Brief history of libertarian ideas

I’m reading Brian Doherty’s “Radicals for Capitalism” at the moment and it has inspired me to write a brief overview of the chronology of the libertarian movement.

In the beginning: conservatives v liberals

The libertarian tradition starts with the classical liberals of Europe who started taking on the traditionalist conservatives who held sway. The liberals argued for less government power, more individual liberty and free markets. They included Locke, Hume, Smith, Voltaire , Bastiat & Mill. The “liberal v conservative” battles showed up in the British parliament as the Tories (conservatives) v the Whigs (liberals).

American revolution

Learning from the European liberals, America imported a philosophy of freedom. This group is most associated with Thomas Jefferson and includes several of the early American Presidents (including George Washington) as well as writers such as Thomas Paine & the authors of the Cato Letters (Trenchard & Gordon).

Radical liberals in Europe

During the 19th century some liberals started to edge their anti-state tendencies towards the radical end. The most common name here is Herbert Spencer, but it was Molinari (who suggested free-market defence & police) and Auberon Herbert (who defended anarchism) who pushed the radical boundries.

Individual Anarchists

An anarchist trend also came to America in the late 19th century, mostly associated with Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner. Unlike the European liberal radicals, the Individual Anarchists of America grew out of the socialist movement, but they rejected the State and embraced individual self-ownership. While Tucker wanted a society build on “cost = price” and no absentee landlords, he thought this would happen naturally and did not propose to achieve these ends through government force.

The down-years (1900-1950)

By the early 20th century, libertarian ideas were on the defensive. Classical liberals were being replaced by “modern liberals” or “social democrats” in the west, and the ideas of socialism were gaining respectability and followers. While classical liberal ideas were losing ground, radical liberal ideas effectively disappeared. The only real vanguard for liberal ideas during this time was Austrian Economics — and especially Mises. The other force which defended some of the liberal agenda was the “old-right” (anti-war, anti-welfare, but also anti-trade).

The death of the liberal agenda during these years can be seen in politics with the Whigs (and in Australia the Free Trade Party) fading from the political scene and the main game becoming “conservatives v social democrats/socialists”.

The re-awakening of libertarian ideas (1950)

By mid-way through the 20th century the Austrians were joined by three other groups in the fight for smaller government. These were the objectivists (led by Ayn Rand), the chicago school economists (led by Milton Friedman) and the libertarian movement (initially embodied in the Foundation for Economic Eduction).

Building the modern movement (1970s)

As the western world inched towards bigger government, the libertarian community matured into the modern movement we see today. During the 1970s libertarian organisations spread through the world (CATO in America, CIS in Australia, IEA in Britain) and the US Libertarian Party was formed.

Just as early liberal radicals build on classical liberals… so too did libertarian radicals emerge building on the libertarians. This was represented by the “moral anarchists” (led by Rothbard, who drew on Austrian economics, individual anarchy and parts of the “old-right”) and the “utilitarian anarchists” (as embodied by David Friedman).

Also in these years libertarian ideas started to invade the politics of both the left (moderate liberals) and the right (free-market conservatives and the old-right). This saw some libertarian thinking trickle into political reality through the 1980s… though libertarian ideas generaly remain outside the mainstream of politics.

27 thoughts on “Brief history of libertarian ideas

  1. You left out the IPA. It’s been going since 1943.

    I’m not sure I’d go as far as calling the libertarian community a “modern movement”, but the impact of the Chicago school needs emphasis. The changes introduced by Reagan and Thatcher, for example, can be directly traced to it. It also contributed to free market change elsewhere in the world (eg Chile, Rogernomics in NZ, even Hawke/Keating here) and created the momentum that led to the WTO.

    I question the “movement” suggestion because the concept of “freedom from government” is not implanted. Progress is mostly a consequence of “let’s try this approach instead”.

  2. The IPA in 1943 wasn’t a libertarian organisation. And in my brief summary I had to leave out lots of things.

    Chicago probably had relatively more influence on Raegan, while it was the Austrians that primarily influenced Thatcher.

  3. In this time of high unemployment and overpopulation, it is crucial to start cutting out immigration. Both legal and illegal immigration should be reduced to zero.

  4. That is just rubbish.

    Australia had our highest rates of economic growth when we had our highest rates of immigration (as British colonies).

    There is no overpopulation. We throw out food and haven’t run out of water we haven’t paid for.

  5. The Supply Siders are worth a mention. They were not libertarians but they were hard currency, low tax, small government advocates. They appeared in the early 1970s. The term “supply side” was coined circa 1978. They would probably not be that significant historically except for their association with Ronald Reagan and his tax cutting agenda. Reaganomics never embraced the supply side view of monetary policy although rumour has it that Reagan did give some consideration to returning to a form of gold standard in 1987 (Reagan had studied classical economics in the pre Keynesian days).

    The most significant supply siders were Robert Mundell, Jude Wanniski and Arthur Laffer.

    Wanniski was a social conservative but his writing suggests that he saw personal virtue as being greatly enhanced (and hence any need for state enforcement of virtue diminished) by low taxes and hard currency.

    In economic terms I think they got most things right.

  6. Good overview John. I would classify Herbert as the father of Voluntaryism though. He didn’t really self-identify as an Anarchist.

  7. I think that Voluntarian, and Voluntarianism, are the words that seem best. We should use them more often, especially as socialoids try to use libertarian for their own purposes.

  8. Reagan is an absolute joke. All rhetoric, nothing but the same BS.

    “Government Spending. How well did Reagan succeed in cutting government spending, surely a critical ingredient in any plan to reduce the role of government in everyone’s life? In 1980, the last year of free-spending Jimmy Carter the federal government spent $591 billion. In 1986, the last recorded year of the Reagan administration, the federal government spent $990 billion, an increase of 68%. Whatever this is, it is emphatically not reducing government expenditures.”

    – The Myths of Reaganomics by Murray N. Rothbard (
    – The Two Faces of Ronald Reagan by Murray N. Rothbard

    Mrs Thatcher is exactly the same.( ) The Chicago School is merely an impediment to people finding the REAL free market philosophy, as expressed by the Austrian School of Economics.

    Who is their right mind is going to give credence to a school of thought that adopts the 5th plank of the Communist Manifesto, and hails monetarism as the new messiah?

  9. Raegan & Thatcher did not reduce the role of government. However, they did stop the increase in the size of government as a percentage of GDP. While this is far short of what libertarians want, it is an improvement on the previous situation.

    While it’s true that the chicago school represents a more moderate version of libertarianism, they are still a force for good. It was through chicago school economics (especially Milton Friedman) that I discovered libertarian ideas. The same applies for many economists.

  10. DavidL, from the wikipedia entry for the Communist Manifesto:

    “5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.”

  11. @ John. Yes I guess that is true, Milton’s is pretty great. 🙂
    @ Chris. I guess my expectations are far too high. Those graphs are interesting btw, thanks. It’s worth noting though, that graph is “Federal non-defense spending as percentage of National Income, before and after Reagan.” I’d love to see the same thing with Defense spending included.

  12. Apparently almost entirely left out of this history of “libertarian” ideas is the traditional anarchist movement, for which the term “libertarian” was a synonym for about a hundred years before anyone even suggested applying the term to capitalists.

    The anarcho-individualists are pretty much the only exception to this.

    So, while this book might be worth reading, it should definitely be supplemented with other works, such as George Woodcock’s classic Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements.

  13. If you can find them, the books by Peter Cline were worth reading. He was a lawyer who specialised in tax avoidance schemes, and wrote books on these subjects. that spirit is the right sort of attitude. His books might not now be up-to-date, of course.

  14. Dan — the problem with the broader 19th century “anarchist” movement is that some of the followers didn’t really support “no-government”.

    The anarcho-communists said they were against government, but they also said they were against voluntary for-profit human interaction and they didn’t explain how they would prevent such human behaviour without resorting to institutionalised force.

    It was concern about this issue which led the “individual anarchists” to identify as a different group.

  15. John:

    I do not believe that it is true that anarcho-communists ever said that they were “against voluntary for-profit human interaction”. They did not believe that capitalism (the monopolization of the means of production) was truly voluntary. And to prevent it, they advocated self-organized direct action, not government.

    The anarcho-individualists agreed with the anarcho-communists on all of this. They differed with the communists on their preferred forms of organization and some other issues.

    One should also consider their arguments to the effect that capitalism is not possible without government to enforce it. (Traditional anarchists throughout the spectrum from communist to individualist agreed on this.) Communists and capitalists are both in the same boat on this issue.

    I tend to agree the most with the anarcho-individualists, but one should be fair to those on all sides of the spectrum. The sad fact is that you cannot rely on people to represent their ideological foes accurately — you have to read all of them for yourself to find out what they really believe and advocate.

    It’s also somewhat lame to make these arguments against traditional anarchists when most of the “libertarians” you mention above were statists.

  16. A Pedant’s Primer

    1. ‘lead’ – pronounced leed, means to guide, to precede, to take leadership – “I will lead you to victory.”

    2. ‘lead’ – pronounced led, means the heavy metal – “He substituted lead for gold.”

    3. ‘led’ – pronounced led, means the past tense of 1 – “She led them to victory.”

    Thank you and goodnight.

  17. Capitalism does not require government. For it to work well it needs a lack of theft & violence. Some people believe that these “security” services can only be provided by government, some believe they can be provided privately, and others believe they aren’t really that necessary.

    The fact that many capitalists have supported government security in the past does not prove that capitalism requires government.

    Properly understood, there is no way to understand capitalism (as proposed by capitalists) as involving violence or theft. I understand that some people don’t like the consequences (or what they think the consequences will be) but that doesn’t constitute violence.

    But perhaps there is a semantics breakdown here. You suggest that capitalism is the “monopolization of the means of production”. That is not the system that advocates of the free market have in mind. The free market approach is simply to allow humans to voluntarily interact — whether for their own benefit (the market) or for the good of society (civil society, 3rd sector).

    The idea of “self-organized direct action” hasn’t been explained. Of course libertarians support the right of anybody to boycott whatever they want, argue against types of behaviour or to form their own communities which exclude certain activities. But if the communist idea is based on the hope that community activism will create enough social pressure to abolish the profit-motive, then they are clearly not advocating a realistic system.

    And if they want to institutionalise a body which has the right to prevent the “wrong” sort of voluntary behaviour, then they are supporting a government by another name. Which is exactly what ended up happening in some Spanish “anarchist” (sic) societies.

  18. I don’t intend to engage in an extended debate in the comment section of a blog post, but:

    An economic and political system “monopolization of the means of production” is the traditional meaning of the word “capitalism”, with real-life examples including the systems of Britain, Germany, France, and the US in the nineteenth-century (when the term became widely used). In other words, a system that features and promotes the existence of a class of capitalists in the sense of owners of the means of production used by others.

    Sometime in the early twentieth-century some individuals re-defined the term in your sense. Unfortunately, more often than really supporting the ideals they claimed, they defined the term with the new sense but still referred to the same sort of real-life examples as the old meaning. This is not a fault that all commit (notably not those who call themselves left-libertarians), but it becomes cryingly obvious when some of them turn around and offer their support to a dictator like Pinochet, who implemented his economic policies by doing things like massacre union organizers, but somehow supposedly still created a free market.

    Again, the problem with your assertion that capitalists support only voluntary behavior is that it assumes what you need to prove: that the behavior they support is truly voluntary. We probably can’t really argue this without getting into specific cases, but one should note that here the anarcho-individualists like Tucker and Spooner firmly agreed with the anarcho-communists, so it isn’t a market vs non-market issue.

    Finally, my main point here is that you need to read political philosophers for yourself to know what they advocate, not take the word of their opponents.

  19. destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently to one another” (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-…, page 165). Goodman’s statement that a free society is the extension of spheres of fre

  20. It was Barry Goldwater rather than Reagan who was the first big proponent of libertarian ideas in the latter half of the 20th century.

    Him losing the 1964 election was probably the biggest disaster to strike the US since the depression. Instead of a new libertarian way forward, they got increased socialism and the Vietnam War.

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