21H.181 | Spring 2014 | Undergraduate

Libertarianism in History


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Description

The will to live free of the control of the state (or of organized groups who have coopted state authority) is one of the most powerful and controversial motors of western history. This course explores the history of the ideal of personal freedom with an eye towards contemporary debates over the pros and cons of the regulatory state. The first part of the course explores the sociological and theological sources of the concept of freedom and introduces liberty’s leading relatives or competitors: Property, equality, community, and republicanism. Part Two consists of a series of case studies in the rise of modern liberty and libertarianism: The abolition of slavery, the struggle for religious freedom, and the twentieth-century American civil liberties movement. In the last part of the course, we take up debates over the role of libertarianism vs. the regulatory state in a variety of contexts: Counter-terrorism, health care, the financial markets, and the Internet. Throughout, students are asked to consider two problems: (1) The tension between liberty or libertarianism as a general philosophy of life and the need for context-specific judgments about that philosophy; and (2) What points those opposing or favoring broadly libertarian visions are not hearing or fully comprehending. Readings are drawn from political philosophy, sociology, history, and law.

The basic objectives of the course are twofold: To familiarize students with the varieties of libertarianism and their histories, and to enable students to argue effectively about libertarianism on several different levels. Libertarianism has historical, political-theoretical, and policy dimensions (among others), and by the end of the course students should be able to assess and critique the claims made both for and against libertarianism on all three of these levels. The claims in question are often controversial, and they are a constant presence in political, legal, and social argument. The course should help students to engage in oral debate over these issues, and then also to write about them reflectively and with the benefit of historical perspective.

Required Texts

There is one text required for this course:

Sandel, Michael J., ed. Justice: A Reader. Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN: 9780195335125. [Preview with Google Books]

All other readings can be found in the Readings section.

Course Format, Assignments, and Evaluation

The class meets twice a week. The first twenty or so minutes of each meeting will consist of lecture-style introductions to the day’s topic. The remainder of each class will be devoted to group discussion of the assigned texts for that day.

Regular attendance and participation in class discussions are expected. Students will be asked to demonstrate their engagement with the texts primarily by way of participation in our group discussions, but also by means of two kinds of supplementary exercises. First, students will be asked on a few occasions to post brief responses to the readings on the class website during the course of the semester (roughly one for each part of the course, for a total of three).

Second, we will hold two in-class debates during the course of the semester.

Finally, the course assignments include two papers. The first is a paper of 8–10 pages on a topic relating to the history and political theory of liberty as an ideal (Part One of the course). The second is a 10–12 page paper that more deeply explores one of the case studies or controversies we will study in Parts Two and Three of the course.

Paper 1 20%
Paper 2 40%
Reading Response Papers (3) 10%
Class Participation 30%

For further detail on the course assignments, please see the Assignments section.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2014
Learning Resource Types
Problem Sets
Written Assignments