State of the Debate: The Libertarian Conceit


Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy, The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).

David Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer (Free Press, 1997).

Charles Murray, What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation (Broadway Books, 1997).


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Government is out of fashion. Reporters and pundits describe politicians' statements and actions never as expressions of conviction, always as strategic maneuvers. Increasingly, assuming that politicians are fatuous and suspecting that politics is futile seem requirements for sophistication. With a President who shifts like a political wind sock, a Congress by turns ideological and inchoate, and a pair of parties frankly devoted to fundraising and re-election, it is sometimes hard to recall why it matters so much that the cynics are wrong.

Three new books, all explicitly skeptical toward politics, help to educate and, sometimes against their design, reinforce a commitment to public life. British philosopher and intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin's collection of new essays, The Sense of Reality, proposes a way to understand both the virtues and the limits of politics. Right-wing think-tankers Charles Murray and David Boaz see no virtue at all and suggest that we should scotch politics in favor of a minimal state and a maximally free market. Murray's What It Means To Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation and Boaz's Libertarianism: A Primer make a systematic case for a position that has recently enjoyed renewal. Reading the books side by side elucidates both the appeal and the basic dishonesty of libertarianism and highlights the importance of wiser responses to skepticism about politics.

Berlin's guiding concern is the relation of knowledge to politics. He proposes that political knowledge—knowledge of persons, institutions, cultures, and the interplay among all of these across time—is fundamentally different from "scientific knowledge." Berlin suggests that we can have a humane politics only when we have recognized the distinctive character and limits of political knowledge.

Berlin presents the heart of his case in the first three essays of The Sense of Reality. He begins by pointing out that every effort to describe political activity in "scientific" terms, through a few simple rules that explain and predict a broad swath of activity, has failed. These efforts range from the Marxist view that society and history are shaped by economic forces to contemporary political scientists' efforts to make sense of politics through models of "rational choice" that purport to describe how perfectly rational individuals would behave. Every one, no matter how confident its description of how things must be, has found that things refuse to be that way.

That reality puts limits on both political thought and political projects is unsurprising in itself. What is distinctive, Berlin suggests, is that this is a reality that evades complete description. When, say, the reality of physics limits our engineering projects, we can refine our grasp of physical laws and improve our engineering; with valid formulas, we can calculate from blueprints how much weight a bridge will hold, the appropriate width of its girders, and so on. However, we can't seem to refine our knowledge of political reality in the same way: It's solid enough when it frustrates our projects, but when we try to put it on a dissecting table, it changes form like Proteus and runs away from us.

Berlin's insight is that there's no trouble here, or, rather, that the trouble is not in politics but in us. In looking for unchanging rules that govern politics, we want more than we can have. There is a kind of knowledge that is possible in politics, but it can't be rendered into formulas. Instead, political knowledge involves "a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicoloured, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data, too many, too swift, too intermingled to be caught and pinned down and labelled like so many individual butterflies." Integrating the elements of this blooming, buzzing confusion means perceiving the patterns formed by their unique conjunction at any moment. There are likely to be many intersecting patterns, and perceiving them adequately means recognizing which of them affect the prospects of some particular political project at a particular historical junction. Knowing politics well is like understanding how an intimate acquaintance will react to a new setting or event, and not very much like drawing on psychological theorems to predict the behavior of a "personality type" in a generic "type" of situation.

This sort of knowledge requires a training, and sometimes a gift, of perception, and is nearer wisdom than erudition. As Berlin puts it, "what makes men foolish or wise, understanding or blind, as opposed to knowledgeable or learned or well informed, is the perception of these unique flavours of each situation as it is, in its specific differences." These "specific differences" are the features of situations that are immune to generalization, and which can only be distorted by an effort to render them as "scientific" knowledge. We become wise, in Berlin's sense, and so come into political knowledge, by close and constant attention to the specific differences of situations, of institutions, and of human beings.

This distinction between scientific knowledge and political wisdom helps Berlin to make sense of the errors and terrors of twentieth-century politics. He identifies a temptation to order ideal political systems by a few principles—often expressly billed as "scientific"—and then reshape reality in the image of the ideal. The problem with these projects is that ideal systems are blind to "specific differences," and so run roughshod over them. The result is nearly always great disruption, often the reverse of what the planners had envisioned. Designing societies in this manner is like sculpting, or, more exactly, performing surgery, with a bandsaw. Berlin hopes that we can return from these mistakes to an imperfect knowledge that is good of its kind, and the better for being the right kind. His might be called an epistemologically chastened politics, one keenly aware of the dangers in seeking knowledge beyond what we can have. His attitude, then, achieves a specifically skeptical hopefulness toward politics.

Some version of Berlin's doctrine is increasingly ascendant in politics. Yet it is a fluid doctrine, with dangerous potentials. Acknowledging human limits has often been code for acquiescing to all sorts of injustice. British conservatives have long used rhetoric like Berlin's to argue against establishing a written constitution, which would necessarily order particularity by principle. More perniciously, doctrines of necessary human imperfection have a long history of use against social reform, which conservatives styled hubristic. Now, libertarians are making a play for the mantle of a chastened politics. Only they, Murray and Boaz insist, have learned and can apply the hard lessons of the twentieth century.

In this claim, Murray and Boaz follow the late Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, whose work makes up the social science pillar of libertarianism as Ayn Rand provides its dubious literary support. Hayek proposed that human affairs are too diverse, complex, and unpredictable to benefit from the generic quality of central planning. From this sound insight, with its plain affinity with Berlin, Hayek drew the view that state involvement in citizens' lives should be minimal and always suspect. Boaz follows Hayek with his claim that "[libertarians'] commitment to the full protection of individual rights and a strictly limited government reflects their fundamental humility." Murray similarly insists that the Great Society ambition of eliminating poverty overstepped the realistic limits of politics. Both claim for libertarians the cachet of the sage grown wise through chastening experience.

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A fair question to put to these two books, then, is whether they succeed in meeting the challenge to politics that Berlin has issued and that they appear to take up. Is libertarianism the outcome of a chastened commitment to observing "specific differences"? Is this the mature face of what Berlin calls wisdom? And, if not, what is in fact the motivating spirit of libertarianism?

Murray's and Boaz's answers are nearly identical at their core. Both lay out a simple scheme of libertarian commitments, stage a merciless assault on government, and take some time to sketch policy proposals. The chief difference resides in the authors' tones. Murray is concise and suave, presenting a superficially lucid account in 170 short pages. He is also a touch precious, heading his sections with such Victorianisms as "In which are considered the circumstances under which limited government might be restored," and, with the swagger of a Kipling, titling one chapter "The Stuff of Life." By contrast, Boaz needs 300 word-dense pages to get out a position no more subtle than Murray's. He also displays a wheezing aspiration to breeziness, invoking pop-culture figures including humorist Dave Barry and musicians Pearl Jam and Alanis Morrisette. Forced contemporaneity is the surest evidence that a book's author does not expect it to last. Murray's book is ironically the better primer, while Boaz's uneven writing displays a choleric temperament that makes his work more "personal" than Murray's monograph.

For both authors, libertarianism starts in a view of freedom as the right of self-ownership: We are our own inviolable property, free to do what we will in the world. What we will usually consists of pursuing happiness, which Boaz defines as reflective satisfaction with one's life. Because everybody enjoys self-ownership, each is restricted by others' freedom, and barred from harming or defrauding anyone else. This is the only restriction on our freedom. Our liberty stops when it interferes with others' liberty.

Unsurprisingly, a bunch of self-owning individuals generally finds that it wants to coordinate its actions, lest the busy proprietors stumble over each other in pursuing happiness. Coordination happens through contracts, free agreements to give up some freedom in order to cooperate to mutual advantage. Because a free individual will give up freedom only if she expects cooperation to make her happy, whatever contracts people arrange are, by definition, the ones best suited to advance everybody's happiness. If other contracts would make people happier, people would enter into those contracts instead.

In this picture, government is unique because it holds coercive power that no one has freely contracted to acknowledge. Any government action, from taxation to regulation, is an imposition from outside on individuals' freedom. Accordingly, government is massively suspect. Libertarians charily grant the state three functions. The first two are upholding natural rights by punishing those who harm or defraud others—thus violating their self-ownership—and enforcing freely agreed contracts. The third is paying for public goods, goods that wouldn't be produced by the market but nonetheless advance everyone's pursuit of happiness. Interstate highways are the stock example, while education, although it plainly discomforts both authors, remains in the fold.

The policy results of this stance are unsurprising. Replace school funding with vouchers, for all families in Murray's picture, for the poor in Boaz's. Supplant Social Security and government aid to the poor with individual savings and private charity. End regulation of industry, hoping that self-regulating agencies on the order of the American Bar Association will appear to reassure wary consumers with "stamps of approval" for products. Abolish antidiscrimination legislation, instead letting racist and sexist employers suffer the economic consequences of reducing their pools of potential workers. People will freely enter into the contracts that best advance their happiness while preserving their rights.

Contrary to their commonsense rhetoric, Murray and Boaz veer from dogmatism to sophistry with nary a pause in the field of "specific differences." First the dogmatism: Both books rest on a persistent, willful obtuseness to the reality of economic coercion. Murray boldly declares, "There is no such thing as intellectual or emotional or economic force." His aim here is to establish that all contractual relations—and sexual and other relations, for that matter—are consensual, and so legitimate, unless one participant has a knife at the other's throat. One result of this principle is that government has no business involving itself in labor relations. So long as companies don't actually set goons on their workers, fair wages will prevail and, if workers for some reason want a union, they can form one—if they don't mind being fired in the attempt. In the end, competing preferences will balance out, and the right contracts will prevail.

Here the libertarian case is so disingenuous as to be offensive. There is no symmetry in the situations facing workers and firms: To the worker, the loss of a job is often far more of a threat than the loss of one worker is to the firm. The reality of economic coercion leads people to contract into situations that, although they are indeed the "happiest" arrangements available, are nonetheless miserable. In any real economy—and, remember, the libertarian economy lacks any social safety net, making workers' positions more parlous than now—Murray's denial of economic power is a delusion.

As power tilts economic exchanges, so money can corrupt political power. Here Murray and Boaz's vision of a government proudly committed to defending basic liberties is particularly implausible. Their society would be one of vast differences in economic power, which have always translated into vast differences in political power. Only the libertarian faith in a minimal state would limit the use of political power by the economically dominant for their own benefit. If only faith were so powerful.

The dogmatism is bad enough, but Murray and Boaz are equally sophistic, willing to use any convenient set of assumptions with reckless disregard for consistency. This slipperiness goes to libertarianism's deepest premises. In describing the behavior of government, Murray and Boaz assume that people are basically greedy and unprincipled. In describing society outside of government, especially libertarian society, they assume that people are essentially generous and moral. In a polemical chapter entitled "What Big Government Is All About," Boaz explains most social policy as a matter of self-interested bureaucrats expanding their fiefdoms by identifying "social problems" and winning funds to address them. Sounding like a far-right Noam Chomsky, he even describes public (or, as he calls it, "state") television as publicizing alleged inequities in order to justify increased social spending by the "ruling class" in Washington, which also, of course, funds state TV. Never mind that PBS is funded by Trent Lott and Exxon.

Both Murray and Boaz, after painting government employees in the most venal terms, offer rosy predictions of the resurgence of private charity once government safety nets are entirely withdrawn. Boaz chirrups, "Charities will step up to the plate. They always have." Murray is similarly cavalier, asserting that a spirit of generous, efficient charity "is the way America really is." They want to have it both ways. But if people are mean and selfish, the prospects for charities are grim. And if they are at least sometimes responsive to the interests of others, politics and public life may express those concerns in the form of government programs.

Of course, the truth is that people are both charitable and self-interested, in varying degrees in varying circumstances. Governments, and public intellectuals like Murray and Boaz, help to shape these circumstances. Murray openly celebrates walled communities with private services and undemocratic charters as proof that "freedom works." In these settings we find our "little platoons," the small, voluntary circles of friends and loved ones that make up the real scope of our moral obligation. Of course, nothing works against the solidarity that encourages charity like residential isolation.

Despite these patent weaknesses, libertarian strains are increasingly influential in our culture and politics. Witness recent debates over poverty policy, Social Security, and education. The whole explanation cannot lie in the wealth of the right-wing think tanks where Murray, Boaz, and others are housed and fed. Intellectual quarrels with libertarianism, then, are not enough. Rather, we should ask a further question: What is the spirit of the position? What attitude, what blend of desire, fear, and prejudice makes this marriage of dogma and sophistry compelling?

Above all, libertarianism is deaf to the appeal of democratic freedom. The notion that we might make a better society for everyone through public remedy strikes libertarians as interference with market efficiency. The idea that legislation might not only increase the sum of individual utility, but provide a further good that inheres in democratic self-governance, strikes them as authoritarian. Yet these are the defining humane aspirations of a democratic society; they make democracy not just a protection against tyranny but a way to better the lives of all citizens.

To understand this deafness to and distaste for democracy, it helps to return to a figure whom libertarians love to invoke but balk at understanding. Boaz devotes several pages to Alexis de Tocqueville's warnings against centralized government, as does Murray in an earlier work, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government. They are right to point out that Tocqueville mistrusted central governments, but they conveniently forget the full scope of his reasons. Tocqueville saw the moral power of democracy as residing in the institutions of collective self-rule. By participating in the discussions of government—exemplified by the New England town meeting—citizens came to feel the force of others' interests and concerns and developed a commitment, however fragile, to self-rule. In private self-concern he saw the seeds of an atrophy of the democratic spirit that could lead to eventual despotism. In short, he feared the libertarian citizens that Murray and Boaz evoke. Indeed, he coined the term "individualism" to describe the tendency "which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends."

These people, Tocqueville warned, "form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. . . . Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart." For Tocqueville, this condition was a kind of infantilism. With their talk of radically free individuals, little platoons, lifestyle enclaves, and a deeply voluntary civil society, Murray and Boaz celebrate this same infantilism. The temper of their libertarianism is extra-democratic because it arises from a vision of each person as having his worth and satisfactions entirely "in the solitude of his own heart."

Libertarianism, then, is less a philosophical proposal than a political and cultural invitation. It invites us to indulge and cultivate our worst possibilities: disgust and despair at government, a retreat into lifestyle enclaves, and a surrender of the democratic hope of collectively improving all of society. Moreover, it sanctions a new dogmatism in its cynical (if inconsistent) view of human motivation and its perfectly consistent ob tuseness to economic coercion.

Progressives can hardly afford to take the libertarians' invitation lightly. Our task is in part to show that a politics without formulas and with no ambition to perfection can still be a politics of vital action and earned hope. The shape of these efforts cannot be settled in advance. In every case, the progressive task will require a cultivation of the sort of political judgment that Berlin describes, a sense of the best and the worst that are possible at any moment and an apprehension of how to bring about one rather than the other. Our competition is the libertarian proposal to give up on government altogether, and to introduce a new dogma in the name of freedom and humility. If we do not make a compelling case for an imperfect politics, we may well be thrown back on ourselves alone, whether we believe in libertarianism or not.

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