All Commentary
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Libertarianism Today

Libertarianism is attracting more attention than ever. As the economic and social damage done by Leviathan increases exponentially Americans are coming to understand that government power is the root of our many troubles. The idea that a consistent philosophy based on freedom and peaceful cooperation among all people is the only path out of the wilderness is spreading.

That has defenders of the mega-state worried. For them it would be catastrophic if people began thinking that they’d be better off with a minimal state. In recent months they’ve written several vicious, intellectually dishonest attacks on libertarianism. Those are desperate rearguard actions, however. The case for libertarianism has always been overwhelming, and in Libertarianism Today, Jacob Huebert advances it in a remarkably effective way.

Huebert, a lawyer and former FEE intern, understands that the libertarian philosophy will only spread through persuasion, and every page of the book is written with that in mind. He wants readers who are uncertain about libertarianism (or hostile to it) to see that it is nothing more than the consistent application of rules for living that nearly all of us accept in our relationships with others. “In everyday life,” he writes, “people understand and follow this basic libertarian rule. If you want something and it belongs to someone else, you have to persuade him or her to give or sell it to you—you cannot steal it or threaten to hit the other person over the head if they refuse to part with it. If you do not like the books your neighbor is reading, or the religion he is practicing, or most anything else he is doing in the privacy of his own home, too bad—you cannot go force others to do what you want them to do.”

Exactly. FEE’s founder Leonard E. Read stated it clearly in the title of one of his books, Anything That’s Peaceful. Huebert gives much credit to Read for helping to keep the libertarian philosophy alive during the period of government idolatry after World War II.

Most of the book is devoted to specific issues in which people are (or at least ought to be) fed up with the mega-state and receptive to libertarian alternatives. But before getting into those issues, Huebert clears up some serious misunderstandings. Political writers often convey the notion that libertarianism is “an extreme form of conservatism,” and Huebert takes pains to show that libertarians are not conservatives of any sort. Nor are they liberals, as that term is now used. Both conservatives and liberals eagerly turn to government coercion on a wide array of policies. As a matter of principle, libertarians insist on keeping the Pandora’s Box of aggression locked.

Another source of confusion is the common idea that libertarian thinking is unworkable. We often hear something like: “Capitalism sounds good in theory, but in practice it leads to all kinds of trouble.” Libertarians do indeed favor free-market capitalism, but Huebert argues that our economy is far, far from that unknown ideal. “The U.S. economy is hampered by countless interventions: trade barriers, corporate welfare, wage controls, regulation, occupational licensure, antitrust laws, compulsory unionism, taxes, and much else.” It makes no sense to blame libertarianism for problems created by a host of government blunders that it opposes.

Now let’s look at some of those sore spots where Americans should be receptive—where they should be demanding libertarianism today.

One of them is war. Americans are finally getting sick of military escapades around the globe. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives—all are eager to send troops into foreign countries and involve them in conflicts under euphemisms like “nation building” or “humanitarian intervention.” The only consistent opposition to these bloody, costly, endless wars comes from libertarians, Huebert notes.

What about the ridiculous mania for security? The Republicrats have fastened the dictatorial Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on us. Almost everyone loathes the bossy, harassing attitude of the TSA’s “public servants” but, Huebert writes, “Despite all these intrusions, there is little evidence that the TSA has made anyone safer by scanning shoes or confiscating fingernail clippers, shampoo, and the like.” He then takes the libertarian analysis further than the unpleasantness of airport checkpoints: “Libertarians find the TSA disturbing in part because it accustoms Americans to obeying orders from uniformed agents without question and submitting to gross violations of privacy and dignity.”

The book covers many other current sore spots with Americans and shows how the problems would either disappear or be greatly diminished if we adopted libertarian thinking: the mess that statism has made of the economy, the terrible prospect of politicized health care, the woefully ineffective education system, and more.

If you want to undermine statist beliefs, pass this book around.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

  • Jacob Huebert is a Senior Attorney at the Goldwater Institute. Before joining Goldwater, he served as Director of Litigation for the Liberty Justice Center in Chicago. There, he successfully litigated cases to protect economic liberty, free speech, and other constitutional rights. He is the author of Libertarianism Today and has spoken to Federalist Society chapters across the country.