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Module 12: The Modern Quest for Liberty

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The final module of the Cato University curriculum examines the rebirth of libertarian thought from the 1940s onward. The collapse of classical liberalism in the face of both the collectivist intellectual assault on civilization and its own internal flaws and conflicts (especially notable is the debate between utilitarians and natural-rights advocates) is presented as background to the story of the remarkable people who brought libertarian thinking back from the dead. Their insights and activities are both inspiring and instructive. They had the courage and the foresight to undertake a long-term defense of civilization against the collectivist assault.

In an age when the moral superiority of collectivism was almost universally taken for granted, and pleas for socialistic reform were tempered only by the concession that humans may not yet be good enough for socialism, these libertarian pioneers affirmed the moral goodness of the free society. They drew on a long tradition of libertarian thought to refine and greatly advance the case for liberty. (The audiotape points out that, "in recent years many scholarly treatments of the libertarian tradition have been published." Many of these are listed in earlier Cato University modules; a good volume that reveals the role of the tradition in forming American thought is Michael P. Zuckert, Natural Rights and the New Republicanism, mentioned in module 7, on the U.S. Constitution.)

The publication in 1943 of books by three American writers, Rose Wilder Lane (The Discovery of Freedom), Isabel Paterson (The God of the Machine), and Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead), all extolling the creativity of the free and responsible individual, and in 1944 of books by the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises (Omnipotent Government) and F. A. Hayek (The Road to Serfdom), both warning of the dangers of statism, helped to launch the modern libertarian movement. It was crucially important that these writers all identified the various anti-libertarian movements of the time--Fascism, National Socialism (more popularly known as Nazism), socialism, communism, and the like--as growths from the same philosophical root: collectivism. The conflict between Hitler and Stalin, for example, rather than being a titanic struggle between different philosophies or world views, was in reality a fight between two varieties of the same fundamental principle: that the individual exists entirely for the sake of the collective, whether the collective be a race, nation, or class.

The formation of the Mont Pèlerin Society in Switzerland in 1947 was to prove enormously influential in reviving libertarian ideas at the higher intellectual and academic levels, as a part of a conscious plan to diffuse libertarian principles throughout the general population. The spread of libertarian ideas and organizations around the world has accelerated since that time, promoted by visionary thinkers of the caliber of Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek and by such institutions as the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs, founded in 1957, and the Washington-based Cato Institute, founded in 1977, which have devoted themselves to practical applications of libertarian principles.

As David Boaz concludes his book Libertarianism: A Primer,

As we enter a new century and a new millenium, we encounter a world of endless possibility. The very premise of the world of global markets and new technologies is libertarianism. Neither stultifying socialism nor rigid conservatism could produce the free, technologically advanced society that we anticipate in the twenty-first century. If we want a dynamic world of prosperity and opportunity, we must make it a libertarian world. The simple and timeless principles of the American Revolution--individual liberty, limited government, and free markets—turn out to be even more powerful in today’s world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined. Libertarianism is not just a framework for utopia, it is the essential framework for the future.

Readings to Accompany The Audio

From The Libertarian Reader: Isabel Paterson, "The Humanitarian with the Guillotine" (pp. 31-35); Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen, "Ayn Rand on Rights and Capitalism" (pp. 169-80); Alvin Toffler, "The Playboy Interview with Ayn Rand" (pp. 161-68); Murray N. Rothbard, "The State" (pp. 36-41); Michael Prowse, "Paternalist Government Is Out of Date" (pp. 388-92).

From Libertarianism: A Primer: Chapter 10, "Contemporary Issues" (pp. 210-55); Chapter 12, "The Libertarian Future" (pp. 276-89).

Some Problems to Ponder & Discuss

• Rose Wilder Lane said that her rejection of communism and embrace of libertarianism came from her visits to transcaucasian Russia after the Bolshevik coup d’état. F. A. Hayek said that his rejection of socialism and embrace of libertarianism came after reading Ludwig von Mises’s book Socialism. Are people more likely to learn about liberty from abstract arguments, as presented in books, for example, or from concrete experience of the failures of statism?

• If rights are a good thing to have, why not have more of them? The welfare state promises ever more rights--to food, shelter, housing, and so forth. Isn’t this an improvement?

• Why did classical liberalism fade out? Is it again on the upswing? How might modern libertarians avoid the fate of the classical liberals?

• How deep do philosophical agreements have to run for people to agree on libertarianism as a political philosophy? Can people of different faiths or of no faith share common principles of morality and justice?

• Are some cultures more conducive to liberty than others? What values are most likely to comport well with libertarianism?

• How do we get from "here" to a fully free, or at least a freer, society? What role do political reforms (for example, term limits or a balanced-budget amendment) play? What role do academic research and argument play? What role do "think tanks" play?

Suggested Additional Reading

John L. Kelley, Bringing the Market Back In: The Political Revitalization of Market Liberalism (New York: New York University Press, 1997). Written in an academic style, this rigorously researched book documents the revival of the classical liberal movement in America from the 1970s onward.

Ronald Max Hartwell, A History of the Mont Pèlerin Society (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Hartwell is a distinguished economic historian and past president of the Mont Pèlerin Society. He has applied his skills as a historian to writing the history of the MPS, documenting internal debates as well as its enormous influence.

Edward H. Crane, "Defending Civil Society," Cato’s Letter No. 8 (Washington: Cato Institute, 1994). The president of the Cato Institute sounds a call for revitalizing and extending the scope of civil society and restraining political society.

F. A. Hayek, "The Intellectuals and Socialism," in F. A. Hayek, Studies in Philosophy, Economics, and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967). In this essay Hayek lays out a long-term strategy for the revival of libertarianism. The essay, which originally appeared in 1949, concludes, "Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost. The intellectual revival of liberalism is already under way in many parts of the world. Will it be in time?"

For Further Study

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (New York: Macmillan, 1978). This book is a coherent and popularized statement of Rothbard’s political philosophy.

Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Penguin, 1967), with additional articles by Nathaniel Branden, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Hessen. This is one of the best collections of the individualist writings of Ayn Rand, defending the morality of the free market, glorifying the entrepreneurial creator, and denouncing statism. It includes her two essays "Man’s Rights" and "The Nature of Government."

Rose Wilder Lane, The Discovery of Freedom: Man's Struggle against Authority (1943; San Francisco, Fox & Wilkes, 1984). This withering attack on statism, nationalism, and authoritarianism helped to launch the modern libertarian movement. Lane was an excellent and inspiring writer whose book offers a sweeping view of the 6,000-year struggle of ordinary people to raise their families, produce food, develop industries, pursue commerce, and in myriad ways improve human life--all in defiance of their rulers. Lane especially celebrates the American Revolution, which showed dramatically how ordinary people could achieve extraordinary freedom and tells us how we can reclaim the promise of America.

Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). This book changed the thinking of countless people who, through its pages, came to understand the intimate relationship between the free market and personal liberty.

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