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Friday, December 1, 1995

Liberty and the Great Libertarians

Sprading Resolutely Uses the Term "Libertarian"

I was at Powell’s bookstore in Portland and saw the aged print on the binder-edge of the yellowed dust-jacket: Liberty and the Great Libertarians—Sprading—$1.50. Very curious, I thought. The Preface began with a definition from Webster’s: “Libertarian: One who upholds the principle of liberty, especially individual liberty of thought and action.” This “Anthology of Liberty” collected the most libertarian passages from the writings of Burke, Paine, Jefferson, Godwin, von Humboldt, Mill, Emerson, the abolitionists, Josiah Warren, Thoreau, Spencer, Spooner, Ingersoll, George, Tucker, Auberon Herbert, and many others. In all it was 540 pages, “published for the author,” in Los Angeles. I marvelled at the publication date: 1913.

When I arrived back home the new catalogue from Laissez-Faire Books was waiting, with a re-edition, newly typeset, of this remarkable volume featured on the cover.

The new dust-jacket contains information provided by Carl Watner about Charles Sprading (1871-1959). As a convert to Benjamin Tucker’s individualist anarchism, Sprading moved to Los Angeles soon after the turn of the century. In that city he spoke frequently for the Liberal Club. He was active in the Libertarian League and served as contributing editor of its journal: The Libertarian (1922-1924). During the 1920s Sprading wrote several tracts and short books which were published by The Libertarian Publishing Company. The Libertarian League in Los Angeles “petered out during the 1930s, as its main participants passed from the scene.”

It is apparent from the care and judgment that went into the selection, as well as from Sprading’s introduction, that the libertarian spirit was alive and well in Los Angeles in 1913.

Sprading shows a delight in aphorisms and short pithy passages. There are ample pages of selected “Laconics of Liberty,” representing scores of thinkers, famous and obscure. The volume serves as a libertarian sampler permitting easy acquaintance with insightful and passionate lovers of liberty.

To me the special significance of the book is Sprading’s resolute usage of the term “libertarian.” There is no reason to think that Sprading fancied the thought of having a definitive characterization of The Good in all political matters. The wide-ranging material might suggest that Sprading was aware of ambiguities and incompleteness of the idea of individual liberty, even in its specifically libertarian sense. It is a growing awareness today of limitations of the paradigmatic libertarianism of the late, great Murray Rothbard, I believe, that has prompted leaders of the movement to promote alternative names for the party of liberty—“neoliberalism,” “market liberalism,” “classical liberalism,” “postlibertarianism.” These are efforts to project a less brittle philosophy which nonetheless affirms the worthiness of radical anti-state reform. I’ve been gathering a file of material that shows that long before Rothbard, diverse writers saw the trouble of the term “liberal” and employed “libertarian.” Sprading’s book is a landmark that assists one in maintaining that the family name is libertarianism.

  • Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm). At GMU he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is the author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation and editor of Econ Journal Watch.