The case for libertarianism in American politics

Libertarianism is not conservatism, nor is it an offshoot of conservatism, a subset, or even a relative of common extraction.

Conservatism, as such, is and must be anathema to libertarianism (at least libertarianism properly understood), because libertarian political philosophy is best understood as a radicalization of traditional liberalism. 

While this formula is not perfect, both of its components—radical and liberal—suggest the incompatibility of conservatism and libertarianism. The radical, going as she does to the root, hopes to provoke change at the deepest sub strata of society, motivated by the conviction that the political and economic status quo is fundamentally unjust.

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Libertarians believe that the best is yet to come, that history has been the bloodstained story of unscrupulous ruling thugs and their many misdeeds, their constant crimes against law, order, and justice.

 

Thus, by definition, libertarians cannot adopt a posture of deference to the past but must instead agitate for a revolution, albeit a peaceful one (libertarian Josiah Warren’s The Peaceful Revolutionist is widely considered America’s first anarchist periodical).

If anything, then, the philosophy of liberty belongs on precisely the other side of the political spectrum — assuming, that is, that we must submit to a confused, often unhelpful left-right spectrum — squarely opposing the forces of reaction and conservatism. 

At least a short consideration of intellectual history is necessary to the task of properly categorizing today’s libertarianism.

Certain strands of aborning nineteenth-century socialism were very clearly related to, even outgrowths from, the Enlightenment liberalism that had sprung up in the previous two centuries.

The common heritage of socialism and classical liberalism is underappreciated today, in part because the salient features of the latter (among them free trade, individual rights, private property, and a government limited in both its role and size) are now associated with conservative, not liberal, thought.

Historian Larry Siedentop goes so far as to argue that “[n]othing reduces the value of discussion about modern political thought more” than the “simplistic and misleading” contrast between liberalism and socialism.

And, as Siedentop notes, many of the concepts and modes of argument long credited to socialism were in fact “introduced by liberal thinkers,” making the common contrast particularly unfair to liberalism.

For example, libertarians have been quick to call attention to the fact that early French liberals developed a pre-socialist (or perhaps proto-socialist) class theory, embedded in which was an argument for radical laissez-faire.

In Britain, the political economist Thomas Hodgskin similarly defied the crude contemporary contrast between socialism and liberalism.

Historian and Hodgskin biographer David Stack correctly argues that Hodgskin “can be adequately understood purely as a radical,” his ideas submitting a penetrating free-market attack on the use of legal privilege to attain wealth.

By the end of the century, liberalism had all but abandoned its earlier meaning, as a philosophy centered on the freedom of the individual from state oppression. It had embraced a new meaning, the state having taken on a new democratic spirit, as least in theory.

As Stack observes, “Liberalism became the language of government, and sounded the death knell of radicalism.” If liberalism did not always connote the growth of government, then neither did socialism, at least not necessarily.

In America, individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker explicitly identified themselves as socialists even as they advocated “a perfectly free market,” in which only force or fraud would be out of bounds. 

Tucker spent much of his life arguing in the pages of his libertarian journal Liberty that “the conduct of capitalists generally” is condemned, not glorified, by genuine free-market principles.

The capitalist, for Tucker, was “guilty of criminal invasion,” of violating the central libertarian law against the use of aggression against the non-invasive individual. He worried that many of those employing what seemed libertarian-sounding language had actually become the mouthpieces of “the capitalistic class.” That class had achieved wealth and power not by competing for consumers’ hard-earned dollars, but “by abolishing the free market,” by using the coercive power of the state to artificially limit the range of competition.

Throughout the 20th century, some stalwart proponents of the peaceful, cosmopolitan order produced by free trade and respect for private property rights have continued to identify as liberals. 

The economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, with whom modern libertarianism is so often associated, were such committed liberals, dependably opposed to conservatism and, in Hayek’s works, its “propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge.” As a philosophy of universal individual rights, libertarians contemplates a deep break with centuries-old orders of power and privilege, in which a handful of political and ecclesiastical authorities made the rules and reaped the rewards.

The lazily constructed straw-man version of libertarianism, which treats it as a subsidiary of conservatism, ignores both the tangled history of radical thought and the beliefs and representations of actual libertarians.

Because the dominance of today’s corporate powerhouses rests largely on government privilege, and thus violence—not voluntary, mutually beneficial trade — the anti-corporate rhetoric of progressives rings hollow; they emphasize wealth inequality and economic justice, yet they would expand the very power on which corporate abuses now rest.

American political history finds self-described progressives among the most reliable guardians of corporate welfare.

Libertarianism is a principled alternative to conservatism and progressivism, both of which, at base, represent authority against liberty.

David D’Amato, an adjunct law professor at DePaul University, is a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.