In 2011, Laissez Faire Books, the direct mail service that built the libertarian literary world as it was known in the 1970s, was being operated by a different company that contacted me to be executive editor. I accepted the position.
I worked to find a profitability model that could work in the age of Amazon. The result was the first (to my knowledge) for-profit digital book service to publish entirely in the commons. It was a success for a time until the model needed to change to something else a few years later, because my model centered on ideology had reached its maximum scope.
In the year I first began, I contacted my friend Andrea Rich who had been a co-founder of the service, and we talked for hours about the challenges and triumphs of the past and the prospects for the future. She was extremely encouraging, and that made me feel right about what I was doing, that my modernization efforts were consistent with the past.
At the same time, she was worried about the future of what was then called “the movement.” It was becoming highly politicized, less intellectual, less focussed on ideas and more on personalities, and ever less interested in serious ideas.
She was of two minds. She was happy for the growth. But she was wary about the new populism.
She had devoted her life to serious ideas. She knew that libertarianism would always be more than a meme, could not be summed up in a slogan, is less intuitive than the converted and convinced believed. In her view, libertarianism certainly cannot and should not be instantiated and centralized in a political movement. So far as she was concerned, there was no obvious case for optimism about the movement as it was developing in 2012, and we would have to wait to see what became of the new energy in the future.
This week, we received word that Andrea died. My mind raced back to these phonecalls and her worries and warnings. They had a prescience about them. The libertarian world today is vastly different from what she built in the 1970s. The post-political demoralization long ago set in. People have taken what they learned and turned to other pursuits.
As a result, the movement is more decentralized, diffuse, and diverse, and its interests have take a huge variety of forms. The modal today has ever less to do with thought leaders and instead revolves around lifestyle, research programs, and technology enthusiasms. Indeed, it is not a movement at all anymore. That might be a good thing.
Attending conferences today, especially the bigger ones, and you hear very little about politics as such. You hear about diet, education, spirituality, child rearing, cryptocurrency, futurism, and travel. What makes this world libertarian? Each of these sectors, and there are hundreds of them, desire one main political template: the right to live according to their own lights. It makes sense.
Think about the term laissez faire. It means leave society alone to organize itself. The notion is fragile and only rarely has it happened in history. To realize it requires intellectual activism of the very sort pushed by Andrea: inspiring people to read, think, understand, distrust elite authority, believe in high ideals, and then work to live better lives.
The movement as it was known has been through ups and downs but it has finally settled on what she knew all along. Liberty is a big tent with many iterations. Its roots are not in mass political organizing but in beautiful ideals and dreams of a freer world.