1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar
Source link: http://archive.mises.org/6272/libertarians-in-america/

Libertarians in America

February 18, 2007 by

John H. Fund from The Wall Street Journal on the “good thing” that is the freedom to choose:

Scores of books have been written on the role of communists and socialists in the U.S., dour chronicles of welcome failure. But very few writers have devoted much attention to the role of libertarians, a more appealing and optimistic group of thinkers, political activists and ordinary citizens who believe that respect for the individual and the spontaneous order of market forces are the key to progress and social well-being.

The neglect is strange, given how much libertarians and their limited-government logic have shaped the culture and economy of the U.S. The ideas of John Locke and David Hume animated the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Libertarian principles kept what we think of as “big government” in check for much of the 19th century and well into the 20th, despite tariffs and war. The federal income tax officially arrived, in permanent form, as late as 1913. Coolidge and his Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, took a famously minimalist approach to governing. Of course, we now live in a post-FDR age, with government programs everywhere. Still, the libertarian impulse is part of our political culture. “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism,” Ronald Reagan declared.

…With “Radicals for Capitalism,” Brian Doherty finally gives libertarianism its due. He tracks the movement’s progress over the past century by focusing on five of its key leaders–Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman.


Craig Johnston February 19, 2007 at 2:15 am

Well I wish that some of those Libertarians who helped build America would find their way to Afghanistan. I am a Canadian working in Afghanistan as an economist on reconstruction, and sadly, all I come across here are old socialist american economist pushing for import substitution, government direction of the economy, and managed trade. Sadly, seems like the policy proposals will be accepted, with the predictable end result. Libertarians? Certainly not in Afghanistan

gene berman February 19, 2007 at 8:15 am

Conservatism, fundamentally, is a predisposition toward caution in change, as embodied in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” in an effort not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

While conservatives generally may be characterized by this attitude, their specific political agendae will vary with place and time.
Thus, in equating conservatism with love of liberty, Reagan was speaking of (and to) Americans, not defining some generality.

I don’t believe Friedman belongs in that short list. Though he wrote passionately about freedom, his support for management of money supplies via
the Federal Reserve puts him merely in the camp of those advocating a “gentler” control on the activities of his fellow men and even compromises his understanding of the interconnectedness of all economic phenomena. It’s impossible to be both ways: either he understood, as an economist, the fundamental interconectedness of all economic phenomena (meaning that, in managing money supplies, he wished to direct human activities away from those paramount in the value scales of individuals and into ones deemed more appropriate by him or other authorities) OR he didn’t actually understand the complete interconnectedness. My own opinion is that he believed it a proper role for elites (himself and like-minded) to exercise near-invisible influence not by suasion or education but by prestidigitation. My “take” on the entirety of Friedman is that, in the final analysis, he was one with Keynes, “in the long run, we’re all dead,” seeing as his summum bonum the avoidance of complete catastrophe–at least while he was alive.

It should also be pointed out that, in supporting the Fed system, Friedman was also not even very “conservative” in his thinking–the Fed, after all, didn’t even come into being until Friedman himself–not much there in either thought or method which had tradition or long, successful experience behind it.

gene berman February 19, 2007 at 8:17 am


There just ain’t enuff to go around, I guess. Anyway, wh’adya ‘spec?

gene berman February 19, 2007 at 8:45 am


Actually, our country was not founded by libertarians nor on the basis of specifically libertarian ideas. It was founded by people who wanted liberty for themselves, had a “gut feeling” that it was better for everybody, and “weren’t gonna take it anymore.”

Actual libertarianism is, at core, more knowledgeably desirous of the changes it seeks. It has a body of economic knowledge behind it unknown (or merely felt or guessed) by our forbears. Nearly everyone wants liberty for himself and almost as many understand that it’s easier to secure for oneself by extending it to others but relatively few who understand that such an idea has important consequences for material well-being as well.

Black Bloke February 19, 2007 at 11:37 am

Video link to Doherty’s interview on C-SPAN’s BookTV:


He actually says that Rothbard got his ideas from Rand… that probably won’t go over well with the followers of either philosopher.

