Libertarians fall into two distinct groups: strict libertarians like Rand Paul and classical liberals such as myself. “Classical liberal” is not a term that rolls off of the tongue. Consequently, “libertarian” is the choice term in popular discourse when discussing policies that favor limited government. Libertarians of all stripes oppose President Obama’s endless attacks on market institutions and the rich. The umbrella term comfortably embraces both strands of libertarian theory vis-à-vis a common intellectual foe.
The renewed attention to Paul exposes the critical tension between hard-line libertarians and classical liberals. The latter are comfortable with a larger government than hard-core libertarians because they take into account three issues that libertarians like Paul tend to downplay: (1) coordination problems; (2) uncertainty; (3) and matters of institutional design. None of this is at all evident from Tanenhaus and Rutenberg’s unfair caricature of the “mixed inheritance” among the “libertarian faithful,” which to them includes, “antitax activists and war protestors, John Birch Society members, and a smatter of truthers who suspect the government’s hand in the 2001 terrorist attacks.”
This unfortunate list mixes libertarians of all stripes into a convention of unthinking kooks. A more accurate rendition of the various strands of libertarian thought would hearken back to such great thinkers as Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, and Madison. Their incisive contributions concerned the relationship between individual liberty and the social order.