Who are the most underrated and overrated libertarian thinkers?

by on February 26, 2018 at 1:01 am in Books, Education, History, Philosophy, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

A while back, freethinker had a request: “name the most overrated and underrated libertarian thinkers”

Here are the most underrated:

1. Robert Nozick.  Super-duper smart, always open and probing, and incredibly well-read.  Somehow other libertarians seem to undervalue that he independently became one of the world’s greatest philosophers, perhaps because they have not done the same.

2. Herbert Spencer: In his day, he often was considered perhaps the greatest thinker of his time or even his century.  That wasn’t quite right, but he did build a comprehensive system for the social sciences, understood the primacy of sociology and anthropology, outlined some of the better arguments for liberty, developed an early version of complexity theory, and the “Social Darwinist” caricature of him was exactly that.  He even influenced literary theory and rhetoric.  On the more practical side, read Social Statics.

3. Gustav de Molinari.  He tried to think about governance more seriously than the other late 19th century, early 20th century Belgian libertarians.  He understood the primacy of war, focused on futurism, and flirted with both anarchist and multi-lateralist constraints on state power.  He hasn’t received much attention since Murray Rothbard promoted his ideas, though see these works by David Hart.

4. Whichever critic of slavery was libertarian enough to count as libertarian for your purposes.  Bartolomé de las CasasLysander Spooner?  William Lloyd Garrison?  Take your pick.

Ayn Rand and Ludwig Mises belong in a separate category, because they both have overzealous disciples who so overrate them.  That in turn makes them somewhat underrated almost everywhere else.  Rand’s cocktail party analysis of the sociology of capitalism-hatred remains one of the great contributions to political thought, plus she reaffirmed the necessary high status of the business producer.  Mises’s Liberalism and also Socialism were two of the best books of the first part of the 20th century.  So I am happy to call them both underrated, subject to the above not entirely insignificant caveat.

The most overrated libertarian qua libertarian might be Milton Friedman.  He is not overrated as an economist, if anything he is still considerably underrated.  But as a libertarian?  For a guy that smart, I’m not sure he added much to the corpus of libertarian ideas, and I recall one closing segment to a Free to Choose episode where he couldn’t out-argue Peter Jay on some basic issues of political philosophy.  And have the Friedmanite ideas of school vouchers and social security privatization really held up as so central?  Friedman and Rothbard really didn’t like each other, and each was right about what the other couldn’t do.

1 Jayson Virissimo February 26, 2018 at 1:31 am

Tyler, what’s your opinion of Anthony de Jasay?


2 Nodnarb the Nasty February 26, 2018 at 3:04 am

De Jasay? Meh.

I notice Hayek didn’t make the cut on either list.

That’s unsurprising, but did y’all know that Hayek was Wittgenstein’s cousin!


3 Tomas February 26, 2018 at 10:02 am

Was surprised Jasay didn’t make the list. Seems like he’s in most of the discussions (when they do happen). “Against Politics” is a well-respected work.


4 Barkley Rosser February 28, 2018 at 12:46 am

Hayek was not a libertarian. He specifically rejected the label in his “Why I am not a Conservative.” He called himself a “classical liberal.”


5 Nodnarb the Nasty March 1, 2018 at 12:05 am

I’m pretty sure he called himself an “Old Whig,” but recognized that it was not fashionable and so reluctantly followed along with the “libertarian” label?


6 Tomasz Klosinski February 26, 2018 at 4:08 pm

Anthony de Jasay is the greatest thinker you’ve never heard of.


7 Neil Baxter March 11, 2018 at 4:24 am

“Anthony de Jasay is the greatest thinker you’ve never heard of.”

Never heard of him.


8 clockwork_prior February 26, 2018 at 1:50 am

‘perhaps because they have not done the same’

Clearly not a barrier for Prof. Cowen’s valuation, it appears.


9 dan1111 February 26, 2018 at 6:23 am



10 Thomas McGovern February 26, 2018 at 1:55 am

Did Friedman say that the was a libertarian? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that he was. His monetarist economics, which advocated active government intervention in the economy, was anti-libertarian. It’s easy for me to see why Rothbard did not like him.


11 Kalim Kassam February 26, 2018 at 2:10 am

He called himself a libertarian on a number of occasions. Here’s but one example: https://web.archive.org/web/20060811115145/http://queensjournal.ca/article.php?point=vol129%2Fissue37%2Ffeatures%2Flead1


12 AJ February 26, 2018 at 3:26 am

I’m a Friedman fan but this didn’t age well: “My opinion of Alan Greenspan is very high. I think he has done an absolutely first-rate job relative to any other period in federal reserve history. As to the future, I think the likelihood is that we will return to the unsatisfactory experience of the past. I think the common expectations of very low rates of inflation indefinitely are going to be proved wrong.”

He said this in 2002, knowing the experience of Japan in the 90s and having just seen the recovery from the dotcom bust.


13 JCC February 26, 2018 at 7:57 am

I hope he never said that. I see him a clasicall liberal not a libertarian.


14 David Boaz February 26, 2018 at 9:57 am

In the modern world of conservatives and liberals, classical liberals logically regard themselves as libertarians, without necessarily embracing concepts like self-ownership and NAP.


15 Nodnarb the Nasty February 27, 2018 at 12:38 am

David: have you been able to check out Edwin van de Haar’s work on this topic? Basically, you’re kinda right and kinda wrong…


16 Glenn February 27, 2018 at 4:25 pm

Interesting article by van de Haar. His books are so darn expensive, though. He mentions Michael Freeden. Have you read him as well? Is it worthwhile? On Amazon, in the “Customers who bought…” section, the various Oxford Handbooks (on political theory, political science, comparative politics, etc.) come up as well. Have you read any of those? Can you recommend them? I’m looking for a good history of political thought.

