All Commentary
Monday, October 1, 2001

Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism by Chris Matthew Sciabarra

An Ambitious and Laudable Agenda

Penn State Press · 2000 · 496 pages · $65.00 cloth; $24.00 paperback

Reviewed by James Otteson

This book is the third in a trilogy from Chris Matthew Sciabarra. The other two were his Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (SUNY, 1995) and Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (Penn State, 1995). The project of Total Freedom is to encourage a “dialectical approach to libertarian social theory.” About half of the book is dedicated to working out what “dialectical” means here, and what such a theory would look like; another large portion is dedicated to an investigation of Murray Rothbard’s writings; and the remainder is dedicated to showing how various “classical liberal,” “libertarian,” and “anarcho-capitalist” thinkers have contributed to the “dialectical” project Sciabarra thinks is necessary if “total freedom” is to be more than just an academic project.

Sciabarra says that he envisions his book not as providing a comprehensive dialectical libertarian social theory, but rather as articulating a “metatheoretical foundation upon which to build such a theory;” he sees the various parts of this book as successive attempts to push “the radical project out on a dialectical-libertarian limb.” What Sciabarra is working toward is the integration of disparate strands of libertarian thought into a single, coherent project, and he contends that this union will strengthen both the parts and the whole. In this way he hopes to increase the chance of creating an actual world of “total freedom,” that is, one based on voluntary exchange in all things—including “goods, services, and ideas”—and with no entities—including in particular the state—initiating force against others.

Sciabarra’s discussion of “dialectic” in Part One is meticulous. He sees “dialectic” not in the Marxian sense of a material process mechanically producing the future based on the past, but rather as a process of thought that can lead individuals to discover truth by engaging and relying on the thought of others. Sciabarra’s dialectic is an Aristotelian “orientation” in thinking that is chiefly characterized by an “emphasis on context.” It avoids static, apriori thought and is marked instead by dynamic “this-worldly analysis” applied to problems “that are real, concrete, important to our survival as humans, not as gods or goddesses.”

Although Sciabarra’s discussion strikes me as sometimes overly reliant on jargon—as do the writings of many of the people to whom Sciabarra appeals, such as Marx, Hegel, Gadamer, and Habermas—I think the substance of Sciabarra’s idea is that the world is a single “organic whole,” and therefore investigation into it should not proceed as if it were made up of entirely separate atoms. It should proceed instead by alternately delving into various aspects of the whole, and then comparing the respective results. Sciabarra’s project is thus an attempt to lay the groundwork for a grand unification theory for a social science dedicated to human freedom.

That is an ambitious and laudable agenda in a world where the boundaries of freedom are shrinking. One might question whether all of Sciabarra’s investigation into “dialectic” is necessary, however. His lengthy discussions of key philosophers, along with an enormous number of their critics, defenders, and expositors, introduce many questions that cannot reasonably be addressed in the book and are somewhat distracting from the overall project.

Part Two is a critical intellectual biography of Murray Rothbard and his writings. Here again Sciabarra works with great care, exhibiting an impressive command not only of Rothbard’s works but of commentary as well. Rothbard’s works manifest just the kind of dialectical sensitivity Sciabarra seeks. Rothbard, he argues, was able to envision a libertarian utopia and to base this vision on a plausible conception of human nature; and he spent his life working out in detail the multifaceted ways they relate to one another.

Thus Rothbard “dialectically” investigated both the whole and the parts, and attempted to integrate them in just the way Sciabarra is calling on contemporary libertarian scholars to do today. Indeed, Rothbard is perhaps for Sciabarra the Platonic Form of libertarian scholar: he synthesized the work of those before him, as well as those in his own time; he worked by turns on narrow, specialized topics and on holistic, comprehensive projects; and viewed as a whole his scholarly corpus presents a virtually completed social science of human freedom showing that the “total freedom” Sciabarra advocates is both possible and practicable.

The final part of the book is in some ways the most interesting. Sciabarra discusses a number of contemporary libertarian scholars working from very different background assumptions—including George Reisman, Tibor Machan, Peter Boettke, Don Lavoie, and Stephan Kinsella—and shows how they, whether knowingly or not, can be seen as participating in the dialectical project he has been advocating. He weaves their individual projects together in an ingenious way. Sciabarra’s book succeeds in taking a large step indeed toward fulfilling his goal of enabling a “full-fledged, integrated, dialectical case for individual liberty.

James Otteson is a professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama.

  • Dr. Otteson joined Wake Forest in the fall of 2013 as Executive Director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism and Teaching Professor of Political Economy. He currently holds the Thomas W. Smith Presidential Chair in Business Ethics. Before coming to Wake Forest, Dr. Otteson was joint professor of philosophy and economics, and philosophy department chair, at Yeshiva University. He has taught previously at New York University, Georgetown University, and the University of Alabama. He also serves currently as a Research Professor in the Freedom Center and in the Philosophy Department at the University of Arizona, and he is a Senior Scholar at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, DC. Dr. Otteson received a BA from the Program of Liberal Studies (the "Great Books" program) at Notre Dame, an MA in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago.