The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism 
By Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi. 
Princeton University Press, 2023. 
Hardback, 432 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Alexander William Salter.

There are many books that explain libertarian ideas, but few that explore the history, sociology, and cultural markers of libertarianism itself. Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi fill this gap. They have written an excellent, and perhaps the definitive, book on the history of libertarianism. Their proper audience is much wider than just libertarians. This is a serious work of intellectual history, reflecting important ideas and debates from the 1800s up through today.

Despite its brevity, the introduction is packed with bold claims that preview Zwolinski and Tomasi’s arguments. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, libertarianism “was born in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth, and was developed first in Britain and France, only later making its way to the United States.” And due to its internal complexities and tensions, “there is no single libertarianism…[that can] be defined by any one set of necessary and sufficient conditions.” Instead, it reflects six distinct yet overlapping commitments: “property rights, negative liberty, individualism, free markets, a skepticism of authority, and a belief in the explanatory and normative significance of spontaneous order.” 

“What is libertarianism?” the authors ask in the first chapter. Indeed, what defines this strange philosophy, at once rigid and rowdy, unyielding and freewheeling? Obviously liberty is at the heart of it, but liberty “means radically different things to different people.” Zwolinski and Tomasi contend that libertarianism is “a radicalized version of classical liberalism. Where classical liberals treated liberty as a strong but defeasible presumption, libertarians extolled it as a moral absolute.” They further break down (broad) libertarianism into “strict libertarianism,” which is monistic and rationalistic, and “contemporary classical liberalism,” which is more pluralistic and empirical. Further complications come when considering neoliberalism; some neoliberals qualify as broad libertarians and some don’t. 

They conclude by surveying the six “markers of membership shared by everyone in the libertarian family,” mentioned above. This will be familiar territory for many readers, but it is still useful to set the stage, especially when considering whether libertarianism admits of conflicting moral priorities. Libertarians’ commitments interpenetrate each other: “Private property rights, for example, support free markets. A commitment to negative liberty, combined with the idea that any system of rights must be compossible, helps explain the libertarian emphasis on private property rights. A skepticism of authority buttresses their individualism, and their individualism helps explain an emphasis on the emergent structure of spontaneous order.” The “markers-of-membership approach” will be useful both for distinguishing libertarianism from rival philosophies and delineating sub-groups within libertarianism.

Chapter two “traces the development of libertarian thought over three eras: the ‘primordial’ libertarianism of nineteenth-century Britain, France, and United States; the ‘Cold War’ libertarianism of the twentieth century; and the contested and tumultuous Third Wave of the present day.” Zwolinski and Tomasi survey an impressive number of thinkers and perspectives. The distinctions between old-world (British, French) and new-world (American) libertarianism are particularly interesting. Whereas “libertarianism in Britain and France emerged largely as a reaction against socialism, it was a reaction against slavery that gave rise to American libertarianism, and in particular its distinctive attraction to egoism, anarchism, and the significance of labor.” These idiosyncrasies would fade by the mid-twentieth century, as libertarianism narrowed its focus in opposition to the New Deal at home and Communism abroad. Fragmentation again prevailed after the fall of the Soviet Union: “So far, the Third Wave of libertarianism has been marked, more than anything else, by active contestation” among paleo-libertarians, bleeding-heart libertarians, and left-libertarians.

The next chapter compares and contrasts Lockean (rights-based, rationalistic) and Humean (convention-based, empirical) approaches to property rights. Applications include ownership of self, land, goods and services, and ideas. Intriguingly, Zwolinski and Tomasi suggest the Lockean perspective is not so individualistic and inflexible, nor the Humean perspective so communitarian and relative, as is typically supposed. “The justificatory roots of the two sides of our libertarian family tree—Locke’s strict libertarian side and Hume’s classical liberal side—are distinct but entwined.” They wisely abstain from attempting to settle the dispute, instead highlighting recent thinkers who bring an empirical bent to rights-based arguments and a concern for personhood and dignity to convention-based arguments.

Chapter four, “Demystifying the State,” is a fascinating overview of libertarian anarchism. The authors take the natural-rights and consent-centric theory of government favored by (some) libertarians to their natural conclusion: “[G]overnment has often been defined in terms of its monopoly on the use of force…[I]f government is necessarily monopolistic, the question then becomes: why have government at all?” Democracy, or group-consent, has not solved the problem of political authority. “[D]espite the misleading talk of democratic rule and a supposed ‘social contract,’ all government is based on force.” In addition to philosophical problems, Zwolinski and Tomasi also discuss how libertarian theorists, such as Gustave de Molinari, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, and David Friedman, have wrestled with the problem of government and explored how non-state, non-monopolized institutions would fare at providing law and order.

