The U.S Libertarian resurgence as a synthesis of Post-Modernistic culture and relativism

5. semester er netop overstået på Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences, og nu går der ikke længe til, at jeg kan få lov til at starte på kandidaten It & Business på CBS/It-universitetet i København.

På 5. semester skulle jeg i faget Cultural Studies skrive om et hvilket som helst emne, så længe det holdte sig til det engelske sprog og kultur.

Her valgte  jeg at kigge på liberalismens genopståen som en syntese af postmodernistisk kultur og relativisme.

Det kunne være nogen fandt læsningen spændende 🙂


Research Question

With the foundation of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the Cato Institute, the Libertarian Party and many other organizations aimed at promoting liberty within the United States, a strong resurgence in libertarian thought is underway.  This “resurgence” has taken place under what is largely considered to be a post-modernistic time period. Noticing this correlation, in an attempt to discern to what extent these two phenomena are caused by each other the paper posits a research question that reads:

“To what extent is the resurgence of libertarianism in the US a synthesis of post-modernistic relativism and culture?”

The paper aims at exploring the extent of how post-modernist relativism and culture have affected this growth. The logic behind the method of enquiry is based on drawing comparisons between post-modernistic thinking and libertarian philosophy. The assumption being, the closer the nature of the two concepts the easier it is to explain the popularity of one philosophy in terms of post-modernism as a historical epoch. Since, if the paradigms under which people in a society live their lives fits a particular philosophy, the more likely it is to reasonably expect its popularity.


The literature that is sourced is often taken from institutes that directly promote libertarianism in the United States.  Material authored by the major proponents and philosophers of libertarianism were used as far as they were necessary. Murray Rothbard and Freidrich Von Hayek, both feature heavily in the paper. Murray Rothbard was a major force in the US libertarian movement, in the role as the proverbial Dean of the Austrian School of Economics. His teachings laid down the foundations for the Anarcho-Capitalist philosophy, a term he coined. Friedrich Von Hayek features prominently in the cited work, due to his large impact on the U.S academic arena. Hayek was an influential social scientist and economist. Earlier proponents of the Austrian School of Economics or Libertarianism are featured less due to their disconnection with modern Libertarianism in the United States. However, this is not to say that their teachings are not of vital importance in building the libertarian philosophy, rather the fact that almost none of these people visited or have ever lived in the United States.  While it is somewhat doubtful that a political party represents an ideology in its entirety the Libertarian Party is used as a reference point for the public thrust of the libertarian philosophy in the United States.

Reader familiarity with the basic tenants of post-modernism is assumed. This assumption of familiarity does not hold with regard to libertarianism, wherefore it is necessary to familiarize the reader with the libertarian concepts, in the paper.


The paper starts with a historical explanation of libertarian philosophy. In an attempt to describe the eclectic nature of the philosophy, particular attention is paid to how libertarianism is rooted in philosophies that span many historic periods and regions. The reason for this is to show that Libertarianism is not a wholly Western philosophy but holds similarities to concepts introduced in other parts of the world. The paper then proceeds to draw comparisons between the major features of post-modernism and libertarianism. Major themes of post-modernism are addressed. These include Post-Modernism’s rejection of grand narratives, reflexivity, and irony amongst others.  Towards the end of the analysis the underlying contradiction inherent in libertarianisms push for liberty is resolved within a post-modern framework.

The Conclusion ties the analysis of the theories to the problem statement given in the beginning, answering the research question.


In this paper libertarianism is defined as a political philosophy that holds its moral foundation in the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). The NAP states that people are free to do as they please as long as they do not initiate violence, or the threat of violence, towards another person or their legitimate property (Block, 2003). Adherence to the NAP can lead to Anarcho-Capitalism, or a form of minarchism each being understood as divisions within the overall libertarian framework.

When this paper refers to the United States of America it will us the acronym U.S.

The word ‘liberal’ in this paper is used in its original European sense, and not in the United States’ understanding of the word.


A brief history of Libertarianism

While liberal philosophy is most commonly associated with the Occident the first Libertarian styled intellectual can be traced to the ancient Orient. Lau Tzu is commonly credited with the philosophical foundation of Taoism in the sixth century BC (Chan, 2012).

The fact whether Lau Tzu indeed existed or is simply a legendary figure is debated, whatever the case may be, his teachings remain. Lau Tzu posited a proto libertarian position in which the individual, and his or her utility, is the root and final goal of civilization. Lau Tzu was willing to reject large state authoritarianism, holding that in the fruition and progress of one’s self-expression and search for happiness any limiting social institutions should be abolished (Rothbard, 1990). Chaung-Tzu a famed follower of Lau Tzu would expand on these libertarian tendencies, shifting towards, what may be seen (today seen) as Anarcho-Capitalism, today. Chaung-Tzu supported Libertarian principles of an unhampered population, stating that the world, “does not need governing; in fact it should not be governed.“ and that, “there has never been such a thing as governing mankind [with success]” (Rothbard, 1990).

