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Libertarian Lettuce

In a costly ideological experiment, Liz Truss’s unprecedentedly short-lived UK premiership showed what happens when full-bore libertarianism is put into practice. It turns out that social order, and markets themselves, need government after all.

CAMBRIDGE – Following the brutal market backlash against her plans for unfunded tax cuts and tens of billions of pounds in additional spending, Liz Truss resigned as British prime minister, succeeded by her Tory rival, Rishi Sunak. The international media is now struggling to make sense of it all, but the task may be impossible. I have been working at it for over a decade and remain, in some ways, perplexed.

In 2007, I wanted to learn more about Friedrich von Hayek and “Austrian economics” – the inspiration for Truss’s libertarian philosophy – and so attended a two-week summer school program organized by the Foundation for Economic Education in the United States. Founded in the mid-1940s to incubate free-market ideology, FEE emerged as one of America’s first and most influential right-wing think tanks. All the “greats” of libertarianism – including its high priest, Ludwig von Mises, the journalist Henry Hazlitt, and Hayek himself – had convened under its auspices.

In temporarily joining the FEE ranks at their previous headquarters in Irvington-on-Hudson, in upstate New York, I was immediately struck by how different the organization felt compared to other think tanks and academic forums I had encountered. One minute, we were all innocently agreeing that individual liberty is a valuable principle; the next minute, we found ourselves on a philosophical rollercoaster ride, with the concept of “self-ownership” hurtling us toward fantastical places.

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