In The Politics of Freedom: Taking on the Left, the Right and Threats to Our Liberties, David Boaz has come up with a kindergarten-level—yet wise—summation of the libertarian message: "Don't hit other people, don't take their stuff and keep your promises."
As executive vice president of the Cato Institute, Boaz is one of the media's primary go-to guys on libertarian thought and policy. And in his new book, The Politics of Freedom, a collection of his short-form journalism from the past 25 years, Boaz pushes an interesting and counterintuitive belief about American politics. The political spectrum, he argues, contains a lot more libertarians than the two major party's stances would lead you to believe.
Based on his analysis of polling data from Gallup, Pew, the American National Election Studies and Zogby, Boaz insists that a significant percentage of Americans are libertarian based on their stated political beliefs—from 13 to 21 percent. This should matter to politicians, he notes, because the "libertarian vote is about the same size as the religious right vote…and it is subject to swings more than three times as large."
In this election season, though, such a large political influence for libertarians seems unlikely. Both presumptive major party candidates are anathema to most libertarians, given John McCain's record on foreign policy and campaign finance regulation and Barack Obama's belief that we need "government investment" in everything from clean energy to rural small businesses.
Whatever the near-term prospects for libertarian political victories, The Politics of Freedom reminds you of the service libertarians provide to public discourse: They can point out the hypocrisy, power grabs, hubris and counterproductive folly issuing from Washington under either political brand name since they are beholden to neither.
Boaz shows libertarians standing, outside the standard party politics, for traditional constitutional freedom, the benefits of choice and the vital civilization-promoting qualities of private property, from malls and gated communities in America to Soweto townships and the Chinese countryside. Property owners everywhere, he notes, "have a stronger stake, not just in their own property, but in their community and their society."
Boaz offers provocative arguments for why the truly "pro-family" should be concerned not with homosexuality, but with divorce, since kids from homes with only one parent "are nearly twice as likely…to drop out of high school or to receive psychological help."
When it comes to campaign finance law, he notes how government's deep and wide impositions in every aspect of our economy and lives guarantees that people will be forced to invest in manipulating it, hence "too much money in politics." As Boaz wryly notes, "Money isn't corrupting politics; politics is corrupting money."
No major political party has fully embraced the implications of the proper role of government that follow from Boaz's simple limited-government vision. But when expressed that plainly, it's a moral vision many Americans can cheer.
reason Senior Editor Brian Doherty is the author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. A version of this review originally appeared in The New York Post.