BOOK REVIEW: Libertarianism: A Primer . By David Boaz. (New York: Free Press, 1997. 314 pp. $23.00.)
"There are sundry 'libertarians'," Ayn Rand wrote during the early 1970s, "who plagiarize the Objectivist theory of politics, while rejecting the metaphysics, epistemology and ethics on which it rests." (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 15) Those fighting words set the theme for a feud between libertarians and Objectivists that continues to this day. "Newcomers to this part of the political-philosophical spectrum," Charles Murray wrote recently in What It Means To Be a Libertarian, "should be warned that Ayn Rand's philosophy—objectivism—occupies a highly fortified position distinct from the classical liberal tradition and at outright odds with much in this book." (p. 172)
If philosophical disagreement explains the basis for this mutual antagonism, the genesis of the libertarian movement explains the antagonism's intensity. The term libertarian gained currency in the late 1960s as a descriptive label for all of those on the Right who emphasized free-market principles. These people—Austrian- and Chicago-school economists, Objectivists, "anarcho-capitalists"—disagreed about many philosophical issues but stood united in differentiating themselves from traditional conservatism, because of conservatism's inadequate emphasis on individual freedom. By 1970, a distinctive libertarian movement had emerged, and it included a number of Objectivists and Objectivist sympathizers.
Relations between Objectivists and libertarians quickly soured, however. Though many libertarian leaders acknowledged intellectual debts to Ayn Rand, she publicly disowned them. Her basic argument—that capitalism requires a philosophical base in the Objectivist principles of reason and egoism—angered those who believed a libertarian political agenda could be advanced apart from these more fundamental premises. As a result, some libertarians publicly repudiated and ridiculed Objectivism, which only aggravated the estrangement between the two camps. Since then, Peter Schwartz and other Objectivists have cited these insults as evidence that libertarians are mortal foes of Objectivism.
An Objectivist-libertarian alliance might indeed be possible.
Over the years, though, many libertarians and at least a few Objectivists have continued to wonder if the chasm can be bridged—if it is possible for the two camps to cooperate on a strictly political agenda to constrain government and defend individual freedom. Must we agree on everything, they ask, before we can collaborate on anything?
In Libertarianism: A Primer, David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, presents the finest introduction to the libertarian ideology yet to appear. More significantly, Boaz outlines a brand of libertarianism that Objectivists can live with comfortably. That suggests an Objectivist-libertarian alliance might indeed be possible—if the alliance embodies an intellectual division of labor under which each camp contributes its particular strengths.
Objectivists have not always been willing to acknowledge the extent of their intellectual debts to libertarian sources, and Boaz's book is especially good in two areas of libertarian scholarship from which Objectivists have drawn heavily: economics and history.
Until the recent appearance of George Reisman's Capitalism, Objectivists derived virtually all their knowledge of sound economic theory from proto-libertarian writers such as Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt. And even when applying capitalist principles, most Objectivists have not hesitated to rely upon the tremendous outpouring of sophisticated monographs and policy reports from Cato and other libertarian think tanks.
It is not surprising, then, that Boaz is at his best when setting forth a compelling, commonsense case for the practical benefits of a capitalist economy. In a memorable passage, he illustrates the efficacy and social cohesion of the free market with an inspired example: a description of his economic transactions in a small French city. On a Sunday, at a closed bank, he received $200 from an ATM machine. After a taxi ride to an airport, he used a credit card to rent a $20,000 automobile, "which I promised to return to someone else at a different location in a few days." Stop and reflect on these wonders of the modern world, Boaz urges.
A man I had never seen before, who would never see me again, with whom I could barely communicate, trusted me with a car. A bank set up an automatic system that would give me cash on request thousands of miles from my home. A generation ago such things weren't possible; a couple of generations ago they would have been unimaginable; today they are the commonplace infrastructure of our economy.
