Libertarianism and the new generation

Computer use as an adult: check my bills, check my savings, look at pricing for home improvements, check the scores, send & answer emails, read blogs if I’m lucky.

Has there been any foundational libertarian academic work done in the last 35 years? I mean, when I was in college, you read Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Mises, and Nozick. These were the people you read if you wanted to familiarize yourself with common libertarian sentiment on questions of public policy (“economics”), ethics, foreign affairs, and cultural shifts.

What do the kids read nowadays? I’m in favor of overhauling the canon. I’d keep Nozick and Rand, but whose work should we consult on matters of public policy (“economics”) and foreign affairs? I think I’m going to have to be the one who answers the foreign affairs question, but what about econ? Whose work is the new Mises/Friedman? Whose going to overtake Rothbard and come up with a libertarian manifesto for a new generation?

Has our time come and gone already? If we don’t need new voices and fresh perspectives, then we’ve already lost the war of ideas.

12 thoughts on “Libertarianism and the new generation

  1. As an outsider, I view the US as a libertarian country. Unlike progressivism and conservatism, or left vs. right, I think the overarching libertarian view best explains the divide between cultural and economic statists worldwide. But that’s also a problem because people love to choose narrow sides that endure and behave like they have readymade answers for everything.

    Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, Bryan Caplan, Ajay Shah, and David Boaz come to mind.

    I’m a biologist, not trained in economics or political philosophy, but I read the authors mentioned above. They capture my imagination the most.

    Among the fundamental libertarian insights—decentralization of power, individualism, imprescriptible rights, spontaneous order, voluntary exchange, and peace—spontaneous order and decentralization of power are still mainstream talking points around the developing world.

    Most people who have had no introduction to libertarian thinking can still associate with the quote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So all is not lost. Libertarians can undoubtedly better project themselves, especially wrt hyper-individualism, but the core libertarian insights are here to stay. Anyone curious enough to go beyond the pail of the strict left vs. right narratives will hit upon libertarian thinkers.

    It would be great if the new-age libertarian movement untethers the notion that welfare-statists are the all-knowing liberals. To make libertarian insights more approachable to the next-gen, it is necessary to emphasize that progressivism and conservatism are not wholly defined set of ideas and so are not permanent viewpoints for someone to pick up and assume that their political nirvana has been achieved.

    • Your list is all bloggers, too. I’m glad you’re around Vishnu, as my optimism has dwindled.

    • But kids these days read blogs more than books. So blogs and threads are potent modes of thinking about ideas (new and old), reasoning, advancing mental models. For example, I got into Libertarian reasoning methods through podcasts, youtube, and blogs, followed by books. So the new canon–if it exists–exists and is being developeded on the audio-video-blogo-spheres. It may find its paperback version much later.

    • They’re all bloggers, too. It might just be that the book is not as useful a medium for sharing ideas as it once was.

  2. Tyler Cowen (h/t to Vishnu, his comment reminded me this) on the failings of the Economics profession:

    “The economists who have changed the world, such as Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek, typically had brilliant ideas with highly imperfect execution. It is now harder for this kind of originality to gain traction. Technique stands supreme and must be mastered at an early age, with some undergraduates pursuing “pre-docs” to get into a top graduate school.”

    https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-05-24/why-economics-is-failing-us?sref=htOHjx5Y

    Ronald Coase is another example of the “approach-thru-prose”. So, seems that the bouncers at Econ’s doors are more stern nowadays. This is hardly news, but could explain the relative scarcity of more sweeping manifestos from there, be it libertarian (or else).

    • Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this Michalis (good stuff!). Here’s my train of logic:

      Aren’t the bouncers at Econ’s door just indicative of the specialization that has taken place in Econ and other academic areas?

      And isn’t specialization supposed to be a good thing?

      But why don’t we have any more sweeping manifestos, which are helpful to people who need a foundation?

      Maybe sweeping manifestos aren’t such a good thing? Maybe we’d all be better off without the manifestos!

      (I think it’s time for bed.)

  3. Are you saying Leonard Peikoff is not a foundational author? 🙂

    A name that hasn’t been listed already is Deirdre McCloskey. Her “Bourgeois” trilogy—Virtues/Dignity/Equality—is magisterial and I would say approaches being foundational as well.

    • Peikoff, haha. I have one of his books on my shelf, somewhere (haven’t gotten to it yet).

      McCloskey is an interesting choice. I have to ponder this, but you may be on to something here. It’s long but its history, which libertarians don’t really have in their holiest canon. Maybe McCloskey and Rand for “arts,” Nozick for philo, and bloggers for econ?

      This still leaves foreign affairs wide open. Unlike TJK, I don’t think popular libertarians like Horton are doing a good job of arguing in favor of liberty in foreign affairs. I think they’re doing a great job arguing against empire. But is empire what we really have? Is a US-centric approach in foreign affairs really all that libertarian?

    • It looks like I can’t reply to your reply (I guess this isn’t the forum for a conversation, really), so I’ll reply to mine.

      I’m reminded of an MR entry by Tyler Cowen a couple of months ago in which he remarks that the “energetic young talent” in libertarianism now often seems more intent on “projects for building entire new political worlds” — charter cities, blockchain — than on theory, political, economic, etc. (https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/04/where-is-non-state-capacity-libertarianism-evolving.html)

      I think there’s truth in that. But theory is still needed. It’s what gives us our organizing principles and inspiration.

      That’s just the trouble with the bloggers mentioned, and I don’t mean the blog format. It’s the smallish scope of thinking: books on voting behavior, the university education system, immigration and open borders. This sort of thing is fine, but it’s not fundamental theory.

      The purist libertarianism (rights absolutism, the “non-aggression axiom”) exemplified by Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard has been a dead end, I think. It is readily grasped, and it has the capacity to inspire, but it isn’t true. And the gradual realization of this has led to its collapse.

      This collapse has left us somewhat rudderless. That’s how I feel, anyway. We need a new paradigm. The way to think about society is evolutionarily, or so it seems to me. That points to Hayek. But he had little to say about morals, and libertarianism should provide a moral vision. What is needed is a way to put these two together.

      (The best evolutionary theorist of society—that I know of—is Joe Henrich. Both his books, The Secret of Our Success, and The WEIRDest People in the World, are terrific. But of course he’s neither a libertarian nor a moralist.)

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