Mises Wire

Home | Blog | The Origin of “Libertarianism”

The Origin of “Libertarianism”

September 10, 2011

Our modern “libertarian” movement is often traced back to the classical liberals and before, and there are of course influences and predecessor ideas, but in my view modern libertarianism originated about 60 years ago, in the 1950s (see my “Libertarian Controversies“), with Rand, Rothbard, Friedman, Hazlitt, and Read. This squares with Leonard Read’s claim in a 1975 interview by Tibor Machan for Reason, “Educating for Freedom: An Interview with Leonard Read,” which is great other than Read’s confused comments about anarchy and the state. In that interview, Read claims to have popularized the term “libertarian” (“I’m the one who brought out and popularized the word ‘libertarian’”) ((See also Read’s 1969 The Coming Aristocracy, ch. 14; his other books are online here.)) and also disavows it at the same time given its widely varying connotations and association with “anarchists.” ((See in particular also his 1970 book Talking To Myself, ch. 18:

However, the intention here is not to cast stones at someone else. Many of us—I am at fault as much as anyone—have been guilty of lump thinking. It has to do especially with calling ourselves “libertarians.”
The staff members of FEE, perhaps more than any others, have been responsible for bringing “libertarianism” from dictionary obscurity, dusting it off, embellishing and popularizing it as a label for the free market, private property,
limited government philosophy and the moral and ethical tenets which underlie these institutions. We did this because
the traditional and honored word, “liberalism,” had been appropriated by those who were liberal only with other
peoples’ rights and properties; and because we could find no better generalization.
Having embraced the term, “libertarianism,” we then held it up as a goal to be sought, ascribing to it every virtue in our list of economic, social, political, and moral ideals. I still believe we were sound in what we did-up to this
Should We Label Ourselves?
Then, quite unwittingly and naively, we permitted some of the current collectivism to rub off onto us-we slumped into lump thinking. We tended to collectivize by giving our vastly varied selves a one-word description: “libertarians”! …
Libertarianism, as we define it, is indeed a moral, economic, social, and political ideal. But it is an objective to be pursued rather than an end that has been or can be achieved perfectly. All of us with libertarian aspirations are in varying stages of progress. Our only similarity is in the general trend of our thought. As libertarian aspirants, we are individuals, not a collective. If we would enshrine the dignity of the individual, then we must shy away from any collective label, especially a self-affixed one.
When one who would enshrine the dignity of the individual is asked, “What are you?” he can try to give a candid and articulate statement of the faith that is in him. Such a person cannot, however, take refuge behind a mere label. My failure, no less than that of many others, to grasp this evasive point accounts, in no small measure, for the slowness of the private ownership, free market principle to assert itself over state interventionism. Never again will I call myself or any other a “libertarian.” I will aspire to libertarian achievement and let it go at that.
See also his Castles in the Air (1975) (“At this point I would like to comment on the danger of labeling the ideal. There was a word that I always liked; the classical economists used it: liberal. The word liberal really meant, in the classical sense, the liberalization of the individuals from the tyranny of the State. That word was expropriated by our opponents and it has now come to mean liberality
with other people’s money. The word was taken over. And so I, more than anybody else, was responsible for introducing and publicizing and perhaps making world-wide the word libertarian. I am sorry I ever did it. Why? Because the word libertarian has now been just as much expropriated as the word liberal.”), and Then Truth Will Out (1971), ch. 19, “On Labeling an Ideal”.))
Mises Academy: Stephan Kinsella teaches Libertarian ControversiesOf course libertarian has long had a dual meaning: implying not only political liberalism (and sometimes ACLU-style civil libertarianism) but also, in philosophy, denoting someone who believes in free will. But the word itself seems to have been coined in 1802 in The British Critic, p. 432. In a short piece critiquing some poem by “the author of Gebir“, where the author (I cannot easily discern his name) writes:
The author’s Latin verſes, which are rather more intelligible than his Engliſh, mark him for a furious Libertarian (if we may coin ſuch a term) and a zealous admirer of France, and her liberty, under Bonaparte; ſuch liberty!—For inſtance: …
Or, fixing the archaic long s‘s:
The author’s Latin verses, which are rather more intelligible than his English, mark him for a furious Libertarian (if we may coin such a term), and a zealous admirer of France, and her liberty, under Bonaparte; such liberty!–For instance …
Update: This source indicates that the word “libertarian” was used first in 1789, but in the philosophical “free will” sense, as opposed to the more “liberalism” political sense used in the 1802 text noted above. It also indicates the first explicit proposal to use the term for modern free market liberals was Dean Russell, writing in the May 1955 issue of Leonard Read’s FEE journal The Freeman.

The Good and Honorable Word ‘Libertarian’

What’s in a name? Apparently a lot, as one of the favorite dead horses beat by libertarians is what to call the freedom philosophy.

Those who share the philosophy of liberty mainly call themselves libertarians, but some favor another term such as classical liberal, Jeffersonian democrat, the Old Right or some such.

So where did the name come from? Kevin Carlin in a December 1995 message to Libernet gave this summary:

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first known usage in 1789 as Belsham’s Essays, in which he appears to coin the term in opposition to necessitarian, which appears to have been a minor and now certainly long deceased school of thought.

Our definition, “one who advocates liberty,” does not appear until 1878, probably long after the original use had faded, and appears to have really caught on in the first decade of the twentieth century.

The modern libertarian philosophy coalesced in the 1940s and 1950s from a rejuvenated intellectual defense of the free market. The libertarian movement of this time is perhaps best represented by the Foundation for Economic Education, still active today.

In the May 1955 issue of Ideas on Liberty, FEE senior staff member Dean Russell wrote, “Who is a Libertarian?,” advocating the use of the word libertarian:

Who is a Libertarian?

by Dean Russell

Those of us who favor individual freedom with personal responsibility have been unable to agree upon a generally acceptable name for ourselves and our philosophy of liberty. This would be relatively unimportant except for the fact that the opposition will call us by some name, even though we might not desire to be identified by any name at all. Since this is so, we might better select a name with some logic instead of permitting the opposition to saddle us with an epithet.

Some of us call ourselves “individualists,” but others point out that the opposition often uses that word to describe a heartless person who doesn’t care about the problems and aspirations of other people.

Some of us call ourselves “conservatives,” but that term describes many persons who base their approval of an institution more on its age than on its inherent worth.

Many of us call ourselves “liberals,” And it is true that the word “liberal” once described persons who respected the individual and feared the use of mass compulsions. But the leftists have now corrupted that once-proud term to identify themselves and their program of more government ownership of property and more controls over persons. As a result, those of use who believe in freedom must explain that when we call ourselves liberals, we mean liberals in the uncorrupted classical sense. At best, this is awkard, subject to misunderstanding.

Here is a suggestion: Let those of us who love liberty trademark and reserve for our own use the good and honorable word “libertarian.”

Webster’s New International Dictionary defines a libertarian as “One who holds to the doctrine of free will; also, one who upholds the principles of liberty, esp. individual liberty of thought and action.”

In popular terminology, a libertarian is the opposite of an authoritarian. Strictly speaking, a libertarian is one who rejects the idea of using violence or the threat of violence — legal or illegal — to impose his will or viewpoint upon any peaceful person. Generally speaking, a libertarian is one who wants to be governed far less than he is today.

Follow Mises Institute

Add Comment