Libertarian History/Philosophy

Libertarian History, Online

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Some great new resources of libertarian history (a subject, ahem, near to my heart) have come up online of late. Perhaps the niftiest, due to the combination of rarity and importance, is a full set of the late 19th century journal Liberty, edited by leading American individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker. 403 issues!

The interface ain't pretty, but it's there. Here's issue one , from Aug 6, 1881. And the last issue, from April 1908. And here's Wendy McElroy's amazing index to the mag.

Also relatively fresh to the web, via the Mises Institute, is a full .pdf of Rose Wilder Lane's classic The Discovery of Freedom, one of three books by female libertarian intellectuals that came out in 1943 and laid the foundationstone of the modern libertarian movement. Here's a Feb. 2005 reason review essay by me that discussed Lane and her two colleagues Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand.

And anarcho-capitalist history from the Mises Institute in the form of The Market for Liberty (1970), by Morris and Linda Tannehill, trying to explain how a loveable, liveable modernity could function with no state at all. Here's how they sum up their goals with the book:

The society we propose is based on one fundamental principle: No man or group of men—including any group of men calling themselves "the government"—is morally entitled to initiate (that is, to start) the use of physical force, the threat of force, or any substitute for force (such as fraud) against any other man or group of men. This means that no man, no gang, and no government may morally use force in even the smallest degree against even the most unimportant individual so long as that individual has not himself initiated force.1 Some individuals will choose to initiate force; how to deal with them justly occupies a major part of this book. But, although such aggressions will probably never by fully eliminated, rational men can construct a society which will discourage them rather than institutionalizing them as an integral part of its social structure.

Of course, our knowledge of what a truly free society would be like is far from complete. When men are free to think and produce, they innovate and improve everything around them at a startling rate, which means that only the bare outlines of the structure and functioning of a free society can be seen prior to its actual establishment and operation. But more than enough can be reasoned out to
prove that a truly free society—one in which the initiation of force would be dealt with justly instead of institutionalized in the form of a government—is feasible. By working from what is already known, it is possible to show in general how a free society would operate and to answer fully and satisfactorily the common questions about
and objections to such a society.

Jesse Walker blogged about the online version of a more obscure 19th century individualist anarchist journal Lucifer the Light Bringer.

The dedicated site for my own libertarian history.

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  1. The problem the whole “initiation of force” thing runs into is that there are widely divergent opinions on what constitutes an initiation of force.

    The inclusion of fraud as a substitute for force is one example. I understand the rationale, but I also understand how someone else might object that deception just isn’t violence.

    Others might object to the notion that theft is “the initiation of force”. Picking up an object and walking away with it is only “force” if the taker concedes the right of the nominal owner of that object to that object. If he doesn’t, from his perspective it’s the person defending his property claim who is “initiating” force. And so forth.

  2. And maybe you’re not typing English, Mr. Fluffy. After all, I have my own word for it, which is “Chinese”, and I say that you’re not using a phonetic alphabet but a system of symbols that each represent a different idea.

  3. The problem the whole “initiation of force” thing runs into is that there are widely divergent opinions on what constitutes an initiation of force.

    I wouldn’t say that at all. There are hard questions, to be sure, but there are also many easy ones, and those have been answered affirmatively for as long as history has recorded it. Like any other system (or set of systems), there will be debate over the hard questions.

  4. The inclusion of fraud as a substitute for force is one example. I understand the rationale, but I also understand how someone else might object that deception just isn’t violence.

    Fluffy, you seem to equate “force” with “violence” here. I assume that’s not what you mean, but if it is, could you elaborate?

    That said, I often use the phrase “the initiation of force” around less libertarian minded friends, but I’ve always thought the phrase needed tweaking. Most libertarians understand what you mean when you say that (that it includes theft, fraud, etc.), but others don’t. At the time, I don’t have any succinct ideas, though.

  5. Brian,
    You should have just finished pimping RADS to the greater Chicagoland area a couple of hours ago, and your Amazon sales rank is still above 15k.

    I really think you need a new gimmick, like showing up dressed as Brynhildr.

