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  • Writer's pictureRiver Champeimont

Liberals vs libertarians

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

Several political movements have made it their goal to advocate liberty. Classical liberals, libertarians and left liberals all claim to be the champions of liberty. But they have a quite different vision of what it is, and therefore have a different answer to the question of which country is the freest. Let’s try to understand why.

Three types of freedom

Every division in categories is somewhat arbitrary. But my goal here is to explain which freedoms are advocated by which political currents, so I have divided them in a widely used way which allows to talk about these currents easily.

Civil liberties

Let’s start with civil liberties. They are the liberties recognized as important by all political currents that claim to promote freedom. In this category you can find the right to life, freedom of thought, speech, religion, expression, the right to a fair trial, and private ownership of goods.

This category is also called “basic liberties”, “fundamental freedoms” or “personal freedoms”. They are the “unalienable rights” of the United States Declaration of Independence or the freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Economic freedom

This is basically the right to property but applied to companies, or “means of production” as marxists would say. This is the freedom to create and own a company, to exchange goods and services freely with others, and to keep the product of your exchanges. To put things simply, this is the free market.


The last kind of freedom we can define is the equal right to take part in the decision-making process of a country. This is simply what we call democracy. This definition includes all forms of democracy, that is direct or indirect, but also other unusual forms of democracy like random assignments in Athenian democracy (like with a jury today).

There is some overlap between democracy and civil liberties, because a democracy can only exist if there is freedom of speech for instance, so democracy requires some civil liberties. But it is not the same thing as civil liberties, as we could in theory imagine a benevolent dictator who would respect the civil liberties of his subjects, but who would retain power.

Political currents advocating Freedom


Let’s start with libertarianism, which is certainly not the most popular ideology, but it’s the simplest to explain. For libertarians, there is no reason to prefer personal over economic freedoms. According to their philosophy, the fundamental rights are life, liberty and property. The definition of property here includes both property of personal goods (your house, your car, etc.) and of means of production (companies, factories), which are not considered as separate things for libertarians. Liberty is the right to do whatever you want with your life and property, as long as you respect the rights of others.

This is a very simple and clear philosophy. An important point is the definition of legitimate property. A point of consensus among libertarians is that voluntary exchanges of legitimate property lead to a new situation of legitimate property. For example, I own my car legitimately because I bought it with money which I itself earned by a free exchange. A more difficult question is how legitimate property appears in the first place, but this is in practice of limited importance in developed countries because pretty much everything is already owned by someone. As a result, libertarians advocate very little government intervention in the economy, which they see as a violation of legitimate property.

Libertarians accuse conservatives of neglecting civil liberties (like in the matters of sexuality for instance) and the left of neglecting economic freedoms (by limiting business freedom or redistributing wealth). Libertarians often define the same two categories I have defined above, but precisely to insist that they are both important, and that it distinguishes them both from the left and the right. This is what is represented in Nolan’s chart (see below). Quizzes based on this chart are often used to explain libertarians ideas, like the one by “Advocates for self-government” for instance.

Nolan’s chart

Democracy is often seen as less fundamental by libertarians. At best, it is seen as the most efficient solution to promote civil and economic freedoms, but it should be constrained to some limits by a constitution for instance. At worst, it is considered detrimental to freedom in the long term, as majorities could enact laws that deprive minorities of their legitimate rights, for example to redistribute the legitimate wealth of a few rich people to a poor majority (this is why libertarians often say that “taxation is theft”).

The lack of trust in democracy is the point of view of anarcho-capitalists who believe that anarchy is preferrable. They don’t mean anarchy in the naive sense that there are no enforced rules, but rather in the sense that all authority is deliberately consented to. In this ideal, the functions usually attributed to the state are performed by private associations which individuals deliberately join.

Classical liberalism

In the United States, “liberalism” has come to mean “left liberalism”, which is the current we present in the next section. But historically, “liberalism”, which originated in the Enlightenment, had the same meaning as it still has in Europe today. To emphasize that we are referring to the original meaning of liberalism, we often call it “classical liberalism” in the United States.

Classical liberalism can basically be seen as a kind of moderate libertarianism, or actually it would be more historically accurate to say that libertarianism is a modern radicalized version of classical liberalism. Anyway, classical liberals advocate the same kind of ideas as libertarians, but to a more moderate degree, for example they often accept a larger role for the state, with at least regalian functions (police, justice, defense), but also other functions considered necessary like education, mitigation of economic externalities, and sometimes a basic safety net.


Social-liberals or “left liberals” (as Europeans would say) or simply “liberals” (as Americans would say) is a variant of liberalism that tries to address the criticisms of classical liberalism by socialists, by proposing a variant of liberalism that wants to better handle social issues. Like classical liberals and libertarians, they consider civil liberties as being of primary importance. Their main difference is that they consider economic freedoms as less fundamental, and accept to limit them for social reasons.

Let’s talk about John Rawls theory, which is probably the most popular theory of social liberalism. In his theory, civil liberties are the “first principle of justice”, that is the most important goal of a just society. Civil liberties can only be limited for the sake of preserving civil liberties themselves.

