Benjamin Barber, RIP

The noted political theorist Benjamin Barber died yesterday. He was 77.

Ben wrote many books among the best known of which might be Jihad vs. McWorld: Terrorism’s Challenge to Democracy, published first in 1996, when it became a bestseller. It had a renewed life after September 11th. His latest and last book, Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming, appeared one week ago.  He was a critic of libertarianism specifically and (classical) liberalism more generally, perhaps most starkly in his 2008 book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole and earlier in his major academic work, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (1984). I have nothing to say now about his critique save that libertarians should attend to it.  He was a learned friend of democracy who thought the adjective in “liberal democracy” tended to undermine the noun.

Ben Barber interacted with Cato several times over the years. He debated Tyler Cowen at Cato in 2003. My colleague Brink Lindsey reviewed Consumed. Tom G. Palmer found Ben’s economic views open to question. Other colleagues at various times noted Barber’s books and opinions.

I knew Ben well some years ago, and my remarks here draw on those memories. I remember a man who was both a liberal and democrat. In my experience his liberalism served his commitment to democratic discussion: he welcomed both Nozickians and neo-Marxists to his seminars. He gave them and the rest of us an argument but never pushed dissent to the margins. He encouraged his graduate students to go their own way,  and I did, all the way to the Cato Institute which might have been annoying for another man but not for Ben. He joked about my change of mind but never expressed the slightest disapproval. I was not the only one. Over the years his students included people who became participatory democrats, feminists, the hard-to-pigeonhole, as well as libertarians and libertarian leaners. Of course, if you encourage people to go their own way, you will end up with a menagerie of former students rather than disciplined disciples. But Barber did more than tolerate differences. He encouraged his students to engage thinkers well outside conventional opinion like the libertarian-conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott among others.

Libertarians benefitted from Ben’s criticisms while others will miss the democratic spirit of his writings. Those who knew him will miss most of all a man who evinced the liberal virtues of openness and engagement, virtues now needed more than ever.