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The Long Afterlife of Libertarianism

Mar 07, 2023Mar 07, 2023

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells

In 2001, the libertarian anti-tax activist Grover Norquist gave a memorable interview on NPR about his intentions. He said, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I could drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." Everything about the line was designed to provoke: the selection of a bookish and easily horrified audience, the unapologetic violence of "drag" and "drown," the porcelain specificity of "bathtub."

As propaganda, it worked magnificently. When I arrived in Washington, two years later, as a novice political reporter, the image still reverberated; to many it seemed a helpfully blunt depiction of what conservatives in power must really want. Republicans were preparing to privatize Social Security and Medicare, the President had campaigned on expanding school choice, and, everywhere you looked, public services were being reimagined as for-profit ones. Norquist himself—an intense, gleeful, ideological figure with the requisite libertarian beard—had managed to get more than two hundred members of Congress to sign a pledge never to raise taxes, for any reason at all. The Republicans of the George W. Bush era were generally smooth operators, having moved from a boom-time economy to the seat of an empire, confident, at every step, that they had the support of a popular majority. Their broader vision could be a little tricky for reporters to decode. Maybe Norquist was the one guy among them too weird to keep the plans for the revolution a secret.

But, as the Bush Administration unfolded, it became harder to see the Republicans as true believers. Government just didn't seem to be shrinking. On the contrary, all around us in Washington—in the majestic agency buildings along the Mall and in the rooftop bars crowded with management consultants flown in to aid in outsourcing, and especially in the vast, mirrored, gated complexes along the highway to Dulles, from which the war on terror was being coördinated and supplied—the government was very obviously growing.

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However much the Republicans had wanted to downsize government, they turned out to want other things more—like operating an overseas empire and maintaining a winning political coalition. Bush's proposal for privatizing Medicare was watered down until, in 2003, it became an expensive drug benefit for seniors, evidently meant to help him win reëlection. After beating John Kerry, in 2004, Bush announced that Social Security reform would be one of his Administration's top priorities ("I’ve earned capital in this election, and I’m going to spend it"), but within just a few months that plan had run aground, too. House Republicans saw how terribly the policy was polling and lost their nerve. Meanwhile, more drones and private military contractors and Meals Ready-to-Eat flowed to Iraq and Afghanistan and points beyond. New programs offset cuts to old ones. Norquist was going to need a bigger bathtub.

Self-identified libertarians have always been tiny in number—a handful of economists, political activists, technologists, and true believers. But, in the decades after Ronald Reagan was elected President, they came to exert enormous political influence, in part because their prescription of prosperity through deregulation appeared to be working, and in part because they provided conservatism with a long-term agenda and a vision of a better future. To the usual right-wing mixture of social traditionalism and hierarchical nationalism, the libertarians had added an especially American sort of optimism: if the government would only step back and allow the market to organize society, we would truly flourish. When Bill Clinton pronounced the era of big government over, in his 1996 State of the Union address, it operated as an ideological concession: Democrats would not aggressively defend the welfare state; they would accept that an era of small government had already begun. It almost seemed—as in the famous bathtub drowning scene in the movie "Les Diaboliques"—as if the Democrats and the Republicans had joined together in an effort to dispatch a shared problem.

Had you written a history of the libertarian movement fifteen years ago, it would have been a tale of improbable success. A small cadre of intellectually intense oddballs who inhabited a Manhattanish atmosphere of late-night living-room debates and barbed book reviews had somehow managed to impose their beliefs on a political party, then the country. A sympathetic historian might have emphasized the mass appeal of the ideals of free minds and free markets (as the libertarian writer Brian Doherty did in his comprehensive, still definitive work "Radicals for Capitalism," published in 2007), and a skeptical one might have focussed on the convenient way that the ideology advanced the business interests of billionaire backers such as the Koch brothers. But the story would have concerned a thriving idea.

The situation is no longer so simple. At first, the Republican backlash against Bush's heresies (the expensive prescription-drug benefit, the lack of progress against the national debt) cohered into the Tea Party and—once the G.O.P. establishment made its peace with the movement—into Paul Ryan's stint as Speaker, with its scolding fixation on debt reduction. But that period scarcely outlasted Ryan's Speakership. It was brought to an end by Barack Obama's crafty (and somewhat under-celebrated) reëlection campaign, in 2012, in which he effectively cast Romney-Ryan libertarianism as a stalking horse for plutocracy, rather than a leg up for small business, as Republicans claimed.

Doctrinal libertarianism hasn't disappeared from the political scene: it's easy enough to find right-of-center politicians insisting that government is too big. But, between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, libertarianism has given way to culture war as the right's dominant mode. To some libertarians—and liberals friendly to the cause—this is a development to lament, because it has stripped the American right of much of its idealism. Documenting the history of the libertarian movement now requires writing in the shadow of Trump, as two new books do. Together, they suggest that, since the end of the Cold War, libertarianism has remade American politics twice—first through its success and then through its failure.

In "The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism" (Princeton), Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi argue that things didn't have to turn out this way. Zwolinski, a philosopher at the University of San Diego, and Tomasi, a political theorist at Brown, are both committed libertarians who are appalled at the movement's turn toward a harder-edged conservatism. (They are prominent figures in a faction called "bleeding-heart libertarianism.") Their book is a deep plunge into the archives, in search of a "primordial libertarianism" that preceded the Cold War. They contend that the profound skepticism toward government and the political absolutism that characterize libertarians have animated movements across the political spectrum, and have, in the past, sometimes led adherents in progressive directions rather than conservative ones. (In the call to defund the police, for instance, the authors identify a healthy skepticism of too much centralized government.) As they see it, libertarianism once had a left-of-center valence—and could still reclaim it.

If this sounds a little optimistic, it does make for an interesting historical account. The first thinker to self-identify as libertarian, the authors point out, was the French anarcho-communist Joseph Déjacque, who argued that "private property and the state were simply two different ways in which social relationships could become infused with hierarchy and repression." Better to abolish both. The social Darwinist Herbert Spencer denounced imperialism's "deeds of blood and rapine"; the abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Lysander Spooner condemned slavery as an instance of the government's usurping natural rights. In the history of resistance to the modern state, Zwolinski and Tomasi see libertarians everywhere. This approach can sometimes come off as a land grab; my eyebrows went up when they claimed the abolitionist John Brown as a libertarian hero. Then again, Brown was a fiercely anti-government radical who sought to seize a federal armory to provision slaves for an uprising, so maybe it's not much of a stretch.

All this genealogy can seem a little notional, but certain suggestive rhythms recur: Zwolinski and Tomasi show how many thinkers return to personal liberty and the right to private property as bedrocks. That isn't only an American grammar—it comes from Locke and Mill, and, as "The Individualists" stresses, from some French sources, too—but it's the one in which the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are written. Why do so many Americans own guns? Probably in part because gun ownership is protected in the Constitution. Such choices by the Founders don't make America a libertarian country, but they do insure that libertarians will be around for as long as the Constitution is.

Zwolinski and Tomasi emphasize the contingencies in libertarianism's history, but the most consequential contingency was the Cold War, which closely followed the publication, in 1944, of a core libertarian text, Friedrich Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom." An austere Austrian economist who taught at the London School of Economics, Hayek had become alarmed that so many left-of-center English thinkers were convinced that economic central planning ought to outlast the Second World War, becoming a permanent feature of government. Back in Vienna, Hayek and his mentors had studied central planning, and he believed that the English were being hopelessly naïve. His economic insight was that, when it came to information, no government planner, no matter how many studies he commissioned, could hope to match the market's efficiency in determining what people wanted. How much bread was needed, how many tires? Best to let the market work it out. The price system, Hayek wrote, "enables entrepreneurs, by watching the movement of comparatively few prices, as an engineer watches the hands of a few dials, to adjust their activities to those of their fellows." He coupled this insight with a warning: "Few are ready to recognize that the rise of fascism and naziism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies."

