Post-Apocalyptic Libertarianism

Much of the current confusion about libertarianism’s future, and many of the deepest conflicts within libertarian circles today, can be chalked up to this fact: the world didn’t come to an end.

As Brian’s wonderful book makes vividly clear, the modern libertarian movement emerged as a prophecy of doom. Libertarians held vital knowledge about how the world works and how, consequently, societies should be ordered — yet the larger world had turned its back on this knowledge. Accordingly, the world was heading for ruin. Thus Hayek warned of the road to serfdom. Thus Mises argued that there is ultimately only the choice between laissez faire and socialism, and that all Third Ways are unsustainable makeshifts. And thus Rand made her magnum opus an apocalyptic fantasy about the consequences of abandoning individualism.

The apocalyptic mood at the heart of modern libertarianism had important consequences for the movement’s dominant intellectual style. If you think the world is coming to an end, you don’t mince words. You don’t seek compromises with the agents of destruction. Instead you state, as clearly and forcefully as you can, those neglected truths that alone can stave off disaster. And, in pulling together a “remnant” that can stick it out through the coming dark ages, you emphasize purity of commitment over all else.

During the fifties and early sixties, the heyday of American managerial liberalism, the libertarians’ dire warnings were dismissed by those in the know as so much crankish paranoia. But then came urban riots, Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and gas lines — and suddenly libertarianism didn’t seem so crazy anymore. As someone who came of age in the seventies, I can assure you that it really did feel like the world was falling apart. The libertarian moment had arrived.

But then a funny thing happened. Politicians put a number of libertarian reforms into effect — not nearly as many as libertarians might have hoped, but enough to trigger the quarter-century boom that has followed the brutal recession of 1982. Big Government remained, but the apocalypse never came. It turns out that even a relatively free economy is so immensely productive that it can carry a heavy deadweight load and still make impressive progress.

So now what? Now, if libertarians are to be as influential in the next generation as they were in the last, they have to adapt to current circumstances. They have to recognize that incremental progress is the only kind of progress that’s available. They have to understand that compromise can be a path to progress. They have to forget about weeding out heretics and focus on winning converts — which means engaging and making common cause with those of differing viewpoints. In short, they have to be post-apocalyptic libertarians.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Beginning with a riff on Brink Lindsey’s appeal to the “liberaltarian” left, and David Boaz and David Kirby’s analysis of the libertarian vote, Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, notes that “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.” Back in the 1970s, Doherty reports, “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…” What, then, does history tell us about the best strategy for creating a more libertarian future? “The very libertarian answer is: libertarian energies ought to go to wherever any given libertarian wants them to,” Doherty argues. “The division of labor, operating through free choice, is as valid here as in any other aspect of the economy.”

Response Essays

  • 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.”

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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?”