Libertarianism: A Primer, by David Boaz, New York: The Free Press, 336 pages, $23.00
What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, by Charles Murray, New York: Broadway Books, 200 pages, $20.00
Libertarianism: A Primer, by David Boaz, and What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, by Charles Murray, are rock-solid, engaging introductions to libertarian tradition and thought. Both books are also essentially epistles to the heathen, attempts to convert the unconvinced into true believers. Reading them, I thought often of one of my college roommates, an evangelical Christian who took the evangelizing part pretty seriously. (Not being religious myself, we eventually worked out a sort of non- proselytization pact.)
My roommate's main strategy revolved around disseminating religious tracts with the enthusiasm of, well, a religious zealot. He bought boxes and boxes of the things. Each tract was a palm-sized comic book that used incendiary language and graphic images to make the point that you should "invite Jesus into your life to become your personal savior." Colorfully titled ("The Gay Blade," "Hell Isn't For Heroes," "This Was Your Life"), some of the tracts told cautionary tales of sinners in the hands of an angry God, while others depicted successful conversion narratives in which the protagonist saved him or herself by accepting Jesus.
My roommate distributed the tracts around campus in various ways. Some he would force on people waiting in line at the cafeteria. Some he would leave on top of pay phones. Some he would sandwich between the pages of library books. The idea was to circulate the tracts as widely as possible, ever increasing the odds that a non-believer might stumble across and embrace the Word. My friend was not so naive as to assume that reading any single pamphlet would start a person down the road to Damascus. Rather, he explained to me, the goal was to get the ideas out, to make them part of the general atmosphere. You could never know, he said, what might provide the final nudge that causes a person to walk into the light. In a sense, my roommate told me, all conversions are accidents of being in the right place at the right time. But, he added, there are ways of making them accidents waiting to happen.
A similar process undergirds all successful outreach, whether the goal is to save a man's soul, to demonstrate with finality that A is A, or to convince someone, as the libertarian writer Frank Chodorov valiantly, vainly strove to in 1954, that the income tax is the "root of all evil." Over the years, I've made a habit of collecting conversion stories of fellow libertarians, and the results suggest that accidents happen all the time. One person felt the scales drop from his eyes as he watched a minutes-long Ed Clark for President television spot in 1980. I bought a used car from a libertarian (a terrifying thought!) who'd come in from the cold after taking the "World's Smallest Political Quiz," originated by Libertarian Party founder David Nolan. In the pages of Reason, humorist Dave Barry spoke of being persuaded by his friend, libertarian writer Sheldon Richman. (See "'All I Think Is That It's Stupid,'" December 1995.)
More often, though, the conversion stories include unplanned encounters with books: the writings of Ayn Rand, Robert Heinlein, and Robert Anton Wilson; moldy old Reader's Digest versions of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom; used-bookstore copies of Murray Rothbard's For a New Liberty; unsolicited Laissez-Faire Books catalogs.
My own interest in libertarianism was such a bookish accident. My parents belonged to the Book of the Month Club but often either forgot to indicate they didn't want that month's selection or randomly chose books that they then stacked, still in the mailing boxes, on their shelves. Periodically, I would rip through the boxes and see if there was anything that seemed worth reading. Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose caught my attention because its title appealed to my de riguer late-adolescent anti-authoritarianism; I knew virtually nothing of Milton Friedman, other than having a vague notion he was an evil, heartless man (an impression not particularly dispelled by the book's jacket photo, in which he stares inscrutably at the prospective reader, a pencil jutting out from his right hand).
I read Free to Choose in something approaching a trance. Not only did it convincingly refute the conventional wisdom I was taught by teachers, the government, and the media, it opened up a secret, alternative, compelling history of life in these United States. When I went to my hometown's public library (of all places) to seek out more by the Friedmans, I stumbled across their son David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom-- which hadn't been checked out in years, according to its "date due" card--and began pondering anarcho-capitalism, private justice systems, and "Adam Smith U." Around the same time, my older brother, away at a college that taught precious little Adam Smith and was, ironically enough, Milton Friedman's undergraduate alma mater, ran across a magazine called REASON and started passing old issues my way. References to F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises abounded in those pages, as well as ads for places such as the Institute for Humane Studies, all pointing to an intellectual tradition that had somehow escaped my teachers' attention. By the time I graduated college and began covering zoning and planning board meetings for a daily newspaper, my blood would boil at the ways in which municipal martinets struck down or heavily modified proposed home improvements and additions. Somewhere along the line, I began calling myself a libertarian.
All of which explains why the publication of What It Means to Be a Libertarian and Libertarianism is cause for celebration. Whether Murray and Boaz top the best-seller list, go straight into the remainder bin, or--more likely--fall somewhere in between, libertarian ideas are being put into play. Books often have long and potent half-lives, radiating influence and effecting change long after their initial publication date. But in a more specific sense, too, there is cause for celebration: These are, some serious but limited considerations aside, good books. Each is likely to win some converts, albeit from different pagan tribes.
Charles Murray's What It Means to Be a Libertarian is particularly likely to score points with conservatives and latter-day localists. While The Bell Curve may have made Murray a pariah in certain circles, his stock remains high among conservatives. And indeed, many of the touchstones he employs--the Founders, small-town America, Rotarians--are foundational to conservative rhetoric. His introduction almost seems written to his stodgier colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute (one hopes that, at the very least, Robert Bork takes a peek): "Many of the leading thinkers of the libertarian movement--Libertarians with a capital-L, if you will--present a logic of individual liberty that is purer and more uncompromising than the one you will find here....I am only a lower-case libertarian. I am too fond of tradition and the nonrational aspects of the human spirit to be otherwise."
Although the chapter "Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll" may make conservative readers spit up their martinis, they will no doubt smoothly drink down reverential (and debatable) assertions about the good old days such as, "[Under limited government], America had a vital culture that was rich in literature, art, philosophy, and music--richer and more vital, one might argue, than American culture today." Similarly, Murray's picture of a post big government America is painted very much in conservative, Main Street USA colors, as when he extols "associations that are hardly visible to official Washington though they form an important part of daily life elsewhere in America. The Rotarians, Kiwanians, Ruritanians. The Elk, Moose, Oddfellows. Little League. Junior League. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The PTA."
Murray does a good--even an excellent--job of explicating basic libertarian ideas and their applications. "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," he writes. "A more elaborated version of this position depends on two beliefs that almost everyone shares: Force is bad and cooperation is good....The libertarian ethic is simple but stark: Thou shalt not initiate the use of force. Thou shalt not deceive or defraud."
Murray follows this logic to its end. After a discussion of the "mindful human beings" and their inalienable and inseparable rights to life, liberty, and property, he pretty much lets it all hang out: "A lone adult should be permitted to engage in any activity of his choice in private. This includes whatever he wants to read, watch, say, listen to, eat, drink, inject, or smoke. He may dance, sing, pray, chant, contemplate the stars or howl at the moon, and otherwise occupy himself however he wishes. Groups of adults have the same freedom, with the usual proscriptions against force and fraud."
Despite such moments, however, What It Means to Be a Libertarian is a curiously bloodless book (certainly, it is less inspiring than Murray's 1988 book In Pursuit, itself a libertarian primer of sorts). Though it promises a "personal interpretation," Murray stretches precious little human flesh over his theoretical skeleton. Not only is there no narrative of how he arrived at his political philosophy, there is little sense that a living, breathing, three-dimensional human being stands behind the book. In a book designed as an apologia, Murray almost seems to coast, to assume a friendly audience. Too often, the result is a vague sketch where a detailed portrait is called for.