History

Why the Philosophers Libertarians Love Always Come Out Worse for Wear

Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek have been through the wringer.

Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek's faces framed with a house in flames.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Mises Institute/Wikipedia and Scottish National Gallery/Wikipedia.

Like most history doctoral students, I needed money to cover basic expenses. Because of that circumstance, and because my dissertation’s argument that the U.S. shouldn’t nationalize Christianity sounds good to people who oppose governmental “interference,” I became affiliated with a libertarian pocket of American conservatism, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, from 2018 to 2020—first as a research assistant and visiting dissertation fellow, and then as an Adam Smith fellow. Named for a libertarian favorite, the Adam Smith Fellowship required attendance at four separate four-day gatherings, each featuring free-flowing wine, lavish meals, and mandatory hotel stays. During this time, I talked to many, many academically minded libertarians.

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The relationship between governance and the market is the “it’s complicated” of modern economic history. Most Mercatus participants blamed societal problems on government intervention itself, turning their faith instead toward the free market. As a fellow, I once met an economist who blamed the Great Depression on Theodore Roosevelt’s activist presidency from 1901 to 1909, not (as is conventional) the laissez faire 1920s. I, like most people, believe instead that the government should help people in need. These fellowships did not change my mind.

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But our contradictory political and economic beliefs weren’t the primary point of divergence between me and the other people I spoke with during this time. Rather, what isolated me most from the libertarians I met was our approach to history. The Mercatus libertarians idolize their favorite political-economic philosophers, including Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James Buchanan (the economist, not the president), and Vincent and Elinor Ostrom. They name fellowships after them, decorate their walls with their portraits, and even present fellows with T-shirts featuring the thinkers’ faces. As an academic and political movement, they organize around key figures without considering a central tenet of historical scholarship: change over time. Most libertarians overlook how evolving perceptions of ideas shape how we read these beloved big names. I know the last two sentences might seem like I’m picking interdisciplinary nits. But as time went on, I became convinced these methodological blind spots explain quite a bit about contemporary libertarian thinking.

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Two recent books take on some of the Mercatus Center’s favorite political-economic philosophers, proving, I think, my point. Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed, by legal scholar Andrew Koppelman, claims that American libertarians have distorted Hayek’s ideals. Adam Smith’s America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism, by political scientist Glory Liu, shows how Americans have perceived Adam Smith and his ideas over time. Both aim to follow best practices in historical thought, such as change over time and the provision of tons and tons of context.

Burning Down the House

by Andrew Koppelman. Macmillan.

Adam Smith’s America

by Glory M. Liu. Princeton University Press.

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Koppelman’s opening lines are stunning: “The fire department was run by idealists. That is why it ignored the homeowner’s pleas and watched the house burn down.” This vignette is no metaphor. In 2010, Gene Cranick, of Obion County, Tennessee, lost his home in that fire, because the fire department was members-only, requiring homeowners to pay dues. The flames spread to the home of his neighbor, who had paid his fees; that building was saved. Burning Down the House quotes conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s response to the news story: “As soon as they put out the fire of somebody who didn’t pay the 75 bucks, no one will pay the 75 bucks.” The conservative magazine National Review doubled down, writing that Cranick’s plight was “sad” but would “probably save more houses over the long haul.” This opening anecdote echoes much of what I heard around seminar tables with Mercatus fellows discussing Hayek and von Mises, Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, and the Ostroms: People must suffer to learn individual responsibility that’ll ultimately benefit the collective.

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Such thinking corrupts libertarian ideals, according to Burning Down the House. The book explores how libertarians today understand Hayek, an Austrian scholar who promoted free-market economics in Europe and the U.S. throughout the mid-20th century. Trying to bridge a gap, Koppelman wants to make libertarians appreciate government more, and to make liberals resent libertarians less. For example, on the pressing issue of climate change mitigation, most libertarians trust the market and rebuke government intervention. Burning Down the House interjects, offering up the historical fact that Hayek advocated for government intervention to curtail forces outside the market. In Koppelman’s reading, climate change constitutes just that—a force outside the market. He implies that if Hayek visited a Mercatus fellowship gathering, he might scold the economist whose job is to advocate for corporate fracking on Indigenous lands (a real person that I met). Does Koppelman believe that this imaginary Hayek would convince the advocate for corporate fracking on Indigenous lands to reverse his position? Or would today’s policymakers simply choose different dead philosophers to revere to protect their political goals? I suspect the latter.

