Classical Liberalism’s Impossible Dream

I think it was in the summer of 2000 that I met Professor Don Boudreaux at a CATO University seminar in California. We became friends and through him I later met Bob Higgs. Both have been extremely influential in my changing libertarian views and no less so in recent years. I am continually amazed at the clarity with which they express views that I have difficulty finding words for. This article by Professor Higgs is an extraordinary example.  You can find the original here and many more of his articles. Don Boudreaux can be found at

For those who may not know, libertarians were once called “liberals” before the term was hijacked by that thieving bunch of Roosevelt socialists. Higgs prefers the term “classical liberals” to “libertarian.”


Classical Liberalism’s Impossible Dream

By Robert Higgs  •  Thursday May 30, 2013


I can understand why someone might embrace classical liberalism. I did so myself more than forty years ago. People become classical liberals for two main reasons, which are interrelated: first, because they come to understand that free markets “work” better than government-controlled economic systems in providing prosperity and domestic peace; second, because people come to believe that they may justifiably claim (along more or less Lockean lines) rights to life, liberty, and property. These two reasons are interrelated because the Lockean rights provide the foundation required for free markets to exist and operate properly.

Like Locke, classical liberals recognize that some persons may violate others’ rights to life, liberty, and property and that some means of defending these rights adequately must be employed. On this basis they accept government (as we know it), but only with the proviso that the government must be limited to protecting people against force and fraud that would unjustly deprive them of life, liberty, and property. They believe that government (as we know it) can perform these functions, whereas private individuals without such government would be at the mercy of predators and hence that their lives would be, as Hobbes supposed, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Nobody wants that.

So, to repeat, I can understand why someone might become a classical liberal. However, as the years have passed, I have had increasing difficulty in understanding why someone would remain a classical liberal, rather than making the further move to embrace genuine self-government in place of the classical liberal’s objective, “limited government.” My difficulty arises not so much from a dissatisfaction with government’s being charged with protecting the citizens from force and fraud, but from a growing conviction that government (as we know it) does not, on balance, actually carry out these tasks and, worse, that it does not even try to carry them out except in a desultory and insincere way—indeed, as a ruse.

Truth be told, government as we know it never did and never will confine itself to protecting citizens from force and fraud. In fact, such government is itself the worst violator of people’s just rights to life, liberty, and property. For every murder or assault the government prevents, it commits a hundred. For every private property right it protects, it violates a thousand. Although it purports to suppress and punish fraud, the government itself is a fraud writ large—an enormous engine of plunder, abuse, and mayhem, all sanctified by its own “laws” that redefine its crimes as mere government activities—a racket protected from true justice by its own judges and its legions of hired killers and thugs.

Confronted with these horrors, the classical liberal takes a deep breath and resolves to seek “reforms” of government’s “misguided” and “counter-productive” actions and policies. However, the dedicated classical liberal steadfastly refuses to recognize that such government’s actions are anything but misguided; indeed, the government acts to attain its true objectives ever so directly, and it quickly discontinues anything that fails to enrich and empower its own leaders and their key cronies in the so-called private sector (which is something of a myth, given the government’s pervasive interference in it). The government’s actions and programs are not at all “counter-productive,” once we recognize that its declared objective of serving the general public interest was never meant to do anything but serve as a smokescreen for its robbing and bullying the general public. What economists and others call “government failure” is nothing of the sort, but only a failure to do what in reality the government’s movers and shakers never had the slightest intention of doing in the first place.

In sum, the classical liberal who, in the face of these realities, clings to the myth of Lockean limited government would seem to be a person irrationally devoted to sheer wishful thinking. Dreams have their place in human life, no doubt, but the dream of a government (as we know it) that confines itself to its Lockean functions and stays so confined is a dream that never was and never can be realized. At some point, people must open their eyes to this emperor’s nakedness—and, indeed, to the emperor’s viciousness, brutality, and utter, systematic injustice. Otherwise, classical liberals do little more than provide objects of amusement for the cynical men and woman who control the government and employ its powers in the service of their own aggrandizement and aggressive caprice.


Addendum: When I speak of “government (as we know it),” I mean government as it now exists virtually everywhere and as it has existed in many places for thousands of years—a government that claims a monopoly of legitimate force in a certain territory and does not rest on the explicit, individual, voluntary consent of every adult subject to its authority. I contrast this type of government with “genuine self-government,” which does have the explicit, individual, voluntary consent of every adult subject to its authority.

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4 Responses to Classical Liberalism’s Impossible Dream

  1. neo says:

    I totally agree. I have come to the same conclusions after many years of intense study and considerable thought. The concept of government is flawed. Our error has been our failure to recognize that the concept is a product of those who have always sought to control others. People fall for it because they are all too willing to accept the notion that someone else may be willing to protect them or provide for them so they can avoid the necessity of doing it for themselves.

