Tag: libertarianism

George Smith’s Long-Awaited Book: The System of Liberty

The System of LibertyGeorge H. Smith is one of the best-read, most insightful libertarians living today. He is the author of most of the Cato University Home Study Course, which you should definitely download. He writes a weekly article for Libertarianism.org titled “Excursions into the History of Libertarian Thought.” He is the author of Atheism: The Case Against God (1974), Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies (1991), and audio series on “Great Political Thinkers,” “The Meaning of the U.S. Constitution,” and “The Ideas of Liberty.” And finally – finally – he has been persuaded to write down much of what he knows about the history of classical liberal thought in a new book from the Cato Institute and the Cambridge University Press, The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism.

It’s a great study of classical liberalism and the relations among such liberal ideas as individualism, natural rights, utilitarianism, self-sovereignty, and what Lord Acton called “the polar star of liberty.” Along the way he answers such criticisms of liberalism as “atomistic individualism” and “social Darwinism.” It’s a college course in political philosophy in just 217 very readable pages. Buy it now for the low low price of $24.95.

Is This the Libertarian Moment?

In 2008 Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch hailed a “libertarian moment,” encompassing everything from the Internet to the collapse of “legacy” industries and legacy entitlement programs. I’ve used the same term here, when NPR talked about Ron Paul and when polls showed rising support for smaller government, gay marriage, and drug legalization.

But suddenly, today, everyone seems to see a libertarian moment. Driving in to work, I got so tired of the smug self-satisfaction on public radio’s pledge drive, I switched to the vigorously right-wing Chris Plante Show just in time to hear Plante say, “This is a great day for libertarianism” in regard to the abuse-of-power stories dominating the mainstream media.

And then, mirabile dictu, I got to the office, opened the Washington Post, and found today’s column by Michael Gerson. Now, as he says in today’s column, Gerson is “conspicuously not a libertarian.” Indeed, he is the most vociferously anti-libertarian columnist in contemporary punditry. And yet his column today is titled (in the print paper):

Making libertarians of us all

Man, you’ve got to abuse power something awful to make Michael Gerson start thinking libertarian. So thanks, IRS and Justice Department!

And now that the Obama administration’s abuse of power has got our attentioncan we broaden our focus to take in health care mandates, recess appointments, campus speech regulations, the anti-constitutional Independent Payment Advisory Board, similar extra-legislative bodies in Dodd-Frank, the expropriation of Chrysler creditors, and illegal wars? 

Was William Shakespeare the First Libertarian?

I’ve never been a big Shakespeare fan, but that may need to change. It seems the Bard of Avon may be the world’s first libertarian.

Some of you are probably shaking your heads and saying that this is wrong, that Thomas Jefferson or Adam Smith are more deserving of this honor.

Others would argue we should go back earlier in time and give that title to John Locke.

But based on some new research reported in Tax-news.com, we need to travel back to the days of Shakespeare:

Uncertainty over the likely future success of his plays led William Shakespeare to do “all he could to avoid taxes,” new research by scholars at Aberystwyth University has claimed. The collaborative paper: “Reading with the Grain: Sustainability and the Literary Imagination,”…alleges that, in his “other” life as a major landowner, Shakespeare avoided paying his taxes, illegally hoarded food and sidelined in money lending. …According to Dr Jayne Archer, lead author and a lecturer in Renaissance literature at Aberystwyth: “There was another side to Shakespeare besides the brilliant playwright - a ruthless businessman who did all he could to avoid taxes, maximize profits at others’ expense and exploit the vulnerable - while also writing plays.”

In that short excerpt, we find three strong indications of Shakespeare’s libertarianism.

  1. What does it mean that Shakespeare did everything he could to avoid taxes? His actions obviously would have upset the United Kingdom’s current political elite, which views tax maximization as a religious sacrament, but it shows that Shakespeare believed in the right of private property. Check one box for libertarianism.
  2. What does it mean that the Bard “illegally hoarded food”? Well, such a law probably existed because government was interfering with the free market with something like price controls. Or there was a misguided hostility by the government against “speculation,” similar to what you would find from the deadbeats in today’s Occupy movement. In either event, Shakespeare was standing up for the principle of freedom of contract. Check another box for libertarianism.
  3. Last but not least, what does it mean that Shakespeare “sidelined in money lending”? Nations used to have statist “usury laws” that interfered with the ability to charge interest when lending money. Shakespeare apparently didn’t think “usury” was a bad thing, so he was standing up for the liberty of consenting adults to engage in voluntary exchange. Check another box for libertarianism.