The second principle of Rawls’s theory is the difference principle, which claims that the goal is to promote the highest welfare for the most disadvantaged members of society. This is a profoundly egalitarian way to see things, since it focuses on improving the living conditions of the most disadvantaged in priority. This means that this theory does not recognize an absolute right to own means of production, so economic freedoms are not considered as fundamental rights in this theory. This is the key difference with libertarianism. If you are curious, you can read more about Rawls’s theory in my article about it.

Nethertheless, in practice, liberals following Rawls’ theory advocate free markets anyway, because they see it as the best way to promote the welfare of the most disadvantaged. But they usually favor some wealth redistribution and welfare state policies (like universal health care or free education) to mitigate the inequalities generated by the free market. They also often advocate government intervention to fix macroeconomic issues (cf. Keynesianism, see my article about that) or to correct market failures (like monopolies, negative externalities or too low production of public goods).

What about democracy then? Liberals largely believe that democracy is the best type of political regime. Let’s talk about Rawls’ theory again and what it says about democracy.

In this theory, to know what a just society is, you have to imagine what people behind the “veil of ignorance” would do, which is a thought experiment in which you have to choose the rules of society before getting born (so you don’t know your future social environment, abilities, race, sex, etc.). In this situation, people would either agree to a democracy, or at worst on a plan to reach democracy if current conditions do not allow it (like if the population is not educated enough). They would not accept an autocracy because they would fear that people in power would favor their own interests at the expense of other groups of people, either letting unjust inequalities develop, or by restricting the civil liberties of some. Therefore, democracy would be chosen behind the veil of ignorance. In Rawls’s reasoning, this proves that democracy is the only just political system.

The question is then how to best implement a democracy, having in mind that the criterion for success is how likely it is to lead to a just society, that is to reach a high level of civil liberties and a moderately egalitarian wealth (see my article about Rawls’s theory to know more about this point). Since democracy is a means to reach the end which is a just society, there can be safeguards that limit the power of the majority if they are justified by the higher goal to protect civil liberties, for example to protect a minority from an hostile majority. Typical mechanisms that exist in practice are an independent judiciary system and rights guaranteed directly by the constitution.

Liberals don’t necessarily think that our democracies are perfect and cannot be improved, but whatever improvements there can be, the improved political system would still be a form of democracy.

Measuring Freedom

Let’s now turn to the question of which countries are the freest. Different organizations have developed freedom rankings of countries, based on a different list of criteria depending on their political views.

Measuring economic freedom

The Index of Economic Freedom developed by the Heritage Foundation is, you might have guessed, about measuring the level of economic freedom in a country. This ranking does not try to measure the level of civil liberties or democracy. It favors a view of economic freedom that is aligned with libertarian and conservative views, that is which is generally opposed to an important government intervention in the economy. This explains why one if its criteria is “government spending”, which gives a lower overall score if the government spends a lot.

According to this index, the 5 freest countries in the world are Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia and Switzerland. In general, Europe is considered worse than North America because European governments spend a lot, and therefore they receive a worse score in this ranking. This also explains why many european countries are colored the same as Russia in the map above.

Other indices of economic freedom exist, like the Economic Freedom of the World by the Fraser Institute, which gives quite similar results as the one I have presented.

Measuring civil liberties and democracy

A very interesting measure is the Democracy Index created by the Economist Intelligence Unit (the same people who publish the newspaper The Economist). It is mostly about measuring how democratic countries are, but one of the criteria is the level of civil liberties, which makes it in practice both a measure of democracy and civil liberties. The rationale for this inclusion is that civil liberties are necessary for democracy (this is consensual), and in the other direction, democracy is the best way to promote civil liberties (a point on which libertarians might disagree, but which liberals adhere to).

The latest edition, which takes into account 2020, has just been published. Because of the COVID restrictions, a lot of developed countries have lost a few points, but these changes are small. The 5 freest countries as measured in 2020 are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand and Canada.

Some examples of big changes in the recents years are: a gradual degradation of democracy in the United States, a massive improvement in Tunisia in the last decade (following a democratic revolution), a strong recent improvement in Taiwan (which is for the first time awarded the status of “full” democracy). On the opposite, democracy has lost grounds in Mali which has become an authoritarian regime, and in Hong Kong, which has lost its democratic status to become a hybrid regime.

According to the index, the “fully democratic” regimes are mostly western countries, like a large part of Europe (12 countries), New Zealand, Australia and Canada but also some non-western countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Mauritius, Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica. You can have a look at the complete ranking here.

Other indices for measuring civil liberties and democracy exist, like those created by Freedom House. Its results are quite consistent with those of the Democracy Index.


If you are a libertarian or a conservative, you probably think that the map made by the Heritage Foundation colors in green those countries which you consider as the freest, even though it does not measure everything that you value (it does not measure freedom of speech for instance). On the other hand, if you are more social-liberal (“liberal” in the US), you probably think that the democracy map colors in green those countries you would recognize as the freest, even though it also does not measure everything that you value (you might want to measure inequalities for instance).

As you can see, significant differences stem from different visions about what freedom is. I hope I have made a honest presentation about them so you can make your own opinion.

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