Libertarian History/Philosophy

Cato's Tom Palmer on Libertarianism or Liberty

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The roundtable on libertarianism's past, present, and prospects continues over at Cato Unbound, triggered by my new book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement and by my essay "Libertarianism: Past and Prospects." Brink Lindsey and Tyler Cowen had already weighed in; now Cato's Tom Palmer does.

In Palmer's estimation, my book focuses too much on uninfluential kooks, and my essay doesn't provide cogent enough answers to what the best strategy for libertarian progress is, relying too much on gushy ecumenicism. I'll be replying to Palmer and the others at length later on Cato Unbound itself; in the meantime, an excerpt from his essay for your delectation:

At the root of what I see as Brian's error is a confusion of two related projects: the promotion of liberty and the promotion of libertarianism, i.e., the theory that liberty should be the primary (or overriding) goal of a political order. The latter, to the extent one should want to promote it, would be valuable not for its own sake (unless promoting political theories were one's hobby), but solely as a means to the end of promoting liberty, the value that is at the center of libertarianism. One way to promote liberty is surely to promote libertarianism, but it's surely also not the only way.

The question of whether one is promoting liberty or libertarianism has been with libertarians for some time. Is it "selling out" one's principles to promote incremental moves toward liberty without announcing at the same time one's commitment to a world completely free of coercion, or of the institutions of coercion? (I was a participant in that debate [pdf] — somewhat to my embarrassment three decades later — when I wrote several essays on the topic in various 1970s journals, including the Libertarian Forum.)

A quick preview of my eventual response: I was quite consciously writing a history, as my book's title says, of the self-conscious libertarian movement, which is, as Palmer rightly notes, different from a history of libertarian ideas and their progress. My new essay today on Reason Online on the death of various "isms" touches on this idea–the distinctions between ideological movements and ideas–from a different perspective.