Libertarians Weren’t Always Apologists for the Rich and Powerful

A new history of libertarianism challenges the conventional understanding of the tradition by spotlighting its radical currents. Unfortunately, there’s barely a remnant of that history today — most libertarians threw in their lot with the Right long ago.

Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal, Palantir Technologies, and Founders Fund, gestures as he speaks during the Bitcoin 2022 Conference at Miami Beach Convention Center on April 7, 2022. in Miami, Florida. (Marco Bello / Getty Images)

I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [libertarianism] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.

Christopher Hitchens

In his 1995 book Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, socialist thinker G. A. Cohen serves up a scathing critique of Robert Nozick’s libertarian philosophy. Nozick made such a fetish of property rights, Cohen charged, that a millionaire could light his cigar with a $5 bill in front of a starving child and go home with a spotless conscience. After all, the child’s suffering may be regrettable, but she has no entitlement to the millionaire’s five dollars — no matter how much good it may do her.

Libertarians have a well-deserved reputation as the most zealous defenders of gloves-off capitalism. Along with Nozick, the canon includes gems like Ayn Rand, who infamously described businessmen as the real “persecuted minority” in the heyday of the civil rights movement, and Dickensian defenders of sweatshops. From Ludwig von Mises’s flattering words about fascism to the thinly veiled racism of so called “bordertarians,” many freedom-talking libertarians seem fine with authoritarianism as long as it protects property and the almighty dollar.

And yet, as Cohen himself observes, there has always been a strange but abiding attraction between the socialist and libertarian traditions.

A Varied Tradition

In their new book, The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism, philosophers Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi showcase the many historic sides of the libertarian movement. This includes lengthy and candid discussions of “paleolibertarian” figures like the late Murray Rothbard (1926–1995) and Lew Rockwell (founder and head of the Mises Institute), whose blend of hyper-capitalist economics and hard-right social conservatism has frequently descended into open racism and homophobia.

But as self-identified “bleeding heart” or left-libertarians, Zwolinksi and Tomasi identify with a more radical libertarian past — one that aligned with socialists on specific issues like the elimination of the military-carceral state, support for racial equality, and a wariness of the power of big business.

While Zwolinski and Tomasi trace the origins of libertarianism back to classical liberal figures like John Locke, they argue that “primordial libertarianism” as a distinct doctrine emerged in the nineteenth century in Britain and France through the writings of Thomas Hodgskin, Herbert Spencer, Frédéric Bastiat, and Gustave de Molinari. As they put it, “for the first time, libertarianism formed an intellectual system” pivoting around six core ideas: individualism, private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, spontaneous order, and negative liberty. In Britain and France, libertarians staunchly opposed the aristocratic order, invoking everything from natural rights to economic efficiency to speed its extinction.

But as the century wore on and the workers’ movement rose to prominence in Europe, figures like Spencer directed much of their energy at a new rival: socialism. Support for toppling hierarchies dissipated into anti-egalitarian, revanchist defenses of market society. While few would go as far as Ludwig von Mises in offering apologetics for Italian fascism, Zwolinski and Tomasi acknowledge that early right-libertarians had an “unfortunate tendency to invoke broadly evolutionary ideas in a way that seemed almost designed to invite uncharitable readings.” This directly contributed to the ideological formation of what became known as social Darwinism. Spencer’s infamous comment in Man Versus the State is representative:

Generations ago there had existed a certain “gutter-child,” as she would be here called, known as “Margaret,” who proved to be the prolific mother of a prolific race. Besides great numbers of idiots, imbeciles, drunkards, lunatics, paupers, and prostitutes, “the county records show two hundred of her descendants who have been criminals.” Was it kindness or cruelty which, generation after generation, enabled these to multiply and become an increasing curse to the society around them?

With that kind of toxicity in the intellectual bloodstream, a certain kind of right-libertarian could easily fashion a xenophobic, racist libertarianism. Indeed, they still do. While Tomasi and Zwolinksi are more than willing to describe Spencer’s comments as “offensive,” they could stand to go further, particularly given the influence of such doctrines on contemporary far-right figures like Stefan Molyneux or Curtis Yarvin.

Interestingly, Tomasi and Zwolinski claim that libertarianism’s trajectory was different in the United States, where libertarianism emerged out of the abolitionist movement with a deep antipathy toward concentrations of economic and political power that allowed elites to expropriate unpaid labor. They write:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century in America, socialism was regarded as not only compatible with libertarianism but as the most effective means of realizing freedom. State socialism was of course regarded by all libertarians as an unmitigated evil. But late in the nineteenth century, it was still possible for American libertarians to distinguish between voluntary and coercive socialism and to recognize the former as at least compatible with if not positively required by their creed.

Things began to change with the New Deal and the Cold War, when American libertarians — often aided by a generous infusion of cash from the rich, as Tomasi and Zwolinski note — soured on socialism and largely embraced the political right, often under the influence of European émigrés like Ayn Rand, Mises, and F. A. Hayek. Many libertarians took up distinctly right-wing causes like opposition to labor unions and the welfare state. Barry Goldwater, the first major presidential candidate of the New Right, pilloried civil rights legislation as federal government overreach.

Herbert Spencer, engraved by Geo. E. Perine, New York, date unknown. (Wikimedia Commons)

Tomasi and Zwolinksi acknowledge that right-libertarianism remains the dominant strain of the tradition — and they do a very good job summarizing its hegemonic forms — but they’re keen to discuss the less familiar left-libertarian tradition.

