This Week’s Mtg: The Roots of Libertarianism

Libertarianism is having its moment.  This once obscure political philosophy now dominates the economic agenda of one of our two main political parties.  Libertarianism has many variants, of course, including a social liberalism that the GOP has not and will not adopt.  But, my understanding is that the economic strain that’s now ascendant can be summed up in three principles:

  1. Personal liberty from government interference is the highest political and social value, a goal to which all other political values generally must be subordinated.
  2. Freedom of property and contract is as important a right as any of the other rights enumerated in the Constitution, such as free speech, religious freedom, etc.
  3. Therefore, the size and reach of government – especially the federal government – should be minimal.  The federal government’s power should be limited to only a handful of functions, mainly national defense and the protection of private property rights through the legal system.

This stuff can get quite radical.  Libertarians tend (again – I’m generalizing the beliefs of a large group of people) to oppose most expansions of federal power since the New Deal:  Most regulation of the environment and financial markets, aid to education, welfare, and even, for many, Social Security and Medicare.

How did this happen?  How did a philosophy that would roll back the clock become so dominant at the very top of one political party?  Conspiracies can’t explain something like this.  Libertarianism has to have drawn support from a variety of people for a variety of reasons.

Maybe going back to libertarianism’s roots and tracing its long upward arc would shed light on this.  On Thursday, I’ll open with 10 minutes on the roots of the philosophy.    I’ll focus mainly on its social and political roots, and less on its intellectual fathers, like von Hayek, Rand, Friedman, et, al.  Look, all political philosophies have intellectual roots and champions, but only some get a popular following.  I think we need to understand how libertarianism appeals to regular people who don’t read economic tracts and join libertarian debate clubs.


  1. What is libertarianism?  What do they believe about politics and economics?
  2. What are the origins of the philosophy?  Who were the intellectual fathers of the movement and what did they espouse?
  3. What in American culture and society did libertarianism appeal to?  What social forces kept it alive during the heyday of liberalism?
  4. Why has economic libertarianism become so dominant in the GOP?
  5. Does the public understand the radical consequences of libertarian-preferred policies?
  6. Is libertarianism a practical governing philosophy for the 21st century?  If not, then why is it popular and how could liberals better expose its flaws?







Libertarian Sites


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