The Leopold and Loeb of Modern Libertarianism

by Corey Robin on May 9, 2013

“Nathan Leopold is not the only boy who has read Nietzsche.” So said Clarence Darrow at the trial of Leopold and Loeb, the two University of Chicago law students who had murdered young Bobby Franks for no other reason than to prove that they were Nietzschean Supermen who could.

When I’m feeling mischievous, I think of using that line as an epigraph for an essay on Nietzsche and libertarianism. How many teenage boys, after all, have found their way into the free market via Nietzsche? None, one insider tells me; a lot, says another. My impression is that the latter is right, but good data is hard to come by.

Every ten years, Liberty Magazine polls its readers about their intellectual influences. The magazine draws up a list of candidates to vote on. Nietzsche is never on it. Even so, he gets written in each time by the readers. So much so that the editors have been forced to acknowledge on more than one occasion that should they put his name on the pre-approved list of possible influences he might draw more votes than some if not many of the others.

Ask any scholar about this connection between Nietzsche and libertarianism and she’ll tell you those teenage boys don’t know what they’re talking about. Nietzsche loathed capitalism almost as much as he loathed capitalists, whom he loathed almost as much as he loathed economists. Still I’ve wondered: Might there not be more than the misguided enthusiasm of adolescents connecting Nietzsche to the modern movement for free markets?

Today The Nation is publishing an essay by me—”Nietzsche’s Marginal Children“—that attempts to provide an answer. It’s long; I’ve been working on it for more than a year. But it’s my best guess as to what the connection might be. [click to continue…]

#### I

Felix Gilman’s *The Half-Made World* and *The Rise of Ransom City* tell a familiar story in an unexpected way. There is a fantasy world. There is a fantastic menace plaguing it. There is a magical weapon that could destroy that menace. There is a plucky hero, or heroes, who undertake to retrieve that weapon. There is a war that emerges from, enables, and/or complicates their efforts.

It’s a story we all know, which Gilman seems very much aware of; in his telling of it, he seems determined to confound the expectations that emerge from that knowledge. For one thing, our heroes are neither particularly plucky nor, until forced to by the most utter extremes of circumstances, particularly heroic. One of them, John Creedmoor, is in fact a servant of The Gun, one of the Powers whose defeat is the books’ business. A former idealist who bounced from one cause to another, Creedmoor took up the Gun’s service after realizing that he lacked the strength of character to commit to any moral cause (and certainly not any that might require him to stay firm in his beliefs in the face of mockery and humiliation). Throughout *The Half-Made World,* he needles Marmion, the spirit animating his magical revolver, who has endowed him with strength, healing powers, and longevity, over the senselessness of the violence it asks him to commit. But in the end he always carries out his masters’ orders—most memorably, the kidnapping of the young daughter of an industrialist, which is so bungled that the child dies before her father can even be approached for ransom. As *The Half-Made World*’s villain, Lowry, astutely puts it, Creedmoor is the kind of person who demands “to be admired both for his loyalty and for his disloyalty [to the Guns], and for his oh-so-tortured indecision between the two.” [click to continue…]