Henry David Thoreau: Founding Father of American Libertarian Thought | by Jeff Riggenbach

I never thought about Henry David Thoreau in terms of libertarianism, but obviously some of his views pointed in the direction of libertarianism or even some form of anarchism.

I noticed a glaring ommission in the portrayal. Thoreau was a liberal libertarian who argued for egalitarianism and later inspired civil rights leaders such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King jr. Also, I’ve never seen any example of Thoreau defending property rights as do conservative libertarians. When he moved to Walden, he lived on someone elses property (Emerson’s property as I remember which Emerson had inherited from his wife). He did his own work as he was very industrious and knowledgeable, but he was perfectly fine with receiving gifts of goods he needed and borrowing tools.

“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.”

Thoreau had some anti-statist tendencies for sure, but this wasn’t based on his feeling territorial about the home he built or protective of his private property. He apparently wasn’t even bothered by minor acts of theft.

“I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers. The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire, the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper. Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book, a volume of Homer, which perhaps was improperly gilded, and this I trust a soldier of our camp has found by this time.”

Watching this video helped me to articulate the difference between the two wings of libertarianism. A conservative libertarian tends to argue for rights in terms of capitalist terminology (e.g., property rights and contractual rights). And a liberal libertarian tends to define capitalism in terms of civil rights. This shows a difference of priority. Conservative libertarians are more accepting of hierarchical power and liberal libertarians prefer egalitarianism (liberalism being the common thread between libertarianism and anarchism).

“I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

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10 thoughts on “Henry David Thoreau: Founding Father of American Libertarian Thought | by Jeff Riggenbach

  1. I think you are very mistaken sir. Conservative libertarians do not in any way shape or form tolerate any heirarchical organization. Further, most liberal libertarians are not really libertarians at all. Just confused liberals(as are most conservative libertarians really just confused republicans). True libertarianism is plagued by only one division, and those are the Randians. who are not really libertarians at all, just assholes. Also, liberalism is NOT the connecting thread between anarchism and libertarianism. liberalism (and republicanism for that matter) is the antithesis of libertarianism AND anarchism. Libertarianism focuses on freedom of choice and freedom of opportunity (and anarchism focuses on, well, anarchy). Liberalism focuses on freedom of outcome and tramples all freedom of choice. A libertarian supports a mans right to be a racist if he should so choose, though he may not agree with it (and would not abide him physically harming another person with such racism). A liberal would throw that man in prison for his freedom of speech while maintaining that he(the liberal) has a right to urinate on a picture of Jesus. Liberals are NOT fighting the cause of freedom, liberals are fighting the same battle republicans are, namely, to have the state forcibly foist their uptopian world view upon society. Their government enforced utopian view just happens to be different than that of the republicans and the really radical ones call their government “the proletariat” but its not, its really just a ruling class. Liberals utopian society is an atheistic, communistic free love ideal. whereas Republicans typically would foster a christian ideal. Both are idealistic instead of realistic. Liberalism is realistic and deals with reality, not some fantasy world. Also, both are too close to fascism for any libertarians taste. Anarchism is similar only to libertarianism. It is in no way similar to liberalism.

    let me break it down for you. Liberals do not care about economic freedom of ACTION at all, but support only EQUALITY. which is wholly different from the idea of freedom and is in fact its antithesis. Let me break it down for you Egalitarianism is the polar opposite of Freedom, even more so than any ideal any republican has ever held because it restricts choice. Now, a free market system would make people relatively equal, but that is not the point. The point is FREEDOM OF CHOICE. However, liberals approach libertarianism in that they do support social freedom to an extent. However, they support restricting freedoms as well. For example, Liberals would pass a law regarding abortion and gay marriage, as would republicans. Both want laws passed on the subject, but both want laws passed enforcing THEIR worldview. A good example of this is schools. Liberals want to force their political opinions to be taught in schools and they do not want schools to have a free choice in whether they teach such things or not. This is restricting social freedom. Libertarians would abolish ALL such laws leaving only the ones supported by the constitution.(actually they would get rid of several things in the constitution as well, like Congress’s ability to print money for example.) What is true of liberals is also true of republicans. You see, republicans are opposed to social freedoms, instead thinking that anything God wouldnt want us to do should be illegal (despite the fact that God values free agency a great deal, they do not. so just like liberals, republicans too are flaming hypocrites.) , but they support economic freedoms. Once again, they support it only to a degree, and beyond that they are in favor of restricting economic freedom. For example they would want to impose tariffs on other nations. Libertarians reject any interference in the free market whatsoever including and most especially tariffs.