17 Nodnarb the Nasty March 1, 2018 at 12:16 am

Dang, they are expensive. He sent me an autographed copy for free. (Here’s his website. I’m sure you can find his email on there somewhere.)

I haven’t read Freeden, and history of thought isn’t my forte. Van de Haar’s work on liberalism provides a great overview, which was all I was looking for. A good overview of general political thought is something I’ve never pursued. I just read articles that pique my interest. Reddit has a great sub for this, and a political philosopher named Barry Stocker is worth checking out, too.

18 blah February 26, 2018 at 2:12 am

Not being able to “out-argue” is not a good metric of someone’s contributions.


19 Axa February 26, 2018 at 2:57 am

It wasn’t a random interview in the street. People prepare for these events.


20 Ray Lopez February 26, 2018 at 2:52 am

We can argue over who was the world’s greatest libertarian but not the world’s greatest librarian, that would be James Tarjan, more information here: http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1886224 and here; http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessplayer?pid=23094


21 cpm February 26, 2018 at 2:59 am

Ayn Rand was not a Libertarian thinker. She was an Objectivist.


22 Timothy Shell February 26, 2018 at 3:46 am

Well thank you for clarifying that.


23 Butler T. Reynolds February 26, 2018 at 8:36 am

All objectivists are libertarians. Not all libertarians are objectivists.

You’re welcome.


24 londenio February 26, 2018 at 3:16 am

What about the most underrated progressive thinkers (thinkers of progressivism)? Or has that been done in MR already ?


25 Ray Lopez February 26, 2018 at 4:52 am

Ida Tarbell?


26 Ted Craig February 26, 2018 at 1:27 pm

She was horrible. Her case against Standard Oil was pretty much a personal grudge.


27 dan1111 February 26, 2018 at 6:25 am

+1 I would like an equivalent Tyler post on progressive thinkers.


28 Nodnarb the Nasty February 26, 2018 at 8:34 am

Benito Mussolini, Juan Perón, maybe Fidel Castro?


29 Butler T. Reynolds February 26, 2018 at 8:37 am

Every single one of them is over rated.


30 Thomas February 26, 2018 at 12:38 pm

Hitler believed in societal progress over individual liberties too. Toss him on the list.


31 msgkings February 26, 2018 at 12:44 pm

The list of underrated progressive thinkers?


32 Thomas February 26, 2018 at 1:23 pm

Depends on whether you are talking about his ideas or his progressivity. His ideas were overrated but his example as an outcome of collectivism and populism are underrated. We should think of Hitler today when there is such a popular groundswell of support for gutting the Bill of Rights to save one hundred lives per year.

33 Peter Akuleyev February 27, 2018 at 8:34 am

Hitler rejected the very idea of “societal progress”. The essence of Hitler thought (not always identical with “Nazism”) is that humanity is composed of distinct races that are in eternal competition. The strong races survive, the weak perish. There are no moral judgements, just a harsh and unforgiving universe that rewards the strong and the determined and punishes the weak.


34 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 10:11 am

Kropotkin, Proudhon

(Yes, it’s all part of the secret libertarian plot to take over progressivism!)


35 RafaelR February 26, 2018 at 6:01 pm

Friedrich von Wieser comes to mind as an interventionist that was smart.


36 Anon7 February 26, 2018 at 3:22 am

Friedman lacked philosophical breadth and depth, but he was a great libertarian policy advocate whose policy ideas shifted the terms of the debate against the usual statist prescriptions of the left. The fact that many liberals support charter schools (voucher-lite) is evidence of his enduring influence.


37 ChrisA February 26, 2018 at 5:59 am

I think Friedman’s approach is the right one, you can’t argue from first principles that libertarianism is correct, its a fools game as philosophy is simply an attempt to justify what are innate gentic preferences which don’t have any logic to them. But you can argue for pn the margin improvements in liberty which are overall welfare improving.


38 dan1111 February 26, 2018 at 6:28 am

Yes, I agree. But if you argue for incremental moves toward libertarianism, are you even a libertarian any more? Or is libertarianism impractical by definition?


39 Alex February 26, 2018 at 9:08 pm

“Philosophy is simply an attempt to justify what are innate genetic preferences which don’t have any logic to them”

I think that you mean morality, not philosophy in general. If so, I partially agree with you although I would say that non genetic factors (context) also affect our morality. For example, if your family is wealthy, the protection of property rights will be more important to you than if you are born in poverty.


40 Larry Siegel February 26, 2018 at 3:47 am

Milton Friedman, by writing Capitalism and Freedom and by being the most visible libertarian-leaning public figure in the world, taught a generation of would-be socialists to love freedom. He is not overrated in the slightest. He may not have contributed much to libertarian “theory” (free markets, limited government, leave me alone; that’s the theory) but he contributed more than anyone else to the public understanding of classical liberalism. Bravo!

Full disclosure: he was one of my econ professors.


41 Ray Lopez February 26, 2018 at 4:56 am

I think your full disclosure underscores TC’s point. Another way of putting it: Friedman himself said his most original thought was some small tweak to the Cobbs-Douglass production function, which shows Friedman recognized he was overrated. If you disagree, then you have to say that popularize-rs of other people’s original thoughts are themselves as useful to society as the original thinkers, which would mean TC is a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Economics (I can live with that).


42 Larry Siegel February 26, 2018 at 1:04 pm

I would say that popularizers of other people’s thoughts are as useful to society as the original thinkers, and I am writing a book about that (at least it is indirectly about that; it uses popular science books as the vehicle for explaining how human life is getting better).


43 JCC February 26, 2018 at 8:00 am

Libertarians of today are not like Classical liberals of the other time. I see Friedman as a classical liberal, not a libertarian.


