Skip to content

Partisans of Freedom

Bradley J. Birzer at Law & Liberty

Some books become good friends. They not only stimulate our minds, but they also speak to our very souls. The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism, by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi, is such a book. The two authors do everything humanly possible to uncover and reveal the deepest roots of modern and post-modern libertarianism, tracing its very diverse and tenuous strands back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, noting that, ultimately, it’s a radical form of classical liberalism. At one level, it’s a biography of the very idea of libertarianism, but at another level, it’s an intellectual autobiography of anyone who considers him- or herself libertarian.

Indeed, Zwolinski and Tomasi dig deeply into every strand of libertarianism, finding its classical liberal origins in eighteenth-century Scotland, in nineteenth-century Great Britain and France, and, in nineteenth-century America, especially in the abolitionist movements in New England and the American Midwest. Yet, the authors caution, libertarianism is not simply classical liberalism, but rather a radicalization of it.

Libertarianism in its strict form was born at the midpoint of the nineteenth century as a radicalized version of classical liberalism. Where classical liberals treated liberty as a strong but defeasible presumption, libertarians extolled it as a moral absolute. The principle of liberty, for libertarians, is universal in the scope of its application, covering persons of all ages, races, nationalities, and genders. Its moral force is definitive, overriding any and all other competing moral values, including the “public good” to which classical liberals so often appealed to justify state action.

Much like Russell Kirk’s lineage of 29 figures in his magisterial 1953 work, The Conservative Mind, The Individualists presents its own quasi-hagiography of thinkers, both orthodox and heterodox (terms the authors employ), who populate the libertarian timescape. John Locke, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Frédéric Bastiat, Herbert Spencer, Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, H. L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand, Leonard Read, Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, James Buchanan, Douglas Den Uyl, Douglas Rasmussen, Robert Nozick, David Beito, Randy Barnett, and David Schmidtz all make appearances. Unlike Kirk, however, Zwolinski and Tomasi rarely offer biographical details of their descendants, but rather highlight the intellectual contributions each made to libertarianism itself. There are a few exceptions. For example, the authors do delve into the life—at least partially—of Spooner. But, in general, the book focuses on the ideas.

Even with the presentation of this vast landscape of personalities, one must ask, what exactly does libertarianism mean, especially to Zwolinski and Tomasi? The two answer directly: “We see libertarianism as a distinctive combination of six key commitments: property rights, negative liberty, individualism, free markets, a skepticism of authority, and a belief in the explanatory and normative significance of spontaneous order.” Here again, The Individualist reflects Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, which also offered six tenets or canons of conservatism. Yet (yes, there’s always a yet with libertarianism), not all is as calm or as certain as one might first believe. That is, libertarianism is not a cut-and-dried ideology with one size fitting all, even though the authors sometimes refer to it as “an intellectual system.”

In terms of its theoretical foundations, libertarianism is uncompromising in its radicalism. In practice, however, not all libertarians were comfortable embracing the wholesale upheaval of existing institutions—and privileges. From its beginning, then, libertarianism has attracted a mix of radical and reactionary elements: those who were eager to follow the dictates of libertarian justice wherever they might lead, and those who saw in libertarianism a rationale for defending the status quo against change. The tension between progressive and reactionary elements, a tension within the very soul of libertarianism, is the major theme of this book.

The radical aspect of libertarianism is captured clearly in the book. For instance, in chapter five, dealing with “Big Business and Free Markets,” Zwolinski and Tomasi write: “Contrary to popular mythology, then, socialists and libertarians actually have more in common with each other than they do with their common ideological enemy, conservatism.” On the other side, though, are those libertarians who believe so strongly in property rights that they might very well forsake justice, even when that property originally came to someone through illiberal means.

Read the rest