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick mused that if we take the libertarian position on natural rights seriously, slavery and Jim Crow constituted a centuries-long violation of the property rights of black Americans. Consequently, justice in rectification might require mass transfers of wealth to those who’d been wronged. This would naturally be unpalatable to many right-wingers who ape libertarian rhetoric but also despise anything to do with racial justice. But as Nozick pointed out decades ago, this might be nothing more than mere prejudice inconsistent with the radical demands of libertarian principles.

Zwolinksi and Tomasi argue that even on issues like economic inequality and unionization, libertarians are more divided than it might appear. While some are comfortable with mass inequality and regard unions as a threat to private property, bleeding-heart libertarians tend to recognize that massive wealth inequality generates plutocratic control.

Some support redistributive measures and the labor movement. After all, unions can be viewed as free associations where workers cooperate voluntarily to raise the price of their labor. Similarly, workplace democracy can be seen as extending the libertarian skepticism of authority to the domain of “private government.”

Libertarians and Socialists

Yet it is hard to see how things can go beyond intellectual overlap. While there is fruitful coalescence in the foreign policy arena — see the cross-ideological, anti-interventionist Quincy Institute — on most issues a political relationship is a nonstarter because left-libertarianism simply isn’t a force in the real world.

In Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, G. A. Cohen chastised libertarians for not taking moral equality sufficiently seriously, or even regarding it as important. Most libertarians, if I can elaborate on the point, see nothing wrong with a world where billionaires can launch themselves into space while crushing labor movements back on Earth — or, for that matter, with a world where the free speech rights of white supremacists provoke hot tears of outrage, but Black Lives Matter activists can be thrown in jail because their activism has damaged private property.

When they switch from describing to editorializing, Zwolinksi and Tomasi are eager to rebut this charge by pointing to a long history of organizing against oppression from the abolitionist movement onward. Bleeding-heart and left libertarians share the conviction that all are moral equals, and consequently are entitled to what Ronald Dworkin called equal respect and recognition of the importance of their lives. Yet, again, left-libertarianism is dwarfed in the actual world by its right-libertarian brethren.

And that much more influential, much-better-known strand of libertarianism has explicitly rejected the notion of moral equality — remarkably, even as classical liberals understood it. These libertarians agree with Mises that:

Men are altogether unequal. Even between brothers there exist the most marked differences in physical and mental attributes. . . . Each man who leaves her workshop bears the imprint of the individual, the unique, the never-to-recur. Men are not equal, and the demand for equality under the law can by no means be grounded in the contention that equal treatment is due to equals.

Or they agree with Rand that there are demonstrably superior and productive people in society who are responsible for virtually every human advancement, who owe nothing to anyone else, and who are in eternal conflict with the “looters and parasites” that contribute nothing yet demand a leveling down of the creative individuals.

At their most egalitarian, right-libertarians defend market society and property on utilitarian lines, somewhat begrudgingly holding that equality under the law is a precondition for genuine competition. But more often, they echo Quinn Slobodian’s point about free marketers’ tendency to ascribe mystical qualities to the market and competition: whereas once the visible hand of God sorted out the deserving from the undeserving, now the invisible hand of the market does the trick.

These anti-egalitarian libertarians, echoing social Darwinian rhetoric, regard feudalism as unjust not because it threw up vast disparities of authority and power, but because those in power weren’t the deserving elite: they had received aristocracy’s entitlements due to law and inheritance. By contrast, capitalist competition demanded the constant winnowing of the excellent and rarefied from the common and mundane, something that left it vulnerable to the resentments and interference of the masses. As Peter Thiel put it in his essay “The Education of a Libertarian,” the “higher one’s IQ, the more pessimistic one became about free-market politics” and the future of market society because “capitalism simply is not that popular with the crowd.” Thiel apocalyptically intoned that the “fate of the world may depend on the effort of a single individual” — the “entrepreneur” who “may create a new world” of capitalist freedom safe from the interfering resentments of the mass.

Ironically, such libertarians conform to Hayek’s observation that illiberal conservative convictions boil down to a mythological belief that there are “recognizably superior persons” who are more deserving and so deserving of more. This leads them to see the market less as a utility-maximizing set of exchanges between free and equal persons, and more as a mechanism to ensure the “recognizably superior persons” wind up on top.

A Line in the Sand

Zwolinski and Tomasi’s historical survey of the libertarian movement, warts and all, is uncommonly honest and comprehensive. Purely as exegesis, the book is without peer, and anyone who wants to know what libertarianism is should run, not walk, to pick it up.

If all, or at least most, libertarians were left-libertarians like Zwolinksi and Tomasi, socialists would have a lot more to say to them. We’d all be committed, on paper, to a world where freedom and equality were respected, even if we’d have fierce disagreements on the best way to get there.

But it isn’t clear that democratic socialists and mainstream libertarians will have much in common unless left-libertarianism vastly expands beyond intellectual circles. Until then, socialists will be forced to draw a line in the sand against those who reify and admire inequality for its own sake. To update a line from Max Weber, we must recognize in the Peter Thiels of the world one of the oldest and crassest human instincts: insisting on one’s right to immense power and resources out of alleged superiority.