Why the American Libertarian Digital Archive (ALDA)? The pre Internet began in 1960, more or less. The exact starting point probably can’t be pinpointed, but before 1960 there were few self-identified American libertarians of the modern individualist, free market oriented kind. There were people who identified as “civil libertarians” for various reasons but the American individualist anarchist/libertarian tradition was nearly extinct.
There were a few individuals, such as Dr. Murray N. Rothbard, (a Ph.D. economist/historian from New York City), who had formed a small circle of students and admirers of Ludwig von Mises and a other economists and thinkers of the “Austrian School,” but this was mainly a study group. Novelist-screenwriter-philosopher Ayn Rand also lived in NYC and by the late 50s Rothbard had joined her Objectivist study circle for regular meetings. Still, admirers of Rand (Objectivists, Randians, and “Students of Objectivism” as Rand insisted on calling them) were mainly interested in her novels and the ideas and philosophy expressed therein. She later wrote a several books of essays on her philosophy absent a literary context. However “Miss Rand” didn’t like the term “libertarian” and later in that decade repeatedly denounced libertarians as “drug taking anarchists” who were said to be incompatible with her philosophy. Nonetheless most early American libertarians were familiar with her work and some, many, originally considered themselves Objectivists or Randians to one degree or another. (Later the official Objectivist movement suffered a major split over personal issues and by the late 60s lost considerable momentum and influence among younger libertarians who disliked Rand’s authoritarian leadership style and culturally conservative personal values.)
The modern libertarian movement could be said to have coalesced during the 1960s. Prior to then, the so-called Old Right represented by Robert Taft was eclipsed by the rise of communism. The Vietnam War, the draft and the clash of the youth culture against the middle class/middle-age culture, tore the political right apart. At this time, it seems as though the cause of Liberty was split with the left associated (however imperfectly) with personal freedoms such as the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and the right (again, however imperfectly) championing low taxes and free markets.
Most other libertarians at the time, nearly all under 40 (many barely out of high school) also came to modern American libertarian ideas mainly via free market economics and economists such as Milton Friedman of the “Chicago School.” Others from the ‘Austrian School’ of economics like Friedrich Hayek (famous for his 1940’s post war book The Road to Serfdom) and a handful of others. There was no organized libertarian movement or publications, though articles by libertarians, and sometimes mentioning “libertarians” or “libertarianism” appeared in various small political magazines, journals or conservative publications.
It can also be said that there were many other roads to modern American libertarianism, many of which had no explicit background in conservative, right-wing or anti-communist movements, trends or intellectual/activist sources. Some individuals came from what might be loosely called the Left or New Left, such as Quakerism or pacifism. A unique variant of libertarian pacifism which had surprising and long term influence arose from Robert LeFevre and his Colorado Springs based Freedom School, which lasted until the mid-70s, after moving to Southern California in the mid-60s, and later expanding to include the unaccredited Rampart College. This included formal classroom study and lectures given by LeFevre at mini courses to young libertarians across America and on tape. LeFevre’s main tenant which he termed “autarchism” reflected a radical individualist self-ownership principle along with the consistent opposition to the use of physical force, even in self-defense. LeFevre’s history included leadership roles in oddball 1940’s southern California based spiritual cults (The Great I AM movement) but his later libertarian teachings about non-aggression, completely free markets and ethical and historical foundations of liberty caught on with several very successful entrepreneurs such as Roger Milliken and Charles Koch Sr. family members. Many students became mainstream libertarians and activist leaders and one young student teacher for LeFevre, Dana Rohrabacher, became a long tenured US congressman.
