Modern libertarian theory is only about five decades old. The ideas that have influenced our greatest thinkers can be traced back centuries, of course,1 to luminaries such as Hugo Grotius, John Locke, Thomas Paine, Herbert Spencer, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill, and to more recent and largely even more radical thinkers such as Gustave de Molinari, Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, Bertrand de Jouvenal, Franz Oppenheimer, and Albert Jay Nock.2
The beginnings of the modern movement can be detected in the works of the “three furies of libertarianism,” as Brian Doherty calls them: Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand, and Isabel Patterson, whose respective books The Discovery of Freedom, The Fountainhead, and The God of the Machine were all published, rather remarkably, in the same year: 1943.3 But in its more modern form, libertarianism originated in the 1960s and 1970s from thinkers based primarily in the United States, notably Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. Other significant influences on the nascent libertarian movement include Ludwig von Mises, author of Liberalism (1927) and Human Action (1949, with a predecessor version published in German in 1940); Nobel laureate F.A. von Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom (1944); Leonard Read, head of the Foundation for Economic Education (founded 1946); and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, author of the influential Capitalism and Freedom (1962).
The most prominent and influential of modern libertarian figures, however, were the aforementioned novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, the founder of “Objectivism” and a “radical for capitalism,” and Murray Rothbard, the Mises-influenced libertarian anarcho-capitalist economist and political theorist. Rothbard’s seminal role is widely recognized, even by non-Rothbardians. Objectivist John McCaskey, for example, has observed, that out of the debates in the mid-1900s about what rights citizens ought to have,
grew the main sort of libertarianism of the last fifty years. It was based on a principle articulated by Murray Rothbard in the 1970s this way: No one may initiate the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. The idea had roots in John Locke, America’s founders, and more immediately Ayn Rand, but it was Rothbard’s formulation that became standard. It became known as the non-aggression principle or—since Rothbard took it as the starting point of political theory and not the conclusion of philosophical justification—the non-aggression axiom. In the late twentieth century, anyone who accepted this principle could call himself, or could find himself called, a libertarian, even if he disagreed with Rothbard’s own insistence that rights are best protected when there is no government at all.4
We can date the dawn of today’s libertarianism to the works of Rand and Rothbard: to Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957); and, especially, to Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State (1962), Power and Market (1970), and For A New Liberty (1973), plus his journal The Libertarian Forum (1969–1984). For A New Liberty stands today as a brilliant, and early, bold statement of the radical libertarian vision. By the mid-60s, the modern libertarian movement was coalescing, primarily behind the non-initiation of force principle and the “radical capitalism” of Ayn Rand, and Rothbard’s systematic libertarian corpus based upon the non-aggression principle or axiom. It is no surprise that the Libertarian Party was founded in 1971, as these ideas, and the liberty movement, were gaining steam.
In the ensuing decades many other influential works appeared expounding on the libertarian idea, such as Linda and Morris Tannehill, The Market for Liberty (1970), John Hospers, Libertarianism: A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow (1971), David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom (1973), Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), Henri Lepage, Tomorrow, Capitalism (1978), Samuel Edward Konkin III, New Libertarian Manifesto (1980), Jan Narveson, The Libertarian Idea (1988), Anthony De Jasay, Choice, Contract, Consent: A Restatement of Liberalism (1991), Richard Epstein, Simple Rules for a Complex World (1995), Charles Murray, What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation (1996), David Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer (1998), Randy E. Barnett, The Structure of Liberty (1998), and, more recently, Jeffrey A. Miron’s Libertarianism, From A to Z (2010), Jacob Huebert’s Libertarianism Today (2010), Gary Chartier’s The Conscience of an Anarchist (2011), and Gerard Casey’s Libertarian Anarchism (2012).
These and other works expounding on the ideas of liberty have their own strengths and merits, and many of them have their own deficiencies and idiosyncrasies as well. Some, for example, are statements only of the author’s personal vision and do not purport to describe libertarian thought in general; some are minarchist, at best, and do not even recognize anarcho-libertarianism as a type of libertarianism (Miron, for example, says “libertarianism accepts a role for government in a few, limited areas: small government, not anarchy”);5 and some do not sufficiently appreciate Austrian economics and its crucial role in informing political theory. And many of the earlier works are simply dated at this point—how could they not be, being written before the rise of the Internet (1995) or even before the fall of communism (1989–91)?
