November 27, 2012 essays

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Instead of a Review: A Commentary on Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Jason Brennan

Among the introductions to libertarianism that have been published since the advent of the modern movement, three of the best are Libertarianism (Nash, 1971), by John Hospers; For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (Macmillan, 1973; rev. ed., 1978), by Murray N. Rothbard; and Libertarianism: A Primer (The Free Press, 1997), by David Boaz.

The book by John Hospers, written while he was head of the USC philosophy department, was the first overview of its kind. It is perhaps a sign of the innocence of the libertarian movement during the early 1970s that a “special Libertarian Party” paperback edition was printed by Reason Press and then distributed as part of Hospers’s 1972 presidential campaign. Although presidential candidates often publish books (most are ghostwritten), I doubt if any presidential campaign, before or since, has issued a book that runs nearly 500 pages and devotes 40 pages to a discussion and critique of “anarcho-capitalism,” not to mention other fine points of political philosophy.

Although Hospers’s Libertarianism has much to recommend it, its length, slow pace, and (relatively) conservative tone render it problematic as an introduction for readers who are not already somewhat familiar with libertarianism. More fiery, more radical, and more substantive (especially in terms of its historical perspective) is Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. I have often recommended this book to newbies, but I have done so selectively. Since it explicitly defends Rothbard’s version of anarchism, I have found that it appeals mainly to young persons who have already embraced some form of radical political philosophy, such as Marxism or left-anarchism. But, in my experience, it is not a book that appeals to the average Republican or Democrat.

If the libertarian porridge of Hospers is too cold for some newbies, and if that offered by Rothbard is too hot, I have found David Boaz’s Libertarianism: A Primer to be just right. It is the book that I have most often recommended when asked what someone should read for a good overview of libertarianism.

With the recent publication of Jason Brennan’s Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know comes a new addition to my list of recommended introductory texts. This is part of Oxford’s “What Everyone Needs to Know”series, which began in 2008 with a book about Kosovo, followed by books on Cuba, Burma/Myanmar, Food Politics, Animal Rights, Drugs and Drug Policy, Overfishing, Energy, Health Care Reform, and many other topics.

I cannot say what everyone needs to know about these and sundry other topics, but I suspect that some books in the Oxford series present more information than most people want to know. I cannot imagine what I need to know about overfishing, for example, and some other titles exude the stench of political correctness so much that I would avoid reading them altogether, regardless of my supposed needs, unless I were in a masochistic mood or they came highly recommended by someone I respect.

My surly remarks here reflect a personal prejudice against books that present themselves as what “everyone needs to know” about a given topic, especially when such books deal with controversial subjects. What we typically get is not what everyone needs to know about a topic but what a given writer wants to tell us, as written from his or her own value-laden perspective.

Another reason I have shied away from books in the Oxford series is owing to their Q&A format, which can result in a highly artificial organization of material, unnecessary repetition, and questions that no one would ever ask but which have been constructed after the fact, for no reason other than to conform to a prefabricated structure.

I have mentioned my personal prejudices in order to explain why I was initially reluctant to review Jason Brennan’s latest book, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. I am glad to report that I was pleasantly surprised—very pleasantly surprised. Brennan — Assistant Professor of Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy at Georgetown University, and a contributor to the Bleeding Heart Libertarianism website—has given us a splendid introduction to libertarianism.

Nevertheless, I remain reluctant to review Brennan’s book. Why? Because I agree with most of it, and to compile a laundry list of its many merits would quickly become tedious, at least for me and possibly for many of my readers, most of whom are already libertarians.

I have therefore decided to focus on those areas in which I disagree with Brennan. I shall do this in a two-part commentary. Before proceeding, however, I should give an indication of how his book is structured.

Brennan’s book is divided into nine chapters and consists of replies to 105 questions. The chapters are: The Basics of Libertarianism, The Nature and Value of Liberty, Human Nature and Ethics, Government and Democracy, Civil Rights, Economic Freedom, Social Justice and the Poor, Contemporary Problems, Politics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

The replies vary considerably in length, running from a couple paragraphs to informative mini-essays on topics such as “Are there different kinds of libertarians?” and “Are libertarians themselves unusually selfish?”

The latter question illustrates a valuable feature of Brennan’s Libertarianism, namely, that it addresses topics that are not normally covered in treatments of libertarianism. Although I suspect that Brennan felt the constraints of writing in the Q&A format, he admirably overcame many of the shortcomings of that format and produced an overview that covers not only the usual topics but also numerous topics that are rarely discussed.

So much for my review-like comments. (For more information, see the Amazon preview.) Before proceeding with my critical remarks, which may suggest that I disagree with Brennan more than I actually do, let me be clear: This is a first-rate introduction to libertarianism, and I recommend it highly. Indeed, the fact that it contains substantive points that merit critical consideration is a testimony to the value of the book. Unlike many surveys that consist of nothing more than bones, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know also contains a good deal of meat. Parts of the book will therefore be of interest to veteran libertarians who know the standard libertarian catechism by heart.

Brennan divides libertarians into three general categories: classical liberals, hard libertarians, and neoclassical liberals. By “hard” libertarianism, Brennan means what most people have in mind when they “think of libertarianism,” such as the ideas of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick. Brennan goes on to say that “hard libertarianism does not represent the mainline of broadly libertarian thinking. In some respects, it is an aberration inside classical liberal thought.”

This rather peculiar claim is credible only if one defines “libertarianism” so broadly as to be indistinguishable from classical liberalism, and then treats the latter as the norm. This is apparently what Brennan wishes to do. He points out, for example, that some modern classical liberals are reluctant to call themselves “liberals” of any sort, given how the label has changed meanings since the late nineteenth century, so they call themselves “libertarians” instead.

