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The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

8 Mins
September 8, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Ronald Hamowy, ed., The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2008), 664 pages, $125 (hardcover).

Spring 2009 -- Individualism seemed to have few accomplishments and fewer adherents, back when I first encountered it, some forty-five years ago. Its noble past was slandered by the dominant collectivist intelligentsia. And those who knew better were, by self-description, “a scattered remnant.” No wonder, as Stephen Davies writes in this book’s General Introduction, “Libertarian ideas and analyses had little public visibility.”

Well, baby, look at you now.

Editor Ronald Hamowy’s heroic attempt to squeeze the Individualist vision into one volume has yielded a book that is big by every measure: 664 two-column, 8½-by-11 pages. A 76-page index; 163 contributors; 327 entries. These articles include 132 that are biographical (from Aristotle to Ron Paul); 67 that are on policy issues (from Antitrust to the War on Terror); and 128 that are on broader topics (from the Common Law to Evolutionary Psychology). Yes, the price is also big. But it is just right if you are buying the book for that special individual: Yourself.


As one might expect, the entries in this work are not standardized but individualistic—they have not been polished to a fine uniformity by editors. That is not to say that the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism matches the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which had articles by masters: Donald Francis Tovey on music; Alfred North Whitehead on mathematics.

But there are many true gems here, produced by assigning the right author to the right topic. Several of these gems (full disclosure) were written by friends of mine, but I do not feel obliged to slight them for that reason.

David Mayer writes on Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution, and each entry is a model of clarity and concision. The one on Jefferson is principally biographical, as it should be, while the articles on the Declaration and the Constitution are fine mixtures of history and textual analysis. I do think Mayer should have been allowed a bit more space for his entries, however. After all, his article on the Declaration of Independence is shorter than the article on the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. And with only several additional lines, Mayer might have explained why he believes the term “self-evident” is “more precise” than “sacred and undeniable.” Hasn’t the term “self-evident” long been criticized as self-evidently false? Perhaps Mayer is drawing on I. Bernard Cohen’s work, cited in the entry’s “Further Readings,” but he does not tell us.

The entry on the history-shattering century of the Enlightenment is written by Rockford College philosophy professor Stephen Hicks (author of Explaining Postmodernism), who offers a paean to the age for its welcoming embrace of reason, individualism, science, technology, liberty, and free markets. At the end of the article, Hicks judiciously outlines the unfavorable assessments of the Enlightenment put forward by conservatives and socialists. But I could wish that, for the sake of completeness, he had added the Romantic critique. Again, he may have been up against a limitation of space, and, if so, I again protest. At four columns (two pages), Hicks’s entry on this entire century is shorter than the entry on Murray Rothbard.

The readers of this journal will, no doubt, be anxious to hear how Ayn Rand ’s philosophy of Objectivism fares in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Well, rest assured, the entry on it was written by our own David Kelley, and that article too is a gem. Kelley begins by establishing the justification for including Objectivism in an encyclopedia of libertarianism, despite Rand’s well-known opposition to the movement. He then elucidates the Objectivist philosophy’s derivation of its political outlook, explains why Objectivism finds certain other arguments for liberty to be wanting, and concludes by mentioning some of the objections that critics of Ayn Rand ’s philosophy have put forward. A “Further Readings” section, comprising nine works, rounds out the piece.

I could go on and on in this vein, summarizing one extraordinary article after another. And doubtless, even in listing them, I am omitting others equally worthy of inclusion, simply because of my inability to judge the value of many entries. That said, the following articles are among those that struck me as particularly meritorious [See Sidebar: “Noteworthy Entries]: “Conscription” by Doug Bandow; “The Bill of Rights” by Randy Barnett; “Private Property” by Tom Bethell; “Cato’s Letters” by Ronald Hamowy; “Self-Interest” by Lester Hunt (cum laude); “Freedom of Speech” by Alan Kors; “Natural Rights” by Fred Miller; “Privatization” by Robert Poole; “Ayn Rand” by Chris Sciabarra. The authors of these entries are not just libertarians who are experts on their topic; in many cases, they are the expert.


In addition to the articles I found superb, I also encountered some wonderful surprises: articles that opened up for me entirely new lines of thought. One that deserves special mention is Paul Dragos Aligica’s entry on “Vincent and Elinor Ostrom.” I had not before had the slightest knowledge of the Ostroms and their work, and as yet, naturally, my knowledge remains superficial. But I have learned enough to understand that there are libertarian grounds (founded on the theory of spontaneous order) for believing that “the tragedy of the commons” is not as inevitable a difficulty as Garrett Hardin’s 1968 paper in Science made it seem. Indeed, one of Elinor Ostrom’s key papers is called “Revisiting the Commons.” Appearing in Science thirty-one years after Hardin’s paper, it challenges the historical and theoretical foundations of his theory. Congratulations to the editor of this encyclopedia for including such a provocative entry. But why is the entry on the Ostroms not included in the index’s listing: “Tragedy of the commons” concept? The six page numbers given at that listing all refer to texts that endorse “the tragedy of the commons.”

Another entry that I must single out for special mention, because I know it will have a permanent influence on my thinking and my life, is Edward C. Feser’s “Conservative Critique of Libertarianism.” I will not say that it is, by itself, worth the price of the book, but it comes close. Libertarians should photocopy these pages and sew them into their garments, or sleep with them under their pillow, as Alexander did the Iliad. I know that I will be going over Feser’s article time and time again in the months ahead.


With such riches at hand, any complaints must be understood as secondary. But I do have a few.

Let me start with the most trivial. The book’s title page proclaims this work to be “a project of the Cato Institute.” Yet, unlike many Cato books, the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism had an outside publisher, in this case Sage Publications. I do not know who, given this division of labor, was responsible for the indexing, but I hope the second edition sees an improvement. Look at the entry “Children.” The first subentry reads as follows: “balancing interests” family relationships concept and, 59. What can that mean? Or how about this sub-entry under the main entry of “Welfare state”: short-term unemployment insurance reinstatement and, 345. Does “short-term” modify “unemployment,” “insurance,” or “reinstatement”? And how does the subentry relate to the main entry of “Welfare state”? Well, you won’t find out on page 345, because the topic is discussed on page 344. But it turns out to mean that Charles Murray recommended reinstating insurance for short-term unemployment while eliminating welfare-state programs.

More important than copyediting is the flawed or partial discussion of some topics. For example, I am currently editing a book that is concerned with the philosophy and history of capture theory, a major libertarian doctrine. Much of the most influential evidence on this topic was first offered in Gabriel Kolko’s books The Triumph of Conservatism (1963) and Railroads and Regulation (1965), where he used the term “political capitalism” to designate business-driven regulation of industries. But Kolko does not appear in the index of this work, nor does “political capitalism,” nor does “capture theory.” Yes, the encyclopedia has an entry on “Rent seeking,” and there is a paragraph in the entry on George Stigler describing his exposition of “capture” theory, as well as another paragraph in the entry on “Regulation” that mentions Stigler. But the “Rent Seeking” article does not mention Stigler, and the Stigler article does not mention “Rent Seeking,” and neither of them mentions Kolko—despite the enormous influence his work had on Murray Rothbard. When one reads the Rothbard entry, one finds a reference to his “power elite analysis,” with the observation that some think it amounts to a “conspiracy theory.” That may be a reference to Kolko’s version of the capture theory; I can’t tell. If so, it is certainly an obscure reference.

I was also sorry not to find an entry on the Victorian moralist Samuel Smiles, author of the hugely popular Self-Help, a pro-individualism book that became a runaway best-seller not only in nineteenth-century Britain but around the civilized world. Smiles is mentioned in Stephen Davies’s General Introduction, but, judging by the index (admittedly an imperfect tool), he is never mentioned again in this volume. How can one hope to grasp the meaning of capitalist society if one has no conception of how that society, in its heyday, understood capitalist man?

And that question raises another issue of omission. John D. Rockefeller appears in this work only in relation to the antitrust suit against him. Andrew Carnegie appears only as a member of the Anti-Imperialist League. Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan are not mentioned at all. I do not say that these men should have separate biographical entries; clearly, that would be inappropriate. But to an earlier era of libertarians (to people such as John Chamberlain and Ayn Rand ), the rightness of liberty was proven most vividly by the freedom it gave great men to achieve greatly. The urge to make men free was like the urge to unleash a noble hound. Yet this encyclopedia’s entry on the Industrial Revolution makes no mention of James Hargreaves, Richard Arkwright, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Abraham Darby, Henry Cort, John Wilkinson, John Smeaton, or any other of that era’s innovators. And there is no entry at all on the Second Industrial Revolution, born of the nineteenth century’s far more capitalist era, and so no mention of the men who made those decades great.


Doubtless, this current work is only the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Perhaps the second edition will be a two- or three-volume paperback, better copyedited and better cross-referenced. I hope so.

And I hope for two other changes as well. Above, I noted the astounding number of true experts that have been assembled to write for this work. Inevitably, not every entry has been written by a leading expert, and I make no complaint if one scholar has been assigned to cover a cluster of topics. For example, Aaron Steelman wrote the entries on the Anti–Corn Law League, Gary Becker, John Bright, Frank Chodorov, Richard Epstein, Milton Friedman, Intellectual Property, Law and Economics, Richard Posner, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Wilhelm Röpke, Algernon Sidney, and George Stigler. That is a lot of territory, but half of it focuses on work done by liberty-minded scholars at the University of Chicago. Perhaps “the Chicago Mind” is Steelman’s specialty; I don’t know. In the next edition, however, topics such as Algernon Sidney might better be spun off to others—Thomas G. West, perhaps, or Chris Baker. Both are cited in the entry’s “Further Readings.”

This use of a single scholar for multiple topics reaches its reductio ad absurdum in the case of George H. Smith. He may be a libertarian scholar of the first rank; I know that many believe he is. But for this volume, Smith has written the entries on topics ranging from Abolitionism to Conscience; from Existentialism to Methodological Individualism; from Freedom of Thought to the Austrian School’s concept of Praxeology; from the Anglo-Dutch moralist Bernard Mandeville to the eighteenth-century French theory of economics called Physiocracy—to name but a few. Of the 111 works cited in the “Further Readings” sections of these twenty-three entries, Smith cites his own work only in the articles on Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism. By pointing this out, I do not mean to denigrate those who labor as journeyman authors. I am just such a one myself, and certainly we have our place in expounding the ideas of libertarianism. But perhaps for the next edition of the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, the editor might find someone else to write some of these entries, including the one on Thomas Aquinas.

Lastly, in looking ahead to a second edition, I hope that more explicit recognition will be given to a tension that runs through this work. One source of the tension is hinted at above: the absence of an entry on Samuel Smiles, champion of bourgeois self-help. The countering source of tension is indicated by the inclusion of an entry on William Godwin, written by Wendy McElroy. The justification for including Godwin is that he was “the founder of philosophical anarchism.” All right. But here is what Richard Pipes writes of Godwin in his powerful libertarian work Property and Freedom: “Godwin restated the criticism of private property familiar from French radical literature, to conclude that property and family were the source of every evil that befell mankind. . . . Once property had been done away with, humanity would experience an unprecedented flowering of genius. Crime would disappear and so would wars. Mind would triumph over matter and will power over necessity. Man would become immortal.”

Are Smiles and Godwin members of a single movement called “libertarianism”? Were their disagreements secondary, accidental, or merely about the means of realizing a common vision? I do not think so. Will they, ultimately, be “folded into a single party”? I doubt it. But unless we, their successors, discuss the issue, the point shall never be determined. The current encyclopedia includes both a Conservative and a Liberal critique of libertarianism. Perhaps the next edition will include a bourgeois libertarian’s critique of radical libertarianism and a radical libertarian’s critique of bourgeois libertarianism. That would be a splendid improvement to a work already splendid.

Sidebar: Noteworthy entries in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

  • “Charity/Friendly Societies” by David Beito
  • “Genetics” by Matt Ridley
  • “Campaign Finance” by Brad Smith
  • “Experimental Economics” by Vernon Smith and Bart Wilson
  • “Roy Childs” by Joan Kennedy Taylor
  • “Art and Public Support” by Lou Torres
  • “Economic Development” by Ian Vasquez
  • “Austrian School Economics” by Peter Boettke
  • “Affirmation Action” by Clint Bolick
  • “Education” by Andrew Coulson
  • “Conservatism” by George Carey
  • “Isabel Paterson” by Stephen Cox
  • “Liability” by Richard Epstein
  • “Henry Hazlitt” by Bettina Bien Greaves
  • “Bertrand de Jouvenal” by Daniel Mahoney
  • “Public Choice” by William Niskanen
  • “Globalization” by Johan Norberg
  • “Welfare” by Michael Tanner;
  • “Ludwig von Mises” by Leland Yeager
  • “The Declaration of Independence,” “The U.S. Constitution,” and “Thomas Jefferson,” by David N. Mayer
  • “The Enlightenment,” by Stephen Hicks
  • “Objectivism,” by David Kelley
  • “Conscription” by Doug Bandow
  • “The Bill of Rights” by Randy Barnett
  • “Private Property” by Tom Bethell
  • “Cato’s Letters” by Ronald Hamowy
  • “Self-Interest” by Lester Hunt
  • “Freedom of Speech” by Alan Kors
  • “Natural Rights” by Fred Miller
  • “Privatization” by Robert Poole
  • “Ayn Rand” by Chris Sciabarra.
  • “Vincent and Elinor Ostrom” by Paul Dragos Aligica
  • “Conservative Critique of Libertarianism” by Edward C. Feser

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