Naturally, ancient Oriental philosophy had little effect on the philosophy of the Occident during antiquity. Despite this lack of connection, a libertarian tradition grew in the West, and came to prominence following the modern and post -modern periods.

As with many Western philosophies libertarianism can be traced back to at least a partial Judeo-Greco-Christian Heritage. The Jewish concept of a single law that governs all men, as well as Christian emphasis on an individualism through ones relationship with God, and Grecian logical thinking and rationalization, all play a part in the make up of libertarianism.

It was not until John Locke issued his great work ‘The Second Treatise of Government’, in 1960, that liberalism and its later adaption called libertarianism began to solidify.  Adam Smith is another prominent figure of liberal. In his ‘Magnum Opus The Wealth of Nations’, he set forth the foundations of economic thought that would justify much of the limited government rhetoric of Neo-Classical orientated supporters of freedom such as Milton Friedman.

The Austrian School, or the Vienna School of economics, is rooted in the teaching of Carl Menger, who was a highly acclaimed economist based at the University of Vienna during the late 19th century. Menger, helped bring about the Marginalist Revolution in economic thinking and was a major opponent of the Historical School during the 1890’s MethodenStreit (Polleit, n.d.).

From the intellectual descendents of the original Austrian School sprang the United State’s based new Austrian School. Influential philosophers and economists such as Rothbard, Hayek, and Kirzner would become the intellectual leaders of this branch of the movement. Operating through the Ludwig Von Mises Institute and the Foundation for Economic Education these thinkers would become major forces of Austrian Economic and libertarian theory.

The growing prominence of U.S libertarianism is best shown by the strong growth of the Libertarian Party . The Libertarian Part claims to be the largest  third party in the United States. Founded in 1971 the Libertarian Party comprises of 250 000 registered voters (The Libertarian Party, 2012) who are registered across the country. In 2012 the party broke its own historical record gaining 1% of total 2012 presidential election votes. (Johnson, 2012). The rise of Ron Paul (a prominent libertarian leaning Republican congressman) as a libertarian force within the Republican party further indicates a general shift towards libertarianism (Khadaroo, 2012). His consistency in delivering his message of freedom, promoting sound financial systems and a non-interventionist foreign policy has helped him build a devoted following.

The crash of the housing market in the United States has recently helped to fuel an interest in libertarianism, and the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle. This is partly due to the fact that Austrian School scholars such as Ron Paul have been able to accurately predict the 2008 Housing crisis years in advance. (Ron Paul Accurately Predicts the US Economic Meltdown, 2011)

A general national shift towards libertarian stances has been noted by various differing sources. Increasing support for social freedoms, including same-sex marriage, gun possession, and legalization of marijuana, coupled with growing distrust in government, and government regulation further indicates not just a rise in American liberal thinking, but a more holistic acceptance of liberty as a philosophy distinct from the Left Right paradigm (Rugg, 2011).


Rejection of the grand Narrative.

The libertarian emphasis on people being free to do as they wish, or to define morality according to their own understanding is clearly reflected in Post-Modernisms rejection of Grand Narratives. Within the assumed scope of the NAP and property rights libertarian philosophy imposes no narrative that defines the correct format in the ways narrative should unfold, or how people should precisely behave.

Christianity, like Marxism is an absolutist narrative in the sense that it rejects any other opposing understanding of truth. Additionally, human development and progress is placed within a deterministic framework. Events unfold according to the narrative set out by the specific ideology, Christian Millennialism and Marxist anticipation of the collapse of capitalism are clear examples of this. (Sayers, 2008)

Libertarianism on the other hand does not accept that there is a grand narrative particular to any group of people. It rather holds that through freedom of choice, people are able to build their own narratives best suited to their lives. Therefore, a libertarian community rejects the existence of a forced common religion, culture or interpretation of history. The future of an individual is not determined by an individual’s common identity with any particular group, be it the myth of nation hood, race or religious affiliation. All human interaction is governed by the NAP, forced collectivism or acceptance of unwanted narratives is rejected. The contradiction that promoting the NAP as a guide for all human interaction contradicts this rejection of narratives. This contradiction will be analyzed from a Post-Modernistic perspective later in the paper.

