Recommended Reading Lists
Libertarianism—its theory, its practice—is an awfully big topic. This list is a place to start. A combination of newcomers and established classics, these books offer accessible introductions to variety of libertarian thought, from philosophy to history to economics.View List
If you’re already familiar with the basics of libertarian thought and are interested in exploring deeper, the books on this list provide a thorough overview of the rich fundamentals. A mixture of established classics and modern contributions, these books are a bit more demanding than those on the “Introducing Libertarianism” list. But for the serious student of liberty, these works greatly reward careful study.View List
The history of libertarianism is more than a series of scholarly statements on philosophy, economics, and the social sciences. It is the history of courageous men and women struggling to bring freedom to the lives of those living without it. The works on this list give important context to the ideas found on the others.View List
Critics of Liberty
It’s not enough to be familiar with the major libertarian thinkers and their arguments. A well-informed advocate of liberty must also understand and appreciate the positions of those thinkers who disagree with libertarianism. The works on this list offer a comprehensive introduction to many of the most intriguing, enduring, and forceful attacks on libertarianism—as well as positive arguments for visions incompatible with the philosophy of liberty.View List
In a sense there have always and ever been only two political philosophies: liberty and power. Either people should be free to live their lives as they see fit, as long as they respect the equal rights of others, or some people should be able to use force to make other people act in ways they wouldn’t choose.
It’s no surprise, of course, that the philosophy of power has always been more appealing to those in power. It has gone by many names—Caesarism, Oriental despotism, theocracy, socialism, fascism, communism, monarchism, ujamaa, welfare-statism—and the arguments for each of these systems have been different enough to conceal the essential similarity. The philosophy of liberty has also gone by different names, but its defenders have always had a common thread of respect for the individual, confidence in the ability of ordinary people to make wise decisions about their own lives, and hostility to those who would use violence to get what they want.
The first known libertarian may have been the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who lived around the sixth century B.C. and is best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu advised, “Without law or compulsion, men would dwell in harmony.” Most of the Tao is not political; it is a classic statement of the spiritual serenity associated with Eastern philosophy. To many Americans, steeped in the assertiveness and individualism of the West, it may seem to counsel too much passivity and acceptance in the face of obstacles. Of course, Lao Tzu may have thought that such quiet acceptance was the only way to achieve a degree of personal peace and liberty in the all-encompassing totalitarianism of ancient China.
Despite the example of Lao Tzu, libertarianism really arose in the West. Does that make it a narrowly Western idea? No. The principles of liberty and individual rights are universal, just as the principles of science are universal, even though most of the discovery of those scientific principles took place in the West.
The Pre-History of Libertarianism
Both the two main lines of Western thought, the Greek and the Judeo-Christian, contributed to the development of freedom. According to the Old Testament, the people of Israel lived without a king or any other coercive authority, governing themselves not by force but by their mutual adherence to their covenant with God. Then, as recorded in the first book of Samuel, the Jews went to Samuel and said, “Make us a king to judge us like all the other nations.” But when Samuel prayed to God about their request, God said,
This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, for his chariots. And he will take your daughters, to be cooks. And he will take your fields, and your oliveyards, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and of your sheep. And ye shall be his servants.
And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen, and the Lord will not hear you in that day.
Although the people of Israel defied this awful warning and created a monarchy, the story served as a constant reminder that the origins of the State were by no means divinely inspired. God’s warning resonated not just in ancient Israel but on down to modern times. Thomas Paine cited it in Common Sense to remind Americans that “the few good kings” in the 3000 years since Samuel could not “blot out the sinfulness of the origin” of monarchy. The great historian of liberty, Lord Acton, assuming that all 19th-century British readers were familiar with it, referred casually to Samuel’s “momentous protestation.”
Although they installed a king, the Jews may have been the first people to develop the idea that the king was subordinate to a higher law. In other civilizations, the king was the law, generally because he was considered divine. But the Jews said to the Egyptian Pharaoh, and to their own kings, a king is still just a man and every man is judged by God’s law.
That concept of a higher law also developed in ancient Greece. The playwright Sophocles, in the fifth century B.C., told the story of Antigone, whose brother Polyneices had attacked the city of Thebes and been killed in battle. For his treason the tyrant Creon ordered that his body be left to rot outside the gates, unburied and unmourned. His sister Antigone defied Creon and buried her brother. Brought before Creon, she declared that a law made by a mere man, even a king, could not override “the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws,” which had existed longer than anyone could say.
The notion of a law by which even rulers could be judged grew and endured throughout European civilization. It was developed in the Roman world by the Stoic philosophers, who argued that even if the ruler is the people, they still may do only what is just according to natural law. The enduring power of this Stoic idea in the West was partly due to a happy accident: The Stoic lawyer Cicero was regarded in later years as the greatest writer of Latin prose, so his essays were read by educated Europeans for many centuries.
Shortly after Cicero’s time, in a famous encounter, Jesus was asked whether his followers should pay taxes. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,” he replied. In so doing he divided the world into two realms, making it clear that not all of life is under the control of the state. This radical notion took hold in Western Christianity—though not in the Eastern Church, which was totally under the control of the state, leaving no space in society where alternative sources of power might develop.
The independence of the Western Church, which came to be known as Roman Catholic, meant that throughout Europe there were two powerful institutions contending for power. Neither State nor Church particularly liked the situation, but their divided power gave breathing space for individuals and civil society to develop. Popes and emperors frequently denounced each other’s character, contributing to a delegitimization of both. Again, this conflict between Church and State was virtually unique in the world, explaining why the principles of freedom were discovered first in the West.
In the 4th century the emperor Theodosius ordered the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, to hand over his cathedral to the empire. Ambrose rebuked the emperor, saying, “It is not lawful for us to deliver it up nor for your majesty to receive it. By no law can you violate the house of a private man. Do you think that the house of God may be taken away? It is asserted that all things are lawful to the emperor, that all things are his. But do not burden your conscience with the thought that you have any right as emperor over sacred things. Exalt not yourself, but if you would reign the longer be subject to God. It is written, God’s to God and Caesar’s to Caesar.” The emperor was forced to come to Ambrose’s church and beg forgiveness for his wrongdoing.