    The theory that man is incapable of governing himself or that in the absence of government the world would be full of violence and chaos is an assumption and, in my opinion, without merit. In fact, I would call it a lie fostered by those same people who seek to control others and sell their wares using fear.

    In the attempt to avoid theft, robbery, murder, and violence the people given the authority and the license to other people they call government but “government” to do those very things on a much bigger scale, but government does not exist. It is a fiction…a mere notion. The truth is that government is a bunch of other people who, once in government, forget they are people and place themselves above the law and above responsibility for their misdeeds. They claim because they do it in the name of “government authority” that they bear no responsibility for their actions when in truth they should be charged for their crimes just as anyone else would be.

    What results with government is a monstrous creation with the money, the guns, and the power to become essentially an enormous crime syndicate which writes its own laws, protects its insiders, and is better able to commit crimes on a much grander scale than would otherwise be possible. They become to big to jail.

    Only governments can create world wars and mass genocides and they are only made possible by the blind support and belief in “government” and its imaginary authority. But as Locke said, no man can delegate the authority to do what he himself has no authority to do.

    It is unlawful to rob, murder, rape, steal, and plunder yet the people willingly accept and allow that it is perfectly fine when it is done by individuals calling themselves a “government”. It is a contradiction and it makes every individual who supports such entities a hypocrite and a willing accomplice.

    There may be isolated cases of robbery, rape, or murder if man self-governed but they would be few and far between and nothing on the scale of what we witness being done by governments the world over. The concept of government, quite simply, is self-defeating and will always devolve into outright tyranny.

  2. Norm says:

    The voters of the U.S. elect legislatures to represent their interest. These representatives should be restricting the powers of bureaucrats, so they are unable to leverage their authority over citizens. Recently I have noticed many bureaucrats treating our legislatures in disrespectful and condescending ways. When the former IRS Chief, Mr. Shulman, was asked by our representatives why he visited the White House at least 157 times, he responded by saying he took his children to an Easter egg roll. Ms. Lois Lerner, an IRS manager who recently testified before congress, invoked her right to not testify about the agency’s targeting of conservative groups. She has the right to take the “5th” but what bothered me was her obvious disdain for our representatives. Our A.G. is now using his power to obtain private/personal information concerning individuals and companies that are protected under the IV Amendment.

    How does the above relate to “Classical Liberalism’s Impossible Dream”? No longer do we need to just be concerned about our legislatures stealing our liberties and infringing upon our freedoms; now we need to be concerned about every government employee being allowed to do the same. Why is the Hue and Cry not being sounded by every citizen? I believe it is because a majority of our fellow citizens still believe that a large government knows what is best for all of us. Nothing will get fixed until the machine is totally incapable of working and everyone helps build a new one.

  3. Marc says:

    You state in your addendum, “I contrast this type of government with “genuine self-government,” which does have the explicit, individual, voluntary consent of every adult subject to its authority.” Can you cite an example of any such government existing in the world today? If none, has any such government ever existed?

    • Erne Lewis says:

      You said: You state in your addendum “I contrast this type of government with “genuine self-government,” which does have the explicit, individual, voluntary consent of every adult subject to its authority.” Can you cite an example of any such government existing in the world today? If none, has any such government ever existed?
      Tough question Marc. Before I attempt to answer it I must give credit to Robert Higgs for the article. His answer might or might not be along the following lines.
      In long periods, close to 500 years of early Ireland and Iceland, the people lived in relative harmony without any thing we might call government. But even those examples are not as perfect as we would be satisfied with.

      I think it is better to answer: there has never been a government (in significant numbers over any significant period of time) that recognized the rights of men and women to own themselves while also respecting the equal rights of others and to take responsibility for their choices.
      It is also true that mankind has not lived without government (in significant numbers over any significant period of time) in a free-market relationship with his fellow man.
      I don’t consider that proof of the superiority of one system over another. What can be stated is that over many thousands of years mankind has moved from absolute control by a central governing authority to increased personal and economic liberty.
      Government and liberty are opposites; we cannot define one without defining the other.
      But most of that improvement in liberty began to occur in the 1700s following John Locke’s earlier publication of Two Treatises of Government and then in the 1700s with Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, etc. In the late 1700s the productivity of mankind shot upward, always in the presence of increased economic liberty.
      The free market enables and encourages us to produce and trade with others but only when each side perceives the transaction is in his or her favor. Throughout history people who are free to trade reward honest production and those that honor contracts. The marketplace discovers mechanisms and institutions rewarding honest traders and punishing the dishonest. Thieves have been punished in early open societies with ostracism. Literally thrown out to live among the barbarians where they usually died.
      I doubt that I have answered your question to your satisfaction but I am willing to try again.
      Thanks for your interest Marc

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