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Rothbard on Leonard Read and the Origins of “Libertarianism”

In a previous post I observed that modern libertarianism originated with the thought of Rand, Rothbard, Friedman, Hazlitt, and Read in the 1960s and 1970s (and that the term “libertarian” can perhaps be traced back to 1802). I’ve also argued that the key figure of modern libertarianism, ultimately, was Murray Rothbard, “Mr. Libertarian.”1 I still think this is right, but it’s interesting to note that in Rothbard’s journal Libertarian Forum, this distinction was bestowed upon Leonard Read in his obituary, in Vol. 17.5-6, May-June 1983, Rothbard (presumably it was Rothbard, as the editor), wrote:2

More than any other single person, Leonard was the founder of the modern libertarian movement. …3

In addition, more than anyone else Read coined the name “libertarian” for the current movement. Before that, we had no single name, awkwardly going back and forth between “individualist” and “true liberals”. The problem with the latter phrase is that the quasi-socialists had already succeeded in appropriating the term “liberal”, and calling ourselves “true” anything was confusing and hardly persuasive. And the term “individualist” tended to confuse political philosophy with possessing a spirit of individual autonomy. Read and a few others launched the term “libertarian” for the freedom philosophy, and it stuck—the only case I know of when we were able to appropriate a word from others. For before that, communist-anarhcists had often referred to themselves as “libertarian.” The first time when we were referred to publicly as “libertarians” was in an odious book, published in the 1950’s, by a certain Ralph Lord Roy, entitled Apostles of Discord. There was a repellent literature in those days of works written by aggressive centrists and “moderates” who pilloried all “extremists” as per se evil. Roy, a Social Gospel Protestant, wrote his book to attack both Communist and ultra-rightist “extremists” in the Protestant church. That was par for the course in those days, but lo and behold! he included a chapter called “God and the ‘Libertarians'”, spotting quasi-anarchistic extremists then centered around a libertarian publication for Protestant ministers called Faith and Freedom.  Libertarianism had arrived on the American ideological scene.

Ironically, as Rothbard goes on to note, “In later years, Leonard Read drew away from the libertarian movement which he had named and founded.”

[Update: used in 1796, apparently.]


  1. Libertarianism After Fifty Years: What Have We Learned? (transcript). []
  2. The PDF and HTML versions of the journal are apparently down now, but .mobi and epub versions are available here. []
  3. See also on this, See “Libertarianism After Fifty Years: What Have We Learned?“. []
{ 1 comment… add one }
  • //Manu:) August 12, 2016, 6:38 am

    « the quasi-socialists had already succeeded in appropriating the term “liberal” » (?)

    Obviously, the term was actually appropriated by Rothbard from earlier left libertarian movements:

    « Joseph Déjacque (French: [deʒak]; December 27, 1821, Paris – 1864, Paris) was a French early anarcho-communist poet and writer. Déjacque was the first recorded person to employ the term libertarian (French: libertaire) for himself[…] in a political sense… »

    I just found this quote from Rothbard himself:
    (Libertarian Socialist Rants, 2016, April 11)
    see: 5:02 “Laissez-Faire capitalist Murray Rothbard openly acknowledges the fact that #Libertarianism was originally a leftist phenomenon…”

    The Origin of American Libertarianism
    « One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side’, had captured a crucial word from the enemy…

    ‘Libertarians’… had long been a polite word for left-wing anarchists – that is for anti-private-property anarchists – either of communist or syndicalist variety – but now, we had taken it over … »
    (Murray Rothbard, The Betrayal of the American Right)

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