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Were the Founders Libertarian?

Were the Founders Libertarian?

by Tibor R. Machan

In the fall 2001 issue of The National Interest, Francis Fukuyama writes in response to my brief statement of the meaning of the term “natural rights,” namely, that “properly understood, [they] are liberties, spheres of personal authority within which one does as one judges fit-even if it may be unwise, imprudent or cowardly-and others must gain entrance by permission. Fukuyama responds that “Mr. Machan’s point is, as I understand it, that the United States was founded on what we would now label libertarian principles. This is simply not true: most of the American Founding Fathers believed that virtue was necessary for a successful democracy, to the extent that many believed that the states (though not the Federal government) had a right to establish religious belief. Most would almost certainly have disapproved of individuals consuming pornography in the privacy of their own homes. We have moved toward what Michael Sandel labels “procedural liberalism” in which the state takes no interest in virtue or individual ends only in the second half of the 20th century. I am in fact a supporter of classical liberalism, at least of the Tocquevillian variety, which implies the need for certain values beyond the bare-bones procedural institutions to guarantee the possibility of ordered liberty.”

I return to this exchange because it comes up often when conservatives discuss the American founding. It is their customary theme that the Founders were really not interested in human liberty but rather in instilling virtue in us all. Both Fukuyama and these conservatives are wrong.

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