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Friday, July 21, 2023

Libertarianism For Beginners: A Review

Those curious about libertarianism often don’t know where to start learning about it. Todd Seavey’s Libertarianism For Beginners is as good a place as any.

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Todd Seavey’s 2016 book Libertarianism For Beginners is a thoughtful and accessible introduction to libertarian thinking, perfect for someone who is maybe curious about the philosophy but has never quite understood what it’s all about. At 200 pages, the book is an easy read and not too long—though this is hardly due to a lack of content. Instead, the brevity is accomplished by skipping the soliloquizing characteristic of so many other books and getting right to the point. Seavy packs in a great deal of philosophy and history, and seasons it all with witty remarks about government that would make even the most ardent statist chuckle.

Summary

The book begins by discussing the basics of libertarianism. Seavy first clarifies the various meanings of the word “libertarian” and explains what he means by that word to make sure everyone is on the same page from the outset. He then talks about the non-aggression principle and victimless crimes, and responds to some of the gut-reactions people often have when they are first introduced to these ideas (reactions like, “How would a libertarian society address drug addiction, public services, caring for the poor, or reckless businesses?”). He also has a chapter on free-market economics where he explains why libertarians prefer laissez-faire capitalism over government regulation and taxation.

The next section of the book chronicles the history of the libertarian movement, from its classical liberal roots all the way up to the present day. Seavey introduces the reader to figures like Adam Smith and John Locke, and then discusses the influence of thinkers like Bastiat, Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Rand, Rothbard, and Ron Paul.

The final section of the book is a smorgasbord of interesting topics. There is a chapter on anarcho-capitalism, the most radical form of libertarianism. There is also a chapter called “Ten Dilemmas for Libertarians” where he outlines some of the harder questions libertarians are faced with, and then he outlines some of the terminology thrown around in libertarian circles and answers some FAQs about the philosophy.

Some Thoughts on the Book

The first thing that struck me about the book is that Seavey is fair to every faction in the liberty movement, something that is hard for most libertarians to do. Whether he is discussing Georgism or Objectivism, anarcho-capitalism or left-libertarianism, he does so in a matter-of-fact way that proponents of those positions would likely endorse. Yet while he gives every position a fair hearing, he is also frank about the objections others raise to those positions. He doesn’t shy away from discussing the controversies, but neither does he take sides. He simply presents the main points of contention and allows the reader to form their own opinion.

Another nice touch is the two-page biographies that are scattered throughout the book. Seavey packs these full of interesting factoids that even more knowledgeable libertarians might be unfamiliar with.

FEE gets mentioned partway through the book, specifically in connection with Leonard Read and his famous essay I, Pencil. Also mentioned on the same page is “a quartet of female writers around World War II, often credited with helping to bring libertarian thinking to the masses.” “Quartet?” I thought to myself. “That’s odd.” I was aware of the famous trio (Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Ayn Rand) from a 2021 FEE article. But to these three Seavey adds Zora Neale Hurston, “whose novels depicted firsthand the hardships of the American black experience while valorizing self-help and freedom rather than statist solutions.”

Another section that stood out was Seavey’s analysis of the nineteenth-century anarchist movement, which confirmed many suspicions I’ve had about the history of anarchism.

“For twenty-first century readers accustomed to the right-vs.-left model of politics, the nineteenth century might now appear a strange menagerie of mixed political elements, even beyond the anarchists. Some of the most anti-government movements at the time were also anti-capitalist…In that mixed political milieu, nineteenth-century anarchists ran the gamut from Marxists, who used the words anarchism and socialism almost interchangeably, to ‘individualist anarchists,’ who were often staunch advocates of property and trade. It is surprising in retrospect how long anarchism managed to endure as a coalition of what now seem like divergent leftists and libertarian ideas…All the radicals seemed, for several decades, to be united in their opposition to existing states without yet worrying that the radicals themselves would be sharply divided once the state was gone.

It is easy for the twenty-first-century mind to forget how novel some of these ideas still were in the nineteenth century and how little time there had been to work out all the details and implications.”

I would add—and the book hints at this in later sections—that even today many political philosophies are still working out the implications of their stated principles. It’s easy to forget how new our current philosophies are, historically speaking, and how much they are still developing to this day.

While the historical exposition in the book is brilliant, some readers may find there is a bit too much emphasis on the history of the movement and “insider-baseball” debates and not enough on policy applications. The main issues libertarians care about—war, central banks, regulations, taxes etc.—are all mentioned, but there is not a great deal of discussion of the libertarian position on all these topics. To be sure, in-depth policy analysis would not be suitable for an introductory book, but explaining certain key principles such as caveat emptor and going into more depth on private alternatives to the FDA or the welfare state might have made the book more persuasive to the skeptical reader and more applicable to mainstream topics of interest.

But that is merely a minor quibble. In all, the book is a great read that has enlightening insights for both complete beginners and long-time libertarians. Everyone will come away learning something from this book.

Libertarianism For Beginners by Todd Seavey was published in 2016.


  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.