The Individualists

From The Wall Street Journal:

Most politically attuned Americans will have some idea of what libertarianism is. Some think of it as an embrace of “business” or “capitalism” in all its forms; others as the anything-goes morality of 1960s radicalism. Still others, coming nearer the truth, will know libertarians as the people who want government “out of the bedroom and the boardroom,” as the slogan has it. In fact, as we are reminded by John Tomasi and Matt Zwolinski in “The Individualists,” libertarianism is a bit of all these things. It is a wildly diverse and inveterately fractious political tradition whose adherents have taken opposite sides on nearly every important political question.

The book documents libertarian thought, from its origins in the second half of the 19th century until now, on an assortment of topics, including markets, poverty, racial justice and the international order. The authors themselves claim the libertarian label and write clearly and charitably about all factions of the philosophy.

What is libertarianism, anyway? The easy answer: an approach to politics that seeks to minimize state coercion and maximize individual liberty. That generalization, though, covers a multitude of disputes. Most libertarians support legal abortion, for example, and some oppose it, in both cases for reasons of individual sanctity. In the absence of any easy formulation for what all libertarians think, Messrs. Tomasi and Zwolinski propose six “markers”: property rights, individualism, free markets, skepticism of authority, negative liberties, and a belief that people are best left to order themselves spontaneously. Libertarians, the authors contend, keep all six principles in view at the same time. 

They divide libertarianism into three historical eras, each responding to particular threats to liberty. The “primordial”-era libertarians—Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) in France, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in Britain—formed their ideas in opposition to socialism. In 19th-century America, the great threat to liberty wasn’t socialism but slavery. Early American libertarians like the journalist Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) saw slavery “primarily through the lenses of authority and property rather than of race,” the authors write. “Libertarians condemned slavery as an unjust usurpation of individual sovereignty and a denial of the individual’s rightful entitlement to the fruits of their labor.” There was wisdom in understanding chattel slavery as theft—a definable crime—rather than as a form of the more nebulous sin of racism.

During the Cold War—the authors’ second era—libertarians tended to align with conservatives in opposition to central planning and devoted their attention mostly to economic subjects. It was an uneasy alliance. Libertarians and conservatives were both anticommunist on questions of personal liberty and economics, but the right favored military buildup and libertarians hated militarism. The two camps clashed on crime, drug legalization, abortion, obscenity on the airwaves and more. Already in 1969 the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard (1926-1995) urged his readers “to go, to split, to leave the conservative movement where it belongs.”

The alliance largely dissolved in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Libertarians, quite as much as conservatives and liberals, experienced a crisis of identity. With socialism discredited everywhere, what held libertarianism together? In the 21st century, the movement in the U.S. has consisted in an assortment of competing, often disputatious intellectual cadres: anarchists, anarcho-capitalists, paleo-libertarians (right-wing), “liberaltarians” (left-wing) and many others.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal