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The Calling: Back to the Future of Freedom

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As an economist, I am always more than happy to talk about how great the market is and to undertake the task of educating people on how markets work and why they are good. Certainly, one of the central concerns of the modern libertarian movement has been to extol the virtues of the market, especially the freed market. But even as an economist, I can make an argument that we’ve allowed economics and the market to occupy too central a role in modern libertarianism, to the point of ignoring new and arguably just as important threats to freedom.

It’s time for libertarians to adjust the balance and begin to pay more attention to noneconomic issues. One of the many wonderful things about young libertarians is that they seem to understand this and have more evenly balanced their attention across all the various dimensions of liberty and all the ways the state, and others, can restrict it. What some of the younger generation are calling Libertarianism 2.0 reflects this concern with a broader set of issues, using language more congenial to people on the political Left who might share that concern.

Ironically, this “new” libertarianism harks back to the classical liberalism of the 19th century. From mainstream classical liberals like John Stuart Mill to radical individualist anarchists like Voltairine de Cleyre, economic issues, while important, did not have the centrality they have had for libertarians over the last several decades. For our intellectual ancestors, liberty was a seamless set of issues that ranged from the rights of property, to the rights to our bodies, to freedom of thought and expression, to opposition against any attempt to deny those rights to others around the world through military force and empire building.

The explanation for this shift toward economics and away from the other issues is fairly obvious: the 20th century was the century of socialism. From early on, the great classical liberals of the early 20th century were drawn into demonstrating the failings of socialism, and the very character of classical liberalism became dominated by the case for the market. At one level this had important benefits, since it was by engaging the market’s critics in the interwar socialist-calculation debate that people such as Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek were able to sharpen their own understanding of the market. As a result, they provided us with a theoretical framework that produced much more sophisticated arguments for the market than a century ago. Modern libertarianism owes much to its critics for making our arguments better.

However, these advances came at a cost. They led classical liberals into an alliance with the political Right that problematically affected our self-conception — and still does. For example, the libertarian-conservative fusion brought together people who were “anti-state” and others who were “anti-Left.” The latter group, the conservatives, were largely comfortable with state power, but thought that it would be used better if they were in charge. The need for classical liberals to ally with them to fight off the common opponent, socialism, was understandable, but the distrust it engendered of the Left is one reason libertarians have been slow to rediscover and recommit to the other dimensions of freedom.

(Of course the modern Left isn’t all that much more freedom-loving on many of those issues, with a Democratic president killing children by remote control and deporting innocent immigrants by the thousands. Still, there are voices on the Left who understand the way in which things like imperialism and the War on the Users of Some Drugs are destroying long-standing liberties.)

Despite the resurgence of Keynesianism and other forms of interventionism in the last few years, the reality is that socialism remains dead and the market will remain the fundamental process by which economic coordination takes place. Even with the shackles of the corporate state, markets in most Western countries continue to produce rising living standards, and technological advancement provides new outlets for economic and expressive freedoms. At the same time, the state is expanding its reach internationally and into our personal lives through surveillance, government-run health care, and the general nanny-state attitude of people like Mayor Bloomberg.

This is the context in which young libertarians find themselves. It isn’t surprising that they are more interested in the noneconomic arguments, because those are in many ways more salient for their generation than for the generation of their teachers. This constitutes a break with the Right and a willingness to speak to and ally with the Left. This is a good thing for the future of libertarianism.

As Libertarianism 2.0 rediscovers these concerns and articulates libertarian perspectives on them in the language of the 21st century, it’s worth remembering that these are many of the same concerns that motivated the earliest classical liberals. In that sense, we are going “back to the future of freedom” by recommitting ourselves to a more balanced and expansive vision of liberty.

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    Steven Horwitz is Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY and an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA. He is the author of two books, Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective (Routledge, 2000) and Monetary Evolution, Free Banking, and Economic Order (Westview, 1992), and he has written extensively on Austrian economics, Hayekian political economy, monetary theory and history, and the economics and social theory of gender and the family. His work has been published in professional journals such as History of Political Economy, Southern Economic Journal, and The Cambridge Journal of Economics. He has also done public policy research for the Mercatus Center, Heartland Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Cato Institute. Horwitz is also a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute in Canada and a contributing editor of The Freeman. He has a PhD in Economics from George Mason University and an AB in Economics and Philosophy from The University of Michigan. He is currently working on a book on classical liberalism and the family.