Any book about libertarianism is bound to be a book about the United States. The American-born David Boaz admits that his origins will confine The Libertarian Mind, an updated version of his 1997 primer on the philosophy of individual freedom, to this country’s political system. But even if Boaz were, say, a Swede, he’d be forced to talk quite a bit about the United States if he wanted to promote libertarian ideas. In most European countries, what passes for a free market political party is a socialist party with a crucifix attached to it. It is beautifully ironic that libertarianism, so profoundly influenced by European thought, found its most potent expression outside the continent—in a country that European intellectuals tend to deride as embarrassing and immoral.
“You learn the essence of libertarianism in kindergarten,” Boaz writes. “Don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, and keep your promises.” Elsewhere, he gives this definition: “Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others.”
I don’t know of any group that wouldn’t describe its political views in this way. I also don’t know of any that truly mean it besides the libertarians. The philosophy, so its proponents claim, is neither left nor right; it is, one might say, on the Z-axis of politics. To the libertarian, capitalism is not an economic system; it is a model for all human interaction. Government’s only role is to act as the custodian of what Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty: freedom from coercion and external force. Government is the protector, not the granter, of this liberty.
That’s the theory; practice is rather different. Boaz recites the ledger of state folly in the United States, apart from the eternal deficits of Medicare and Social Security. One sees the extent of the American federal juggernaut in its ever-expanding rulebook. “The Congressional Research Service identified 4,500 federal crimes,” he writes, “but said it didn’t have the resources to complete its count.” An attendant problem is the power of unelected bureaucracies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s regulations are so baroque it once set up a telephone hotline to answer questions about one of them. The caveat, Boaz notes, was that it couldn’t guarantee the correctness of its own answers and that this was no excuse for not following the law.
This is the most accessible book on libertarianism likely to be written—the best since Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose (1980). Boaz does not browbeat his readers. He avoids dudgeon. He writes brilliantly about American law, natural rights philosophy, and the history of freedom—so well, in fact, that his work ought to replace the ridiculous civics textbooks in American secondary schools.
But there are problems with libertarianism that even those who support its aims mustn’t ignore.
While reading The Libertarian Mind, I turned to the back pages and took the political quiz in the appendix. You are asked to give numerical answers to 22 questions about whether the government or the individual should decide certain matters—who should say whether you “hire a worker of another race,” for example—and then plot your score on a graph that supposedly measures your political position. My score indicates that I am a pure libertarian. But I’m not, so when I returned to reading the main text, I did so with the suspicion that I was being subtly, if unintentionally, misled.
The problem is that Boaz makes libertarianism sound too moderate. It isn’t. This is no criticism of the philosophy itself: Something that’s extreme is not necessarily false, but it’s also not necessarily true. And there is a tendency among libertarians to believe that the more radical you are, the more pure and principled you are—and thus, the more correct you are. Libertarians can be as hostile to their own as they are to any social democrat or neoconservative. All political ideologies have moderate and hard line wings, but as a former orthodox libertarian, I can attest to the overwhelming purity policing within this movement. It can be nearly as rigorous as that of the hard left.