Libertarians are usually assumed to be knee-jerk defenders of big business. In chapter five, the authors prove this belief is mistaken. Libertarians’ primary commitment to free markets “often makes [them] the enemies of big business and economic elites.” Libertarians are among the fiercest critics of crony capitalism, a political-economic game rigged by bigwigs at the expense of the common man. By the end of the chapter, the reader cannot be ignorant that “American capitalism is a system characterized by class conflict, coercion, and exploitation,” nor of libertarians’ steadfast opposition to this system.

The problem of poverty is the focus of chapter six. Zwolinski and Tomasi waste no time in debunking the pernicious myth that libertarians are “Social Darwinists” with no concern about material want. On the contrary, “many [libertarians] fought explicitly on behalf of the poor and marginalized.” To fight poverty, however, we need to recognize its ubiquity in human history until fairly recently. The authors rightly quote the great development economist, P. T. Bauer: “Poverty has no causes. Wealth has causes.” The proto-libertarian victory of classically liberal political economy is why we escaped the Malthusian trap in the first place. An appreciation of spontaneous order, robust mutual aid societies, and fighting government-granted monopolies and special privileges are all libertarian contributions to the only war on poverty worthy of the name. The authors conclude by surveying “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism” and the much-debated relationship between libertarianism and social justice.

Chapter seven focuses on racial justice, in many ways the pons asinorum of libertarianism. “How did libertarianism, a doctrine at the radical edge of the abolitionist movement, not merely lose but apparently reverse its progressive orientation on race by the late twentieth century?” ask Zwolinski and Tomasi. Most of the chapter focuses on internal libertarian disagreements and debates over the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the United States. To their credit, the authors do not shy away from libertarians’ often “ambivalent relationship” to civil rights. Part of the reason racial issues have proven so divisive for libertarians is because “racism can set back basic interests even without violating negative liberty, one’s right to be left alone.” But even here there are plenty of negative liberty violations to decry. Freedom of association arguments fall flat in the face of the reality that “Jim Crow segregation was in effect a government-granted monopoly” that functioned as a “white supremacist cartel.” There is a strong libertarian case for forcibly disrupting that cartel.

The final substantive chapter covers international relations, including trade, war, and immigration. The authors succinctly state the libertarian position: “free trade, free immigration, and peace.” The chapter contains extensive historical detail, including Britain’s free trade movement in the nineteenth century, the dawn of American imperialism, and the first (Old Right) and second (fusionism) political alliances between conservatives and libertarians. Zwolinski and Tomasi also explore Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, and Rand on these questions. Perhaps surprisingly, immigration receives the shortest treatment. As the authors (almost apologetically) explain, “[T]here isn’t much libertarian intellectual history on the topic to report.” Given how contentious the issue has become, that is likely to change in the coming years.

The brief conclusion begins with the tragicomedy that is Libertarian Party politics. The authors use the Mises Caucus’s takeover in May 2022 as a paradigm for internecine libertarian struggles. What it means to be a libertarian “has been the subject of vigorous and persistent conversation,” Zwolinski and Tomasi remind us. Conflicts between bleeding heart libertarians, left-libertarians, and paleo-libertarians will undoubtedly persist. The “tension between radical and reactionary elements is not accidental but intrinsic to libertarian thinking.” In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, libertarians primarily defined themselves by what they were against. In the twenty-first century there will be new threats to liberty to confront. And the hard question remains unanswered: Which basic conception of liberty should libertarians stand for?

Zwolinski and Tomasi have done us a service by showing us just how hard it is to ascertain whether libertarianism, at its root, is a movement of the left or the right. Many libertarians claim to know, and some of the most confident pick option three—“none of the above.” All of these easy answers are unsatisfying. The authors’ conception of libertarianism as a “cluster concept” that defies reductions and simple classifications may be unsatisfying to some. But they do justice to the messy and fascinating reality of libertarianism. 

Equally important is their emphasis on contingent historical and sociological factors. Libertarianism is a structure of ideas, but ideas are held by persons, and persons interact within and across institutions that sometimes promote cooperation and sometimes impel conflict. Hence political and cultural factors matter just as much—certainly more than we would like to admit—for determining the contours of libertarianism. Which differences of opinion are permissible and which force us to dwell outside the camp is rarely obvious.

Libertarianism is full of compelling ideas, colorful personalities, and contentious quarrels. We understand all of them better thanks to Zwolinski and Tomasi. I don’t know any more than they do where libertarianism goes from here, but reading their book has made me even more excited to find out.

Alexander William Salter is the Georgie G. Snyder Associate Professor of Economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute, and an associate editor of the Journal of Private Enterprise. He is senior fellow at the Sound Money Project and a senior contributor at Young Voices. Salter is author of Money and the Rule of Law: Generality and Predictability in Monetary Institutions (2021), The Political Economy of Distributism: Property, Liberty and the Common Good (2023), and The Medieval Constitution of Liberty: Political Foundations of Liberalism in the West (2023). 

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