T.G.G.P February 19, 2007 at 2:37 pm

Gene Berman is right on the money with his last post. Most people are simply not libertarians. That has always been the case.

Regarding Friedman, I don’t think his motives were elitist (not that elitism is a bad thing, a libertarian is practically forced to be one) because he has stated that he wanted to replace the people who run the Fed with a computer program that would ensure a constant steady increase of the money supply. He did not trust those elites, and when he argued with his critics they were the ones who were pointing out that the Fed had done a decent job in recent years.

gene berman February 19, 2007 at 5:07 pm


In using the term “elite,” I meant it in its strictest sense: a top segment by position or qualification, etc.–with no intent to convey some specific attitude.

Recently, the term is used more frequently in a the somewhat negative connotation of a group characterized by superiority feelings or condescension toward those below (and I frequently so use it–just not this particular time.)

gene berman February 19, 2007 at 5:24 pm

Black Bloke:
Can’t tell you from where I got it except that it’s a long time ago–1972 or 3 or thereabouts.

I began reading Mises in ’72. Not too long after, I read somewhere that Rand had been inspired by reading Mises. At that point, I read “Atlas Shrugged,” which, to tell you the truth, I didn’t particularly care for. Also, except for its condemnation of collectivism and elevation of capitalism, it has little in common with Mises.
Mises, despite his great erudition, is a man of quite pronounced practicality. The cult-leader quality in Rand is evident in “Atlas.” I had also read a few pages from “Atlas” in the mid-50s, I think, and set it aside as some sort of
other-worldly (but not that entertaining) fiction and had only read that much because someone of my acquaintance thought it “important.” Maybe it is. But, I had set aside all fiction about 1947 or 8 with the result that I haven’t read anything written in the 20th century except “I, the Jury.”
Stopped reading fiction to make time for other stuff than reading (same as Reagan did many years later) and stopped reading newspapers and magazines in 1980 because I became convinced it was, otherwise, virtually impossible to avoid propagandization through “total immersion.”

David White February 19, 2007 at 5:32 pm

Thoreau perfectly captured the elitism of which Gene Berman speaks in “Civil Disobedience”:

“[A]ny man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

Simply put, this is what puts every true libertarian in the majority.

George Gaskell February 19, 2007 at 7:15 pm

It’s nice to see mainstream media praising libertarianism, even if they get it wrong on some of the points.

For example, he says that we don’t see more popularity for libertarianism because people don’t understand how it would work.

I think the main reason is that many people see perfectly well how it would work, but they prefer to hang onto the coerced, state-sponsored, short-term benefits that the existing government provides to them.

Rachel February 19, 2007 at 8:03 pm


That has been my experience as well with a little adjustment. They love the idea of the social safety net without considering the consequences, ulterior motives, and better alternatives.

The ones who see how it would work perfectly well are the ones profiting off the current system.

Nick Bradley February 20, 2007 at 12:01 am

I have always contended that true conservatism is libertarian, and I was glad to see the the (rare) quote from Reagan, stating that he “believe[s] the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”

I find it very similar to HH Hoppe’s assertion that conservatism and libertarianism are “attached at the hip”; the most extreme, paleo form of conservatism would involve defense of a natural order, i.e. anarcho-capitalism.

Scott D February 20, 2007 at 12:24 am

Well, I’ve come across plenty of mistaken beliefs about libertarianism. For example, one webpage author actually put forth the belief that in an anarcho-capitalist system, market share could come to be equated with property rights. This is only one of many, continuing bouts of ignorant preaching to explain why libertarianism is bad.

No, I’d say ignorance plays a major role in many people’s objection to libertarian thought.

gene berman February 20, 2007 at 9:03 am


I believe you’re wrong about the reason why libertarianism is not even more influential in a political sense (especially in the US). What I shall say is only my opinion, of course, but I believe it to be the correct (or most overwhelmingly important) one: the schism in libertairianism itself.

