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The Libertarian Utopia: Sweet Dream or Nightmare? Part 1

Updated on February 23, 2012

A Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian State?

Conflict and confrontation in American government is nothing new. Many people look at the gridlock of the past year and think that this has to be the worst period in American history. It's important to remember that people in government have rarely gotten along while singing kumbaya around the campfire. There have been physical altercations in Congress, the most famous of which was probably the Sumner-Brooks affair in which Congressman Preston Brooks bludgeoned Senator Charles Sumner within an inch of his life over some comments Sumner made regarding one of Brooks' kinfolk. Such fisticuffs have not been terribly common in recent years, but gridlock is a fact of life when it comes to American government. Much of the gridlock comes from a disagreement over what America should look like. Many Republicans on the right wing of the party today lean toward libertarianism. A textbook definition of a libertarian is one who seeks to maximize individual rights while minimizing the role of the state ( This idea seems to be the American ideal. But the question arises, would such a state work effectively?

Competing Views

If one were to look up the definition of libertarian in a picture dictionary, it is likely that a picture of Thomas Jefferson would pop up. Jefferson was the most libertarian-leaning president in United States history. He had a strong faith in the people and thought that maximizing personal liberty would be a great thing for the new country. He was for a small, weak national government that had as little to do with the everyday lives of the people as possible. His ideal state was made up of sturdy yeoman farmers, although in the classical terminology, Jefferson himself would have qualified as a gentleman. Both yeomen and gentlemen owned the land that they worked. The difference between the two lay in who worked the land. Yeomen worked their own land, while gentlemen had others work the land for them (in Jefferson's case, slaves, which is ironic considering his emphasis on liberty). Jefferson was no fan of urban areas and did not emphasize the growth of industry, because of his desire for an agrarian state.

Jefferson's nemesis in the Washington administration and afterward was Alexander Hamilton. On just about every major issue, Hamilton and Jefferson disagreed. Hamilton wanted a strong national government that could compete with the nations of Europe. The strong national government would legitimate the newly created United States on the world stage. He encouraged the growth of industries and cities. Finally, Hamilton was for creating a national debt to finance the nation's growth (much as Great Britain had), while Jefferson wanted to retire the debt from the American Revolution.

One does not need to look far in American life today to see that the Hamiltonian vision characterizes the United States much more than does the Jeffersonian vision. In many ways, it generally has throughout the nation's history. Could a libertarian vision in the Jeffersonian tradition work in today's world? Some politicians seem to argue that it would. However, the United States has fundamentally changed since TJ's time on the national stage. A largely agrarian country became one of the most industrialized and advanced nations on the planet. In Jefferson's day, just about anyone could save up enough money to buy cheap land and make their own way on the frontier. 40-acre plots could be had for $40 in the old Northwest Territory. During the era of the Homestead Act, the government gave away land to the tune of 160-acres for basically nothing if people lived on it for five years and "improved" it. Moving wasn't easy, but there was opportunity.

Under nineteenth-century conditions, the rugged individualist could thrive with little influence from the government, or anyone else for that matter. Today, land costs in the thousands per acre, which puts it out of reach for many people. According to the 1890 census, the frontier officially closed. The government no longer gives free land away. The US government still owns quite a bit of land, but much of it is in western desert areas that are not conducive to farming. While it appeared that Jefferson's "empire for liberty" could be realized for a time in the nineteenth century, American life has radically changed.


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    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 6 years ago from Space Coast

      I appreciate your detailed response and examples from home.

      I hear what you are saying about the nation of yeomen farmers and find your points to be strong. However, Jeffersonian principals cover a wider gamut of situations than you are giving credit here. It can apply to a nation of small business and reasonable industry. I believe his emphasis was on regional autonomy more than a system based on a particular agricultural/market model.

      Rules change. The industrial revolution has run its course and left us in the lurch. We need to scrap the vision of the 1965 Worlds Fair and Ivy League finance. Regional interests can compete. We better hope so anyway. We are inching our way into national socialism on the platform of both parties. Name your poison.

    • profile image

      Charles Hilton 6 years ago

      The only way for the Jeffersonian ideal to work today is for everyone to be a farmer or an independent contractor, and anyone can see that's not going to happen. Jefferson's world was still agrarian and artisan, and America's massive social upheaval created by full-scale industrialization was still many decades away. And since that time, our bureaucratic, techno-industrial world has created problems of inequity and injustice that America's founders couldn't have imagined.

    • cprice75 profile image

      cprice75 6 years ago from USA

      Regional farmers can do quite well. However, there is a big difference between a regional farmer and the nation of small yeoman farmers that Jefferson wanted. I live in North Dakota currently. A good-sized farm from what one local farmer told me is about 5,000 acres. The NW Ordinance and Homestead Act provided for way smaller farms. Fewer people as a percentage hold enough land to successfully subsist without much help from outside. Those with economies of scale can afford the latest in labor-saving devices that are too expensive for the small farmer. Therefore, they are required to depend upon other people for their success, unless they can start a successful small business.

      I actually have a problem with regulations that benefit large corporations only. But these are frequently the people who head regulatory agencies, so it's only to be expected. After the 1997 Grand Forks flood in North Dakota (the entire city was evacuated), the Army Corps of Engineers built a huge dyke to protect the city from similar floods in the future. New Orleans was only the most obvious examples. Presidents are always declaring disaster areas somewhere in the US, which often provides national guard (they were on the scene in NO) and federal emergency funding. I honestly can't remember a state turning it down. FEMA was frequently helping out in West Virginia during major floods.

      I still don't think that the Jeffersonian ideal can work in today's world because he expected a nation of independent yeoman farmers. There's not enough arable land available today to provide every family with 40 acres and a mule. The Industrial Revolution changed the rules of the game in a big way. While individuals can occasionally succeed in a Jeffersonian way, the majority probably won't.

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 6 years ago from Space Coast

      I don't want to have a duel at dawn, but I don't believe you can make absolute statements about Jeffersonian ideology not being able to succeed in today's conditions. Things in the market are no different than they have ever been. Regional farmers, small business, and industry can compete on the global market. We are stuck in a false mind set about the economy and what makes it flourish for all.

      Strong regional juntas along the lines of what Franklin and Jefferson invested in are more practical than centralized power.

      I believe you are alluding to slanted press coverage of events in Louisiana with your FEMA example. The squeaky wheels stole the show. Regional volunteers from Florida were the first on the scene, and we don't cry about the what Washington DC can't do. We know how do deal with a big storm. If you want to come through this one, you will do well to follow our advice.

    • cprice75 profile image

      cprice75 6 years ago from USA

      Thanks for the comments. @ Charles: I think you are correct that most students of American history have no clue as to how bad it was for those who were not land-owning white males in the colonial and early national periods. In teaching US history, I try to combine traditional political history with a social history that looks at the masses, black, white, and red. I feel that this emphasis gives a more complete picture of the way the world worked in those days.

      @WD: I think that most people would say they are more along the lines of Jeffersonians, until they run into difficulties that they can't handle themselves. Then, they become Hamiltonians. For example, a massive act of God destroys hundreds or thousands of homes--these folks will have no problem taking help from FEMA. Jefferson's ideal could work in a non-industrialized world with very few people. A modern industrial nation with a large population cannot maintain that type of society because the small landowners cannot compete in the larger market-based economy.

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 6 years ago from Space Coast

      Well researched and very interesting. It stimulated this thought. Do you think that average Americans tend to agree more with Jefferson and the lean towards the Hamilton vision is due more to the world events the country has had to cope with?

    • profile image

      Charles Hilton 6 years ago

      It's good that you bring-up the differences between the world America's founders inhabited and the world we live in today. Unfortunately, there's a whole political party that thinks we still--or should still---live in those times. And they are those for whom their ideology warps their perception of reality.

      Others, on the other hand, yield to reality in forming their worldview.

      Most Americans are woefully uneducated in American history and the public school textbooks do a grave injustice in glossing-over the unpleasant parts and leaving out the struggles of everyday Americans in their fight for justice and equality against the status-quo.

      Those who think along Libertarian lines need to re-educate themselves---the ruling class they rail against isn't just composed of politicians, but, the wealthy who control them. And that's always been the case. But, they want to give the wealthy free reign to do whatever they please at any consequence to society at large. They mistakenly assume that the wealthy aren't greedy and manipulative and destructive.

      History tells a different story.

      Excellent hub!

    • cprice75 profile image

      cprice75 6 years ago from USA

      I'm personally against all of the above donating millions or billions for campaigns, whether liberal, conservative, or somewhat in between. Big donations cause politicians to pander to their real constituents--those who foot the bill--and not the people who actually vote them into office.

    • American Romance profile image

      American Romance 6 years ago from America

      I always laugh when I hear the name Koch, These brothers donate a couple of million dollars and OMG! The Democrats come out of the woodwork screaming foul! I have never even seen an interview by these Koch fellows! I see Zoros on TV all the time and we know from records he donates Billions to liberalism! .........I know I got off key but that struck me as funny.

    • cprice75 profile image

      cprice75 6 years ago from USA

      Thanks for the comments. People also need to look at what extreme libertarianism would mean for them personally, unless they are in the world of the Kochs or George Soros in terms of their wealth (not ideology).

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good historical background and introduction to "Libertarianism." I find that many people who say they are libertarians havenot carefully thought through what a return to am extreme libertarian position would mean for the United States. Looking forward to additional posts.

    • profile image

      Mtbailz 6 years ago

      A very good look into the subject. Well written with some great analysis. Great job!


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