Like most history doctoral students, I needed money to cover basic expenses. Because of that circumstance, and because my dissertation’s argument that the U.S. shouldn’t nationalize Christianity sounds good to people who oppose governmental “interference,” I became affiliated with a libertarian pocket of American conservatism, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, from 2018 to 2020—first as a research assistant and visiting dissertation fellow, and then as an Adam Smith fellow. Named for a libertarian favorite, the Adam Smith Fellowship required attendance at four separate four-day gatherings, each featuring free-flowing wine, lavish meals, and mandatory hotel stays. During this time, I talked to many, many academically minded libertarians.
The relationship between governance and the market is the “it’s complicated” of modern economic history. Most Mercatus participants blamed societal problems on government intervention itself, turning their faith instead toward the free market. As a fellow, I once met an economist who blamed the Great Depression on Theodore Roosevelt’s activist presidency from 1901 to 1909, not (as is conventional) the laissez faire 1920s. I, like most people, believe instead that the government should help people in need. These fellowships did not change my mind.
But our contradictory political and economic beliefs weren’t the primary point of divergence between me and the other people I spoke with during this time. Rather, what isolated me most from the libertarians I met was our approach to history. The Mercatus libertarians idolize their favorite political-economic philosophers, including Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James Buchanan (the economist, not the president), and Vincent and Elinor Ostrom. They name fellowships after them, decorate their walls with their portraits, and even present fellows with T-shirts featuring the thinkers’ faces. As an academic and political movement, they organize around key figures without considering a central tenet of historical scholarship: change over time. Most libertarians overlook how evolving perceptions of ideas shape how we read these beloved big names. I know the last two sentences might seem like I’m picking interdisciplinary nits. But as time went on, I became convinced these methodological blind spots explain quite a bit about contemporary libertarian thinking.
Two recent books take on some of the Mercatus Center’s favorite political-economic philosophers, proving, I think, my point. Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed, by legal scholar Andrew Koppelman, claims that American libertarians have distorted Hayek’s ideals. Adam Smith’s America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism, by political scientist Glory Liu, shows how Americans have perceived Adam Smith and his ideas over time. Both aim to follow best practices in historical thought, such as change over time and the provision of tons and tons of context.
Koppelman’s opening lines are stunning: “The fire department was run by idealists. That is why it ignored the homeowner’s pleas and watched the house burn down.” This vignette is no metaphor. In 2010, Gene Cranick, of Obion County, Tennessee, lost his home in that fire, because the fire department was members-only, requiring homeowners to pay dues. The flames spread to the home of his neighbor, who had paid his fees; that building was saved. Burning Down the House quotes conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s response to the news story: “As soon as they put out the fire of somebody who didn’t pay the 75 bucks, no one will pay the 75 bucks.” The conservative magazine National Review doubled down, writing that Cranick’s plight was “sad” but would “probably save more houses over the long haul.” This opening anecdote echoes much of what I heard around seminar tables with Mercatus fellows discussing Hayek and von Mises, Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, and the Ostroms: People must suffer to learn individual responsibility that’ll ultimately benefit the collective.
Such thinking corrupts libertarian ideals, according to Burning Down the House. The book explores how libertarians today understand Hayek, an Austrian scholar who promoted free-market economics in Europe and the U.S. throughout the mid-20th century. Trying to bridge a gap, Koppelman wants to make libertarians appreciate government more, and to make liberals resent libertarians less. For example, on the pressing issue of climate change mitigation, most libertarians trust the market and rebuke government intervention. Burning Down the House interjects, offering up the historical fact that Hayek advocated for government intervention to curtail forces outside the market. In Koppelman’s reading, climate change constitutes just that—a force outside the market. He implies that if Hayek visited a Mercatus fellowship gathering, he might scold the economist whose job is to advocate for corporate fracking on Indigenous lands (a real person that I met). Does Koppelman believe that this imaginary Hayek would convince the advocate for corporate fracking on Indigenous lands to reverse his position? Or would today’s policymakers simply choose different dead philosophers to revere to protect their political goals? I suspect the latter.