Monday, July 24, 2023

Where is the soul of libertarianism?


Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have contributed an excellent history of libertarian ideas in their recently published book, The Individualists. The question I pose for myself is related to the subtitle of the book: “Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism”.

The reason Zwolinski and Tomasi refer to individualists rather than to libertarians in the main title is presumably because they believe that a commitment to “individualism is at the core of libertarianism”. They also note that many of the most intellectually active friends of liberty in Britain were known as individualists before the term libertarian caught on.


The authors spend some time discussing who is, or isn’t, a libertarian. They note that “libertarian” has been used in both a strict sense, to refer specifically to those who see liberty as a moral absolute, and in a broad sense, to include classical liberals who view liberty as a strong presumption. The book discusses the views of contemporary classical liberals, such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, as well as those of “strict libertarians”, but doesn’t devote much attention to historical classical liberalism.

Zwolinski and Tomasi identify six markers which form the core of a libertarian world view: private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, spontaneous order, individualism, and negative liberty. They observe that while libertarians don’t necessarily view those principles as absolutes, they typically see them “as a tightly integrated system of thought, with each commitment being supported by, and lending support to, the others”.

After providing a historical overview, the book discusses the history of radical and reactionary libertarian ideas relating to private property, libertarian anarchism, big business and free markets, poverty and spontaneous order, racial justice and individualism, and global justice and noninterventionism. Much of this information was familiar but I was surprised about how much was new to me.

Zwolinski and Tomasi’s final chapter focuses largely on the battle between bleeding heart libertarians, left libertarians and paleolibertarians for control of the libertarian party in the United States. The authors conclude that libertarianism is “intrinsically a diverse ideology”, and that “the struggle between libertarianism’s progressive and conservative tendencies, a struggle for the soul of libertarianism, is likely to go on”.

That may be an appropriate way to end a history of ideas directed to an audience composed largely of people who live in the USA. As a person who doesn’t fit into that category, however, I am concerned that describing differences of opinion as “a struggle for the soul of libertarianism” may generate more heat than light. As I see it, libertarians should be encouraged to acknowledge good ideas whether they are espoused by conservative or progressive libertarians. I would have preferred to see the book end by acknowledging that libertarians are engaged in an ongoing struggle against authoritarianism as people on opposing sides of the culture wars seek to enlist the coercive powers of the state to pursue their interests.

More fundamentally, the struggle the authors describe - about which set of political prescriptions will come to be most closely identified with the ideology – seems to me to be conducted without much reference to the soul, or essence, of libertarianism. The book left me wanting to promote the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi may have good reasons for not exploring that idea more fully in their book, but it seems to me to be an idea that deserves to be given more attention.

The soul of libertarianism

In my view, the passage from Wilhelm von Humboldt quoted at the beginning of this review comes close to capturing the soul of libertarianism. Liberty is the best principle for the coexistence of humans because it offers conditions most favourable to self-directed individual flourishing.

Humboldt’s contributions influenced John Stuart Mill in writing On Liberty. They were also acknowledged by Friedrich Hayek in the conclusion of the chapter of The Constitution of Liberty discussing education and research:

“And we cannot think of better words to conclude than those of Wilhelm von Humboldt which a hundred years ago John Stuart Mill put in front of his essay On Liberty: ‘The grand, the leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity’.”

Readers who are eager to know more about Humboldt will find an online article by George H Smith published on to be of interest.

The discussion of egoism in The Individualists is relevant to considering the link between liberty and individual flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi note that in the 19th century American libertarians, such as Benjamin Tucker, were influenced by Max Stirner, a German theorist, who held that the only standard or right was the ability to transform one’s will into action. That view is in stark contrast to the ethical egoism advocated by Ayn Rand and her followers during the 20th century. Rand denied that might makes right and argued that egoism is compatible with recognition of universal natural rights.

The link between liberty and individual flourishing is recognized today in the writings of some classical liberal and libertarian authors. Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl deserve special mention because they have developed related ideas rigorously in their trilogy of books: Norms of Liberty, The Perfectionist Turn, and The Realist Turn.

Readers looking for a non-technical introduction to these ideas may find relevant discussion in various places including an article by Ed Younkins on The Savvy Street, and in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.  Rasmussen and Den Uyl have provided a summary of their views in Chapter 2 of The Realist Turn. A quote from the conclusion of that chapter will convey the essence of their understanding of the role of liberty in the context of human flourishing.

“In essence, natural rights represent a realization of certain normative requirements that are inherent in the individualized nature of human flourishing within a social context. In particular, when thinking about rights, we are concerned with the conditions that must be secured for the individualized nature of flourishing to function. Although liberty is the key term in this context, we regard it not as the central concept for flourishing generally, but only with regard to setting the social context for flourishing. And although we reject constructivism as a foundational principle, we recognize the role of social constructs within the constraints provided by a framework of natural rights. As such, our theory is not about the whole of political and social life, but about the political/legal structure within which such life should and must be allowed to function if flourishing is our standard.”


My reading of The Individualists by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi has prompted me to present a view about the soul of libertarianism. Zwolinski and Tomasi end their excellent history of libertarian ideas by suggesting that progressive and conservative factions within libertarianism will continue to struggle over the soul of libertarianism. I put the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Wilhelm von Humboldt came close to capturing the soul of libertarianism 230 years ago when he suggested: “The highest ideal … of the co-​existence of human beings seems to me to consist in a union in which each strives to develop himself from his own innermost nature, and for his own sake”. The link between liberty and individual flourishing has been recognized by many libertarians and classical liberals, and is rigorously explained in the writings of Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl.


Bates, Winton, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, Hamilton Books, 2021.

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From metanorms to metaethics, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, Norms of Liberty, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, The Realist Turn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Smith, George H., ‘The Culture of Liberty: Wilhelm von Humboldt’,, 2013.

Younkins, Edward W., ‘Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s Trilogy of Freedom and Flourishing’, The Savvy Street, 2021.

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