Centuries later a similar conflict took place in England. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, defended the church’s rights against Henry II’s usurpations. Henry wished aloud that he could be rid of “this meddlesome priest,” whereupon four knights rode off to murder Becket. Within four years Becket had been made a saint, and Henry had been forced to walk barefoot through the snow to Becket’s church as penance for his crime and to back down from his demands on the church.
Because the struggle between Church and State prevented any absolute power from arising, there was space for autonomous institutions to develop. Because the Church lacked absolute power, dissident religious views were able to ferment. Markets and associations, oath-bound relationships, guilds, universities, and chartered cities all contributed to the development of pluralism and civil society.
Libertarianism is often seen as primarily a philosophy of economic freedom, but its real historical roots lie more in the struggle for religious toleration. Early Christians began to develop theories of toleration to counter their persecution by the Roman state. One of the earliest was Tertullian, a Carthaginian known as “the Father of Latin theology,” who wrote around A.D. 200,
It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions. One man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion, to which free will and not force should lead us.
Already the case for freedom is being made in terms of fundamental, or natural, rights.
The growth of trade, of varying religious interpretations, and of civil society meant that there were more sources of influence within each community, and that pluralism led to demands for formal limitations on government. In one remarkable decade there were major steps toward limited, representative government in three widely dispersed parts of Europe. The most famous, at least in the United States, took place in England in 1215, when the barons confronted King John at Runnymede and forced him to sign Magna Carta, or the Great Charter. Magna Carta guaranteed every free man security from illegal interference in his person or property and justice to everyone. The king’s ability to raise revenue was limited, the church was guaranteed a degree of freedom, and liberties of the boroughs were confirmed.
Meanwhile, around 1220 the German town of Magdeburg developed a set of town laws that emphasized freedom and self-government. Magdeburg Law was so widely respected that it was adopted by hundreds of the newly forming towns all over central Europe, and legal cases in some central-eastern European towns were referred to Magdeburg judges. Finally, in 1222 the lesser nobles and gentry of Hungary—then very much a part of the European mainstream—forced King Andrew II to sign the Golden Bull, which exempted the gentry and the clergy from taxation, granted them freedom to dispose of their domains as they saw fit, guaranteed them against arbitrary imprisonment and confiscation, assured them an annual assembly to present grievances, and even gave them the Jus Resistendi, the right to resist the king if he attacked the liberties and privileges of the Golden Bull.
The principles found in these documents were far from libertarianism; they still excluded many people from their guarantees of liberties, and both Magna Carta and the Golden Bull explicitly discriminated against Jews. Still, they are milestones in a continuing advance toward liberty, limited government, and the expansion of the concept of personhood to include all persons. They demonstrated that people all over Europe were thinking about concepts of freedom, and they created classes of people jealous to defend their liberties.
Later in the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian of all time, and other philosophers developed the theological argument for limits on royal power. Aquinas wrote,
A king who is unfaithful to his duty forfeits his claim to obedience. It is not rebellion to depose him, for he is himself a rebel whom the nation has a right to put down. But it is better to abridge his power, that he may be unable to abuse it.
Thus was theological authority put behind the idea that tyrants could be deposed. Both John of Salisbury, an English bishop who witnessed Becket’s murder in the 12th century, and Roger Bacon, a 13th-century scholar—whom Lord Acton describes as the most distinguished English writers of their respective epochs—defended even the right to kill tyrants, an argument unimaginable virtually anywhere else in the world.
The 16th-century scholar Francisco de Vitoria led the Spanish Scholastic thinkers, sometimes known as the school of Salamanca, whose explorations of theology, natural law, and economics built on the work of Aquinas and anticipated many of the themes later found in the works of Adam Smith and the Austrian School. From his post at the University of Salamanca, Vitoria condemned the Spanish enslavement of the Indians in the New World in terms of individualism and natural rights: “Every Indian is a man and thus capable of achieving salvation or damnation… . Inasmuch as he is a person, every Indian has free will and, consequently, is the master of his actions… . Every man has the right to his own life and to physical and mental integrity.” Vitoria and his colleagues also developed natural-law doctrine in such areas as private property, profits, interest, and taxation; their works influenced Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, and through them Adam Smith and his Scottish associates.
The pre-history of libertarianism culminates in the period of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. The rediscovery of classical learning and the humanism that marked the Renaissance are usually regarded as the emergence of the modern world after the Middle Ages. With her usual bluntness, Ayn Rand summed up one view of the Renaissance, that of the rationalist, individualist, secular strain of liberalism: “The Middle Ages were an era of mysticism, ruled by blind faith and blind obedience to the dogma that faith is superior to reason. The Renaissance was specifically the rebirth of reason, the liberation of man’s mind, the triumph of rationality over mysticism—a faltering, incomplete, but impassioned triumph that led to the birth of science, of individualism, of freedom.” However, the historian Ralph Raico argues that the Renaissance can be overrated as a progenitor of liberalism; the medieval charters of rights provided a more secure footing for freedom than the Promethean individualism of the Renaissance. One great Renaissance contribution to the liberal attitude toward power, though, was the work of Machiavelli, the Italian statesman and political scientist, who told the truth about politics: that politics is about power, that politicians talk about justice as a gambit to maintain their power. This healthy cynicism about political power is a theme through much of Italian political thought, down to such late 19th-century scholars as Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto.
The Reformation contributed more to the development of liberal ideas. The Protestant reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, were by no means liberals. But by breaking the monopoly of the Catholic church they inadvertently encouraged a proliferation of Protestant sects, some of which—such as the Quakers and Baptists—did nurture liberal thought. After the Wars of Religion people began to question the notion that a community had to have only one religion. It had been thought that without a single religious and moral authority a community would witness an endless proliferation of moral commitments and literally fall to pieces. That profoundly conservative idea has a long history. It goes back at least to Plato’s insistence on regulating even the music in an ideal society. It has been enunciated in our own time by the socialist writer Robert Heilbroner, who says that socialism requires “a deliberately embraced collective moral goal” to which “every dissenting voice raises a threat.” And it can also be heard in the fears of the residents of rural Catlett, Virginia, who told the Washington Post about their worries when a Buddhist temple was built in their small town: “We believe in one true God, and I guess we were afraid with a false religion like that, maybe it would have an influence on our children.” Fortunately, most people noticed after the Reformation that society did not fall apart in the presence of differing religious and moral views.
