Libertarianism is a political philosophy that maximizes individual liberty and minimizes government power. That’s a quick and dirty definition, and it misses all sorts of nuance that I cannot get into here. But it’s probably fair to say that even on this understanding, libertarianism’s tensions with organized religion, with the authority of received wisdom, with what binds a (political) community, and with the force of tradition generally, should be evident. Not that these cannot be negotiated, softened up, accommodated, and so on. But the tensions remain, and they go to the heart of the very different projects and perspectives of libertarianism and organized religion (disorganized, individuated religion, such as it is, may well be another matter).

Here is a very interesting new work (published last spring) on the history of libertarian thought. It’s interesting to observe, in respect of some of my comments above, that the authors describe libertarianism as a 19th century phenomenon that, of course, influenced political thought in the 20th century, too. Its history is quite recent and coincides roughly with the social decline of organized religion, at least in Western nations. The book is The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism (Princeton University Press), by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi.

Libertarianism emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with an unwavering commitment to progressive causes, from women’s rights and the fight against slavery to anti-colonialism and Irish emancipation. Today, this movement founded on the principle of individual liberty finds itself divided by both progressive and reactionary elements vying to claim it as their own. The Individualists is the untold story of a political doctrine continually reshaped by fierce internal tensions, bold and eccentric personalities, and shifting political circumstances.

Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi trace the history of libertarianism from its origins as a radical progressive ideology in the 1850s to its crisis of identity today. They examine the doctrine’s evolution through six defining themes: private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, individualism, spontaneous order, and individual liberty. They show how the movement took a turn toward conservativism during the Cold War, when the dangers of communism at home and abroad came to dominate libertarian thinking. Zwolinski and Tomasi reveal a history that is wider, more diverse, and more contentious than many of us realize.

A groundbreaking work of scholarship, The Individualists uncovers the neglected roots of a movement that has championed the poor and marginalized since its founding, but whose talk of equal liberty has often been bent to serve the interests of the rich and powerful.

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