On my very rough analysis, there are two basic types of libertarians.
The first type is the Nietzschean type—those whose approach seems to be premised on the thought “I can look after myself so why don’t you do the same.” You knew this type in college—they’re the ones who toted around copies of Beyond Good and Evil and made sour, sneering comments about peers who couldn’t see through the banal foolishness of those who tried to do good in their communities.
The second type of libertarian is the Lockean type—those who favor small government but also champion civil society and look for ordinary citizens to take leadership roles in all sorts of civic enterprises. Lockeans share the optimistic view of seventeenth century philosopher John Locke that men have a great capacity and desire to organize all sorts of civic and political projects. Locke himself was an exemplar of this sort of civic virtue.
Nietzschean libertarians assume that “society” is a fable and men need to look out for themselves; Lockean libertarians assume that a robust civil society where men look out for each other is both desirable and necessary, and that a suitably educated and free citizenry can achieve such a civil society.
Lockean libertarianism has a long tradition in the United States: Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government was widely read in American in the decades before the Founding. Indeed, Locke’s pronouncement that government was to secure men’s “life, liberty, and estate” is echoed in the Declaration of Independence assertion that men have rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
One of today’s leading Lockean libertarians is Charles Murray, the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. In his new book By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, Murray explicitly draws on the Lockean tradition in his analysis of the United States.
As Murray notes, the Founders drafted a Lockean constitution to protect citizens’ rights, and they envisioned a community of active citizens who would defend those rights against encroachment by government and who would provide enough civic leadership that there would be little need for government to step in.
Of course, the Founders didn’t think that this was an easy project: Benjamin Franklin is said to have told a woman who asked whether the United States was to be a monarchy or a republic, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
To keep up that republican project is what Murray calls the “American project,” which Murray describes as:
the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals, families, and communities to live their lives as they see fit as long as they accord the same freedom to everyone else, with government safeguarding a peaceful setting for those endeavors but otherwise standing aside.
On Murray’s analysis, Americans kept up the American project for a good long run, but it started to fail with New Deal in the 1930s and collapsed with the advent of the Great Society in the 1960s.
Murray’s complex analysis of the failure of the American project is worth a careful read. But it’s his Lockean optimism that makes him assert that all is not lost—and that philanthropy, one of the most important components of Lockean civil society, can play a major role in reviving the American project.
Murray proposes a major new philanthropic venture: a private fund—he proposes the name “Madison Fund”—that would underwrite lawsuits brought by individuals and companies against the government “to force an intrusive government to back off.”
Murray believes that such a venture is within the reach of the American philanthropic community:
The Madison Fund could get started if just one wealthy American cared enough to contribute, say, a few hundred million dollars. It could get started if a dozen wealthy Americans cared enough to share the initial cost themselves. It could get started the way that other Madisonian foundations have begun and flourished, with seed money from a few affluent people who also worked to develop a large network of donors…
Murray’s challenge to philanthropists to fund this novel approach to reviving the American project is thoroughly Lockean in spirit. Murray’s specific proposal of the Madison Fund may not get off the ground, but he is surely right to point to the ongoing importance of the Lockean tradition—and the Lockean spirit of active citizenship—in reviving the health of American civil society.