I’m reading Brian Doherty’s “Radicals for Capitalism” at the moment and it has inspired me to write a brief overview of the chronology of the libertarian movement.
In the beginning: conservatives v liberals
The libertarian tradition starts with the classical liberals of Europe who started taking on the traditionalist conservatives who held sway. The liberals argued for less government power, more individual liberty and free markets. They included Locke, Hume, Smith, Voltaire , Bastiat & Mill. The “liberal v conservative” battles showed up in the British parliament as the Tories (conservatives) v the Whigs (liberals).
Learning from the European liberals, America imported a philosophy of freedom. This group is most associated with Thomas Jefferson and includes several of the early American Presidents (including George Washington) as well as writers such as Thomas Paine & the authors of the Cato Letters (Trenchard & Gordon).
Radical liberals in Europe
During the 19th century some liberals started to edge their anti-state tendencies towards the radical end. The most common name here is Herbert Spencer, but it was Molinari (who suggested free-market defence & police) and Auberon Herbert (who defended anarchism) who pushed the radical boundries.
An anarchist trend also came to America in the late 19th century, mostly associated with Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner. Unlike the European liberal radicals, the Individual Anarchists of America grew out of the socialist movement, but they rejected the State and embraced individual self-ownership. While Tucker wanted a society build on “cost = price” and no absentee landlords, he thought this would happen naturally and did not propose to achieve these ends through government force.
The down-years (1900-1950)
By the early 20th century, libertarian ideas were on the defensive. Classical liberals were being replaced by “modern liberals” or “social democrats” in the west, and the ideas of socialism were gaining respectability and followers. While classical liberal ideas were losing ground, radical liberal ideas effectively disappeared. The only real vanguard for liberal ideas during this time was Austrian Economics — and especially Mises. The other force which defended some of the liberal agenda was the “old-right” (anti-war, anti-welfare, but also anti-trade).
The death of the liberal agenda during these years can be seen in politics with the Whigs (and in Australia the Free Trade Party) fading from the political scene and the main game becoming “conservatives v social democrats/socialists”.
The re-awakening of libertarian ideas (1950)
By mid-way through the 20th century the Austrians were joined by three other groups in the fight for smaller government. These were the objectivists (led by Ayn Rand), the chicago school economists (led by Milton Friedman) and the libertarian movement (initially embodied in the Foundation for Economic Eduction).
Building the modern movement (1970s)
As the western world inched towards bigger government, the libertarian community matured into the modern movement we see today. During the 1970s libertarian organisations spread through the world (CATO in America, CIS in Australia, IEA in Britain) and the US Libertarian Party was formed.
Just as early liberal radicals build on classical liberals… so too did libertarian radicals emerge building on the libertarians. This was represented by the “moral anarchists” (led by Rothbard, who drew on Austrian economics, individual anarchy and parts of the “old-right”) and the “utilitarian anarchists” (as embodied by David Friedman).
Also in these years libertarian ideas started to invade the politics of both the left (moderate liberals) and the right (free-market conservatives and the old-right). This saw some libertarian thinking trickle into political reality through the 1980s… though libertarian ideas generaly remain outside the mainstream of politics.