44 Viking February 26, 2018 at 11:56 am

What do you think is the difference? Not challenging your assertion, I am truly curious.


45 Nodnarb the Nasty February 26, 2018 at 5:34 pm

A Dutch political theorist wrote a short book on this topic. Here’s a blog post summarizing the differences.


46 Viking February 26, 2018 at 8:41 pm

Thanks. In addition to the summary, it is also my impression that a classical liberal might question the legitimacy of a king less than a principled libertarian.

47 Nodnarb the Nasty March 1, 2018 at 12:08 am

You’d think so, but many libertarians today are big fans of “anarcho-monarchy” and many classical liberals in the past were small “r” republicans.

48 MOFO. February 26, 2018 at 9:35 am

I fully agree, but the call was for libertarian *thinkers*, and in that vein, he did not add much.

You can believe that and still hold that Friedman’s *contributions* to libertarianism are amongst the greatest.


49 Max February 26, 2018 at 3:54 am

Having not actually read any Rand, I’m curious about her “cocktail party analysis of the sociology of capitalism-hatred,” but can’t figure out how to effectively Google this. Could anyone point me in the right direction or elucidate me? Thanks!


50 Jack February 26, 2018 at 4:17 am

I had the same thought. I did wonder if I might a least find something else entertaining by Googling “cocktail party analysis of the sociology of capitalism-hatred”, but I was disappointed.


51 Brian Donohue February 26, 2018 at 7:00 am

I vaguely remember an exchange between D’Anconia(?) and some woman at a cocktail party along these lines.

Woman: But what will happen to people?
D’Anconia: They will get precisely what they deserve.
Woman: How horrible!

Thought it was pretty funny.


52 byomtov February 26, 2018 at 8:53 am

I hope that’s not what Tyler was referring to. It sounds idiotic. Not that people shouldn’t “get what they deserve,” but that there is some way of determining that and a system that delivers it.


53 Art Deco February 26, 2018 at 6:00 pm


What Rand apparently thought they deserved was … inneresting.


54 Thiago Ribeiro February 26, 2018 at 9:02 am

Maybe it is how all mediocre, fashionable characters join forces in criticizing capitalism and the “productive” people. Hank Rearden’s wife, for example, kept putting him down, downplaying his great invention, the Rearden metal, even before her friends. And yet, she only can live a glamorous life because he is a genius.


55 Erik February 26, 2018 at 9:02 am

I had the same question and interest.

I found this (https://www.coursehero.com/file/9729062/Capitalism-By-Ayn-Rand/) seems to be an intro to a book called *Capitalim* by Rand which contains the words “cocktail party” — in other words, probably not what’s being referenced.


56 Michael Abrahams February 26, 2018 at 9:09 am

Curious about this as well!


57 David Boaz February 26, 2018 at 9:59 am

I’m recalling a cocktail party conversation(s) at Hank Rearden’s home in Atlas Shrugged.


58 Jack February 26, 2018 at 10:22 am

I need a cocktail


59 Dan February 26, 2018 at 11:08 am

I too am wondering what the hell Tyler is referring to here.


60 Michael W March 1, 2018 at 8:54 pm

Much of Atlas Shrugged is what you might call social satire. I’m not an Ayn Rand expert, but I’m assuming Tyler is referring to this strand of her work.

50% of it is incredibly prescient and cutting. The other half caricatures her opponents in a creepy, dehumanizing way.


61 Massimo February 26, 2018 at 4:15 am

I suspect that Nozick is not a household name because he was a minarchist (at the times of “Anarchy, State, Utopia”, anyway). There are few fanatic minarchists (a part form some objectivist, but they have everything they need from Rand). On the other hand, most anarchists are fanatic (I am one of them), therefore Rothbard is much more mentioned. However, the few times I have been in an environment of scholars (Liberty Fund seminars, discussions with friends teaching at the Francisco Marroquin University, dinners at Mont Pelerin meetings…) Nozick has seemed to me alive and kicking. He is often used as the anti-Rawls, much more than Rothbard.

Regarding Spooner, I am somewhat mystified by the way you mention him. He was mostly a libertarian, actually an anarchist, and a slavery critic as part of his being libertarian, not the other way around. The Constitution of no authority, and Vices are not crimes, are two great booklets known by heart by any serious self-described anarchist.

And what about the great pre-Enlightmenent thinkers? Anybody among them? Spinoza? The critique of free will would seem to exclude him, but on the other hand it could be constructed as a “live and let live” political philosophy. Any other suggestions?


62 Iskander February 26, 2018 at 5:21 am

The “Nozick gave up on libertarianism” meme needs to die. There’s an episode of Econtalk where the guest says he asked Nozick and all Nozick changed his mind on was about people being able to sell themselves into slavery.

Still libertarian, still underrated.


63 Massimo February 26, 2018 at 8:05 am

This is very good to know, Iskander. Somebody should therefore at least rewrite the Wikipedia entry about him: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Nozick


64 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 8:36 am

I think Nozick stated that Anarchy State and Utopia was “a young man’s book”. Which means he thought that it was perhaps unrealistically idealistic, not that he changed his mind on the ideas in it.


65 edgar February 26, 2018 at 10:03 am

+1 for Spinoza. David Boaz’s history of libertarianism (https://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/history-libertarianism ) notes that:

“After the Dutch gained their independence from Spain in the early 17th century, they created a loose confederation of cities and provinces. They became the century’s leading commercial power and a haven for refugees from oppression. Books and pamphlets by dissident Englishmen and Frenchmen were often published in the Dutch cities. One of those refugees, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose Jewish parents had fled Catholic persecution in Portugal, described the happy interplay of religious toleration and prosperity in 17th-century Amsterdam:

‘The city of Amsterdam reaps the fruit of freedom in its own great prosperity and in the admiration of all other people. For in this most flourishing state, and most splendid city, men of every nation and religion live together in the greatest harmony, and ask no questions before trusting their goods to a fellow-citizen. A citizen’s religion and sect is considered of no importance: for it has no effect before the judges in gaining or losing a cause, and there is no sect so despised that its followers, provided that they harm no one, pay every man his due, and live uprightly, are deprived of the protection of the magisterial authority.’

Holland’s example of social harmony and economic progress inspired proto-liberals in England and other countries.”

Can’t remember if Dierdre McCloskey ever credited him in her thinking.

Boaz, by the way, provides support for Tyler’s nod to Herbert Spencer:

“In 1851 Herbert Spencer, a towering scholar whose work is unjustly neglected and often misrepresented today, published Social Statics, in which he set forth his “law of equal freedom,” an early and explicit statement of the modern libertarian credo. Spencer’s principle was “that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man.” Spencer pointed out that “the law of equal freedom manifestly applies to the whole race—female as well as male.” He also extended the classical liberal critique of war to distinguish between two kinds of societies: industrial society, where people produce and trade peacefully and in voluntary association, and militant society, in which war prevails and the government controls the lives of its subjects as means to its own ends.”

But to answer your question, another nomination for a pre-Enlightenment libertarian thinker, would be Lao Tzu, who given the USA’s impending return to the maximum regulatory state, unconstrained judicialism, and the autocratic presidency, would appear particularly timely. Boaz writes:

“The first known libertarian may have been the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who lived around the sixth century B.C. and is best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu advised, “Without law or compulsion, men would dwell in harmony.” Most of the Tao is not political; it is a classic statement of the spiritual serenity associated with Eastern philosophy. To many Americans, steeped in the assertiveness and individualism of the West, it may seem to counsel too much passivity and acceptance in the face of obstacles. Of course, Lao Tzu may have thought that such quiet acceptance was the only way to achieve a degree of personal peace and liberty in the all-encompassing totalitarianism of ancient China.”

There appears to be a high likelihood that US libertarians will need to cultivate the habits of passivity and acceptance. Or pick up and move.


66 msgkings February 26, 2018 at 11:50 am

Move where? Please don’t say seasteading.


67 Nodnarb the Nasty February 27, 2018 at 12:41 am
68 So Much For Subtlety February 26, 2018 at 4:25 am

There is no such thing as a Social Darwinist. It is just an excuse the Left had dreamed up to cover their rejection of Darwinism. They can call all the bits they like science and all the bits they do not like Social Darwinism. But Darwin was a Social Darwinist.

So Herbert Spencer should be ready for a little revival. He certainly has not been treated well. Unlike, say, Malthus who is defended by most people writing about him.


69 efcdons February 26, 2018 at 1:06 pm

You don’t think there might be a tiny, slight difference between natural selection happening over the course of millennia and what happens to people over the course of decades? Or the difference between adaptations to changes in the environment which (primarily) happen because of natural forces outside of the creature’s control and the outcomes humans experience inside of systems designed and implemented through purposeful choices?

But I do like you reminding us of the racist implications people on the HBD right have taken from Spencer and Darwin (“rejection of Darwinism”. So subtle!). That link Tyler had for Spencer claimed it is the left who were accusing Spencer of being racist. You so ably demonstrate how the people who actually think of Spencer as justifying racism are on the right. And it’s a feature, not a bug.


70 chuck martel February 26, 2018 at 5:56 am

Maybe he doesn’t fit the definition perfectly but his analysis of the state is libertarian in focus and means that the ideas of Bertrand de Jouvenel should influence libertarian thinking.


71 edgar February 26, 2018 at 10:44 am

+1 His The Ethics of Redistribution deserves a wide audience.


72 jphn February 26, 2018 at 6:28 am

“plus she reaffirmed the necessary high status of the business producer.”

Which certainly has some merit but is grossly over done in today’s world. It might be better to put someone like Kirzner with the idea of entrepreneurship/actions in place of “business producer”. The form seems largely to me those controlling the corporation and not necessarily do much more than collecting the internal rents available.


73 Slocum February 26, 2018 at 8:25 am

Yep. Not a fan of Rand’s embarrassing hero-worship of the business leader as ubermensch. I, Pencil is a good antidote. Pencils (and nearly everything else) are not made by unrealistic Hank Rearden characters who are simultaneously scientific geniuses and visionary business leaders who move the world through the strength of their iron wills — pencils (along with pretty much everything else) are made by an enormous, unguided collaboration of rather ordinary folks who are literally ‘minding their own businesses’.


74 Slocum February 26, 2018 at 8:26 am

Dammit, where’s my edit button?


75 Jim February 26, 2018 at 9:55 am

No need to edit, that was perfect


76 triclops41 February 26, 2018 at 11:26 am

Agreed with Jim,
what would you even edit?


77 Slocum February 26, 2018 at 11:46 am

Oh, just the duplicate, redundant bits in parentheses. I didn’t mean to put the same thing in twice. But I guess it didn’t bug anybody else.

78 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 10:20 am

The concept of ubermensch business leaders sounds great until Elon Musk comes along, and some people hero-worship him, and it all starts seeming ridiculous in real life. I love space X personally, but Elon Musk is just a big bag of money. There’s a lot of unsung geniuses working for him that he’s getting all the credit for.


79 msgkings February 26, 2018 at 11:52 am

He’s more than just the financing though. He sets the goals/priorities, makes deals, etc. He’s not just the money.


80 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 12:11 pm

Fair. But he still gets credit for being some sort of engineering genius. As if he designed the navigation software for the autonomous landing of those Falcon Heavy boosters himself.

81 Viking February 26, 2018 at 2:21 pm

Musk only designed the control system for the center booster of the heavy falcon.

82 albatross February 26, 2018 at 1:01 pm

So how come when Elon Musk or Steve Jobs get a bunch of smart hard working people together they produce such spectacular results, whereas most other leaders with lots of smart hard-working people working for them do so much less?


83 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 2:03 pm

Actually, I think this is because before the Internet, there weren’t as many people with giant bags of money willing to risk them on crazy ideas like space exploration. Maybe innovation is a function of wealth inequality, because you need to accumulate huge amounts of capital accumulated in the hands on one person to overcome certain technological hurdles.

84 rayward February 26, 2018 at 7:14 am

When the delegates gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, their most pressing concern was anarchy, the logical consequence of the libertarian mission to thwart government. Far from being the small government libertarians they have been caricatured as being, the delegates were the new nation’s wealthy elite, who first and foremost were concerned with order and stability, conservative not libertarian priorities. The federal system they created was less about limited national government and more about limited state government, where the anarchists had exploited the crisis of the recession/depression that followed the War and imposed on the states such measures as debtor forgiveness laws. The situation was so precarious that Washington and others feared the British would exploit the chaos and attack the new nation before the adoption of a constitution that would provide the national government with the authority and power to impose and maintain order and stability. The constitution was adopted and the crisis averted. Today, libertarians have convinced themselves that “disruption” is preferable to order and stability, which is why they disparage Milton Friedman as not being a true believer. And once again we see the risk of chaos that is the logical consequence of the libertarian mission to thwart representative government. Far from being conservative, libertarians are the ally of the anarchists, and a nation controlled by an ideology promoted by the few true believers rather than representative government. In other words, chaos rather than order and stability. Of course, chaos promotes autocracy and control, the opposite of what the libertarian ideologues promise.


85 Art Deco February 26, 2018 at 7:45 am

As always, ‘overrated’ and ‘underrated’ by whom?

The problem with libertarian thought is that it tends to be both good and original, just never both at the same time.


86 Art Deco February 26, 2018 at 7:49 am

He is not overrated as an economist, if anything he is still considerably underrated. But as a libertarian? For a guy that smart, I’m not sure he added much to the corpus of libertarian ideas,

Translation: Friedman was skeptical of open borders, ergo gets the axe.


87 Sam Haysom February 26, 2018 at 10:44 am

Also he didn’t have to suck off billionaires which makes Cowen jealous.


88 Art Deco February 26, 2018 at 7:51 am

And have the Friedmanite ideas of school vouchers and social security privatization really held up as so central?

You’re not interested in the trouble caused by providing primary and secondary schooling through local monopolies but you’re cheesed about cosmetology licenses.


89 Massimo February 26, 2018 at 8:16 am

Agree. Although I am against vouchers, that I see as a form of redistribution, I think education is the most important political issue around now, and vouchers a very likely solution. Regarding social security privatization, it is not much discussed in the US, but it has been implemented in a bunch of places, like Chile, Argentina and Mexico. And what about Friedman role in the elimination of draft?

As he said it himself, Friedman was a Republican (whatever it means) with a capital letter, and a libertarian with a small letter. However, his influence was so important that he (and maybe Hayek through Thatcher) had a practical impact on real life much bigger than any other modern libertarian.


90 Thiago Ribeiro February 26, 2018 at 7:59 am

“Somehow other libertarians seem to undervalue that he independently became one of the world’s greatest philosophers, perhaps because they have not done the same.”


91 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 8:32 am

Murray Rothbard.
Not only did he contribute no foundational ideas, but he came up with the horrible idea of making a political alliance with southern racists which has done lasting damage to the libertarian political movement. So a net negative.


92 clockwork_prior February 26, 2018 at 9:35 am

‘which has done lasting damage to the libertarian political movement’

No, it is only a roadbump, just like the Republican southern strategy is a roadbump to a much better world.


93 Chris Weber February 26, 2018 at 9:59 am

He was always wanting to form alliances with people who were ‘where the action and excitement was’ at that particular time. In the late 60s, we was with the Black Panthers. It always wanting to stress those places of ideological overlap.


94 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 10:04 am

Well, for whatever reason the strategy of getting southern racists to reidentify as (pretend to be) libertarians, seems to have stuck. At least until a politician more suited to their tastes came along.


95 Chris Weber February 26, 2018 at 10:07 am

It has stuck because it was the last position before he died. Had he died in the early 70s, it would have been a different story.


96 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 10:14 am

That would have been great. I wish there were more black libertarians.

97 Chris Weber February 26, 2018 at 10:32 am
98 Chris Weber February 26, 2018 at 10:33 am
99 Jeff Conine February 26, 2018 at 10:48 am

Over rated bored stay at home wifes who clearly aren’t satisfied with their dweeb husbands.


100 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 10:55 am

I’ll let my husband know you said that. He’s at home taking care of the kids. Now excuse me, I have to go do a 1000 run monte carlo analysis on some autonomous navigation software.


101 clockwork_prior February 26, 2018 at 12:35 pm

Just don’t let it take any random walks.


102 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 12:47 pm

Only the kind that are exponentially decaying.

103 Massimo February 26, 2018 at 2:22 pm

I could not disagree more on Rothbard not contributing anything new, Hazel. He married subjective value economics to individual anarchism. I have been personally enormously affected by this when I was a young man. As an instinctive anarchist, I visited and sometimes studied deeply the (originally anarchist) cooperatives of Romagna, a region of Italy, and I was always puzzled by their huge problem, what to do with the profits. You had these companies with a century of history that had an equity of millions of dollars per employee (member of the cooperative). They could not possibly distribute millions of dollars to each members (sometimes there were three or four members of a family in the company). Moreover, it did not sound right even to them that the genial engineer that came out with new, great products consistently for 40 years should get as much as the recently recruited blue-collar worker. So, they increased the salaries ridicously (with the obvious creation of horrible incentives in recruiting), overinvested and overspent, and gave money to charities. Rothbard eliminated from anarchism the labour theory of value, and this opened the door to pure, beautiful free-market capitalism.

Maybe it is different for you Americans (the popularity of Rand might have helped a lot), but for us young Europeans in the70’s and ‘80s, anarchism was Bakunin and Malatesta. When I discovered anarchocapitalism (living in the US, in the ‘90s) it was like Saint Paul on the way to Damascus.


104 Butler T. Reynolds February 26, 2018 at 8:54 am

I’ve been in the libertarian bubble since the early 90s. Before the web, it seemed to me that there was more buzz around Nozick and Rand. Libertarianism had a much more minarchist ethos when I became aware of it.

Over the years of the internet, there seems to be a much greater anarcho-capitalist feel to the libertarian universe. It’s much less philosophical and more populist: memes over ideas, which is why Rand and Nozick have probably taken a seat.

I guess the same could be said of conservatism and progressivism. Conservatism seems to have lost ties to Burke and these days Progressives are more likely to shower and be manically puritanical.

I still think Friedman was a great contributor to libertarianism. His influence doesn’t age well for the same reason Dr. Evil’s ransom demands were always ineffective.


105 clockwork_prior February 26, 2018 at 9:33 am

‘memes over ideas’

Like going Galt?


106 Butler T. Reynolds February 26, 2018 at 12:51 pm

No, not at all. With Rand, the ideas were first. The attention grabber was second. But you knew that already. You’re just trying to be cute.


107 Stormy Dragon February 26, 2018 at 11:03 am

“Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.” — Robert Heinlein

Must people just respond to things emotionally and then try to rationalize that response later on. The only difference between most “conservatives”, “libertarians”, etc. is the aesthetic form they choose for those rationalizations.


108 Sean Hughes February 26, 2018 at 9:14 am

For what it’s worth…”super duper” is an underused descriptor in academic circles.


109 harpersnotes February 26, 2018 at 9:17 am

Although traditionally considered a founder of modern liberalism, I’d consider Benjamin Constant the most under-rated libertarian thinker. Writing around the time of the French Revolution, Constant argued that for modern freedoms, unlike the freedoms of the ancients, it was necessary that families and businesses be free from having to have anything at all to do with, or to fear from, politics. That they be free to go about their trade or customs without interference from political busy-body’s of the day. That the three spheres of politics/civics, business, and family customs be independent and walled off from each other.
Constant’s most famous essay. http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/constant1819.pdf ..
Biography by Helena Rosenblatt, https://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Companion-Constant-Companions-Philosophy/dp/B007PMM27U ..


110 RPLong February 26, 2018 at 10:11 am

I think David Friedman is the most underrated libertarian thinker.


111 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 10:15 am

I think it’s against the rules of this sort of thing to pick people who are still alive.


112 RPLong February 26, 2018 at 12:23 pm

Right! Fair enough. In that case, I’m good with Nozick. And I think Cowen should have chosen to highlight Mises’ Epistemological Problems of Economics instead of the other works. It’s one of the best and tightest critiques of socialist thinking I’ve ever read.


113 Massimo February 26, 2018 at 2:29 pm

Well, he is not underrated by himself, I assure you.

But yes, I think The machinery of freedom is a great book.


114 RPLong February 26, 2018 at 4:01 pm

The only thing my comment moved you to do was to go out of your way to point out that you think David Friedman is conceited?



115 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 10:13 am

Underrated: Benjamin Tucker


116 collin February 26, 2018 at 10:26 am

I recommend Ayn Rand is over-rated because:
1) She did not understand the Jon Galts of today become the Taggarts in 10 years.
2) She ended living on government programs during the last years of her life.

Otherwise, I would say Milton Friedman was under-rated because he had political science successes.


117 RPLong February 26, 2018 at 12:21 pm

I’ve never understood the welfare criticism of Rand. She wrote about archetypes, she never claimed to be one herself. There’s also the fact that it’s become virtually impossible to avoid some sort of government assistance. Everyone has become the recipient of some kind of special payment, tax break, or subsidy. People who insist that libertarians are hypocrites if they don’t find a way to escape government’s choke-hold on absolutely every facet of life are abandoning analysis for the sake of a cheap “gotcha” in my opinion.


118 Butler T. Reynolds February 26, 2018 at 12:53 pm

I bet she used the roads too. Maybe even checked out library books.


119 Stormy Dragon February 26, 2018 at 10:59 am

Since 95% of “libertarians” are not actually libertarian, but rather people who behave the same as everyone else and just like choosing libertarian-ish sounding rationalizations for their actions, I’d say that all libertarian thinkers are overrated.


120 triclops41 February 26, 2018 at 11:34 am

You know this applies as much to every other political philosophy, right? Did you just recently discover most politics is social signalling?
Progressive NIMBYs, Feminists who supported either Clinton, Trad Cons who support Trump, and a million other examples.


121 Hazel Meade February 26, 2018 at 12:09 pm

There’s an unfortunate number of libertarians who think that libertarianism signals “I like white people”.


122 Art Deco February 26, 2018 at 12:41 pm

What’s wrong with liking white people?


123 Stormy Dragon February 26, 2018 at 2:38 pm

You know this applies as much to every other political philosophy, right?

Agreed, political philosophy in general is vastly overrated. We should focus on a more behavioralist approach to politics.

Did you just recently discover most politics is social signalling?

Relatively recently. Up until 2004-ish, I foolishly believed that most people actually believe what they say.