By following the NAP foundation of libertarian institutions tend to create a democratization process in which all facets of life become centered a round an individual’s understanding of happiness. For example, take schooling. Under a libertarian system, schooling would operate under purely voluntary conditions. State curriculum, or state interpretations of the world, such as history, or science would not exist according to Rothbard (Rothbard, n.d.) Since, educational institutions would operate according to consenting private agreements, the nature of education would closely reflect the outcomes sought by the consumer/student. Thus curriculum content would not communicate a grand narrative common to all people, but through mutual association individuals are able to define their narratives amongst themselves. Individuals that feel that they or their children should learn one version of history, are not forced to accept the imposition of an exterior narrative. Through voluntary association, they are able to build and expand the narratives they deem to be true, be they based on religion or any other factor. This approach to education closely fits the postmodernist understanding that,”All knowledge is contextual and is influenced by culture, tradition, language… and is, therefore, in some very important sense, relative to these phenomena.” (Sweetman, 2005)

In summary, under a libertarian system people are able to further define and build the contextuality of their knowledge, since opposing views of the world would not be forced on them.

Hayekian Pretence of Knowledge and Reflexivity

“The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.” – Friedrich Von Hayek noble prize speech (Hayek, 1974)

Hayek, possibly the most influential members of the Austrian School in the U.S, propagated the understanding that a knowledge problem exists within society. Based on Ludwig Von Mises’ criticism of Socialist economics. Hayek taught that rational allocation of resources in an economy is always limited by the dispersion of knowledge. At no point is knowledge ever given in a single place, it is rather characterized by incomplete and sometimes contradictory fragments known only by individuals. (hayek, 1945)

Hayek- and the many libertarians he has influenced- therefore accept this uncertainty. Attempts to rationally plan the economic aspects of people’s lives are seen as futile, due to fact that the necessary knowledge is never accessible to a planner. Interventions into the free market are made under the assumption that the planner has the knowledge and capacity necessary to control and predict the outcomes of the intervention. The libertarian approach is far more reflexive due to the acceptance of the knowledge problem.  The knowledge problem exists independently of the will of the planners, their moral strength and intelligence doesn’t come into question. If one were to remove the element of human error, the knowledge problem would still exist. There is no great plan, or economic model that can be used to rationalize the economic behaviour of individuals. There is no one true way that the economy should be planned, rather optimum economic behaviour emergences as, “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (LIberty Fund inc, 2012).

Libertarianism as a double code

The concept of double coding was devised by Charles Jenck in his book titled, “ The New Paradigm in Architecture”. While the concept was originally associated with architecture the concept of multiple understandings and irony are now commonly related to Post Modernism as a whole.

In a sense libertarianism works as a double code, it promotes a single world view to be shared by all. Human interaction is seen through the lens of the NAP. Every person is treated equally under such a philosophy, one’s wealth, poverty or race does not provide a person with extra privileges. This systematic approach to the world is rationalist, and holds its roots in Enlightenment thinking. To some, this aspect of perfect equality and rationality is a source of solidarity. This solidarity is one form of the code. However, another might be. That due to the elevated level of freedom under a libertarian system space for fringe or extremist views is created. Racist acts such as barring a person of another race from your private property are legitimate under libertarianism. In the same sense, communist collectives are free to form as long as association is voluntary. Therefore under a hypothetical libertarian society there can be more space for extremist views than under current systems. However, it is doubtful if this would be a prominent issue under a libertarian society, due to the fact that these fringe groups would most likely be voluntarily ostracized as they are now. Libertarianism as a source for legitimate extremism is not simply a hypothetical situation, but has been reflected in the real world. Ron Paul has been criticized for receiving donations from anti-Zionist and white supremacist groups (Rutenberg, 2011). Ron Paul has not espoused racist views, and in essence his entire platform is against all forms of discrimination, be they racial or based on a persons economic situation. The support of a libertarian candidate by such fringe groups speaks for such an interpretation.

In summary the fact of double coding is reflected in the way that libertarianism creates an appealing message for supporters of human rights, but also for people with inherently contradictory ideas such as National Socialists.

This double coding extends further. The concept of a hero in libertarianism can follow the self-serving antagonist Reardon of Ayne Rand’s famous novel titled Atlas Shrugged. According to Ayne Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, altruism as a self-sacrificing philosophy is rejected as a major moral principle (Raibley, 2012). Conducting altruistic acts at one’s own loss harm is looked down on in Objectivism. One of the founding libertarian conclusions drawn from the NAP is the rejection of forceful confiscation and redistribution of private property. This ties in well with Rand’s belief in the virtue of selfishness, seeing as the harm that an outside agent inflicts on a person by confiscating their property is criticized, even if the goods that are confiscated are to be used for altruistic motives. The question may be raised as to how altruistic an action is when the harm of the act is not born by oneself voluntarily, but is rather forced onto a third party without their consent.

