Posts Tagged ‘libertarianism’

About six months ago, I had a column in the Boston Review by the title above. Many heated comments ensued, especially once a couple of libertarian blogs pointed their readers to the essay. I respond here briefly to two connected lines of critique that I think are substantial and important. (I set aside the comments that I am an idiot or that I shouldn’t address the topic until I had read the full libertarian canon.)

I had argued that libertarianism made historically and anthropologically unrealistic assumptions by placing the separate self at the center of its world view. One valid critique is that I was thereby rejecting the historic advances of individual liberty, waxing nostalgic for coercive communities. The other critique is that, by looking only backward to the way societies have existed, I had blindly foreclosed new possibilities. I reply below.


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Libertarianism is on the rise, thanks in good measure to many newly politicized techies who have married their live-and-let-live views about lifestyle to leave-me-alone views about taxes and government.Rand

I viscerally understand the libertarian mystique, but, outside the fantasy novels of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, libertarianism does not make much anthropological or historical sense. As a philosophy, it may; one can build a coherent moral system from almost any starting point, be it God’s breath upon the waters; the first self-replicating, “selfish” gene; or autonomous individuals signing a social contract. And versions of libertarianism have a fierce logical consistency. Robert Nozick’s starting point is the “fact of our separate existences”; “there is no social entity . . . . there are only individual people.” Charles Murray proclaims, “Freedom is first of all our birthright.” America’s founding revolutionists, inhaling the earliest wafts of libertarianism in the 1700s, declared that we are created with “unalienable rights”; that is, people cannot sell themselves into slavery even if they want to, so fundamental is the independence of the individual.

Great ideas, to be sure, but historically odd ones….. This column continues at the Boston Review here.

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