The other great strength of libertarian thought has been in the field of history. Except for Robert Hessen, Howard Dickman, and several others, Objectivists have published few historical works. Libertarians have published many, and Boaz draws upon that literature and adds to it as well. He offers a brilliant overview of some key political-economic concepts and institutions that have grown from American Enlightenment roots. His survey of the evolution of the ideas of individualism, natural law, property rights, free markets, and limited government is one of the most valuable features of the volume. Likewise, his chapter on the "rule of law" is an excellent explanation of the principles underlying our Constitution.
David Boaz presents the finest introduction to the libertarian ideology yet to appear.
Ultimately, though, the case for freedom and capitalism must be grounded theoretically. Facts do not "speak for themselves." To be understood and evaluated, they require a conceptual and normative framework. Take Boaz's account of his day in France. What he offers as a self-evident demonstration of the greatness of the free market is, upon reflection, anything but. The wonders he describes are not a value to nationalists who believe that the global economy undermines their distinctive cultures, or to environmentalists who argue that computer networks destroy the simple life and reduce humans to PIN numbers.
Boaz himself recognizes the importance of philosophical ideas, for he sets forth his own theoretical rationale. Unfortunately, there are more than a few omissions in his argument. And on some crucial matters, he is simply wrong. So, if Objectivists can learn much from veteran libertarian policy experts about how to implement theoretical principles in the real world, libertarians can learn much from Objectivists about how to give the free society a sound theoretical defense.
Past Objectivist critiques of libertarianism (including, I regret to say, some of my own) have too often failed to discriminate among various types of libertarians. Ayn Rand dismissed libertarians as "anarchists" and "hippies of the Right"—unfairly lumping together serious thinkers with anti-intellectual libertines. Peter Schwartz's vituperative essay, "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty," descended from lumping to smearing:
The Libertarian interprets liberty to mean the license to do whatever he feels like doing. Since he dismisses reason and philosophy, he has no way even to define force. To him, the pseudo-definition of "force" is that which interferes with somebody's desires; to him, any obstacle in the path of people's whims is undesirable. People ought to be "free" to act on any random impulses they feel. That is libertarianism. (The Voice of Reason, edited by Leonard Peikoff, page 323.)
Most emphatically, that is not the libertarianism advanced here. No doubt, there are some rabid subjectivists in the libertarian movement, but an honest critique of libertarianism—either as a philosophy or a movement—should grapple with its best arguments and their most serious proponents, not focus on the ravings of marginal cranks. For years, Boaz and his Cato associates have battled rationally and gallantly for real personal liberty. They are not irrationalists or subjectivists—quite the contrary.
Boaz offers several arguments for human liberty—one of them strictly prudential:
Libertarians believe the role of government is not to impose a particular morality but to establish a framework of rules that will guarantee each individual the freedom to pursue his own good in his own way—whether individually or in cooperation with others—so long as he does not infringe the freedom of others. Because no modern government can assume that its citizens share a complete and exhaustive moral code, the obligations imposed on people by force should be minimal. … This is not to say that there is no substantive morality, or that all ways of life are "equally good," but merely that consensus on the best is unlikely to be reached and that when such matters are placed in the political realm, conflict is inevitable. (p. 106)
One could quarrel with some of the logical implications here. But nothing in this passage, or others like it, entails a denial of objective moral standards or an endorsement of subjectivism. Boaz is saying simply that political rules of conduct—those rules we codify into governing laws, to be imposed by force—ought to be strictly limited. He is not declaring that people can live without philosophy telling them what to do—only that they can live without politicians telling them what to do.
