The Roots of Libertarianism

Written by: AS Driver

“Libertarianism” is an American term for a modern intellectual movement which has a long history. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word is derived from “liberty”, a means “belief in free will, in freedom of thought and of action”. Since the process of life is characterised by thought and action, the philosophy behind libertarianism relates to fundamental issues.

The roots of libertarianism

The origin of libertarianism as a philosophy dates back to the 6th century BC, to The Way of Nature (Tao Te Ching), the work of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. The Tao is a work on the art of government, and was a significant influence in the shaping of Chinese thought. It embodies a minimum resistance style of personal philosophy, and should be read by all who take seriously the prospect of a libertarian type of government.

According to the Tao, the State is part of the natural order, and will run smoothly so long as it does not upset the natural order.

“The people are difficult to govern. It is because those in authority are too fond of action”. (II, 181)

The general approach is one of minimum interference, in order that human beings become self-regulating as far as possible in their interaction with their environment.

In the Western world, libertarianism has surfaced occasionally since the 17th century, and various philosophers have contributed to its development. The most significant libertarian influence developed in the 18th century in France, as an aspect of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement which became a watershed in the history of Western thought.

18th century France was characterised by tyranny of thought, exercised by secular and ecclesiastical authority. The stifling intellectual climate, and associated inharmonious relationship of much of the population to the environment, invited a libertarian response, which came in the form of a call to return to nature. The System of Nature (Le Systeme de la Nature) begins with “Man is unhappy, only because he is ignorant of Nature”, and it concerns the type of thought which leads Man to happiness. Religious thought was considered harmful while that related to natural regulatory was beneficial. The Man Machine (L ‘Homme Machine), another famous work of the Enlightenment, taught a continuity between Man and the rest of Nature.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment led a powerful reaction, especially against ecclesiastical thought. They conspired to free the mind of Man from the authority of the Church, by transferring the roots of rationality from the metaphysical to the ‘natural’ realm. The Roman Catholic Church had earlier resisted great and significant discoveries about the nature of the material universe, to the point of regarding them as a challenge to its authority, so that as if in revenge, the philosophical impact of these discoveries was used to fuel the reaction against it. Belief in all metaphysical concepts was thrown out and a new relationship between Man and his environment was explored, a relationship in which the Western mind was largely freed of superstition.

Towards the end of the 18th century, both libertarianism and the rational argument which was made possible because of it, declined, and in response to Man’s innate desire for certainty, to his fear of freedom of thought, liberalism was born. Liberalism is essentially an ideological type of thought: that is, it aims at the alteration of human life and society according to a prescribed set of ideas. As such, it is incompatible with the spirit of libertarianism, even though it has some libertarian undertones. Liberalism has survived as the major ingredient of modern liberalism (rationalist humanism), the rationale of the intelligentsia of Western civilisation. It should be distinguished from “classical” or “old-fashioned” liberalism, which is essentially libertarianism. Modern libertarianism is also known as neo-liberalism.

Despite its decline in France, libertarianism crossed the Atlantic, and gave its kiss of life to the New World in 1776. The spirit of libertarianism was recognised as appropriate for encouraging the growth of America, and in their wisdom, the American founders incorporated it into their Constitution. Even if its influence has declined in modern times, it surely contributed to the greatness and the success of America. To quote “the noble and indestructible words” of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

Kenneth Clark remarks: “self evident truths… that’s the voice of 18th century enlightenment”.

Symond Fiske pointed out in a wonderful lecture to the Libertarian Seminar of November 1985 in Pietermartizburg that libertarianism was able to take root in America because a personal philosophy derived from the Christian faith was thriving there in the 18th century. This appropriate philosophy provided fertile soil for the libertarian seed, and the combination of fine seed and good soil in a challenging physical environment, released a spiritual momentum which powered a vigorous civilisation.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the United States. It is a symbol of an earlier, and even greater gift, the gift of libertarian thought.

Libertarianism in the 20th century

There has been some resurgence of libertarianism in the Western world since the seventies. In the United States, the Libertarian Party has emerged as the third largest political party, and the Reagan government is engaged in “shrinking the size of government”. In Britain, a movement led by young intellectuals and known as “The New Right” has been gaining in influence as a consequence of disillusionment with socialism. It is inspired by Professor Friedrich Hayek, who encourages the youth to understand its ideas, and “see the pretences of socialism”, that there may be “hope for Western civilisation and mankind”.

In Europe, there is a movement led by a group of French writers known as “The New Philosophers”, which could lead to a resurgence of libertarianism should the influence of socialism decline. The most influential writer in this group is Bernard-Henri Levy, author of Barbarism With a Human Face.

In South Africa, the leading proponent of libertarian thought is Leon Louw, a brilliant young lawyer and chief executive of the Free Market Foundation. It can be claimed that the Free Market Foundation has had a significant influence on the course of reform in South Africa.

Leon Louw revised the laws of the Ciskei, making it a partially free trade area, and assisted in the drafting of the “Deregulation Act”, which was passed by Parliament this year. Leon Louw and his wife, Frances Kendall, have produced a book entitled South Africa: The Solution, in which a Swiss canton type of political dispensation is proposed. The Solution appears to have the potential to solve the more vexing problems facing South Africa.

Disclaimer: This article originally appeared in The Individualist of TBD 1986 (Vol. 11 No. 8). The Individualist was last published by the Libertarian Society of South Africa.

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