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Book Review: Libertarianism


Libertarianism: A Primer
by David Boaz (New York: The Free Press 1997); 312 pages; $23.00.

The greatest triumph of socialism during the last one hundred years has been the extent to which collectivist ideas dominate the vocabulary and the concepts of public policy. Socialism, in the 20th century, succeeded in undermining and, in many cases, eliminating any clear conception of the free society, as well as any understanding of how a fully free society might work and solve the social problems of our time.

What America and the world greatly need, therefore, are articulate, persuasive, and well-reasoned arguments for individual liberty and the free society. Luckily, with every passing year, the number of proponents of liberty continues to increase. And with this increase in the number of freedom’s friends has come a growing number of books advocating human freedom. But, alas, the enemies of freedom still outnumber its advocates.

Therefore, every work that succeeds in arguing freedom’s case in terms that can reach out and explain it to a general audience is to be valued and recognized. One of the most recent ones in this category is Libertarianism: A Primer by David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute.

When first presented, the idea of liberty strikes many people as not only “extreme” and out-of-step with the existing order of things but somehow outside of the accepted American tradition. It is especially useful, therefore, that early in the book, Mr. Boaz devotes a 25-page chapter to an extremely readable history of liberty through the ages. It has just the right balance of detail and brevity, so that the reader is given all the essential facts and events without becoming lost in the narrative.

Following the approach of Lord Acton, Mr. Boaz begins the reader’s journey with an explanation of the origin of the idea of human liberty in the Judeo-Christian heritage. A crucial contribution of Judaism and Christianity was the idea that there is a higher law above the temporal powers of earthly kings and to which even the most humble of the society may have recourse if their rights and duties before God are threatened by political power. He also links this contribution to that of the Greeks and the ancient Romans, especially the Roman notion of “natural law.” He explains how, out of the conflicts between church, noblemen, and monarchs, developed the notion of decentralized power and countervailing authority against a single political force. Mr. Boaz also explains how, out of the religious wars of the Reformation, emerged the growing tradition of religious toleration, respect for the freedom of conscience of the individual, and the idea of peaceful competition as the superior means to change men’s minds.

With the coming of the Enlightenment, the author continues, there emerged the ideas of the rights of man — the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and property. The triumph of these ideas created the personal freedom and free-market prosperity of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Alas, the counterrevolution of socialist and interventionist ideas in our century has threatened freedom’s progress. But now, in the wake of collectivism’s failures, the opportunity presents itself for a return to the path of liberty.

On this historical foundation, Mr. Boaz then defends individual freedom on the basis of natural rights. He discusses the modern development of a natural-rights basis for human freedom in the context of John Locke, the American Founding Fathers, and in the 20th-century writings of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick.

Mr. Boaz applies this principle to such themes as “the dignity of the individual,” “pluralism and toleration,” “law and the constitution,” “civil society,” and “the market process.” Once rights are seen as belonging only to individuals and as preceding the establishment of government, then it logically follows that the only legitimate function of government must be to protect these God-given and nature-given rights. The purpose of a rightly thought-out constitutional order is to limit government and its powers only to those rights-protecting functions.

At the same time, if individuals are seen as the essential elements of the social order, each in possession of individual rights, then no man or group of men may claim any right to enslave some other portion of humanity. Nor can any individual be denied or limited in the practice of those rights that all individuals are seen as possessing as human beings.

Thus, in an interesting discussion of feminism, Mr. Boaz argues that many of the early feminists developed their case for “women’s rights” mainly from the idea that as human beings, every woman should be respected and protected in the same individual rights as those recognized and enforced for men. The problem with modern feminism is the fact that it has been subverted by collectivist notions of rights and obligations that run counter to many of the earlier rationales and arguments for the equal rights of women.

While freedom is philosophically founded on individualism, its view of man is that of a social being who lives, develops, and prospers in society. Adapting some of the important ideas of the Scottish moral philosophers and the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, Mr. Boaz demonstrates that many of the institutions that make up the social order are “the result of human action, but not of human design.” Society — its structural order and institutional forms — is the cumulative result of multitudes of people over numerous generations interacting in the pursuit of their private goals.

But out of those interactions have emerged rules, laws, procedures, and habits of behavior that shape and define the social order. They also incorporate more experience, practice, wisdom, and knowledge about how things might be done for people to peacefully and mutually prosper and enlarge their opportunities and chances for personal success than if any central planner or group of planners tried to create society and its institutions on the basis of some prior design.

Having explained the historical background and the philosophical and political principles underlying the idea of individual liberty, Mr. Boaz devotes several chapters to applying the libertarian perspective to a number of contemporary problems. He points out that “what big government is all about” is the social engineer wishing to redesign society according to his preconceived idea of the good society and an array of special-interest groups manipulating the political process to gain privileges for themselves at the expense of others in society.

Turning his attention to a number of contemporary issues, Mr. Boaz details the burden of government in the society today in terms of regulations and taxation that retard competitive innovation, capital formation, and market adjustments to changing circumstances. He calls for radical repeal of corporate welfare and farm subsidies; abolition of numerous federal agencies, including the Department of Education; and privatization of Social Security and TVA.

Mr. Boaz has written a useful and insightful introduction to the libertarian philosophy and its relevance to our own time and the century before us.



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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).