Oct 3, 2018
Libertarianism, Then and Now
On Camilo Gomez’s History and Politics podcast, Anthony discusses rooted libertarian history and the magnitude of our current problems.
I recently appeared on the History and Politics podcast hosted by libertarian writer, Camilo Gomez, to discuss libertarian history, the different ways historians treat its many permutations, and how our conceptions of the libertarian past may well endanger the libertarian future.
CG: We have Anthony Comegna, who is Assistant Editor for Intellectual History at the Cato Institute. Hi, Anthony.
AC: Hello, thank you for having me.
CG: So, how did you come to be interested in history and in libertarianism, and your work that tries to connect both?
AC: Well, my “how I became a libertarian” story starts with a big basket of books that my mom had in the corner of our living room, and one of them was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. And from a very young age, it always sort of mystified me because it was huge and it was very different from all the romance novels that were in the rest of the basket. And I asked my mom if I could read it when I was—I don’t know—8 or 10 or something, and she said I would have to wait a while before I could understand it, and that was captivating to me. So, by the time I was a little older and in high school, I picked it up again and started reading it, and after surfing for Ayn Rand on YouTube in my first days on college campus, I found my way down the deep rabbit hole to all sorts of different kinds of libertarianism.
And then my interest in history was developing in college because I was a history major, and I was looking for a project to do for my Honor’s Thesis. While I was in a library one day I was looking for books in Jacksonian America—that was the subject I was leaning toward—and it was Larry White’s collection of essays by a Jacksonian editorialist named William Leggett (this was published back in the ‘80s). And, I read through that and I fell in love with the writings of this guy William Leggett and his version of radical Jacksonianism really interested me. I was fascinated by the Bank War and how people could have been so whipped up in the era about a subject as dry and boring to us as national banking. It just mystified me—there was something really interesting going on in the intellectual history of this period. I was very attracted to William Leggett, so I wrote my Honors Thesis on him, and I decided I need to pursue the subject in graduate school because nobody had written about this aside from this book by Larry White. There was basically no treatment of William Leggett and his followers over the next several decades, who adopted the name “locofoco.” So, in graduate school I spent my time doing my dissertation, which I bill as the first and only history of the Locofoco movement. And now that I work at Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute, I try to get the word out that this is a crucial and far overlooked element of libertarian history that deserves a revival.
CG: So, how could we describe the Locofocos?
AC: I would say that they are not equivalent to modern libertarians, they did not approach the world with the same set of values but their ideas are an absolutely fundamental sort of precursor to what we know as the libertarian movement. The special thing about the locofocos is that they started as radical members of what was coming to be known as the Democratic Party. And their political roots go back to 1828, which is when the first Workingman’s Parties were formed for local and state elections, and they adopted the economic radicalism of the Jackson administration—so his war against the Bank of the United States especially excited them because they saw it as a war on monopoly powers that held over from Old World politics and was infecting New World democracy and republicanism, distorting it in all sorts of unhealthy and corrupting ways. So they saw Jackson’s war against the national bank, the Second Bank of the United States, as part of the essential American project of, like Thomas Paine said, “beginning the world from the right end,” that is—building power and governmental legitimacy from the bottom up, from the people themselves, their individual sovereignty, and not the authority of some king or some charter-granting legislature, even. These kinds of special powers and privileges accorded to corporations, especially banks in the period, disturbed them because they saw it as essentially either a nest of conspiracies by Old World investors to still fleece the American people, or they saw it as an attempt by centralizers and power-aggrandizers in America to sort of foist Old World institutions on Americans even though they had tried to shed themselves of that kind of government.
They were very, very close to modern libertarians in that they also did not overlook the plight of minorities. They believed in democracy as an effective way of governing ourselves, but they thought that democracy, too, was a dangerous thing and it had strict limitations based on the equal, universal rights of all individuals. Many of them took the leap to abolitionism, along with William Leggett. Leggett converted to abolitionism when in 1835—a New York abolitionist society sent sacksful of abolitionist literature to Charleston, South Carolina, and the postmaster (a man named Alfred Huger) in Charleston basically looked the other way as an angry mob of Charlestonians broke into the post office, stole the abolitionist literature before it could be delivered, and they burned it in the town square. So the postmaster looked the other way while this mob violated the rights of these northern abolitionists to use the federal mails, and then Jackson’s Postmaster General, Amos Kendall, also looked the other way and said “Ah, well, I’m not going to pay attention.” So, de facto, the administration was giving its support to a flagrant violation of citizens’ rights so that they could protect the monopoly powers and privileges of slaveholding planters. This deeply disturbed Leggett and many around him. He spoke out against the administration in no uncertain terms, and they excommunicated him from the party. The Washington Globe officially read him out of the Democratic Party and he became a pariah among everybody invested in the growing party system, but the movement that he began in that moment became the guiding light for abolitionism and anti-monopoly over the next twenty years and it transformed America in some pretty profound ways that get overlooked.
CG: I think that kind of radicalism is sometimes what’s missing from the history and political philosophy of libertarianism; I think that particularly in America but also more or less in many places libertarianism has been associated with the right and with conservativism. I will not deny that there are certain elements of particularly the American right that have had some libertarian streaks—Barry Goldwater and others—but the problem is that I think they kind of erase the participation of more radical elements of libertarian history and characters like Karl Hess. I am a huge fan of Karl Hess. Actually the reason I became a libertarian was because I found one of his articles and he didn’t use the term “libertarian,” but I said whatever he is, I want to be that, and that’s how I became a libertarian. But I think that is kind of the huge intellectual task that I guess the Cato Institute is trying to portray left-libertarianism in a more broad way than other institutions, I guess.
AC: Well, I would start with a slight caution there. Our mission at Libertarianism.org (which is sort of the philosophy arm of the Cato Institute), our mission is to present libertarianism as a very broad set of traditions—it has many different kinds of intellectual strands running through it, and part of what I want to do as an historian is to disentangle some of those and make it more clear to people where they might fall in the different variations of our pretty wide, many hundreds of years long tradition.
I think you’re right that the right-wing associations with libertarianism—that is mainly a product of the 20th century and really the second half of the 20th century, and before that it was overtly left-wing, and radically left-wing, for the most part, in almost all iterations. You know, as I understand the history of this, at least, Benjamin Tucker was the first American to really start using the term “libertarian” as a self-identifier somewhere in the late 1870s or early 1880s. Before that, it was used in Europe sort of here and there to identify somebody who just had a general preference for individual liberty, or for liberty of any sort. And in America, there were very different sorts of words that people would use to describe what is essentially the same package. Whatever Tucker meant when he called himself a libertarian, there were plenty of people exactly like that who just used different words in prior generations. “Locofoco” is one of them. I think Tom Paine—just like William Leggett was the icon for locofocoism—Tom Paine was the intellectual leader of earlier generations and he never used the word “libertarian,” but my God, that man was certainly a libertarian.
And I like to take the history back to all sorts of different iterations from below, too. You know, I think too often in the modern day we get caught up in the great big names like Adam Smith or John Locke, or whoever else, but very big, big, important people who wrote big book and did big things. But what about all the multitudes of small people who did important, too? One of my favorite subjects in this vein is pirates, because I think that especially in the Gold Age of Piracy, which is in the early 1700s in the Atlantic world, there were all sort of pirate crews who were living overtly libertarian lives on their ships. They were organizing their own societies ship by ship, according to their own rules, that they made themselves, that were actually very equitable and peaceful, and well-intentioned. These are examples of people who made it to the margins of power in the world—the very limits of what the powerful people could reach—and they pushed beyond that, and they determined to live freely; and they did. There’s a lot we could learn from all sorts of different types of libertarians throughout history, like pirates or like the wild-eyed religious fanatics that are everywhere during the English Civil Wars, but they’re leading important movements that go very important places. If we only get caught up in the history from above and the big, grand, exciting things in textbooks, then we’re going to miss most of the libertarian tradition, I think.
CG: I met a libertarian who is doing his masters, and he is doing his thesis on law in stateless medieval Iceland. There are a lot of interesting subjects. Obviously they were not libertarian in the modern sense, but they certainly had a lot of these kinds of libertarian leanings. There’s a podcast that has also spoken with some economic historians of Latin America and, for example, several countries of Latin America used to have free banking in the 19th century. That goes against the argument that a lot of more reactionary elements among the right that try to justify blocking immigration from Latin America, saying that Latin Americans love big government, but it was very radical in some of the influence of liberal ideas, which were fundamental to the independence project in Latin America. In some parts it was even very radical. I think it will help—a knowledge of a more broad history—to understand libertarianism better.
But in that context, I was going to ask—How do you see the issue with the Nancy MacLean book that has created a lot of controversy, basically accusing James Buchanan and a lot of the libertarian movement with being, if not directly white supremacist, more or less in alliance with white supremacists? Very strange.
AC: Well, again I’ll start with a cautionary note because I have not read her book, nor am I thoroughly familiar with her arguments or the critiques of it by any means. It’s too far outside of my area of expertise. I just simply don’t have that kind of background for 20th century history of economic thought to have engaged in any way with Nancy MacLean. Though, I do find interesting the insistence that Buchanan was deeply influenced by John C. Calhoun—because while people whose opinions I trust on the matter, at least (like Phil Magness), while he is very certain that there’s no reason to think that Buchanan was deeply influenced by Calhoun at all, in fact maybe just the opposite—plenty of libertarians have been, and have had nothing but great things to say about Calhoun, despite his obvious descipability. The fact that he was a disgusting human being by any kind of libertarian standard—and yet, and yet we have the exact same needs for our history as everybody else does. We want it to confirm our biases, whatever they are. And I have to say, whenever I hear a libertarian have good things to say about Calhoun, I wonder what their biases are.
And I am somebody who thinks that there is a so-called “pipeline” between the alt-right and libertarianism, and I think that we libertarian academics have a responsibility to be forthright about how our values as libertarians affect the kind of historical work that we do so that there’s no lack of clarity about why we might be saying something nice about John C. Calhoun and his contributions. I think they are practically nothing. There is very little of value in what Calhoun has to say for a libertarian, so it does make me wonder why some people have great things to say about him and what intention they have behind making his sort of arguments. Our tendency when talking about whether there is a problem of racism in libertarianism—I think our tendency is to try to ignore the issue and hope that there really are no problems because after all, these people are not libertarians. But, if they are out there calling themselves “libertarians,” and they’re trying to portray libertarian history as something that has a place for John C. Calhoun, I think that sends the wrong message to people who are trying to figure out what libertarianism is all about. Calhoun certainly would be shocked at the assertion Nancy MacLean makes that he has anything to do with modern libertarianism. That would probably horrify him.
So I think that she is not only—she is wrong in some way, but it is our responsibility to make it abundantly clear that we do not have any place for Calhoun in our way of thinking and that his ideas were crafted specifically to serve the interests of his class, his planter class. This is a man who, his career was built as a series of justifications for government intervention to keep people in chains, to service folks like him, and that’s how he thought the world should be. That was the purpose of the concurrent majority, protecting minority rights within the system—to his mind, that was the minority that mattered, right? The planters. I don’t think that MacLean makes a good point that Buchanan has anything to do with adopting Calhoun’s ideas, but we need to be very clear that the people who do are not being libertarians who are consistent with the actual historical traditions that they say they ascribe to.
CG: I live in Peru, and the freedom movement which is most known for Mario Vargas Llosa, the writer, was a lot of times accused of trying to cater basically to the white upper middle class in Lima, which is the main city of Peru, and forgot the majority of the population. That was the reason he lost to Fujimori who was a more technocrat and heterodox politician. Yeah, I am conscious of this. And in Brazil, it is very sad because some people who technically identify as libertarian are now supporting a politician like who is running in the Social Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro—he’s a fascist, he’s a very extreme right candidate. I think even Duterte or Trump are far more moderate on more of the issues than Jair Bolsonaro, and it is very striking to see that kind of cooperation.
AC: Yeah, to me at least, this takes me back to the story of the Locofocos, because I think that once you put their decades-long history as a movement together, what you see step-by-step is the corrupting influence of politics. With any sort of involvement in party politics, what happens over the years is that when the locofocos get involved in party politics and they have built-in interests in that system now, it diverts them and separates their movement into people who are more willing to compromise, dilute the message, dilute the policy, and people who are unwilling to compromise and unwilling to dilute their message. And there’s always a split—every new time, the community splits more and more, and in the end they disappear and we don’t even remember who they are. And I’m worried that that sort of thing has been a recurring theme enough that we may very well be in another one of those periods now.
Honestly, it makes me concerned for the history moving forward of this term “libertarian.” To my mind, we’re in sort of a cultural battle to figure out who has ownership over that term and who actually gets to call themselves with reliability and a degree of truth, a “libertarian.” Who gets to actually deploy that term? Is it the people who are willing to support Trump because they want lower taxes, or at least they think they’re going to get lower taxes out of it? Or people who will make excuses for the administration because they have, you know, this Hoppean perspective on immigration or something, they don’t want people speaking other languages near them and so they adopt some weird version of libertarianism and pass it off as part of this grand tradition of liberal ideas. It’s not!—it’s a bizarre outlier, and you know, I hope we’re not losing this cultural battle to define libertarianism. I think there are more of us out there in the world than there are other folks, but it is an active concern because we have been here before and we’ve lost before.
CG: And I was going to ask you—How do you see historians in academia studying libertarianism? I mean, Jennifer Burns is probably the most known for her work on Ayn Rand. I think she was invited to The Daily Show, which was kind of surprising that the show would invite an historian, but it was very interesting to hear. How do you see the interest of historical academia in libertarianism?
AC: [laughter] Let me tell you a brief anecdote. I was in a graduate seminar many years ago now, and we were reading some book, I forget actually which one. The author said something about the labor theory of value and I brought that up to my professor in the seminar, and was like “Wait, well this guy’s talking about the labor theory of value, but I mean, nobody thinks that anymore, right? I mean, shouldn’t we pause and talk about that? That this is a ridiculous idea?” And he seemed kind of flabbergasted that I would say such a thing, because of course he believed in the labor theory of value. And it just floored me, and I was like “Well, you know it strikes me that part of the problem with historians is that they don’t know anything about economics.” And he replied, “Well, economists don’t know anything about history, either, so like, what’s your deal, man?” You know? And it was as if he was saying, “Look, I don’t think there’s any value to what economists do, so don’t expect me to take their word for it that something is valuable because, oh I don’t know, some subjectivity Voodoo going on.”
And that just really stuck out to me as a moment that made very clear that as libertarian academics we have to read all of their stuff. Everything from mainstream history to Marxist history to whatever else, we have to read all of their stuff but, boy!—they never come into contact with our stuff. They never give it a shot, don’t care for it at all, don’t see any value in doing the history of libertarianism or thinking about it as part of the wider world. And, so, it might as well not exist. And there are a few isolated cases you could find out there of academics like Burns or Nancy MacLean, even, who have spent some time at least doing libertarian history from a non-libertarian perspective, but my God, there needs to be a lot more of that. That’s another part of what I am interested in doing as an historian. It’s going to be harder than talking to libertarians, but I would at least like to talk to some mainstream historians about how they need to care about this stuff. You know, change happens on the margins—that’s something we get from Carl Menger and the Austrian tradition. All change happens on the margins: that’s where value is established and that’s where people make their choices. Marginal considerations. And if historians cared even a little bit about the history of libertarianism, if they made even a marginal effort to ferret out what impact we have had on the world, they would see that it’s much, much, much more important that they were giving it credit for. And it would transform an awful lot about what they think about the world. It might even bring us a little bit closer in terms of our politics, because like I said, I think most of libertarian history—hundreds and hundreds of years of it, right up to the last 60 or 70—it’s been a profoundly left-wing movement.
CG: Yeah, I agree. And in graduate students, did you see more interest in your time in grad school? Are there more graduate students than the number of historians interested in libertarianism, or no?
AC: Well, that’s a tough question, because my personal experience in my graduate program was that students also had absolutely no interest in whatever it was weird stuff that I was doing. They pretty much had contempt for comments that I would make from my libertarian perspective on whatever we were discussing in the seminar. That doesn’t go for all of them, and I have maintained some pretty good intellectual exchanges with some people from my graduate program, but I think that was the overwhelming reaction. Frankly, they dismissed my point of view to the same extent that they dismissed the structural Marxist point of view. As some sort of outdated relic of a bygone era that makes no sense in our world today. Both of those elements were slightly surprising to me. I expected graduate students to be a little more open minded to my “always anti-war” point of view, for example, and some other elements of my libertarianism, but I was also surprised that they had no time for the Old School Marxism, either.
And I did come into contact throughout my time with places like IHS—the Institute for Humane Studies—and Liberty Fund, and other organizations that work with grad students and professors, and there is a whole big, wide world of up-and-coming libertarian historians and academics out there. We’re publishing an awful lot and writing an awful lot, and I think the more the better. It is a growing number, which is very good. I get the feeling that for several decades economists so dominated within libertarianism that virtually no one started careers specifically as a historian. There were an awful lot of economic historians or historians of economic thought among libertarians, but not many full-time historians, let’s say, who just wrote history. And, I think—I hope—we’re correcting some of that and just balancing the numbers a bit more.
CG: Yeah, that’s certainly a very complex task. As far as I know, now there is a huge revival of the Marxist radical left, and its very curious because I was writing an article about Jasper McLevy who was a mayor in Connecticut and a very curious case. Jesse Walker had previously written about him. He was, for not knowing a better term, a fiscally conservative socialist. He was a socialist who was against taxes. It was very kind of strange. Very anti-war. I think that an interesting combination, because that’s probably—I think he could be more or less a middle point like Carl Oglesby, the president of SDS, between the more radical anarchist left-libertarians and the liberalterians. I think he left some role for the state but at the same time his foreign policy was more or less the same as more anarchist libertarians, and it was interesting. I think it would be a very curious moment politically, because I think from there it’s going to generate a lot of political engagement with the youth that for a lot of time has been seeing politics from apart and now it’s going to be both. And now maybe libertarians promoting the more radical elements of libertarianism could try to appeal to that new base?
AC: Historians should never try to predict the future, because they’re nearly always wrong. If you understand what you’re doing, you know that things are always contingent on human actions that are based on motivations that are incredibly hard to understand—So don’t try to predict future events, not if you’re an historian.
But here’s part of the amazing thing to me about both the Jacksonian period and the period we’re living in now. We usually date the Jacksonian era from about 1815 to about 1845, from the end of the War of 1812 when there was a giant boom in internal construction projects like canals and turnpike roads and eventually railroads. It transformed communications and transportation, politics, all sorts of things about our culture, the way people interacted with each other and exchanged goods around the world, standard of living—everything about somebody’s life in the United States changed in that 30-year period, and by the end of it you have people communicating their thoughts instantaneously by electricity across the continent. I mean, it’s an amazing, astonishing leap in just a 30-year period, and it totally transforms society. And that is exactly the kind of period that we’re living in right now, especially if you follow a lot of the deeper tech news and things like artificial intelligence development. I mean, we are on the edge, we are living through a technological explosion like none other since the Jacksonian period and we should expect virtually everything about our world to change in ways that we can’t predict or control. That should be the libertarian message culturally, I think—a sort of libertarian cultural futurism that embraces change, embraces the spontaneity of it and the lack of knowledge that we have about where things are going and cautions people to be better as they go forward.
That is what somebody like William Leggett built his short life on. For just a few years after the burning of the abolitionist mails that got him excommunicated from the Democratic Party, he only lived for a few more years, but in that time he became the country’s foremost disunionist. He wanted to break the country apart because it would make it easier for slaves to escape and it would make it easier to abolish slavery in the South. He wanted the North to secede from the Union and stop abiding slaveholders in their midst and protecting them with federal power and legitimacy. He was constantly telling people the truth as he saw it and cautioning them to be good, and to be better than they think they might be—to always check their premises against the evidence before them, their own thoughts and feelings about what’s right and wrong, don’t take the dictates of party, don’t listen to people telling you that you have to have a certain class interest or race interest or whatever else. Do what you think is right, do it the best that you can, and if things don’t work out—Well, you need to take comfort in the knowledge that you did the right thing.
I don’t know what better message that libertarians could offer people, and if they don’t listen, well I guess God help them. But, as the late Ralph Raico said, these ideas are worth talking about still. It’s worth it to say somebody was out there saying these thing still, someone was keeping these good ideas alive still. I don’t know what the youth think, or how they will vote, or how they will do anything, but I really hope they turn out more libertarian than past generations, because the world would be better for it.