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Thursday, August 1, 1996

The Free Society

Pollock Advocates Gradualism but Offers Steps Toward Greater Liberty

Failure to go back to first principles in considering what government should do lies at the heart of the sterility of so much of today’s public debate on the issues. Lansing Pollock’s The Free Society seeks to fill that void by providing philosophical foundations for his version of limited government libertarianism. His freedom principle is based on Kant’s exhortation that people be treated as ends in themselves rather than means, as well as a rejection of paternalism. From here, Pollock informs his pragmatic discussion of institutions, their economic ramifications, and how to make the transition from our present state of affairs to the one he envisions.

His libertarianism is less limited than many Freeman readers might hope for. For instance, he would have his libertarian government provide water and sewer service, street and roads, parks, and even student loans, in addition to the national defense and law enforcement services provided by anyone’s minimal state. Even in eliminating such welfare state excrescences as AFDC, public schooling, and Social Security, he calls for gradualism, with the phase-out periods ranging from 16 to 25 years.

Many of these leaks, to borrow Leonard Read’s description of divergences from his own freedom philosophy, come from the author’s notion of conservative justice. This notion brands as coercive any action which disappoints expectations which one’s previous actions led people to hold. Acting on this notion appears to violate Pollock’s own freedom principle, however. Its main effect is to upgrade the case for gradualism in reforming current abuses from the pragmatic level to philosophical level. Even on the pragmatic level, gradualism seems to perform far more effectively at expanding the state rather than restraining it.

Many of his themes, however, do indeed strike a libertarian chord: the existence of rational criteria for evaluating moral theories, opposition to both bullying elitism and leveling egalitarianism, the inviolability of property rights, the justification for punishment, the detrimental effect on economic growth and productivity of government intervention, the tendency of paternalism to foster irresponsibility, support for a noninterventionist foreign policy, and the connection between big government and moral decay.

The Free Society‘s scope is far-reaching. In a book so short, this means that the author barely scratches the surface on some issues. Given that handicap, it is gratifying how many issues he covers well. I thought his discussion of health care was extremely well done. Conspicuous by its absence, however, is any discussion of the monetary institutions necessary to a free society.

One of the thorniest problems facing libertarians is how to finance the limited government they do support, given their view that taxation is theft. His inclination toward user fees is reasonable, but inadequate for such collectively consumed goods as national defense. His proposal to solve this by taxing land harkens back to Henry George and entails, if implicitly, the quite un-libertarian assumption that all land belongs to the state.

Despite its shortcomings, this book presents a principled case for libertarianism in a clear fashion. While one may not agree with every proposal it puts forth, there is little it advocates which would not be a step in the right direction.