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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice

Every generation faces the struggle for freedom anew, but not alone. To be successful it must draw on its inherited ideas of freedom, then reformulate them into a message that is relevant and inspiring to the people of a particular time and place.

Success in this task requires both a message and a messenger: something worth saying and someone who can say it well. Realizing Freedom, a collection of 20 years of his published writing, shows that Tom Palmer has been among the most successful messengers of liberty. At the risk of crossing the fine line between praise and hyperbole, Palmer is a tireless apostle of international liberty.

Realizing Freedom demonstrates Palmer’s versatility as a writer as well as his avoidance of narrow political pigeonholing. The collection includes scholarly analyses of intellectuals like John Rawls and G. A. Cohen and guest editorials in publications as diverse as the conservative Washington Times and the not-so-conservative Washington Blade, a gay newspaper.

Palmer’s writing is a call to social action in the name of human freedom. Liberty, he argues, is for everyone, not just those who manage to control political power. He feels that liberalism lost the battle of ideas (and humanity consequently suffered) because libertarians shrank from the debate and left the field to the enemies of freedom. His message is uncompromising: Do not concede; do not flee. Take the enemies of freedom seriously—as seriously as they take their fight against it.

Palmer warns us that defending liberty is not easy. It is not a parlor game played by polite intellectuals. Enunciating ideas is not enough. They must be acted on, at home, at work, and in public policy. And there is no one-size-fits-all formula for liberty. What works in one cultural context may not work in another. Every attempt to foster a free society must find roots in the way people live.

Realizing Freedom is divided into four sections: libertarian theory, history, practice, and books and ideas. In his section on theory, he addresses the connections between liberty, rights, and the rule of law. Hardly a surprising theme, he admits, but “the rule of law is the key to freedom.” When theorists pursue “social justice,” they weaken or even eliminate the rule of law.

One such theorist is John Rawls. Rawls’s theory of justice is one of the most influential products of the twentieth century, but Palmer eviscerates it. Rawls derived his theory from a set of “thought experiments.” Palmer points out a fundamental flaw in these experiments, a flaw so large that it compromises all of Rawls’s conclusions: Rawls assumes an individual cannot exit an undesirable social contract. Palmer writes, “Slamming shut the exit door creates the problem to which fairness is alleged to be the answer, but it also makes it impossible to put the solution into practice. Not only is the game rigged; it is not even possible to play it by the rules stipulated.” Instead of fairness, Palmer shows that Rawls’s thought experiment ends in a closed system of forced labor.

In his section on history Palmer covers the tradition of classical liberalism, introducing his readers to its great exponents and the battles they fought. Even longtime libertarians will learn much about their intellectual heritage.

The book’s “practice” section covers many specific issues, such as the proclivity of governments to engage in needless wars and to whittle down even supposedly sacred rights, such as freedom of speech. Palmer’s final section on key books and ideas is extremely valuable to those just getting into libertarianism who want to learn more.

Palmer’s essays are always cogent and range over a wide array of topics. The utility of the book, however, would have been improved by better documentation of each essay’s original publication. A collection of his essays like this, written over 20 years and for different periodicals, is risky business. It must overcome the obstacles of ideas presented out of context and out of time. A short introductory paragraph explaining the time, context, and audience of the piece would have made the reading experience more enjoyable.

But that’s just a quibble. Tom Palmer is a modern Bastiat: a scholar, a public intellectual, and an indefatigable defender of liberty around the world. His message is simply this: Freedom is not a unique cultural product. Every nation has a native set of ideas about liberty. The intellectual’s task is to identify and cultivate those ideas that promote the expansion of freedom and to boldly oppose those ideas that constrict it.

Realizing Freedom is the record of Palmer’s remarkable contributions toward that endless task. I strongly recommend a studious reading of this book.

  • Dr. Palmer is executive vice president for international programs at the Atlas Network and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and director of the Institute's educational program, Cato University.