A few years ago in Obion County, Tennessee, a homeowner called 911 to report that a trash fire in his backyard had gotten out of control. The operator told him, however, that because he had forgotten to pay his $75 annual fee, the newly privatized city fire department wouldn’t help him. The fire brigade eventually showed up to prevent the blaze from spreading to the property of a paid-up neighbor, but they let the fire consume the debtor’s house. 

In his new book Burning Down the House, Northwestern University law professor Andrew Koppelman sees this episode as reflecting the form of libertarianism that has been popular with much of the modern right, which manifests as a callous indifference to other people’s misfortunes. But Koppelman sees this as a corrupted form of the libertarianism outlined by one of its greatest twentieth-century exponents, the economist Friedrich Hayek. Although Hayekian libertarianism shares the right’s faith in capitalism and its distrust of central economic planning, it also shares much of the left’s concern for the well-being of the poorest members of society and accepts significant government action. In fact, in 1960, Hayek proposed a health care plan that anticipated the general idea of the Affordable Care Act. 

In Koppelman’s view, libertarianism as a right-wing phenomenon owes to its reinterpretation by greedy interests and extremist thinkers like Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, and Ayn Rand, who opposed nearly everything that government does. Rothbard, in fact, “takes the libertarian’s hatred of state oppression to its maximum. He demands a world with no government at all, in which the market rules everything. Even police and legal services should be offered by competing entrepreneurs.”

In this podcast discussion, Andrew Koppelman traces how Hayek’s moderate, pro-market libertarianism was twisted into the service of right-wing extremism, such as Charles Koch’s program of climate change denial. He calls for a reclamation of the original Hayekian vision in a way that can bring about more robust capitalism and more stable and inclusive societies. 

Note: the transcript for this episode of The Vital Center will be published here by 11/14.

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