    so you see, the true political spectrum is not divided by Left vs Right. Its divided by Statist vs Libertarian. With anarchists just being libertarians who do not have a complete understanding of their own beliefs and the realities of human nature and crime corruption. On the one hand you have the statists, or those who would have the government legislate something and on the other side you have libertarians, who would have the government completely cease to meddle in the affairs of men outside of providing a police force, an army to defend against other countries and a court system. Let me state it one last time. There is no such thing as liberal or conservative libertarianism. Only true libertarianism. Someone who sees such a divide is not truly a libertarian, but either a mix of libertarian and something else. or just really something else all together.

    • The problem is you lack subtlety in your understanding of libertarianism. You have a black/white absolutist mentality. It doesn’t get you anywhere to over-generalize and then dismiss what doesn’t fit your over-generalizations.

      “Conservative libertarians do not in any way shape or form tolerate any heirarchical organization.”

      There is no singular conservative libertarian ideology that by definition refutes any hierarchical organization. That is simply false to the point of being ridiculous. Like it or not, it’s just a fact that many (if not most) right-libertarians are fine with hierarchy just as long as it’s seen to be justified as a ‘meritocracy’ (merit being a rather vague and dubious concept to measure by).

      “True libertarianism is plagued by only one division, and those are the Randians.”

      That is the No True Scotsman fallacy. I understand what you mean, but it’s not accurate. There is no singular true libertarianism. The only commonality among all libertarians is civil libertarians, but even most liberals are civil libertarians.

      I don’t like Randians and it saddens me that objectivism has become conflated with libertarianism. Still, there is no way to entirely separate them because objectivism and right-libertarianism have many of the same or similar positions on key issues. It’s just a fact that Rand is popular among right-libertarians and that libertarianism is popular among Randians.

      Ludwig von Mises writing to Ayn Rand:

      http://mises.org/etexts/misesatlas.pdf

      “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

      As for your caricature of liberalism, at least it’s amusing in how disconnected from reality it is.

      “liberalism is NOT the connecting thread between anarchism and libertarianism. liberalism (and republicanism for that matter) is the antithesis of libertarianism AND anarchism. Libertarianism focuses on freedom of choice and freedom of opportunity (and anarchism focuses on, well, anarchy). Liberalism focuses on freedom of outcome and tramples all freedom of choice.”

      Man, you really are stupid, aren’t you? There is no way I’m going to be able to have a rational discussion with you. Your ideologically dogmatic mentality is rather unappealing.

      It’s just a fact that liberalism is the connecting thread between libertarianism and anarchism. I realize that you are ignorantly clueless about liberalism, but fortunately liberals aren’t limited to your ignorantly clueless assessment of them. Like libertarianism, there is no singular liberal ideology. There is just a liberal way of looking at the world which can lead to various ideological conclusions depending on context which changes over time.

      I wrote about this in my post about classical liberalism:

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/is-classical-liberalism-liberal/

      Here is the relevant part:

      http://www.tnr.com/blog/alan-wolfe/false-distinction

      “When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.”

      If you want to understand liberalism (which I assume you don’t, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt), then read my post where I analyze various labels and the history of American politics:

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/03/16/political-labels-meaningless-divisive/

      “A further confusion is that many Americans, especially among conservatives, don’t understand the difference between a liberal, a socialist, a communist, and a fascist. It’s all one and the same to them. As I’ve already pointed out, the contemporary American liberal is actually a moderate and, I would add, a small ‘r’ republican (in that they support our republican government). Beyond that, a socialist isn’t a communist isn’t a fascist. Socialism is a broad category which gives power to individuals and to communities of individuals. To varying degrees, socialism can be found in many churches, local organizations, unions, etc. Communism and fascism, on the other hand, are specifically about governments. A communist government owns the means of production. And a fascist government is controlled by those who own the means of production. But the distinction is often blurred. For example, the Nazis were fascists who used socialism to label themselves while killing and imprisoning socialists as well as communists. If you were a socialist being killed or imprisoned by Nazis, you wouldn’t be comforted by the fact that Nazis labeled themselves as ‘socialists’.”

      Okay, now to continue with your diatribe.

