Freeman

BOOK REVIEW

Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism by Chris Matthew Sciabarra

An Ambitious and Laudable Agenda

OCTOBER 01, 2001 by JAMES R. OTTESON

Penn State Press · 2000 · 496 pages · $65.00 cloth; $24.00 paperback

Reviewed by James Otteson

This book is the third in a trilogy from Chris Matthew Sciabarra. The other two were his Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (SUNY, 1995) and Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (Penn State, 1995). The project of Total Freedom is to encourage a “dialectical approach to libertarian social theory.” About half of the book is dedicated to working out what “dialectical” means here, and what such a theory would look like; another large portion is dedicated to an investigation of Murray Rothbard’s writings; and the remainder is dedicated to showing how various “classical liberal,” “libertarian,” and “anarcho-capitalist” thinkers have contributed to the “dialectical” project Sciabarra thinks is necessary if “total freedom” is to be more than just an academic project.

Sciabarra says that he envisions his book not as providing a comprehensive dialectical libertarian social theory, but rather as articulating a “metatheoretical foundation upon which to build such a theory;” he sees the various parts of this book as successive attempts to push “the radical project out on a dialectical-libertarian limb.” What Sciabarra is working toward is the integration of disparate strands of libertarian thought into a single, coherent project, and he contends that this union will strengthen both the parts and the whole. In this way he hopes to increase the chance of creating an actual world of “total freedom,” that is, one based on voluntary exchange in all things—including “goods, services, and ideas”—and with no entities—including in particular the state—initiating force against others.

Sciabarra’s discussion of “dialectic” in Part One is meticulous. He sees “dialectic” not in the Marxian sense of a material process mechanically producing the future based on the past, but rather as a process of thought that can lead individuals to discover truth by engaging and relying on the thought of others. Sciabarra’s dialectic is an Aristotelian “orientation” in thinking that is chiefly characterized by an “emphasis on context.” It avoids static, apriori thought and is marked instead by dynamic “this-worldly analysis” applied to problems “that are real, concrete, important to our survival as humans, not as gods or goddesses.”

Although Sciabarra’s discussion strikes me as sometimes overly reliant on jargon—as do the writings of many of the people to whom Sciabarra appeals, such as Marx, Hegel, Gadamer, and Habermas—I think the substance of Sciabarra’s idea is that the world is a single “organic whole,” and therefore investigation into it should not proceed as if it were made up of entirely separate atoms. It should proceed instead by alternately delving into various aspects of the whole, and then comparing the respective results. Sciabarra’s project is thus an attempt to lay the groundwork for a grand unification theory for a social science dedicated to human freedom.

That is an ambitious and laudable agenda in a world where the boundaries of freedom are shrinking. One might question whether all of Sciabarra’s investigation into “dialectic” is necessary, however. His lengthy discussions of key philosophers, along with an enormous number of their critics, defenders, and expositors, introduce many questions that cannot reasonably be addressed in the book and are somewhat distracting from the overall project.

Part Two is a critical intellectual biography of Murray Rothbard and his writings. Here again Sciabarra works with great care, exhibiting an impressive command not only of Rothbard’s works but of commentary as well. Rothbard’s works manifest just the kind of dialectical sensitivity Sciabarra seeks. Rothbard, he argues, was able to envision a libertarian utopia and to base this vision on a plausible conception of human nature; and he spent his life working out in detail the multifaceted ways they relate to one another.

Thus Rothbard “dialectically” investigated both the whole and the parts, and attempted to integrate them in just the way Sciabarra is calling on contemporary libertarian scholars to do today. Indeed, Rothbard is perhaps for Sciabarra the Platonic Form of libertarian scholar: he synthesized the work of those before him, as well as those in his own time; he worked by turns on narrow, specialized topics and on holistic, comprehensive projects; and viewed as a whole his scholarly corpus presents a virtually completed social science of human freedom showing that the “total freedom” Sciabarra advocates is both possible and practicable.

The final part of the book is in some ways the most interesting. Sciabarra discusses a number of contemporary libertarian scholars working from very different background assumptions—including George Reisman, Tibor Machan, Peter Boettke, Don Lavoie, and Stephan Kinsella—and shows how they, whether knowingly or not, can be seen as participating in the dialectical project he has been advocating. He weaves their individual projects together in an ingenious way. Sciabarra’s book succeeds in taking a large step indeed toward fulfilling his goal of enabling a “full-fledged, integrated, dialectical case for individual liberty.

James Otteson is a professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama.

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

October 2001

comments powered by Disqus

EMAIL UPDATES

* indicates required

CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
Download Free PDF

PAST ISSUES

SUBSCRIBE

RENEW YOUR SUBSCRIPTION

Essential Works from FEE

Economics in One Lesson (full text)

By HENRY HAZLITT

The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


By FREDERIC BASTIAT

Frederic Bastiat's timeless defense of liberty for all. Once read and understood, nothing ever looks the same.


By F. A. HAYEK

There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest suc­cesses in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control so­cial life.


By JEFFREY A. TUCKER

Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


By LEONARD E. READ

No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)