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Combining the tenets of classical Libertarian philosophy with his own highly-original, always provocative thinking, Murray shows why less government advances individual happiness and promotes more vital communities and a richer culture. By applying the truths our founders held to be self-evident to today's most urgent social and political problems, he creates a clear, workable vision for the future.
In this brilliantly argued book, Murray takes a hard look at our dysfunctional, overextended government and recommends a drastic overhaul. As he proposes a government that is not just smaller but small overall, Murray's contention is that reduction in government can lead to a country with fewer criminals, fewer poor people, and fewer neglected children. 192 pp. National print ads. $100,000 marketing campaign. 10-city author tour. NPR sponsorship. 100,000 print. Politics/Current Events
Murray's version of libertarianism embraces familiar themes. The ideal (i.e., limited) government created by the Founders has become a bloated bureaucracy that threatens individual freedom. Leftists have foisted welfare programs, environmental regulations, and affirmative action on American society. Not only are these policies pernicious, according to Murray, but their goals would be achieved more efficiently by a free market unimpeded by government. To make these arguments Murray employs the tactics of a polemicist: Empirical propositions are wedded to normative principles and assumed rather than proved; straw men are used to represent opposing viewpoints; conclusions are supported through highly selective use of statistics, "thought experiments," and trendlines. The most intriguing example, given Murray's obsessive effort to correlate government growth with the worsening of virtually every conceivable national problem, is his failure to notice that government growth also correlates with what he acknowledges to be "the phenomenal growth in national wealth during this century." Engaging on this level and analyzing specific arguments would be to misunderstand Murray's purpose, however. He is writing as an entertainer, and the relevant basis for assessment is amusement value.
Those who share Murray's preconceptions will enjoy this book, for he trumpets the superiority of his position and the errors of opponents without doubt or any consideration of contrary complexities. Those who disagree may enjoy it even more, for opponents of the principles and assumptions Murray champions will find a clear target to attack. Evaluated on the proper grounds, this volume is a clear success.
A few people, of whom I am one, think that the Founders' insights are as true today as they were two centuries ago. We believe that human happiness requires freedom and that freedom requires limited government. Limited government means a very small one, shorn of almost all the apparatus we have come to take for granted during the last sixty years.
Most people are baffled by such a view. Don't we realize that this is postindustrial America, not Jefferson's agrarian society? Don't we realize that without big government millions of the elderly would be destitute, corporations would destroy the environment, and employers would be free once more to exploit their workers? Where do we suppose blacks would be if it weren't for the government? Women? Haven't we noticed that America has huge social problems that aren't going to be dealt with unless the government does something about them?
This book tries to explain how we can believe that the less government, the better. Why a society run on the principles of limited government would advance human happiness. How such a society would lead to greater individual fulfillment, more vital communities, a richer culture. Why such a society would contain fewer poor people, fewer neglected children, fewer criminals. How such a society would not abandon the less fortunate but would care for them better than does the society we have now.
Many books address the historical, economic, sociological, philosophical, and constitutional issues raised is pages. A bibliographic essay at the end of the book points you to some of the basic sources, but the book you are about to read contains no footnotes. It has no tables and but a single graph. My purpose is not to provide proofs but to explain a way of looking at the world.
From the Hardcover edition.
Public celebrations of freedom used to be at the heart of America's pride in itself. When we bragged about being American and how we used to brag, it was freedom we talked about, endlessly. We loved our liberty--the God-given, inalienable, constitutionally guaranteed right of every American to live his life as he saw fit, beholden to no one, taking his own chances, pursuing happiness in his own way, doing as he damn well pleased. We celebrated that individualistic, unfettered American in our politics, literature, songs, drama, and, later, in films.
As socialism gained influence in the twentieth century, it became intellectually fashionable to mock freedom, first in Europe and eventually in the United States. What does freedom really amount to, the left asked, in a world of poverty? The equal freedom of rich and poor to sleep under bridges? As the century progressed, the same dismissiveness toward freedom, especially economic freedom, spread from intellectuals into mainstream politics. This thing called freedom, we were told, is what the rich talk about when they don't want to face their responsibilities to the poor.
