“There Were Giants in the Earth in Those Days.”—Genesis 6:4Robert Higgs • Friday April 12, 2013 2:03 PM PDT •
There are now many more libertarians in the world than there were fifty years ago. Libertarian writing has increased greatly, and the readership of libertarian literature has increased substantially, especially since the development and widespread adoption of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Yet, it seems to me, we no longer have libertarians of the same stature as the giants of the past two or three generations. Where today are the libertarians comparable to Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, James Buchanan, and Thomas Szasz?
I am not saying that today’s leading libertarians are chopped liver; not at all. Indeed, some are very impressive in their scholarship, public expression of libertarian ideas and policy proposals, and recruitment of young people to the movement. To avoid seeming to make invidious comparisons, I refrain here from naming names, but rest assured that I have the greatest respect for a number of currently active men and women.
Still, I do not consider any of them to be in the same league with the six I’ve identified. Mises’s scholarship was truly fundamental, especially in regard to the socialist calculation problem and the analysis of the boom-bust cycle, and his efforts in keeping classical liberalism and Austrian economics alive during their darkest hours were genuinely heroic. Hayek’s scholarship was similarly impressive, and he did much to combat immensely popular yet pernicious developments in economics, social and political theory, and other areas. Friedman, besides producing tremendously influential scholarship in monetary theory and history, played an important role in the termination of military conscription in the USA. Rothbard was indefatigable in research, writing, and rabble-rousing, and he was the clear leader in regenerating the libertarian movement when it was on its last legs. Buchanan compelled the mainstream of the economics profession to recognize that in the study of public affairs, government cannot be treated as a miracle-working alternative to “imperfect” markets; and during his long, amazingly prolific career, he created a flourishing new subfield of economic analysis—public choice. Szasz wrote (probably) thousands of articles and dozens of books in which he contributed at every level of analysis and discussion to exposing the unholy alliance between the psychiatric profession (and its main ideas) and the state. He did more than anyone to create and energize the movement to release innocent people from imprisonment in so-called psychiatric hospitals.
Who among today’s leading libertarians has so much to his or her credit? I am aware, of course, that Ron Paul has recruited many young people to the libertarian cause during the past few years, and he certainly deserves our gratitude for having done so. But Paul (until very recently) was a politician, leading a political campaign, not a fundamental thinker in his own right. His contribution to libertarianism is therefore bound to be transitory. Other contemporary libertarians have cut much smaller figures. Most have only a tiny following among subject specialists or die-hard libertarians in a little sect. One or two, such as John Stossel, are known more widely, but Stossel is only a mouthpiece for ideas others have developed—an effective mouthpiece, to be sure, but, again, someone whose effect on the world certainly must have a very short half-life.
Of course, each libertarian has his present-day favorites. Some of them are obviously penetrating thinkers and powerful writers and speakers. Yet, unless I have greatly misperceived the recent history of libertarianism, none of them comes close to the giants of the immediately preceding generations.