Libertarian Roots Grow Radical Stems, Leaves, and Blooms

girl reading in library courtesy Nicole Berro on

photo by Nicole Berro on

Guest Post by Sean Thornton, SC Libertarian Party State Committee Chair

It often comes as quite a surprise to new libertarians that libertarianism is rooted, not in conservatism, but in extreme left-wing ideology. It’s a major paradigm shift from the simplistic narrative that conservative/right = liberty and liberal/left = big government, but the history, like all history, is critical to understanding where we are today. Indeed, it’s critical even to understanding other libertarians.

Before libertarianism, there was just liberalism—what we now call classical liberalism. (Think Thomas Jefferson.) Liberals supported civil liberties and economic freedom, believing that individuals had natural rights to life, liberty, and property. The State had no legitimate authority to interfere with individual self-determination and voluntary economic activity.

But as liberals gained political ground throughout the 19th century, dismantling various avenues of State oppression but still finding plenty of social ills left in need of a cure, their ideas began to diversify.

On the one hand, the moderate liberals who attained power, rather than continuing to dismantle the State, started to use State force to try to cure whatever problems they found in society. Of course, no two liberal reformers could exactly agree, so ideologies proliferated.

On the other hand, however, radical liberals continued to push for reduction in State power to an absolute minimum, and for some, that minimum was zero—philosophical anarchism. The early anarchists noted that the entanglement between the new liberal State and powerful, monied and landed interests (what we now call “crony capitalism”) was essentially no different than prior oppression by the aristocracy—economic inequality was still sustained by the State, keeping the poor majority bound in wage slavery in order to enrich a wealthy minority.

Anarchists believed such entanglement to be inevitable, so the only way to guarantee liberty for all was to eliminate the State.

It is important to note that classical liberalism viewed labor, capital, and land as necessary factors of production; radical liberals therefore concluded that without access to all three, an individual could never be truly free.

In abolishing the State, therefore, anarchists would attain free and equal access through communal ownership (or rather, non-ownership) of land and, in some strains of anarchist thought, of capital as well.  Anarchism could therefore be correctly described as “communist” or “socialist.”

So what does all this have to do with libertarianism?

As one might expect, an ideology predicated on complete elimination of all coercive authority is bound to have powerful enemies. Anarchists quickly found their ideology outlawed. To circumvent this problem, they adopted the term libertarian (or libertaire in French) as a euphemism for anarchist.

Libertarianism, then, far from the conservative associations it has today, was originally the term for the most extreme of all left-wing ideologies.

Within anarchism, of course, as with liberalism before, there also grew different strains—mutualist, anarcho-syndicalist, individualist, etc. The first prominent American to call himself a libertarian was individualist anarchist writer Albert Jay Nock, whose particular ideology was more or less what we would now call geolibertarian. This strain shares the anarchist view that full liberty is only possible where everyone has equal access to land. Nock’s disciple Frank Chodorov was also a prominent geolibertarian, and Chodorov was later mentor to Murray Rothbard, arguably the most influential person in the modern American libertarian movement. Rothbard fused anarchism with the Austrian school’s view of economics to create anarcho-capitalism.

It is hard to imagine that such an extreme left-wing ideology could ever get mistaken for conservatism, but politics, as the saying goes, makes strange bedfellows.

By the early 20th century, liberalism had essentially embraced authoritarian socialism; in America doing so in the form of Franklin D. Roosevelt. (This is in fact why Nock et al. called themselves libertarian, to differentiate from what liberal had been perverted to mean.)

In opposing Roosevelt’s New Deal, the libertarians found themselves in an odd alliance with big business, religious traditionalists, and other groups now associated with conservatism but not particularly friendly to liberty in general.

The libertarians found their conservative label quite ridiculous, and Chodorov in particular said, “I will punch anyone who calls me a conservative in the nose. I am a radical.”

This uneasy alliance lasted until the Vietnam War, when conservative leaders decided to expel the libertarians. Those libertarians then founded the Libertarian Party, and from the outset it included not just conservative libertarians but also classical liberals, minarchists, and anarchists.

So, while conservatism might still be tinged with some of the old libertarian influence, in rhetoric more than in actual substance, the Libertarian Party is decidedly not conservative—it’s much bigger than that. The Libertarian Party is place of wider, broader ideas with roots in the faith that freedom is a sufficient governing ideology.

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