  6. I’ve read most of Radicals for Capitalism and am finding it a generally comprehensive and informative history. My main quibble with the book is epitomized in the very title Radicals for Capitalism, which if I recall correctly was a descriptor invented by Ayn Rand for her own narrow brand of “libertarianism” (placed in quotes because she disassociated herself from that label and from those who went by that label). A strong current of libertarian thought, including the thought of Benjamin Tucker, is almost as skeptical and critical of capitalism as we know it as it is of government usurpation of our natural liberties. The book briefly mentions Henry George, but doesn’t give him his due. Geolibertarianism, or geoanarchism, or left libertarianism, on the other hand, recognizes not only the principle of self-ownership but also the principle that the earth and other natural resources are commonly owned by everyone born into the world. Libertarian hero Thomas Paine in his essay Agrarian Justice famously recognized this latter principle and suggested a plan for implementing it. Left libertarianism thus paves for the way for a more egalitarian society founded on natural justice, not government-imposed “charity.”

    Very unfortunately, not only Doherty’s book, but Reason as well, gives short shrift to this important strand within libertarianism, the strand that in my view constitutes real libertarianism. (See, e.g. Dan Sullivan’s essay “Are you a Real Libertarian, or a Royal Libertarian?” http://geolib.com/essays/sullivan.dan/royallib.html)

    See also the on-line articles of Peter Vallentyne, in particular his “Left-Libertarianism: A Primer”
    http://web.missouri.edu/~umcasklinechair/Vita_Revised.htm#Articles

  7. The no-initiation-of-force principle is a good ethical foundation for figuring out how to construct a free society. The problem is that many libertarians say to themselves, “Well, that’s it. We have our one principle from which all the right answers can be derived. We can stop thinking now.”

    Just a few examples of places where the non-aggression is not enough:

    First, it has no concept of reconciliation once an aggression has occurred. So, for example, there is no reason under the non-aggression principle for Israel and Palestine to try to work out a peaceful solution to their conflict. In a situation like Palestine, the non-aggression principle can be downright counterproductive since there is so much emphasis on “who started it”.

    Second, there’s no concept of appropriate retaliation. Under the non-aggression principle, it’s perfectly acceptable to kill someone because he stole your loaf of bread.

    Third, it assumes that everyone involved is a rational adult. So, for example, it says very little about how children fit into the whole scheme.

  8. John Kindley,

    Very interesting. I have always found the lack of Geolibertarianism on Reason as an indicator that Reason is as much a conservative leaning publication as it is a libertarian leaning publication. The discussion of “liberaltarianism” seems to indicate that many libertarians have little or no knowledge of the origins of many of their core beliefs…

  9. Mike, no, the “problem” is that people like you apparently feel you have carte blanche to make broad and ridiculous statements about libertarians without backing them up. If there are really any libertarians who fit your cartoon image of them, why don’t you address your comments to them if and when they actually exhibit said cartoon characteristics and meanwhile retire your caricature painting broad brush?

    FYI, Jesse Walker has written the most eloquent passages I’ve ever seen on how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can only be solved by utterly ignoring those labyrinthian geneological issues and moving forward with practical solutions for the future.

    Second, just because libertarianism does not address all potential public policy issues does not mean libertarians somehow turn braindead anytime an issue comes up that libertarianism does not address. To the contrary, I’ve seen no lack of opinions expressed on a zillion issues on this forum. And sometimes someone even protests and say, hey what does that have to do with libertarianism? And to them I’ve said that just because this is a libertarian forum doesn’t mean that nothing can be discussed that doesn’t directly relate to libertarianism! They’re twits for protesting in such a way, but you’re being a twit (sorry, but it’s true) in the opposite direction.

  10. John Kindley, Neu Mejican—The main reason I don’t talk much about Georgism in my book is because it really is it’s own separate (and quite the rage in its day) socio-political movement, which itself deserves a lot more scholarly and historical attention than it gets; but despite what you are saying, it is NOT the “origin of many core beliefs” of libtism, though in many respects politically Georgists were/are “libertarian” but not an active part of the self-conscious movement of libertarian intellectuals and institutions whose story I tell; of major libertarian founding influences and figures, only Nock and Chodorov had Georgist backgrounds, and Chodorov’s Georgism had very little to do with how he made his name for himself as a libt figure in the 40s and 50s. Spending some time reading all the angry letters from Georgists to FEE for FEE’s refusal to accept Georgism as the basis for its libtism will disabuse you quickly of the notion that Georgism is a major part of the modern American libt movement story. As I accurately put it, the five major influences and figures in modern American libtism were Mises, Hayek, Rand, Friedman, and Rothbard–not a Georgist among them and Rothbard at least actively campaigned against Georgism.

  11. If there are really any libertarians who fit your cartoon image of them, why don’t you address your comments to them if and when they actually exhibit said cartoon characteristics and meanwhile retire your caricature painting broad brush?

    Very good advice. I apologize.

  12. Second, there’s no concept of appropriate retaliation. Under the non-aggression principle, it’s perfectly acceptable to kill someone because he stole your loaf of bread.

    Third, it assumes that everyone involved is a rational adult. So, for example, it says very little about how children fit into the whole scheme.

    2) Actually, there is. To shoot someone for stealing bubble gum or loaves of bread would violate any kind of proportionality, and would thus count as an initiation of force. Extrapolating from what you say, using solely the nonaggression principle as your guide it is perfectly acceptable to take someone’s house if they steal a loaf of your bread. But under the NAP, this is obviously theft since the thief only stole a loaf of bread, not anything analagous to a house, this is going above and beyond the thief’s use of force against one’s property, and is thus theft.

    3) I don’t think that’s the case. See this article, for instance:
    http://www.lewrockwell.com/molyneux/molyneux16.html

  13. Very good advice. I apologize.

    DAMN RIGHT!!

    Heh, well thank you, and sorry for getting all righteous on you! I hate being that way, but sometimes, y’know…well anyway, thanks.

  14. To shoot someone for stealing bubble gum or loaves of bread would violate any kind of proportionality, and would thus count as an initiation of force.

    If you interpret the non-initiation of force principle to imply proportional retaliation, then that’s great!

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/molyneux/molyneux16.html

    That’s a long article. I didn’t catch where he derived his ideas about how children would be cared for in an anarchist society from the non-initiation of force principle.

  15. Very unfortunately, not only Doherty’s book, but Reason as well, gives short shrift to this important strand within libertarianism, the strand that in my view constitutes real libertarianism.

    Ah, nothing like a libertarian telling the rest of us that he has found one pure libertarianism.

    By the way, you’re wrong. My strand of libertarianism is the one that consitutes the real libertarianism.

  16. That’s a long article. I didn’t catch where he derived his ideas about how children would be cared for in an anarchist society from the non-initiation of force principle.

    Ah, I read your statement as “libertarianism says little about the care of children,” but you meant “the NAP says little about the care of children.” I posted that link to address the former idea.

  17. I posted that link to address the former idea.

    Thanks, now I get it.

  18. What differentiates anarcho-capitalism with anarcho-socialism (of whatever variety) is the concept of property. This goes straight to the heart of the “initiation of force” quandary.

    The socialist says that without government there would be no property. People simply would not recogize its existance. The libertarian is the opposite, and says property exists naturally. People will automatically recognize its legitimacy. But both of these viewpoints are naive, and both require the disproportionate use of force to validate.

    That’s why the old saw that anarchy is the most unstable form of governance is true. The minute an anarchy attempts to enforce its philosophical underpinnings it creates a government. Or if it does not then it gives rise to a proto-government criminal class.

    Once you get down to it, “might makes right” is the only natural right. That’s why minarchy is preferable to anarchy. We need a government small enough that we can pretend we’re in a free anarchist society, but large enough so that it really isn’t.

  19. Brian D.

    I think you misunderstood what I was saying, but that’s okay. I don’t dispute anything in your response. And it was not aimed at your book, which I haven’t read.

    I meant that, broadly speaking, the development of the ideas that form the foundation for libertarianism share a lot with the ideas that form the anarchism of leftish thinkers like Proudhon that specifically differ on the issue of property. Many libertarians ignore the difference of opinion on property issues and assume that the property rights argument is “self-evident” and necessary for a coherent concept of liberty. Much of the animosity between anarcho-syndacalism et al. and libertarianism is, imho, the result of the basic overlap in broad world view differentiated sharply on a few narrow issues, such as how to deal with property.

  20. Oh, and what Brandybuck said too.

  21. Once you get down to it, “might makes right” is the only natural right. That’s why minarchy is preferable to anarchy. We need a government small enough that we can pretend we’re in a free anarchist society, but large enough so that it really isn’t.

    Brandybuck, I’m reposting your post over at an anarcho-capitalist message board. Please come for further discussion if you wish:

    link

  22. That’s why the old saw that anarchy is the most unstable form of governance is true.

    I always refer to anarchy as being meta-stable. In physics terms, a ball at the bottom of a bowl is stable. A ball balanced on the peak of a hill is meta-stable. Its forcing are in balance, but with any perturbation it comes crashing down.

    Anarchy SEEMS stable, but with one little perturbation….

  23. I am very thankful that Reason doesn’t publish much on “geolibertarianism.” It’s not a question of right or left; it’s a question of sense and nonsense. Henry George’s economics was riddled with nonsense, and the Single Tax idea is as bad as any other tax idea. (One could argue it is worse than some.) Moreover, the issue of land ownership was better addressed by others — though conclusively addressed by no one. Alas.

    This being said, what has been called “vulgar libertarianism” is a problem. The defense of business, corporations, and vast land holdings shouldn’t be knee-jerk. I prefer to think of liberty as a limit on government. AND on business. To me, this is utterly uncontroversial. But the rhetorical avoidance of this position does infect the culture of modern libertarianism, to its detriment.

    I discovered the Liberty: The Mother Not the Daughter of Order site a few weeks ago. I should get back to it. Today’s libertarians would do well to acquaint themselves with the writings of Proudhon, Tucker, Spooner, Yarros, Spencer, Donisthorpe, Herbert, Levy and others. A few of the debates in the old Liberty were better handled than debates are, today (such as in today’s Liberty or even in Reason). Others remain almost embarrassingly bad.

    Yes, very educational.

  24. Brandybuck, I’m reposting your post over at an anarcho-capitalist message board. Please come for further discussion if you wish:

    Over there you say “might makes right cannot be a natural right since it is not a principle at all.” You are assuming that there are principles in nature. There are not. Nature does not recognize the existance of property.

    If a group of strong men decided to squat in your home, you only recourse, short of government, is gathering together an even stronger group of men to kick them out. But what if this is an anarcho-socialist society (of whatever variety)? Offended by your attempt to propertize your home, an even larger group of strong men kick you out of your home. Your rights ultimately derive from what the largest group of strong men decide they are.

  25. Nature does not recognize the existance of property.

    That’s true: but nature does not recognize the existence of numbers, either, but they are still valid, are they not?

    Your rights ultimately derive from what the largest group of strong men decide they are.

    I agree that whether there is more or less crime and more or less statism is dependent on whether a large amount of people are willing to enforce the NAP, but that doesn’t change logic–either there are no rights, in which case saying that the largest group of violent people decide what one’s rights are is incorrect, or there are rights, in which case they cannot be changed by force of arms anymore than the law of non-contradiction can be changed by force of arms.

  26. Why do we tend to have more rights in democratic oriented societies? Because we have banded together to be the stronger man. People don’t want to admit it, but under our veneer of civilization we are still barbarians.

    Most of our rights are quite new, including that of property. Most primitive societies, despite being “closer to nature”, have very poor concepts of property. Even our modern term “real estate” demonstrates the lack of individual property rights during the evolution of our language.

    p.s. As to numbers, nature indeed recognizes them. It’s how all of physics works. A grove of ten trees remains ten trees no matter how much nutter philosophers object to the existance of numbers. If they go cut down five trees, all they have done is proven that 10-5=5. Frankly, I’m somewhat taken aback that I have to explain this self evident truth.

  27. Once you get down to it, “might makes right” is the only natural right.

    Yes, once you get down to it, that is the situation. Which is why I think creating a libertarian society is more of an art of balancing and checking power, and individual empowerment, than some exact logical system of laws that can be derived from a single core principle.

  28. Brian Doherty,

    You said this in your initial post:

    “Some great new resources of libertarian history (a subject, ahem, near to my heart) have come up online of late. Perhaps the niftiest, due to the combination of rarity and importance, is a full set of the late 19th century journal Liberty, edited by leading American individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker.”

    I take it from this that you agree that Benjamin Tucker was an important and leading figure of libertarian history.

    Now, Wikipedia has this to say about Benjamin Tucker:
    “In editing and publishing the anarchist periodical Liberty, Tucker . . . produce[d] a rigorous system of philosophical or individualist anarchism that he called Anarchistic-Socialism. Tucker defined socialism as the claim that ‘labor should be put in possession of its own.’ Thus, he believed that workers should be in possession of their own means of production individually rather than as a collective unit or bureaucratic organization. Essentially such a society would be one where all workers would be owners and all owners would be workers simultaneously. Tucker even went so far as to call his philosophy ‘scientific socialism’ (borrowing the phrase from Karl Marx), but argued ‘[the] most perfect Socialism is possible only on the condition of the most perfect individualism.’ . . . He saw interest and profit as a form of exploitation made possible by the banking monopoly, which was in turn maintained through coercion and invasion. Any such interest and profit, Tucker called ‘usury’ and he saw it as the basis for the oppression of the workers. In his words, ‘interest is theft, Rent Robbery, and Profit Only Another Name for Plunder.’ Tucker believed that usury was immoral, however, he upheld the right for all people to engage in immoral contracts. ‘Liberty, therefore, must defend the right of individuals to make contracts involving usury, rum, marriage, prostitution, any many other things which is believes to be wrong in principle and opposed to human well-being. The right to do wrong involves the essence of all rights.’ He asserted that anarchism is meaningless ‘unless it includes the liberty of the individual to control his product or whatever his product has brought him through exchange in a free market-that is, private property.’ But, he made an exception ‘in the case of land, or of any other material the supply of which is so limited that all cannot hold it in unlimited quantities.’ Tucker opposed title to land that was not in use, arguing that an individual would have to use land continually in order to retain exclusive right to it. If this practice is not followed, he believed it results in a ‘land monopoly.'”