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Strengths of Burning Down the House include accessible writing, helpful definitions of terms, and charitable philosophizing. Koppelman is forthcoming about his own “pro-capitalist leftist” bias. Burning Down the House paradoxically exposes the corruption and greed of 21st century libertarianism while assuming its best intentions, aiming to purify libertarians’ understanding of Hayek. Koppelman likes Hayek too much, writing: “Both sides have only the dimmest idea of what he actually wrote. He is better than either of them.” Rather than unpack the fetishization of Hayek, Burning Down the House argues that libertarians ought to revere him, but for different reasons than they do.

Glory Liu’s book, Adam Smith’s America, illuminates how the ways that readers approach a text become part of that text’s story. “Reception history” refers to the practice of investigating how perceptions of an idea or a person change over time. By following reception’s evolution this way, scholars can analyze which figures or ideas became popular when, in what context, and why. Adam Smith’s America is a model for doing reception history well.

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Tracing Smith’s reception in the U.S. from 1776 through the present, Liu tracks the 20th century uses and abuses of the 18th century Scottish economist and philosopher whose Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations have been interpreted and reinterpreted ever since.* Liu writes that during the Great Depression, a critical moment in the relationship between governance and free markets, free-market advocates made Smith their poster boy. But just 15 years later, the same advocates became obsessed with Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, advocating free-market capitalism to combat the rise of totalitarianism. Against a backdrop of Cold War anti-Sovietism, Hayek met a wave of approval in the U.S.

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While charitably noting that Hayek distanced his arguments from dogma, Liu makes clear that Hayek subtly misrepresented Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments. Hayek remolded the ways that Smith’s two works already contradicted each other to make them say what Hayek wanted, either intentionally or unintentionally. Hayek’s reading of Smith paved the way for subsequent libertarians to interpret Smith according to their whims.  

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I first encountered Liu’s work when I was a visiting dissertation fellow at the Mercatus Center, and she was a guest speaker presenting a paper on the Chicago School. Austrian economists Hayek and von Mises, and Milton Friedman and others, were giants among the Chicago School that educated James Buchanan, who’d spend his career in the Virginia School of political economy and George Mason University, which now houses the Mercatus Center. The head of the academic arm of Mercatus interjected a comment during her speech: “James Buchanan was like Jesus to me.” Liu talked around his comment, sticking to her analysis and evidence. On this day at the Mercatus Center, I felt fortunate to witness reception history in action. This professor worshiped Buchanan, who studied under Hayek, who exploited Smith’s philosophy to oppose collectivist social planning. Each thinker, Liu insisted in response, shapes and is shaped by historical forces.

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Adam Smith’s America and Burning Down the House both help to combat the ahistoricism of libertarian philosophical and political-economic movements. Burning Down the House decries “corruption,” while Adam Smith’s America sticks to “reception.” The latter, a subtle reception history, is more effective. Rather than purify our interpretation of original texts, we must ask why we read the way we do. Who are we, what are our biases, and how do we relate to people struggling to survive in the political economy we analyze? Who’s around the table, and why are they there: because they can barely pay their rent, because they exploit theory to justify leaving others unable to pay their rent, or something else?

My Mercatus affiliation and Burning Down the House ended with the same historic event: the COVID-19 pandemic. Burning Down the House claims that Hayek believed that “people have the right to do what they want as long as they don’t hurt anyone else,” while recently libertarians have corrupted Hayek to mean “that they have a right of choice even when they do hurt or even kill other people.” In spring 2020, before the vaccine or reliable testing, or even the availability of masks, the best we could do was stay inside, or if we needed to go out, social distance. By this logic, Hayek would stay at home or wear a mask, and the supposedly deviant libertarians wouldn’t be so inconvenienced.

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The reality is more nuanced: Mercatus promptly canceled the fourth and final gathering of my Adam Smith fellowship cohort in spring 2020. They postponed it and made it optional. Even better, they paid fellows for participating in the canceled event. We can all name businesses or organizations that couldn’t afford to compensate for canceled labor due to COVID. Mercatus’ choices were both kind-hearted and Koch-funded.

It’s not that they don’t study Hayek. They do, and they made me study Hayek. Rather, they pool money and resources to preserve choice for themselves and people in their orbits, ignoring the history of greed and oppression that landed them in that position of privilege. As thinkers, we should consider what future scholars would analyze in a reception history of us.

Correction, Dec. 7, 2022: This piece originally described Adam Smith as having lived in the 17th century. 

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