If I say the name Hayek, do you associate it with spontaneous order, law versus legislation and tradition? Or do you associate it with social justice, markets and the Universal Basic Income?
Have you, the last year, read any of these works: Human Action, by Mises. An Inquiry into the Cause and Nature of the Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith. Individualism and Economic Order, by Hayek. The Calculus of Consent, by James Buchanan. Man, Economy & State, by Murray Rothbard? (Any works equivalent in size and importance for understanding classical liberalism is also allowed.) Or have you limited your reading to blogposts, and short articles?
If you have read contemporary academics: have you read their peer-reviewed literature in, for example, Critical Reviewor any of the many, many other peer reviewed academic outlets? Or again, have you limited yourself to blogposts?
If you are part of the latter, this blogpost is for you. If you are part of the former, this blogpost is probably also still for you. The purpose of this blogpost is to create a perspective on how to study classical liberalism, because I have the impression that, on the margin, some are confusing studying a body of intellectual thought with reading blogposts. Let us give you the quick and dirty summary: if the only thing you are doing is reading blogposts, even if they are from Bleeding Heart Libertarians or other high quality libertarian leaning websites, you are doing it wrong. One notable, online exception, would be George Smith’s essay collection at Libertarianism.org. George Smith takes great pains to explain the historical context of intellectual debates in a way that teaches people context, rather than ‘fad of the days’.
The reason why I am warning against blogposts is not because I want to devalue the work that these academics are doing, but it’s important to understand why they are doing this. They are not trying to rehash the core of classical liberalism (usually). They are focusing on the edges of the arguments, the controversies and the discussions. And in the blogosphere, they are doing this in a way they consider to be fun, and not necessarily in a way they think is publishable. (Although some definitely is.) Trying to learn classical liberalism through the online blogosphere is similar to trying to understand the Middle East by looking at a panel discussion. Yes, they’ll cover the current issues, but they’ll usually not have the time to give all the knowledge required to discuss why this current issue is a relevant addition.
Of course, it’s easy to have an essential grasp of spontaneous order. Per usual, just reading the wikipedia page would give you a good introduction. However, a part of being a good advocate of your ideas is to push yourself to know more and know better. SFL as such has only very limited programs to make yourself more knowledgeable as libertarians. (Although the online virtual reading groups and the Liberty Fund session in Vienna are important exceptions!)
None of this should be taken to understand that the current cutting edge stuff should be ignored, but the cutting edge stuff of academics is done in their academic, peer reviewed work, not on their blogposts.
But it’s also important if you want to become a knowledgeable advocate of ideas, to also read Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Narveson, Rand, Lomasky, Smith, Hume, Locke, Nozick, Machan and many, many others. Don’t ignore the classics assuming you can learn their insights from social media.
This is especially true if you want to modify your classical liberalism/libertarian label. Let me take one example. There are a lot of self-identified left-libertarians in SFL, people who study the works of Kevin Carson, Gary Chartier, Charles Johnson and Sheldon Richmann. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this; the intellectual diversity in SFL is one of the many reasons why I love this organization. But in order to understand and read these authors effectively, it’s important to understand the core of classical liberalism, to completely understand where and to what extend they diverge, criticize, build of and/or apply in an onorthodox way from the original core.
To quote Nathan Goodman, a self-identified Left-libertarian and Campus Coordinator in the USA, as a response to the question: can you study left-libertarianism when you are not studying classical liberalism?
Maybe, but doing so would almost certainly leave the student with a poor understanding of left-libertarianism, if we’re speaking in the C4SS/ALL sense. To properly understand Kevin Carson’s arguments against large hierarchical firms, one should understand Coase’s work on the firm and the work of Hayek and Mises on economic calculation. To properly understand left-libertarian arguments for the commons, one should understand Lockean/Rothbardian theories of just acquisition of property and probably also Ostrom’s work on governance of the commons. To understand left-libertarian arguments for why the state entrenches the power of privileged interests, it’s useful to understand public choice theory. Left-libertarianism in the C4SS sense is heavily informed by classical liberal insights that have been developed by classical liberals outside of left-libertarianism, and thus it probably can’t be fully understood without understanding classical liberalism.
This point is relevant for all modifiers to your classical liberal/libertarian label.
One last suggestion. As a young student, it’s normal to try and read the classics and grapple with their insights. It’s ok that when you are 18-23 (random age) you are blogging on Law, Legislation & Liberty of Hayek, Theory & History from Mises or The Ethics of Liberty of Rothbard. You are in that stage of life during which you are learning about the ideas. And learning doesn’t have to be difficult. You think reading Human Action is too difficult? Use the study guide to the book to help you! Do you think reading everything from Hayek is too difficult? Read very smart people who write about his work. If you want to inquire into the nature and cause of the wealth of intellectual classical liberalism, don’t let your sentiments get the best of you and find good secondary literature to help you with it.
You are – usually – not yet engaged in the production of new insights or the creation of cutting edge of social science or philosophy. Don’t feel the need that, as a student, you have to emulate the kind of topics and blogposts the actual academics are doing. They are at a different stage of your life. And if you think you can take a short cut, if you think you can blog as if you are already a learned and well-established professor while you are still trying to learn, you will probably not succeed compared to a route where you first learn to walk before you learn to run.
Lode Cossaer received master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Antwerp and the Catholic University of Leuven and is currently working on a PhD proposal.
He teaches economics in Brussels, at a private business school. Cossaer was a political officer of the LVSV. He is an executive board member of European Students For Liberty and president of the Murray Rothbard in Belgium.