The Libertarian Party at Fifty Years
Libertarianism: John Hospers, the Libertarian Party’s 50th Anniversary, and Beyond
edited by C. Ronald Kimberling and Stan Oliver
John Hospers Philosophy Foundation, 2021
The Libertarian Party needs people to chronicle its history, and this book is an accessible source of information beginning with its founding days. As one institution in the perennial struggle of liberty versus power, libertarians must learn from the Party’s successes and failures. Although it is one of the longest continuously active political parties in US history, the LP has precious little to show for the effort. Initial successes have been replaced by stagnation despite a steady increase in the number of individuals who identify as libertarian and several high-profile candidates.
I am very optimistic about the prospects for liberty, and I do not discount the potential of the party as a vehicle to success. I can see encouraging signs in all corners of the world, mostly nonpolitical, and I certainly do not want to discourage anyone working in the trenches opposing statism. There has never been a better time for political campaigns that start with the delegitimization of government.
Many readers will be unfamiliar with the name of John Hospers, and the bulk of this book is not about him. He was a teacher and philosopher, a university professor, and a writer. He was interested in aesthetics, Objectivism, and political philosophy, and he authored eight books on philosophy (mostly on aesthetics), including Libertarianism: A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow. Most noteworthy, he was a friend and confidant of Ayn Rand and the first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, running in 1972!
I will review the contents of the book, present its general perspective, and briefly describe its contents. My biggest problem with the book is that it portrays the Objectivist-minarchist view of the state in a positive light and the Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist view in a negative light, and crucially, it criticizes Murray Rothbard’s position on the Cold War. While both sides agree on most issues, readers should not view this issue as isolated to foreign affairs, but rather as of utmost importance in terms of overall libertarian public policy strategy. I reserve my assessment and critical remarks about this the disagreement to the end of this review.
The book offers informed commentary and some detailed analysis, but it is clearly not an attempt to be comprehensive about any of the issues suggested by the title. The first section looks back to the first standard bearer, philosophy teacher John Hospers. Short essays by Jack Wheeler, Dave Dyer, Ron Manners and philosopher Chris Matthew Sciabarra harken back to their early days of the Libertarian Party movement. This section is also a primary source of commentary on the Rothbard versus Objectivist divide on the Cold War within the party.
Section 2 is “Libertarianism in History,” a loosely connected set of six essays including a couple of minihistories, two policy experiences, an interview of Ronald Reagan, and an essay the role of history. The breadth of the book naturally makes organization difficult, and readers will sense this challenge reading from chapter to chapter within each section, but there are nuggets of information important to the history of libertarianism.
Section 3 is titled “Histories of the Libertarian Party,” which also looks back at the founding days of the LP, with three essays on the nuts and bolts of the Libertarian Party and three other essays of interest to political historians and current political activists interested in libertarianism.
The largest section, “Libertarian Perspectives,” has ten essays that are essentially policy advocacy papers. They range from the well-trodden issues of abortion and immigration to more timely essays on healthcare, capitalism, and the coronavirus crisis of today.
The final section, on “The Future of Libertarianism,” contains ten short hopeful essays, several of which harken back to previous sections. The essays range from Professor Hospers’s own learned advice for promoting liberty to an apocryphal letter to James Madison written by media personality Glenn Beck on the problems of the US Constitution.
Overall, the selection of contributors and the weight of their contributions are not well balanced and are only loosely bound to the three prongs of the book’s subtitle. One of the two editors, C. Ronald Kimberling, penned four of the essays, as did Dr. Mary Ruwart. Caryn Ann Harlos and Judge James P. Gray also contributed two essays apiece, totaling almost one-third of the book. This large chunk of material is dispersed among the essays by libertarian luminaries and unsung heroes.
The Libertarian Divide
The book discusses the early divide between Marxist-leaning libertarians and regular libertarians, but the biggest divide within the party during these early years was between those that sided with the Rothbard radical position and those who followed the anti-Communist, limited-government agenda. This is an important warning because the authors write about this divide as if it still existed today without any resolution, reconciliation, or new facts. Since that time, the Soviet threat has been exposed as a paper tiger and largely an illusion created and suckled to maintain Cold War. This vindicates Rothbard, and it implies that the Rothbardians were also correct to focus on the US government as the greatest threat to liberty, both foreign and domestic. History makes clear that America was the most warlike, interventionist, and imperialist government of the twentieth century. The early libertarian debate on these issues, including Rothbard’s and Hospers’s own views, can be read in the pages of the Libertarian Forum.
For example, the book accuses Rothbard of being the “ultimate Platonist,” ignoring reality and being naïve about property rights and national defense. “No matter what, you could depend on Rothbard to side with the Soviet Communists against America, no exceptions.” Furthermore, Rothbard is criticized for urging libertarians to delegitimize and undermine the state and its pretext during the height of the Cold War.
I admit that in the late 1960s and early 1970s (when the party was founded and started running candidates) I too was a John Wayne–inspired Cold Warrior and Soviet hater. I was less worried about China because of my mother’s constant reminder to “clean my plate” because Chinese children were starving. Then there was the puzzling policy of subsidized wheat sales to the Soviets. The Cold War way of thinking was later reinforced by my economics professors, who showed Newsweek data that the Soviet-Warsaw Pact outgunned US North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in all key weapons systems and would soon outpace the West in terms of gross national product. I don’t blame myself or others, because at that point in time even the minions at the CIA got the Communist threat all wrong. Like most people, I was also unaware that most non-Russian Soviet troops were provided with second-class weapons and little in the way of live ammunition. Apparently, Murray Rothbard was one of the few to see through all the Cold War propaganda and subterfuge.
The Soviet’s status as a paper tiger is recognized briefly on page 28 of the book, in the context of a Cold War strategy discussion. However, that discussion implies that a few handheld missiles sent to Afghanistan could bring down the entire mighty Communist empire, rather than just exposing the futility of its system. Rothbard’s position on the ineptness of socialism, that the Soviet Union and Communist China were paper tigers, and that the entire Cold War came at a terrible cost and no benefit to the average American was fully vindicated in the 1980s and ’90s, when communism collapsed due to its own inherent weaknesses. At the time of the collapse, Cold Warriors, now called Neocons, were aghast and grasping at straws to defend their “strategy.” It is worth noting that the LP and its cold warrior caucus gained no standing with the downfall of communism, while the Austrian school of economics did benefit.
The other side of the fake-Soviet-threat coin was that most everything bad about American government, including the government intervention in the economy, multilayered nuclear deterrence, and “duck and cover” school drills were the result of and done in the name of the global crusade against the evil international Communist conspiracy. In the wake of the Communist collapse, this evil has morphed into an international terrorist conspiracy and most recently into a desperate thrust to reignite the “Soviet” threat in the Ukraine.
These latest excuses are also debunked by a full and balanced understanding of American history. The actual history of America has been for the US to take over North America, take over the Spanish Empire, declare the Western Hemisphere its own sphere of influence, establish hegemony over Western Europe and Japan, and court influence in Russia and China. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong never dreamed of such power, even if used Platonically. Catch phrases like “Manifest Destiny” and “American exceptionalism” should be taught for what they are: excuses for empire and war. A globe with flag push pins representing American military bases, interventions, and wars exposes this error and looks much more frightening than the mockup of the covid-19 spike protein. And yet, we are told that if the US government taxed any less and spent any less money and lives, then Hitler, Stalin, and Putin would rule the world and put humanity at risk.
Most people today see communism as a failure but fail to appreciate that much of American government and empire was built on top of that house of cards. However, some Americans do indeed realize that globalism, militarism, environmentalism, the war on terror, and the fascist corporate state economy headed by the Fed are the real threats to liberty and prosperity in the world.
From this perspective, libertarians should find Rothbard’s position that political action should delegitimize the state and undermine its power attractive relative to the libertarian tact of making the railroads run on time or getting your garbage picked up at a reasonable cost. Economic libertarianism, with its sole focus on government budgets and taxation, is a highly limiting political strategy. So, I agree with contributor Kevin Shaw’s essay, which indicates that libertarians should proceed as enemies of the state.
For example, the budget of the war on drugs is small in monetary terms, but it also costs lives, increases crime, destroys families, and undermines society to the benefit of the police state. The victories of the drug legalization movement in recent years highlight the importance of liberty over economy, although both, along with science, play a role.
Recognizing that Rothbard was prescient about the Soviet Cold War threat as well as the wide-ranging dangers of the American empire are a necessary step to a successful political strategy. He was unique in that he had the brain to recognize the biggest dangers to liberty and the courage to stand in opposition to the entire apparatus of America’s Cold War, including his political friends. Surely, the Libertarian Party would be better off today and in higher standing with the electorate had they followed Rothbard’s advice.