Libertarianismby David Boaz
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… See more details below
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 driftingoften unwittinglytoward 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.
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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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 driftingoften unwittinglytoward 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 votersaside from their disillusionment with Washington politicians of both partiesis 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 andrejects 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 propertyrights 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 forceactions 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 consistentlyand 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 comparedfor instancewith 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 philosophymore, a pragmatic planfor the future. In American politics it is the leading edgenot 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 worldcall it the Information Age, or the Third Wave, or the Third Industrial Revolutionwe 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 problemsfrom high taxes to poor schools to racial tensions to environmental destructionthat 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 agowe 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 freedomas 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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