Every social movement, no matter how iconoclastic, has its traditions. The live-free-or-die hard-liners who gathered at the 2016 Libertarian Party presidential-candidate debate honored one of their traditions when they booed their eventual nominee, Gary Johnson. On the stage with Johnson were Austin Petersen (an activist who later defected to the Republicans) and Darryl Perry, a talking head who co-founded the New Hampshire Liberty Party. Moderator Larry Elder (currently seeking the Republican nomination for president) asked, “Should someone have to have a government-issued license to drive a car?”

Petersen: “Hell, no!”

Perry: “What’s next, requiring a license to make toast in your own damn toaster?” Raucous applause.

Johnson, circumspect: “A license to drive? You know, I’d like to see some competency exhibited by people before they drive…” The crowd’s boos cut off any further answer. Johnson, who had been governor of New Mexico for eight years, offered only an “I’m just sayin’” shrug in his defense. (Petersen later met a mix of cheers and boos when he announced some contours of his ideal drug policy: “You should not be able to sell heroin to a five-year-old.”)

Libertarians have long believed, as Barry Goldwater articulated, that moderation in defense of liberty is no virtue. Fervent denunciations of insufficiently dedicated paladins in the battle for freedom are part of their heritage.

Take, for instance, the arch-individualist author Ayn Rand, responding to some economists’ work on the effects of rent-control policies in 1946. “Not one word about the inalienable right of landlords and property owners,” Rand bristled. “Not one word about any kind of principles. Just expediency…and humanitarian…concern for those who can find no houses.” The economists were free-market giants Milton Friedman and George Stigler, and their paper actually criticized rent-control policies for failing to make housing more affordable.

That is one of many comical anecdotes from the colorful annals of libertarian history, but there is a serious point to it. In some sense, Friedman and Stigler were helping their social-engineer opponents by pointing out flaws in their argument. Their refutation of rent-control policies was consequentialist. Its main point was that the politics would produce unintended consequences, rather than arguing from principle that rent-control policies would be immoral even if they worked as they were intended to. And while it is obviously callous to say this, Rand’s dismissiveness of “humanitarian concern” for the homeless actually does work as a legitimate critique of those who claim to be dispassionate analysts of political and economic problems.

This represents the key division running through the delightful new book The Individualists, a fabulous intellectual history from Matt Zwolinksi and John Tomasi, two sympathetic biographers of the ideology who nonetheless acknowledge that their co-ideologists can be a bit impractical, even zany. On one side of the divide stand true-believer libertarians operating from first principles, moved by categorical convictions about right and wrong and working their way through life by applying their hard-and-fast rules. On the other are the fainthearted—classical liberals, some Old Whigs or American conservatives, some individualist progressives—willing to trade off competing social, economic, and political goods. Small differences can look like major betrayals, as the Rand anecdote illustrates, when an erstwhile libertarian compromises what his fellow travelers consider an inviolable principle.

According to Zwolinski and Tomasi, the six “key commitments” of libertarians are “property rights, negative liberty [freedom from unjustified interferences], individualism, free markets, a skepticism of authority, and a belief in the explanatory and normative significance of spontaneous order.” If these sound mostly like the principles Americans used to hear from conservative Republicans during the High Reagan Era, that is because they are. As Ronald Reagan himself concluded: “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”

Many conservatives have disagreed with that characterization, since it gives short shrift to the role of tradition (especially religion) and other forms of non-spontaneous order that keep societies safe and functional. But more fundamentally, what has separated libertarians from classical-liberalism-inflected conservatives is whether their principles are treated as imperatives or merely important values to keep in mind when engaged in prudential statecraft.

Zwolinski, a philosophy professor at the University of San Diego, and Tomasi, the president of Heterodox Academy, are not conservatives—and they take pains to show that the alliance between strict libertarians and conservatives was not inevitable. In their radicalism, libertarians have just as often supported movements associated with the progressive left, such as the abolition of various inherited institutions they deemed unjust. These include, for some, capitalism as practiced in America. Though it may strike the contemporary ear as paradoxical, some radical individualists toyed with economic arrangements such as “mutualism,” a semi-socialist position the authors describe as the belief that “the only legitimate property is that rooted in continued occupancy and use.” Mutualism draws heavily from some of those key commitments. It would erase existing distinctions between classes of individuals, and in a sense would make enforcing property rights easier. Yet it turns capitalist assumptions about the essential elements of free enterprise on its head by the way it would prevent the accumulation of capital and efficient allocation through investment. In its radical rethinking of basic economic arrangements—and its conclusion that something near to Marx’s “from each according to his ability” is fairer than capitalism, mutualism is undeniably progressive.

This is just one example of what you get when brilliant people, moved by a set of general convictions about what is good and just, try to design an ideal society from scratch. But as such an example suggests, strict libertarian ideas often fail the same commonsense test that progressive utopian dreams do, because they proceed from ideas rather than experience. By distrusting inherited institutions and social arrangements, which incorporate a society’s experience through the generations, strict libertarianism systematically downplays the great intangible, undefinable factor that shapes our politics and culture: human nature.

As Zwolinski and Tomasi demonstrate, libertarians have all kinds of ideas about what humans are in essence. Some believe, with Jean-Jacque Rousseau, that human beings are fundamentally good but become corrupted by organized society. Many of the anarchists featured in the book fall into this camp, if only implicitly. Others agree with Christians that mankind is fundamentally fallen and organized society is an exercise in taming our natural impulses. Some of the more conservative libertarians, such as the social theorist Friedrich Hayek (at least in some phases of his long academic career), have this consideration in mind as they try to work out the meaning and purpose of the rule of law to refine citizens.

But regardless of whether the libertarians conclude that people are fundamentally good or bad, the trouble with an ideological approach to politics is that people are complex. As the wisest libertarians have always understood, for a grand theory of justice to work as a polity’s first principle, it must incorporate a rich account of human nature to avoid the classic pitfall of unintended consequences. Many such libertarians tend to play up the notion of “spontaneous order,” or the idea that norms such as prices or social cues emerge organically for good reason. Naturally, they tend to be supportive of capitalism’s continued presence in capitalist societies and are skeptical that other arrangements resonate with the all-too-human realities of self-interest and general decency. Rule by radicals tends to end badly because of some mismatch between the way people actually behave and the way the rule makers thought (or hoped) they would.

Between the lines of The Individualists lurks this important point. The great advantage of a conservative disposition as compared with a libertarian one is that conservatism incorporates the inarticulable complexity of human experience. Even conservatives sympathetic to classical-liberal ideas, and I am among their number, want those ideas tempered by the norms and traditions that have proved their worth through their long tradition of existence.

The Individualists is a clarifying work that both explains and demonstrates how libertarianism operates as a coherent philosophy and how it differs from other members of its philosophical family. Its authors write with a palpable love of ideas and even of the sometimes-goofy, often-curmudgeonly characters who propagated them—and who find the idea of a driver’s license a license to totalitarianism.

Photo: AP Photo/John Raoux

We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link