there is no reason to find fault with any of them simply on that account. To advance liberty, we should think and write about libertarian principles in terms that unbiased observers will find persuasive today.