"The Road to Serfdom," a text that relied on Austro-Hungarian historical experience to make a point about wartime English policy, was initially rejected by American publishers. But once it saw print, and won a rave in the Times, Hayek became a phenomenon. Anxious and unprepared, he was pushed by his publisher onto the stage at Town Hall, in New York City, to address an eager audience of American industrialists who were sick to death of Roosevelt. An abridged version was published by the Reader's Digest in the spring of 1945, and was then made available as a five-cent reprint through the Book-of-the-Month Club, which distributed more than half a million copies.

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Hayek's work more or less invented libertarianism in twentieth-century America. As the Cold War wore on, his warnings about the perils of central planning gained urgency. Small libertarian think tanks, newspapers, and philanthropies appeared across the country through the nineteen-fifties.

Hayek's mentor, Ludwig von Mises, arrived in America and began teaching a seminar in Austrian economics, at N.Y.U., underwritten by a businessman's fund. The movement was insular, fractious, New Yorkish. On West Eighty-eighth Street, a late-night salon convened in the apartment of Murray Rothbard, a student of von Mises's who had become the chief propagandist of libertarianism's extreme wing. (Robert Nozick, who became libertarianism's most important philosopher, dropped by.) In Murray Hill, Ayn Rand held post-midnight sessions with her own circle, which, at different times, included Alan Greenspan and Martin Anderson, who would become a leading domestic-policy adviser to Presidents Nixon and Reagan. Even to ideological allies, the Rand circle—in which everyone seemed to be in psychotherapy with the novelist's lover, Nathaniel Branden—appeared to be a cult. "What if, as so often happens, one didn't like, even couldn't stand, these people?" Rothbard asked.

Libertarian thinkers, on the page, tend to be prickly, disputatious, and drawn to absolutes, which is why they make for good copy. Those traits were deepened by an isolation from real power; they lorded over some small-circulation journals and a couple of budding think tanks, but that was basically it. Von Mises, among the crankiest of the originals, was once summoned to a small conference in Switzerland with a handful of libertarian grandees—the few other people on earth who actually agreed with him—and stormed out because they didn't agree with him enough. "You’re all a bunch of socialists," he said. When Milton Friedman, the most urbane of the libertarian greats, published a pamphlet, in 1946, denouncing rent control, Rand fumed that he didn't go far enough: "Not one word about the inalienable right of landlords and property owners."

Rand's fixation on the basic rights of property owners was shared by Rothbard and Nozick, and together they created the characteristic late-twentieth-century form of libertarianism, as Andrew Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern, argues in "Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed" (St. Martin's). These thinkers, Koppelman maintains, had a different goal than Hayek and Friedman did: shrinking government not to advance economic efficiency but to protect the rights of property owners. This was a critical distinction—to see each economic question as a matter of fundamental rights obliterated the possibility of compromise. Hayek, whom Koppelman admires, had written in favor of a "social minimum," which, though bare, made room for a welfare state. But as an economist, Koppelman writes, Hayek had "no clear account of rights," which is why his approach was displaced by an uncompromising, rights-based liberalism.

Rand's novels helped formalize the movement's outright celebration of billionaires, and Nozick's book "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" (1974) argued that the state ought to have a minimal role—largely restricted to policing wrongdoing and curbing externalities—and that "taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor." Rothbard elaborated an absolutist theory of "anarcho-capitalism." This wasn't just a matter of shuttering the E.P.A.; there was to be no military, no police, no public schools. His libertarian vision ran closer to a state of nature. "The State is a group of plunderers," he wrote. Nothing should encroach upon "the absolute right to private property of every man."

