Suppose you want to learn the history of the libertarian movement. What books should you read?
Before finding an answer to that question, you’d need to make a rough definition of what you mean by “libertarian movement.” If you regard the Founding Fathers, or certain 19th-century abolitionists, or the ancient Stoics, or some obscure early Renaissance philosopher as essentially libertarian, you can go and read books about them; but it will take you a long time before you get to the libertarian movement that we know today. You can say, with Albert Jay Nock, that Rabelais was “one of the world’s great libertarians,” because he imagined a community in which the rule was “do as thou wilt,” but it’s very doubtful that the libertarian movement began in the 16th century.
Movements should be defined, not in terms of all their possible sources or distant predecessors, but in terms of the people and ideas that seem most
likely to have given them their distinctive shape — in other words, in terms of their distinct and proximate influences.
I think this leads us to a definition of the libertarian movement as something that established an independent outline in the 1930–80 period, the period in which some conservatives and old- fashioned liberals stated their ideas in a way that made them different from those of most modern conservatives and most modern liberals — and, in the words of that sage of public relations, Dale Carnegie, began to win friends and influence people.
Now, because the dominant intellectual regime of America during the 1930–80 period was the kind of modern liberalism associated with the New Deal, and libertarians dissented from that regime, they usually found more friends among conservatives than liberals, and there was a great deal of mutual influence between libertarians and conservatives. Most of the old libertarians called themselves conservatives at one time or another and in one
way or another. Even Ayn Rand, who among them became the greatest foe of conservatism, once classed herself with the conservatives. And the history of the modern conservative movement is inseparable from the history of the libertarian movement. Indeed, most authorities regard the formation of an institutionalized modern conservative movement, which is usually dated from the foundation of William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1955, as an alliance of traditionalist conservatives, formerly liberal anticommunists, and libertarians.
To study this aspect of conservatism, one should start with the path-breaking book by George H. Nash, “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, since 1945” (1976). More of Nash’s book is devoted to people whom I would call conservatives than to people whom I would call libertarians, because the former were more numerous; but his book is still the indispensable introduction to the intellectual history of both movements. It is an engaging study — a study of real people, of real personal interest. One should also read a good biography of Buckley. I think the best is still John B. Judis’ “William F. Buckley, Jr.” (1988). Judis is a left-liberal, but that doesn’t hurt the story.
On the strictly libertarian side, continuing the history that Nash began is Liberty’s contributing editor Brian Doherty, in “Radicals for Capitalism:
The basic narrative is emphatically that of individuals with pungent views and unforgettable personalities.
A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement” (2007). The basic narrative is emphatically that of individualists with pungent views and unforgettable personalities. Continuing, then, with the early libertarians: Charles H. Hamilton’s introduction to his fine collection of Nock’s essays — “The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism” (1991) — remains the best biographical treatment of that figure. Liberty’s senior editor Bruce Ramsey has written a beautifully researched biography of the financial and historical writer Garet Garrett, whose popularity was strong in the 1930s: “Unsanctioned Voice” (2008). William Holtz contributed a solid biography of Rose Wilder Lane, “The Ghost in the Little House” (1993). It is short on Lane’s politics but long on her adventures, which were many, even if one doesn’t believe all her stories about them. For Ayn Rand, one cannot do without Barbara Branden’s “The Passion of Ayn Rand” (1986) and Anne Heller’s new “Ayn Rand and the World She Made” (2009). I’m not hesitant to mention my own “The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America” (2004).
Now add to this list of basic histories the new book by Wayne Thorburn. It is a history not of an individual but of an organization, YAF — Young Americans for Freedom – once the premier youth organization on the Right. YAF began in 1960 and developed even
more rapidly than its leftwing contemporary, Students for a Democratic Society. YAF was a conservative organization, but it included many libertarians. Mr. Thorburn has written on this subject for Liberty; his essay appears in our October 2010 issue. There he shows how many important libertarians were also important in YAF, and how significant YAF’s internal debates between libertarians and conservatives were in defining what libertarianism meant to young people of the ’60s and ’70s.
This in no sense means, nor does Thorburn imply, that libertarians are merely a sect of dissident conservatives. Libertarians have their own his- tory of ideas. Yet that history often crosses the history of conservatives, just as it crosses the history of modern liberals. It’s not only that libertarians endorse many modern conservative positions, such as the idea of limited government and fastidious interpretation of the Constitution, and many modern liberal positions, such as the idea that drugs and sex should be fully legal for all adults. Modern libertarians, modern conservatives, and modern liberals are all branches of the great tree of liberalism, planted in the early 18th century and bearing rich and various fruit in the writings of Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Smith, Madison, Wollstonecraft, Jefferson, Burke, De Tocqueville, Macaulay, and Mill — all of whom began, at least, as “liberals,” advocates of individual liberty.
So it’s not surprising that many libertarians got their early political experience in a “conservative” political organization. It’s not surprising, either, that the conservative organization, YAF, should also have been in a dither about so many completely non- libertarian issues, most of them having to do with the religious and “moral” tone of the nation; or that young libertarians should have used the education in activism that YAF gave them to reject YAF and start their own ideological enterprises.
We need to know this history, and Thorburn gives it to us in an extraordinarily well researched book. He has fought his way through jungles of libertarian and conservative periodicals, many of them obscure or fugitive in their own time; he has read many books; he has conducted many inter-
views; he has ransacked the manuscript archives of many libraries; and he has clearly organized the important facts he has found. The result is a daunting work of scholarship, one of the most thorough ever conducted on a subject of this kind. It will never be surpassed; no one will ever do this work again.
I asked Thorburn about the history of his project, and this is what he said: “As one who spent a considerable amount of his youth involved in YAF, I
wanted to ensure there was a complete history of the organization and the impact it had on creating both organizations and leaders who influenced late 20th-century American politics and society. I left a position in Texas state government in 2007 after ten years and had some time to devote to this project.”
As someone familiar with archival research, I can testify that three years or so is a shockingly short time in which to assemble all the information that Thorburn presents. He must have been working night and day. And don’t be misled by his reference to his youthful years with YAF. He is by no means a partisan. He is one of the coolest historians I have ever read.
One of the good things about his book is that it conscientiously presents all the opinions — or, to dignify them, “recollections” — that it can gather regarding important events; it notes the differences among them, which are often vast; and whenever possible it compares them with real and documented history. Thorburn insists on this as a principle of method: you can “remember” all you want, but if there’s a document out there that contradicts you, he will bring it to the fore. He
It’s not surprising that the conservative organization YAF was in a dither about so many nonlibertarian issues.
doesn’t do so with an ironic purpose, as I might; he plays it straight and lets his readers make their own response. It seems to me that this is truly a libertarian performance. Thorburn’s scholarship presents; it does not impose.
Many libertarians hold the opinion that the 1969 convention of YAF was a kind of Armageddon at which self-identified libertarians and self-identified conservatives hurled lightning bolts at one another, then parted, never to meet again on this side of the grave; and thus the libertarian movement began. Thorburn isn’t quite so sure. The more one considers the details, the more the drama ebbs away. Yes, there was a huge quarrel. Yes, the self-identified libertarians failed to win internal elections or get their views enacted as resolutions, and loud arguments broke out. Yet most libertarians appear to have continued in the organization, where their strength is reliably estimated at about 25%. That’s a lot, though it is not everything. It’s not true that “the conservatives stole the org from us.”
Neither is it true, as some people may think, that YAF was the origin of the libertarian movement. It wasn’t. It is true that YAF, just as Thorburn describes it, was the spearhead of anti-statist student activism in the 1960s; and it’s probably not possible to find large numbers of libertarian activists, in the way that leftwingers were activists, existing before YAF. But the libertarian movement had existed, both as a set of ideas and as groups of people advocating them, for at least two generations prior. This intellectual movement had mounted organizations and periodicals, and its members had contributed very influentially to mainstream publish- ing. Many of its leading lights — Nock, Paterson, Garrett, Lane, Rand, John Chamberlain, H.L. Mencken, Friedrich Hayek — were known to the nation; they needed no activists to advertise their views. And if you go back to the ’30s and read what the Liberty League published, you will see that a militant (adult) organization with essentially libertarian principles existed long before YAF.
As for “young Americans,” let’s face it: the 1960s could not have passed without activist organizations of every stripe. Rebellious youth will create rebellious groups. Among them, there was bound to be something like YAF, although YAF, remarkably, seems to have predated the rest of the ’60s activist organizations (depending on how exactly you define them). There was
also bound to be a libertarian activism — whether associated with YAF, or nurtured by rebellion from YAF, or oblivious to YAF.
I confess my own bias: I was alive back then, more or less, and I was oblivious to YAF. It looked to me like a bunch of young fogeys, dressed in suits and ties and shouting something about radical regression. That was a superficial view, as Thorburn shows; you could find every kind of person in YAF, even people after my own silly heart. But I think I was right in a way. YAF wasn’t the origin of the libertarian movement, not just because Isabel Paterson had identified all of that movement’s crucial ideas, three decades before, but because no organization of that kind could express libertarians’ informal, individual, virtually anarchistic style. What I see in Thorburn’s history is conservatives and libertarians writing manifestoes, circulating resolutions, and campaigning for in-group elections, as if this were something vital and important. Even the “anarchists” in YAF did that. It wasn’t a libertarian style, and most of the young libertarians abandoned it.
I am not objecting to political organizations. If libertarians work effectively within the Libertarian Party, the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party, I commend them. I admire the long, excruciatingly boring hours they spend in committee meetings — bad work, if you can get it. But there’s a difference between action and a parody of action. What I see in YAF, as in some organizations of libertarian activists, is too often a parody of political action — and a reality of political arrogance.
Both libertarians and conservatives have long lamented the nasty effects that political power can have on individual personalities. We see this constantly among employees of the state; we see it also among many of the militants who attack the state — people who, to paraphrase William Blake, have “become what they beheld.”
I recall, from my own stints of student activism, how severely personalities can be deformed when they are presented with even the forms of power. I saw it in myself. I see it now in college kids involved in student government, where they scheme for votes, “forge alliances,” cadge support for resolutions that no one else will ever read, and “take hard decisions” and “adopt firm positions” about issues they have thought about for at most a minute. Thorburn’s history is loaded with intra- YAF politicking of this kind.
The assumption of every student organization in the 1960s was that everything it did would influence the
Both libertarians and conservatives have long lamented the nasty effects that political power can have on people.
course of the republic. If YAF or SDS passed a resolution or conducted a demonstration, something important was expected to happen as a result. It almost never did. Americans did listen, in a way, to certain leftwing demonstrators, because the American establishment was (and is) modern liberal, and the demonstrators were merely expressing, in dramatic form, the beliefs that their parents already held. (That last is Ayn Rand’s point, and it’s a good one. When I was a leftwing “activist,” I never met any leader of the revolution who didn’t come from a wealthy family, and usually from a politically influential family, of leftist principles.)
But suppose that YAF’s ideas were good (as many of them were) and deserved to be listened to. Why should a student organization assume that it ought to instruct the rest of the country? Historically, this is an un-American idea; it has almost never come up in America. There was the Young America movement in the 1850s, which incited the nation to annex foreign territory and generally behave in an aggressive manner, but the Young Americans were actually writers and politicians of quite adult years. There were leftist youth organizations, mainly socialist or communist, in the 1930s, but nobody except other far-leftists paid much attention to them, except occasionally to satirize them.
Even in the abstract, student activism is a peculiar idea. Why should students get active in telling other people what to do? The question answers itself. Granted, one can hardly imagine a group of randomly selected college students who would have governed the country worse than Lyndon Baines Johnson and Robert Strange McNamara, but they’re too easy a target.
Looking back, I can summon very little respect for student activism per se. I can — like Thorburn — summon a great deal of respect for the people who survived it, learned from it, and devoted years thereafter to productive work for liberty, as authors, researchers, leaders of movements that might actually win some battles, or just people willing to stand up to their neighbors and express the principles of liberty.
