Blogs > Liberty and Power > Where Are The Young Libertarian Historians?

Aug 3, 2006 11:34 am

Where Are The Young Libertarian Historians?

Put another way, how many libertarians under age thirty-five are professionally trained as historians? My reasonably educated guess is that the number is not only miniscule but dwindling with each passing year.

It was not always so. Around 1989, I attended a conference organized by Leonard Liggio of the Institute for Humane Studies that brought together a group of promising young libertarian historians including Hans Eichholz, Lenore Thomas Ealy, Brad Birzer, Peter Mentzel, Steve Davies, John Majewski, David Fitzsimons, Brad Thompson, and Michael Allen.

Although most of our fellow academic libertarians were in economics, philosophy, and law, we all felt (or, at least I felt) like pioneers on an exciting and expanding intellectual frontier. Since then, most of us have made a pretty good account of ourselves in terms of publishing and teaching. But, if the truth be told, we have also failed. For whatever reason, few younger people want to follow in our footsteps, at least as libertarian-oriented historians.

Why? Afew thoughts come to mind based on limited personal experience. Over the years, I occasionally meet libertarian-leaning undergraduates at conferences of groups like the Institute for Humane Studies, and the Cato Institute. Once in an odd while (though odder now than before), some of them tell me that they are history undergraduates. When I query about their plans for graduate school or a career, invariably they tell me “I love history but....” They complain that they could never endure six or more years of more mistreatment by intolerant professors, political correctness, and the silly jargon that has infected the field. Perhaps they are overly paranoid but that’s how they seem to feel.

Perhaps these undergraduates will end up pursuing their love of history outside of the ivory tower. I doubt it. While non-academic historians, such as Jesse Walker and Jim Powell, are doing marvelous work. I don’t see any evidence of a groundswell in that direction. I’d by happy to be proven wrong, however.

Comments are invited from everyone but especially the following: libertarian historians (academic and non-academic), young people who are considering a field in history, or individuals who considered, but ultimately decided against, pursuing such a career.

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David T. Beito - 8/9/2006

Thanks for the insights about the current situation a highly ranked graduate school. We have many good grad students here but they aren't typical.

Your description sounds a lot like my experiences at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in the early 1980s. Nearly all my professors were Marxists but none (at least in history) discriminated against me for ideological reasons.

In fact, I think they found it refreshing that someone was actually not parroting them. My libertarianism migh have actually given me a leg up.

If anyone suffered from ideological discrimination, it was probably the one or two conservative (pro-war) students I knew. As you note, I often found myself agreeing with my leftist professors on the war/civil liberties issues and even found myself criticizing them from the left!

I was under the impression, however, that the domination of PC had led to a much tolerant campus than before.

David T. Beito - 8/9/2006

You're right about the location issue. I was always able and willing to move but I have several friends who still don't have permanent tenure track jobs because they can't.

David T. Beito - 8/9/2006

This is encouraging; however, it is revealing that almost none of those students who are bound for academic careers apparently want to specialize in history and even fewer seem interested now than a decade ago. Why?

Frankly, I difficult to understand the comparative appeal of economics as an academic field. Any econ graduate, even at GMU, has to devote considerable time to learning the econometrical jargon and theories which dominate their field. Moreover, they are expected to emphasize this stuff in the basic courses they teach and the articles they write. This sounds like a total pain, especially for an Austrian.

By contrast, I have almost a utopia of freedom. When I teach a history course, I have no restrictions on what I assign or what approach I take.

Anthony Gregory - 8/9/2006

I have surely seen this problem among Randians. I have not seen it much among Austrians. Whereas a deeper understanding of history interferes with the popular Randian view of the US government as the embodiment of liberty, and the collectivist view of war that Randians tend to parrot, a deeper understanding of history appears to me welcomed by Austrians, for the most part. I met a number of young Austrians at Mises University recently, and while most of them didn't have as much interest in history as in economics, none seemed hostile, and almost all seemed much better informed on history than the Randians I knew in college.

