Libertarianism: A Primer by David Boaz
A Handy and Timely Introduction to an Appealing Alternative to Statism
AUGUST 01, 1997 by JOHN ATTARIAN
Filed Under : Government, Democracy
The Free Press • 1997 • 228 pages • $23.00
Dr. Attarian is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
With statism’s failures obvious, and Americans’ disgust with statist government and politicians burgeoning, David Boaz’s accessible book is a handy and timely introduction to an appealing alternative.
Opening with a brisk presentation of essential ideas, Boaz defines libertarianism as the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. Government’s proper role is to protect our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not initiate the use of force. Courageously, Boaz rightly contends that the most important political value is liberty, not democracy. All political theories are essentially one question: Who is going to make the decision about this particular aspect of your life, you or somebody else?
Concisely but comprehensively, Boaz presents the history of libertarianism, tracing it to a drive for religious freedom and including the contributions of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Scholastics, and the Levellers, as well as more familiar figures like John Locke and Thomas Paine. His explication of rights is likewise superb. Self-ownership and property rights are cogently spelled out, and the nonaggression axiom—No one has the right to initiate aggression against the person or property of anyone else—receives due prominence. His detailed treatment of the justice of distributions arrived at through just means and his argument that property rights are human rights, and indispensable since we live and act in a material world, are especially valuable. To his credit, Boaz insists on equality of rights only, not opportunity or outcomes. There is also a fascinating, thought-provoking treatment of emergencies. Acknowledging that dire situations (e.g., natural disasters) may arise where rights might not apply, Boaz nevertheless commonsensically concludes that we do live in mostly normal situations, so our ethics should be designed for our survival and flourishing in normal conditions.
His treatments of market processes, civil society, law and the Constitution, health care, and the costs and failures of America’s burgeoning Leviathan are other strong points. In showing that most American poor are affluent by historical standards and that before welfare, Americans took care of their own with numerous mutual-aid societies, Boaz ably rebuts the charge that welfare is essential because charity won’t suffice.
Also welcome is his explication of what libertarianism isn’t. Libertarianism is neither libertinism nor chaos. Libertarians never suggested that people be ‘emancipated’ from the reality of the world, from the obligation to pay one’s own way and to take responsibility for the consequences of one’s own actions.
A weakness in the book is that Boaz’s case for liberty is overwhelmingly economic and technocratic: it makes us prosperous and promotes technological progress. The biggest issue for most Americans in the 1990s is preserving economic growth. Oh? The biggest concern for many of us is, arguably, our disintegrating social fabric and rising barbarism. The Information Age will, he confidently predicts, make the clumsy state obsolete. Government’s discoordination of the market process is making us less prosperous than we could be and impeding progress; high-tech entrepreneurs will increasingly just bypass it. In a nutshell: Out of the way, government, you’re obstructing progress!
Because of this focus, Boaz skates over the tough social issues. Boaz’s technocratic economism will not convince religious conservatives who do not see consumption as their purpose in life and who hope for Heaven rather than a high-tech Brave New World. Their concerns are valid, but left unaddressed.
Given the reality of evil, and the imperative of preserving a safe, wholesome living environment, prudential constraints on conduct in the public square, as opposed to one’s home (which Boaz sees, rightly, as one’s castle), make sense. Laws against indecent exposure and inciting to riot, say. Perhaps Boaz will engage conservative concerns in future works. He doesn’t here.
But overall, he performs ably. As a concise, competent introduction to libertarianism, Boaz’s primer can’t be beat. Perhaps the libertarian moment has arrived. If libertarianism seizes its moment, it will be thanks in no small part to this book.