Fortunately, Boaz does not limit his case to the prudential argument. He goes on to make clear that human liberty and capitalism require moralunderpinnings and that it is important to get the philosophical foundations correct. "The ethical or normative basis of libertarianism," he declares, "is respect for the dignity and worth of every (other) individual." (p. 97) Just as he rejects subjectivism, he also rejects collectivist defenses of freedom, including some put forth by eminent libertarians. He takes on utilitarian advocates of "the greatest good for the greatest number," even the great free market economist Ludwig von Mises:
Mises explains that he "presupposes that people prefer life to death, health to sickness, nourishment to starvation, abundance to poverty." If so, the economist can demonstrate that private property and free markets are the best way to achieve that goal. … But he's still making a big assumption. People may well prefer some less abundance in exchange for more equality, or preserving the family farm, or simply hurting the rich out of envy. How can a utilitarian object to taking people's property if a majority have determined that they don't mind the reduced economic growth that such a policy will generate? Thus, most libertarians conclude that liberty is better protected by a system of individual rights than by simple utilitarianism or economic analysis. … The root of our social rules must be the protection of each individual's right to life, liberty, and property. (pp. 83-84)
By insisting that liberty requires a proper base rooted in morality, one that rejects both subjectivism and collectivism, Boaz concedes the fundamental point Rand and other Objectivists have been making all along: Capitalism cannot be defended on the grounds of politics alone; philosophy matters, and matters decisively. This view is widely shared by other leading libertarian thinkers and writers, including many affiliated with Cato and the Reason Foundation.
Still, when Boaz attempts to defend capitalism philosophically, his arguments become loose and unsystematic, and it is clear he lacks the weaponry required to battle gargantuan government. In The Libertarian Reader—a companion volume to the one under review—Boaz marshaled a host of history's noted thinkers, from Lao-tzu to Mario Vargas Llosa, to engage the Leviathan. Here he faces the statist colossus alone and inadequately armed.
Early on, Boaz lists "key concepts of libertarianism" in the following order: individualism, individual rights, spontaneous order, the rule of law, limited government, free markets, the virtue of production, natural harmony of interests, and peace. All of these are important to a free society; but they are treated topically, not hierarchically—as talking points, not building blocks in a structured argument. There is no sense of fundamentality, no sense of which concepts are primary and which derivative, no sense of which ones explain, justify, or depend upon which.
"The layman's error, in regard to philosophy," Ayn Rand noted, "is the tendency to accept consequences while ignoring their causes—to take the end result of a long sequence of thought as the given and to regard it as 'self-evident' or as an irreducible primary, while negating its preconditions." (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 15) That is often the case with libertarians, and quite clearly the case here. In fact, Boaz's three basic theoretical principles are all examples of this futile "axiomatic" approach.
Take his concept of individual rights. The moral principle of rights is the conceptual bridge between individual and social ethics, between personal and public morality; thus, it is a pivotal element of a case for a free society.
As noted, Boaz properly rejects utilitarianism, arguing that the case for liberty must be grounded instead in morality—in individual rights, not in collective desires. But what, exactly, are rights? Boaz endorses not the defensible concept of objectiverights (rights as moral principles, identified and applied by men, contextually), but rather the traditional, indefensible concept of intrinsic rights—that is, the idea of "inherent" or "natural rights" held by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Citing Locke's view, Boaz says that "we call them natural rights, because they exist in nature." (p. 37)
When Boaz attempts to defend capitalism philosophically, his arguments become loose and unsystematic.
But do they? Where? Are they metaphysical essences? Aspects of consciousness? Boaz does not say, although rights are a central pillar in his case for libertarianism. "I rather like Jefferson's simple declaration," Boaz declares: "Natural rights are self-evident." (p. 62) And: "These rights are not granted by government or by society; they are inherent in the nature of human beings. It is intuitively right that individuals enjoy the security of such rights; the burden of explanation should lie with those who would take rights away." (p. 16)
In logic, though, the burden of proof lies with the person who asserts the existence of a thing. It is a burden Boaz shrugs off with terms such as "self-evident," "inherent," and "intuitively"—terms that make this pillar undergirding his case for liberty little more than an arbitrary assertion.
A second theoretical pillar in Boaz's case is the notion of "self-ownership." Borrowing from other libertarians, such as the late Murray Rothbard, he puts forth this notion as a self-evident axiom:
Any theory of rights has to begin somewhere. … Every person is a unique individual. … Each individual owns himself or herself. What other possibilities besides self-ownership are there? … Either communism or aristocratic rule would divide the world into factions or classes. The only possibility that is humane, logical, and suited to the nature of human beings is self-ownership. (pp. 61-62)
As a metaphor, self-ownership is wonderfully evocative of an individualist outlook; as a theoretical pillar, it leaves much to be desired. For one thing, the idea of "self-ownership" is vulnerable to the charge of circularity, because the concept of ownership presupposes a relationship between an owner and that which is owned.
But more fundamentally, Boaz's arguments beg the question: Why is the individual a moral end in himself? Why is the moral end not his nation or race or class? Certainly, the latter view is widely accepted across the political spectrum, from conservative nationalists to liberal communitarians. Collectivists of both the Left and Right see the individual as taking his identity and meaning solely from his role in some social or cultural group. In fact, modern collectivist theorizing since at least John Rawls is predicated on the argument that moral significance rests in the collective, and society therefore owns the productive abilities of those who are its constituents. In such a moral scheme, there is no room for self-ownership—let alone a self-ownership that is asserted rather than demonstrated. To demonstrate a need or basis for ownership, one must first establish life and happiness as ultimate, objective human values, and reason as the means to achieve them. That is the case Objectivism makes, but Boaz does not.
The third pillar of Boaz's case is "what libertarians call the nonaggression axiom, and it is a central principle of libertarianism." This "axiom" is borrowed almost verbatim from Ayn Rand; in Boaz's words: "No one has the right to initiate aggression against the person or property of anyone else." (p. 74) But Rand, of course, did not present this principle as a primary fact of nature. For her, it was derived from an even more basic moral principle. Which principle? That is a question too many libertarians fail to address.
Libertarians, including perhaps Boaz, seem to be trying to establish the individual's moral entitlement to act on his own behalf—but without reference to the concept of self-interest. Yet how can capitalism—a system predicated on personal profit-making—be morally justified apart from an ethics that upholds the individual's own life and happiness as his highest values? Because many libertarians are excruciatingly uncomfortable about challenging the West's dominant altruist ethic, they feel compelled to skirt these issues and to make capitalism seem other-directed and unselfish. Laissez-faire economists from Adam Smith to Ludwig von Mises argued that, in the marketplace, the desire for profit harnesses the amoral self-interest of entrepreneurs to the "service" of "sovereign consumers." Taking the logic of this altruist premise to tortured lengths, "supply-sider" George Gilder even tried to prove (in Wealth and Poverty) that capitalists were motivated by selflessness.
Boaz, too, seems susceptible to the belief that liberty can be promoted without challenging altruism. Recall that his "ethical or normative basis of libertarianism is respect for the dignity and worth of every (other) individual."
Lord Acton once said that "liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end." That is a profound truth, and a powerful barrier to politicians seeking other values through coercive means. But as Boaz himself realizes, the free society needs a moral defense. The "axioms" of natural rights, self-ownership, and non-aggression need foundations that go deeper into philosophical bedrock. Liberty may be the highest political value, but it is not the highest value in the scale of human goods. It is not a commandment of nature, a categorical imperative, an end in itself.
As Ayn Rand observed, values are established by answering two key questions: Of value to whom, and for what? To whom and for what is liberty a value? To individuals pursuing their interests—their lives and their happiness. Unless one first establishes that each individual's own life, well-being, and happiness are morally proper goals, one cannot conclude individual liberty is a "value" or "good" or "right." Nor can one conclude that capitalism—which is driven by the pursuit of worldly wealth and personal profits through productivity and trade—is good.
The moral critics of capitalism and liberty have challenged in principle the moral right of individuals to live for themselves. They have attacked the pursuit of happiness as ethically bankrupt and socially destructive. They have scorned wealth and material comfort as demeaning goals. These are not issues that champions of capitalism and liberty can ignore or finesse. Ultimately, Boaz, like many libertarians before him, asserts or assumes too much of what he has to prove.
In the end, therefore, Libertarianism: A Primer is not a complete or perfect map for reaching a free society. But the long road to liberty must be walked in steps, and David Boaz has taken several of the most important: individualism and rights, the rule of law and limited government, productivity and free markets. Objectivists should applaud.