The Response to Absolutism
By the end of the 16th century the church, weakened by its own corruption and by the Reformation, needed the support of the state more than the state needed the church. The church’s weakness created an opening for the rise of royal absolutism, seen especially in the reigns of Louis XIV in France and the Stuart kings in England. Monarchs began to set up their own bureaucracies, impose new taxes, establish standing armies, and make increasing claims for their own power. Drawing on the work of Copernicus, who proved that the planets revolve around the sun, Louis XIV called himself the Sun King because he was the center of life in France and famously declared, “L’etat, c’est moi” (“I am the state”). He banned Protestantism and tried to make himself head of the Catholic Church in France. In his reign of almost 70 years, he never called a session of the representative assembly, the estates-general. His finance minister Colbert implemented a policy of mercantilism, under which the state would supervise, guide, plan, design, and monitor the economy, as necessary subsidizing, prohibiting, granting monopolies, nationalizing, setting wages and prices, and ensuring quality.
In England the Stuart kings also tried to institute absolute rule. They sought to ignore the common law and to raise taxes without the approval of England’s representative assembly, Parliament. But civil society and the authority of Parliament proved more durable in England than on the Continent, and the Stuarts’ absolutist campaign was stymied within 40 years of James I’s accession to the throne. The resistance to absolutism culminated in the beheading of James’s son Charles I in 1649.
Meanwhile, as absolutism took root in France and Spain, the Netherlands became a beacon of religious toleration, commercial freedom, and limited central government. After the Dutch gained their independence from Spain in the early 17th century, they created a loose confederation of cities and provinces. They became the century’s leading commercial power and a haven for refugees from oppression. Books and pamphlets by dissident Englishmen and Frenchmen were often published in the Dutch cities. One of those refugees, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose Jewish parents had fled Catholic persecution in Portugal, described the happy interplay of religious toleration and prosperity in 17th-century Amsterdam:
The city of Amsterdam reaps the fruit of freedom in its own great prosperity and in the admiration of all other people. For in this most flourishing state, and most splendid city, men of every nation and religion live together in the greatest harmony, and ask no questions before trusting their goods to a fellow-citizen. A citizen’s religion and sect is considered of no importance: for it has no effect before the judges in gaining or losing a cause, and there is no sect so despised that its followers, provided that they harm no one, pay every man his due, and live uprightly, are deprived of the protection of the magisterial authority.
Holland’s example of social harmony and economic progress inspired proto-liberals in England and other countries.
The English Revolution
English opposition to royal absolutism created a great deal of intellectual ferment, and the first stirrings of clearly proto-liberal ideas can be seen in 17th-century England. Again, liberal ideas developed out of the defense of religious toleration. The great poet John Milton published Areopagitica in 1644, a powerful argument for freedom of religion and against official licensing of the press. Dealing with the relationship between freedom and virtue, an issue that vexes American politics to this day, Milton wrote, “Liberty is the best school of virtue.” Virtue, he said, is only virtuous if chosen freely. On freedom of speech, he wrote, “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
During the Interregnum, the time after the beheading of Charles I when England was between kings and under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, there was tremendous intellectual debate. A group known as the Levellers began enunciating the full set of ideas that would come to be known as liberalism. They placed the defense of religious liberty and the ancient rights of Englishmen in a context of self-ownership and natural rights. In a famous essay, “An Arrow against All Tyrants,” the Leveller leader Richard Overton argued that every individual has a “self-propriety”; that is, everyone owns himself and thus has rights to life, liberty, and property. “No man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man’s.”
Despite the efforts of the Levellers and other radicals, the Stuart dynasty returned to the throne in 1660, in the person of Charles II. Charles promised to respect liberty of conscience and the rights of landowners, but he and his brother James II again tried to extend royal power. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688 Parliament offered the crown to William and Mary of Holland (both grandchildren of Charles I). William and Mary agreed to respect the “true, ancient, and indubitable rights” of Englishmen, as put down in the Bill of Rights in 1689.
We can date the birth of liberalism to the Glorious Revolution. John Locke is rightly seen as the first real liberal and as the father of modern political philosophy. If you don’t know the ideas of Locke, you really can’t understand the world we live in. Locke’s great work The Second Treatise of Government was published in 1690, but it had been written a few years earlier, to refute the absolutist philosopher Sir Robert Filmer, making its defense of individual rights and representative government that much more radical. Locke asked, what is the point of government? Why do we have it? He answered, people have rights prior to the existence of government—thus we call them natural rights, because they exist in nature. People form a government to protect their rights. They could do that without government, but a government is an efficient system for protecting rights. And if government exceeds that role, people are justified in revolting. Representative government is the best way to ensure that government sticks to its proper purpose. Echoing a philosophical tradition that had been entrenched in the West for centuries, he wrote, “A Government is not free to do as it pleases… . The law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others.”
Locke also articulated clearly the idea of property rights:
Every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.
People have an inalienable right to life and liberty, and they acquire a right to previously unowned property that they “mix their labor with,” such as by farming. It is the role of government to protect the “Lives, Liberties, and Estates” of the people.
These ideas were enthusiastically received. Europe was still in the grip of royal absolutism, but thanks to their experience with the Stuarts the English were suspicious of all forms of government. They warmly embraced this powerful philosophical defense of natural rights, the rule of law, and the right of revolution. They also, of course, began carrying the ideas of Locke and the Levellers on ships bound for the New World.
The Liberal 18th Century
England prospered under limited government. As Holland had inspired liberals a century earlier, the English model began to be cited by liberal thinkers on the Continent and eventually around the world. We might date the Enlightenment from 1720, when the French writer Voltaire fled from French tyranny and arrived in England. He saw religious toleration, representative government, and a prosperous middle class. He noticed that trade was more respected than it was in France, where aristocrats looked down their noses at those involved in commerce. He also saw that when you allow people to trade freely, their prejudices may take second place to self-interest, as in his famous description of the stock exchange:
Go into the London Stock Exchange—a more respectable place than many a court—and you will see representatives of all nations gathered there for the service of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian deal with each other as if they were of the same religion, and give the name of infidel only to those who go bankrupt. There the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Anglican accepts the Quaker’s promise. On leaving these peaceful and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others go to drink … others go to their church to wait the inspiration of God, their hats on their heads, and all are content.