“Classical liberals,” according to Brennan, “were the first libertarians.” Well, yes and no; it all depends on how we view classical liberalism. If, like Brennan, we view David Hume as a classical liberal and then identify classical liberalism with libertarianism, then we will have cast a net that is so wide and inclusive as to transform many political philosophers over the past several centuries into libertarians. By this standard, a figure like Murray Rothbard may appear to be an “aberration” from “the mainline of broadly libertarian thinking”—but it is also possible that Brennan has painted libertarianism with a brush that is too broad.

I don’t wish to get bogged down in a debate over political labels, but I do wish to point out that classical liberalism should be viewed as a general tradition, one that included a broad range of diverse ideas and thinkers, rather than as a specific ideology. But even if this is what Brennan meant in referring to “broadly libertarian thinking,” it is still misleading to depict “hard” libertarianism as an aberration within that tradition.

More accurate would be to characterize “hard” libertarianism as the radical wing of classical liberalism. Many influential classical liberals, such as Thomas Hodgskin, Herbert Spencer, Auberon Herbert, and Gustave de Molinari, would qualify as hard libertarians by Brennan’s standard. These and many similar figures were scarcely aberrations within classical liberalism, and if they seem such to modern historians, this is largely because they have been neglected in standard histories of political thought, which typically focus on more wishy-washy liberals, such as J.S. Mill.

Another factor we should keep in mind is that the label “libertarian” was typically applied during the nineteenth century to radical individualists, including anarchists, rather than to classical liberals per se. The label retained its radical edge well into the twentieth century, when it was adopted by the likes of Frank Chodorov, Murray Rothbard, and other members of the Old Right. The broader meaning of “libertarian,” which has made it virtually synonymous with “classical liberal,” is a relatively recent development.

My disagreement with Brennan on this point is a fairly minor issue; it does not substantially affect anything of substance in his book. Indeed, it is quite possible that our disagreement is more apparent than real, and that it stems from the limitations of the Q&A format, which did not permit Brennan to discuss this matter in detail.

Far more problematic is Brennan’s third category of libertarians, namely, “neoclassical liberals.” Brennan says of this group:

Neoclassical liberals share many of the same concerns of the classical liberals. However, what separates them from the older classical liberals is that they have an explicit, foundational concern for social justice.

Many libertarians get their hackles up whenever they encounter the term “social justice,” and I confess to sharing that reaction. On a superficial level the term is guilty of nothing more than redundancy. The concept of “justice” pertains to a moral relationship between two or more persons, so justice is an inherently social concept. We must therefore wonder what it means to speak of social justice specifically, when all justice is social in nature. One cannot, after all, commit an unjust act against oneself. All unjust acts are necessarily acts committed against other people.

Brennan discusses social justice in Chapter 7 (“Social Justice and the Poor”). He writes:

Social justice, or distributive justice, is a moral standard by which some people judge political and economic institutions. Advocates of social justice believe the moral justification of our institutions depends on how well these institutions serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged. The basic institutions of society must sufficiently benefit all, including the least advantaged and most vulnerable members of society.

Brennan is well aware of the libertarian objections to distributive justice when employed as a political standard, as illustrated by his excellent summary of the criticisms presented by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. But Brennan also points out that Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice applies only when original property titles were justly acquired. He then notes that “the history of acquisitions and transfers has been highly unjust.” A good deal of land, for example, “was seized by conquest from people who had themselves seized it through conquest”; and many corporations “receive bailouts, subsidies, and loans from governments and use the power of eminent domain to seize land and property from the poor for their own benefit.”

Such observations are nothing new, of course. Murray Rothbard and many other “hard libertarians” have discussed similar problems in considerable detail. What puzzles me is not that Brennan also regards past injustices as important but why he uses this issue as a springboard to launch a category of libertarianism that precious few libertarians have ever heard of, whose advocates he dubs “neoclassical liberals.”

How, exactly, do neoclassical liberals differ from hard libertarians? Brennan explains:

Neoclassical liberals agree with hard libertarians that everyone has a right to acquire and use property. However, they add that reasonable dispute the exact nature and scope of property rights. Property rights are sets of conventions, and there are many different conventions any group of people could live under….Neoclassical liberals say that it would be unreasonable to demand that everyone accept and abide by these conventions unless they had a sufficient stake in them. Thus, if one set of property rights conventions tended to immiserate the poor or leave innocent people without any wealth or opportunity, that would be reason to reject those property right conventions.

It is much too facile to treat property rights as “conventions,” especially given the broad meaning that libertarians have traditionally given to the term “property”—a meaning that has permitted them to speak not only of property in one’s person (i.e., self-proprietorship, or self-ownership) but also of property in one’s conscience and labor, and even (as with James Madison) of property in one’s time. That there are some conventional aspects to external property rights is obvious—the same is true of contracts and other features of libertarian theory—but what exists at the margins of a theory does not necessarily permeate to the core.

Theoretical problems aside, however, I am unclear about the identity of Brennan’s neoclassical liberals, and I am skeptical about whether they are numerous enough to qualify as a distinct school or tradition of libertarian thought comparable to classical liberalism and hard libertarianism. I could be wrong, but I suspect that neoclassical liberalism is confined to a handful of academic philosophers whose influence on the general libertarian movement has been minimal, at best.

After twelve years of participating in various Internet forums on libertarianism, and after writing posts that number in the tens of thousands, I do not recall encountering even one self-identified libertarian who called himself a “neoclassical liberal” or who has defended the views that Brennan attributes to that school of “libertarian” thought.

To be continued….

This is part of a series