Libertarianism: A Primer

Overview

Tens of millions of Americans, from Generation X-ers to baby boomers and beyond, are rediscovering libertarianism, a visionary alternative to the tired party orthodoxies of left and right. In 1995 a Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans said "the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens." Later that year, The Wall Street Journal concurred, saying: "Because of their growing disdain for government, more and more ...

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Libertarianism

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Overview

Tens of millions of Americans, from Generation X-ers to baby boomers and beyond, are rediscovering libertarianism, a visionary alternative to the tired party orthodoxies of left and right. In 1995 a Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans said "the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens." Later that year, The Wall Street Journal concurred, saying: "Because of their growing disdain for government, more and more Americans appear to be drifting—often unwittingly—toward a libertarian philosophy."
Libertarianism is hardly new, but its framework for liberty under law and economic progress makes it especially suited for the dynamic new era we are now entering. In the United States, the bureaucratic leviathan is newly threatened by a resurgence of the libertarian ideas upon which the country was founded. We are witnessing a breakdown of all the cherished beliefs of the welfare-warfare state. Americans have seen the failure of big government. Now, in the 1990s, we are ready to apply the lessons of this century to make the next one the century not of the state but of the free individual.
David Boaz presents the essential guidebook to the libertarian perspective, detailing its roots, central tenets, solutions to contemporary policy dilemmas, and future in American politics. He confronts head-on the tough questions frequently posed to libertarians: What about inequality? Who protects the environment? What ties people together if they are essentially self-interested? A concluding section, "Are You a Libertarian?" gives readers a chance to explore the substance of their own beliefs. Libertarianism is must reading for understanding one of the most exciting and hopeful movements of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
P.J. O'Rourke America is a country full of people who feel personal liberty and individual responsibility in their guts. This book puts those guts into words. America is also a country full of politicians, academics, and self-possessed elites who mistrust liberty and responsibility ot the bottom of their souls. This book plants a kick in that fundament.

William F. Weld Libertarianism: A Primer is a bracing shot of 100-proof libertarianism guaranteed to render mute the last defenders of big, paternalistic government. With plain-spoken eloquence, David Boaz unveils a vision of America that has at its core an abiding respect for personal liberty and freedom writ large.

Dave Barry I hope everybody reads this book. My only concern is that, if we ever do wise up and dump the federal government, I'll lose my biggest source of comic material.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This book is more substantial if less elegantly written than Charles Murray's What It Means to Be a Libertarian Forecasts, Nov. 18. Boaz, executive v-p of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, reaches back to religion and theorists like David Hume and Adam Smith to explore the roots of libertarianism. Boaz, like Murray, may be too optimistic in his assumption that private charity will supplant government assistance; however, he argues cogently against government excess. Government intervention taxation, bank insurance, Medicare, etc., he maintains, can diminish virtues like thrift and self-reliance. Libertarianism, he stresses, enhances individual dignity and pluralism; though he opposes laws based on race, he suggests, intriguingly, that Social Security discriminates against blacks because they have lower life expectancies. Predictably, Boaz argues that free markets enhance economic productivity and employment, and that government programs perpetuate bureaucratic and special interests. Among his proposals: end corporate and farm welfare; chop defense spending in half; abolish numerous federal agencies; privatize government programs. He proposes privatizing the Social Security system and offering tax-free Medical Savings Accounts in which unused money allocated for health insurance could be redirected to savings accounts. Jan.
Library Journal
Boaz, executive vice-president of the Cato Institute, advocates libertarianism as the underlying philosophy for 21st-century U.S. politics. He finds that this philosophy allows each person "the right to live his life in any way he chooses as long as he respects the equal rights of others." Boaz claims that libertarian principles will minimize government intervention in people's economic and political choices and enlarge ideas of individual freedom. Indicating that libertarian political and economic approaches can diminish problems that stem from "big government," Boaz also argues that libertarian views can resolve contemporary policy dilemmas, such as drug use or discriminatory employment practices, better than pluralism or capitalism. General readers and individuals concerned with future directions of American politics will find this book an interesting and informative initial analysis. [See also Charles Murray's What It Means to Be a Libertarian, reviewed below.-Ed.]-Steven Puro, St. Louis Univ., Mo.
Kirkus Reviews
From theoretical roots to contemporary policies, Boaz, who is executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, presents a solid introduction to a trendy ideology.

The end of libertarianism is individual freedom, its Antichrist the state, and its mantra the market. Unlike those who bash government simply to further their own interests, Boaz understands the substantive implications of the libertarian merger of natural-rights liberalism and capitalism, and he embraces them. He recognizes that liberty (which calls for maximizing individual choice) is not synonymous with democracy (which is a process of social choice) and promotes the former as the overriding concern. He rejects the government intervention in private lives favored by conservatives just as adamantly as the government intervention in the market favored by 20th-century liberals. There are some odd omissions, however: Public goods are discussed without accounting for national defense, and the role of government (or lack thereof) in the economy without mentioning the provision of money. A more serious omission is the absence of the ultimate critics of government, the 19th-century anarchists, from Boaz's version of intellectual history. No doubt they are ignored because the anarchists included private property and other elements of capitalism in their pantheon of coercive institutions. Boaz simply defines coercion as a function of government and thereby anoints capitalism as a coercion-free form of social organization. Sliding by the more encompassing anarchist critique with an assumption rather than an argument leaves the libertarian infatuation with capitalism open to question.

Despite struggling with tunnel-vision, Boaz tries to be an intellectually honest cheerleader for capitalism and produces a work that should be taken seriously.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684847689
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 2/4/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 633,401
  • Product dimensions: 0.70 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute. He is the author of Libertarianism: A Primer (an updated edition to be released in 2015 called The Libertarian Mind), and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in the Washington, DC, area.

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 1: The Coming Libertarian Age

In 1995 Gallup pollsters found that 39 percent of Americans said that "the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens." Pollsters couldn't believe it, so they tried again, taking out the word "immediate." This time 52 percent of Americans agreed.

Later that year USA Today reported in a front-page story on post-baby-boom Americans that "many of the 41 million members of Generation X . . . are turning to an old philosophy that suddenly seems new: libertarianism." A front-page report in the Wall Street Journal agreed: "Much of the angry sentiment coursing through [voters'] veins today isn't traditionally Republican or even conservative. It's libertarian.... Because of their growing disdain for government, more and more Americans appear to be drifting—often unwittingly—toward a libertarian philosophy."

Writing in 1995 about the large numbers of Americans who say they'd welcome a third party, David Broder of the Washington Post commented,

The distinguishing characteristic of these potential independent voters—aside from their disillusionment with Washington politicians of both parties—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.

Where did this sudden media interest in libertarianism come from? As USA Today noted, libertarianism challenges the conventional wisdom and rejects outmoded statist ideas, so it often has a strong appeal to young people. As for myself, when I first discovered libertarian ideas in my college days, it seemed obvious to me that most libertarians would be young (even though I was dimly aware that the libertarian books I was reading were written by older people). Who but a young person could believe in such a robust vision of individual freedom? When I went to my first libertarian event offcampus, I was mildly surprised that the first person I encountered was about forty, which seemed quite old to me at the time. Then another person arrived, more the sort of person I had expected to meet, a young woman in her late twenties. But her first question was, "Have you seen my parents?" I soon learned that her sixtyish parents were the leading libertarian activists in the state, and my mistaken impressions about what kind of people would become libertarians were gone forever. I discovered that the young woman's parents, and the millions of Americans who today share libertarian beliefs, stand firmly in a long American tradition of individual liberty and opposition to coercive government.

Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. (Throughout this book I use the traditional "he" and "his" to refer to all individuals, male and female; unless the context indicates otherwise, "he" and "his" should be understood to refer to both men and women.) Libertarians defend each person's right to life, liberty, and property—rights that people possess naturally, before governments are created. In the libertarian view, all human relationships should be voluntary; the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have not themselves used force—actions like murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud.

Most people habitually believe in and live by this code of ethics. Libertarians believe this code should be applied consistently—and specifically, that it should be applied to actions by governments as well as by individuals. Governments should exist to protect rights, to protect us from others who might use force against us. When governments use force against people who have not violated the rights of others, then governments themselves become rights violators. Thus libertarians condemn such government actions as censorship, the draft, price controls, confiscation of property, and regulation of our personal and economic lives.

