In the late 18th century the thinkers of the American Revolution said that they were fighting against a tyrannical British monarchy for Liberty.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, Europe too was dominated by monarchies. On the Continent, many of them were absolute.
Against the European monarchies were a few advanced thinkers and politicians, like the English politicians Charles James Fox and John Wilkes. They often called themselves "reformers" or "Whigs." They too claimed that they were fighting for political liberty (which they called, for short, Liberty).
But what did Liberty mean?
Liberty meant that ordinary people would have some rights against the monarchies. Liberals advocated reforming or, sometimes, overturning the monarchies, and instituting popular parliaments, constitutions and declarations of rights. In countries that gradually achieved some sort of parliament liberals later worked to broaden electoral franchises to include more and more males of lower classes.
Some liberals -- the English utopian industrialist Robert Owen (1771-1858), for example -- were capitalists. (The term capitalism was invented in the 1830s.) Most of these liberals remained capitalists throughout the century (though Owen himself later became a socialist).
As the century moved on, though, philosophers like the Englishmen John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Thomas Hill Green (1836 -1882) gradually shifted from being liberals to being socialists. In Europe, where there was less understanding of the philosophy of capitalism and more repression of workers, liberalism gradually became overshadowed by socialism.
As socialism and anarchism were invented, the pioneers of these new political philosophies wanted to differentiate themselves from mere reformers, mere "liberals." Like liberals, socialists and anarchists believed in political liberty. But they thought of it differently.
Classical liberals wanted to reduce the power of the (monarchical) state over people. Socialists and anarchists wished to ensure that ordinary people had at least a minimum of wealth and security from hunger. Further, they wanted to differentiate themselves from gradualists and capitalists. To do this, socialists and anarchists began sometimes to label themselves not liberals but "libertarians." This emphasized that they believed in political liberty, but were not believers in free trade or capitalism.
Socialists and anarchists were interested in ending poverty and hunger, reforming or overturning the class system, making the political system more socially just, and improving the organization of industrial work.
But words often change in meaning. The word "libertarian" gradually gave way to the more definite "socialist" or "anarchist" (19th century anarchists were usually socialists of some kind). "Libertarian" gradually became used only by a few anarchist intellectuals; it described themselves and their beliefs.
In the late 20th century, however, some people in basic agreement with many of the ideas of Russian-American capitalist novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982) began to call themselves "Libertarians" (usually with a capital letter). This was to differentiate themselves from two groups:
Students of Objectivism disagreed with none of Rand's opinions, even the most trivial . . . or claimed to. Capitalist Libertarians, on the other hand, disagreed with Rand's opinion that the present was no time to organize politically. The early 1970s, in Rand's opinion, were the time in which to calmly spread the word about Rand's philosophy, Objectivism. After some decades of educational work, perhaps, the time would arrive to begin political action. One would then organize political parties, for example, so as to bring to fruition all of Rand's political and social ideas.
But the Libertarians would have none of this patient waiting. They believed this was too passive. The times cried out for political action and rapid change. Society was in danger of falling into a catastrophic socialist-totalitarian abyss. They must immediately form political coalitions with anyone who believed in laissez-faire or greater political liberty, no matter what that person or party had as its basic premises, and no matter how that person or party labelled itself. This group of Randists therefore held a founding convention in 1972 and created the U.S. Libertarian party. They began to run candidates for president and vice-president of the United States. (At their high point in the 1972 presidential election, their candidate won one electoral vote.) Later the Libertarians tried to run candidates in congressional, state, and local elections, with a few successful outcomes.
On the whole, they did not get very far. However, they did help educate many about the existence of Libertarianism, and led many to read about Rand's ideas. So gradually the influence of Rand increased, and she has become (instead of a reviled, dismissed, reactionary fanatic -- as she was considered by leftists in the 1960s) a respectable pro-capitalist thinker.
In the 1960s I myself was a student of Rand's philosophy Objectivism. But about early 1971 I began to chafe in her movement, under the felt necessity to agree totally with Rand. So in May 1971 I declared myself no longer an Objectivist. I called myself a Libertarian and gradually became a laissez-faire anarchist (laissez-faire anarchists don't believe in government, only in totally unrestricted capitalism).
But about late 1974 or early 1975 I was unemployed. While visiting a building on King Street East in Toronto near Yonge I began to think that perhaps state unemployment insurance wasn't such a bad idea after all. Some people don't have savings, parents, friends, or relatives from whom to borrow in times of joblessness. And, presumably, if there had been privately-operated schemes of unemployment insurance in the past (I don't know the history of unemployment insurance) such insurance could not have been very popular: no history I know of laments its passing or even mentions it. (I must investigate this further.)
Thinking along these lines, I began to wonder if other state measures besides unemployment insurance might not also be good. If they were not good in their present form, could they perhaps be reformed to work effectively?
I was quite aware that Rand attempted to justify her economics and politics (laissez-faire capitalism, which she often referred to as simply capitalism, and small-state, constitutionally limited democracy) by two arguments.
One was the efficiency of democratic capitalism: it produced wealth, and thereby economic freedom. But Rand often wrote of her other argument as if it were even more important. This argument was that capitalism was the most moral social system that had ever been devised (see Rand's book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.)
Rand meant that capitalism was the social incarnation, the ideal political-social mechanism, of rational egoism -- selfishness -- which she advocated in her ethical system. (For her explanation of her ethics, see Rand's work The Virtue of Selfishness.) (Rand usually spoke of rational egoism as simply egoism.) Believing in the "invisible hand" of capitalism of Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) that (supposedly) guides selfish people unknowingly to do public good (Rand believed in this doctrine even more than Smith, who said that capitalists hardly ever got together without conspiring against the public good), Rand thought that there was no contradiction between "rational selfishness" and public good (not that she worried much about public good, or even thought it existed: like former British prime minister Lady Margaret Thatcher (1925- ), Rand claimed to believe that there was no such thing as a society, only individuals).
[To Be Continued and Revised]
Last modified: 6:33 PM 21/01/2004