Burning Down the House
How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed
A lively history of American libertarianism and its decay into dangerous fantasy.
In 2010 in South Fulton, Tennessee, each household paid the local fire department a yearly fee of $75.00. That year, Gene Cranick's house accidentally caught fire. But the fire department refused to come because Cranick had forgotten to pay his yearly fee, leaving his home in ashes. Observers across the political spectrum agreed—some with horror and some with enthusiasm—that this revealed the true face of libertarianism. But libertarianism did not always require callous indifference to the misfortunes of others.
Modern libertarianism began with Friedrich Hayek’s admirable corrective to the Depression-era vogue for central economic planning. It resisted oppressive state power. It showed how capitalism could improve life for everyone. Yet today, it's a toxic blend of anarchism, disdain for the weak, and rationalization for environmental catastrophe. Libertarians today accept new, radical arguments—which crumble under scrutiny—that justify dishonest business practices and Covid deniers who refuse to wear masks in the name of “freedom.”
Andrew Koppelman’s book traces libertarianism's evolution from Hayek’s moderate pro-market ideas to the romantic fabulism of Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, and Ayn Rand, and Charles Koch’s promotion of climate change denial. Burning Down the House is the definitive history of an ideological movement that has reshaped American politics.
Northwestern University law professor Koppelman (Gay Rights vs. Religious Liberty?) argues in this pointed and persuasive critique that libertarianism has mutated into "an infantile fantasy of godlike self-sufficiency." Tracing the core principles of "modern American libertarianism" to Austrian political philosopher Friedrich Hayek, Koppelman details how Hayek's belief that "opportunities created by the free markets" are the best way to alleviate poverty has been corrupted by thinkers including Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, and Murray Rothbard, who share an extreme commitment to property rights, hostility to government regulation, and a willful blindness to market externalities such as pollution and the emergence of noncompetitive monopolies. This extreme form of libertarianism, Koppelman shows, has inspired Republican Party policy from the 1994 Contract with America to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and is behind the party's steadfast opposition to Obamacare and environmental regulation. Though Koppelman's contention that Hayek's "middle way" aligns with modern-day Democratic principles has some blind spots—including Hayek's ambivalence toward antitrust laws—he makes a strong case that "unregulated markets cannot deliver a livable world." This treatise has the power to reach readers on both the right and the left.