Libertarianism: Past and Prospects

I recently published a book called Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (PublicAffairs, 2007). I always thought the libertarian movement’s story was fascinating and important, filled with vivid, peculiar, and heroic characters with many little-understood influences on American culture. It is also a story sadly undertold, especially when you consider how books about every twist and turn in domestic communist movements, parties, and organizations fill library shelves (though rarely consumers’ shelves).

To the extent that libertarianism’s history has been told, it has mostly been treated as a weird, overenthusiastic little cousin to right-wing conservatism. Rescuing libertarianism from that sad fate was one of my purposes, and one of the reasons I put the word “radical” in its title—as part of a phrase invented by novelist and libertarian inspiration Ayn Rand to identify her own ideological mission.

While working on the book, I met an editor of a prominent northeast university press. When this project came up in conversation, she opined that while she could certainly grant that libertarianism has been important enough to be worth a book tracing its history, surely it was not appropriate that the person who writes it actually believe this stuff. Since this surely was not a principle (that the chronicler of a political movement must not believe in its tenets) she would apply to, say, a history of the civil rights movement, I just took it for a sign of intellectual prejudice against libertarianism.

But such questions of the importance of the topic and appropriateness of my way of handling it hung in my mind, and I was obligated to wonder: did this libertarian movement—this tightly-knit group of economists, novelists, publishers, philosophers, think tankers, and politicians whose story I tell—actually accomplish anything of unquestionable significance?

That question has become particularly relevant, not only for the framing of Radicals for Capitalism, but in the larger world of libertarian discussion about the next appropriate, or likely, step in libertarian influence in actual politics and policy. The extent to which major political parties ought to or must reach out to libertarians has become one of the hottest topics in libertarian discourse, just as my book debuts.

We have seen recently Ryan Sager’s theory from his book The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, that Republicans are losing out, particularly in the Mountain West, because they have abandoned policies that appeal to the libertarian-leaning in favor of outreach to the evangelical religious right. The GOP, in Sager’s telling, especially after the apparent repudiation of Bushism in the 2006 elections, needs to heed and reach out to the libertarian voter.

Cato’s Brink Lindsey, initially in the pages of the New Republic, has taken a different tack, offering up the libertarian voting bloc to the Democratic Party. He’s argued that “A refashioned liberalism that incorporated key libertarian concerns and insights could make possible a truly progressive politics…that joins together under one banner the causes of both cultural and economic progress.” So far, some prominent Democratic partisans have been unreceptive to Lindsey’s offer, dismissing libertarians as opposed to the massive entitlement programs seen as non-negotiable central elements of the Democratic Party, and politically insignificant besides.

Buttressing the Sager and Lindsey message—that both major parties need to think about appealing to libertarians—is a body of research recently issued from Cato’s David Boaz and the American Future Foundation’s David Kirby. They find, analyzing survey data from Pew, Gallup, and the American National Election Studies, around 14 percent of American voters as recognizably libertarian, in the sense of embracing both fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.

What will leap out to anyone who reads my book is that this realistic talk of a “libertarian voting bloc” for major parties to fight over—the idea that a double-digit percentage of Americans can be assumed to be in line with libertarian ideas—is a major miracle in libertarian movement terms. It has great relevance for how libertarians should view their past, and contemplate their future.

The notion that an explicitly libertarian institution should even seriously think about effecting real-world political change was considered—well, it was not really considered at all in the libertarian movement until the rise in the early 1970s of the Libertarian Party and in the late 1970s of the Cato Institute (a full-service think tank for libertarian analysis and advocacy openly aimed at politicians and major media).

And at the LP’s launch, founder David Nolan did not promise electoral victories. (On the national and statewide level, his lack of promise has mostly been kept.) He suggested, rather, that the LP’s existence could lead to increased media attention for libertarian ideas, which might bring more latent libertarians out from hiding, and create a permanent institution to spur them into action, and help further a breakdown of political dominance by the traditional right and left by providing a pro-liberty home to forces on either end of the political spectrum who might not feel comfortable with the rest of their electoral coalition. (A mutation of this idea has carried on in Sager and Lindsey’s writings today.)

And Cato launched in 1977 in San Francisco, partially because of its president’s desire to live there, partially as libertarian symbolism about deliberately not being embroiled in D.C. culture, before taking seriously the idea that a full-service political think tank aimed at national policy should, for both symbolic and practical purposes, be in D.C. That initial refusal to give in to D.C. was a classic libertarian movement gesture for its time.

Before the 1970s, and even on into that decade, every other prominent libertarian institution or thinker was dedicated openly and specifically to educating citizens and scholars in libertarian principles—or, more colorfully, to helping one personally escape the modern state’s grip, whether through personal survivalist escape into the hinterlands or through quixotic group moves to create new island nations or make common cause with existing separatist movements.

