The liberty movement began with early socialists. It’s a fact that many members of the Libertarian Party and the broader movement have been unaware until recently and demonstrated open hostility towards it. In my mind, I think this is a grave mistake as it completely goes against the marketing of the ideology as being one of “reason” or “principle” by making exceptions when history doesn’t agree with one’s view.
Liberty’s Social Origins
Where did the term libertarian come from? Joseph Dejacque, a French poet and writer, was the recorded to use the term “Libertaire” which was also the name of his anarcho-communist publication which ran in New York from June 1858-February 1861. Libertarian was assumed to be a term synonymous with anarchist, and many authors discussed liberty and the absence of the state well before the Austrian school of economists or the founders of the LP.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the 19th-century French philosopher and creator of mutualism, wrote in What Is Property? that “Liberty is the original condition of man; to renounce liberty is to renounce the nature of man: after that, how could we perform the acts of man?” which sounds eerily similar to much of modern libertarian rhetoric. Early 20th-century English publisher and writer Benjamin Tucker was also concerned with liberty and his most passionate view was to topple the money monopoly currently held by the state.
“I have always maintained that liberty is of greater importance than wealth,” states Tucker continuing “in other words, that man derives more happiness from freedom than from luxury, and this is true; but there is another sense in which wealth, or rather, property, is of greater importance than liberty. Than has but little to gain from liberty unless liberty includes the liberty to control what he produces.”
Tucker believed in freedom of choice and free markets to allow liberty to happen, but here’s the strange thing: he was a socialist. His best method he believed to combat the state’s monopoly on money and credit was to create mutual banks, an idea also supported by Proudhon, where the community controlled them, and credit could be based any number of systems including multiple commodity currencies, a gold standard, or simply collateral.
His concerns are very similar to the “End The Fed” campaign of Ron Paul’s presidential race and ultimately, they both wanted an end to government control and manipulation of money and banking though their ideal endgames may have differed. As one can see, learning this history can demonstrate how libertarian ideas can meet similar conclusions with people across the political spectrum and perhaps, as I stated in the first article in this series, show a sort of unity and diversity that the American people haven’t seen previously.
Which other political movement has roots in French, and English philosophy, German economics, American abolitionism, and religious freedom? Certainly not the Democrats and Republicans. Libertarian ideology is one of the most diverse currently in existence.
Keeping that uplifting ending in mind, there’s also another part of libertarian history that must be observed and accepted and that’s some of the more dark and questionable events that led to the founding of American libertarianism that unfortunately continues to plague it.
Liberty In America
The liberty movement in America can be attributed to a collection of authors and economists who over time developed what would be the capitalist, individualist movement known today. The first rumblings of the free market, anti-regulation economics began with Ludwig Von Mises, Austrian economist and author, immigrated to the US in the 1940s and in the Chicago school whose most notable member was Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman.
Friedman was a staunch opponent of Keynesian economics, a school of thought that believes that the government can limit the blows of recessions, while Mises wrote on the ability of individual consumers to unconsciously make decisions within a market through their collective knowledge moves an economy and innovation. Both pushed for individual power in the market against government intervention.
Simultaneously, Ayn Rand, author and eventual founder of the Objectivist philosophy, released The Fountainhead in 1943 gaining her first successful novel. A decade later, she would meet the man who would become one of the most influential thinkers of the US liberty movement, Murray Rothbard. According to Libertarianism, Rothbard was invited to Rand’s apartment for readings of sections of Atlas Shrugged and later left her circle of friends when she urged him to divorce his wife for being religious. The rift between continued throughout their lives and Rothbard would later in life write a play that mocked the Objectivist.
Rothbard was one of the first libertarian writer’s to ponder the values of self-ownership and natural rights theory which would lead him to develop the Non-Aggression principle and invent the term anarcho-capitalist. The 1960s would see another major influence, as the New Left, a movement that advocated for Civil Rights, drug reform, and ending the Vietnam war, contained lots of overlap with then libertarians.
