In 1995, 52% of Americans agreed with the statement, “The federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses a threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” With this statistic, David Boaz of the Cato Institute, a leading Beltway libertarian think tank, begins the opening chapter of his “Libertarianism: A Primer,” arguing that the ascension of the socially liberal, fiscally conservative baby boomer generation to political power foretells a “Coming Libertarian Age.”
Arriving at nearly the same time as Boaz’s “Primer” is Charles Murray’s “personal statement” of “What It Means to Be a Libertarian.” Murray, of course, is no newcomer to controversy. His first book, “Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980,” published in 1984, advanced the theory that American welfare policy had contributed to the economic decline of the groups it was intended to benefit. It is a measure of Murray’s significance as a social thinker that the central thesis of that book, considered nearly heretical at the time of its publication, has now permeated American political thought from right to left.
Murray and Boaz share the political philosophy of libertarianism, which upholds individual liberty--both economic and personal--and advocates a government limited, with few exceptions, to protecting individual rights and restraining the use of force and fraud. Libertarians want pornography (for adults) decriminalized and welfare programs reduced or even eliminated. It is a view that does not fit neatly into the conventional “liberal/conservative” spectrum. It may not even be well-named: Both Murray and Boaz lament that “liberal,” which in the 19th century applied to the political philosophy of individual rights and a minimal state, has been appropriated by the left, leaving “classical” liberals to search for another name.
“Libertarianism” as a term may be a recent entrant in the American political language, but as Boaz demonstrates in his chapter “The Roots of Libertarianism,” its historical pedigree is old. Boaz and Murray both identify two Enlightenment Age thinkers as seminal to modern libertarianism--John Locke (who articulated the philosophy of individual rights as existing independent of and prior to society) and Adam Smith (who identified the phenomenon of the “invisible hand” by which market activities are spontaneously coordinated).
Boaz’s book is a well-researched manifesto of libertarian ideas ranging from “The Dignity of the Individual” to “The Obsolete State.” His chapter on “civil society” (which in libertarian parlance is to be distinguished from political and not from profit-seeking activity) offers a vision of a world in which private action replaces state welfare, and to the better, Boaz suggests, arguing that the state’s appropriation of charitable endeavors has weakened “communal man” and caused the “atomization” of society.
What will be perhaps most disappointing to a reader approaching Boaz’s book as a true “primer” is the breakneck pace at which he dispatches such complex issues as “economic growth,” “cutting the budget,” “a secure retirement,” “reducing racial tensions,” “liberating the poor,” “crime,” “education” and the “environment"--all in one 45-page chapter. As a companion, Boaz has also compiled a “libertarian reader” in which authors as diverse as Mary Wollstonecraft and Mario Vargas Llosa are excerpted in selections organized to parallel the chapters of his book.
If Boaz can be criticized for too much theory, too little application, the same cannot be said of Murray. “What It Means to Be a Libertarian” is an extended essay in which Murray grapples with the most difficult issues for libertarian thinkers. His central thesis is that “mindful human beings require freedom and personal responsibility to live satisfying lives.” The corollary is that a good society is one characterized by economic freedom, freedom of association and personal responsibility. The balance of Murray’s book is a thoughtful exercise in the application of these ideas to practice.
Murray’s “image of a limited government” is one hardly recognizable to contemporary Americans. Gone are most if not all regulatory agencies, all welfare programs (both corporate and individual) and affirmative action; greatly reduced are all levels of government spending, even on the military. In a chapter titled “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll,” Murray shows his true libertarian colors by arguing for decriminalization of drug use and prostitution. In other chapters he argues concepts more agreeable to conservatives, such as exposing the medical and educational establishments to competition.
The ideas expressed in “What It Means to Be a Libertarian” challenge the comforts of conventional wisdom. Murray, one of the last armchair philosophers, offers an extended “thought experiment” in the application of libertarian ideas to hot issues. Whatever the reader may think about the conclusions he reaches, the passage is worth the fare. Even Murray’s most ardent opponents should concede his tact as an essayist, his civil tone and his courage to state and confront tough questions.
Opponents of libertarianism (and they are numerous, drawn from the ranks of both right and left) will find error on every page of these books, while sympathizers will be grateful for the serious, intelligent restatements of the ideas they contain.
Yet neither book leaves the reader with all the questions answered. Both Murray and Boaz extol the market economy, but neither discusses at any length whether government action is necessary to protect the competitive environment. Reliance on “civil society” to replace the welfare state will involve a leap of faith for many readers; yet, as both Boaz and Murray point out, governments on all levels are undertaking reforms that may give us a better empirical look at a world in which the role of the state as caretaker is lessened.
It is apparent that libertarianism has contributed much to defining American political thought in the ‘90s. Libertarian themes--such as the relationship between private property and authentic democracy, the unwise reliance on interventionist economic solutions and the importance of personal responsibility as a counterbalance to policies based on unconditional entitlements--are part of contemporary political discourse.
These two books are important additions to the growing list of contemporary writings that find wisdom in a return to the notion that individual freedom and personal responsibility are the foundations of a humane and civil society.