On the other hand, due to the lack of forced wealth redistribution libertarians hold voluntary charitable behaviour in high regard and view it as part of the solution to relieving poverty, (Garner, 2008), (Libertarian Party, 2012). In this way, the aspect of libertarianism that protects ones property from confiscation can appeal to selfish individuals, while at the same time the emphasis on voluntary charity may appeal to people that believe in altruistic behaviour.

Libertarianism as a form of political bricolage

In response to the political spectrum being divided along a left-right paradigm that did not incorporate additional philosophies such as libertarianism, the Nolan Chart was created. The Nolan chart extends the political map from the simple x axis, to an x-y format creating space for philosophies that support or reject a large state apparatus. Communism and Fascism are essentially in the same corner of the Nolan Chart, this is as a result of both ideologies being centered around state totalitarianism and force. On the other end of the chart lies anarchy and libertarianism, as these two philosophies reject a large state apparatus and governmental force within a society (, 2010).

Thus the chart expresses the fact that, as a philosophy libertarianism shares characteristics that are commonly associated with both conservatism, and American liberalism. The call for economic independence, legalization of guns, and reduced government interference in people’s lives reflect similar conservative sentiments. While, at the same time, libertarianism shares the American liberal views in social freedoms, be it gay marriage, recreational drug usage, freedom from censorship or militarism. In short, libertarianism reflects the aspects of conservatism and American liberalism that support greater individual freedoms while rejecting the aspects of these two political ideologies that require force or government coercion. Post-Modernism’s embrace of mixing and matching various historical narratives and concepts with each other fits this political bricolage neatly. The national identification of the US as being the land of the free, and the leader of the free world can be both mocked and supported by modern libertarian supporters. The U.S Constitution is founded on Lockian principles (Smith, 2012) while at the same time the US is a highly militaristic nation (Raico, 2011), Therefore a libertarian is able to both support and reject the U.S on grounds that would be inconsistent with the Left-Right political paradigm.

As was mentioned earlier, the rejection of grand Narratives by both libertarianism and post-modernism along with an increase in reflexivity further assists the possibility of understanding different cultures or view points. Once a national narrative of being, “a force of justice” or being the “good guys” in a conflict is rejected reflection on opposing view-points is enabled. Wars lose support that was previously founded on purely national boundaries and jingoism. An attempt to understand the reasoning behind the behaviour of an enemy becomes possible.

Ron Paul’s strong criticism of US intervention in other countries across the world, and his strong emphasis on “blow back”- aggressive repercussions as a result of dominant US foreign policy. (Jr., 2007)

Libertarian irony and transgression

Throughout the paper libertarianism has been given as frame work that promotes reflexivity and rejects collectivized grand narratives. What has not been touched on though, is that through the establishment of an ethical axiom (the NAP) from which all legitimate human interaction is derived, libertarianism in fact creates its own narrative. The rationalization of human behaviour based on the rejection of violence is a highly modern/enlightened approach to the viewing world. How then does libertarianism fit with both modernism and post-modernism when the implication of each term contradicts the other? The answer is that libertarianism as an example of post-modernism doesn’t reconcile this difference. Rather, it accepts the irony of its limitations. To promote its goal of freedom as far as possible, Libertarianism must ascertain its own definition of morality- namely the NAP. Just as post-modernism, “takes the form of self-conscious, self contradictory, self-undermining statement” (Barker, 2008) so does the post-modernist understanding of libertarianism. This inherent contradiction forms a complete picture, a mixture of juxtaposing ideas melted together to create a unified concept. Much the same way as post-modernism is a pastiche of historical contexts, interpretations and symbols. The irony being that, more liberty allows for more moral relativism. Which calls for the imposition of liberal norms. This irony is part of the libertarian statement, post-modernist society’s acceptance of transgressive concepts and irony can explain the growth in the acceptance of this aspect of the philosophy.


The Western expression of libertarianism is strongly influenced by Enlightenment and modernist thinking. The idea that a single moral truth exists, and that through rational enquiry human interaction can be judged is very modernist in nature. However, there are aspects of libertarianism that do fit well with post-modernist thought. The ambivalence towards people building their own personal narratives formed from their personal contexts. The complete acceptance of religions and associations amongst consenting peoples promotes a feeling of reflexivity and relativism, as it is wrong to dictate morality or culture to people that are unwilling to receive it. Libertarianisms acceptance of uncertainty in the distribution of knowledge within a society can mirror post-modern interpretations of reflexivity. While irony in forming world-views further brings the philosophy and periodic concept together as any inherent contradictions within the philosophy of libertarianism is reconciled as being part of the message as a whole. Political and economic events may possibly be seen as larger determinants of the rise of modern libertarianism in the US, however post-modernism does touch on many aspects that can be identified with libertarianism, and therefore it seems that the rise in Post-Modernistic thinking can explain some of the growth in U.S Libertarianism.


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