EconLog Book Club: For a New Liberty, Chapter 1
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s my plan: I’ll lead off each discussion of Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty with (a) a brief summary of the chapter of the week, and (b) some critical comments. But this is your book club, so in the comments feel free to not only to discuss my summary and critique, but any thoughts you had on the chapter at hand.
Since this book appeared in 1978, it’s hardly surprising that Rothbard tries to pull readers in by discussing the recent electoral success of the Libertarian Party. But this is only a hook – before you know it, he’s giving you a quick libertarian revisionist history of the United States:
How, then, explain the amazing growth of a new party which is frankly and eagerly devoted to ideology?
One explanation is that Americans were not always pragmatic and nonideological. On the contrary, historians now realize that the American Revolution itself was not only ideological but also the result of devotion to the creed and the institutions of libertarianism.
The next several pages cover America’s colonial and revolutionary history. Rothbard defends the view that has since become standard in libertarian circles: The American revolutionaries subscribed to an explicitly libertarian political philosophy of “life, liberty, and property,” which in turn led them to radical anti-government views:
Thus, the well-known theme of “separation of Church and State” was but one of many interrelated motifs that could be summed up as “separation of the economy from the State,” “separation of speech and press from the State,” “separation of land from the State,” “separation of war and military affairs from the State,” indeed, the separation of the State from virtually everything.
The subtext, of course, is that libertarians are the rightful modern spokesmen for the Founders, and that modern American political thought has betrayed its noble origins. Rothbard then recounts the story of the Fall – how the American libertarian experiment failed to endure despite its intrinsic merit:
Slavery, the grave antilibertarian flaw in the libertarianism of the Democratic program, had arisen to wreck the party and its libertarianism completely.
The compromise with slavery leads to the Civil War, which soon redefines the political landscape. The statist Republicans become the new agenda setters, and socialism becomes the voice of radical opposition to the status quo. The decaying libertarian intellectual movement falls into moderation, gradualism, and utilitarianism, and loses its practical and intellectual influence. But now it’s back from the dead, and ready to get America and the world back on track:
We have seen why libertarianism would naturally arise first and most fully in the United States, a land steeped in libertarian tradition. But we have not yet examined the question: Why the renaissance of libertarianism at all within the last few years? What contemporary conditions have led to this surprising development? We must postpone answering this question until the end of the book, until we first examine what the libertarian creed is, and how that creed can be applied to solve the leading problem areas in our society.
It’s easy to see why libertarians love this kind of history. “We’re not pushing some weird new idea. We just want to fulfill the promise of the American Revolution.” And when you read the writings and speeches of the era, they sure sound a lot more like modern libertarianism than they sound like modern liberalism or conservatism.
My concern is that this affinity is mostly rhetorical. Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson give rousing speeches on behalf of human liberty. But slavery wasn’t just a “grave antilibertarian flaw”; it made the whole Revolution absurd. Of course, every revolutionary didn’t own slaves; but even to make common cause with the slaveholding philosophers of freedom to fight against minor British taxes is a libertarian travesty.
The consequences of the Revolution were as flawed as its origins. In practical terms, its main effect was to open up Indian lands to colonial genocide. A nationalist might manage to awkwardly applaud despite the ugly facts; but a libertarian?
Still, if Rothbard’s only point is that 18th-century political thought discovered many important truths, and modern libertarianism revives and refines these truths, I’m on board. But don’t expect me to cheer for the likes of “libertarian” Andrew Jackson, architect of the Trail of Tears.