The 18th century was the great century of liberal thought. Locke’s ideas were developed by many writers, notably John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who wrote a series of newspaper essays signed “Cato,” after Cato the Younger, the defender of the Roman Republic against Julius Caesar’s quest for power. These essays, which denounced the government for continuing to infringe upon the rights of Englishmen, came to be known as Cato’s Letters. (Names reminiscent of the Roman Republic were popular with 18th-century writers; compare the Federalist Papers, which were signed “Publius.”) In France the Physiocrats developed the modern science of economics. Their name came from the Greek physis, nature, and kratos, rule; they argued for the rule of nature, by which they meant that natural laws similar to those of physics governed society and the creation of wealth. The best way to increase the supply of real goods was to allow free commerce, unhindered by monopolies, guild restrictions, and high taxes. The absence of coercive constraints would produce harmony and abundance. It is from this period that the famous libertarian rallying cry laissez-faire comes. According to legend, Louis XV asked a group of merchants, How can I help you? They responded, “Laissez-nous faire, laissez-nous passer. Le monde va de lui-meme.” Let us do, let us alone; the world runs by itself.
The leading Physiocrats included Francois Quesnay and Pierre Dupont de Nemours, who fled the French Revolution and came to America, where his son founded a small business in Delaware. An associate of the Physiocrats, A. R. J. Turgot, was a great economist who was named finance minister by Louis XVI, an “enlightened despot” who wanted to ease the burden of government on the French people—and perhaps create more wealth to be taxed, since the Physiocrats had pointed out that “poor peasants, poor kingdom; poor kingdom, poor king.” Turgot issued the Six Edicts to abolish the guilds (which had become calcified monopolies), abolish internal taxes and forced labor (the corvee), and establish toleration for Protestants. He ran into stiff resistance from the vested interests, and he was dismissed in 1776. With him, says Raico, “went the last hope for the French monarchy,” which indeed fell to revolution 13 years later.
The French Enlightenment is better known to history, but there was an important Scottish Enlightenment as well. Scots had long resented English domination, they had suffered greatly under British mercantilism, and they had within the past century achieved a higher literacy rate and better schools than in England. They were well suited to develop liberal ideas (and to dominate English intellectual life for a century). Adam Ferguson, author of An Essay on the History of Civil Society, who coined the phrase “the result of human action but not of human design,” which would inspire future scholars of spontaneous order; Francis Hutcheson, who anticipated the utilitarians with his notion of “the greatest good for the greatest number”; and Dugald Stewart, whose Philosophy of the Human Mind was widely read in early American universities, were among the best-known scholars of the Scottish Enlightenment. But the most prominent were David Hume and his friend Adam Smith.
Hume was a philosopher, an economist, and a historian, in the days before the university aristocracy decreed that knowledge must be divided into discrete categories. He is best known to modern students for his philosophical skepticism, but he also helped to develop our modern understanding of the productiveness and benevolence of the free market. He defended property and contract, free-market banking, and the spontaneous order of a free society. Arguing against the balance-of-trade doctrine of the mercantilists, he pointed out that everyone benefits from the prosperity of others, even the prosperity of people in other countries.
Along with John Locke, Adam Smith is the other father of liberalism, or what we now call libertarianism. And since we live in a liberal world, Locke and Smith may be seen as the architects of the modern world. In his best-known book, The Wealth of Nations, Smith laid the groundwork for the modern science of economics. He said that he was describing “the simple system of natural liberty.” In the modern vernacular, we might say that capitalism is what happens when you leave people alone. Smith showed how, when people produce and trade in their own self-interest, they are led “by an invisible hand” to benefit others. To get a job, or to sell something for money, each person must figure out what others would like to have. Benevolence is important, but “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Thus the free market allows more people to satisfy more of their desires, and ultimately to enjoy a higher standard of living, than any other social system.
Over the years many critics have said that Adam Smith, or economists generally, or libertarians, believe that all behavior is motivated by self-interest. But almost two decades before The Wealth of Nations, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith distinguished between two kinds of behavior, self-interest and beneficence. He made clear that people sometimes act out of benevolence, and society should encourage such sentiments. But, he said, if necessary society could exist without beneficence extending beyond the family; people would still get fed, the economy would still function, knowledge would progress; but society cannot exist without justice, which means the protection of the rights of life, liberty, and property. Justice, therefore, must be the first concern of the state.
Smith’s most important contribution to libertarian theory was to develop the idea of spontaneous order. We frequently hear that there is a conflict between freedom and order, and such a perspective seems logical. But, more completely than the Physiocrats and other earlier thinkers, Smith stressed that order in human affairs arises spontaneously. Let people interact freely with each other, protect their rights to liberty and property, and order will emerge without central direction. The market economy is one form of spontaneous order; hundreds or thousands—or today billions—of people enter the marketplace or the business world every day wondering how they can produce more goods or get a better job or make more money for themselves and their families. They are not guided by any central authority, nor by the biological instinct that drives bees to make honey, yet they produce wealth for themselves and others by producing and trading.
But the market economy is not the only form of spontaneous order. Consider language. No one sat down to write the English language and then teach it to early Englishmen. It arose and changed naturally, spontaneously, in response to human needs. Consider also law. Today we think of laws as something passed by Congress, but the common law grew up long before any king or legislature sought to write it down. When two people had a dispute, they asked another to serve as a judge. Sometimes juries were assembled to hear a case. Judges and juries were not supposed to “make” the law; rather, they sought to “find” the law, to ask what the customary practice was or what had been decided in similar cases. Thus in case after case the legal order developed. Money is another product of spontaneous order; it arose naturally when people needed something to facilitate trade. Hayek wrote that “if [law] had been deliberately designed, it would deserve to rank among the greatest of human inventions. But it has, of course, been as little invented by any one mind as language or money or most of the practices and conventions on which social life rests.” Law, language, money, markets—the most important institutions in human society arose spontaneously.
With Smith’s systematic elaboration of the principle of spontaneous order, the basic principles of liberalism were essentially complete. We might define those basic principles as the idea of a higher law or natural law, the dignity of the individual, natural rights to liberty and property, and the social theory of spontaneous order. Many more specific ideas flow from these fundamentals: individual freedom, limited and representative government, free markets. It had taken a long time to define them; it was still necessary to fight for them.
