While libertarianism as a political creed has a distinctive and honorable ancestry, with a lineage that runs from dissident medieval scholastics straight through the mainstream of the American Revolution of 1776 to the individualist school of classical anarchism spearheaded by Benjamin R. Tucker to the American Old Right that arose in opposition to the New Deal, most historians of libertarianism place the beginning of the modern American libertarian movement in the political and cultural upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that period, an assortment of Randians, Goldwaterites, Old Rightists, New Leftists, defectors from William F. Buckley, Jr.’s Young Americans for Freedom and opponents of the Vietnam War came together to form a new radically anti-statist movement calling itself “libertarian”. (1)
The central figure in this effort was a radical exponent of the Austrian school of economics and veteran of the Old Right named Murray N. Rothbard who, along with Karl N. Hess, a former speechwriter for U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater and future President Richard Nixon, attempted to forge an alliance between libertarians and the antiwar and anti-draft militants of the New Left. (2)
Since its inception during the era of the war in Vietnam, the libertarian movement has grown considerably in both size and influence, maintaining a variety of institutions and organizations ranging from the Libertarian Party (formed in 1971) to the Cato Institute think-tank (formed in 1977) to the monthly periodicals “Reason” and “Liberty”. (3)
It is clear that the modern libertarian movement has its roots in radicalism rather than any sort of conservatism. However, since its initial beginnings within the context of the radical Left, much of the libertarian movement has turned sharply rightward, though in varying and often conflicting ways. This essay will argue that this rightward shift within the libertarian movement is severely misguided, as libertarianism and conservatism are not only historically antagonistic to one another but are indeed diametrical opposites. Secondly, it will be shown that efforts to synthesize libertarianism with conservatism have resulted in dramatically negative consequences for the realm of libertarian strategy and practical political activism, consequences that are entirely predictable given the conflicting natures of libertarianism and conservatism. Lastly, it will be shown that a consistent application of the libertarian doctrine not only requires a severe political radicalism, but also implies an economic and cultural radicalism as well. To demonstrate why this is so, it is first necessary to understand the proper place for libertarianism on the political spectrum as enunciated by Murray Rothbard.