The New Left was the movement to coin the terms “establishment” to describe the structures of authority and were decidedly anti-authoritarian. The frees speech protests at the University of California, Berkeley was the brainchild of members of this anti-Marxist movement. All of these figures would be pivotal in the founding of the Libertarian Party in 1971, an occasion that cemented the ideals of liberty in America.
The history of the Libertarian party certainly hasn’t been rainbows and butterflies since its founding, and the string of bad associations continues to plague it to this day. Rothbard, for example, infamously switched from his original views to adopt the “paleolibertarian” strategy, one that was marked with right-wing populism, nationalism, and blatant racism.
Unfortunately, the writer had a habit of “[doing] a complete 180 […] on every conceivable issue,” according to LP founder David Nolan, and towards the end of his life, he flipped from declaring “taxation is theft” to writing support for a college student who was expelled for shouting racist phrases as an affront to free speech. In the 1980s, Rothbard would meet Lew Rockwell, the founder of the Mises Institute, who would become his partner in starting the movement to fuse libertarians and conservatives into a “paleolibertarian” movement.
The Rothbard Rockwell Report (RRR) would begin publication in 1990 and includes the talking points one would expect from American conservatives. In the December 1990 issue, Rothbard defends Pat Buchanan’s anti-semitic holocaust denial in a New York Post column as a conspiracy by the Anti-Defamation League trying to silence Buchanan’s criticism of the Iraq War and its supporters. The author claims “Hence, it is no accident that the ADL picked the occasion of Buchanan’s hard-hitting critiques of the war hawks to unleash its dossier, to issue and widely circulate a press release smearing Buchanan as anti Semitic, which was then used as a fodder for an extraordinarily extensive press campaign against Buchanan.”
Rothbard frequently wrote articles against hate speech and political correctness, defending the actions as free speech, and tended to blame most of the attacks on those he supported as being manufactured by supposed Marxists and socialists. In the May 1991 issue, he cites Gary North, a Mises Institute Scholar who advocates for religious law including executions for women who get abortions, as an “old friend” who convinced him to abandon his idea of using tax credits to encourage private education by parents.
Other notables libertarians have had similar associations that have tainted the credibility of the movement including Ron Paul, his most notable offense being the newsletters bearing his name that contained racist and anti-semitic content that many libertarian activists claimed was written by Lew Rockwell, and Milton Friedman, who controversially assisted Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in making the country’s economy more free market. Ayn Rand had extremely disparaging views on homosexuality calling it “disgusting” and a psychological flaw claimed that women had a desire to be ruled by men and touted traditional gender roles as supreme despite evidence to the contrary.
My goal in pointing out the oft-denied origins and pitfalls of American libertarianism is not to shame or to claim that the ideas are bad, but to propose a way forward. Accepting that some of those idols’ and early influencers’ personal flaws extends an opportunity to step into our opponents’ shoes and understand why they claim libertarians are far-right, synonymous with white nationalist or simply high republicans.
Due to libertarians being outside the norm, they are put under increased scrutiny and any controversy of a leader is seen as the accepted view of the whole. It’s not necessarily fair, but because of it, there’s the ability to demonstrate the memberships willingness to keep those held in high esteem accountable. Rejecting the past, unfortunately, only makes one seem apathetic or supportive towards it.
This is why it’s essential that when these criticisms are brought forward that libertarians address them with an acceptance of their occurrence, and be able to explain how the movement has grown and moved past it. It’s not pushing an outright rejection of these founders and influencers, but demonstrating an understanding of their flaws.
And one way to combat the right-wing extremist accusations is to embrace the entirety of liberty’s history. Personally, I find it immensely satisfying that libertarian can tout roots in the French socialist movements, English classical liberalism, German, English, and French free-market economists (capitalist and socialist), and the New Left of the 1960s. This history possesses an integration and progression of ideas that are unique to modern political discourse, and it is through a knowledge of it that libertarians can make strides.
You can read more from Luke Henderson on Think Liberty here.