Making a Liberal World
Like the English Revolution, the period leading up to the American Revolution was one of great ideological debate. Even more than the 17th-century English world, the 18th-century American climate of opinion was dominated by liberal ideas. Indeed, we might say that there were virtually no non-liberal ideas circulating in America; there were only conservative liberals, who urged that Americans continue to peacefully petition for their rights as Englishmen, and radical liberals, who eventually rejected even a constitutional monarchy and called for independence. The most galvanizing of the radical liberals was Thomas Paine. Paine was what we might call an outside agitator, a traveling missionary of liberty. Born in England, he went to America to help make a revolution, and when his task was done, he crossed the Atlantic again to help the French with their revolution.
Society vs. Government
Paine’s great contribution to the revolutionary cause was his pamphlet Common Sense, which is said to have sold some 100,000 copies within a few months, in a country of three million people. Everyone read it; those who could not read heard it read in taverns and participated in debating its ideas. Common Sense was not just a call for independence. It offered a radically libertarian theory to justify natural rights and independence. Paine began by making a distinction between society and government: “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness… . Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” He went on to denounce the origins of monarchy: “Could we take off the dark covering of antiquity … we should find the first [king] nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtlety obtained him the title of chief among plunderers.”
In Common Sense and in his later writings Paine developed the idea that civil society exists prior to government and that people can peacefully interact to create spontaneous order. His belief in spontaneous order was strengthened when he saw society continue to function after the colonial governments were kicked out of American cities and colonies. In his writings he neatly fused the normative theory of individual rights with the positive analysis of spontaneous order.
Neither Common Sense nor Adam Smith’s publication of the The Wealth of Nations was, of course, the only milestone in the struggle for liberty that happened in 1776. Neither may even have been the most important thing in that banner year. For in 1776 the American colonies issued their Declaration of Independence probably the finest piece of libertarian writing in history. Thomas Jefferson’s eloquent words proclaimed to all the world the liberal vision:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.
The influence of the Levellers and John Locke is obvious. Jefferson succinctly made three points: That people have natural rights, that the purpose of government is to protect those rights, and that if government exceeds its proper purpose, people have the right “to alter or abolish it.” For his eloquence in stating the liberal case, and for his lifelong role in the liberal revolution that changed the world, the columnist George F. Will named Jefferson “the man of the millennium.” But it should be noted that in writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson did not break much new ground. John Adams, perhaps resentful of the attention Jefferson got, said years later that “there is not an idea in [the Declaration] but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before.” Jefferson himself said that while he “turned to neither book nor pamphlet in writing it,” his goal was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments,” but merely to produce “an expression of the American mind.” The ideas in the Declaration were, he said, the “sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or the elementary books of public right.” The triumph of liberal ideas in the United States was overwhelming.
After their military victory, the independent Americans set about putting into practice the ideas that English liberals had been developing throughout the 18th century. The distinguished Harvard University historian Bernard Bailyn says that
the major themes of eighteenth-century radical libertarianism [were] brought to realization here. The first is the belief that power is evil, a necessity perhaps but an evil necessity; that it is infinitely corrupting; and that it must be controlled, limited, restricted in every way compatible with a minimum of civil order. Written constitutions; the separation of powers; bills of rights; limitations on executives, on legislatures, and courts; restrictions on the right to coerce and wage war—all express the profound distrust of power that lies at the ideological heart of the American Revolution and that has remained with us as a permanent legacy ever after.
The Constitution of the United States built on the ideas of the Declaration to establish a government suitable for free people. It was based on the principle that individuals have natural rights that precede the establishment of government and that all the power a government has is delegated to it by individuals for the protection of their rights. Based on that understanding, the Framers did not set up a monarchy, nor did they create an unlimited democracy, a government of plenary powers limited only by popular vote. Instead, they carefully enumerated (in Article I, Section 8) the powers that the federal government would have. The Constitution, whose greatest theorist and architect was Jefferson’s friend and neighbor James Madison, was truly revolutionary in its establishment of a government of delegated, enumerated, and thus limited powers.
When a Bill of Rights was first proposed, many of the Framers responded that one was not needed because the enumerated powers were so limited that government would be unable to infringe on individual rights. Eventually, it was decided to add a Bill of Rights, in Madison’s words, “for greater caution.” After enumerating specific rights in the first eight amendments, the first Congress added two more that summarize the whole structure of the federal government as it was created: The Ninth Amendment provides that “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The Tenth Amendment says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively or to the people.” Again, the fundamental tenets of liberalism: People have rights before they create government, and they retain all the rights they haven’t expressly delegated to government; and the national government has no powers not specifically granted in the Constitution.
In both the United States and Europe the century after the American Revolution was marked by the spread of liberalism. Written constitutions and bills of rights protected liberty and guaranteed the rule of law. Guilds and monopolies were largely eliminated, with all trades thrown open to competition on the basis of merit. Freedom of the press and of religion was greatly expanded, property rights were made more secure, international trade was freed.
Individualism, natural rights, and free markets led logically to agitation for the extension of civil and political rights to those who had been excluded from liberty, as they were from power—notably slaves, serfs, and women. The world’s first anti-slavery society was founded in Philadelphia in 1775, and slavery and serfdom were abolished throughout the Western world within a century. During the debate in the British parliament over the idea of compensating slaveholders for the loss of their “property,” the libertarian Benjamin Pearson replied “he had thought it was the slaves who should have been compensated.” Tom Paine’s Pennsylvania Journal published a stirring early defense of women’s rights in 1775. Mary Wollstonecraft, a friend of Paine and other liberals, published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in England in 1792. The first feminist convention in the United States took place in 1848, as women began to demand the natural rights that white men had claimed in 1776 and that were being demanded for black men. In the phrase of the English historian Henry Sumner Maine, the world was moving from a society of status to a society of contract.
Liberals also took on the age-old scourge of war. In England, Richard Cobden and John Bright tirelessly argued that free trade would bind people of different nations together peacefully, reducing the likelihood of war. The new limits on governments, and greater public skepticism toward rulers, made it more difficult for political leaders to meddle abroad and to go to war. After the turmoil of the French Revolution and the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, and with the exception of the Crimean War and the wars of national unification, most of the people of Europe enjoyed a century of relative peace and progress.
The Results of Liberalism
This liberation of human creativity created astounding scientific and material progress. The Nation magazine, which was then a truly liberal journal, looking back in 1900, wrote, “Freed from the vexatious meddling of governments, men devoted themselves to their natural task, the bettering of their condition, with the wonderful results which surround us.” The technological advances of the liberal 19th century are innumerable: the steam engine, the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, electricity, the internal combustion engine. Thanks to the accumulation of capital and “the miracle of compound interest,” in Europe and America the great masses of people began to be liberated from the back-breaking toil that had been the natural condition of mankind since time immemorial. Infant mortality fell, and life expectancy began to rise to unprecedented levels. A person looking back from 1800 would see a world that for most people had changed little in thousands of years; by 1900, the world was unrecognizable.
Liberal thought had continued to develop throughout the 19th century. Jeremy Bentham propounded the theory of utilitarianism, the idea that government should promote “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Although his philosophical premises were different from those of natural rights, he came to most of the same conclusions about limited government and free markets. Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to see how a free society worked and published his brilliant observations as Democracy in America between 1834 and 1840. John Stuart Mill published On Liberty, a powerful case for individual freedom, in 1859. In 1851 Herbert Spencer, a towering scholar whose work is unjustly neglected and often misrepresented today, published Social Statics, in which he set forth his “law of equal freedom,” an early and explicit statement of the modern libertarian credo. Spencer’s principle was “that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man.” Spencer pointed out that “the law of equal freedom manifestly applies to the whole race—female as well as male.” He also extended the classical liberal critique of war to distinguish between two kinds of societies: industrial society, where people produce and trade peacefully and in voluntary association, and militant society, in which war prevails and the government controls the lives of its subjects as means to its own ends.
In its Golden Age, Germany produced great writers, such as Goethe and Schiller, who were liberals, and it contributed to liberal philosophy in the thought of philosophers and scholars such as Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Kant’s work emphasized individual autonomy and attempted to ground individual rights and liberties in the requirements of reason itself. He called for a “legal constitution which guarantees everyone his freedom within the law, so that each remains free to seek his happiness in whatever way he thinks best, so long as he does not violate the lawful freedom and rights of his fellow subjects.” In von Humboldt’s classic work The Sphere and Duties of Government, which heavily influenced Mill’s On Liberty, he argued that the full flourishing of the individual requires not only freedom but “a manifoldness of situations,” by which he meant that people should have available to them a wide variety of circumstances and living arrangements—the modern term might be “alternative lifestyles”—which they can continually test and choose. In France, Benjamin Constant was the best-known liberal on the Continent in the early part of the century. “He loved liberty as other men love power,” a contemporary said. Like von Humboldt, he saw liberty as a system in which people could best discover and develop their own personalities and interests. In an important essay, he contrasted the meaning of liberty in the ancient republics—equal participation in public life—with modern liberty—the individual freedoms to speak, write, own property, trade, and pursue one’s private interests. An associate of Constant was Madame de Stael, a novelist, perhaps best known for the saying, “Liberty is ancient; it is despotism that is new,” referring to the attempt of the royal absolutists to take away the hard-won chartered liberties of the Middle Ages.
Another French liberal, Frederic Bastiat, served in parliament as an avid free-trader and wrote a multitude of witty and hard-hitting essays attacking the state and all its actions. His last essay, “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” offered the important insight that whatever a government does—build a bridge, subsidize the arts, pay out pensions—has simple and obvious effects. Money is circulated, jobs are created, and people think that the government has generated economic growth. The task of the economist is to see what is not so easily seen—the houses not built, the clothes not bought, the jobs not created because money was taxed away from those who would have spent it on their own behalf. In “The Law,” he attacked the concept of “legal plunder,” by which people use government to appropriate what others have produced. And in “The Petition of the Candlemakers against the Competition of the Sun,” he mocked French industrialists who wanted to be protected from competition by pretending to speak on behalf of the candlemakers who wanted parliament to block out the sun, which was causing people not to need candles during daytime—an early refutation of “anti-dumping” laws.
In the United States the abolitionist movement was naturally led by libertarians. Leading abolitionists called slavery “man-stealing,” in that it sought to deny self-ownership and steal a man’s very self. Their arguments paralleled those of the Levellers and John Locke. William Lloyd Garrison wrote that his goal was not just the abolition of slavery but “the emancipation of our whole race from the dominion of man, from the thraldom of self, from the government of brute force.” Another abolitionist, Lysander Spooner, proceeded from the natural-rights argument against slavery to the conclusion that no one could be held to have given up any of his natural rights under any contract, including the Constitution, that he had not personally signed. Frederick Douglass likewise made his arguments for abolition in the terms of classical liberalism—self-ownership and natural rights.
The Decline of Liberalism
Toward the end of the 19th century classical liberalism began to give way to new forms of collectivism and State power. If liberalism had been so successful—liberating the great mass of humanity from the crushing burden of statism and unleashing an unprecedented improvement in living standards—what happened? That question has vexed liberals and libertarians throughout the 20th century.
One problem was that the liberals got lazy; they forgot Jefferson’s admonition that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” and figured that the obvious social harmony and abundance brought about by liberalism would mean that no one would want to revive the Old Order. Some liberal intellectuals gave the impression that liberalism was a closed system, with no more interesting work to be done. Socialism, especially the Marxist variety, came along, with a whole new theory to develop, and attracted younger intellectuals.
It may also be that people forgot how hard it had been to create a society of abundance. Americans and Britons born in the latter part of the 19th century entered a world of rapidly improving wealth, technology, and living standards; it was not so obvious to them that the world had not always been like that. And even those who understood that the world was different may have assumed that the age-old problem of poverty had been solved. It was no longer important to maintain the social institutions that had solved it.
A related problem was the separation of the issue of production from that of distribution. In a world of abundance, people began to take production for granted and discuss “the problem of distribution.” The great philosopher Friedrich Hayek once told me in an interview, I am personally convinced that the reason which led the intellectuals, particularly of the English-speaking world, to socialism was a man who is regarded as a great hero of classical liberalism, John Stuart Mill. In his famous textbook, Principles of Political Economy, which came out in 1848 and for some decades was a widely read text on the subject, he makes the following statement as he passes from the theory of production to the theory of distribution: “The things once there, mankind, individually or collectively, can do with them as they like.” Now, if that were true, there would be a clear moral obligation to see that it is justly distributed. But it isn’t true, because if we did do with that product whatever we pleased, it would never be there again. Because if you did it once, people would never produce those things again.
Besides, for the first time in history people began to question the existence of poverty. Before the Industrial Revolution, everyone was poor; there was no problem to study. Only when most people became rich—by the standards of history—did people begin to wonder why some were still poor. Thus Charles Dickens bemoaned the already waning practice of child labor that kept alive many children who in earlier eras would have died, as most children had from time immemorial; and Karl Marx offered a vision of a world of perfect freedom and plenty. Meanwhile, the success of science and business gave rise to the notion that engineers and corporate executives could design and run a whole society as well as a large corporation.
Bentham and Mill’s utilitarian emphasis on “the greatest good for the greatest number” caused some scholars to begin questioning the need for limited government and protection of individual rights. If the point of it all was to generate prosperity and happiness, why take the roundabout way of protecting rights? Why not just aim directly at economic growth and widespread prosperity? Again, people forgot the concept of spontaneous order, assumed away the problem of production, and developed schemes to guide the economy in a politically chosen direction.
Of course, we must not neglect the age-old human desire for power over others. Some forgot the roots of economic progress, some mourned the disruption of family and community that freedom and affluence brought, others genuinely believed that Marxism could make everyone prosperous and free without the necessity of work in dark Satanic mills. But many others used those ideas as a means to power. If the divine right of kings would no longer persuade people to hand over their liberty and property, then the power-seekers would use nationalism, or egalitarianism, or racial prejudice, or class warfare, or the vague promise that the State would alleviate whatever ailed you.
By the turn of the century the remaining liberals despaired of the future. The Nation editorialized that “material comfort has blinded the eyes of the present generation to the cause which made it possible” and worried that “before [statism] is again repudiated there must be international struggles on a terrific scale.” Herbert Spencer published The Coming Slavery and mourned at his death in 1903 that the world was returning to war and barbarism.
Indeed, as the liberals feared, the century of European peace that began in 1815 came crashing down in 1914, with what rightly came to be called the First World War. The replacement of liberalism by statism and nationalism was in large part to blame, and the war itself may have delivered the death blow to liberalism. In the United States and Europe governments enlarged their scope and power in response to the war. Exorbitant taxation, conscription, censorship, nationalization, and central planning—not to mention the 10 million deaths at Flanders fields and Verdun and elsewhere—signaled that the era of liberalism, which had so recently supplanted the Old Order, was now itself supplanted by the era of the megastate.
The Rise of the Modern Libertarian Movement
Through the Progressive Era, World War I, the New Deal, and World War II, there was tremendous enthusiasm for bigger government among American intellectuals. Herbert Croly, the first editor of The New Republic, wrote The Promise of American Life, in which he said that promise would be fulfilled “not by … economic freedom, but by a certain measure of discipline; not by the abundant satisfaction of individual desires, but by a large measure of individual subordination and self-denial.” Even the awful collectivism beginning to emerge in Europe was not repugnant to many “progressive” journalists and intellectuals in America. Anne O’Hare McCormick reported in the New York Times in the first months of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal,
“The atmosphere [in Washington] is strangely reminiscent of Rome in the first weeks after the march of the Blackshirts, of Moscow at the beginning of the Five-Year Plan… .
Something far more positive than acquiescence vests the President with the authority of a dictator. This authority is a free gift, a sort of unanimous power of attorney… . America today literally asks for orders… . Not only does the present occupant of the White House possess more authority than any of his predecessors, but he presides over a government that has more control over more private activities than any other that has ever existed in the United States… . [The Roosevelt administration] envisages a federation of industry, labor and government after the fashion of the corporative State as it exists in Italy.
Though a few liberals—notably the journalist H. L. Mencken —remained outspoken, there was indeed a general intellectual and popular acquiescence in the trend toward big government. The government’s apparent success in ending the Depression and winning World War II gave impetus to the notion that government could solve all sorts of problems. Not until 25 years or so after the end of the war did popular sentiment start to turn sharply against the megastate.
The Austrian Economists
Meanwhile, though, even in the darkest hour of libertarianism, great thinkers continued to emerge and to refine liberal ideas. One of the greatest was Ludwig von Mises, an Austrian economist who fled the Nazis, first to Switzerland in 1934 and then to the United States in 1940. Mises’s devastating book Socialism showed that socialism could not possibly work because without private property and a price system there is no way to determine what should be produced and how. His student Friedrich Hayek related the influence that Socialism had on some of the most promising young intellectuals of the time:
When Socialism first appeared in 1922, its impact was profound. It gradually but fundamentally altered the outlook of many of the young idealists returning to their university studies after World War I. I know, for I was one of them… . Socialism promised to fulfill our hopes for a more rational, more just world. And then came this book. Our hopes were dashed.
Another young intellectual whose faith in socialism was dashed by Mises was Wilhelm Roepke, who went on to be the chief adviser to Ludwig Erhard, the German economics minister after World War II and chief architect of the “German economic miracle” of the 1950s and 1960s. Others took longer to learn. The American economist and bestselling author Robert Heilbroner, wrote that in the 1930s, when he was studying economics, Mises’s argument about the impossibility of planning “did not seem a particularly cogent reason to reject socialism.” Fifty years later, Heilbroner wrote in the New Yorker, “It turns out, of course, that Mises was right.” Better late than never.
Mises’s magnum opus was Human Action, a comprehensive treatise on economics. In it he developed a complete science of economics, which he considered to be the study of all purposeful human action. He was an uncompromising free-marketer, who forcefully pointed out how every government intervention in the marketplace tends to reduce wealth and the overall standard of living.