Rothbard's absolutism didn't curb his influence, Koppelman maintains, but amplify it. It's true that, unlike Rand, Friedman, or Hayek, Rothbard never achieved a mass audience or a public profile, and he spent his life deep in libertarian circles. But within that movement he was ubiquitous (and known as Mr. Libertarian, Brian Doherty wrote), his reputation marked by his fierce dogmatism. Raised by successful immigrant parents in the Bronx, Rothbard was a youthful adherent of the isolationist Old Right, and, as an undergraduate at Columbia during the Second World War, on a liberal and pro-war campus, he would write, it seemed "that there was no hope and no ideological allies anywhere in the country." And he must have been just about the only Jewish New Yorker to back Strom Thurmond's 1948 Presidential candidacy on the States’ Rights line. By the nineteen-sixties, Rothbard had fallen out with William F. Buckley, Jr.,'s National Review, for its support for the Cold War buildup, and for its frivolous inclination to abandon the real ideological fight against the state in an effort to preserve, as Rothbard put it, "tradition, order, Christianity and good manners."

It comes as a small shock when our libertarians emerge from the hothouse of theory and enter the world of power. One moment, recounted by Justin Raimondo in his book "An Enemy of the State," from 2000, stands out as particularly cinematic. In the winter of 1976—at a time when, two years after Richard Nixon's resignation as President, the Republican Party was in a state of profound flux—the billionaire Charles Koch hosted Rothbard at a ski lodge in Vail. Just getting to Colorado was a challenge for the indoorsy Rothbard, who had spent virtually his whole life in New York City and who suffered from a disabling fear of flying. (He had to be reassured by his wife that the lodge was probably not perched on the tip of a mountain and that he probably would not need to use a ski lift to reach it.) Koch, then in his early forties, was already a supporter of libertarian ventures, but in front of the lodge's immense stone fireplace Rothbard argued that the time was ripe for the movement to seek real power. Koch agreed, and the Cato Institute, which Koch largely underwrote and Rothbard named, opened the following year. Not that Rothbard was eager to reconcile with the mainstream. On the eve of the 1980 election, which would sweep libertarian ideas into the White House, Rothbard wrote, "The No. 1 threat . . . to the liberty of Americans in this campaign is Ronald Reagan."

One drawback of intellectual history, as a genre, is that you never get very far from the bookshelves. We are now on the eve of the Reagan revolution, and the reader of these books has seen Koch in the Vail lodge and Rothbard in his Upper West Side living room but—much like the latter—has seldom ventured from such cloisters. Reagan's election took place at the end of what was perhaps the greatest economic boom in world history, and all kinds of people had doubted whether the government could do things better than the private market. In Koppelman's telling, the libertarian story is about the takeover of the right by an intellectual fringe movement, so that many small-business owners and everyday skeptics of big government came to speak in the absolutist language of property rights. But there is also a shadow story, one that neither he nor Zwolinski and Tomasi really tell, in which the Democrats, during their long post-Cold War neoliberal phase, adopted some libertarian ideas and took up market logic, too. The imprint has lasted. The Democratic Party of today, with its base of support among the wealthiest and most successful of voters and its optimism about winning votes in the suburbs, would be hard to imagine if it hadn't embraced wealth and capitalism. Late-twentieth-century libertarianism reshaped not just the right but mainstream liberalism, too.

By the early twenty-first century, you could see just how much. Koppelman began to study libertarianism, he writes, when he was asked, in 2010, to explain the "constitutional challenges to Obamacare." When he read the arguments and the district-court decisions upholding them, he was appalled. Against the individual mandate, they invoked what Koppelman calls a "previously unheard of" right: that of a taxpayer not to be compelled to pay for a service he does not want. The case didn't actually hinge on any such assertion, but during oral arguments Justice Samuel Alito implied something similar. From the bench, Alito asked, "Isn't it the case that what this mandate is really doing is not requiring the people who are subject to it to pay for the services that they are going to consume? It is requiring them to subsidize services that will be received by somebody else." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg replied, "If you’re going to have insurance, that's how insurance works." Her side prevailed narrowly, 5–4.