Now Online: The Complete Libertarian Review

Thanks to the good folks at Unz.org, we’ve filled out our archive of the late, great libertarian magazine Libertarian Review. The magazine was published from 1972 to 1981, first as a newsletter of book reviews and then as a glossy monthly magazine edited by Roy A. Childs, Jr. It made quite a splash during those years, and Childs became one of the most visible and controversial libertarian intellectuals. After the magazine folded, as so many intellectual magazines do, he spent almost a decade as editorial director and chief book reviewer for Laissez Faire Books. He had read everything, and he knew everyone in the libertarian movement. He got lots of prominent people — including Murray Rothbard, John Hospers, Thomas Szasz, Roger Lea MacBride, and Charles Koch — to write for the magazine. And he discovered and nurtured plenty of younger writers.

Libertarian Review featured

  • news coverage and analysis of inflation, the energy crisis, economic reform in China, the 1979 Libertarian Party convention and the subsequent Clark for President campaign, the Proposition 13 tax-slashing victory (at right), the rise of the religious right, the emergence of Solidarity, Jerry Brown, Three Mile Island, and the return of draft registration.
  • classic essays like Jeff Riggenbach on “The Politics of Aquarius” and “In Praise of Decadence,” Joan Kennedy Taylor on Betty Friedan, Rothbard on “Carter’s Energy Fascism.”
  • interviews with F. A. Hayek, Howard Jarvis, Paul Gann, Henry Hazlitt, John Holt, and Robert Nozick.
  • and especially Roy Childs: on William Simon’s A Time for Truth, on Irving Kristol, on the rise of Reagan, on drugs and crime, on the hot spots of Iran, Afghanistan, and El Salvador.

As Tom G. Palmer put it in a letter published in The New Republic of August 3, 1992, just after Roy died, “Roy Childs was one of the finer members of a generation of radical thinkers who worked successfully to revive the tradition of classical liberalism — or libertarianism — after its long dormancy, and who dared to launch a frontal challenge to the twentieth-century welfare state. An autodidact who knew more about the subjects on which he wrote than most so-called ‘experts’, his writings exercised a powerful influence on a generation of young classical liberal thinkers.”

Check it out.

Michael Gerson Just Can’t Get Enough of Libertarianism

Poor Michael Gerson. The former speechwriter for George W. Bush writes about libertarianism more than any other major columnist. And yet, after at least six years of attacks, he still can’t grasp the concept. Take today’s column defending Rick Santorum against “anti-government activists.” I pointed out his error in calling libertarians “anti-government” in 2010:

Libertarians are not against all government. We are precisely “advocates of limited government.” Perhaps to the man who wrote the speeches in which a Republican president advocated a trillion dollars of new spending, the largest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, federal takeovers of education and marriage, presidential power to arrest and incarcerate American citizens without access to a lawyer or a judge, and two endless “nation-building” enterprises, the distinction between “limited government” and “anti-government” is hard to see. But it is real and important.

This time he includes me as his example of an “anti-government activist” and purports to quote my objection to Santorum:

David Boaz of the Cato Institute cites evidence implicating him in shocking ideological crimes, such as “promotion of prison ministries” and wanting to “expand colon cancer screenings for Medicare beneficiaries.”

The first quotation there is from Jonathan Rauch’s review of Santorum’s book, It Takes a Family, and the second is from a New York Times article on Santorum’s campaign brochure listing all the pork he’d brought home to Pennsylvanians. As for Rauch’s list of Santorum’s ideas for an activist federal government, here’s what I quoted:

In his book he comments, seemingly with a shrug, “Some will reject what I have to say as a kind of ‘Big Government’ conservatism.”

They sure will. A list of the government interventions that Santorum endorses includes national service, promotion of prison ministries, “individual development accounts,” publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, strengthened obscenity enforcement, covenant marriage, assorted tax breaks, economic literacy programs in “every school in America” (his italics), and more. Lots more.

Out of that list Gerson picks “promotion of prison ministries” as a dismissal of my concerns. Some readers might well think that government sponsorship of Christianity in prisons is problematic enough. But others might think that you don’t have to be “anti-government” to oppose the three new government transfer programs that immediately follow the reference to prison ministries.

More importantly, though, Gerson ignores my main criticism of Santorum. In 749 words rebutting the libertarian criticism of Santorum, Gerson never actually names it. Here’s the core point that Gerson didn’t deign to address:

Santorum had already dismissed limited government in theory. Promoting his book, he told NPR in 2006:

One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. You know, the left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they touch each other. They come around in the circle. This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

He declared himself against individualism, against libertarianism, against “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone.” And in this 2005 TV interview, you can hear these classic hits: “This is the mantra of the left: I have a right to do what I want to do” and “We have a whole culture that is focused on immediate gratification and the pursuit of happiness … and it is harming America.”

Does Gerson think that that is a good statement of American conservatism? Is that what he thinks the Republican party should stand for? If so, I invite him to say so — as Santorum does — instead of using a column in one of the nation’s most important newspapers to attack straw men.

At least he does understand that libertarianism is not conservatism but rather “is actually a species of classical liberalism, not conservatism — more directly traceable to John Stuart Mill than Edmund Burke or Alexis de Tocqueville. ” Also traceable to the American Founders and the Declaration of Independence. And he’ll find three selections from Tocqueville in The Libertarian Reader.

Gerson writes, “Oppressive, overreaching government undermines these value-shaping institutions.” And then he goes on to endorse social engineering in the tax code, the war on drugs, bans on “obscenity,” government transfers to charities and businesses, and by implication all the programs that Rauch noted in Santorum’s book.

So maybe the most important line in Gerson’s essay is the headline:

Rick Santorum and the return of compassionate conservatism

He’s saying that if you liked the Bush administration, you’ll like Santorum. But those of us who didn’t like, as I noted above, a trillion dollars of new spending, the largest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, federal takeovers of education and marriage, presidential power to arrest and incarcerate American citizens without access to a lawyer or a judge, and two endless “nation-building” enterprises will not want to repeat the experience.

Rick Santorum has declared himself against  “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone,” this fundamental American idea of the pursuit of happiness. What do conservatives not get about that?

Rick Santorum v. Limited Government

With former senator Rick Santorum suddenly attracting attention in Iowa, it’s time to dig up some of our previous reporting on Santorum.

In 2006, as Santorum campaigned his way to an 18-point loss in his Senate reelection race, the New York Times reported that he…

…distributed a brochure this week as he worked a sweltering round of town hall meetings and Fourth of July parades: “Fifty Things You May Not Know About Rick Santorum.” It is filled with what he called meat and potatoes, like his work to expand colon cancer screenings for Medicare beneficiaries (No. 3), or to secure money for “America’s first ever coal to ultra-clean fuel plant” (No. 2)….

He said he wanted Pennsylvanians to think of him as a political heir to Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York, who was known as Senator Pothole for being acutely attuned to constituent needs.

So … the third-ranking Republican leader in the Senate wanted to be known as a porker, an earmarker, and Senator Pothole.

Santorum had already dismissed limited government in theory. Promoting his book, he told NPR in 2006:

One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. You know, the left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they touch each other. They come around in the circle. This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

He declared himself against individualism, against libertarianism, against “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone.” And in this 2005 TV interview, you can hear these classic hits: “This is the mantra of the left: I have a right to do what I want to do” and “We have a whole culture that is focused on immediate gratification and the pursuit of happiness … and it is harming America.”

No wonder Jonathan Rauch wrote in 2005 that “America’s Anti-Reagan Isn’t Hillary Clinton. It’s Rick Santorum.” Rauch noted:

In his book he comments, seemingly with a shrug, “Some will reject what I have to say as a kind of ‘Big Government’ conservatism.”

They sure will. A list of the government interventions that Santorum endorses includes national service, promotion of prison ministries, “individual development accounts,” publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, strengthened obscenity enforcement, covenant marriage, assorted tax breaks, economic literacy programs in “every school in America” (his italics), and more. Lots more.

Rauch concluded,

With It Takes a Family, Rick Santorum has served notice. The bold new challenge to the Goldwater-Reagan tradition in American politics comes not from the Left, but from the Right.

At least Santorum is right about one thing: sometimes the left and the right meet in the center. In this case the big-spending, intrusive, mommy-AND-daddy-state center. But he’s wrong that we’ve never had a firmly individualist society where people are “left alone, able to do whatever they want to do.”

It’s called America.

Idiosyncrasy in the New York Times

Webster’s defines “idiosyncrasy” as “a peculiarity of constitution or temperament” or “characteristic peculiarity (as of temperament); broadly: eccentricity.”

And what does the New York Times define as an idiosyncrasy? A headline this weekend tells us that

Idiosyncrasy Runs Deep in the Soil of Wyoming

And what’s this idiosyncrasy? Cowboy poetry? Jackalopes? Being the first state to grant women the vote?

No, here’s what the Times finds idiosyncratic:

Wyoming’s way — always idiosyncratic in the windblown, rural grain that mixes mind-your-own-business cowboy libertarianism and fiscal penny-pinching — is getting its moment in the spotlight.

Yep, what the New York Times finds idiosyncratic in a nation formed to guarantee the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is a libertarian spirit combined with fiscal conservatism.

It’s not clear that Wyoming lives up to this picture: The Cato Institute’s Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors noted in 2006 that Wyoming’s budget had risen 60 percent in less than four years. And the Mercatus Center report “Freedom in the 50 States” put Wyoming barely above the national median for both personal and economic freedom. But the libertarian instincts are there, as Jason Sorens and I found in calculations of voter attitudes in the states.

So let’s hear it for “mind-your-own-business cowboy libertarianism and fiscal penny-pinching” – may it spread beyond the four corners of idiosyncratic Wyoming.