The Volokh Conspiracy

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Some important new books on libertarianism


A number of new books on libertarianism and related issues have come out recently or should be in print soon. If you are interested in libertarianism, these books may well be of interest to you.

I. David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind.

Perhaps the one with the broadest appeal is The Libertarian Mind, by David Boaz of the Cato Institute. It is the best recent introduction to libertarianism for a popular audience. Boaz does an excellent job of surveying both the history of libertarianism and libertarian positions on a variety of modern political issues. He is especially good on "noneconomic" issues that many people with only a passing knowledge of libertarian thought don't normally associate with the movement. For example, he emphasizes that libertarian thinkers were calling for the abolition of anti-sodomy laws, the War on Drugs, and other pernicious "social" regulations long before these became mainstream positions elsewhere on the political spectrum. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were among the first to advocate the abolition of slavery and laws banning married women from owning property and women in general from entering into various professions. Boaz also does a good job of raising and addressing a variety of standard objections to libertarian ideas that are traditionally advanced by critics (particularly mainstream liberals and conservatives in the United States). For example, one chapter has a strong discussion of how civil society efforts are much more successful at caring for the poor than advocates of large welfare states generally assume.

In part because of the book's broad scope, there are places where it glosses over important issues. For example, Boaz only briefly mentions the problem of political ignorance, which in my view is a much more central element of the case for limiting the power of democratic governments than his analysis suggests. The book also includes very little discussion of internal disagreements among libertarians, such as that between utilitarian libertarians and advocates of natural rights, and the longstanding debate between majority who advocate tightly limited government and the minority who advocate anarchism. Similarly, Boaz assumes with relatively little argument that a highly dovish foreign policy is the right approach for libertarians; that is indeed the dominant view among American libertarians today, but it is far from the only one, either today or historically.

Despite a few limitations like these, this is an extremely valuable contribution to the public debate. As an introduction to libertarian ideas, I think it can be usefully paired with British political scientist Mark Pennington's 2011 book Robust Political Economy, which outlines the libertarian take on several major public policy issues in greater social scientific depth, and also devotes more attention to countries outside the United States.

II. Jacob Levy, Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom.

McGill political theorist Jacob Levy's Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is a great overview of a longstanding issue in libertarian thought (and liberal thought more generally): the appropriate role of "intermediate groups" such as religious organizations, voluntary associations, and organized ethnic groups. While such groups can enhance individual liberty, they can also undermine it. As Levy shows, for centuries liberal thinkers have been divided between those who claimed that intermediate groups should have wide autonomy to organize themselves as they see fit, and those who argue that the state must tightly regulate them, lest they become a threat to individual freedom. We see this today, for example, in debates between those who argue that traditional religious groups should have wide autonomy, and those who fear that extending such autonomy to, e.g., fundamentalist Muslims and Christians, would lead to subordination of women and other injustices. Levy effectively traces this longstanding debate back to the origins of liberal thought in the early modern period through the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, nineteenth century thinkers like de Tocqueville and Mill, and on to the present day.

Levy's normative chapters are a bit less strong than the historical ones. He argues that neither pure freedom of association nor complete homogenization of groups to eliminate illiberal tendencies is defensible. Thus, he concludes that the tension between group pluralism and the possible need for centralized control of these groups in order to protect individuals can't be completely eradicated. This is true as far as it goes; like Levy, I am skeptical that any rights—should be absolutely inviolable, regardless of circumstances. But I think he tends to underrate the case for strong (even if not completely unlimited) freedom of association and the ways in which competition between groups can give individuals a wide range of options and mitigate abuses, even without extensive government intervention. Be that as it may, this book is a must-read for both libertarians and others interested in debates over freedom of association.

III. Brennan and Jaworski's Markets Without Limits.

Finally, I very much look forward to Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski's book Markets Without Limits. Despite the title, the authors don't claim that markets should be literally without limits, in the sense that any and all possible commercial transactions are morally defensible. Rather, as the authors put it, they argue that "[i]f you may do it for free, you may do it for money." For example, if it is permissible to donate organs, it should also be permissible to sell them in organ markets. On the other hand, it is wrong for a hit man to commit murder for profit, because committing murder is wrong regardless of whether he gets paid for it or not.

One of the big issues separating libertarians from advocates of most other ideologies is that libertarians almost always reject claims that "commodification" can render otherwise defensible activities morally objectionable. Markets Without Limits tackles that crucial issue head on.

I am a fan of Brennan's important earlier work on the political philosophy of voting. This book seems likely to be comparably strong.

NOTE: I am an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute (where David Boaz is executive vice president), which is an unpaid affiliation.

UPDATE: I have fixed the previously broken link to Jacob Levy's book.