124 Slocum February 26, 2018 at 12:23 pm

What does that mean? What sorts of personal behaviors should a libertarian exhibit in order to be judged authentic?


125 Art Deco February 26, 2018 at 1:07 pm

You’re assuming he has some other object than impugning people’s motives and being a conceited prick?


126 Stormy Dragon February 26, 2018 at 2:35 pm

There are none. That’s my point: there’s no set of behaviors that can be pointed to that distinguish a libertarian from a non-libertarian. So “libertarian” is a meaningless abstraction.


127 Slocum February 26, 2018 at 3:44 pm

I live in a university town and know many dark-blue lefties. I also have some red-state, Trump-supporting relatives. I like both and, what’s more, I suspect they would mostly like each other (just as long as they didn’t discuss politics). In both case, I’m talking about successful, educated professionals. Their daily, personal behaviors just don’t differ all that greatly, nor do the way they raise and educate their children, nor the way they related to their spouses, and so on. But that doesn’t mean that their politics are meaningless. The same is true of libertarians.


128 Stormy Dragon February 26, 2018 at 4:45 pm

If you have one person who claims to be a libertarian, and one who claims to be a social conservative, and one who claims to be a moderate, and every November they all dutifully vote a straight Republican ticket like they always have, does the distinction have any meaning whatsoever?

129 Barry Ickes February 26, 2018 at 11:06 am

I think Spencer is underrated as a model for Trump:

In a letter to the Japanese government regarding intermarriage with Westerners, Spencer stated that “if you mix the constitution of two widely divergent varieties which have severally become adapted to widely divergent modes of life, you get a constitution which is adapted to the mode of life of neither—a constitution which will not work properly”. He goes on to say that America has failed to limit the immigration of Chinese and restrict their contact, especially sexual, with the presumed European stock. He states “if they mix they must form a bad hybrid” regarding the issue of Chinese and (ethnically European) Americans. Spencer ends his letter with the following blanket statement against all immigration: “In either case, supposing the immigration to be large, immense social mischief must arise, and eventually social disorganization. The same thing will happen if there should be any considerable mixture of European or American races with the Japanese.”[33]


130 Jim February 26, 2018 at 11:29 am

That linked video is classic Friedman. Laid back and relaxed while a raging socialist gets his panties a knot being told that the ends doesn’t always justify the means.


131 Kent Guida February 26, 2018 at 11:46 am

Most underrated: Larry Arnhart.
What? Never heard of him? That’s what I mean. He’s comprehensive, deep and original. And he deals with the whole history of political philosophy in a way the others on Tyler’s list can’t match.
Start with his Darwinian Natural Right.


132 Roger Sweeny February 27, 2018 at 11:52 am

I wouldn’t call Arnhart a libertarian. But he is one of the few people asking what our evolved human nature is and what that means for political philosophy/political theory.

The top of his website says, “The Left has traditionally assumed that human nature is so malleable, so perfectible, that it can be shaped in almost any direction. By contrast, a Darwinian science of human nature supports traditionalist conservatives and classical liberals in their realist view of human imperfectibility, and in their commitment to ordered liberty as rooted in natural desires, cultural traditions, and prudential judgments.”


133 NeedleFactory February 26, 2018 at 11:50 am

No mention of Thomas Sowell?
Earlier this month, Steven Pinker was asked “Which author (living or dead) do you think is most underrated?” and named Thomas Sowell, the author of “more than thirty mind-expanding books.”
link: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/twenty-questions-steven-pinker/


134 RPLong February 26, 2018 at 12:24 pm



135 D February 26, 2018 at 6:48 pm

Sowell is unmentioned for two reasons, IMO: 1) he’s been an insane hawk on foreign policy, and 2) conservatives love him, so libertarians are obligated to ignore him. #2 applies to Walter Williams as well.


136 RPLong February 27, 2018 at 10:07 am

Right on #2 especially.


137 August Hurtel February 26, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Rothbard, and anyone else who raised questions about fractional reserve banking.

Of course, I did not arrive at this conclusion until I sat through a bunch of Steve Keen videos about his economic model.


138 Glenn Corey February 26, 2018 at 4:35 pm

So you’re saying Rothbard is overrated or underrated? It’s not clear since people are naming both here.


139 August Hurtel February 27, 2018 at 12:20 pm

Underrated. He saw the ‘unseen.’ What Steve Keen didn’t see until he put his model together and ran it.


140 RafaelR February 26, 2018 at 6:07 pm

Roberto Campos is an underrated liberal in international circles although universally known in Brazil.


141 RafaelR February 26, 2018 at 6:10 pm

Also, I noticed in here that there were only Anglophone writers mentioned in Tyler’s post, or people like Rand and Mises who moved and published in the US. When the big names of a philosophical movement are restricted to a single culture to a high extent it is a signal that either the philosophical movement is not of universal applicability or of plain ignorance of the maker of the list. Anyway, what’s would a top 10 Japanese libertarian/liberal philosophers list look like?


142 Jorge Besada February 26, 2018 at 7:15 pm

The very existence and title of this article shows just how underrated Herbert Spencer is. The fact that he is brought up in a “list” is already proof of how underrated he is. Herbert Spencer is BY FAR, the most underrated thinker period! It simply shows how utterly lost and clueless even most of today’s leading intellectual are when it comes to understanding the world. Herbert Spencer was so munumental and influential that IMHO he even played a key role in the development of the Austrian School(see https://medium.com/@hayekian/herbert-spencer-s-influence-on-carl-menger-and-thus-the-austro-libertarian-revolution-a34e1bd9262) , Carl Menger was a big fan of spencer and was thinking along Spencer’s evolutionary framework which allowed him to explain the evolution of money, which was one of Menger’s most important and profound insights…

Herbert Spencer was “the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century” and a personal acquaintance of Charles Darwin who in a correspondence to Spencer said to him “Every one with eyes to see and ears to hear (the number, I fear, are not many) ought to bow their knee to you, and I for one do” and in another occasion referred to Spencer as “twenty times my superior.” Mr. Libertarian himself, Murray N. Rothbard referred to Spencer’s “Social Statics” as “the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written” .

