The Crisis of the Liberty Movement – Misconceptions

liberty movement

There is no end to the amount of libertarian infighting, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. Every movement or organization has some level of infighting. Whether it is constructive and reflective is what matters.

Since the 2016 election, there has been an increasing number of libertarians discussing the sad state of the average person’s view of the term “libertarian” and the movement as a whole. During election season there was the alleged “libertarian-to-alt-right-pipeline”, followed by more recent examples, including the Soho Forum debate with Nicholas Sarwark and Dave Smith, and Austro Libertarian’s name change to Bastion in order to appeal to a wider audience.

In a broader sense, this sentiment is nothing new, and has been going on for several decades, originally culminating as the term “paleolibertarianism“. But this seemed to vanish during the Ron Paul Revolution, and has now returned in full force for obvious reasons.

Ignoring those that maliciously attack libertarianism as “hatred for the poor” or “defenders of megacorporations,” an honest and good-faith attempt at defining libertarianism resulted in “the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn’t be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce.”

Many “thin” libertarians will take issue with this definition, pointing out that just because they oppose central planning and the initiation of the use of force, doesn’t mean they necessarily endorse or condone every outcome produced by the market. To the more Rothbardian libertarians, libertarianism is a small part of their whole belief system. They may wholeheartedly oppose certain products of free choice based on cultural and/or religious values. To them, libertarianism does not say that the results of free choice are always to be celebrated, only that initiating force is to be condemned.

Unfortunately, many libertarians find this definition accurate. To them, the entirety of life is between liberty and authority. When an individual criticizes the actions of a private company, these libertarians are quick to point out “they’re a private company, they can do whatever they want,” completely oblivious to the fact that in many instances this individual was never suggesting coercion.

These libertarians also mistakenly interpret Lew Rockwell’s claim that “political freedom is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the good society” as somehow devaluing liberty and as an attack on libertarian principles. To say that liberty is a vitally important part of a free and just society is not contrary to libertarian principle. It is only to remind many mainstream libertarians that they must not confuse authority with coercion, nor should they neglect the other aspects of society that people value.

This should not be confused with a call to expand libertarianism to all parts of life. Instead, it is a call to acknowledge that libertarianism is a political philosophy, and it should remain so, while also acknowledging that not all issues are political.

The Pursuit of Knowledge

Of the numerous interviews of Murray Rothbard’s colleagues about the man, most talk about how amazingly well-read Rothbard was on so many topics. Rothbard (often referred to as “Mr. Libertarian”) did not limit himself to a basic understanding of politics, economics, and history. He was very well-rounded, maintaining knowledge of chess, music, architecture, and sports.

Rothbard often critiqued other libertarians for the general lack of knowledge of anything, stating that “the average rank-and-file member of the most ineffectual Trotskyite sect knows far more about world affairs than all but a tiny handful of libertarian leaders.”

These are not critiques of libertarianism the philosophy, but instead a call to action for most libertarians. It would be asking too much — and hypocritical of this author — that all libertarians understand foreign policy as well as Scott Horton, but at the very least the average libertarian criticizing intervention in the Middle East should be able to identify these nations and their major cities on a map. Instead, the most well-known fact about the last libertarian presidential candidate was that he didn’t know anything about Aleppo.

A decent point made by libertarians was to point out that the Ron Paul presidential campaigns were convincing supporters to read lengthy economic treatises for fun. And this is a wonderful first step. But it is only the first step. It is not enough simply to listen to a few libertarian podcasts and read a few issues of Reason.

Libertarians, to be taken seriously, need to be dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge not just in the sphere of liberty, but across as many important subjects as they can. They need to familiarize themselves with the valuable insights of the Austrian economists, from Menger to Murphy, and everyone in between. As well, they need to develop a thorough understanding of the opposing socialist viewpoint via outlets like Jacobin.

Even then, this is still too narrow. Libertarians need to seek an understanding of history, not just of recent events or policy proposals, but of broader ideological trends. C. Jay Engel calls for a need to understand sociology and historiography as well. Libertarians should be familiar with the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, as well as earlier philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas.

Libertarians would also benefit greatly from understanding the worldviews of libertarianism’s conservative critics like Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet (both of whom have books considered worth republishing by Liberty Fund).

Mises Institute President Jeff Deist called for something similar to this, and many libertarians, missing the point entirely, focused on three words to accuse him of sympathizing with white nationalists and the alt-right.

Shifting Tides

As fantastic as it would be if the Western world aligned itself as a fight between libertarian and authoritarian, this is not the direction it seems to be heading. Instead, factions appear to be shifting towards what has been labeled in parts of the West as “the culture war.” These issues are important to people, and many libertarians continue to push the idea (usually unintentionally) that to be a libertarian is to be dismissive of cultural concerns. Many have testified that they abandoned the label and left the movement when other libertarians insisted that to be a libertarian was to celebrate the collapse of all forms of authority, and to condemn anyone that dare criticize any non-coercive action.

Advocates of the state claim that regular people cannot be relied upon to be virtuous, responsible, and moral. They claim that poor people should be cared for, and only the force of the state can accomplish this. They claim that society should be educated, therefore the state needs to educate the masses. They claim that without the state enforcing morality, civilized society will wither away, and people will be irresponsible, immoral, and nihilistic.

The average person is currently under the impression that libertarians are merely libertines upset that the state is preventing them from doing every immoral thing imaginable. It is up to us as libertarians to prove that this is not at all the case. We must lead by example, and prove that a free society is not at odds with a moral society.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, He can be contacted by email via [email protected]