      “A libertarian supports a mans right to be a racist if he should so choose, though he may not agree with it (and would not abide him physically harming another person with such racism)…”

      Here is an important difference. Right-libertarians, to generalize, only acknowledge or care about freedom from. Left-libertarians care about BOTH freedom from AND freedom toward. American conservatives (whether libertarian or not) tend to prioritize economic liberty in terms of individual rights (self ownership). American liberals (whether libertarian or not) tend to prioritize civil libertarianism in terms of social responsibility (egalitarianism – ownership, especially land ownership, is a right that inevitably excludes the right of others and inevitably leads to hierarchy).

      Along with reading Thoreau, I’d suggest you read Thomas Paine’s ‘Agrarian Justice’. Also, look at the demographics data from sources such as Cato and Pew.

      http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa580.pdf

      http://people-press.org/files/2011/05/Political-Typology-Detailed-Tables.pdf

      Libertarians are mostly white males who almost always vote Republican and who are the wealthiest group in the US. The Republican part is important because they consistently vote Republican more than liberals vote Democratic. Liberals are more evenly split between identify as Democrats and Independents.

      The reason libertarians aren’t concerned about freedom toward is that they’ve never faced much oppression and prejudice in their life. They take for granted what many Americans are still fighting to gain, i.e., basic fairness and justice, basic access of opportunities to succeed or fail based on one’s own talent and effort. There is good reason that the poor and disadvantaged tend to vote more similarly as the liberal ‘elite’… for it would be stupid of them to align their votes with libertarians (i.e., right-libertarians).

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/libertarians-privilege-partisanship/

      Here is a particularly relevant part of that post:

      http://www.willwilkinson.net/flybottle/2009/10/25/liberty-in-context/

      “It seems that insofar that libertarians experience oppression or constraints on their liberty, it is through the actions of the state rather than through culture, which makes sense. Libertarians are overwhelmingly white and male, and in a culture which highly values whiteness and maleness, they will face relatively fewer overt cultural constraints on their behavior than their more marginalized fellow-travelers. Or in other words, a fair number of libertarians are operating with a good deal of unexamined privilege, and it’s this, along with the extremely small number of women and minorities who operate within the libertarian framework, which makes grappling with cultural sources of oppression really hard for libertarians. After all – socially speaking – being a white guy in the United States isn’t exactly hard and that’s doubly true if you are well off.”

      To continue with my response:

      “the true political spectrum is not divided by Left vs Right. Its divided by Statist vs Libertarian. With anarchists just being libertarians who do not have a complete understanding of their own beliefs and the realities of human nature and crime corruption.”

      You have arrogant righteousness heaped upon naive ignorance heaped upon lack of historical context heaped upon general confusion.

      First, libertarianism began in Europe as a socialist workers movement. The issues of the rights of the working class became more relevant in the 18th century.

      For example, it was around that time that in Britain the commons were privatized (which was one of the early signs of the industrialization to come). The commons were publicly owned and used. The average (i.e., poor) person of the time depended on public lands to graze their animals, to hunt, to forage, to acquire firewood, etc. With the commons privatized, there was an increase of poverty and starvation which led to food riots. The first labor unions were formed around this time.

      It was in this social context that Thomas Paine was born. You must understand this era of history to fully understand why he wrote ‘Agrarian Justice’ and why he was the first American to formulate an (egalitarian) vision of an indpendent America with equal rights for all (including women, the propertyless, blacks, native americans, etc).

      Without the working class libertarian movements, there would be no Thomas Paine. Without Thomas Paine, there would have been no successful American Revolution.

      Second, you have no understanding of anarchism which makes sense considering it’s an inherently liberal way of looking at the world. Liberalism simply means to be ‘liberal’ (generous and giving, tolerant and seeking of compromise, allowing equal rights for all, desiring freedom both from and toward). Libertarianism is a limited form of liberalism and anarchism is a form of liberalism that seeks to eliminate all limits, or at least to eliminate all unnatural or unnecessary limits. Anarchism is anti-statist, but libertarianism is technically agnostic on the issue of government size. It’s true that American right-libertarians are minarchists, but a (civil) libertarian can be a statist (even minarchists are statists) or an anarchist.

      Some anarchists are naive, but not all. Anarchism is based on human nature. Their understanding is correct about human nature. The problem is that through civilization we have built a society that is contradictory to the natural conditions under which human nature evolved. So anarchism faces a behemoth of a problem that even right-libertarians are unwilling to face. Civilization as we know it is destructive an unsustainable. Right-libertarians offer no reasonable solution to how civilization might be made non-destructive and sustainable.