In the face of such taunts American celebrations of freedom faded. We even stopped talking much about freedom. Listen carefully to today's politicians. You will hear the Democrats talk about "social justice" and "fairness." You will hear the Republicans talk about lower taxes and "getting government off our backs" in minor ways, while leaving it untouched everywhere else. But freedom? When did you last hear a leading Republican or Democratic politician argue that preserving individual freedom is government's primary responsibility, even if it prevents government from achieving some other noble goal? That our unparalleled individual freedom sets America above all other countries? The first argument is politically inexpedient. The second is no longer true.
In the pages that follow I ask you to meditate once again on the proposition that freedom, classically understood, is the stuff by which we live satisfying lives. It is as indispensable to happiness as oxygen is to life. Much of it has been taken from us. We must reclaim it.
Freedom is first of all our birthright. When all the philosophizing is put aside, what has made me a libertarian is a homely image and the answer to a simple question. The image is of an ordinary human being making an honest living and minding his own business--the kind of person who makes up the vast majority of adults around the world. The question is: What does this person owe the government other than to keep on doing what he is doing?
The operative word in that question is government. Our ordinary person owes many things to many people and institutions--to family, friends, community, church, workplace. But an obligation to the government is unique. When the government decides you owe it something, that obligation is encoded in law. If you break a law, a representative of the government can compel you by force, at gunpoint if need be, to do what the law demands. The right to initiate the use of physical force, usually called the police power, is what makes government different from all other human institutions.
What should government be permitted to demand of this ordinary person? Very little. Longer and more complicated answers constitute much of the rest of this book. But the short answer gets to the essence of the libertarian position. A person who is making an honest living and minding his own business isn't hurting me. He isn't forcing me to do anything. I as an individual don't have the right to force him to do anything. A hundred of his neighbors acting as a mob don't have that right. The government shouldn't have that right either, except for stringently limited functions, imposed under stringently limited conditions. An adult making an honest living and minding his own business deserves to be left alone to live his life. He deserves to be free.
A more elaborated version of this position depends on two beliefs shared by almost everyone: Force is bad, and cooperation is good. These are simple truths we teach as first lessons to our children. They are also profound truths. Taken seriously, they are the principles for living a good life and the principles whereby government makes the living of good lives possible.
A child learns that the use of force is wrong because it's not right to hurt other people. More deeply considered, the ban on force derives from this principle: Each person owns himself: Self-ownership is unalienable, to borrow a word from the Declaration of Independence--a person cannot sell himself, any more than he can sell his rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is wrong for me to use force against you, because it violates your right to the control of your person. I may try to persuade, harangue, or cajole you. I may appeal to your reason, honor, virtue, or greed. I may obtain your voluntary agreement in a contract. But no more than that. My intentions are irrelevant. I may have the purest motive in the world. I may even have the best idea in the world. But even these give me no right to make you do something just because I think it's a good idea. This truth translates into the first libertarian principle of governance: In a free society individuals may not initiate the use of force against any other individual or group. A child learns that cooperation is good because people stay happier that way and more gets done. More deeply considered, cooperation is good because of the principle of voluntary exchange. Formally stated: A voluntary and informed exchange benefits both parties. This characteristic of a voluntary and informed exchange makes a free society possible. It is as true of the small exchanges in life as it is of the great ones. You cannot so much as buy a loaf of bread without observing it.
This does not mean that every voluntary transaction works out the way we expected. We may find out too late the wisdom of the adage that cautions us to be careful what we wish for lest we get it. But there is no other basis so benign for making choices and making arrangements with other people. The only alternative to engaging in voluntary and informed exchanges is to engage in involuntary or fraudulent ones. This translates into the second great libertarian principle of governance: Given that a transaction does not involve the use of force or fraud against a third party, people in a free society may not be impeded from engaging in voluntary and informed transactions.
Applied to personal behavior, the libertarian ethic is simple but stark: Thou shalt not initiate the use of force. Thou shalt not deceive or defraud. Anyone who observes both these injunctions faithfully has gone a long way toward being an admirable human being as defined by any of the world's great ethical systems.
But the government is different. It has the rightful and exclusive possession of the police power. For what purposes may the government legitimately use it? There are three.
The first legitimate use of the police power is to restrain people from injuring one another. Government accomplishes this end through criminal law and tort law.