    So, Tucker, an influential libertarian, was hardly a Radical for Capitalism, which was exactly the point of my previous comment. The fact that a majority of influential modern libertarians have attempted (which attempt is exemplified by the title and emphasis of your history book) to define out of the “libertarian” mainstream the critique of the capitalist status quo by, inter alia, Tucker, Spooner (to some extent), Paine, George, Nock, and more recently Hillel Steiner and Peter Vallentyne et al., does not by itself make the attempt (i.e. to equate, roughly, libertarianism with radicalism for capitalism) valid. On the contrary, if land and other natural resources are indeed the common property of humankind, such that exclusion of others from those resources demands that some form of compensation be given to those thus excluded, then recognition of those natural property rights is the true libertarian position. BTW, left libertarianism, while usually incorporating some form of Georgism / geolibertarianism, is broader in conception, addressing critically, e.g., whether society has a natural obligation to recognize the absolute and unconditional transmission of property rights by bequest or gift.

    With regard to Georgism specifically, Milton Friedman, while declining to embrace Georgism wholeheartedly, had this to say: “In my opinion, the least bad tax is the property tax on the unimproved value of land, the Henry George argument of many, many years ago” (“An Interview with Milton Friedman,” Human Events 38 [46], November 18, 1978, p. 14.)

    As far as Rothbard’s active critique of Georgism, even a pro-Rothbardian on the Mises blog acknowledged that Rothbard badly misunderstood the Georgist argument: http://blog.mises.org/archives/001610.asp

    BTW, David Friedman makes an appearance in the commentary on the Mises blog post with some interesting thoughts on the statement of his father quoted above and on the general trustworthiness of Rothbard when it came to critiques of thinkers with whom Rothbard disagreed.

  29. Just to be clear and fair, Doherty does discuss Tucker’s differences with anarcho-capitalism in his book. And Doherty is probably correct that his history puts the emphasis where the the most famous and influential of those who go by the label of libertarian have put it over the past hundred or so years. My claim is simply that these most famous and influential of libertarians, specifically the five that Doherty focuses on in his book, have an incomplete conception of natural justice, and that a more complete conception of natural justice is supplied by the minority within modern libertarianism (albeit with strong antecedents dating back centuries) represented by geolibertarianism or left libertarianism.

  30. I have heard only a few people with overall negative critiques of Radicals for Capitalism, and every one of them took issue with which characters Mr. Doherty chose to focus on. Or rather, characters of which wing of libertarianism. We’ve all heard the axiom, put 5 libertarians in a room, get 10 factions. So I am surprised there has not been more negative feedback in this vein. But I think the book does have a more anarcho-capitalist or minarchist slant, as do most Reason contributions. Personally, it’s why I read the magazine/blog, and I loved the book. But you can’t please everyone, especially among libertarians. We likes to bicker. But Mr. Doherty said at a book signing I attended that it seems the younger crop of libertarians are more of the anarcho-capitalist
    vein, so maybe this slant just reflects the times. I, for one, hope so.

    But, the real reason I posted before I gots distracted, I looked at some of the Lucifer, the Light-Bearer issues, mainly because it has the best moniker of any periodical in the history of the liberty movement (sorry, Reason). Even better than it’s name, though, is the staff listing. The staff are called “Lucifer’s Authorized Agents”. Slightly cooler than Reasonoids, don’t you think? (sorry again, Reason) Coolest. Business cards. Ever.

  31. I looked at some of the Lucifer, the Light-Bearer issues, mainly because it has the best moniker of any periodical in the history of the liberty movement (sorry, Reason).

    To be fair to Reason, they did have the coolest cover story ever.

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