  2. Oh I forgot to say, most modern so called “anarchists” are not really anarchists at all. They are communists they just dont really understand the terms they are talking about because most “anarchists” are silly college children who really have very little idea of politics in general and are anarchists primarily to be “cool”, sporting their big red A’s and their Che t shirts and quoting Fight Club while listening to Anti-Flag and Rage Against the Machine, hardly aware that Ratm and che were really communists. I should also note that the randians are usually silly college students too. What happens is that a certain number of people who grow up liberal get pulled in to anarchism (and often even communism) thinking that they are a counter cultural intellectual. A certain number of other people who grow up republican becomes randians for the same reason. Both are attracted to libertarianism because it seems to be sort of a countercultural movement and it would seem to corroborate to an extent the beliefs held by these two, ironically, opposite groups. In reality. Libertarianism is not a counter culture movement and is in no way related to either of these cultural groups or ideals. The real fact of the matter is that the vast majority of libertarians are not only die hard constructionists and staunch patriots they are also typically christian. Just to burst one last fallacy. The tea party is not a conservative movement, nor is it a republican movement. It is a libertarian movement. If you would not describe yourself as a tea partier, more than likely you are not really a libertarian but some sort of independent blend.

    • just one last and final comment. Im gonna clear the skys about who really is a libertarian and who is NOT
      Michelle Bachman and John Boehner. NOT libertarians. Somehow they have managed to co opt the tea party. but definitly NOT libertarians.
      Ron Paul = libertarian
      Christopher Hitchens = not libertarian
      thomas jefferson = libertarian
      alexander hamilton = NOT libertarian
      John adams = not libertarian, but almost
      ben franklin = libertarian
      Glenn beck = more than less libertarian, but also somewhat of a republican sell out
      alex jones = nutcase with some libertarian ideas
      michael savage = not libertarian
      you= definitly NOT a libertarian. You sir, are a liberal. Ive read enough of your posts to out you. Sorry

    • “most modern so called “anarchists” are not really anarchists at all. They are communists they just dont really understand the terms they are talking about”

      First, anarchism is essentially liberal and socialist in nature. There is no way to implement the radial liberalism of anarchism without using socialists methods of organizing such as direct democracy.

      But of course anarcho-socialism will only work on the small-scale. This is because anarchism is based on the reality of human nature which only ever effectively works on the small-scale. By this, I mean the very small-scale, not just the minarchist state of right-libertarians. Social scientists have found that humans naturally form groups and can only collectively function at slightly above a 100 people. It’s only at this small level of group behavior that humans can operate without a state government of some sort.

      Second, you betray your ignorance in conflating socialism and communism. Socialism, like liberalism, is a more general category. Communism is a specific ideology with a specific history in specific countries. Communism is simply the mirror image of fascism, but socialism is the complete refutation of fascism. Right-libertarianism is closer to fascism than is anarchism.

      Any small group will probably be practicing some combination or variaton of socialism and anarchism.

      As an example, small hunter-gatherer tribes will almost inevitably be practicing some form of anarcho-socialism, but obviously at this level civil libertarianism may or may not apply (depending on which civil liberties you prioritize).

      As another example, when the members of a small independent church vote on how to spend church funds and volunteer to help their own needy members, they are acting in a somewhat anarchist manner by practicing both direct democracy and socialism.

      “The real fact of the matter is that the vast majority of libertarians are not only die hard constructionists and staunch patriots they are also typically christian.”

      That is an accurate description of the historically-detached and narrowly defined American right-libertarians. But that doesn’t describe all or even most libertarians in the world today.

      “The tea party is not a conservative movement, nor is it a republican movement. It is a libertarian movement. If you would not describe yourself as a tea partier, more than likely you are not really a libertarian but some sort of independent blend.”

      You really don’t know much, do you?

      First, a majority of Tea Party supporters have admitted to being prejudiced against racial and gender-identity minorities.

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/tea-party-prejudiced-against-marginalized-groups/

      That is hardly a libertarian position.

      Second, the demographic data disproves your ideological assumptions.

      http://people-press.org/files/2011/05/Political-Typology-Detailed-Tables.pdf

      Libertarians and Tea Party supporters both mostly vote Republican, but Tea Party supporters vote more Republican than Libertarians.

      A majority of Staunch Conservatives support the Tea Party, but only a minority of Libertarians support the Tea Party. Staunch conservatives are, in fact, the only demographic that has majority support for the Tea Party.

      Staunch Conservatives, when compared to all other demographics, show the most support for the Republican Party and for Bush. They are both the base of the Republican Party and the Tea Party.

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