The Foundation for Economic Education, the first national organization promoting recognizable modern-libertarian ideas, founded in 1946, was deeply influenced by Old Right journalist Albert Jay Nock’s notion of the libertarian “Remnant”—the idea that liberty might never win mass public support but its ideas must be kept alive like guttering flames through a worldwide Dark Age—in its frequently monkish soft-sell approach to publishing an assortment of pamphlets on timeless principles of liberty and on current controversies, reprints of 19th century libertarian classics, and eventually a monthly magazine, The Freeman, dedicated mostly to homiletic explanations of the benefits of free markets that stayed above the scrum of specific politics and personalities, gave no marching orders or action items, and in the inspiring phrase of founder Leonard Read, promoted the justice and richness of “anything that’s peaceful.”

But Read was convinced, for good reason, in the postwar context in which FEE debuted that statism was “all around you, preempting the public discussion, and the [libertarian] side is barely audible in the deafening noise.” As Rick Perlstein noted in his book Before the Storm on the Goldwater movement, the first libertarian-themed (in some respects) postwar movement to achieve political traction, the New Deal managerial-welfare consensus that Goldwaterites and libertarians opposed wasn’t seen as some arguable ideology by most American elites and intellectuals—it was reality. (Goldwater himself was diagnosed by hundreds of psychiatrists who never met him as psychologically unfit for the presidency for opposing it.) In the face of this opposition, Read, who nevertheless managed to collect millions in donations from American businessmen over the decades by never explicitly asking for it, had no particular plan or hope for libertarian political victory beyond spreading the word.

As his friend, economics professor Benjamin Rogge, said of Read: “This aspect of FEE’s thinking has been occasionally irritating…to the more activist-minded of you… Not only does Read not promise us a win in the near future; not only does he not guarantee us a win in the distant future; he has the unmitigated gall to tell us that we still don’t even fully understand the game or how to recognize a win when we see one.”

This was the attitude of the libertarian movement’s acknowledged leader in its early years. Read was not alone in, or the cause of, this attitude among early modern libertarians. Ayn Rand, a central inspiration for the movement, gadfly, truculent sometimes-comrade to the early generation of libertarians, and mentor and inspiration to many in the later ones, believed that when it came to libertarian political change, it was “earlier than you think.” The modern “radical for capitalism” must realize that generations of education are needed before a truly libertarian culture and politics would take hold. This was rooted in Rand’s belief that political change was insufficient if not reached for the right philosophical reasons—which means: by grasping her Objectivist philosophy from ontology through epistemology through ethics.

The world gave early libertarians good reason for thinking of themselves as hated outliers. The biggest financier of libertarian causes and intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s, the Volker Fund, had as its main mission finding libertarians worthy of support. As Volker staffer Richard Cornuelle told me, each time they found one they’d encounter “a tearful recognition there there was someone out there [who believed in libertarianism]—everyone thought that they were the last one.”

FEE’s leaders and funders were called to the dock by a pre-McCarthy era congressional committee, the Buchanan Committee, investigating lobbying efforts in 1950. WOR radio crowed how the Committee would, referring to FEE, “rip the cover off one of the biggest best financed pressure outfits in America….who finances these gangs of literate goons?”

As a comic reaction to their grim circumstances, a group of young libertarians in the 1950s centered around Murray Rothbard would try to turn the rhetoric they heard everywhere back on those who spouted it: they’d soberly explain that socialism might have been all right in the primitive conditions of the 18th or 19th century, but in today’s complex mechanized world surely everyone recognized that laissez-faire was the inevitable wave of the future. They once filled the audience at a talk by the governor of New Jersey, aired on TV, and hit him with their questions from all sides, adopting the attitude that their ideological universe was the norm and his some sort of aberration. “What, governor? You are for public schools? Where did you get such strange ideas? Can you recommend any books on this subject?” It was funny because it wasn’t true.

It was the same for the other major libertarian institutions: the Mont Pelerin Society, launched consciously as a club for academics and politicians who knew they were misfits, trying to keep the moribund ideas of 19th century classical liberalism on life support; the Institute for Humane Studies, launched as a deliberately under-the-radar version of the Institute for Advanced Studies for libertarian scholars (which has now shifted to outreach, education, and financial support for young academics, journalists, and artists of libertarian bent); Robert LeFevre and his Freedom School in the Colorado mountains teaching an anarchistic libertarianism (first graduating class: four students) that believed retaliatory force was as wrong as any other kind of force; Joseph Galambos and his Free Enterprise Institute in Southern California preaching radically free-market economics combined with a belief in intellectual property so extreme students were not permitted to repeat their teacher’s ideas.

As the 1970s went on, libertarianism slowly inched inside the pale of acceptability. A wunderkind Harvard philosophy professor, Robert Nozick, in 1974 published Anarchy, State, and Utopia, taking libertarian rights theory as a given and proving rigorously that if we believe in human rights, then there are a set of things government just cannot do—including most things modern governments do do—and offering a vision of libertarianism as a metautopia: a world in which people can join together freely to realize their own vision of the good life. The book was not only not ignored, it won the National Book Award and made Nozick a powerhouse in his field.

Since then, for the movement qua movement, and in some ways for liberty itself, it has been onward and upward. Mont Pelerin founding members Hayek and Friedman won Nobel prizes (as have many more Mont Pelerin members and intellectuals supported by the Volker Fund), and Friedman became one of the most influential public intellectuals of his time, with his handprints on many elements of the modern world—from floating exchange rates to the volunteer army to Federal Reserve policy toward inflation. We see more and more libertarian think tanks, magazines, specialty policy houses, and libertarians in media outlets as prestigious as ABC News (John Stossel) and the New York Times (columnist John Tierney and business section columnists Virginia Postrel and, since her departure for The Atlantic, Tyler Cowen); a huge national presence in talk radio; and political prominence to the degree that our current major intramovement debate is not over which major party a libertarian should support, but over how the major parties need to consciously seek out libertarian support.

The move that caused the Libertarian Party’s birth—Nixon’s imposition of wage and price controls—is the sort of anti-market absurdity that seems pretty unimaginable now; various significant areas of the economy have been deregulated and marginal tax rates are dramatically lower than when the libertarian movement arose; the antithesis of libertarianism, communism, has largely disappeared from the world scene. There are reasons to believe that increases in our technological power in such areas as computing, biotech, and space travel are creating a new world in which most traditional need for government will become, and be recognized as, obsolete. (None of this is to say that government depredations in terms of taxation, regulation, warfare, surveillance, and victimless crime enforcement have gone away.)

But while free-market ideas have made much progress, one can’t assume that the Boaz/Kirby use of the term “libertarian” for 14 percent of voters is analogous to the ideas pushed by most of the self-identified libertarian leaders whose story my book tells.

In the 1940s and 1950s, it was a matter of heated debate among libertarian luminaries such as Read, eventual Institute for Humane Studies founder F.A. Harper, and Orange County Register publisher R.C. Hoiles whether coercive taxation has any moral justification. Even though the pollsters didn’t ask, I think it safe to assume that almost all of the libertarians in the Boaz/Kirby data would find that very question bizarre, and certainly never answer it like Harper and Hoiles did: no.

The deal that Brink Lindsey offers the Democrats might be legitimately libertarian in Hayek’s terms—he accepted a government income floor—but not in, say, Murray Rothbard’s, or Leonard Read’s. Libertarianism’s growth in public influence and acceptability is certainly more obvious in Hayekian terms than in those of the more radical anarcho-capitalists who made up a lot of the movement’s leaders and rank and file from the 1950s-1970s.

But as Milton Friedman, the most successful libertarian polemicist of the 20th century, put it when contemplating these intramovement distinctions, for the foreseeable future the anarchist libertarians and the more classical liberal libertarians are heading in the same direction. (Some within the libertarian big tent will claim the other side doesn’t deserve the designation; Friedman did not think so.)

Is there a lesson in where libertarian energies ought to go from here in the history my book tells? I have a very libertarian answer, and a very traditional one.

The very libertarian answer is: libertarian energies ought to go to wherever any given libertarian wants them to. The division of labor, operating through free choice, is as valid here as in any other aspect of the economy. Rand was right: we need to work on root metaphysical and ethical principles about humans and the state. Mises and Read and Friedman were right: we need to educate the public about the operations and richness of an unfettered free-market economy. Hayek was right: understanding the information-spreading functions of the free price system and the reality of spontaneous orders without central control is vital. Rothbard was right: an uncompromising moral passion about liberty and theorizing on how a wonderful social order could function without any monopoly source of force at all is bracing and inspirational. Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation is right: nuts-and-bolts work showing how market competition and deregulation can function and slot into an existing world of state functions can demonstrate that government doesn’t have to, and oughtn’t, do everything it has traditionally done. Libertarian politicos should try to make inroads and progress in both major parties, and all the other ones.

