Libertarianism emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with an unwavering commitment to progressive causes, from women’s rights and the fight against slavery to anti-colonialism and Irish emancipation. Today, this movement founded on the principle of individual liberty finds itself divided by both progressive and reactionary elements vying to claim it as their own. The Individualists is the untold story of a political doctrine continually reshaped by fierce internal tensions, bold and eccentric personalities, and shifting political circumstances.
Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi trace the history of libertarianism from its origins as a radical progressive ideology in the 1850s to its crisis of identity today. They examine the doctrine’s evolution through six defining themes: private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, individualism, spontaneous order, and individual liberty. They show how the movement took a turn toward conservativism during the Cold War, when the dangers of communism at home and abroad came to dominate libertarian thinking. Zwolinski and Tomasi reveal a history that is wider, more diverse, and more contentious than many of us realize.
A groundbreaking work of scholarship, The Individualists uncovers the neglected roots of a movement that has championed the poor and marginalized since its founding, but whose talk of equal liberty has often been bent to serve the interests of the rich and powerful.
"One of the best guides you’ll find to the libertarian universe."—Jesse Walker, Reason
"Zwolinski and Tomasi’s historical survey of the libertarian movement, warts and all, is uncommonly honest and comprehensive. Purely as exegesis, the book is without peer, and anyone who wants to know what libertarianism is should run, not walk, to pick it up."—Matt McManus, Jacobin
"Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi [are] both committed libertarians who are appalled at the movement’s turn toward a harder-edged conservatism. . . . As they see it, libertarianism once had a left-of-center valence—and could still reclaim it"—Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New Yorker
"If there is one lesson to take away from The Individualists, it’s that the meaning of libertarianism has always been contested and in flux, a movement more capacious than it is often given credit for. . . . [It] doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of libertarianism, but it highlights much more that libertarians can take pride in."—Jacob Grier, Washington Examiner
"Some books become good friends. They not only stimulate our minds, but they also speak to our very souls. The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism, by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi, is such a book. The two authors do everything humanly possible to uncover and reveal the deepest roots of modern and post-modern libertarianism, tracing its very diverse and tenuous strands back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, noting that, ultimately, it’s a radical form of classical liberalism. At one level, it’s a biography of the very idea of libertarianism, but at another level, it’s an intellectual autobiography of anyone who considers him- or herself libertarian."—Bradley J. Birzer, Law & Liberty
“The Individualists is the definitive intellectual history of a movement that is the unacknowledged motive force behind much of postwar American politics and culture. Zwolinski and Tomasi provide an indispensable guide to libertarian ideas and an invaluable map to where the movement—and thus the country, if not the globe—is likely to head over the next generation.”—Nick Gillespie, editor at large, Reason magazine
“This important book has a long historical sweep while being urgent and timely. Zwolinski and Tomasi reclaim the radical and humane core of libertarianism at its best while honestly examining why it has so often failed to realize its promise. Libertarian thought and politics are at a moment of decision: continued alignment with an increasingly authoritarian and populist right or fulfillment of the liberal individualist vision of freedom. This is a book about that decision, and about choosing well.”—Jacob T. Levy, McGill University
“Zwolinski and Tomasi have written the definitive book about libertarian ideas reaching up to the present day. They show that libertarianism remains a vital and fascinating source of ideological energy and influence.”—Tyler Cowen, coauthor of Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners around the World
“This is a fine piece of work: erudite, but at just the right level of detail for the general reader; tightly organized and engagingly written. Over a range of issues, it traces libertarian thought from its nineteenth-century roots to its contemporary manifestations.”—Andrew Koppelman, author of Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed