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Harry Binswanger on libertarianism (or “Libertarianism”)


In the preceding post on Peikoff, I allude briefly to a “mindless dogmatist,” and the link goes to the Harry Binswanger List. The allusion might be too cryptic in that form: I’m referring to a post on HBL that Binswanger posted on August 22, 2012, defending the ARI party line on libertarianism/Libertarianism. I’m not sure whether or not it’s archived for free on his website, or whether it’s gotten any public circulation beyond his list since then–I haven’t looked, and don’t really care. He sent it to me, unsolicited, in the middle of an email conversation I initiated about his famous (notorious) “Loyalty Oath.” So in the interests of completeness, I add it as an appendix to the preceding discussion.

Binswanger’s list policies frown upon the sharing or forwarding messages, but his justification is: “Since I am charging for membership, I have to put certain conditions on the forwarding of HBL posts.” Fair enough, but since I’m not a member (and never have been), I don’t regard myself as governed by his conditions.

I don’t have time right now to comment in detail on Binswanger’s post. Feel free to comment on it yourself in the comment box. You may well discern some BS in it that I happened so far to have missed–since, God knows, there’s more than enough of that in it to go around.

The excerpt below is verbatim from my inbox, as he sent it to me; I haven’t cleaned up typos etc.


From Harry Binswanger
Yesterday on HBL, the question was raised whether libertarianism has improved. I think there’s a mistake in the question. There is not one movement, libertarianism, whose members over time have (or have not) changed their views. (There are, however, specific organizations, such as Cato that have improved markedly.) What has changed in the meaning of the term “libertarian.”
Way back, before the New Left, “libertarian” meant any advocate of individualism and (approximately) laissez-faire capitalism. The only well known libertarians were Ayn Rand, Mises, and Mises’ students, including most of those at FEE (the Foundation of Economic Education, publishers of The Freeman). Then, in 1969 [correction: Jan. 1971], an cover-article appeared in the Sunday New York Times Magazine about the birth of this new movement: libertarianism, which linked it to “hippies of the right.” The cover of that issue, if my recall is correct, showed some Columbia student rebels with a raised fist. It was quite clear from the content of this article that this new movement was something no rational person could ally with.
The leadership of this movement was provided by that demented anarchist, Murray Rothbard (who was instrumental, by the way, in the founding of Cato). I won’t go into how ridiculously, offensively, stupidly bad Rothbard’s views were (and not just on anarchy), but he was 10 times worse than Ron Paul, and a dedicated hater of Ayn Rand.
Until the last two decades or so, that’s where things stood. That’s what Ayn Rand was denouncing when she  enounced libertarianism. And what required denouncing was not just the hippieism, anarchism, and anti-Americanism: fundamentally that “libertarianism” was anti-philosophical–note, not unphilosophical but vehemently opposed to the idea that philosophy was even relevant to politics and economics. The movement was subjectivist–note also, not “subjectivist” in some mild, almost benign form of moral relativism: this was
defiant, Dionysian subjectivism–the expression of which was anarchism. The movement was anarchist because its members wanted to shoot people on whim. I’m not exaggerating. I asked one of them: “What if you had a “Don’t step on the grass” sign on your front lawn, and a five-year-old child wandered on to
it; would you have a right to pull out a machine gun and shot the child?” Unhesitatingly, blandly, he answered, “Yes.”
The movement then known as “libertarianism” was entirely led by explicit anarchists, and its membership consisted of two types: anarchists and those who thought the difference between anarchy and limited government was a minor issue: the difference between a government 2% of the present one and no government, they felt, is just a 2% difference.
The Libertarian Party was the perfect expression of this craziness. Every presidential platform they ever had was either anarchist or worded in a sneaky way to leave the door open to anarchism. I read those platforms, and I remember phrases like “The government, if any, should not . . .” At an early LP convention the Party split over the issue of whether it was legitimate to lie to the press (they had inflated their membership-size by at least 10-fold). Most LP members thought such lies were legitimate: “they didn’t pay us, so there’s no contractual agreement violated,” and the minority who opposed the lying, which was openly admitted to be lying, were styled: “blue noses”–i.e., tradition-bound prigs.
Then things began to change. I think it was due to the writings in philosophy of people like Robert Nozick, and by others also influenced by Ayn Rand. I began to see the word “libertarian” used in philosophic book titles and in journal articles. Some of these articles were better than the Rothbardian movement (Nozick, in particular, refuted a central anarchist argument) some were the same ugly and dangerous nonsense. But the *word* “libertarianism” began to have some intellectual currency.
Then events pushed a further linguistic development. With the rise of the Religious Right, there came to be a need for a term for those on the Right who were not advocating the other side of the left’s coin, but who wanted both economic liberty and social-moral liberty. Based on the philosophical currency given the term “libertarian,” the media began to pick this term up todenote those non-conservatives, non-bible-thumping people on the Right–people who seemed more or less consistent, because they were against all forms of statism, not just against economic controls, and people who attracted notice because they were more principled and radical (but not crazy-radical like the Rothbardians). I started seeing more and more uses of “libertarian” in the New York Times. And not used to connote something scandalous.
So the term “libertarian” is coming full circle, returning to its pre-New-Left meaning. Now we regularly see “libertarian” on the opinion pages of all the major newspapers. The commentators using the term have probably never heard of Murray Rothbard and are not thinking of anarchists. For instance, the Institute for Justice describes itself as “libertarian,” but it has no connection to those “hippies of the Right” or anarchism.
The linguistic transformation is not yet complete–witness Ron Paul–but I hope that in the not-too-distant future, “libertarian” will mean what Ayn Rand meant by “pro-capitalist.” It will not specify the philosophic base on which the “libertarian” bases his political conclusion, but, unlike the old “libertarianism,” it will not specify the idea that philosophy is irrelevant to politics. It will not describe a position deeper than politics, but neither will it describe the notion that nothing deeper exists.
So, it is not that the libertarians have improved; it is that the meaning of the term “libertarian” has improved.


  1. Bill Walsh says:

    Sometimes I wonder why Objectivism hasn’t swept the world. Then I re-read Fact and Value.

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Philosophically, I think “Fact and Value” is a mixed bag. There are things in it that I agree with Peikoff on against Kelley. (I actually think Kelley’s account of libertarianism is fine, but his account of moral judgment is incoherent.) What I object to is the way in which Peikoff intermingles (some true) philosophical claims with character assassination, arguments from intimidation, and blanket agreement with Schwartz’s purge (some other fallacies, too). The best response to it, in my view, is not Kelley’s but George Walsh’s in The Intellectual Activist. I wish I could reproduce it here, but I’m not sure it’s legal.


  3. stpeter says:

    Recall the wise words of Friedrich Nietzsche: “It is not your lot to shoo flies.”

  4. […] Harry Binswanger on libertarianism (or “Libertarianism”) ( […]

  5. irfankhawaja says:

    True, but what if there’s an infestation?


  6. Matt Faherty says:

    It is truly stunning how badly Binswanger straw mans Rothbard and other libertarians. One of Rothbard’s seminal works was the Ethics of Liberty (available for free online: which explicitly creates a philosophical backing for libertariansim that reads almost like an econ-focused, truncated version of Rand’s ethics. He had an implicitly objectivist view of reality and epistemology, and a rational egoist view of ethics, with the only major differences between him and Rand coming in with his basic political principles. Rothbard spoke of Rand on many occasions after their break, and despite criticizing her personally, he was always respectful of her philosophical and political work.

    Walter Block (an anarchist and confessed subjectivist), arguably Rothbard’s primary successor, constantly praises Rand and lists Atlas Shrugged as the fifth most influential book on his life ( I also recall another article where he said Atlas Shrugged was the second most important libertarian book ever written after Mises’s Human Action, but I can’t find it. And here is one of his article’s devoted entirely defending Rand from attacks on the left:

    And these are supposed to be the worst libertarians out there.

  7. irfankhawaja says:

    Peter Schwartz’s critique of Rothbard turns on an analysis of Rothbard’s “Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian Manque,” in the journal Modern Age. Apart from the merits or demerits of his critique of Rothbard, Schwartz systematically capitalizes the “l’s” in block quotes from Rothbard’s article even when Rothbard had not. So even if one agreed 100% with Schwartz’s analysis, one would have to note that deliberate misrepresentation. Generally, one can’t have a rational discussion in the atmosphere of misrepresentation and hysteria engendered by Schwartz’s discussion. But Schwartz’s article has been ARI’s policy since its publication in 1989.


    P.S., and just to make the point of my bringing up Schwartz explicit, Binswanger is following and relying on Schwartz’s analysis.

  8. Say what you will about Rothbard, but the animus toward that hazy “Libertarianism” thing from Rand, Peikoff, et al, seemed to be directed mainly toward Rothbard. Once Rothbard left the scene (1995), the dynamic apparently shifted….

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