No human being, past or present, with the exeption of perhaps F.A. Hayek, has been able to provide as complete an understanding of how the entire world works in a manner that is properly grounded on evolution.

Here is Hayek summarizing his complete evolutionary synthesis :

“We understand now that all enduring structures above the level of the simplest atoms, and up to the brain and society, are the results of, and can be explained only in terms of, processes of selective evolution…”

Here is Spencer about century earlier:

“We have to deal with man as a product of evolution, with society as a product of evolution, and with moral phenomena as products of evolution.”

Other great thinkers tried to come up with a complete synthesis of how the world works. But as Spencer humbly mentions: “Lacking the great generalizations of biology, it was, as we have said, impossible to trace out the real relations of social organizations to organizations of another order.”

Herbert Spencer remains unknown for the same reasons F.A. Hayek remains relatively unknown.. Just way way way way way toooooooo far ahead of their times… To properly appreciate Spencer and Hayek people need to swallow evolution AND the free market…. two things which are still relatively hard to swallow for most… Even when one looks at the libertarian world… many who are great at economics still have religious moral frameworks that shield them from Hayek and Spencer… Too much to say here… But bottom line.. as time and superior ideas spread. So will the enormity of Spencer. Quite possibly the greatest intellectual that has and will ever exist as we move more towards AI and non-human intelligence.


143 Barkley Rosser February 28, 2018 at 12:50 am

Once again, Hayek refused the label “libertatian.” He was a classixal liberal. Heck, he was for national health insurance.


144 nigel February 26, 2018 at 9:04 pm

Underrated: Richard A. Epstein. Libertarian and one of the most cited legal scholars ever. Every libertarian needs a jurisprudence, it being a political philosophy. But most libertarians don’t even begin to grapple with law. It’s sort of emblematic of a more general problem in libertarianism. It can be very rationalistic at the outset, and then it gains nuance and tempers its claims (and becomes classical liberalism) the more it grapples with reality. Epstein is a prime example of this deeper, wiser libertarianism.


145 chuck martel February 26, 2018 at 9:14 pm

William Graham Sumner wasn’t selected to the team. “The trouble is that a democratic government is in greater danger than any other of becoming paternal, for it is sure of itself, and ready to undertake anything, and its power is excessive and pitiless against dissentients.”


146 Allen Muncy February 26, 2018 at 10:11 pm

I think if you add David Friedman to Milton’s list of accomplishments as a libertarian then I think he is not overrated, because David Friedman is among the best libertarian thinkers of our age.


147 Sanford Ikeda February 26, 2018 at 10:17 pm

Henry Hazlitt is very under-rated. See?


148 Jorge Besada February 27, 2018 at 8:58 am

Yeah! Hazlitt’s under-ratedness also once again highlights the under-ratedness of herbert spencer. As the brief bio of Hazlitt in “The Wisdom of Henry Hazlitt” mentions: “He learned about evolution and the role of the state by reading Herbert Spencer.” …. His book titled “Man vs. The Welfare State” is obviously inspired by Spencer’s “The Man Versus the State” … Both are tremendously underrated, especially Hazlitt when one considers lesser known contributions like his help getting Mises published/situated in the USA and so on… Mises to Hazlitt:

“In this age of the great struggle in favor of freedom and the social system in which men can live as free men, you are our leader. You have indefatigably fought against the step-by-step advance of the powers anxious to destroy everything that human civilization has created over a long period of centuries…. You are the economic conscience of our country and of our nation.” (https://mises.org/library/biography-henry-hazlitt-1894-1993)


149 DVE February 27, 2018 at 12:33 am

One of the most incisive, lucid, several paragraphs ever on this subject. No less than a weeks worth of “best sentences.”

Hayek’s omission says only what needn’t be said.


150 Peter Akuleyev February 27, 2018 at 8:37 am

Hayek’s omission says only that Tyler thinks he’s properly “rated”.


151 Kyle February 27, 2018 at 9:39 am

The “Mises” Institute is all Rothbardians. Mises was a consequentialist minarchist and they’re all natural rights ancaps.


152 Jorge Besada February 27, 2018 at 8:10 pm

Yeah 🙁 … It is really disappointing to see the direction mises.org has gone…. They no longer even have mises’ portrait at center of building/library in auburn, got replaced by rothbard, they even removed the Hayek bust(temporarily supposedly)… ironically when I asked why it had disappeared, I was jokingly (i think) told it had been temporarily “physically removed” Now im pretty sure that was just a joke, yet it still says a lot about the direction mises.org has gone.


153 Barkley Rosser February 28, 2018 at 12:55 am

The rather important item left out of the discussion of Spencer is that he also wrote extensively on biology and evolutionary theory. By 1900 he was actually considered to be more important as a biological evolutionary theorist than was Darwin. Then the pendulum on that one began to swing towards Darwin as knowlwdge of genetics and probability theory spread.

As editor of JEBO when Leonard’s paper was published (along with several others in a special issue at the time along several lines), it is striking how poorly understood Spencer’s views were. He actually supported helping to improve the lot of the downtrodden in an advanced society, possibly an exception to his general libertarianism. He may even have been like Hayek in that regard, not as libertarian as many think.

Yeah, Nozick brilliant, one of the smarter people I ever knew.


154 Glenn Corey February 28, 2018 at 7:16 am

And Spencer was the one who came up with the phrase “survival of the fittest.”


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