by David Boaz

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439195154
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 02/23/2010
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 2 MB

About 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.

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 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 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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Libertarianism: A Primer 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
whiteberg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent overview of "Libertarian" (meaning Classic Liberal) thought - both history, concepts and current political topics.
jpsnow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A must-read for any libertarian or anyone who describes themself as "conservative on economic issues, but against social control." Quite different from Murray's book (released also in 1997), Boaz concentrates on the development of the libertarian thought and then on practical issues. Boaz does a great job of tearing apart anyone's claim that we should all be equal, showing that the equality would unbalance itself very quickly. With the exception of equality of rights, libertarians realize that equality is not going to happen because we all desire and assess differently. Perhaps the most prominent problem with our present government involves the understanding of "rights." The Founders indicated that all rights not expressly given the federal government are not given at all. Today, people claim all sorts of false constitutional rights and judges grant them. Boaz shows many examples where judges and legislators defend additional rights and take property wrongfully. The critics of the Bill of Rights claimed that it might be interpreted as an exhaustive list. Indeed, judges tend to look there rather than to the express powers when deciding constitutional authority. An interesting argument is that all rights are actually property rights, whether as self-ownership, by rightful acquisition, or based on being the first to add one's labor to something (i.e. create, discover, or homestead). Under this definition, a right of free speech becomes a right of use of means of distribution. Boaz outlines additional separations beyond that of church and state, including family and state, and art and state. Boaz points out the difference between law and legislation and how the latter is used to achieve so many deleterious effects. He addresses the variety of property takings by the government, ranging from taxation to inflation. Boaz finishes his work with a number of policy stances: against the draft, against being the world's police force (and showing that we are not needed in most situations), for the value of charity, against the evils of price controls (rent control, farm subsidies, and minimum wages), against taxation, and against regulation. He makes a concise argument about the benefits of foreign trade and debunks the myth of the trade balance. He also points out that there has been no intellectual debate about this for a long time -- it's the special interests that make ludicrous claims. Finally, Boaz ends by pointing out that new information technology and the global economy are bringing about much of what Smith and others would want. In other words, some things are beyond government control.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.