Anthony Gregory - 8/9/2006

It seems to me that most libertarian activists care very little of history. And few young libertarians are interested in history not just because of the Evil PC Establishment in academia, but because fellow libertarians make it sound worse than it actually is for libertarians in academia.

So many times I've heard older libertarians ask me, "How can a libertarian study history at Berkeley?" Actually, it wasn't that bad. There were a few occasions when my professors dismissed my views unfairly. But they were few. I've had worse times trying to discuss history with conservatives.

The history I was taught was not nearly as at odds with a libertarian understanding of the world as some might believe. Indeed, it was more at odds with a conservative view of the world, and America's place in it. But libertarians are not conservatives. For some odd reason, many libertarians gravitate toward a rightwing nationalist view of US history, as though the US government was always on the march, expanding to liberate and save the world.

Thus, when leftist academics talk about the slaughtering of American Indians, the evils of American slavery, the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers, the mass murder conducted in US foreign policy, many "libertarians" think that such a narrative or analysis of history is anti-American, and therefore anti-liberty. Many libertarians have bought into the conservative lie that America is liberty, the embodiment of freedom and free enterprise, and so all that the US government does is in advancement of libertarianism. It's hard to imagine something further from the truth.

Sure, the leftists' economic history is deplorable. Rightwingers, too, get economic history wrong, especially when they try to defend the mercantile US corporate state as some sort of bastion of free enterprise.

We need more hardcore libertarians in history with a background in economics. Unfortunately, while libertarians tend to do much better in economics than history, and also tend to have more visible success in economics in academia, even economics is poorly understood by many libertarians.

One of the biggest problems in the current account of US history is the leftists don't go far enough. Conservatives will defend nearly any US atrocity, such as the firebombing of civilians in World War II. Lefties will critique them, but not go far enough, since they have at least some loyalty to rulers such as Franklin Roosevelt.

Libertarians can do much to help change the way scholars look at history. But we need a stronger emphasis, within the libertarian movement, on the importance of libertarian theory and its application to questions such as war. We need more methodological individualism in historical analysis, and much less nationalism. If all we get by injecting more "libertarians" into history departments is more apologetics for the US warfare state and more conflating of liberty with the American government, we are none the better off.

John W. Payne - 8/8/2006

I can't identify a reason for this trend-if it is, in fact, a trend--but I can speak to why I didn't go to graduate school in history. (Although, I'm only 23, so it could very well still happen.) I intended to go to gradutate school since my sophomore year of college, but after writing my honors thesis, I was extremely burned out on research and also had no idea what I wanted to write my dissertation on. (I realize that everyone says you can change it when you get there, but i wanted at least some kind of direction, which I didn't have.) So, instead, I decided to pursue teaching high school history, which still gives me some idea of what being a professor would be like. The other reason, and the one one that will probably keep me from getting my PhD and becoming a professor, is that I'm very attached to my location as it is near to where all my friends and family live. If I pursued a PhD, I would have to take a job pretty much wherever I could get one.

Otto M. Kerner - 8/6/2006

I would aspire to be a libertarian historian ... if I were independently wealthy. Having to jump through the right hoops to get a degree is one thing, but the idea of relying on modern American academe for a paycheck for rest of my life ... that's too much.

Jonathan J. Bean - 8/4/2006

and reasons why libertarians shy away from becoming academic historians:

1.FIELDS: The fields that usually attract libertarian students are almost completely dead because the PC Left (to be distinguished from the open-minded Left DB and I debated) will not hire the following

-Economic/business history

-Political history (the State is of obvious interest to libertarians, though perhaps not anarchists!).

-Intellectual history

-Constitutional/legal history

-Military history: Bog Higgs and others have written recently on war and peace but while "peace studies" persists there is precious little study of war.

There are degrees of dead but the above are getting close to deader "than a doornail"

2. PAY: Some of the best libertarian history is done by people who are law or economics faculty. I was in residence here at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center with a law professor doing constitutional history. I joked that he was an "historian with a law professor's salary!" Law professors start in the six figures. Business professors start in the six figures ($120K is the minimum for our new marketing profs -- more than twice my salary as a FULL professor of History). If I had to do it over again, I'd have become a business professor who teaches some business history, rather than a business historian proper.

3. PC Tipping Point: The Culture Wars are over -- the intolerant Left won. A few of us survivors have tenure but life is not easy. My mentors were liberals or radicals but open to engaging other points of view. However, per the tipping point theory, there comes a point where one point of view SO dominates a group that dissent becomes betrayal. One reason why they are writing "commitment to diversity" or "social justice" or "dispositions" into job requirements. A good reason to fire you if you aren't properly "committed," "socially just," or indisposed.

4. Role models: lack of positive ones, but more important the continuing rash of horror stories about libertarian or conservative academics who are treated as if they live in a Stalinist state. Search the last ten years of or just go to FIRE's web site: It is much, much worse now than when I got my Ph.D. in 1994, and it wasn't good then!

Jacob T. Levy - 8/4/2006

It seems to me that most of the responses have missed part of the variation David identified-- i.e. explanations for why libertarians don't go into the academy aren't explanations for why there's (apparently) been a change over time in libertarians-in-academic-history.

To muddy the waters but clarify what would need to be explained, I'll note that I think things have gone the other way in political science. When I first got involved in IHS programs, it seemed like the poli sci contingent consisted of Macedo, Kukathas, Shearmur, Tomasi, and me, and that was pretty much it. At IHS or Liberty Fund seminars, there was typically one person from a poli sci background, surrounded by economists and philosophers. Poli sci didn't seem to be one of the core disciplines for L&S seminars, which always had an economist, a philosopher, and a lawyer on faculty, plus Leonard teaching history.

There seems to have been a huge increase in the number of classical liberal political scientists and political theorists since then. Part of it may have been because of Tom Palmer's and Jeremy Shearmur's work at encouraging people early, just as Leonard and Walter had done for historians. But I'm sure that can't be anything like the whole story. There must be intellectual and/or professional and/or disciplinary forces at work.

For example: intellectual history remains central to political theory as a subfield, and so has a pretty secure plance in political science, which therefore tended to draw away some would-be graduate students who were interested in intellectual history but were told that it was out of fashion in the discipline of history...? But I think there's more to it than that, too.

Jesse Walker - 8/4/2006

I spoke of a willingness to go toe-to-toe with PC drones, which is not the same as going toe-to-toe with leftist professors. Many of my profs were leftists, but with the debatable exception of one or two TAs, none of my instructors was "politically correct" -- that is, none of them attempted to impose an orthodoxy on the classroom. In general, they were open-minded and encouraging, and not just in the areas where our views overlapped.

(Actually, there was one anthropology professor who was very insistent that we not say "American Indian," for reasons that struck me as incoherent. I didn't complain about it, because it didn't seem like an issue worth debating. It's one of those trivial ground rules you go along with, as with the teachers who insist your margins are a certain size.)

David T. Beito - 8/4/2006

Thanks for the corrective. Some of the most important work (at least for me) that I read in history was from these folks. I using the term methodological apriorism, I meant to refer to some (but, by no means, all) of the younger Austrians.

David T. Beito - 8/4/2006


You spoke about willingness to go toe-to-toe with leftist professors. I felt the same way in graduate school and felt no discrimination. This doesn't seem to be the attitude now among students, who are deathly afraid of being penalized if they speak out.

Max Schwing - 8/4/2006

This is one problem, which kept me from pursuing an M.A. in History, Economics and Politics. In Germany, you would have been amidst Marxists for the most time and this would have dropped my interest in the subject considerable, because the profs who I spoke to before applying where not really out to discuss anything.

The other issue (and I think it is the same in the US) that this subject is overrun and the academic jobs are very limited so the future is uncertain. And with no fellow Libertarians in the History Prof. ranks, there was only a miniscule chance of getting there.

So, I decided to pursue one of my other interests and got into mechanical engineering, which I am now happy at, because here ideas can be openly discussed in a scientific debate, rather than an ideologic black-out area.

