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In The Individualists, Zwolinski and Tomasi Explore the Roots of Libertarianism

Review of The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
April 4, 2023; ported here on May 30, 2024

The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism
by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi
Princeton University Press, 2023
(pages of the print version of the book referenced in parenthesis)

See also the Self in Society Podcast episode with Zwolinski about the book.

"Mr. Libertarian" Murray Rothbard signed my copy of Man, Economy, and State during one of Rothbard's last Mises Institute conferences on Austrian economics back in the 1990s. I was sitting in the sun, reading, when Rothbard ambled by, and we fell into a short yet pleasant conversation about Rothbard's teacher, Ludwig von Mises, and other of Mises's students. During one of the sessions, I asked Rothbard about intellectual property rights. Rothbard (a writer!) began his reply with a four-word summary: "Copyrights good; patents bad." It was at a Mises Institute event, one also attended by the now-infamous Hans-Hermann Hoppe, that I also first heard the Civil War called "the War of Northern Aggression." That was my first tipoff that not all strains of libertarianism are of a piece.

In The Individualists, Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi explore the history of libertarianism and the tensions within it. To plant my broad evaluation upfront: Zwolinski and Tomasi have written an important and timely book that can help self-identified libertarians as well as people new to libertarianism or hostile to it better understand the origins and contours of the movement. Although the book might have found a wider audience had it been shorter, it is among the pleasantest to read and most accessible academic books that I have encountered. When I criticize the book it is from the perspective of an admirer.

The authors write:

From its beginning . . . libertarianism has attracted a mix of radical and reactionary elements: those who were eager to follow the dictates of libertarian justice wherever they might lead, and those who saw in libertarianism a rationale for defending the status quo against change. The tension between progressive and reactionary elements, a tension within the very soul of libertarianism, is the major theme of this book. (4)

Right away we run into a problem: At what point do the reactionaries cease to be libertarians? In the aftermath of Russia's bloody assault on Ukraine, the Libertarian Party has published commentary shockingly sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, by any reasonable standard a brutal authoritarian and one of the most prolific mass-murderers of our age. As the great libertarian lawyer Ilya Somin remarked (with light edits), "The Libertarian Party of Russia understands basic libertarian principles, and can apply them to Putin's war of aggression. The U.S. Libertarian Party—not so much. They've become a bunch of right-wing nationalist Twitter edgelords." At what point do we say that the Libertarian Party is no longer libertarian? For me, that point has long since passed. Or is Ayn Rand right that, as "hippies of the right," libertarians inherently succumb to nuttiness? Speaking of Rand, what are we to make of the libertarianism of people such as Rand who loudly deny that they are libertarians? Zwolinski and Tomasi struggle with these boundary problems.

Zwolinski and Tomasi seek alternately to delimit or broaden the reader's understanding of libertarianism, depending on one's starting point. In defining the movement, the authors do not try to find "libertarian" (or protolibertarian) strains in (say) ancient Sumerian or Judeo-Christian Biblical texts, as some do. Yet libertarianism does not just mean what the twentieth-century American libertarians Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Rothbard, Mises, F. A. Hayek, and their allies thought it meant (with the asterisk that Rand denied the libertarian label). "In fact, libertarianism was born in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth, and was first developed in Britain and France, only later making its way to the United States," Zwolinski and Tomasi write (2).

In describing their "narrative arc," Zwolinski and Tomasi indicate what they see as the three main eras of libertarian thought: "[E]merging in the nineteenth century as an idealistic and progressive radicalization of classical liberalism, libertarianism had by the second half of the twentieth century taken on a more conservative, perhaps even reactionary, status quo-preserving cast." The modern era is the current "'Third Wave' period . . . marked by a struggle to define the future direction of libertarian thought" (7).

From the start, libertarians advocated "private property, free markets, and individualism," note Zwolinski and Tomasi, although with greater "absolutism and systematicity" relative to "earlier classical liberals such as John Locke, Adam Smith, and David Hume." Libertarianism developed in certain ways in particular times and places largely because of what specific libertarians opposed. "In nineteenth-century France and Britain, libertarianism developed largely in response to the threat of socialism," whereas for "the first American libertarians, the greatest enemy to liberty was not socialism but slavery" (3). Mid-twentieth-century American libertarians, on the other hand, were preoccupied with the threat of socialism mainly in the form of Soviet Communism. Rand, for instance, immigrated from Soviet Russia and waged intellectual war against socialist collectivism. To Zwolinski and Tomasi, American libertarianism thus shifted from "radical" abolitionism to a "mix of radical and reactionary elements" more typical of its European predecessor (5). United with various conservatives against a common socialist enemy, libertarians often "fused" their movement to conservatism.

Zwolinski and Tomasi structure most of their book topically, while devoting their second chapter to a more chronological survey with "Three Eras of Libertarian Thought." Their next six chapters (leading up to a conclusion) deal, respectively, with private property, anarchism, free markets, poverty and spontaneous order (offhand a peculiar mix), racial justice, and "Global Justice and Nonintervention."

The first chapter, "What Is Libertarianism?," serves to expand the themes of the introduction. "'Libertarianism' is best understood as a family of political theories rather than a single theory,'" the authors begin (9). That is all well and good, but, without a crisper definition, some members of the "libertarian" family will squabble over who is and who is not invited to family dinner. Some individuals too will wonder whether they belong. I once strongly self-identified as a libertarian, then strongly rejected the label, and now I sometimes clench my teeth and admit membership depending on the context and my mood. We can fruitfully proceed by seeing libertarianism as fuzzy and by keeping at the ready the question, "What do you mean by that?"

From its beginnings, libertarianism was associated with "opposition to the state," Zwolinski and Tomasi write, initially by a French communist who opposed private property as well as the state. The term also caught on among "individualist anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker," who was hostile to the state but friendly to private property (10). "By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries," Zwolinski and Tomasi note, a "broader, anti-authoritarian sense became dominant," so libertarianism "also came to denote those who opposed the excesses of state authority without opposing the state as such" (11).

Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, popularized libertarianism as a movement for free markets and limited government, Zwolinski and Tomasi write (12). So this big tent plausibly still excludes the socialists who initially used the term "libertarian" and includes anarcho-capitalists as well as Randians, who in important respects favor a robust government, albeit one with tightly delimited aims. This looks like the libertarianism that today's American libertarians recognize.

Still, many underlying tensions remain. "Rothbard in particular was quick to write people out of the libertarian movement who deviated from what he regarded as the purist forms of the doctrine," Zwolinski and Tomasi write. The "endless and intractable debates" over the meaning of libertarianism is one of the movement's most recognizable features (13).

What is the difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism? The former tends to accept some infringements of liberty for the sake of the public good, write Zwolinski and Tomasi, and it tends to be empiricist (as opposed to rationalistic) in its approach to knowledge and pluralistic (as opposed to monistic) in its approach to morals (14). That serves well enough to distinguish, say, Mill from Rothbard or Rand, but I'm not sure it's so helpful when it comes to categorizing many other libertarians.

Zwolinski and Tomasi then distinguish "strict," absolutist libertarianism from "broad" libertarianism that generally supports "the broad goals of free markets and limited government." The authors say Hayek is broadly libertarian but not strictly so. But then the line between broad libertarianism and classical liberalism begins to blur. Indeed, our authors say that people such as Hayek, Richard Epstein, and David Schmidtz are both "classical liberals in [a] contemporary sense" and "libertarians in the broad sense" (17). Has not broad libertarianism then left absolutism, rationalism, and monism in the dust? So too, apparently, can more-interventionist neoliberals be libertarians in the broad sense. This can all be confusing, as our authors confess (18).

We can sensibly contrast a broadly libertarian movement with the status quo. "[T]he differences between a neoliberal like [Milton] Friedman, a contemporary classical liberal like Loren Lomasky, and a strict libertarian like Ayn Rand [who says she's not a libertarian!] are too minor to merit popular attention," our authors write (18). So I guess whether a given person is a libertarian depends partly on the question, "Compared to what?"

Zwolinski and Tomasi round out their first chapter with a discussion of "six markers of libertarianism": "private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, spontaneous order, individualism, and negative liberty" (21). These pages serve alternately as a solid review of libertarian ideas and conundrums or as a helpful introduction to neophytes.

The second chapter, "Three Eras of Libertarian Thought," points out that the identity of twentieth-century American libertarianism shifted with the fall of Soviet Communism. "Without socialism to be against, what was libertarianism for?" Zwolinski and Tomasi ask (34). The movement remains in the throes of this crisis of identity.

As for the earliest stage of libertarianism, which arose in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, our authors draw the starting line with the publication of key works from 1849–1851 by Gustave de Molinari, Frédéric Bastiat, and Herbert Spencer, with earlier works by such authors as Spencer and Thomas Hodgskin setting the stage (35). The state-centric socialists movements that arose around the same time provided the "foil" for libertarian theorists (36).

At this point Zwolinski and Tomasi helpfully distinguish the progressive form of liberalism that arose in response to socialism from the libertarian form. The former, our authors note, is marked by "the idea that the state should actively encourage a just distribution of wealth," skepticism regarding private property as a means to freedom, and friendliness toward "scientific management" of the economy (36). Basically, progressives responded to socialism by incorporating aspects of it; libertarians responded to it by rejecting it wholesale. Thus, "libertarianism came into the world as classical liberalism's radical child" (37). Speaking for myself, with the rise of authoritarian nationalist movements in recent years, I, as more of a libertarian, have started to see more brightly the common ground that I share with my progressive liberal cousins, even as I wish they would get more in touch with their classical liberal roots.

An especially interesting part of the third chapter describes a dispute between the Liberty and Property Defense League (in Britain) and Wordsworth Donisthorpe, who suggested that the League took the stance of (my terms) "liberty for me but not for thee." In Donisthorpe's words, the League "flaunts the flag only . . . when the rich, the strong, and the privileged may benefit by the adoption of the principle, but . . . remains silent when it cuts the other way" (42). That remains a perfect criticism of some of today's more conservative strains of American libertarianism, preoccupied as they are with taxes and regulations that affect large businesses. Another highlight of the chapter is a discussion of Bastiat's work in France.

Here is a surprise for modern American libertarians: Under the influence of Benjamin Tucker and the labor theory of value, early "American libertarianism was radically anti-capitalistic," believing "profit, interest, and rent to be exploitative and unjust" (52). Yet today's libertarians can see their ideas reflected in Tucker's criticisms of state privilege and of subsidies for the wealthy (53).

The section "Cold War Libertarianism" recounts the story that will be familiar to any well-versed contemporary libertarian: Rand moved to the U.S. and befriended Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane; Leonard Read founded the Foundation for Economic Education and promoted the works of Henry Hazlitt and Bastiat; Mises railed against socialism and found some influence in New York; Hayek warned of the road to serfdom; Rothbard promoted an anarchist strain of libertarianism reflective of "his nineteenth-century American predecessors" (60); Nozick presented an academic version of limited-government libertarianism. This is the style of libertarianism with which I remain most comfortable. However, I question Zwolinski and Tomasi's contention that this era of libertarianism largely avoided "concerns over social liberties" (63). One of the first papers I read from the Cato Institute was a searing critique of the drug war with its racial injustice and police corruption, and this has been a major concern of mine to this day. The Cato Institute also long fought for marriage equality for LGBTQ people. True, I came late to the cold war era, having been born in 1971 (the same year as the founding of the Libertarian Party), so maybe I witnessed a changing libertarian movement.

Our authors seek to "identify three distinct strands in Third Wave libertarian thought" (63). Here is where the boundary problems rush back. I do not see Llewelyn Rockwell's "paleo-libertarianism," with its emphasis on "America First" conservative values (64) and (in some manifestations) its overt racism (290), as libertarian at all. I see it is a deeply authoritarian movement with fascistic tendencies. That Rothbard lent his name and influence to this abomination does not change its nature.

The "bleeding heart" libertarians, on the other hand, strike me as libertarianish American progressives. I understand them and their concerns, and I can can work with them and learn from them. Zwolinski and Tomasi, who very much are part of this school and leaders within it, summarize, "During the late 1980s, philosophers such as Loren Lomasky, David Schmidtz, and Gerald Gaus" shared standard libertarian concerns yet tended to recognize "the importance of democratic legitimacy, the moral value of equality, and even the need for a limited form of redistributive welfare state" (64). Zwolinski started the "Bleeding Heart Libertarians" blog in 2011 (65).

Rounding out the Third Wave, write Zwolinski and Tomasi, is the "left libertarianism" or "left-wing market anarchism" of people such as Roderick Long and Gary Chartier, people friendly with the Zwolinski crowd. "Without question, there is a greater affinity between this group and BHL [Bleeding Heart Libertarians] than there is between BHL and paleo-libertarianism," our authors write (65). If you like, the paleo-libertarians took a hard right turn, the BHL crowd took a soft left turn, and the left libertarians took a hard left turn (admitting the problems with left-right terminology).

To this list of three I would add the Boring Old Libertarians (BOL), such as those involved with the Cato Institute, Reason magazine, the Ayn Rand Institute (again, whose members insist they are not libertarians), and like organizations, who see themselves basically as continuing the traditions of Mises, Rand, Friedman, and Hayek. I'd describe myself as BOL but BHL "curious" and paleo hostile. I also agree with Shikha Dalmia that, at this point in history, the most important thing libertarians can do is find common cause with other liberals in challenging authoritarian movements worldwide—including paleo-libertarianism and its spawn such as the Trumpist "libertarians." Zwolinski and Tomasi don their partisan hats when they note, "People disaffected with the political status quo—some espousing racist, xenophobic, and conspiracist worldviews—have been staking claims on the dark edges of the libertarian movement" (66). Again, I think they have fallen well off the edge.

In turning to Zwolinski and Tomasi's third chapter on property and self-ownership, I begin with a conundrum that often has occupied my thoughts. In the beginning we humans all were Africans, and we went forth and multiplied throughout most of the firmament. How did we get from roving bands of hunters to owners of farms, factories, permanent housing, and other real estate? Did not most of the first declarations of land property inherently bar others who sometimes used the space and who had not consented to its privatization? Does the entire libertarian project rests on a foundation of sand? God save me from Georgism (see 83 and following). Or, if God cannot manage it, perhaps David Hume can (see 91 and following).

The theoretical problems run even deeper, write Zwolinski and Tomasi, to the justifications for self-ownership (72–73). Practical problems of ownership abound: At what point does one's emissions constitute pollution of others' space (75)? A perplexing problem of the modern era is that, while no one person's emissions of carbon dioxide substantially affect his neighbors, the collective impact of such emissions over time can be dramatic. In discussing redistribution, Zwolinski and Tomasi review "the surprisingly complicated connection between labor and property in libertarian thought" (76). We return to the problem of "mixing" one's labor with natural resources. Those looking for easy answers will not find them in the book at hand. Those looking for a thoughtful discussion of the relevant complexities will be well rewarded.

I won't comment further on Zwolinski and Tomasi's other topical chapters, other than to recommend them in full to the reader. As someone who has read libertarian works for decades, I found the text clarifying and enlightening, and it is hard for me to think of a better introduction for the uninitiated. This is not to say that I regard the work as perfect; for example, I think the authors in their fifth chapter misrepresent Rand's (delimited and contextual) defense of "big business." Yet any such flaws are minor.

Here is a funny coincidence: While reading Zwolinski and Tomasi's chapter on poverty, I got via email a Substack post from David Friedman, reposted from years ago, in which he flippantly writes, "You might be a cartoon Bleeding Heart Libertarian if . . . you insist that the idea of social justice is well defined and prove it by offering two or more inconsistent definitions." I find such debates comforting in their well-worn grooves. Maybe they are too comforting. Maybe they distract from the urgent problem of many "libertarians" morphing into alt-right nationalists who valorize the likes of Trump and even Putin. Maybe by encouraging a reflection on libertarianism's past, Zwolinski and Tomasi can help to save libertarianism from such alt-right "libertarians" moving into the future.

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