Criminal law, rightly construed, forbids the basic offenses that involve initiation of the use of force. Civilized societies have condemned these for millennia: assault, murder, rape, and theft in their many variants. Criminal law also rightly forbids fraud. The difference between criminal law in a libertarian society and in the one we now inhabit is that, while a libertarian society would retain only a tiny fraction of the laws we now have, it would take the few remaining laws extremely seriously. For a libertarian society to function, it is essential that people be deprived of the use of force. In practical terms this means that the use of force is met by such certain and discouraging punishment that few people try to initiate the use of force, and almost all who try live to regret it. Enforcement of criminal law requires police, courts, and prisons.
Tort law refers to the enforcement of legal liability for noncriminal harm that one person does to another, whether that harm is done willfully or through negligence. For centuries an imperfect but sensible body of common law captured a very large proportion of what we need to maintain a civilized society: If you cause harm to another person, you must pay for the damage you have done and "make whole" your victim. If I manufacture a hair rinse that causes your hair to fall out, I have to compensate you for your loss. If I cut down a tree that falls over onto the roof of your house, I have to pay for fixing your roof, getting the tree out of your yard, and cleaning up the mess.
Recently judicial reform has contorted such concepts as negligence and liability into meanings so far removed from common sense--the case of the woman who successfully sued a fast-food chain because she spilled scalding coffee on herself comes to mind--that today's tort law often seems maliciously unfair. Judicial reform has also made litigation so complex, time-consuming, and expensive that many of us would rather put up with almost any harm than resort to the courts. But these are problems of wrong-headed reforms, not of tort law itself nor of courts. The older common law tradition can be a refuge again, restoring tort law as a flexible, all-purpose tool that enables a vast range of human activities to take place without the interference of bureaucrats.
The second legitimate use of the police power is to enable people to enter into enforceable voluntary agreements--contracts. The right of contract and the edifice of law that goes with it is what enables us to do business with people we do not know or have no reason to trust. It also enables us to spell out agreements with people we do know and trust, partly so that everyone can be confident precisely what the terms of agreement are, and partly to insure that the agreements will hold across time and changing circumstances.
The right of contract means that a third party--ultimately the government--will guarantee that each party is held to account. Ideally, held to account means that both parties will be compelled to live up to the terms of the agreement. If that doesn't work, held to account means that the party failing to live up to the terms of the agreement compensates the other party accordingly. To accomplish this end, the government is permitted to use its police power.
The third legitimate use of the police power is the most difficult to pin down and the most subject to abuse. It involves that elusive concept, a public good.
For the strictest libertarians, there is no such thing as a public good. All taxation is theft, and no cooperative venture should be financed through coercion. The classical liberal tradition from which I write is not so extreme. Government legitimately does certain things--fosters public goods--on behalf of the entire community. Fostering a public good requires that individuals comply with the relevant laws. The government may use its police power to enforce compliance.
In other words, a person can be making an honest living and minding his own business and still have the police put him in jail. Clearly anything that permits such a drastic intrusion on the life of a peaceful, self-supporting citizen had better be an authentic public good. The topic is important enough, and complicated enough, to warrant a chapter of its own.
Today the term public good is used so loosely that it can mean anything someone thinks is good for the public. But the term has a more thoughtful legal and philosophical tradition.
One characteristic of a public good is that it cannot be ; provided selectively. This characteristic is sometimes called nonexclusivity. National defense is the classic example: There is no way to provide for a national defense that omits Knoxville or Cleveland while protecting the rest of the country. Some environmental issues involve goods that meet the condition of nonexclusivity. It is impossible, for instance, to segment a city's air into parcels.
Another characteristic of a true public good is that it can be consumed by one person without diminishing its availability to others sometimes called jointness of consumption. Street lighting meets this criterion for a public good. My breathing clean air does not diminish the availability of clean air to others. Usually jointness of consumption has limits, as those who use the public roads during rush hour can attest.
An activity may legitimately be treated as a public good when individuals are called upon to do things that benefit the whole community. For example, a democracy cannot function without an educated electorate. The cost of providing an educated electorate should be spread over all those who benefit, which means virtually everyone who lives in a democracy. It is not feasible, however, to administer a system in which individual nonparents reimburse individual parents for part of the cost of educating their children. This is a classical liberal argument for treating education as a public good--an argument, I should add, from which many libertarians dissent.
An activity or facility may legitimately be treated as a public good when individuals benefit from some public service for which they cannot easily be charged. Take the case of an urban road grid that was built a long time ago and now serves thousands of people. It is not feasible to charge individual users on a per-use basis. Government operation of local roads and a gasoline tax to pay for them is so much cheaper and more efficient than administering private roads that it is the unquestioned solution.