Sudha Shenoy - 8/3/2006

"The Austrians...[steer]away from history". Menger? Mises? Hayek? Absolutely _no_ history in their writings? Don't confuse the _older_ Austrians with the younger Austro-_Americans_ who of course are products of _their_ historical context.

Jesse Walker - 8/3/2006

Oh, sure. I know plenty of people who worked their way through college and grad school.

I also know people who as far as I can tell went to law school for the sole purpose of keeping their parents' checks coming.

And then there's the acquaintance (OK, the ex-girlfriend) of mine who found herself short on cash, so she signed up for a semester of grad courses at Eastern Michigan Univeristy in order to qualify for the college's subsidised student housing. She opted for the Women's Studies program, because it seemed to have the lowest standards. It was so cynical, it was almost charming.

Common Sense - 8/3/2006

Not to be too serious in what was probably a light hearted comment by Jesse, but I would like point out that many college students do not "sponge off their parents." At my undergraduate institution, most students were like me: they worked full time and went to school full time. In grad school, I drew on competitive fellowships and life savings going back to age 11 when I began shoveling snow, cutting lawns, and delivering newspapers in my neighborhood. Although my parents were kind enough to allow me to live at home rent-free during my undergraduate days, at no level of education did they every directly pay anything, and we all agreed their perspective was correct. I intend to follow their lead with my own kids. We will make it clear that their higher education is their own responsibility and hope that it will be an incentive to work, saving, and the pursuit of competitive scholarships.

Jesse Walker - 8/3/2006

No sense whatsoever.

Given the number of people I know who went to grad school simply because they didn't have anything better to do (or wanted to keep sponging off their parents), it's entirely possible that the trend is moving the other way.

David T. Beito - 8/3/2006

Let me second point Mark's point about Rand, though I would amend it by to add some of the Austrians.

They too often share a variant of "methodological apriorism" that steers them away from history. The crudest version of this approach holds that since we already have the truth, via theory, there is no reason to waste time in the secondary task of illustrating those truths by uncovering dry and dusty "facts."

Now, I am not rejecting methodological apriorism as moderation. It can be very useful, often essential, it creating starting premises and research questions.

David T. Beito - 8/3/2006

I am certainly not going to defend the American university, a fount of decei, empire building, and corruption.....but, unfortunately, I don't see any evidence that it is in decline. Do you have any sense whether you represent any trend?

Jesse Walker - 8/3/2006

I can only speak for myself, but I'm one history major who simply never planned to have an academic career. It wasn't fear of political correctness or anything like that -- I enjoyed the sport of fencing with P.C. types outside the classroom, and inside the classroom it was rarely if ever an issue. I just didn't like the university system, which felt calcified and isolated from the real world. So I went and joined the libertarian movement, which as we all know is NEVER calcified or isolated from the real world.

Nor did I want to spend eons in grad school: I had been in classrooms since I was three and was eager to enter another environment. I wouldn't be surprised if that was a factor in driving many libertarians (and non-libertarians) into non-academic careers.

David T. Beito - 8/3/2006

Ooops. The title of the book by David Bernstein is Only One Place of Redress: African Americans, Labor Regulations, and the Courts from Reonstruction to the New Deal.

David T. Beito - 8/3/2006

Another example of a history book by a non-historian, along with Morriss, that could be pointed to is David Bernstein's fine book, Only One Place of Refuge.

Unfortunately, Bernstein did not get much attention from libertarians. My colleagues here who write black history are completely unaware (and probably uninterested) in what it has to say. When he came to speak, none of them showed up.

Does more work on history by non-historians this take place now than before? I am not sure. I was greatly influenced when I was younger by such figures as Rothbard on the depression and revolution, Higgs on the growth of the state and black history, Charles Murray, on the growth of the welfare state, etc.

Common Sense - 8/3/2006

I agree with Mark. Let me also add that the conference that David mentioned was just one in a series of history-oriented conferences put on by Leonard Liggio and IHS in the late 80s and early 90s. The generational bubble of libertarian historians has something to do with the beginning and end of that era.

Amy H. Sturgis - 8/3/2006

Nicely put indeed.