Still other young libertarians emerged from both anti-Vietnam war and anti-draft activism. Some were intellectually and culturally leftist but became disillusioned with all forms of modern Marxism and state socialism. Some came from “classical anarchism” roots dating back to the pre Marxist European left. Others were disillusioned SDS activists born from the Free Speech and American and French student protest movements. Still others, and there was considerable overlap in influences, stemmed from the 50s-60s explosion of imaginative science fiction. A few very successful SF writers such as Robert Heinlein were explicitly libertarian/anarchists and some early libertarians such as L. Neil Smith enjoyed commercial success using those future libertarian world themes. The mid 60s debut of ground breaking TV science fiction like Star Trek (though not explicitly very libertarian) made new ways of thinking popular. Likewise the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy embodied heroic fantasy tales where heroic Everyman characters seek out and destroy those who lusted after the
Ring of Power. A pretty clear narrative of individuals defeating evil power-seeking devils. While Tolkien isn’t considered a libertarian forefather, his Meta themes all present libertarian values and morality. The birth control fueled sexual revolution, post WWII Baby Boomer demographic youth bulge, “New Frontier” JFK idealism about civil rights for racial minorities and rejection of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism (at least the old kind) requiring foreign military actions, all created the ideal circumstances for a new kind of modern American libertarianism to slowly emerge. American high school students of the time were routinely assigned Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Animal Farm for classroom assignments and thus absorbed some of those anti-state, anti-Stalinist messages and themes. Anti-communism and conformity to the emerging managerial corporate state simply could not compete intellectually in America although few young Americans actually supported socialism or communism in any fashion or rejected market economics.
It should also be noted that the subsequent American the First Wave feminist movement had some antecedent in early libertarian activism, notably Sharon Pressley’s led Berkeley Libertarian Alliance. She later in the 70s formed the Alliance of Libertarian Feminists which was a small caucus in the larger mainly left feminist movement. It is also worth noting that while the Gay Liberation movement began publicly in the early 70s, many young gay conservatives and right-wingers, including YAF activists, became explicitly libertarian (or quiet fellow travelers) and no longer considered themselves conservatives. Anti-gay cultural bias was fairly strong in the traditional right/conservative circles, some of which denounced gays as “unchristian” or immoral. Gay people not otherwise leftists or conventional liberals moved towards libertarian ideas and groups because there was no ideological or religious intolerance seen or advocated there. Since libertarianism is about individual rights and behaviors, any State promotion of segregation, intolerance or exclusion was not found or supported.
Libertarian ideas and political orientation have a long history in the US, starting with Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, through early individualist anarchists such as Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker and literary figures including Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain). Henry David Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists featured some libertarian ideas, mixed in with a variety of other ideas. The so-called Individualist anarchists like Josiah Warren experimented with non-hierarchic social structures. The small Liberty Party founded 1839 was one of the first third parties in the country’s history, succeeded for a time by the Free Soil Party and then by the Republican Party.
In in the earlier decades of the 20th century you could find libertarian ideas embodied by writers and journalists such as H.L. Mencken, Albert Nock, Isabell Patterson, Rose Wilder Lane and a few others. These writers and intellectuals were generally out of sync with the contemporary political divisions or intellectual mainstream. Neither liberal, progressive or conservative.
The Austrian economists and some of the modern intellectuals considered themselves “liberals” in the European tradition of the 19th century. The European liberals generally favored capitalism and the free market economic system, liberal democracy (expanded voting rights and civil liberties usually) and religious and social tolerance to varying degrees. Influential in Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, France, and the Low Countries and to some extent in Italy, Spain and Portugal, “classical liberalism” of 19th century Europe foundered on the rock of European imperialism. Maintenance of empires reflected the racism of the era and also required large aggressive military organizations. Wars are poison to libertarian values. Classical European liberalism by the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries came to be seen as merel adjuncts to aggressive empire building and instructing “backward peoples” in the proper way to live like Europeans. And controlling local markets for the benefit of richer imperial powers.
WWI, the global Depression of the late 20s and 30s, and WWII along with the emergence of the Cold War between the West and Communist bloc nearly extinguished any intellectual space for individualist libertarianism or anarchism. (Market anarchism is a stateless form of modern individualist libertarianism.) In the 1950s and 60s, the Cold War anti-communist mania strangled libertarian intellectual movements from the so-called conservative wing of US politics. Fighting the Cold War became the one and nearly only strategy or tactic given any political support or intellectual recognition. Likewise any actual Marxist, or socialist politics or public intellectuals were banished, ostracized or blackballed in the post WWII anti-Stalinist Cold War frenzy.
In the US “Old Right” anti-state conservatives were muscled aside due to their non-interventionist views about American foreign policy and preference for a small limited federalist state. The newly empowered anti-Communist “conservatives” championed a war footing, massive central state, such as what blossomed during WWII, as the only solution to stopping a global Communist takeover. Economic freedom, free speech, civil liberties and low taxes, and small government ideals were seen as mere roadblocks to the national security state.
What conservative/rightwing media outlets existed, and there weren’t many, were carefully vetted to keep actual libertarians from being read or heard.. Most respectable of these was National Review, still extant, which was founded and funded by secret CIA asset William F. Buckley Jr. A few libertarians managed to appear in print or worked there during the 50s and early 60s, but most were eventually purged by Buckley. Only a few token “fusionists” (semi libertarian conservatives) remained. The political tabloid Human Events was more hospitable but its influence was mostly Old Right aging conservatives and even there, the word “libertarian” was seldom seen. The John Birch Society and its publication The New American was more radical and in some areas anti-state, but overall the JBS was tainted with conspiratorial anti-Communist theories which put it inevitably beyond the “respectable conservative” pale. (Among other ideas, they championed the theory that Dwight Eisenhower was a Russian agent of some
kind; later they promoted the view that the 1989 collapse of Communism was some sort of misleading “trick” to fool the West into complacency before a secret attack.) Somewhat surprisingly, the JBS remained (and remains) very anti-statist and hostile to federal Leviathan. Several JBS 60s era youth leaders became prominent early libertarian movement activists, such as Libertarian Party founder David Nolan and libertarian historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel.
In the 50s there was also the Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), which is still very active, as well as the New Individualist Review. Initially the NIR was sponsored by the University of Chicago Chapter of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. The word “libertarian” appeared in both of these publications numerous times and some later prominent libertarian scholars and writers were regular contributors. If you wanted to find libertarian thought in the 1960s, you could usually find it there. However, other than the Barry Goldwater 1964 presidential campaign (whose main speechwriter was Karl Hess, later a major libertarian writer, speaker and activist) libertarianism was seldom encountered in political discourse. Jokes about being “librarians” grew very tiresome.
Partly due to the influence of the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign among young conservatives (including the sponsor of this website) and the related growth of the rightwing youth group Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) more explicitly libertarian writings began to appear. (The subsequent 1980 Reagan presidential campaign had a similar but smaller impact, by some libertarians who either grew disillusioned with the lack of success by the Libertarian Party or considered outright libertarianism too extreme or insufficiently anticommunist.) In the New Guard, the monthly YAF magazine, articles appeared in the late 60s specifically written from a libertarian viewpoint by writers (all very young) who identified themselves as “libertarians” or “libertarian-conservatives.” In late 1968 a small ad in the New Guard classified ad section advertised Rothbard’s monthly newsletter Libertarian Forum, which had begun a few months earlier, which he co-edited with Karl Hess. At the same time the Randian movement was imploding over the scandalous split between Rand’s second-in-command psychologist Nathanial Brandon (who was Rand’s secret lover) and Rand herself. Simultaneously the conservative YAF youth group was undergoing a major split between the “trads” (conventional conservatives in the anticommunist Buckleyite mold) and the much more energetic emerging libertarian wing. (YAF survives to this day under the auspices of the Young America’s Foundation.)
YAF was nominally democratic but ruled by an internal cadre of older conservatives who rigidly controlled the funding and spending. It was veiled in secrecy but relied on older anti-communist very culturally conservative deep pocket donors. Major ideological differences centered on the issues of the military draft (libs against, trads for) the Vietnam War (ditto) and cultural matters like the Drug War (announced in the late 60s by Nixon officially) and other victimless crime/civil liberties issues.
YAF libertarians were basically forced out of YAF at the August 1969 national YAF convention in St. Louis. Many would date the start of the modern American libertarian activist movement to this event. The YAF Libertarian Caucus walked out in a bloc and became the foundation for several other activist young libertarian groups: the Society for Individual Liberty (SIL), the Radical Libertarian Alliance (RLC), along with numerous local libertarian youth groups and fronts, many of which were local affiliates of one or both SIL and the RLA. By the late 60s after YAF, the American libertarian movement largely broke away from any former right-wing or Randian predecessor groups. In many cases activists began small newsletters or magazines. These all were self-published until the Reason Foundation, newly created in the mid 60s, expanded Reason magazine into a modern glossy professional format in late1969.
Published books about the early formation of the modern American libertarian movement include It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand, by Jerome Tuccille and Radicals for Capitalism by Brian Doherty.
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