Publication Date

April 2012


The origins of the American conservative movement lie in several strands of political and economic thought. The contemporary narrative about free and unfettered markets, i.e. neoliberalism, had been adopted from the early laissez-faire individualism of the American Old Right. In light of the recent political ascent of “Tea Party Conservatism” in the United States and its misappropriation of laissez-faire ideas, this paper traces the development of this one aspect of the American conservative tradition, what is now commonly referred to as libertarianism.[i]

This article is not meant to be an exhaustive review of laissez-faire individualist thought during this period but rather an analysis of some important and influential ideas which shaped the intellectual movement’s descent from an attempt to resolve the power of the state or of the collective will over the individual into quasi-aristocratic ideology. Here, the term, ideology, denotes an idea structure which naturalizes and de-historicizes social patterns and processes. In the case of laissez-faire individualism, it had been reduced to a discursive instrument to give economic credibility to an inherently aristocratic and anti-democratic political formation – the American New Right.

[i] R. Pilon, ‘Tea Party Conservatism and the GOP’, Cato Institute Website (2009), retrieved on November 8, 2010 (http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/tea-party-conservatism-and-the-gop/).