Fine Tuning Libertarian Philosophy


The Libertarian Reader, edited by Tibor R. Machan, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1982, 287 pp., $29.75/$12.50.

The Libertarian Reader is a representative and well-conceived collection of writings on libertarianism. The topics covered range from the most general—for example, Charles King's "Moral Theory and the Foundations of Social Order" or Fred Miller's trenchant "The Natural Right to Private Property"—to the most concrete—for example, Loren Lomasky's informative "Medical Progress and National Health Care" or Walter Block's "A Free Market in Roads." Some of the more stubborn internal problems of libertarian theory are addressed, as in Roger Lee's "The Arrest and Punishment of Criminals" (on what grounds can libertarian theory sanction the coercion imposed on criminals and what are its limits?) or Tibor Machan's "Dissolving the Problem of Public Goods" (how are public goods, like national defense, to be financed without coercive taxation?). Theories or institutions opposed to libertarian principle are addressed in other essays—for example, in Antony Flew's "Libertarians versus Egalitarians" or Ludwig von Mises's classic "Market versus Bureaucratic Planning."

Needless to say, this schematic listing of topics is not meant either to be exhaustive or to project a complete portrait of the essays mentioned. Rather, it is intended to point out that university classes aiming to acquaint students with today's market in political and social thought could make good use of The Libertarian Reader. It could also contribute to more advanced courses (where the more subtle aspects of a position are investigated). It should be of especial interest to those students and scholars who are familiar with libertarian thought and controversy but have not kept abreast of the latest developments. The majority of the essays are, so to speak, right off the front burner. Those that are somewhat displaced in time—for example, F.A. Hayek's "The Use of Knowledge in Society," originally published in 1947, or von Mises's "Market versus Bureaucratic Planning" (1957)—are still fresh and timely. Indeed, I should say that von Mises's essay is more timely today than ever.

So far I have in effect echoed three-fourths of a claim that editor Tibor Machan makes in his preface: that "the present collection of essays will be of great interest to the private reader as well as to university students and teachers." To university students and teachers it will be; it ought, anyway, to be—at least, to those dealing formally or on their own with social and political thought and controversy. Among these would be the university-trained "private reader."

But what about the formally less educated "private reader"—the office clerk, say, with an ordinary high school diploma, who 20 years ago read with consuming interest Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged or The Virtue of Selfishness and attended (in large numbers) lectures on Rand's philosophy at the Nathaniel Branden Institute? I cannot help but think that this "private reader" would find the going in The Libertarian Reader frustratingly steep and the sustenance offered pretty unappetizing.

Nor is this because the essays in, say, The Virtue of Selfishness were well written and those in The Libertarian Reader are not. The latter, in their way, are quite as well written. It is, instead, to their contents—the libertarian philosophy they both espouse—that we must look.

What, then, has happened to that libertarian philosophy that, as Machan says in his preface, "began to emerge in the writings of the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand"? Certainly, the libertarian movement waxes mightily in the political arena. But what has happened to the philosophizing itself, so that the clerk who was once in the inside of it is now left out of it?

A good part of the answer to this question is, again, to be found in Machan's preface: namely, in his statement that "it is only with the publication [in 1974] of Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia that libertarian ideas achieved some kind of respectability in academic philosophic circles." Neither I nor Machan (I am sure) think that the Harvard imprimatur counts for that much. But consider the matter in this light: with only one or two accidental (in Aristotle's sense of the word) exceptions, all the authors in The Libertarian Reader have their habitation in universities; and as university philosophers or university economists or university "social scientists" they practice what might be called "academic professionalism." Libertarianism, in short, has become academically respectable by having become academically (the pun is intended) professional.

What does this mean? Professionalism of any sort separates itself from the layman's world through specialization. Academic professionalism also separates itself from the popular approach or popular philosophy by pretending, anyway, to treat whatever subject it addresses from a standpoint of critical objectivity. The popular approach or philosophy, in contrast, inextricably mixes together out-and-out partisanship, emotion, imagery, and thought.

It is instructive to compare the libertarian movement in its Randian heyday on university campuses—the early 1960s—with the contemporary libertarian movement on university campuses as represented (and I should say "faithfully represented") in The Libertarian Reader. To give just one instance: Twenty years ago, the partisans of "objectivism" (for that is what Rand called her philosophy—not libertarianism) had found the truth. There was no slightest doubt in their minds about what that was, and they were quite adamant about it. Any deviation—for example, any least defense of any least claim of altruism—was heresy. But the only common agreement that I can find in The Libertarian Reader's 21 essays is on Rand's secondary social principle that the initiation of physical force is wrong (even "evil" would seem too strong a term to use); and even with respect to this principle, some doubt is expressed—for example, by John Hospers in his essay, "Libertarianism and Legal Paternalism"—as to its universal application, at least, as simply stated.

The irony here is that 20 years ago, on foundations that were argumentatively flimsy (Rand's argumentation, looked at as such rather than as litany, has all sorts of gaps in it), certainty was whole and absolute. It would seem that after being honed for 20 years in academe—often on arguments that rival Anselm's ontological proof in their look of conclusiveness (one might cite here Eric Mack's in "Individualism, Rights, and the Open Society" or Nozick's in "Entitlements and Patterns")—that pristine absolute and whole certainty has been reduced to fragments and these fragments themselves to skeptically brittle surfaces.

These contrasts and their implications obviously cannot be pursued further here. Plainly, though, the question, "What happened to libertarianism on the way to the Academy?" is worth pursuing further, even if in some other place. The Libertarian Reader, above all because of the academically professional quality of its contents, brings the question into sharp relief.

John Nelson teaches philosophy at the University of Colorado.