The doctrinal libertarians never really solved a basic political problem: they didn't have the numbers. Despite all the fanciful talk of founding an offshore nation called Minerva, in the nineteen-seventies, or the tech billionaire Peter Thiel's support for a "seasteading" venture in the twenty-tens, there simply isn't a no-government or even minimal-state utopia anywhere in the world. The Free State Project, a Yale graduate student's attempt to persuade enough libertarians to move to New Hampshire to take it over politically, has claimed just six thousand migrants since 2001, and its political effect has been limited to a failed effort to cut the budget of a rural school district. If markets reveal preferences, no one wants to live a Rothbardian life.

Rothbard's own response to this reality was to evangelize for alliances with other extremists. In the Vietnam era, he wrote for the left-wing magazine Ramparts and courted Black nationalists, arguing that they shared common enemies in the police and the military. That didn't get very far. Then Rothbard became enthralled with David Duke's 1991 campaign for governor, in Louisiana, and thought he saw a glimpse of the future. "Note the excitement," he wrote. For better or worse, Rothbard insisted, libertarianism had become the philosophy of the élite that it had once aspired to destroy. "The proper strategy for the right wing," he argued, "must be what we can call ‘right-wing populism’: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often-shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well." He laid out a right-wing populist program: abolish the Fed and slash taxes and welfare, but also "Crush Criminals" by unleashing cops to "administer instant punishment." To carry out this agenda, Rothbard thought, the right needed a "dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly."

When Rothbard died, in 1995, these late-life turns had fixed his reputation as a racist crank. After Trump's ascendance, which pretty well expressed what Rothbard meant by right-wing populism, that reputation was modified a little—racist crank/seer. Rothbard had evidently glimpsed what was to come. In a study of his influence, the sociologist Melinda Cooper observed, "Wherever they have ended up, almost every leading figure on the alt-right started out as an acolyte." The critic John Ganz wrote in 2017 that Steve Bannon's "fusion of libertarianism and populism" seems "Rothbardian in inspiration." That Rothbard was so combative gives the veneer of ideological purity to everything he did. But what to make of someone who sought an alliance with Black nationalists by denouncing the violence of the police and then, when the political tides shifted, sought an alliance with the far right by arguing that the police should beat up criminals and vagrants? These aren't the maneuvers of a purist. They are power plays, and they stem from a recognition of political weakness: like a remora, libertarianism had to attach itself to a host.

Ever since the George W. Bush Administration, the libertarian movement, as such, has been disintegrating. The pattern is visible even within its citadel, the Cato Institute. In 2009, Thiel, a devoted libertarian, published an essay on Cato's Web site saying he had lost all hope that the United States would ever be a libertarian country. "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible," he wrote. The following year, a Cato vice-president named Brink Lindsey announced that he was leaving the institute; he eventually broke with libertarianism. Lindsey later complained that many libertarians came, opportunistically, to suspend their skepticism of the government in its "most coercive" forms—the police and the military—even while continuing to supply "the corrosive acid of derision and mistrust with which conservatives and Republicans have been pressure-washing the country's governing institutions for decades now." The billionaire headed out farther toward nationalism; the wonk turned back to something like neoliberalism.

These valedictory essays, by Thiel and by Lindsey, strike a mournful tone, as the intellectual histories by Koppelman and by Zwolinski and Tomasi sometimes do: shut the door softly, turn off the lights, and accept that something great is over. But this is a weird time for elegies, as the laissez-faire credo still suffuses much of the political spectrum. On the center-left, there is barely a whisper of the old enthusiasm for central planning that so spooked Hayek, and Democratic politicians routinely praise government programs for giving citizens the freedom to do as they please. On the right, a colloquial libertarianism is everywhere. The fights against masks and vaccines, against teaching about gender and race in schools, and against "cancel culture" and programs promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion typically strike as a defense of individual rights—Don't Tread on Me. The radical zero-government doctrine of Rothbard and Norquist turned out to be mismatched, in ways that took a few decades to become apparent, with the everyday American allergy to authority. But even with their policy program in temporary retreat libertarians have left the contemporary right with its defining characteristic: an instinct for absolutism. ♦

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