Put so starkly, the libertarian vision may sound otherworldly, like a doctrine for a universe of angels that never was and never will be. Surely, in today's messy and often unpleasant world, government must do a great deal? But here's the surprise: The answer is no. In fact, the more messy and modern the world, the better libertarianism works compared—for instance—with monarchy, dictatorship, and even postwar American-style welfarism. The political awakening in America today is first and foremost the realization that libertarianism is not a relic of the past. It is a philosophy—more, a pragmatic plan—for the future. In American politics it is the leading edge—not a backlash, but a vanguard.

Libertarian thought is so widespread today, and the American government has become so bloated and ludicrous, that the two funniest writers in America are both libertarians. P. J. O'Rourke summed up his political philosophy this way: "Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." Dave Barry understands government about as clearly as Tom Paine did: "The best way to understand this whole issue is to look at what the government does: it takes money from some people, keeps a bunch of it, and gives the rest to other people."

Libertarianism is an old philosophy, but its framework for liberty under law and economic progress makes it especially suited for the dynamic world—call it the Information Age, or the Third Wave, or the Third Industrial Revolution—we are now entering.

The Resurgence of Libertarianism

Some readers may well wonder why people in a generally free and prosperous country like the United States need to adopt a new philosophy of government. Aren't we doing reasonably well with our current system? We do indeed have a society that has brought unprecedented prosperity to a larger number of people than ever before. But we face problems—from high taxes to poor schools to racial tensions to environmental destruction—that our current approach is not handling adequately. Libertarianism has solutions to those problems, as I'll try to demonstrate. For now I'll offer three reasons that libertarianism is the right approach for America on the eve of the new millennium.

First, we are not nearly as prosperous as we could be. If our economy were growing at the rate it grew from 1945 to 1973, our gross domestic product would be 40 percent larger than it is. But that comparison doesn't give the true picture of the economic harm that excessive government is doing to us. In a world of global markets and accelerating technological change, we shouldn't be growing at the same pace we did forty years ago—we should be growing faster. More reliance on markets and individual enterprise would mean more wealth for all of us, which is especially important for those who have the least today.

Second, our government has become far too powerful, and it increasingly threatens our freedom—as those 52 percent of Americans told the befuddled pollsters. Government taxes too much, regulates too much, interferes too much. Politicians from Jesse Helms to Jesse Jackson seek to impose their own moral agenda on 250 million Americans. Events like the assault on the Branch Davidians, the shootings of Vicki Weaver and Donald Scott, the beating of Rodney King, and the government's increasing attempts to take private property without judicial process make us fear an out-of-control government and remind us of the need to reestablish strict limits on power.

Third, in a fast-changing world where every individual will have unprecedented access to information, centralized bureaucracies and coercive regulations just won't be able to keep up with the real economy. The existence of global capital markets means that investors won't be held hostage by national governments and their confiscatory tax systems. New opportunities for telecommuting will mean that more and more workers will also have the ability to flee high taxes and other intrusive government policies. Prosperous nations in the twenty-first century will be those that attract productive people. We need a limited government to usher in an unlimited future.

Copyright © 1997 by David Boaz

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2003

    Super Neato

    Great book for everyone in the world, especially people interested in learning about Libertarianism. We have found the solution to world peace, hunger and wars. Or maybe just the solution to a couple days of bordom for a great mind. You pick.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2002

    Great eye opener with deep insight of today¿s real world issues

    Too bad I had to stumble onto this book via surfing the web rather then seeing it on some best sellers list or in a book of the month club. As an American who instinctively loves small business and individual choice and feels lost in a sea of government control, it was stunning to see a writing like this that helped to clarify my own thoughts of the world. Many people and small business now operate their day to day activities oblivious to the ever changing regulations and laws that are wrapping them up like cocoons; this is a book to help them understand what has happened and is happening to their world around them. As a primer, I wish it had more discussion on what someone like myself can do with this new knowledge in order to affect change on the local, state, and federal levels of government. That seems to be the big mystery left behind after reading this wonderful book.

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