I believe Henry Olsen’s understanding of classical liberalism or libertarianism, as expressed in his Jan. 3 op-ed, “Libertarianism is losing its grip on conservative thought. Good.,” was incomplete.

I taught Friedrich Hayek’s classic “The Road to Serfdom,” long considered the “bible” of classical liberalism, for many years as a professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

One of the reasons libertarianism is “losing its grip” is because libertarians are a heterogeneous, hardly a homogeneous, population. That is true for Democrats as well, which is why, in my opinion, they keep losing to Republicans. Many libertarians disagree on the proper role of the state. Many libertarians believe that when it comes to the “myth of mental illness,” psychiatrist Thomas Szasz’s seminal argument, a “therapeutic state” is desirable. The writings of Szasz were eschewed by some libertarians I know at the Cato Institute and elsewhere: “We all think Dr. Szasz is a great libertarian, but his views on mental illness are crazy.” Their understanding of Szasz is incomplete and in fact consistent with their other first premises.

Classical liberalism is not anarchism. The proper role of the state is to protect us from others, not to protect us from ourselves. People should have a right to smoke cigarettes, but one does not have a right to inflict secondhand smoke on others. And of course, Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, et al., were staunchly opposed to socialism, the true road to serfdom.

Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ellicott City

Henry Olsen portrayed the political discourse among Republicans as a rational process that will naturally weed out the more extreme policies of the party. He quoted an article by conservative economist Tyler Cowen arguing that pure libertarianism can’t survive politically because most voters don’t want to see a government that is too weak to provide for citizens’ needs.

It’s true libertarian policies will never win favor with a majority of voters. A number of conservatives, libertarians or not, have made this observation. Unfortunately, they did not consider that they would abandon the attempt to cripple government because of the voters’ disfavor. There is always deception. 

The American Legislative Exchange Council, which proposes “model legislation” for states, focused on the goal of weaker government and voter denial as the way to achieve it: less assistance for the mobile elderly, limited voting hours and fewer voting locations in minority and college communities, frequent purging of voter rolls, and burdensome photo-identification requirements. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have the kind of ID required by states with strict rules, and that percentage is even higher among seniors, minorities, people with disabilities, low-income voters and students.

It is encouraging that voters are not so foolish as to support the destructive political ideas promoted by libertarians. A threat remains, however, as long as extremists have the financial resources to undermine American democracy.

Larry Specht, Washington