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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Libertarianism, from A to Z

Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron’s primer on libertarian thought proceeds just as the title indicates: a collection of alphabetically arranged short essays on 105 topics. This is a more effective technique than one might imagine: Since many people unfamiliar with libertarianism approach it by way of specific questions and challenges, Miron provides answers.

Readers of The Freeman will be familiar with this experience: How would libertarianism handle drunk driving? (That’s under “D.”) What do libertarians think about organ sales? (Under “O.”) What do you mean by “unintended consequences”? (Look under “U.”) The entries are not at all superficial, though; they are well thought out and carefully reasoned discussions of the topics. Just as important, they are well written: Since Miron’s intention here is to communicate the good sense of these ideas, it really makes a difference that he can write clear and effective prose. And he goes beyond surface-level questions (such as minimum wage) to tackle more complicated issues like Pareto efficiency, fiat money, and abortion. Miron also includes entries on how libertarianism differs from conservatism and (modern American) liberalism, and how consequentialist approaches differ from rights-based approaches.

Another asset of this book is the way Miron uses some of the basic concepts of economics in ways that are not only accessible to the non-economist but also show how the “economic way of thinking” applies to a variety of problems that the average reader might not think of as economic. For example, in the entry on protection of endangered species, Miron appeals to the concept of incentives. Although this solution is counterintuitive, assigning private property rights in endangered species or their habitats will create better incentives for good stewardship. There are many examples in Africa of the success of this approach, so Miron is able to supplement the theoretical explanation of why this works with empirical evidence. He contrasts this effectively with statist approaches by showing how these end up being counterproductive. Worse than being ineffective, these policies can create incentives for behavior that is the opposite of what is intended. It’s important that Miron can show this. Since a book like this has its chief value in outreach, it needs to provide answers to these sorts of questions from people who might not be predisposed to classical liberalism or the economic way of thinking. When he does appeal to precise notions like externalities or moral hazard, the reader is directed to entries on those.

Another feature I found compelling is the way Miron acknowledges the reality of moral disagreement where relevant, while nevertheless directing the reader to think in terms of policies that might make a positive change. For example, consider capital punishment. This isn’t strictly speaking a definitional issue for libertarianism: It’s possible to be a libertarian and think either that murderers deserve death or that no one has the right to take a life. But Miron encourages the reader to think about the issue differently. He frames the usual death penalty debate as “a distraction” and suggests that the reader approach the problem from the other side: “Society wastes substantial energy arguing about the death penalty rather than focusing on policies that would actually reduce crime, such as ending drug prohibition, legalizing prostitution, and improving educational outcomes.” We could argue about what is the best way to punish murderers, but perhaps it would be more productive to create conditions in which there would be fewer murders. The quoted sentence refers the reader to the relevant entries in which Miron shows what the causal links are.

Oddly, there are no entries for “rights” or “liberty.” This seeming lacuna is explained when one reads the entry “consequential versus philosophical libertarianism,” in which Miron contrasts the approach he favors, which he refers to as “consequentialist,” with the “philosophical,” or rights-based, approach. He argues that the latter approach is poorly supported and in any case less useful when trying to get others to see the benefits that libertarianism offers to a society. There is something to be said for the latter point, but the former point is belied by dozens of books by philosophers who explore the possible meanings of rights and liberty. Miron then says that the rights-based approach is consequentialist in that rights theorists claim that respecting rights has the best consequences. While a correct way to characterize John Stuart Mill, this doesn’t really encompass the point of rights for John Locke or for neo-Lockeans and neo-Aristotelians.

But to dwell on this intra-libertarian dispute would be to diminish the overall quality of the book. Libertarianism from A to Z is accessible and readable, and makes its points clearly and concisely. Libertarians will want to have it partly as a reference work. You may already have come to accept libertarian principles but not remember how fiat money works. But it is also an excellent choice to recommend (or give) to friends or relatives who do not agree with this approach but are open-minded enough to want to inquire. Miron has thus done us a great service.

  • Aeon J. Skoble is Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

  • Jeffrey Miron is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, as well as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.