As founding mother of libertarianism Rose Wilder Lane wrote to a despairing libertarian friend in the 1950s, “the whole climate of opinion is changing. And every least little thing that you have done has helped to change it; never think that a bit of it failed, even when it seemed to.” Robert LeFevre gave up on his peculiar Freedom School in the late 1960s. Two of his eager students, a pair of billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch, became key financiers behind libertarian organizations from Cato to the Institute for Justice—which has already won two victories for libertarian principles at the Supreme Court.

The very traditional answer is to note that what all the most interesting and effective libertarian thinkers and institutions do is still in line with the Read dispensation: attempting to explain, in culture, politics, economics, or the courts, why solutions that rely on free markets and free choice are apt to have better results, and be more morally correct, than solutions that rely on central control or government action.

The biggest enemy of the libertarian is both optimism and pessimism: short-term optimism that, whether through moral passion or scientific certainty that the state’s actions just cannot go on much longer, makes one so mad for libertarian victory now that any setbacks lead to despair and surrender—and long-term pessimism that refuses to see the enormous strides over centuries toward a more libertarian world of contract over status, of ordered liberty over unbridled tyranny, of individual choice over state pressure, and to recognize that the principles of free minds and free markets are most suited to making a rich and varied and lovable world, and thus are likely to triumph in the long term.

Leonard Read was right: Ultimately, we will have a libertarian world when most people want one (not to say that educated elites cannot make decent progress in a libertarian direction without prior mass support). And the efforts of the American libertarian movement have been unquestionably effective in increasing—by hundreds of thousands, possibly millions—the number of people who understand why we should want that world.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Libertarians in an Unlibertarian World by Brink Lindsey

    Things may look bleak for libertarians these days, but there are grounds for hope, says Cato’s vice president for research (and Cato Unbound editor) Brink Lindsey. Though few Americans self-identify as “libertarian,” there is nevertheless a deep libertarian streak in American culture and a large group of voters who say they are “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” In the long term, Lindsey argues, the goal for libertarians is to multiply the number of libertarians, and he concurs with Doherty in saying “let a thousand flowers bloom.” However, Lindsey argues that in the short term “what needs to be developed is a set of ideas that can serve as the basis for a new political identity. Not a strictly libertarian identity – there simply aren’t enough strictly defined libertarians to base a mass political movement on. Rather, a genuinely liberal identity – one that brings together ‘fiscally conservative, socially liberal’ voters from across the current left-right spectrum.”

  • The Paradox of Libertarianism by Tyler Cowen

    According to Marginal Revolution blogger and New York Times “Economic Scene” columnist Tyler Cowen, there have been a few truly great libertarian developments since the 1970s. However, he argues, they “also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.” Cowen argues libertarians accept this paradox, reconcile themselves to the welfare state, recognize positive liberty as more important than negative liberty, and restructure libertarianism around new threats to liberty such as global warming, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. Such a libertarianism, Cowen admits, would “run the risk of losing its intellectual and moral center. … Many people fear such a development, and I can understand why.”

  • Libertarianism or Liberty? by Tom G. Palmer

    In his reply, Cato senior fellow Tom G. Palmer maintains that Brian Doherty is guilty of “a confusion of two related projects: the promotion of liberty and the promotion of libertarianism, i.e., the theory that liberty should be the primary (or overriding) goal of a political order.” It is possible to promote liberty without promoting libertarian philosophy. This distinction motivates Palmer to dissent from Doherty’s emphasis on education. No amount of libertarian education will make a difference, Palmer argues, unless someone acts to make change for liberty. “If I were to put it as a slogan, it might be: ‘Education doesn’t eliminate trade barriers, legislators do.’” Palmer also quibbles with Doherty’s focus in his book on zany libertarian characters and with his laissez faire approach to promoting liberty.

  • An 18th-Century Brain in a 21st-Century Head by Virginia Postrel

    Atlantic columnist and former Reason editor-in-chief Virgina Postrel argues: “Rather than defining ‘libertarian’ by appealing to deductive logic and so-called first principles, we can better understand the American libertarian movement as a sometimes uneasy amalgam of four distinctive yet complementary traditions, two cultural and two intellectual.” Intellectually, she points to “two seemingly incompatible intellectual traditions”: the modernist Rand-Rothbard quest for certainty “as rational and precise as a skyscraper, as ahistorical as Le Corbusier’s plans to remake Paris” and the empiricist Hayek-Friedman/Hume-Smith tradition, which “looks for understanding, for facts, and for solutions to specific problems.” Drawing on her book The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel warns against fighting the old fights between capitalism and socialism when the real battles is between “stasism” and “dynamism.” She plumps for the possibility of an alliance of libertarian and left dynamists against stasists of all stripes, but concludes with a challenge to the left: “We know we’re liberals. The question is, Are they?”

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