What Is Libertarianism?
Libertarianism (libertas, meaning “freedom”) is a collection of political philosophies and movements that uphold liberty as a core principle. Libertarians seek to maximize political freedom and autonomy, emphasizing freedom of choice, voluntary association and individual judgement. Libertarians share a skepticism of authority and state power, but they diverge on the scope of their opposition to existing economic and political systems. Various schools of libertarian thought offer a range of views regarding the legitimate functions of state and private power, often calling for the restriction or dissolution of coercive social institutions.
Left-libertarian ideologies seek to abolish capitalism and private ownership of the means of production, or else to restrict their purview or effects, in favor of common or cooperative ownership and management, viewing private property as a barrier to freedom and liberty. Left-libertarian ideologies include anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndicalism, egoist anarchism and mutualism, alongside many other anti-paternalist, New Left schools of thought centered around economic egalitarianism. In the mid-20th century the term has come to refer to right-libertarian ideologies such as anarcho-capitalism and minarchism which advocate laissez-faire capitalism and strong private property rights such as in land, infrastructure and natural resources in addition other personal freedoms.
As early as 1796, the word libertarian came to mean an advocate or defender of liberty, especially in the political and social spheres, when the London Packet printed on 12 February the following: “Lately marched out of the Prison at Bristol, 450 of the French Libertarians”. The word was again used in a political sense in 1802 in a short piece critiquing a poem by “the author of Gebir” and has since been used with this meaning.
The use of the word libertarian to describe a new set of political positions has been traced to the French cognate libertaire, coined in a letter French libertarian communist Joseph Déjacque wrote to mutualist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1857. Déjacque also used the term for his anarchist publication Le Libertaire, Journal du mouvement social (Libertarian, Journal of the Social Movement) which was printed from 9 June 1858 to 4 February 1861 in New York City. Sébastien Faure, another French libertarian communist, began publishing a new Le Libertaire in the mid-1890s while France’s Third Republic enacted the so-called villainous laws (lois scélérates) which banned anarchist publications in France. Thus, libertarianism has frequently been used as a synonym for anarchism and libertarian socialism since this time.
The term libertarianism was first used in the United States as a synonym for classical liberalism in May 1955 by writer Dean Russell, a colleague of Leonard Read and a classical liberal himself. Russell justified the choice of the word as follows: “Many of us call ourselves ‘liberals.’ And it is true that the word ‘liberal’ once described persons who respected the individual and feared the use of mass compulsions. But the leftists have now corrupted that once-proud term to identify themselves and their program of more government ownership of property and more controls over persons. As a result, those of us who believe in freedom must explain that when we call ourselves liberals, we mean liberals in the uncorrupted classical sense. At best, this is awkward and subject to misunderstanding. Here is a suggestion: Let those of us who love liberty trade-mark and reserve for our own use the good and honorable word ‘libertarian'”.
Subsequently, a growing number of Americans with classical liberal beliefs began to describe themselves as libertarian. One person responsible for popularizing the term libertarian in this sense was Murray Rothbard, who started publishing libertarian works in the 1960s. Rothbard describes this modern use of the words overtly as a “capture” from his enemies, saying that “for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy. ‘Libertarians’ had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over”. Robert Nozick was responsible for popularizing this usage of the term in philosophical circles and Europe instead. According to common meanings of conservative and liberal, libertarianism in the United States has been described as conservative on economic issues (economic liberalism) and liberal on personal freedom (civil libertarianism) and it is also often associated with a foreign policy of non-interventionism.
All libertarians begin with a conception of personal autonomy from which they argue in favor of civil liberties and a reduction or elimination of the state.
Left-libertarianism encompasses those libertarian beliefs that claim the Earth’s natural resources belong to everyone in an egalitarian manner, either unowned or owned collectively. Contemporary left-libertarians such as Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne, Philippe Van Parijs, Michael Otsuka and David Ellerman believe the appropriation of land must leave “enough and as good” for others or be taxed by society to compensate for the exclusionary effects of private property. Libertarian socialists such as social and individualist anarchists, libertarian Marxists, council communists, Luxemburgists and DeLeonists promote usufruct and socialist economic theories, including communism, collectivism, syndicalism and mutualism. They criticize the state for being the defender of private property and believe capitalism entails wage slavery.
Right-libertarianism developed in the United States in the mid-20th century from the works of European writers like John Locke, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises and is the most popular conception of libertarianism in the United States today. It is commonly referred to as a continuation or radicalization of classical liberalism. The most important of these early right-libertarian philosophers was Robert Nozick. While often sharing left-libertarians’ advocacy for social freedom, right-libertarians also value the social institutions that enforce conditions of capitalism while rejecting institutions that function in opposition to these on the grounds that such interventions represent unnecessary coercion of individuals and abrogation of their economic freedom. Anarcho-capitalists seek complete elimination of the state in favor of privately funded security services while minarchists defend night-watchman states which maintain only those functions of government necessary to safeguard natural rights, understood in terms of self-ownership or autonomy.
Anarchism envisages freedom as a form of autonomy which Paul Goodman describes as “the ability to initiate a task and do it one’s own way, without orders from authorities who do not know the actual problem and the available means”. All anarchists oppose political and legal authority, but collectivist strains also oppose the economic authority of private property. These social anarchists emphasize mutual aid whereas individualist anarchists extol individual sovereignty.
Some right-libertarians consider the non-aggression principle to be a core part of their beliefs.
Free love appeared alongside anarcha-feminism and advocacy of LGBT rights. Anarcha-feminism developed as a synthesis of radical feminism and anarchism and views patriarchy as a fundamental manifestation of compulsory government. It was inspired by the late-19th-century writings of early feminist anarchists such as Lucy Parsons, Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre and Virginia Bolten.
Anarcha-feminists, like other radical feminists, criticize and advocate the abolition of traditional conceptions of family, education and gender roles. Free Society (1895–1897 as The Firebrand, 1897–1904 as Free Society) was an anarchist newspaper in the United States that staunchly advocated free love and women’s rights while criticizing “comstockery”, the censorship of sexual information. In recent times, anarchism has also voiced opinions and taken action around certain sex-related subjects such as pornography, BDSM and the sex industry.
Free thought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic and reason in contrast with authority, tradition or other dogmas. In the United States, free thought was an anti-Christian, anti-clerical movement whose purpose was to make the individual politically and spiritually free to decide on religious matters. A number of contributors to Liberty were prominent figures in both free thought and anarchism.
In 1901, Catalan anarchist and free-thinker Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia established modern or progressive schools in Barcelona in defiance of an educational system controlled by the Catholic Church. Fiercely anti-clerical, Ferrer believed in “freedom in education”, i.e. education free from the authority of the church and state. The schools’ stated goal was to “educate the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting”.
Later in the 20th century, Austrian Freudo-Marxist Wilhelm Reich became a consistent propagandist for sexual freedom going as far as opening free sex-counseling clinics in Vienna for working-class patients as well as coining the phrase “sexual revolution” in one of his books from the 1940s. During the early 1970s, the English anarchist and pacifist Alex Comfort achieved international celebrity for writing the sex manuals The Joy of Sex and More Joy of Sex.
Many left-libertarians are anarchists and believe the state inherently violates personal autonomy. Robert Paul Wolff has argued that “since ‘the state is authority, the right to rule’, anarchism which rejects the State is the only political doctrine consistent with autonomy in which the individual alone is the judge of his moral constraints”. Social anarchists believe the state defends private property which they view as intrinsically harmful while market-oriented left-libertarians argue that so-called free markets actually consist of economic privileges granted by the state. These latter libertarians advocate instead for freed markets which are freed from these privileges.
There is a debate amongst right-libertarians as to whether or not the state is legitimate: while anarcho-capitalists advocate its abolition, minarchists support minimal states, often referred to as night-watchman states. Libertarians take a skeptical view of government authority. Minarchists maintain that the state is necessary for the protection of individuals from aggresion, theft, breach of contract and fraud. They believe the only legitimate governmental institutions are the military, police and courts, though some expand this list to include fire departments, prisons and the executive and legislative branches.
They justify the state on the grounds that it is the logical consequence of adhering to the non-aggression principle and argue that anarchism is immoral because it implies that the non-aggression principle is optional, that the enforcement of laws under anarchism is open to competition. Another common justification is that private defense agencies and court firms would tend to represent the interests of those who pay them enough.
Anarcho-capitalists argue that the state violates the non-aggression principle by its nature because governments use force against those who have not stolen or vandalized private property, assaulted anyone or committed fraud. Linda and Morris Tannehill argue that no coercive monopoly of force can arise on a truly free market and that a government’s citizenry can not desert them in favor of a competent protection and defense agency.
Left-libertarians believe that neither claiming nor mixing one’s labor with natural resources is enough to generate full private property rights and maintain that natural resources ought to be held in an egalitarian manner, either unowned or owned collectively.
Right-libertarians maintain that unowned natural resources “may be appropriated by the first person who discovers them, mixes his labor with them, or merely claims them—without the consent of others, and with little or no payment to them”. They believe that natural resources are originally unowned and therefore private parties may appropriate them at will without the consent of, or owing to, others.
Left-libertarians, including social and individualist anarchists, libertarian Marxists and left-wing market anarchists, argue in favor of anarchist and libertarian socialist economic theories such as communism, syndicalism and mutualism. Daniel Guérin writes that “anarchism is really a synonym for socialism. The anarchist is primarily a socialist whose aim is to abolish the exploitation of man by man. Anarchism is only one of the streams of socialist thought, that stream whose main components are concern for liberty and haste to abolish the State”.
It has been argued that socialist values are incompatible with the concept of self-ownership. Right-libertarians are economic liberals of either the Austrian School or Chicago school and support laissez-faire capitalism.
Left-libertarianism, also known as left-wing libertarianism, names several related yet distinct approaches to political and social theory which stresses both individual freedom and social equality. In its classical usage, left-libertarianism is a synonym for anti-authoritarian varieties of left-wing politics, i.e. libertarian socialism, which includes anarchism and libertarian Marxism, among others. Left-libertarianism can also refer to political positions associated with academic philosophers Hillel Steiner, Philippe Van Parijs and Peter Vallentyne that combine self-ownership with an egalitarian approach to natural resources.
While maintaining full respect for personal property, left-libertarians are skeptical of or fully against private property, arguing that neither claiming nor mixing one’s labor with natural resources is enough to generate full private property rights and maintain that natural resources (land, oil, gold and vegetation) should be held in an egalitarian manner, either unowned or owned collectively. Those left-libertarians who support private property do so under occupation and use property norms or under the condition that recompense is offered to the local or even global community. Many left-libertarian schools of thought are communist, advocating the eventual replacement of money with labor vouchers or decentralized planning.
On the other hand, left-wing market anarchism, which includes Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s mutualism and Samuel Edward Konkin III’s agorism, appeals to left-wing concerns such as egalitarianism, gender and sexuality, class, immigration and environmentalism within the paradigm of a socialist free market. Joseph Déjacque was the first to formulate classical libertarian ideas under the term libertarian. Later philosophers on the left would go onto adding detail to his political philosophy to study and document attitudes and themes relating to stateless socialism (for Déjacque it was called libertarian communism).
Right-libertarianism, or right-wing libertarianism, refers to libertarian political philosophies that advocate negative rights, natural law and a major reversal of the modern welfare state. Right-libertarians strongly support private property rights and defend market distribution of natural resources and private property. This position is contrasted with that of some versions of left-libertarianism, which maintain that natural resources belong to everyone in an egalitarian manner, either unowned or owned collectively. Right-libertarianism includes anarcho-capitalism and laissez-faire minarchist liberalism.
Libertarian paternalism is a position advocated in the international bestseller Nudge by the economist Richard Thaler and the jurist Cass Sunstein. In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman provides the brief summary: “Thaler and Sunstein advocate a position of libertarian paternalism, in which the state and other institutions are allowed to Nudge people to make decisions that serve their own long-term interests. The designation of joining a pension plan as the default option is an example of a nudge. It is difficult to argue that anyone’s freedom is diminished by being automatically enrolled in the plan, when they merely have to check a box to opt out”. Nudge is considered an important piece of literature in behavioral economics.
Age of Enlightenment
During the 18th century, liberal ideas flourished in Europe and North America. Libertarians of various schools were influenced by liberal ideas. For libertarian philosopher Roderick T. Long, both libertarian socialists and libertarian capitalists “share a common—or at least an overlapping intellectual ancestry—[…] both claim the seventeenth century English Levellers and the eighteenth century French encyclopedists among their ideological forebears; and […] usually share an admiration for Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine”.
John Locke greatly influenced both libertarianism and the modern world in his writings published before and after the English Revolution of 1688, especially A Letter Concerning Toleration (1667), Two Treatises of Government (1689) and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). In the text of 1689, he established the basis of liberal political theory, i.e. that people’s rights existed before government; that the purpose of government is to protect personal and property rights; that people may dissolve governments that do not do so; and that representative government is the best form to protect rights.
The United States Declaration of Independence was inspired by Locke in its statement: “[T]o secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”. Nevertheless, scholar Ellen Meiksins Wood says that “there are doctrines of individualism that are opposed to Lockean individualism […] and non-Lockean individualism may encompass socialism”.
According to Murray Rothbard, the libertarian creed emerged from the liberal challenges to an “absolute central State and a king ruling by divine right on top of an older, restrictive web of feudal land monopolies and urban guild controls and restrictions” as well as the mercantilism of a bureaucratic warfaring state allied with privileged merchants. The object of liberals was individual liberty in the economy, in personal freedoms and civil liberty, separation of state and religion and peace as an alternative to imperial aggrandizement. He cites Locke’s contemporaries, the Levellers, who held similar views. Also influential were the English Cato’s Letters during the early 1700s, reprinted eagerly by American colonists who already were free of European aristocracy and feudal land monopolies.
In January 1776, only two years after coming to America from England, Thomas Paine published his pamphlet Common Sense calling for independence for the colonies. Paine promoted liberal ideas in clear and concise language that allowed the general public to understand the debates among the political elites. Common Sense was immensely popular in disseminating these ideas, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Paine would later write the Rights of Man and The Age of Reason and participate in the French Revolution. Paine’s theory of property showed a “libertarian concern” with the redistribution of resources.
In 1793, William Godwin wrote a libertarian philosophical treatise, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, which criticized ideas of human rights and of society by contract based on vague promises. He took liberalism to its logical anarchic conclusion by rejecting all political institutions, law, government and apparatus of coercion as well as all political protest and insurrection. Instead of institutionalized justice, Godwin proposed that people influence one another to moral goodness through informal reasoned persuasion, including in the associations they joined as this would facilitate happiness.
Rise of anarchism
As part of the political turmoil of the 1790s in the wake of the French Revolution, William Godwin developed the first expression of modern anarchist thought. According to Peter Kropotkin, Godwin was “the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism, even though he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his work” while Godwin attached his anarchist ideas to an early Edmund Burke.
Godwin is generally regarded as the founder of the school of thought known as philosophical anarchism. He argued in Political Justice (1793) that government has an inherently malevolent influence on society and that it perpetuates dependency and ignorance. He thought that the spread of the use of reason to the masses would eventually cause government to wither away as an unnecessary force. Although he did not accord the state with moral legitimacy, he was against the use of revolutionary tactics for removing the government from power. Rather, Godwin advocated for its replacement through a process of peaceful evolution.
His aversion to the imposition of a rules-based society led him to denounce, as a manifestation of the people’s “mental enslavement”, the foundations of law, property rights and even the institution of marriage. Godwin considered the basic foundations of society as constraining the natural development of individuals to use their powers of reasoning to arrive at a mutually beneficial method of social organization. In each case, government and its institutions are shown to constrain the development of our capacity to live wholly in accordance with the full and free exercise of private judgment.
In France, various anarchist currents were present during the Revolutionary period, with some revolutionaries using the term anarchiste in a positive light as early as September 1793. The enragés opposed revolutionary government as a contradiction in terms. Denouncing the Jacobin dictatorship, Jean Varlet wrote in 1794 that “government and revolution are incompatible, unless the people wishes to set its constituted authorities in permanent insurrection against itself”. In his “Manifesto of the Equals”, Sylvain Maréchal looked forward to the disappearance, once and for all, of “the revolting distinction between rich and poor, of great and small, of masters and valets, of governors and governed”.
Libertarian socialism, libertarian communism and libertarian Marxism are all phrases which activists with a variety of perspectives have applied to their views.
Anarchist communist philosopher Joseph Déjacque was the first person to describe himself as a libertarian. Unlike mutualist anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, he argued that “it is not the product of his or her labor that the worker has a right to, but to the satisfaction of his or her needs, whatever may be their nature”.
According to anarchist historian Max Nettlau, the first use of the term “libertarian communism” was in November 1880, when a French anarchist congress employed it to more clearly identify its doctrines. The French anarchist journalist Sébastien Faure started the weekly paper Le Libertaire (The Libertarian) in 1895.
Individualist anarchism refers to several traditions of thought within the anarchist movement that emphasize the individual and their will over any kinds of external determinants such as groups, society, traditions, and ideological systems. An influential form of individualist anarchism called egoism or egoist anarchism was expounded by one of the earliest and best-known proponents of individualist anarchism, the German Max Stirner. Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own, published in 1844, is a founding text of the philosophy. According to Stirner, the only limitation on the rights of the individual is their power to obtain what they desire, without regard for God, state or morality.
Stirner advocated self-assertion and foresaw unions of egoists, non-systematic associations continually renewed by all parties’ support through an act of will, which Stirner proposed as a form of organisation in place of the state. Egoist anarchists argue that egoism will foster genuine and spontaneous union between individuals. Egoism has inspired many interpretations of Stirner’s philosophy.
It was re-discovered and promoted by German philosophical anarchist and LGBT activist John Henry Mackay. Josiah Warren is widely regarded as the first American anarchist, and the four-page weekly paper he edited during 1833, The Peaceful Revolutionist, was the first anarchist periodical published. For American anarchist historian Eunice Minette Schuster, “[i]t is apparent […] that Proudhonian Anarchism was to be found in the United States at least as early as 1848 and that it was not conscious of its affinity to the Individualist Anarchism of Josiah Warren and Stephen Pearl Andrews… William B. Greene presented this Proudhonian Mutualism in its purest and most systematic form.”.
Later, Benjamin Tucker fused Stirner’s egoism with the economics of Warren and Proudhon in his eclectic influential publication Liberty. From these early influences, individualist anarchism in different countries attracted a small yet diverse following of bohemian artists and intellectuals, free love and birth control advocates (anarchism and issues related to love and sex), individualist naturists nudists (anarcho-naturism), free thought and anti-clerical activists as well as young anarchist outlaws in what became known as illegalism and individual reclamation (European individualist anarchism and individualist anarchism in France). These authors and activists included Émile Armand, Han Ryner, Henri Zisly, Renzo Novatore, Miguel Gimenez Igualada, Adolf Brand and Lev Chernyi.
On the other hand, Fermín Salvochea was a mayor of the city of Cádiz and a president of the province of Cádiz. He was one of the main propagators of anarchist thought in that area in the late 19th century and is considered to be “perhaps the most beloved figure in the Spanish Anarchist movement of the 19th century”. Ideologically, he was influenced by Bradlaugh, Owen and Paine, whose works he had studied during his stay in England and Kropotkin, whom he read later. The revolutionary wave of 1917–1923 saw the active participation of anarchists in Russia and Europe. Russian anarchists participated alongside the Bolsheviks in both the February and October 1917 revolutions.
However, Bolsheviks in central Russia quickly began to imprison or drive underground the libertarian anarchists. Many fled to the Ukraine. There, in the Ukrainian Free Territory they fought in the Russian Civil War against the White movement, monarchists and other opponents of revolution and then against Bolsheviks as part of the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine led by Nestor Makhno, who established an anarchist society in the region for a number of months. Expelled American anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman protested Bolshevik policy before they left Russia.
The victory of the Bolsheviks damaged anarchist movements internationally as workers and activists joined Communist parties. In France and the United States, for example, members of the major syndicalist movements of the CGT and IWW joined the Communist International. In Paris, the Dielo Truda group of Russian anarchist exiles, which included Nestor Makhno, issued a 1926 manifesto, the Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft), calling for new anarchist organizing structures.
The Bavarian Soviet Republic of 1918–1919 had libertarian socialist characteristics. In Italy, from 1918 to 1921 the anarcho-syndicalist trade union Unione Sindacale Italiana grew to 800,000 members.
In the 1920s and 1930s, with the rise of fascism in Europe, anarchists began to fight fascists in Italy, in France during the February 1934 riots and in Spain where the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) boycott of elections led to a right-wing victory and its later participation in voting in 1936 helped bring the popular front back to power. This led to a ruling class attempted coup and the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Gruppo Comunista Anarchico di Firenze held that the during early twentieth century, the terms libertarian communism and anarchist communism became synonymous within the international anarchist movement as a result of the close connection they had in Spain (anarchism in Spain) (with libertarian communism becoming the prevalent term).
Murray Bookchin wrote that the Spanish libertarian movement of the mid-1930s was unique because its workers’ control and collectives—which came out of a three-generation “massive libertarian movement”—divided the republican camp and challenged the Marxists. “Urban anarchists” created libertarian communist forms of organization which evolved into the CNT, a syndicalist union providing the infrastructure for a libertarian society. Also formed were local bodies to administer social and economic life on a decentralized libertarian basis. Much of the infrastructure was destroyed during the 1930s Spanish Civil War against authoritarian and fascist forces.
The Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth (FIJL, Spanish: Federación Ibérica de Juventudes Libertarias), sometimes abbreviated as Libertarian Youth (Juventudes Libertarias), was a libertarian socialist organization created in 1932 in Madrid.
In February 1937, the FIJL organized a plenum of regional organizations (second congress of FIJL). In October 1938, from the 16th through the 30th in Barcelona the FIJL participated in a national plenum of the libertarian movement, also attended by members of the CNT and the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI). The FIJL exists until today. When the republican forces lost the Spanish Civil War, the city of Madrid was turned over to the Francoist forces in 1939 by the last non-Francoist mayor of the city, the anarchist Melchor Rodríguez García. During autumn of 1931, the “Manifesto of the 30” was published by militants of the anarchist trade union CNT and among those who signed it there was the CNT General Secretary (1922–1923) Joan Peiro, Angel Pestaña CNT (General Secretary in 1929) and Juan Lopez Sanchez.
They were called treintismo and they were calling for libertarian possibilism which advocated achieving libertarian socialist ends with participation inside structures of contemporary parliamentary democracy. In 1932, they establish the Syndicalist Party which participates in the 1936 Spanish general elections and proceed to be a part of the leftist coalition of parties known as the Popular Front obtaining 2 congressmen (Pestaña and Benito Pabon). In 1938, Horacio Prieto, general secretary of the CNT, proposes that the Iberian Anarchist Federation transforms itself into a “Libertarian Socialist Party” and that it participates in the national elections.
It wanted to form “a strong and organized workers movement, agreeing with the libertarian ideas”. In the United States, the Libertarian League was founded in New York City in 1954 as a left-libertarian political organization building on the Libertarian Book Club. Members included Sam Dolgoff, Russell Blackwell, Dave Van Ronk, Enrico Arrigoni and Murray Bookchin.
In Australia, the Sydney Push was a predominantly left-wing intellectual subculture in Sydney from the late 1940s to the early 1970s which became associated with the label Sydney libertarianism. Well known associates of the Push include Jim Baker, John Flaus, Harry Hooton, Margaret Fink, Sasha Soldatow, Lex Banning, Eva Cox, Richard Appleton, Paddy McGuinness, David Makinson, Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes, Frank Moorhouse and Lillian Roxon.
Amongst the key intellectual figures in Push debates were philosophers David J. Ivison, George Molnar, Roelof Smilde, Darcy Waters and Jim Baker, as recorded in Baker’s memoir Sydney Libertarians and the Push, published in the libertarian Broadsheet in 1975. An understanding of libertarian values and social theory can be obtained from their publications, a few of which are available online.
In 1969, French platformist anarcho-communist Daniel Guérin published an essay in 1969 called “Libertarian Marxism?” in which he dealt with the debate between Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin at the First International and afterwards suggested that “libertarian Marxism rejects determinism and fatalism, giving the greater place to individual will, intuition, imagination, reflex speeds, and to the deep instincts of the masses, which are more far-seeing in hours of crisis than the reasonings of the ‘elites’; libertarian Marxism thinks of the effects of surprise, provocation and boldness, refuses to be cluttered and paralyzed by a heavy ‘scientific’ apparatus, doesn’t equivocate or bluff, and guards itself from adventurism as much as from fear of the unknown”.
Libertarian Marxist currents often draw from Marx and Engels’ later works, specifically the Grundrisse and The Civil War in France. They emphasize the Marxist belief in the ability of the working class to forge its own destiny without the need for a revolutionary party or state. Libertarian Marxism includes currents such a autonomism, council communism, left communism, Lettrism, New Left, Situationism, Socialisme ou Barbarie and operaismo, among others.
In the United States, there existed from 1970 to 1981 the publication Root & Branch which had as a subtitle A Libertarian Marxist Journal. In 1974, the Libertarian Communism journal was started in the United Kingdom by a group inside the Socialist Party of Great Britain. In 1986, the anarcho-syndicalist Sam Dolgoff started and led the publication Libertarian Labor Review in the United States which decided to rename itself as Anarcho-Syndicalist Review in order to avoid confusion with right-libertarian views.
Individualist anarchism in the United States
The store proved successful and operated for three years, after which it was closed so that Warren could pursue establishing colonies based on mutualism, including Utopia and Modern Times. “After New Harmony failed, Warren shifted his ideological loyalties from socialism to anarchism (which was no great leap, given that Owen’s socialism had been predicated on Godwin’s anarchism)”. Warren is widely regarded as the first American anarchist and the four-page weekly paper The Peaceful Revolutionist he edited during 1833 was the first anarchist periodical published, an enterprise for which he built his own printing press, cast his own type and made his own printing plates.
Catalan historian Xavier Diez reports that the intentional communal experiments pioneered by Warren were influential in European individualist anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Émile Armand and the intentional communities started by them. Warren said that Stephen Pearl Andrews, individualist anarchist and close associate, wrote the most lucid and complete exposition of Warren’s own theories in The Science of Society, published in 1852. Andrews was formerly associated with the Fourierist movement, but converted to radical individualism after becoming acquainted with the work of Warren. Like Warren, he held the principle of “individual sovereignty” as being of paramount importance. Contemporary American anarchist Hakim Bey reports:
Steven Pearl Andrews… was not a Fourierist, but he lived through the brief craze for phalansteries in America and adopted a lot of Fourierist principles and practices… a maker of worlds out of words. He syncretized abolitionism in the United States, free love, spiritual universalism, Warren, and Fourier into a grand utopian scheme he called the Universal Pantarchy… He was instrumental in founding several ‘intentional communities,’ including the ‘Brownstone Utopia’ on 14th St. in New York, and ‘Modern Times’ in Brentwood, Long Island. The latter became as famous as the best-known Fourierist communes (Brook Farm in Massachusetts & the North American Phalanx in New Jersey)—in fact, Modern Times became downright notorious (for ‘Free Love’) and finally foundered under a wave of scandalous publicity. Andrews (and Victoria Woodhull) were members of the infamous Section 12 of the 1st International, expelled by Marx for its anarchist, feminist, and spiritualist tendencies.
For American anarchist historian Eunice Minette Schuster, “[i]t is apparent that Proudhonian Anarchism was to be found in the United States at least as early as 1848 and that it was not conscious of its affinity to the Individualist Anarchism of Josiah Warren and Stephen Pearl Andrews. William B. Greene presented this Proudhonian Mutualism in its purest and most systematic form”. William Batchelder Greene was a 19th-century mutualist individualist anarchist, Unitarian minister, soldier and promoter of free banking in the United States. Greene is best known for the works Mutual Banking, which proposed an interest-free banking system; and Transcendentalism, a critique of the New England philosophical school.
After 1850, he became active in labor reform. “He was elected vice-president of the New England Labor Reform League, the majority of the members holding to Proudhon’s scheme of mutual banking, and in 1869 president of the Massachusetts Labor Union”. Greene then published Socialistic, Mutualistic, and Financial Fragments (1875). He saw mutualism as the synthesis of “liberty and order”. His “associationism […] is checked by individualism. […] ‘Mind your own business,’ ‘Judge not that ye be not judged.’ Over matters which are purely personal, as for example, moral conduct, the individual is sovereign, as well as over that which he himself produces. For this reason he demands ‘mutuality’ in marriage—the equal right of a woman to her own personal freedom and property”.
Poet, naturalist and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was an important early influence in individualist anarchist thought in the United States and Europe. He is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings; and his essay Civil Disobedience (Resistance to Civil Government), an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state. In Walden, Thoreau advocates simple living and self-sufficiency among natural surroundings in resistance to the advancement of industrial civilization.
Civil Disobedience, first published in 1849, argues that people should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences and that people have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. These works influenced green anarchism, anarcho-primitivism and anarcho-pacifism as well as figures including Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Martin Buber and Leo Tolstoy.
For George Woodcock this attitude can be also motivated by certain idea of resistance to progress and of rejection of the growing materialism which is the nature of American society in the mid-19th century”. Zerzan included Thoreau’s “Excursions” in his edited compilation of anti-civilization writings, Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections. Individualist anarchists such as Thoreau do not speak of economics, but simply the right of disunion from the state and foresee the gradual elimination of the state through social evolution. Agorist author J. Neil Schulman cites Thoreau as a primary inspiration.
Many economists since Adam Smith have argued that—unlike other taxes—a land value tax would not cause economic inefficiency. It would be a progressive tax, i.e. a tax paid primarily by the wealthy, that increases wages, reduces economic inequality, removes incentives to misuse real estate and reduces the vulnerability that economies face from credit and property bubbles.
Early proponents of this view include Thomas Paine, Herbert Spencer and Hugo Grotius, but the concept was widely popularized by the economist and social reformer Henry George. George believed that people ought to own the fruits of their labor and the value of the improvements they make, thus he was opposed to income taxes, sales taxes, taxes on improvements and all other taxes on production, labor, trade or commerce.
George was among the staunchest defenders of free markets and his book Protection or Free Trade was read into the Congressional Record. Yet he did support direct management of natural monopolies as a last resort, such as right-of-way monopolies necessary for railroads. George advocated for elimination of intellectual property arrangements in favor of government sponsored prizes for inventors.
Early followers of George’s philosophy called themselves single taxers because they believed that the only legitimate, broad-based tax was land rent. The term Georgism was coined later, though some modern proponents prefer the term geoism instead, leaving the meaning of geo (Earth in Greek) deliberately ambiguous. The terms Earth Sharing, geonomics and geolibertarianism are used by some Georgists to represent a difference of emphasis, or real differences about how land rent should be spent, but all agree that land rent should be recovered from its private owners.
Lysander Spooner, besides his individualist anarchist activism, was also an anti-slavery activist and member of the First International. Tucker argued that the elimination of what he called “the four monopolies”—the land monopoly, the money and banking monopoly, the monopoly powers conferred by patents and the quasi-monopolistic effects of tariffs—would undermine the power of the wealthy and big business, making possible widespread property ownership and higher incomes for ordinary people, while minimizing the power of would-be bosses and achieving socialist goals without state action. Tucker’s anarchist periodical, Liberty, was published from August 1881 to April 1908.
The publication, emblazoned with Proudhon’s quote that liberty is “Not the Daughter But the Mother of Order” was instrumental in developing and formalizing the individualist anarchist philosophy through publishing essays and serving as a forum for debate. Contributors included Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, Auberon Herbert, Dyer Lum, Joshua K. Ingalls, John Henry Mackay, Victor Yarros, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, James L. Walker, J. William Lloyd, Florence Finch Kelly, Voltairine de Cleyre, Steven T. Byington, John Beverley Robinson, Jo Labadie, Lillian Harman and Henry Appleton. Later, Tucker and others abandoned their traditional support of natural rights and converted to an egoism modeled upon the philosophy of Max Stirner.
A number of natural rights proponents stopped contributing in protest. Several periodicals were undoubtedly influenced by Liberty’s presentation of egoism, including I published by Clarence Lee Swartz and edited by William Walstein Gordak and J. William Lloyd (all associates of Liberty); and The Ego and The Egoist, both of which were edited by Edward H. Fulton. Among the egoist papers that Tucker followed were the German Der Eigene, edited by Adolf Brand; and The Eagle and The Serpent, issued from London. The latter, the most prominent English language egoist journal, was published from 1898 to 1900 with the subtitle A Journal of Egoistic Philosophy and Sociology.
Georgism and geolibertarianism
Prior to states assigning property owners slices of either once populated or uninhabited land, the world’s earth was held in common. When all resources that derive from land are put to achieving a higher quality of life, not just for employers or landlords, but to serve the general interests and comforts of a wider community, Geolibertarians claim vastly higher qualities of life can be reached, especially with ever advancing technology and industrialised agriculture.
Modern American libertarianism
By around the start of the 20th century, the heyday of individualist anarchism had passed. H. L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock were the first prominent figures in the United States to describe themselves as libertarians; they believed Franklin D. Roosevelt had co-opted the word liberal for his New Deal policies which they opposed and used libertarian to signify their allegiance to individualism. In 1914, Nock joined the staff of The Nation magazine, which at the time was supportive of liberal capitalism. A lifelong admirer of Henry George, Nock went on to become co-editor of The Freeman from 1920 to 1924, a publication initially conceived as a vehicle for the single tax movement, financed by the wealthy wife of the magazine’s other editor, Francis Neilson. Critic H. L. Mencken wrote that “[h]is editorials during the three brief years of the Freeman set a mark that no other man of his trade has ever quite managed to reach. They were well-informed and sometimes even learned, but there was never the slightest trace of pedantry in them”.
Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute David Boaz writes: “In 1943, at one of the lowest points for liberty and humanity in history, three remarkable women published books that could be said to have given birth to the modern libertarian movement”. Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine, Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead each promoted individualism and capitalism. None of the three used the term libertarianism to describe their beliefs and Rand specifically rejected the label, criticizing the burgeoning American libertarian movement as the “hippies of the right”. Rand’s own philosophy, Objectivism, is notedly similar to libertarianism and she accused libertarians of plagiarizing her ideas. Rand stated:
All kinds of people today call themselves “libertarians,” especially something calling itself the New Right, which consists of hippies who are anarchists instead of leftist collectivists; but anarchists are collectivists. Capitalism is the one system that requires absolute objective law, yet libertarians combine capitalism and anarchism. That’s worse than anything the New Left has proposed. It’s a mockery of philosophy and ideology. They sling slogans and try to ride on two bandwagons. They want to be hippies, but don’t want to preach collectivism because those jobs are already taken. But anarchism is a logical outgrowth of the anti-intellectual side of collectivism. I could deal with a Marxist with a greater chance of reaching some kind of understanding, and with much greater respect. Anarchists are the scum of the intellectual world of the Left, which has given them up. So the Right picks up another leftist discard. That’s the libertarian movement.
In 1946, Leonard E. Read founded the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), an American nonprofit educational organization which promotes the principles of laissez-faire economics, private property and limited government. According to Gary North, former FEE director of seminars and a current Ludwig von Mises Institute scholar, FEE is the “granddaddy of all libertarian organizations”. The initial officers of FEE were Leonard E. Read as president, Austrian School economist Henry Hazlitt as vice president and David Goodrich of B. F. Goodrich as chairman. Other trustees on the FEE board have included wealthy industrialist Jasper Crane of DuPont, H. W. Luhnow of William Volker & Co. and Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society.
Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard was initially an enthusiastic partisan of the Old Right, particularly because of its general opposition to war and imperialism, but long embraced a reading of American history that emphasized the role of elite privilege in shaping legal and political institutions. He was part of Ayn Rand’s circle for a brief period, but later harshly criticized Objectivism. He praised Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and wrote that she “introduced me to the whole field of natural rights and natural law philosophy”, prompting him to learn “the glorious natural rights tradition”. He soon broke with Rand over various differences, including his defense of anarchism. Rothbard was influenced by the work of the 19th-century American individualist anarchists and sought to meld their advocacy of free markets and private defense with the principles of Austrian economics. This new philosophy he called anarcho-capitalism.
Karl Hess, a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater and primary author of the Republican Party’s 1960 and 1964 platforms, became disillusioned with traditional politics following the 1964 presidential campaign in which Goldwater lost to Lyndon B. Johnson. He parted with the Republicans altogether after being rejected for employment with the party, and began work as a heavy-duty welder. Hess began reading American anarchists largely due to the recommendations of his friend Murray Rothbard and said that upon reading the works of communist anarchist Emma Goldman, he discovered that anarchists believed everything he had hoped the Republican Party would represent. For Hess, Goldman was the source for the best and most essential theories of Ayn Rand without any of the “crazy solipsism that Rand was so fond of”. Hess and Rothbard founded the journal Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought, which was published from 1965 to 1968, with George Resch and Leonard P. Liggio. In 1969, they edited The Libertarian Forum 1969, which Hess left in 1971. Hess eventually put his focus on the small scale, stating that “Society is: people together making culture”. He deemed two of his cardinal social principles to be “opposition to central political authority” and “concern for people as individuals”. His rejection of standard American party politics was reflected in a lecture he gave during which he said: “The Democrats or liberals think that everybody is stupid and therefore they need somebody… to tell them how to behave themselves. The Republicans think everybody is lazy”.
In 1971, a small group of Americans led by David Nolan formed the Libertarian Party, which has run a presidential candidate every election year since 1972. Other libertarian organizations, such as the Center for Libertarian Studies and the Cato Institute, were also formed in the 1970s. Philosopher John Hospers, a one-time member of Rand’s inner circle, proposed a non-initiation of force principle to unite both groups, but this statement later became a required “pledge” for candidates of the Libertarian Party and Hospers became its first presidential candidate in 1972. In the 1980s, Hess joined the Libertarian Party and served as editor of its newspaper from 1986 to 1990.
Modern libertarianism gained significant recognition in academia with the publication of Harvard University professor Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia in 1974, for which he received a National Book Award in 1975. In response to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, Nozick’s book supported a minimal state (also called a nightwatchman state by Nozick) on the grounds that the ultraminimal state arises without violating individual rights and the transition from an ultraminimal state to a minimal state is morally obligated to occur. Specifically, Nozick writes, “We argue that the first transition from a system of private protective agencies to an ultraminimal state, will occur by an invisible-hand process in a morally permissible way that violates no one’s rights. Secondly, we argue that the transition from an ultraminimal state to a minimal state morally must occur. It would be morally impermissible for persons to maintain the monopoly in the ultraminimal state without providing protective services for all, even if this requires specific ‘redistribution.’ The operators of the ultraminimal state are morally obligated to produce the minimal state”.
In the early 1970s, Rothbard wrote. “One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy. ‘Libertarians’ had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over”. Indeed, the project of spreading libertarian ideals in the United States has been so successful that some Americans who don’t identify as “libertarian” seem to hold libertarian views. Since the resurgence of neoliberalism in the 1970s, this modern American libertarianism has spread beyond North America via think tanks and political parties.
Around the turn of the 21st century, libertarian socialism grew in popularity and influence as part of the anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movements. Anarchists became known for their involvement in protests against the meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Group of Eight and the World Economic Forum. Some anarchist factions at these protests engaged in rioting, property destruction and violent confrontations with police. These actions were precipitated by ad hoc, leaderless, anonymous cadres known as black blocs and other organizational tactics pioneered in this time include security culture, affinity groups and the use of decentralized technologies such as the Internet. A significant event of this period was the confrontations at WTO conference in Seattle in 1999. For English anarchist scholar Simon Critchley, “contemporary anarchism can be seen as a powerful critique of the pseudo-libertarianism of contemporary neo-liberalism. One might say that contemporary anarchism is about responsibility, whether sexual, ecological or socio-economic; it flows from an experience of conscience about the manifold ways in which the West ravages the rest; it is an ethical outrage at the yawning inequality, impoverishment and disenfranchisment that is so palpable locally and globally”. This might also have been motivated by “the collapse of ‘really existing socialism’ and the capitulation to neo-liberalism of Western social democracy”.
Libertarian socialists in the early 21st century have been involved in the alter-globalization movement, squatter movement; social centers; infoshops; anti-poverty groups such as Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and Food Not Bombs; tenants’ unions; housing cooperatives; intentional communities generally and egalitarian communities; anti-sexist organizing; grassroots media initiatives; digital media and computer activism; experiments in participatory economics; anti-racist and anti-fascist groups like Anti-Racist Action and Anti-Fascist Action; activist groups protecting the rights of immigrants and promoting the free movement of people, such as the No Border network; worker co-operatives, countercultural and artist groups; and the peace movement.
2009 saw the rise of the Tea Party movement, an American political movement known for advocating a reduction in the United States national debt and federal budget deficit by reducing government spending and taxes, which had a significant libertarian component despite having contrasts with libertarian values and views in some areas, such as nationalism, free trade, social issues and immigration. A 2011 Reason-Rupe poll found that among those who self-identified as Tea Party supporters, 41 percent leaned libertarian and 59 percent socially conservative. The movement, named after the Boston Tea Party, also contains conservative and populist elements and has sponsored multiple protests and supported various political candidates since 2009. Tea Party activities have declined since 2010 with the number of chapters across the country slipping from about 1,000 to 600. Mostly, Tea Party organizations are said to have shifted away from national demonstrations to local issues. Following the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s 2012 vice presidential running mate, The New York Times declared that Tea Party lawmakers are no longer a fringe of the conservative coalition, but now “indisputably at the core of the modern Republican Party”.
In 2012, anti-war presidential candidates (Libertarian Republican Ron Paul and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson) raised millions of dollars and garnered millions of votes despite opposition to their obtaining ballot access by Democrats and Republicans. The 2012 Libertarian National Convention, which saw Gary Johnson and James P. Gray nominated as the 2012 presidential ticket for the Libertarian Party, resulted in the most successful result for a third-party presidential candidacy since 2000 and the best in the Libertarian Party’s history by vote number. Johnson received 1% of the popular vote, amounting to more than 1.2 million votes. Johnson has expressed a desire to win at least 5 percent of the vote so that the Libertarian Party candidates could get equal ballot access and federal funding, thus subsequently ending the two-party system.
Contemporary libertarian organizations
A number of countries have libertarian parties that run candidates for political office. In the United States, the Libertarian Party was formed in 1972 and is the third largest American political party, with 511,277 voters (0.46% of total electorate) registered as Libertarian in the 31 states that report Libertarian registration statistics and Washington, D.C.
Current international anarchist federations which sometimes identify themselves as libertarian include the International of Anarchist Federations, the International Workers’ Association and International Libertarian Solidarity. The largest organized anarchist movement today is in Spain, in the form of the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT) and the CNT. CGT membership was estimated to be around 100,000 for 2003. Other active syndicalist movements include the Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden and the Swedish Anarcho-syndicalist Youth Federation in Sweden; the Unione Sindacale Italiana in Italy; Workers Solidarity Alliance in the United States; and Solidarity Federation in the United Kingdom. The revolutionary industrial unionist Industrial Workers of the World claiming 2,000 paying members as well as the International Workers Association, an anarcho-syndicalist successor to the First International, also remain active. In the United States, there exists the Common Struggle – Libertarian Communist Federation.
Criticism of libertarianism includes ethical, economic, environmental, pragmatic and philosophical concerns, although most of them are mainly related to right-libertarianism, including the view that it has no explicit theory of liberty. For instance, it has been argued that laissez-faire capitalism does not necessarily produce the best or most efficient outcome, nor does its philosophy of individualism and policies of deregulation prevent the abuse of natural resources.
John Donahue argues that if political power were radically shifted to local authorities, parochial local interests would predominate at the expense of the whole and that this would exacerbate current problems with collective action.
Before Donahue, Friedrich Engels claimed in his essay On Authority that radical decentralization would destroy modern industrial civilization, citing an example of railways:
Here too the co-operation of an infinite number of individuals is absolutely necessary, and this co-operation must be practised during precisely fixed hours so that no accidents may happen. Here, too, the first condition of the job is a dominant will that settles all subordinate questions, whether this will is represented by a single delegate or a committee charged with the execution of the resolutions of the majority of persona interested. In either case there is a very pronounced authority. Moreover, what would happen to the first train dispatched if the authority of the railway employees over the Hon. passengers were abolished?
In the end, it is argued that authority in any form is a natural occurrence which should not be abolished.
Lack of real-world examples
Michael Lind has observed that of the 195 countries in the world today, none have fully actualized a society as advocated by right-libertarians:
If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn’t at least one country have tried it? Wouldn’t there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?
Furthermore, Lind has criticized right-libertarianism as being incompatible with democracy and apologetic towards autocracy. In response, right-libertarian Warren Redlich argues that the United States “was extremely libertarian from the founding until 1860, and still very libertarian until roughly 1930”.
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…libertarianism, political philosophy that takes individual liberty to be the primary political value.
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It can also invoke Geoism, a philosophical tradition encompassing the views of John Locke and Henry George …
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- Primary sources by left-wing market anarchists:
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