Classical liberalism is the tradition of ethical, political, legal, and economic thought that centers on individual liberties. For libertarians, individual freedoms are dominant. This view is in sharp contrast with all forms of collectivism where the collective is considered the organizing principle for policy making, and group rights trump individual rights.
With respect to individual rights, the US political taxonomy of liberals and conservatives is incongruous, and we often find ourselves advocating for greater personal freedoms while concurrently supporting a larger role for government. Republicans advocate for less government involvement in economic matters, but often argue for more government control on social topics. Democrats want the government out of our private lives (as it should be), but then seek extensive government regulations on businesses. Libertarians notice this philosophical inconsistency and point out that, by definition, an expanded government entails diminished liberties.
It gets even more confusing because political sobriquets are flawed shorthand expressions of philosophical views, and these conceptual imperfections are magnified in the realm of foreign policy. Take, for example, the clash between Republican Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rand Paul (R-KY) regarding US economic sanctions towards Cuba. Rubio, a conservative Cuban-American, supports the economic sanctions whereas Paul, a philosophical libertarian, opposes the embargo sanctions.
Both senators are committed anticommunists and would like nothing more than to see an end to the oppressive Castro regime. Rubio sees the embargo as a useful foreign policy tool, whereas Paul abhors it as a restriction on the individual freedoms of US Americans to do business as they please. Both senators make powerful, eloquent arguments for their respective positions.
However, Paul, without realizing it, betrays his own beliefs. Classical liberalism is the philosophy of freedom, but being a libertarian means caring about freedom for all peoples, not just US Americans.
Paul is right to defend the freedom of US businesses to do business unimpeded by government, yet classical liberalism is a universalist philosophy concerned with freedom everywhere, not just with the freedoms of groups in ones own community. In defending exclusively the freedom of US businesses, the senator inadvertently creates a chauvinistic, group-specific class and steps into collectivism. Libertarianism is about individual rights, not group or regional rights. Classical liberals are always suspicious of group rights.
It may be in the commercial interest of US businesses to do business with the Cuban government, but interests are not the same as rights. In fact, interests may be opposed to rights, a point that James Madison makes brilliantly in his definition of “factions” in Federalist No. 10. Thus, the interest of US businesses must be weighted against the rights of the Cuban people. Nonetheless, to Paul’s point, the presumption must always be for liberty, and interference with the freedom of US business must be justified.
And to Rubio’s point, if libertarianism must care about freedom for all peoples, then the lack of liberty suffered by the Cuban people must be factored into Paul’s calculus. Yes, the embargo restricts the freedoms of a small number of US companies that may be willing to venture into the high-risk, low-returns Cuban market.
But it is a market where US companies will be required, under Cuban law, to participate in an Orwellian staffing process of enslavement under which the Cuban state retains approximately 92 percent of an employee’s salary, in violation of international labor protocols. US companies must also agree to become minority partners with the Cuban military, who will be the controlling shareholder.
That is, US companies must partner with the same military that enforces the comprehensive depravation of personal freedoms for 11 million individuals in Cuba. This is an ethical dilemma that should not be callously dismissed with platitudinous statements praising the virtues of trade.
Here is where libertarians must make a choice between defending the group-specific regionalist interest of US businesses — in clear contradiction of libertarian principles — or standing for the universalist values of individual freedom that transcend national borders.
This values conundrum often positions classical liberalism as an odd political philosophy when articulating foreign affairs policy. It need not be. The default libertarian position should always be to side with the liberty of individual human beings everywhere.