Epistles to the Heathen


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.

"When all the philosophizing is put aside," he writes, "what has made me a libertarian is a homely image and the answer to a simple question. The image is of an ordinary human being making an honest living and minding his own business–the kind of person who makes up the vast majority of adults around the world. The question is: What does this person owe the government, other than to keep on doing what he is doing?" While that is an interesting way of framing his investigation, it also begs the question of how Murray came to ask that question–and why it is an urgent one that readers should ask of themselves. As I worked through the book, the image I got was of a body-less intellectual, locked away in an ivory tower like some sort of supercomputer, generating theorems about a world experienced mostly on an abstract level.

This tendency is at its most damaging in Murray's appeals to history. Murray alludes to figures such as Jefferson and Madison as if they were totems whose mere invocation still had the power to cow fearful natives. He presents the American Founding's emphasis on limited government in an essentially ahistorical context that makes it seem particularly inconsequential to a late 20th-century audience that has known only a world split between competing models of the overreaching state. And he romanticizes the past in a way that also leaves it flat on the page: "For a hundred and fifty years, American government limited itself to a few things that everyone agreed government ought to do, and government did them pretty well. The Post Office delivered the mail. The Army won its wars. Police caught criminals. Judges put them in jail. Fire departments put out fires."

This sort of unnuanced nostalgia is less than compelling for at least a couple of reasons. First, it ignores the traditionally illiberal policies of federal, state, and local governments (slavery, always first and foremost, but also things like blue laws, restrictions on women's property rights, and morals laws affecting consenting adults). Second, and more important, it casts American history as a biblical fall from grace, with the unintended effect of making the past seem even more remote and irrelevant. Murray dates the fall variously, sometimes starting with the Progressive era, sometimes with the New Deal.

Such an Edenic view ignores the paradoxical and ongoing drama of American history that Arthur A. Ekirch details so forcefully in his great The Decline of American Liberalism (1955): that, from the very start, forces of centralized and decentralized power have been warring over the country; that, "despite the liberal hopes it inspired, [even] the American Revolution…was not without its dangers as far as liberalism was concerned." Besides allowing for a fuller, richer accounting of American history, a view like Ekirch's allows for a greater sense of continuity and relevance to contemporary events. This is a far from trivial point, especially when trying to convince non-believers: The realization that all historical moments are contested makes change more possible in the present.

Oddly enough, Murray's detachment may help woo conservative readers all the more. Suspicious of change by definition (unless that change recaptures their remembrance of things past), conservatives tend to sniff at human passions as destructive. In any case, Murray's implicit argument that libertarianism would help them realize their ideal world–even as it does the same for others–should prove attractive.

If Murray's What It Means to Be a Libertarian is most likely to hit big with conservatives, David Boaz's Libertarianism may pull in a wider, more diverse audience. Boaz, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C. based Cato Institute, has written an eminently readable, virtually encyclopedic account of libertarian thought in all its generalities and specifics. If Murray tends to float above a world of lived experience, Boaz almost revels in it. His opening chapter, boosterishly titled "The Coming Libertarian Age," is chock full of recent poll numbers and the "sudden media interest in libertarianism." (Such relevance is not without risks, of course; the song lyric attributed to "Dana Rohrabacher, West Coast libertarian troubadour" that appears at the start of The Machinery of Freedom, originally published in 1973, hints at how quickly time fades away.)

Boaz's chapter on "The Roots of Libertarianism" is among the best historical summaries of the libertarian impulse I've seen. "In a sense," writes Boaz, "there have always been but two political philosophies: liberty and power. Either people should be free to live their lives as they see fit, as long as they respect the equal rights of others, or some people should be able to use force to make other people act in ways they wouldn't choose." With nods to individualist precursors in ancient China, Greece, and Rome, Boaz transforms what might have been familiar boilerplate material into a cogent, complex, and convincing narrative of the development of libertarianism in the West.

"Libertarianism is often seen as primarily a philosophy of economic freedom, but its real historical roots lie more in the struggle for religious toleration," he writes. By tracing that theme through the English revolutions of the 17th century and the eventual articulation of rights to life, liberty, and property, he makes the development of (classical) liberalism at once familiar and new. In so doing, Boaz reappropriates figures more or less kidnapped by the left, such as the 17th-century radical religious sect the Levellers and Thomas Paine. He also reinvigorates characters whose interest to readers may otherwise be minimal, such as the English poet John Milton, whose 1644 political treatise Aeropagitica argued for both freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

Boaz's summary, which includes comments on the "Modern Libertarian Movement," is particularly strong at underscoring the relationship between free minds and free markets–a point which goes to the heart of libertarian consistency and its equal distance from both contemporary liberalism and conservatism. He quotes Voltaire's description of the London Stock Exchange to illustrate the point: "'There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian deal with each other as if they were of the same religion….On leaving these peaceful and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others go to drink…others go to their church to wait the inspiration of God, their hats on their heads, and all are content.'"

This long view does more than provide a historical context and intellectual pedigree for a philosophy often derided as lacking either. By framing the issue as one of "liberty and power," Boaz has found a way of talking about limited government that doesn't rely in any way on a socialist enemy–a strategy that may pay off both with those inclined to socialism and those who find conservatoid threats of creeping communism unconvincing at this late date.

Boaz also brings a sense of wonder to the way market orders work to structure and meet the needs and desires of their participants. "Not long ago…in a small city in France," he writes, "I walked up to an automatic teller machine set into the massive stone wall of a bank that was closed for the weekend…and collected about $200, all without contact with any human being, much less anyone who knew me. I then took a taxi to the airport, where I approached a clerk at a rental-car counter, showed him a…piece of plastic, signed a form, and walked out with the keys to a $20,000 automobile, which I promised to return to someone else at a different location….Stop for a moment and reflect on the wonders of the modern world: A man I had never seen before, who would never see me again, with whom I could barely communicate, trusted me with a car. A bank set up an automatic system that would give me cash on request thousands of miles from my home….How did such a worldwide network of trust come about?" From such simple starting points, Boaz generates discussions of virtually everything under the libertarian sun, ranging from natural rights and utilitarianism, to the distinction between society and government, to the law of unintended consequences and the failure of centralized planning.

Libertarianism underscores the anti-utopianism implicit in liberalism properly understood (Murray also does this, if not quite as memorably)–a point one hopes is particularly salable at the end of a century still binding its wounds from great leaps forward, five-year plans, and other attempts to forcibly beat the world into some desired shape. "Karl Popper," notes Boaz, "once said that attempts to create heaven on earth invariably produce hell. Libertarianism holds out the goal not of a perfect society but of a better and freer one." Later, in a discussion of contemporary social issues, Boaz continues, "Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a complete moral code. It prescribes certain minimal rules for living together in a peaceful, productive society–property, contract, and freedom–and leaves further moral teaching to civil society."

This last point may well be the most important one in terms of reaching infidels, since it illustrates what is particular to libertarianism. To use a computer-age metaphor, libertarianism is best understood as an operating system that allows an infinite number of applications to be launched. In a truly libertarian society, we could rightly expect all sorts of communities, of every possible creed and philosophy. Libertarianism doesn't demand that converts forsake their old religions, so to speak. Rather, it replaces conversion by the sword with conversion by the word, by example, and by moral suasion. In doing so, libertarianism provides the necessary backdrop to letting all sorts of individuals and groups pursue the lives they want to live while minimizing the conflicts that true diversity brings to any human society.

What It Means to Be a Libertarian and Libertarianism get that message out in different but striking ways. If conversions really are accidents waiting to happen, these books should bring more than a few pagans into the fold.