Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Misplaced Libertarian Phobia of Social History

Feb 2, 2005 6:25 pm

The Misplaced Libertarian Phobia of Social History

As a social and urban historian, I share Jason Kuznicki's wonderment at the failure, with some notable exceptions, of libertarian, classical liberal, and more than a few conservative historians to widen their interests beyond intellectual history. More than a few have expressed surprise, sometimes mixed with bemused admiration, for my"patience" in working my way through microfilms of old newspapers or census rolls.

I could never really understand the source of this aversion to the study, and enjoyment, of social history. Perhaps the Randian influence has something to do with it. A more general cause perhaps is the libertarian focus on self-evident natural rights and a priori explanations. There is nothing wrong with this per se but in my experience it has encouraged a belief that that"we already have the answers" and that the only role for history (if any) is to"plug in" illustrative facts.

Of course, if the findings of social historians are merely"tools" to illustrate self-evident conclusions, it is easy to understand why so few libertarians would want to get their hands dirty with musty primary documents.

As Jason indicates, this common belief is regrettable for several reasons. Most importantly, those who hold it are throwing away an opportunity to better understand the historical role played by spontaneous order and voluntary cooperation in shaping the lives of ordinary individuals. By shying away from social history, libertarians are missing out on a chance to study the influence of ideas among non-elites who, after all, form the backbone of any extended social order.

If they can learn to appreciate social history, and the nitty gritty of research based on primary documents, libertarian and classical liberal historians are in a great position to provide valuable insights. They can shed light on how movements as civil rights and feminism have contributed (and also failed to contribute) to the encouragement of freedom and individual rights. For their part, leftist social historians, who often have a woeful ignorance of the basics of economics and the role played by spontaneous order, are desperately in need of having their views challenged and tested by a competing approach.

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