The Libertarian Reader: Classic and Contemporary Writings from Lao-Tzu to Milton Friedman

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The first collection of seminal writings on a movement that is rapidly changing the face of American politics, The Libertarian Reader links some of the most fertile minds of our time to a centuries-old commitment to freedom, self-determination, and opposition to intrusive government. A movement that today counts among its supporters Steve Forbes, Nat Hentoff, and P.J. O'Rourke, libertarianism joins a continuous thread of political reason running throughout history.
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."
In The Libertarian Reader, David Boaz has gathered the writers and works that represent the building blocks of libertarianism. These individuals have spoken out for the basic freedoms that have made possible the flowering of spiritual, moral, and economic life. For all independent thinkers, this unique sourcebook will stand as a classic reference for years to come, and a reminder that libertarianism is one of our oldest and most venerable American traditions.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684847672
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 2/4/1998
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 191,923
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.40 (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 Part One The first principle of libertarian social analysis is a concern about the concentration of power. One of the mantras of libertarianism is Lord Acton's dictum, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." As the first selection in this section demonstrates, that concern has a long history. God's warning to the people of Israel about "the ways of the king that will reign over you" reminded Jews and Christians for centuries that the state was at best a necessary evil.

The history of the West is characterized by competing centers of power. We may take that for granted, but it was not true everywhere. In most parts of the world, church and state were united, leaving little room for independent power centers to develop. Divided power in the West might be traced to the response of Jesus to the Pharisees: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." In so doing he made it clear that not all of life is under the control of the state. This radical notion took hold in Western Christianity.

The historian Ralph Raico writes, "The essence of the unique European experience is that a civilization developed that felt itself to be a whole—Christendom—and yet was radically decentralized. With the fall of Rome, ... the continent evolved into a mosaic of separate and competing jurisdictions and polities whose internal divisions themselves excluded centralized control." An independent church checked the power of states, just as kings prevented power from becoming centralized in the hands of the church. In the free, chartered towns of the Middle Ages, people developed the institutions of self-government. The towns provided a place for commerce to flourish.

Even law, usually thought of today as a unified product of government, has a pluralist history. As Harold Berman writes in Law and Revolution, "Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the Western legal tradition is the coexistence and competition within the same community of diverse jurisdictions and diverse legal systems.... Legal pluralism originated in the differentiation of the ecclesiastical polity from secular polities.... Secular law itself was divided into various competing types, including royal law, feudal law, manorial law, urban law, and mercantile law. The same person might be subject to the ecclesiastical courts in one type of case, the king's court in another, his lord's court in a third, the manorial court in a fourth, a town court in a fifth, a merchants' court in a sixth." Even more important, individuals had at least some degree of choice among courts, which encouraged all the legal systems to dispense good law.

In all these ways people in the West developed a deep skepticism about concentrated power. When kings, especially Louis XIV in France and the Stuart kings in Britain, began to claim more power than they had traditionally had, Europeans resisted. The institutions of civil society and self-government proved stronger in England than on the Continent, and the Stuarts' attempt to impose royal absolutism ended ignominiously, with the beheading of Charles I in 1649.

Modern liberal ideas emerged as a response to absolutism, in the attempt to protect liberty from an overweening state. Especially in England, the Levellers, John Locke, and the opposition writers of the eighteenth century developed a defense of religious toleration, private property, freedom of the press, and free markets for labor and commerce.

In the following selections, Thomas Paine takes those opposition ideas a step further: Government itself is at best "a necessary evil." The first king was no doubt just "the principal ruffian of some restless gang," and the English monarchy itself began with a "French bastard, landing with an armed banditti." There was no divinity in the powers that be, and the people were thus justified in rebelling against a government that exceeded its legitimate powers.

Once the American Revolution was successful, James Madison and other Americans set out on another task: creating a government on liberal principles, one that would secure the benefits of civil society and not extend itself beyond that vital but minimal task. His solution was the United States Constitution, which he defended, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, in a series of newspaper essays that came to be known as The Federalist Papers, the most important American contribution to political philosophy. In the famous Federalist no. 10, he explained how the limited government of a large territory could avoid falling prey to factional influence and majoritarian excesses. If Madison and his colleagues might be viewed as conservative libertarians, many of the Anti-Federalists were more radical libertarians, who feared that the Constitution would not adequately limit the federal government and whose efforts resulted in the addition of a Bill of Rights.

Forty years after the Constitution was ratified, a young Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to observe the world's first liberal country. His reflections became one of the most important works in liberal political theory, Democracy in America. He warned that a country based on political equality might develop a new kind of despotism, one that would, like a nurturing parent, "cover the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform." Americans would have to be eternally vigilant to protect their hard-won liberty.

In one of the most enduring liberal texts, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill set forth his principle that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." (Other libertarian scholars would argue that "harm" is too vague a standard and that the better formulation would be "to protect the well-defined rights of life, liberty, and property.") He also argued that the tasks of government should be limited—even if it might perform some task better than civil society—to avoid "the great evil of adding unnecessarily to its power."

Twentieth-century libertarians have continued to examine the nature of power and to look for ways to limit it. H. L. Mencken excoriated government as a "hostile power" but did not hold out much hope for changing that. Isabel Paterson feared that humanitarian impulses exercised through inappropriate means could lead even good people to wield power in dangerous ways. Murray Rothbard took a radical view among libertarian scholars: that all coercive government is an illegitimate infringement on natural liberty and that all goods and services could be better supplied through voluntary processes than through government. Richard Epstein approached the issue of power differently: Given that we need some coercive government to protect us from each other and allow civil society to flourish, how do we limit it? He offers in his selection a threefold answer: federalism, separation of powers, and strict guarantees for individual rights.

Constraining power is the great challenge for any political system. Libertarians have always put that challenge at the center of their political and social analysis.

Copyright © 1997 by David Boaz

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Table of Contents

I Samuel 8 (The Bible) 5
Of the Origin and Design of Government 7
Federalist no. 10 13
What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear 20
Objections to Government Interference 25
More of the Same 28
The Humanitarian with the Guillotine 31
The State 36
Self-Interest and the Constitution 42
Understanding Can Not Be Compelled 53
Justice and Beneficence 58
The Subjugation of Women 62
The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns 65
Associations in Civil Life 71
Interest Rightly Understood 75
Man Cannot Hold Property in Man 77
You Are a Man, and So Am I 81
A Human Being Cannot Be Justly Owned 88
Rights and Responsibilities of Women 92
Woman as a Moral Being 94
Of Individuality 96
On Equality and Inequality 104
The Tendrils of Community 108
Private Prejudice, Private Remedy 112
An Arrow Against All Tyrants 121
Of Property and Government 123
Justice and Property 135
The Declaration of Independence 140
Equality of Rights 142
The Right to Ignore the State 149
The Constitution of No Authority 154
The Playboy Interview with Ayn Rand 161
Ayn Rand on Rights and Capitalism 169
The Entitlement Theory of Justice 181
The Right to Do Wrong 197
Harmony 207
The Man of System 209
Of Society and Civilization 211
The Use of Knowledge in Society 215
Two Kinds of Order 225
Made Orders and Spontaneous Orders 233
Economy as Ecosystem 243
The Division of Labor 253
Society and Self-Interest 256
Labor and Commerce 258
Free Trade 260
The Simple System of Natural Liberty 263
What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen 265
Socialism and Intervention 274
Redistributing Power 286
The Relation Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom 292
The Market Order or Catallaxy 303
If You're Paying, I'll Have Top Sirloin 312
Commerce Is the Grand Panacea 319
Nonintervention 322
The Eclipse of Liberalism 324
Peace 327
The Case for Strategic Disengagement 331
Toward Strategic Independence 336
Capitalism and the Permissive Society 345
Liberalism in the Coming Decade 355
The Power and Poverty of Libertarian Thought 363
The Culture of Liberty 371
Governments in Decline 379
Paternalist Government Is Out of Date 388
"Creative Destruction" and the Innovation Age 393
Evolutionary Ecology 400
The Future of Government 412
The Literature of Liberty 415
Sources 455
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2001

    Lao Tzu ?

    The subtitle relates to Lao Tzu. However, it seems that the writer wants to highlight the current difference in ideology between the West & the East. However, it places too many effort in the West indeed !

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2007

    The best collection of libertarian writings I have seen.

    What is wonderful about this book is its exploration of many facets of libertarian thought, not just market efficiency.

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