Steven Horwitz - 8/3/2006

For all our other back and forth recently, let me just say I totally, completely, and utterly agree with Mark here. :)

Amy H. Sturgis - 8/3/2006

As someone who fits the demographic you described, a libertarian historian under the age of 35, I was quite interested to read your post. When I teach at IHS seminars - or, in the case of this past weekend, Cato University - I always find one or two students who plan to go into history. Perhaps these small numbers don't surprise me, because I was always one of a small handful in the classical liberal circles myself. But I would suggest that the rigid disciplinary categories are less important than perhaps they once were. Much of my work is interdisciplinary, and some of the most interesting history I've read/heard of late has been by non-historians, such as legal scholar Andrew Morriss. I look forward to reading other comments to your very thought-provoking post.

Grant Gould - 8/3/2006

I certainly considered a career in history, and studied a great deal of ancient history. I decided against history for a number of reasons, but the foremost was that during my college years I simply never encountered history that was anything but the history of the State. I am an anarchist because the state bores and infuriates me; to dedicate a life to studying what bores and infuriates you is simply foolish.

It is only now, having encountered works like Braudel's mammoth economic histories, that I realize that there was another History out there to be studied at all. That History is in hiding. You can find a million courses on the wars and politics of the Roman Empire, but barely a single one on the nature of the firm in that era, or on trade, or on local patterns of economic organization, even though the primary resources are at least as deep for such questions (indeed ancient historians spend a great deal of time lamenting that in volume terms practicall all of the corpus is bookkeeping sheets and trade records).

Frankly economic history fascinates me beyond all reason. But when I was choosing a direction, I had no idea that anyone studied this stuff.

Mark Brady - 8/3/2006

I write as someone who has spent most of his adult life studying and teaching economics but whose first love is history, rather regrets not having become an historian, and seizes every opportunity to teach economic history and the history of economic thought that he gets.

You ask a good question that raises other questions about the libertarian movement today. One part of an answer to your question is to point to the present focus on public policy and getting results. But that is (just?) the reflection of a widespread lack of appreciation of history among so many who would call themselves libertarian.

It seems to me that Ayn Rand always gave short shrift to history and, given her influence among libertarians, it is perhaps not surprising that so many have so little interest in history.

Is it perhaps in part a reflection of the contemporary world in which students are more inclined to pursue a relatively high-paid career in economics, law or public policy over a relatively low-paid career teaching and researching history? Even as professors, tenured law and econ faculty get paid a good bit more than history teachers. It's all to do with opportunity cost. The law schools and the econ departments have to bid and retain their faculty who can earn high incomes in the 'real world' outside the academy.

And there's another consideration and this ties in with your earlier post on the split between pro- and anti-war libertarians. At the time I thought about posting something to this effect: That those libertarians who identify as anti-war, are more likely to have read some history, perhaps to the extent of majoring in it in college or even taking it at grad school.

The libertarian movement as it existed in the 1970s was heavily influenced by Murray Rothbard and he was as much an historian as he was an economist. Not only was his doctoral thesis on the Panic of 1819, but he was extremely well read in most every aspect of history, and not just economic history and intellectual history. He was the author of a multi-volume work on the American Revolution and a two-volume work on the history of economic thought. But it wasn't just Murray, of course. There were Leonard Liggio and Walter Grinder at the Institute for Humane Studies in the 1980s and they both fully understood the importance of history. Leonard was and is, of course, a historian, and a very well-read man as well. Walter was and is also very well read in many fields of history. He has always been very appreciative of how a successful intellectual movement for liberty requires that its members have a thorough knowledge and understanding of how classical liberal ideas, people, and movements have helped fashion the world that we live in, and therefore how important it is that some scholarly-inclined students go into history.

After all, people of other political persuasions—marxist, modern liberal, and conservative—have also understood the importance of history and their historians have achieved much success in the academy and the wider world. And, I would add, these historians have made many notable contributions to historical research that libertarian-inclined students of history could and should interpret from a classical liberal perspective and build on in their own work.