We all have to be good stewards of liberty’s intellectual commons.
The directions in which young libertarians are taking the movement seem to have caused a backlash among some of the libertarians of my generation, threatening to turn us into the old guys telling the kids to get off our lawn.
The problem is that it’s not our lawn. It never was.
It wasn’t our predecessors’ lawn when we overran it either. It belongs to hundreds of years of the classical liberal tradition. The libertarian movement has seen significant changes in the last few years, and I believe that those changes have broadened and diversified libertarianism in ways that are the inevitable and desirable products of our growth.
The success of organizations like Students for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty in bringing more young people into the movement has meant that the issues they are interested in are the ones that are getting increasing attention. Gender, race, and sexuality are part of that, but so are peace and privacy. That this generation of young libertarians wants to talk about all of those things is good, even though I might not personally think that everything they have to say about them is good. For example, I don’t want a libertarianism full of either incessant calls to check my privilege, nor little boy brutalism.
But thinking in terms of what I want, or what any other person wants, is exactly the problem: Those of us in our 40s and 50s (and beyond) simply have to realize that we don’t own the movement and that we can’t centrally plan it. The liberty movement has always been a spontaneous order that has grown and evolved in uncontrollable and unpredictable ways. We all have our views of what that direction should be, and because spontaneous orders emerge from the various intentional actions of those who constitute them, we are perfectly free to keep arguing for our own visions of where we should go. However, we must also simultaneously recognize that we are but one voice in a growing multitude and that our control is limited, despite any leadership roles we might play.
We should also think about the ways in which the growth of the liberty movement affects the production of good and bad work and our perceptions of it. By analogy, consider how the proliferation of new TV networks and falling costs of production have meant there’s just more “stuff” on TV than ever before. Thanks to HBO and Netflix and others, one result is that there’s never been more great TV than there is right now, but Orange is the New Black is competing with tons of terrible reality shows and all the rest. TV’s signal-to-noise ratio might be lower than in the past, but the absolute amount of high-quality programming has never been higher.
I would argue the same is true of libertarianism. As we’ve grown, there’s just a lot more libertarian “stuff” out there, including a lot more nonsense. Our signal-to-noise ratio is lower than when we older folks were young. But there’s also never been more good stuff. Libertarian ideas are being taken seriously in academia, public intellectual circles, and the media because we’ve done good work. And even when our ideas aren’t treated well, it remains true that a lot of smart people seem to think they have to respond to libertarian arguments. That’s a huge sign of growth and of increasing quality.
That increased public presence means that we need to be our own harshest critics. As Bastiat said, there is nothing worse than a good cause ineptly defended. For starters, we should feel no obligation to support, rather than criticize, other libertarian writers because they are libertarians (or because they are women, or gay, or anything else for that matter). We should be seeking out the best work and promoting it from the rooftops. And we should be merciless in our blunt, though civil, criticism of inferior work—including that from our friends.
Young libertarians who write for social media have to realize that they are putting their ideas into the broader public discourse on those topics, and this means they have to do real research and hone their arguments carefully because they will be held accountable for lousy work. They are not helping the cause of liberty by defending it ineptly. You cannot go from an undergraduate degree to serious libertarian pundit without actually knowing something about the history of classical liberal thought and the major contemporary work about which you’re writing. We elders who have a significant public intellectual presence got there because we did the hard work of reading lots of old books as well as plenty of new research. There’s no shortcut from the “collect underpants” of a BA to the “profits” of being taken seriously as a public intellectual.
Young libertarians also need to get used to serious criticism if they wish to compete in the arena of ideas. Whining that you’re being treated unfairly, especially because of gender, age, race, sexuality, or other trait, will simply not cut it. It’s your arguments and evidence that matter. Stop complaining. Revise your work. And try again.
That young libertarians want to talk about issues that previous generations didn’t, or make up lists of the top 20 hottest libertarian women and men, doesn’t mean that the barbarians are at the gate. Focusing on the increasing quantity of weak libertarian writing out there can easily lead us to ignore the unseen: the simultaneous increase in high-quality work. Rather than complaining about silly lists on social media and telling the kids to get off our lawn, we old folks should let the kids do what kids have always done—push the boundaries set by the previous generation. We should, however, also be holding them to the highest standards of argumentation and evidence.
Come play on the lawn, kids. Bring your new ideas and modes of expression. That lawn belongs to all of us, and it’s yours to help the rest of us landscape as you see fit. We old folks will just keep reminding you how precious an asset it is and that it takes hard work, dedication to quality, and deep knowledge of the fundamental ideas to keep liberty’s lawn fertilized, beautiful, and productive. That’s how our elders treated us, and it’s the least we can do for the generation in whose hands the future of the liberty movement will soon rest.
ABOUT STEVEN HORWITZ
Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.