The schism is essentially that found along any conservative-to-radical continuum. In our case, the radical agenda is represented by the various “anarchos” and theoretically, by Rothbard and some others, believing that the goal is a state of statelessness; for such believers, all state activity is bad and should be slated for reduction insofar as possible and eventual complete elimination. This is the “radical” wing and has been sometimes characterized as “left-libertarian” or the “libertarian left.” The other is the conservative wing, at whose head would be Mises himself.

The two wings do not, except on relatively minor matters, disagree on substantive economic issues.
There are various, relatively minor disagreements on economic issues, particularly on monetary issues–but these actually are not characteristic of one or another wing.

The biggest objection Mises would raise to the radical wing (and the very same objection that would be raised by myself, other conservative libertarian-economists, and the vast majority of the masses of the rest of the U.S. electorate) is that the radicals cannot confine their opinion of what IS and what might be done to make things better but must constantly propagandize for an ideal state of statelessness. The idea, as has been observed previously by myself and others, is essentially Utopian, in precisely the sense of unrealizeability as characterized the original and the even more famous (actually infamous) “withering of the State” imagined by Marx.

I do not say that the anarchist environment is impossible nor even that it might not be the best imaginable–just that I (and an overwhelming number of the human race) cannot find it believable and also cannot imagine (even were it to provably be not theoretically impossible) how we “can get from here to there.” This, in a nutshell, is the main present obstacle impeding
the further popular progress of the libertarian movement AND accounts for its vanishingly small role in ordinary politics DESPITE the widespread sentiment in favor of liberty even across the
left-right ideological divide.

I do not mean to tell people to “shut the fuck up” but, if the radicals of our group actually were interested in making progress in reducing the role of authority in everyday life, that’s exactly what they’d do–they’d shut up and concentrate their efforts (of all kinds) on the DO-able, instead of proclaiming what most perceive as nonsense. There’s a limited attention-span for which all proposals must compete and it cannot be a good thing that the most strident and attention-demanding advance ideas that cannot pass ordinary scrutiny when they (and their conservative opponents among us) have so many other practical and demonstrable ideas worthy of popularization and almost certain to gain support over time.

If I were influental in such matters, I would propose some type of convention, whether physical or online, where these matters could be discussed and ideally, settled in favor of some more concerted, less divisive “front” in popular presentation. I think it might be possible to hammer out such a deal. And you guys (you know who you are) wouldn’t have to hold it in forever–a hundred years or so would probably do just fine.

How about a show of hands?

Francisco Torres February 20, 2007 at 12:45 pm

Gene, I have had the same issue raised by minarchists and statists, whenever I discuss libertarianism with them. I tell them that it is irrelevant whether anarcho-capitalism is achievable now, or soon. The issue is to understand the core beliefs and principles that stem from the ethics of liberty, and to apply them when government suggests a new policy or action. I tell them to hold anarcho-capitalism or the ethics of freedom as a benchmark to analyse government action, because without such standard people cannot evaluate just how destructive can a policy or action become. A person must find, with these standards, any government action with the most severe of mistrusts. At least, the libertarian principle, as benchmark, is more palatable to some, than the realization of it.

Nick Bradley February 20, 2007 at 12:58 pm

Gene Berman,

I wholly disagree with your radical-conservative continuum. In the literal sense, political conservatism would logically strive to preserve the status quo. However, that is not the case; conservatives of virtually every stripe and level of commitment want a repeal of at least part of the status quo. Conservatism strives to defend something older, and there are different layers of conservatism.

Conservatism is like an Onion.

Surface-level conservatives strive for the repeal of Cultural Marxism and a defense of Western values and institutions (even though that may lead them to clamor for a clash of civilizations); surface-level conservatives mistakenly support the state in an effort to achieve their goals (i.e. to eradicate cultural Marxism and defend the West). Unbeknownst to them, the state is the very entity that weakens our moral fabric and corrodes Western Civil Society.

As we dig deeper, the next layer of conservatism strives for the repeal of Great Society Welfare programs and the like. Drug laws may or may not be included in their target list.

Next, we have those conservatives who are opposed to the New Deal.

Peeling of another layer, There are conservatives who strive for the repeal of Progressive-Era legislation: The Federal Reserve, the Income Tax, the Direct Election of Senators, anti-trust legislation, etc. Conservatives are divided on the merits of the era’s proto-imperialism (foreign adventures from 1896 – 1918).

At the next layer, we finally find what could be seen as true conservatives: those who yearn for Antebellum America. These conservatives believe that the Republic of the Constitution was destroyed in 1865.

A smaller, more committed layer of conservatives feel that the Constitution itself was a perversion of the Revolution’s intent and consolidated power in the hands of the central government and New England commercial interests. They believe that the Articles of Confederation was a superior system that preserved liberty in peripheral areas (the states and the people).

The next layer of conservatism oppose the construct of the modern, post-Westphalian state. They feel that the Reformation’s degradation of the Roman Catholic Church’s influence gave rise to royal absolutism in the first place. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn falls in this level of conservatism.

The final layer of conservatives are right-wing anarcho-capitalists, such as HH Hoppe. They believe that members of the natural elite granted themselves arbitrary judicial powers and set themselves up as proto-Monarchs. This corrupted systems of competing judges and sources of law that was most pronounced in medieval Iceland.

Radical progressivism, on the other hand, is a perversion of the natural order and is therefore non-libertarian.

David White February 20, 2007 at 1:34 pm

Gene Berman,

We won’t “get from here to there” with a convention anymore than science does. And as long as the state won’t let us conduct the necessary experiment (this being reason enough to condemn the state), libertarians will remain little more than a debating society.

No, the only hope we have of getting from here to there is via secession, which is why, along with these fine Americans — http://www.vtcommons.org — I’m delighted that the Governator is making bold comparisons of California to a “nation-state” — http://today.reuters.com/news/articlenews.aspx?type=politicsNews&storyid=2007-01-10T085456Z_01_N09483800_RTRUKOC_0_US-CALIFORNIA-SCHWARZENEGGER.xml&src=rss — not because he’s a libertarian but because it matters not how a viable secession movement begins; it only matters that it begins. (And let’s face it, since he can’t become president of the United States, you know damn well he’d love to be president of California, the fifth largest economy in the world.)

From there, who knows but that a truly free society won’t finally get its chance or that any number of them will, not to seal themselves off but to extend their reach as it becomes clear that free society is much preferable to statist society or at least that the minimalist state (in the event the pure statelessness proves impractical under the circumstances) is.

And would that LvMI, LRC, the Independent Institute, and other liberty-loving organization would join forces to make the case for secession, as it’s clear that our vaunted experiment in federalism has failed and failed miserably.

RogerM February 20, 2007 at 1:58 pm

Craig: “…all I come across here are old socialist american economist pushing for import substitution, government direction of the economy, and managed trade.”

Are you kidding me? Those policies were passe back in 1990 when I first studied 3rd world development, at least in the US! Even the socialist Jeffrey Sachs doesn’t push that stuff any more! Maybe Afghanistan is the retirement home for old socialist economists.

I lived in Iran decades ago and visited Afghanistan for a month. I’d be interested in hearing how your work is going.

Kevin B. February 20, 2007 at 3:51 pm

David W,

I agree that there is already enough discussion about libertarian/an-cap values, etc. While I am unsure whether secession is the most efficient path to improving the situation for others (I have plans to personally secede), I would disagree with anyone who says there is any hope in the political process. I think what is needed to “get there” is cooperation between lib/ancap thinkers and the entreprenuers who turn ideas into reality.

gene berman February 20, 2007 at 4:03 pm

Gentlemen: (all ye above)

You win. I give up. I have nothing more to say.

David White February 20, 2007 at 5:01 pm

Kevin B.,

I would say, rather, that it’s the only hope for the political process, as there’s nothing else that stands to bring the tens of millions of non-voters and a similar number of fence-sitters to the polls.

I mean, just imagine if secession were brought to a vote in California. Bingo, you’d soon have Northern and Southern California, and off to the races it would be.

And if you don’t think Ahnold is thinking about, then you’re forgetting how big this guy’s ego is.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: