Smith marks three years of his essays with some thoughts about the importance of libertarian theory and history.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

My first Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org essay was posted on November 3, 2011, and this essay is #150 in an ongoing series with no end in sight. The fact that I have had no trouble coming up with topics relating to libertarian ideas, especially as manifested in the history of political thought, and the fact that I cannot imagine ever running out of topics, testify to the richness and diversity of the libertarian tradition.

I am taking this break from my current series, “Self‐​Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism,” in order to offer some reflections on the importance of ideas in general and on the history of libertarian ideas in particular.

Since my essays are aimed at a general audience rather than academics and specialists, a question naturally arises: Why should libertarians care about the philosophy and history of their own political ideology? In addressing this question here I am in a sense carrying coals to Newcastle, since anyone who reads my essays on a regular basis is already interested in these matters. Moreover, I don’t think every libertarian necessarily should take an active interest in the philosophical and historical foundations of libertarianism. As in any broad‐​based movement, specialization and the division of labor have occurred in the libertarian movement, with some participants more focused than others on practical, day‐​to‐​day political issues. All this is normal and unobjectionable, of course, but it would be a serious mistake to suppose that knowledge of the theory and history of libertarian ideas is without practical value. Let’s take a look at this issue in more detail.

Perhaps the most dramatic difference in libertarian thinking about strategy is that between pragmatists and ideologues. I offer these categories as ideal types or pure forms (to use the sociological terms of Max Weber and Georg Simmel). In other words, I have constructed these ideal types for the purpose of analysis, without suggesting that real libertarians fall exclusively into one category or the other. Most of us probably embody some features of both types, with a disposition to favor one over the other. Moreover, “pragmatist” and “ideologue” are relative terms; even the most practical of libertarian pragmatists may be regarded as an impractical ideologue by the general public.

Pragmatists typically pride themselves on their “common sense” and on their “realistic” view of the political world. Although they do not altogether deny the importance of theory and ideology, pragmatists believe that these have little application outside the immediate circle of hard‐​core libertarians. Libertarians may enjoy debating the fine points of theory among themselves, but this intellectual recreation cannot help us in the rough and tumble world of politics. The pragmatist sees himself as a problem‐​solver; he is going to roll up his sleeves and get something done.

The pragmatist is especially fond of talking about “the real world”—a place, he thinks, that ideologues rarely visit and know little about. The real world is the world of flesh‐​and‐​blood human beings, the domicile of the proverbial “average person,” in contrast to the abstract world of the libertarian theorist. The pragmatist, however much he may disparage theory, often has a rather elaborate theory about how to change the world. If he has a background in business (which he often does), the pragmatist will wax eloquent on how libertarian ideas can be “packaged” and “sold.” The average person, he tells us, doesn’t want to hear about rights and the proper role of government; he is interested only in his family, his job, and his bank account. It is the pragmatist who likes to write and read books with titles like How You Can Profit from the Coming Extinction of the Human Race.

We also have the pragmatic activist who is suspicious of abstract ideology and believes that he has his finger on the pulse of people in the real world. Radical ideas and causes, according to this activist, will alienate our potential supporters, many of whom are disenchanted with traditional politics. Therefore, we are cautioned not to focus on unpopular issues, such as drug legalization.

There are many permutations of pragmatism, some of which are more sophisticated than the types presented here, but all share a dislike, or at least a strong suspicion, of libertarian ideologues and their abstract arguments. When the libertarian pragmatist speaks of “facts” and the “real world,” he means the knowledge gained through experience and observation, knowledge acquired from specific events and circumstances. He begins with empirical facts (concrete people, specific actions, etc.) and then generalizes about strategy, based on what libertarians can realistically hope to achieve in the near future.

This inductive process is based on the historical method. All facts appealed to by the pragmatist (assuming they are accurate) fall within the domain of historical knowledge. History is the study of past human actions; it is concerned with the unique individual event, not with a general pattern or theory. These historical events are what pragmatists call the “real world” of facts.

Ironically, the pragmatist sometimes places history in the same category as theory, relegating both to the ethereal world of the ideologue, scholar, and academic. Yet, as Mises and others have pointed out, all human knowledge falls into one of these two categories. Knowledge of particular concrete facts is always knowledge of something that has already taken place; this is historical knowledge. General knowledge, on the other hand, does not refer to a specific time and place; this is theoretical knowledge. All knowledge refers either to specific phenomena that occurred at a determinate time and place in the past, or to general propositions that are abstracted from any particular time and place. The former is the sphere of history; the latter is the sphere of theory.

The pragmatist commits himself to a strategic method based on history instead of theory. This is a plausible choice, provided the pragmatist understands the method he is using, especially its limitations. But this rarely happens. The pragmatist who disdains theory fails thereby to reflect on the theoretical premises and implications of his own method, which remain unacknowledged, unappreciated, and often ill‐​treated. I will discuss three aspects of this problem.

(1) The failure to analyze methodological assumptions is clearly illustrated by the mole‐​like historical sight of some pragmatists who, in their search for empirical data, search no farther than their immediate range of vision. History, for the mole, is limited to what he has personally witnessed or at least to events that have occurred during recent decades. For the mole, history began a decade ago, possibly two or three, but rarely does the mole regard as relevant any event that is older than he is. His life and memory, it seems, just happen to overlap perfectly with the only period of history that he needs to know. By a convenient coincidence, all relevant facts pertaining to a free society and how to achieve it are confined to the same period of time in which the pragmatist has been interested in libertarianism.

Given his commitment to the real world, the pragmatist should immerse himself in a study of the real world (i.e., history) and learn what factors have contributed to freedom over the past 2500 years. Modern libertarians are not the first people to value liberty, nor are we the most successful. Seventeenth‐ and eighteenth‐​century libertarians, for example, faced even greater odds than we do, yet they had spectacular triumphs in some areas, such as religious freedom. Those successes were not accidental. Early libertarians were acutely aware of strategic issues—witness the popular appeal of the Enlightenment philosophes, who devoted a good deal of thought to how to reach a general public—yet many of these early libertarians, because of their acute interest in theory and the history of ideas, would qualify as ideologues by the standards of the modern pragmatist. Indeed, the very word “ideologue” was coined by the pragmatic Napoleon, who used it to smear Benjamin Constant and other French libertarians who refused to sacrifice principles to expediency, and who demanded a philosophical justification for the immense power wielded by Napoleon.

I agree with the pragmatist that we should be concerned with what will work in the real world. But this requires that we learn something about the real world, which is far more complex than the mole would have us believe. If we want to know what will work, we should find out what has worked in the past. Therefore, the sincere pragmatist, before he trashes ideologues, should study history for ten years or so, reflect on what he has read, and then get back to us.

(2) The most serious error of pragmatism is its lack of appreciation for the role of ideology in social perception. By “social perception” is meant how we “perceive” the world of social wholes (or entities), such as “state,” “society,” “church,” and “the market.” In truth, we do not perceive social entities with our eyes; rather, we understand them with our minds. Social entities, as Hayek said, are “constituted” by the mind. They are not physical things, like rocks and trees and birds, but are mental constructs of abstract relationships.

This means that how we think about social entities will greatly influence how we perceive them. We libertarians know this from experience, having encountered many people who appear to “see” government differently than we do. Some people don’t see government as essentially coercive; they may even see taxes as voluntary. These differences in social perception result from viewing social reality through different ideological lenses. Ideology is absolutely essential to the success of the libertarian movement, because it establishes a common frame of reference. If we fail to convince the average person, this is often because we see a different social reality than does the average person. Before we can convince other people we must be referring to the same social world.

The real world of social interaction is not merely a world of objective data and physical entities. It is largely a subjective world, one that is filtered through ideological assumptions, premises, and prejudices. The social world is constituted by the ideas that people have about it. If libertarians can change those ideas, they can, in a very literal sense, change the world.

(3) In evaluating any form of pragmatism, we should keep in mind that the greatest benefits of a free society are often those that cannot be foreseen or predicted. As Hayek pointed out, this has important implications for any pragmatic strategy. As he wrote in Law, Legislation, and Liberty: “Since the value of freedom rests on the opportunities it provides for unforeseen and unpredictable actions, we will rarely know what we lose through a particular restriction of freedom.”

The direct effects of market intervention, including its apparent short‐​term benefits, will be apparent in many cases, but we cannot know all the opportunities that have been lost through such intervention. This means that liberty will tend to lose out in many cost‐​benefit analyses, because the benefits of intervention can be “seen,” while the costs, the unrealized opportunities, remain largely “unseen” (to use Bastiat’s terms). Consequently, whenever policy decisions are based on expediency instead of principle, “freedom is bound to be sacrificed in almost every instance.” Hayek continued:

The preservation of a free system is so difficult precisely because it requires a constant rejection of measures which appear to be required to secure particular results, on no stronger grounds than that they conflict with a general rule, and frequently without our knowing what will be the costs of not observing the rule in the particular instance. A successful defense of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency.…Freedom will prevail only if it is accepted as a general principle whose application to particular instances requires no justification.

Modern libertarian theory is steeped in the revolutionary ideology of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; of this there can be no doubt. It was mainly from British writers like Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and Trenchard and Gordon (the authors of Cato’s Letters) that eighteenth‐​century Americans learned their revolutionary catechism. Libertarians are generally aware of their revolutionary heritage. What they sometimes fail to appreciate, however, is how detailed and specific our ideological ancestors were about some key features of libertarian theory. In some cases they explored the theory of liberty in greater detail than have present‐​day libertarians, but some of their insights have unfortunately been lost or ignored by the modern movement.

Having immersed myself for many years in the libertarian literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I sometimes forget that my enthusiasm is not shared by every libertarian. I am quite astonished when I recall that some dedicated libertarians have never even read John Locke, even though his Second Treatise of Government is arguably the most important and influential book on liberty ever written. I recommend that you read such people, not because they will increase your knowledge of history—though there is certainly nothing wrong with that—but because they will increase your knowledge of liberty. Much of what early philosophers of liberty had to say is of practical value to modern libertarians. As noted previously, our forefathers and foremothers faced even greater odds than we do, yet their efforts to establish liberty in various spheres—religious, personal, political, and economic—proved more successful than we find in modern times.

Thus if we want to know how to persuade people to accept the ideas of liberty and establish a free society, we should begin by reading our successful ancestors. Their ideas are as fresh and suggestive as the day they were written, however old and dusty the books may be in which those ideas appear.

Philosophy, unlike science, does not tend to advance through the progressive accumulation of knowledge. The modern student of physics does not need to read Isaac Newton in order to learn about physics. The student, if he reads Newton at all, does so because he is interested in the origin of his science, not because he expects to find the best presentation of his subject matter. What remains of value in Newton has been sifted and refined by many generations of scientists, and the student can benefit from this cumulative process by reading a modern up‐​to‐​date text on physics.

But philosophical theories, including ideas about liberty, do not follow this cumulative pattern. Rather, they tend to zig forward and zag backward in an erratic and unpredictable fashion. The theory of liberty began to zig noticeably in the seventeenth century. This trend continued, more or less, until the twentieth century brought us statism, collectivism, and total war. This highly retrogressive zag, which is probably the most severe setback that liberty has ever suffered, continued virtually unchecked until the rebirth of libertarian theory a few decades ago.

Let me try to clarify the historical status of the modern movement through an analogy. The Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century, which was an enthusiastic revival of Greek philosophy, science, and literature, paved the way for the Scientific Revolution. The European mind was stimulated to move forward by looking backward at the finest intellectual culture ever produced in the Western World, that of ancient Greece.

As libertarians we look forward to a revolution in liberty, but this lies somewhere in the future. We are currently in our renaissance stage, attempting to restore the lost or forgotten ideas of our predecessors. The intellectual culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a period rich in libertarian ideas, is to our renaissance what the culture of ancient Greece was to the Italian Renaissance—the source of our inspiration and the foundation of our future progress.

I suggest that libertarians can best move forward by first looking backward and rediscovering the intellectual gems that were bequeathed to us by our libertarian progenitors, who were more advanced than we are, theoretically speaking, in several major areas.