Principles of liberty . . . where do they come from? Were they ever originated by YAF, or the Libertarian Party, or any other organization, politically effective or politically ineffective? Give me an example. Until you do, I’m not going to believe that a committee or a party or any kind of Americans for X ever gave birth to an inspiring idea. What Thorburn’s book suggests to me (I speak for myself, not Thorburn) is that there’s a world of political ideas and a world of political people, and when we’re lucky, the former gives birth to the latter; but never does the latter give birth to the former.
An example: Murray Rothbard, the economist and political leader (and senior editor of Liberty), was important in the libertarian movement because of his lucid and compelling expositions of economic thought, not because of his eager political activity. Rothbard the politician could never have generated Rothbard the intellectual. In the 1960s and ’70s, a few young people read Rothbard and became, at least for the moment, political activists. Many more read Rothbard and thought, “Say, a lot of this makes sense,” and gave their vote and their dollars to whatever “libertarian” or “conservative” or “liberal” cause appeared to serve the cause of liberty, as Rothbard had helped to clarify it.
Those people were true, though becomingly modest, libertarian “activists” — men and women who had, and have, strong, long-term, often influential libertarian principles. They became libertarians, not because they attended a convention, but because they read a book. It might have been a book by
Rothbard. It might have been a book by Hayek, Or Ludwig von Mises. Or Paterson. Or Friedman. Or even Goldwater or Buckley. Later, it might have been a book by P.J. O’Rourke. All the hundreds of movement members whom Thorburn catalogues don’t add up to even one good writer — although they sometimes turned into good writers, on their own.
Writers write. Voters vote. Capitalists invest and strive for profits. Organized researchers, such as those of the Cato Institute and the Mises Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, do research and teach. Lobbyists meet people and introduce them to new ideas. What do activists do, in the throes of their self-conscious activism? In my experience, they don’t do much, and that’s probably a good thing. In my experience — and it may not be representative — the degree to which people are overt activists is generally proportional to the number of books they haven’t read and the number of people they haven’t met. That’s why activism is so appropriate to the young.
When I was a young libertarian — back in the days of YAF, though not in its early days — I read a few libertarian authors. I read Rand, Mises, and Rothbard, principally. From my reading I identified certain principles I called my own. The fact that my ideas kept changing as I went from one author to the next (just as they had when I had been a callow leftist) didn’t keep me from regarding them as defining principles. From the existence of these principles I deduced the goodness or badness of the people who held or rejected them, people who, for the most part, I had never met. The fact that these people seemed to have been influenced by different books than I had read gave me the right to call them bitter names and grow upset by their existence.
This is a terrible thing to say about oneself. The only exculpation that occurs to me is that I engaged in very little actual activism, compared with Thorburn’s young libertarians and conservatives. I wasn’t morally opposed to doing so; I certainly didn’t feel that I was too ignorant to direct the course of the nation (quite the contrary). I was just too shy and self-conscious, and I had to worry about keeping up with my classes and having enough money to stay in school.
Alas for those days! As the character in Chaucer says, the devil go therewith. Forgive me, and all of Thorburn’s 20-year-olds. Yet some of his leading characters were not 20-year-olds at the time. Some of them were adults and should have known better than to fall victim to political trends in the way that callow young people did. Some of the crucial debates within YAF were between adults who believed that the libertarian movement stood for essentially the same things that the Black Panthers and SDSers did, and adults who believed that the conservative movement should be devoted to rooting out marijuana and keeping porn out of the hands of grandmothers. Adults should have known better, and done better.
Fortunately, both the libertarian and the conservative movements have, by and large, moved forward from there. The evidence that Thorburn presents shows clearly that most people in
YAF moved forward also. They moved forward because of their own wider experience and wider reading, not because of any advice from a political organization.
The older I grow, the more I value the root of liberty, which is the individual heart and mind. Societies don’t learn. Parties don’t learn. Organizations don’t learn. And people who define themselves in terms of societies, parties, and organizations don’t learn either. Individuals learn, and in their learning lies the strength of all organizations, all parties, and all societies that deserve the name of human.