These cases, when individuals affect others in ways for which, practically speaking, they cannot be charged or recompensed, are often referred to as examples of externalities, or neighborhood effects.
You already see the problem: This business of defining "public goods" is conducted on an extremely slippery slope. In the case of roads, suppose that we are talking about a town in a mountain valley where newcomers want to build houses on the mountainside. There is no classic justification for treating their access roads as a public good. Let them build and maintain the roads themselves. But, say the local merchants, it will be good for the town's economy to have these newcomers, and a good economy is good for the public and especially good for the merchants; therefore using everyone's taxes to build the new roads serves a public good. It is this kind of glib thinking that drives many libertarians, even those who accept the legitimacy of "public good" as a-concept, to reject any deviation from the strictest definition of nonexclusive, jointly consumable public goods. It is hard to argue with their position. Look at what happened to the power of the federal government to "regulate Commerce ... among the several states" in section 8 of Article I of the Constitution, which over two centuries of jurisprudence has become the blanket rationalization for federal authority over every aspect of economic life.
I have no magic formula for identifying a stopping point on the slippery slope. But here are a few test questions that are helpful in determining whether something is a public good:
Is the good something that cannot be provided by individuals on their own?
Am I asking my neighbor to pay for a government service that he doesn't want?
Am I asking my neighbor to pay for a government service that benefits me, or people whom I favor, more than it benefits him ?
In answering the first question, beware of answers that begin, "Well, maybe it could be done by individuals on their own, but they won't do it as well or as fast as I think they ought to." In answering the next two questions, beware of answers that begin, "My neighbor doesn't really understand what's good for him."
If there is no magic formula for identifying true public goods, we can at least do much better than we have in recent decades. If everyone applied the classic criteria for defining a public good plus the three questions I just listed to the current inventory of government activities, a huge proportion of them would be so disgracefully out of bounds that they would have no chance of qualifying as public goods.
Natural monopolies represent a reason why something not technically a public good may justify government action.
A system of voluntary exchanges works best when many alternative suppliers exist. As the number of potential suppliers is reduced, the potential problems increase. For example, there could in theory be two or three sets of water pipes supplying a city. But the costs of changing from one supplier to another would be high, and the first water company to get its pipes in place could make it extremely difficult for a competing company to gain a foothold. In practice cities end up with one water company. When this situation arises, government intervention in the form of ownership or regulation is a legitimate alternative. Note the word alternative. It is not necessarily true, even in a monopoly situation, that a government-owned or government-regulated system will be more efficient or charge lower prices. Government intervention is theoretically legitimate, but the choice of system is to be made on pragmatic grounds. Which system works best?
Once again we are at the top of a slippery slope. A hundred years ago many railroads were natural monopolies. Sometimes the monopolies were abused, and regulations were imposed. Within a matter of decades, as cars, buses, trucks, and then airplanes began to compete, the railroads ceased being natural monopolies. But the regulations remained. Railroads became the sick man of American transportation. Thirty years ago long-distance telephone service was a natural monopoly; today it is not. This progression tends to happen with all sorts of economic activities as technologies change.
Natural monopolies exist, and they can justify government regulation. But the roster of natural monopolies is constantly changing, and it is essential to keep checking to make sure that the justification for government regulation remains.
Two additional prerequisites must be met before the government can legitimately try to foster a public good:
The public good in question must enjoy popular support, as determined through the democratic process. Just because something meets the technical criteria for a public good doesn't mean the government has to do it.
Private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation. That one comes straight from the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
Reasonable people will disagree about the exact boundary of public goods, even when a rigorous definition of public good limits the range of possibilities. The mechanism for coping with such disagreements is embodied in the principle of subsidiarily. The legitimate functions of government should be performed at the most local feasible level. In law enforcement, for example, city and county police take the lead; state police units come into play only when crimes cross local jurisdictions. The FBI was once rightly restricted in theory, at least to crimes that cross state lines. In contrast, "the most local feasible level" for almost everything involving national defense is the Pentagon, with National Guard units providing a modest capability for state governments.
Law enforcement and national defense are unambiguously public goods. For government activities that are less clearly so, applying the principle of subsidiarily says, in effect, "Maybe this is a public good; maybe it isn't. But in either case, the federal government won't make a law about it if it can be accomplished by states; states won't make a law about it if it can be accomplished by communities." The political process ineluctably tries to expand the definition of what constitutes a public good. Keeping the definitions as local as possible acts as a brake. When the mistakes become too egregious, people can leave town.
In the last two chapters I have offered a simple set of principles: Each person owns himself. A voluntary and informed exchange benefits both parties. The purpose of government is to protect its citizens from the initiation of force by other people and to provide its citizens with an environment in which they can engage in voluntary and informed exchanges. Otherwise government may act only to provide public goods, strictly defined, observing the principle of subsidiarity and compensating individual citizens for costs that fall disproportionately upon them.
Posted August 1, 2013
Charles Murray is the greatest social scientist since Alex de Tocqueville and his rock solid research has documented the failure of Liberal/Progressive policies over four generations in America.
far from a polemicist, as stated by the buffoons at "PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, Murray's explanation of libertarianism's core positions and beliefs is written in an elegant and easy-to-follow prose style that belies his standing as
as an accomplished academic. Dr. Murray's publications avoid the often poorly written and edited qualities that characterize most books and articles from academic authors. The fact that in this book Murray explains the principles that have made America the last, best hope of humankind makes it all the more valuable.
Posted April 6, 2001
Mr. Murray's book would have been much more accurate if it had been titled 'What It Means To Be A Conservative Libertarian.' This book accurately describes the mindset of many conservatives coming into libertarianism and is also typical about what turns off liberals to libertarianism. Mr. Murray's scholarship starts shakey when he starts with remarking how 19th Century 'Socialism' started the 'mocking of freedom.' His omitting the whole cadres of anti-state socialists prior to Marx' pro-state socialism is just a bit too much. Indeed, the first usages of 'libertarian' were used to name early French anti-state socialists like Proudhon and Bakunin. Even today 'libertarianism' in Europe often means a form of anarchistic, anti-establishment socialism. 'Socialism's' original meaning was voluntary social power as opposed to hierarchic, status quo, state establishment power and state imposed privilege. Mr. Murray misses entirely the origins for popular sceptism of late 19th Century Classic Liberalism. The hypocrisy became more and more apparent as the poverty increased amidst the progress of technological capacity and the fortunes of the economic elite. Mr. Murray totally ignores the effect of America's closing Frontier, Spencer's betrayal between his 1851 and 1890 editions of his Social Statics, of Henry George's Progress & Poverty. Murray's book perpetuates the mystery of the cleavage of Classical Liberalism by not even mentioning the conflict between absolute rights to fruits of labor and absolute state titles to monopolize landed natural resources. This book will not satisfy libertarians who are concerned with monopoly state-capitalism. The core value of civil society, of full libertarianism, is 'equal liberty.' Personal freedom must be balanced against not infringing your neighbor's 'equal right to liberty.' The right to life and liberty doesn't mean a whole lot without an equal right to live *somewhere.* Nor does it mean much without the unconditional right to keep the full fruits of one's labors. Economic monopoly rent-seekers and rent-takers 'tax' productivity as much as politicians' taxes. Thus, the justified scepticism of liberals and progressive libertarians. Saying 'freedom is a birthright' is a simplistic omission of all the contractualists since Locke right up to Narveson. It ignores the unavoidable metaphysical choice for every human; when one approaches social contact, one makes a choice to treat the other humans as prey/predators or as equally free traders/neighbors. This inescapable choice, conscious or subconscious, is the key to humanity's dual nature. 'Natural rights' are somewhat of a contradiction because man has two exclusively different natures. The choice to treat others as civil equals is the de facto covenant to join civil society. Of course, this would require a deeper understanding of libertarianism as 'Equal Liberty' instead of 'don't intitiate force.' The libertarian ethic is not 'thou will not initiate force.' This is only a secondary derivation on which conservative libertarians prefer to dwell. Ask yourself just exactly what such force 'infringes.' It would infringe 'equal liberty.' Equal Liberty is the core ethic. Formal political government's only just basis is to protect Equal Liberty. Public supply of goods and services such as roads are in order to protect the equal freedom of people to travel to markets, employment, natural resources. The alternative of anarchist zero government vs small government is a bogus choice. The true alternative is between citizen self government and politician delegated government. The Public Good is Equal Liberty. As long as no one is hurt on a net economic basis, the government may supply goods and services. The government should only levy user fees on the Common
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