Mises’s student Hayek became not only a brilliant economist—he won the Nobel Prize in 1974—but perhaps the greatest social thinker of the century. His books The Sensory Order, The Counter-Revolution of Science, The Constitution of Liberty, and Law, Legislation, and Liberty explored topics ranging from psychology and the misapplication of the methods of the physical sciences in the social sciences to law and political theory. In his most famous work, The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, he warned the very countries that were then engaged in a war against totalitarianism that economic planning would lead not to equality but to a new system of class and status, not to prosperity but to poverty, not to liberty but to serfdom. The book was bitterly attacked by socialist and left-leaning intellectuals in England and the United States, but it sold very well—perhaps one of the reasons that the writers of academic books resented it—and inspired a new generation of young people to explore libertarian ideas. Hayek’s last book, The Fatal Conceit, published in 1988 when he was approaching 90, returned to the problem that had occupied most of his scholarly interest: the spontaneous order, that order which is “of human action but not of human design.” The fatal conceit of intellectuals, he said, is to think that smart people can design an economy or a society better than the apparently chaotic interactions of millions of people. Such intellectuals fail to realize how much they don’t know or how a market makes use of all the localized knowledge each of us possesses.
The Last Classical Liberals
Meanwhile, along with the development of the “Austrian School” of economics, a group of writers and political thinkers was also keeping libertarian ideas alive. H. L. Mencken was best known as a journalist and literary critic, but he thought deeply about politics; he said his ideal was “a government that barely escapes being no government at all.” [Albert Jay Nock], the author of Our Enemy, the State, Garet Garrett, John T. Flynn, Felix Morley, and Frank Chodorov worried about the future of limited, constitutional government in the face of the New Deal and what seemed to be a permanent war footing that the United States had entered during the 20th century. Henry Hazlitt, a journalist who wrote about economics, served as a link between these schools. He worked for the Nation and the New York Times, wrote a column for Newsweek, gave Mises’s Human Action a rave review, and popularized free-market economics in a little book called Economics in One Lesson, which drew out the implications of Bastiat’s “what is seen and what is not seen.” Mencken said, “He was one of the few economists in human history who could really write.”
In the dark year of 1943, in the depths of World War II and the Holocaust, when the most powerful government in the history of the United States was allied with one totalitarian power to defeat another, three remarkable women published books that could be said to have given birth to the modern libertarian movement. Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had written Little House on the Prairie and other stories of American rugged individualism, published a passionate historical essay called The Discovery of Freedom. Isabel Paterson, a novelist and literary critic, produced The God of the Machine, which defended individualism as the source of progress in the world.
The other great book of 1943 was The Fountainhead, a sprawling novel about architecture and integrity by Ayn Rand. The book’s individualist theme did not fit the spirit of the age, and reviewers savaged it. But it found its intended readers. Its sales started slowly, then built and built. It was still on the New York Times bestseller list two full years later. Hundreds of thousands of people read it in the 1940s, millions eventually, and some thousands of them were inspired enough to seek more information about Ayn Rand’s ideas. Rand went on to write an even more successful novel, Atlas Shrugged, in 1957, and to found an association of people who shared her philosophy, which she called Objectivism. Although her political philosophy was libertarian, not all libertarians shared her views on metaphysics, ethics, and religion. Others were put off by the starkness of her presentation and by her cult following.
Like Mises and Hayek, Rand demonstrates the importance of immigration not just to America but to American libertarianism. Mises had fled the Nazis, Rand fled the Communists who came to power in her native Russia. When a heckler asked her at a public speech, “Why should we care what a foreigner thinks?”, she replied with her usual fire, “I chose to be an American. What did you ever do, except for having been born?”
The Post-War Revival
Not long after Atlas Shrugged, the University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom, in which he argued that political freedom could not exist without private property and economic freedom. Friedman’s stature as an economist, which won him a Nobel Prize in 1976, was based on his work in monetary economics. But through Capitalism and Freedom, his long-running Newsweek column, and the 1980 book and television series Free to Choose, he became the most prominent American libertarian of the past generation.
Another economist, Murray Rothbard, achieved less fame but played an important role in building both a theoretical structure for modern libertarian thought and a political movement devoted to those ideas. Rothbard wrote a major economic treatise, Man, Economy, and State; a four-volume history of the American Revolution, Conceived in Liberty; a concise guide to the theory of natural rights and its implications, The Ethics of Liberty; a popular libertarian manifesto, For a New Liberty; and countless pamphlets and articles in magazines and newsletters. Libertarians compared him to both Marx, the builder of an integrated political-economic theory, and Lenin, the indefatigable organizer of a radical movement.
Libertarianism got a major boost in scholarly respect in 1974 with the publication of Anarchy, State, and Utopia by the Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick. With wit and fine-toothed logic, Nozick laid out a case for rights that concluded that
a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, [and] fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right.
In a catchier vein, he called for the legalization of “capitalist acts between consenting adults.” Nozick’s book—along with Rothbard’s For a New Liberty and Rand’s essays on political philosophy—defined the “hard-core” version of modern libertarianism, which essentially restated Spencer’s law of equal freedom: Individuals have the right to do whatever they want to, so long as they respect the equal rights of others. The role of government is to protect individual rights from foreign aggressors and from neighbors who murder, rape, rob, assault, or defraud us. And if government seeks to do more than that, it will itself be depriving us of our rights and liberties.
Libertarianism is sometimes accused of being rigid and dogmatic, but it is in fact merely a basic framework for societies in which free individuals can live together in peace and harmony, each undertaking what Jefferson called “their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” The society created by a libertarian framework is the most dynamic and innovative ever seen on earth, as witness the unprecedented advances in science, technology, and standard of living since the liberal revolution of the late 18th century. A libertarian society is marked by widespread charity undertaken as a result of personal benevolence, not left to state coercion.
Libertarianism is also a creative and dynamic framework for intellectual activity. Today it is statist ideas that seem old and tired, while there is an explosion of libertarian scholarship in such fields as economics, law, history, philosophy, psychology, feminism, economic development, civil rights, education, the environment, social theory, bioethics, civil liberties, foreign policy, technology, the Information Age, and more. Libertarianism has developed a framework for scholarship and problem-solving, but our understanding of the dynamics of free and unfree societies will continue to develop.
Today the intellectual development of libertarian ideas continues, but the broader impact of those ideas derives from the growing network of libertarian magazines and think-tanks, the revival of traditional American hostility to centralized government, and most important, the continuing failure of big government to deliver on its promises.
Excerpted from LIBERTARIANISM: A PRIMER by David Boaz. Copyright © 1997 by David Boaz. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.