Visions of Liberty sets out to explore libertarianism by describing the hopeful future it could bring about.
All of us, no matter what our political affiliations, want the world to be better. We want people everywhere to be healthier, happier, safer, and more prosperous than ever before. What distinguishes libertarianism from other political perspectives is the belief that increased individual liberty—the freedom to live our lives as we want while affording others the right to do the same—is the best way to achieve that goal.
Rather than seeing the world’s problems as justification for government action—as both the left and right commonly do—we see many of those problems as rooted in prior, ill‐advised government action. Even well‐intentioned government intervention can create a miserable downward spiral of unintended consequences, inflicting unnecessary suffering and loss on humanity. The solution to these intractable problems isn’t more laws, regulations, and political programs, but fewer.
When it comes to political change, libertarians aren’t content to tinker around the margins, offering policies to make the state slightly more effective or efficient. Rather, we want to see liberty given primacy in political considerations, which means doing things rather differently from what most of us are used to in the political sphere. And the most significant political changes happen when movements transform the public imagination.
Yet this view sometimes creates a problem when attempting to persuade others that libertarianism offers the best way to achieve a better world. If you listen to our Cato Institute colleagues on cable news or read their analyses on our blog or in our policy papers, you’ll hear a lot of negatives. No, don’t expand that government program. Stop doing this ineffective thing. End regulations that limit the reach of markets. Leave people be, both in this country and overseas. You might get the impression that libertarians are against a whole lot, but not actually for much of anything—except for liberty, of course.
But “liberty,” by itself, can be rather abstract. We know what it means in our own lives: the ability to choose for ourselves, instead of having others choose for us. But what does a world where everyone has more liberty—a lot more liberty—look like?
Even if we’re unhappy with the status quo, it’s at least a known quantity. We grasp what the public school in our district looks like even if it’s failing to educate our kids effectively. We know how Social Security works even if we worry about its running out of money. We have a decent sense of the kinds of things America’s military does with its global presence, even if we wish the country weren’t fighting so many wars. We’re used to getting health insurance from our employers and are wary of changes that might mean paying more out of pocket, even if that increase were offset by a smaller deduction from our paychecks. We see the fruits of government’s expansive funding of science and don’t much want to rock the boat by exploring alternatives. In short, we know how things work now and fear the uncertainty of change, though we also gripe about things not being quite as good as we’d like or as good as they were in an imagined past.
Libertarians come into this conversation asking to make big changes to the way government works and to the range of things it does. Yes, we say that the institutions you are familiar with could be drastically improved if they were made to be radically different. But often we don’t do a good job of describing the kind of world those changes aim toward or exactly how these libertarian alternatives would work. It will be a freer world, to be sure, but what would it look like? Is it a place where we’d want to live?
Visions of Liberty seeks to answer those questions. It’s a book about libertarianism and public policy and serves as a good introduction to both. But the book aims to do more than that. We want it to leave you with a strong sense—a clear vision—of what the application of genuine libertarian policies would look like in practice. So while policy change is central to the discussions in these chapters, the goal is not just to articulate what reforms need to be made, but also to explore the kind of world we believe those changes will bring about.
All of us at Cato and at Libertarianism.org do the work we do because we know the world can be better, and we’re convinced that political liberty is how we all will get there. Our hope is that by answering questions you’re likely to have asked when you’ve heard libertarians discuss their policy ideas, Visions of Liberty will help you better understand why libertarians are so passionate about greater social and economic freedom. Consider what would happen if we abandoned restrictions on the flow of goods between nations? What would happen if we let people move freely across national borders to find work? How would the world change if education came from the creativity of entrepreneurs instead of the control of governments? How might technologies, freed from burdensome regulations, enable new ways of communicating or engaging in economic activity? How would the needs of the poor be met if welfare shifted from public and centralized provision to private and decentralized?
Our contributors take different approaches. Some look to the past, pointing out how things worked before government got involved. Others look forward, offering future histories that describe how things could play out if we make certain choices. But each of them shares our firm belief that when freed from the meddlesome and coercive hand of the state, people can do amazing things and that radically greater liberty will enable them to unleash their ingenuity, drive, compassion, and vision, and so create a world truly worth striving for.