Dynamist Blog

The Libertarian Past, the Libertarian Future

Libertarianism: Past and Prospects

As many readers already know, Cato Unbound, the Cato Institute webzine edited by Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson, is devoting its current issue to the questions raised by Brian Doherty's new book Radicals for Capitalism: What was the American libertarian movement, and where does its future lie? After earlier responses from Brink Lindsey, Tyler Cowen, and Tom Palmer, I weigh in. Here's the opening:

As the editor of Reason, I used to be infuriated at the way the Los Angeles Times and other mainstream publications consistently capitalized Libertarian when referring to the magazine or its parent organization, the Reason Foundation. They wouldn't capitalize liberal or conservative, republican or democrat, unless they were referring to a political party. (Most Republicans are, after all, democrats, and I've never met a Democrat who wasn't a republican.) Why couldn't they understand that Reason was not a party organ but, like its liberal and conservative counterparts, a magazine of ideas? Were the copy editors just stupid?

After a decade of hearing me gripe, my husband cracked the code: Maybe newspapers don't think of Libertarian as a party label like Democratic or Republican, he suggested. Maybe they think of it as a religious description, like Catholic or Presbyterian.


Two things strike me about the essays. The first is an unexpected overlap between the concerns here and those of the designers I addressed in my new Print magazine article on DIY culture. Just as graphic designers worry way too much about who gets to be called a designer, movement libertarians have spent an absurd amount of time worrying about who was a real libertarian. That impulse was worst in the 1970s and early '80s--before my time--but it hasn't gone away.

The second is that intellectuals who have spent most of their careers working for libertarian organizations, including those like Brink and me who did not come up in "the movement," are probably unduly influenced by intramovement squabbles and purity tests, which get awfully tiresome after a while. I'd love to see a continuation of the discussion featuring libertarian writers who have spent their professional lives surrounded by mostly liberals or conservatives or both. (I suspect the contrarian side of Tyler Cowen would have come out differently if he hasn't spent all those years at George Mason.)

UPDATE: On Cato's blog, John Samples goes to great lengths to refute an argument I didn't even come close to making. Take it up with Brink, please.

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