Adam Smith was right and Karl Marx was wrong. Dealing with these two defining truths of this fin de siècle has proven exceptionally difficult for many people. Especially on the traditional Left, the state was seen as the repository of society’s moral aspirations, while the market and liberal individualism seemed sordid, money-grubbing and anti-social.
On a personal level, three periods marked my own evolution away from this emotional commitment to the state. First I lived through five years of early Thatcherite Britain, and saw the confusion, anger and conflict engendered by a well-meaning welfare state run amok. Then I spent a year in Africa observing first hand the failures of various African socialisms and of Western international welfare. Finally, I watched Eastern Europeans tear down the Berlin Wall and seize for themselves all the freedom and responsibilities that we had grown so complacent about.
The rise of Thatcherism and the fall of the Berlin Wall also marked an important intellectual turning point for the West as a whole. The disappearance of the all-embracing state as a credible alternative unleashed a flowering of thinking about what made the newly attractive liberal-individualism and market-oriented social order work, and how could they be expanded.
One of the main currents of thought to emerge from this intellectual ferment is libertarianism, an ugly contrived new word for a powerful set of old ideas. These ideas—individual liberty and responsibility, the rule of law, limited government, robust property rights, and the power of competition to tame potentially dangerous social forces—have had many names over the years, and been associated with some of our most celebrated political and economic thinkers, people like John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Adam Smith, the American Founding Fathers and many others.
What Murray’s and Boaz’s books achieve before anything else is to situate libertarianism within the larger intellectual currents sweeping our world, and to do so in such a way that both its attractive and its disagreeable sides shine through.
To the philosophically-minded, the term libertarianism has always seemed an unnecessary invention for a way of thinking that already has a perfectly good name: classical liberalism. It is no accident that libertarianism, like these books, comes from the United States, for it is there that the greatest confusion reigns about what to call the various families of political ideas.
To our southern neighbours, and increasingly in Canada, liberalism has come to mean the ideas of the soft, social-democratic or welfare-state left. However deplorable the resulting loss of conceptual precision may be, American classical liberals have abandoned the term to the enemy.
So why not call the libertarian ideas by another perfectly respectable old name: conservatism? Here we begin to unpack even more of the confusions in our political language, confusions that are compounded by our insistence on seeing all political ideas fit into a simple linear ideological spectrum. Both Murray and Boaz, like many of the leading thinkers of classical liberalism and libertarianism, reject the conservative label, and rightly so.
Conservatism, as understood today, tends to be non-interventionist on economic matters, but highly interventionist on social and cultural ones. Hence the conservative fascination with “culture wars”, with regulating pornography and television programming, preventing responsible adults getting access to recreational drugs, setting community standards for acceptable art, requiring prayer in the classroom, and ensuring reverence for the American flag. Even on economic questions, some conservatives will put their conception of the “community” first, hence the authoritarian trade protectionism of a Pat Buchanan.
On the other hand, the soft left tends to be permissive on the social front, but interventionist on the economic front. They want to use the coercive power of the state to rejig the distribution of income, protect consumers and employees from shady and exploitative practices, clean up the environment. Again, however, the left has authoritarian leanings on some social questions: there is a tendency to be willing to use state coercion, for example, to stamp out sexist or racist speech (including books and art).
Classical liberals and libertarians, however, shy away from state coercion in all of these fields; they think it wrong in principle and self-defeating in practice to substitute the values and opinions of elected officials, or of electoral majorities, for the judgment of individuals about what is best for them. David Boaz’s handy guide for the ideologically perplexed thus has two axes, one stretching from authoritarian to libertarian, and a perpendicular one from left-liberalism to conservatism. Newt Gingrich would, on this scheme of things, be a conservative with some libertarian leanings, Teddy Kennedy a left-liberal with the occasional libertarian lapse, as in airline deregulation. Ross Perot would be a confused authoritarian. William Weld and Dick Armey would be, rhetorically at least, libertarians. And almost all Canadian politicians would be in the soggy middle.
