All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1996

Liberty for the 21st Century, Contemporary Libertarian Thought

A Thought-Provoking, Challenging, and Substantive Book

Mr. Carolan is the executive editor of National Review.

This is a substantive book, written almost entirely by professional academics, and full of abstract language about things like deontology, meta-normative principles, and prisoner’s dilemmas. Not easy reading at times.

But working through Liberty for the 21st Century is worthwhile. It is thought-provoking, challenging, and will last in value as a classic short exposition of multiple libertarian themes.

After a fine introduction on the meaning of libertarianism by John Hospers, the early essays address what might be called the foundations of liberty, which at first seems a curious issue. Isn’t it self-evident that political freedom is necessary? The authors examine the deeper anthropological, metaphysical premises on which political liberty is based. Each author comes at the idea of political freedom from a different political tradition. Is freedom rooted in some prior notion of social contract (Jan Narveson), a deduction from the deontological notion of persons as ends in themselves (Eric Mack), or is it a precondition for the kind of human flourishing that the ancients envisioned (Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen)? Here alone one can learn much.

Then follows an interesting survey, by Aeon Skoble, of the fascinating debate between limited-government and anarchist libertarians. Can there be a natural obligation to turn over certain personal property to fund even a restrained government?

Following a naturally logical progression, the middle part of the book introduces essays which apply libertarian principles to longstanding political issues: warfare (Eric Mack), civil rights and affirmative action (Steven Yates), business ethics (Machan), environmentalism (journalist Mike Gemmell, the only non-academic in the bunch), education (J.E. Chesher), and drug prohibition (Mark Thornton). This is a fine section as well, with the authors not giving so much attention to current names and places as to risk dating the book. The essays offer concise analyses for the long haul. If I had one minor objection to this section, it was that it did not address a traditional public-relations millstone for libertarians: the subject of prostitution.

The final section responds to objections from critics of different stripes, most proposing positive rights to the property of others, or the lack of nuance in the classical liberal/libertarian view and the need for more community-minded (statist, bureaucratic) solutions. The most enjoyable section of the book, as the authors do a clinical job—with absolute, truly admirable honesty and solicitude for ideas—of analyzing and dissecting critics of libertarian thought. Of particular note were the demolitions of rights to welfare by Machan and Den Uyl, and the argument against moral minimalism (claiming too much common ground with critics of libertarianism) by Gregory Johnson.

Once again I must stress that despite the challenging abstractions in the book, the sheer respect for ideas and the ethical use of argument here is apparent and worth experiencing. It was this very quality which so attracted me to libertarian thought in the first place.