As libertarian thought develops and matures, there is a continual need to restate our basic principles, to search for new ways of understanding and conveying our views about the nature of human society, the state, conflict, cooperation, and liberty. The way forward, if we wish to spread and develop the intellectual edifice of libertarian thought, is to extend and advance the most consistent, scientific, and rigorous foundation for libertarianism. This is, in my view, the basic vision laid out by Rothbard, which relies heavily on free market economic theory, chiefly that of Rothbard’s mentor Mises, and as supplemented by the work of Rothbard’s colleague and protégé Hans-Hermann Hoppe, author of A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (1989), inter alia. This type of libertarianism is distinct from others in many ways. It is principled and rights-based, not utilitarian (not to say that it is impractical; as Rand pointed out, the practical is the moral);6 it is radical, anarchist, and anti-state, not minarchist; it is anti-war; it is systematic and rigorous, not a collection of ad hoc policy points; it is realistic, sober and sophisticated about the nature of the state; and it is heavily influenced by insights of free market and Austrian economics, especially those of Mises and his “praxeological” understanding of human action.
Thus, Rothbard, influenced by and building on the insights of earlier and contemporary thinkers, such as Mises and Rand, first presented a systematic vision of modern, radical libertarianism: anti-state, pro-market, Austrian. This enabled Rothbard to adumbrate a broad framework for liberty, from property to contract to punishment theory. Rothbard’s analysis extends also to, or draws on, other disciplines as necessary, such as epistemology, history, the nature of the sciences, and the like.7
Additional advances to the essentially Rothbardian perspective on social theory have been made over the years. Hoppe, for example, a diligent student of both Mises and Rothbard, has emphasized the essential role of scarcity in the need for interpersonal property norms, leading to a more rigorous and streamlined restatement of the basic Lockean approach which underlies Rothbard’s own radical libertarian system. Hoppe has also extended Rothbardian analysis in the realm of political ethics with his “argumentation ethics” defense of libertarian rights. Modern Hoppean-Rothbardians are not only pro-market and anti-state: they are pro-technology, anti-democracy and anti-intellectual property as well. They promote the use of the Internet, smart phones and video cameras, blogging, podcasting, Youtube, social media and phyles, encryption, anonymity, VPNs, open source software and culture, torrents, wikileaking, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, MOOCs, 3D printing and Bitcoin to network, communicate, learn, profit and spread ideas—and to counter, monitor, fight, and circumvent the state. To increasingly render the state irrelevant and to reveal it as retrograde, crude, and antiquated, not to mention inefficient, cold, and evil.
Thus, while there is reason to welcome all new works, thinkers and approaches that advance liberty and libertarian ideas, there remains a need for treatments of the ideas of liberty that are explicitly anchored in anti-state, Austrian-Misesian, and systematic Rothbardian ideas. We need sound analyses and ideas, whether broad or narrow, personal or general, current or timeless, academic or aimed at the general reader. Chase Rachels’s A Spontaneous Order is one such work. This is a fresh approach which has all the right ingredients: it is anchored in and aware of the anarcho-capitalist and Austrian economic literature and insights, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel; it is accessible and aimed at a wide audience; it is up to date; it is lively and the author’s passion for liberty is clearly evident throughout. Importantly, Rachels recognizes the fundamental role that economic scarcity plays in the formation of social and property norms, as Professor Hoppe has repeatedly emphasized. And while A Spontaneous Order is not some dense, thousand page musty tome, it is wide-ranging in scope, covering the major issues of concern to advocates of liberty: from the basics, such as epistemology, justifications for libertarian norms, and foundational issues like property and the theory of contract, which is informed by Rothbard’s underappreciated and revolutionary title-transfer theory of contract. This focus on essentials and on clarity of expression enables Rachels to tackle several important applications, many of which receive short shrift in other works—such as corporate limited liability, intellectual property law, money and banking, monopolies and cartels, and a host of other practical issues and applications such as health care, defense, roads, environmentalism, education, and others. The book concludes, appropriately, with a stirring and inspirational final chapter, “Getting There,” which is full of practical and principled insights about what is to be done to achieve a freer society. To “Get there,” we will need the ideas of liberty to be explicated and spread, to be learned, practiced, and taught. A Spontaneous Order admirably contributes to this mission.