CLASSICAL LIBERALS vs LIBERTARIANS
Still, when all is said and done, we should be reluctant to accept the assimilation of classical liberalism to libertarianism. One very good reason for this is that Charles Murray is a classical liberal, and David Boaz is a libertarian. They may conceive of themselves as fellow travellers. They may have come, reluctantly in Murray’s case, to adopt the libertarian label in order to carve out a clear place on the ideological spectrum in America. They are also, however, as different as chalk and cheese in some ways that really count.
Boaz is a Libertarian with an upper case “L”, and it is this kind of libertarian who repels most non-believers precisely because he is a believer. His libertarianism flows from a kind of revealed truth: that each human being has natural rights, that these rights are self-evident, and that people create governments in order to protect their rights. The rights are essentially the right to self-ownership (I, including my body, belong to me and no one else), and the right to live your life as you please as long as you don’t infringe on the equal right of others to do the same.
All the rest of the full blown Libertarian case flows as a logical deduction from these revealed truths. This is what gives Libertarianism its deeply unattractive ideological cast: you don’t have to deal with the really difficult questions, because everything is reducible to a few unquestioned principles that one can apply, like a recipe, to all political dilemmas. No judgment is required.
But we cannot escape the need for judgment because political and moral life is made up of hard cases. Take one Libertarian tenet: we only have the obligations that we choose to have. Really? We do not come into the world free of all obligation. Children owe their parents duties that the children have not chosen, for example. That is a different question from whether or not children choose to honour those obligations.
In a similar vein, it is just not right to think that individuals created the state. Authority has always been an indispensable element of any society, no matter how primitive. Individuals as we understand them—autonomous, self-directing, choosing and pursuing a way of life—, are a relatively recent product of human civilisation. We owe some duties to the social order from which we emerge. Natural rights may have been self-evident to Thomas Jefferson and the American founding fathers, but most people outside the United States find Bentham’s description of them congenial: natural rights are “nonsense on stilts”.
Charles Murray, on the other hand, is much more in the experimental utilitarian tradition of classical liberalism. He makes less extreme claims based on an interpretation of our shared experience as human beings. He defends freedom on the classical ground that we must each be free if we are to explore, understand and develop the unique personality at the heart of each of us. Freedom and happiness are inextricably bound together. In his phrase, “Mindful human beings require freedom and personal responsibility to live satisfying lives.” Not only is this intuitively more appealing, it also reaches out to those who cannot buy the quasi-religious trappings of Libertarianism. If you don’t agree with Charles Murray, you can engage him in conversation. You are far more likely to get a self-righteous sermon from David Boaz.
Murray is ready to acknowledge failings in a philosophy that elevates individual freedom above all other values: “Does unabridged freedom of association permit people to engage in...bigotry? Yes... . This is obviously a defect.” But he then goes on in down-to-earth terms to explain why an interventionist solution, one that uses the coercive power of the state to try to force individuals to be virtuous, leads to even worse outcomes. One can agree or not, but one’s own experiences and thoughts are at least taken seriously.
The libertarian vision of individual liberty and responsibility guaranteed by a minimal state has exhilarating resonances. The manifest failure of welfare-state liberalism and the fall of the Berlin Wall has helped it to move from marginal curiosity to major contender in the political thinking of the United States. David Broder, writing in the Washington Post about the growing number of non-aligned voters, said, “The distinguishing characteristic of these...voters...is their libertarian streak. They are skeptical of the Democrats because they identify them with big government. They are wary of the Republicans because of the growing influence within the GOP of the religious right.” Both parties are seeking ways to reach out to these voters, so the influence of libertarian ideas is liable to continue to grow in Washington.
If libertarianism is yet another trend that will hit this country ten years after our American neighbours, now might be a good time for Canadians to begin to familiarize themselves with its tenets. If they do, they will find Murray’s the more congenial account. They will also enjoy leafing through Boaz’s fascinating collection of well selected libertarian texts, The Libertarian Reader. When they do so, however, they need to remember that the texts chosen are tiny extracts of much larger writings. The extract from the Book of Samuel, for example, may show a God sceptical of the power of kings. It is fair to say, however, that the God of the Old Testament was not a libertarian sort of chap.
Richard Epstein, Simple Rules for a Complex World, Harvard University Press, 1995
F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Basic Books, 1974
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments , Oxford University Press, 1976