In the latest Gallup Governance Survey, pollsters found that 25 percent of respondents fell into the libertarian quadrant, up from 17 percent in 2004. When asked if they would define themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian,” fully 44 percent of respondents — 100 million Americans — accepted the label. “Those voters are not locked into either party,” writes David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, “and politicians trying to attract the elusive ‘swing vote’ should take a look at those who lean libertarian.”
In his new book The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom (Simon & Schuster: 2015), an accessible yet thorough update to his classic primer, Boaz takes an in-depth look at the philosophy itself, tracing libertarianism’s origins back to the roots of Western civilization and into the core of the American experiment. Detailing its central tenets, he offers keen insight into a movement that continues to grow stronger with each government overstep.
What is libertarianism? According to Boaz, it is simply the view that each person has the right to live their life in any way they choose, so long as they respect the equal rights of others. “Most people habitually believe in and live by that code of ethics,” he writes. “We don’t hit people, break down their doors, take their money by force, or imprison them if they live peacefully in ways that we don’t like.” What distinguishes libertarians is their consistent application of this principle and the recognition that it applies to governments as well as individuals. “When governments use force against people who have not violated the rights of others, then governments themselves become rights violators.”
While the proper role of government is protecting the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the current libertarian surge is in large part a response to the political class’s departure from these narrowly circumscribed functions. “In the past few years politicians have given us many reasons to doubt the wisdom and efficacy of big, activist government,” Boaz writes. “Endless wars. Economic collapse. Corporate bailouts. The highest government spending and national debt ever. An unimaginable level of spying on citizens.” In the midst of this expanded concentration of power, Washington has become the source of a growing list of the country’s problems, in turn inspiring a groundswell of discontent.
Boaz goes on to explore the history, ideas, and growth of libertarianism, illustrating both its solutions to contemporary policy dilemmas and its future in American politics. In the process, he chronicles the development of the movement’s key concepts, from the dignity of the individual and the importance of property rights to its reliance on free markets and the rule of law.
In short, this compelling guide makes it clear that these principles have always been a fundamental part of the country’s DNA. “The political awakening in America today is first and foremost the realization that libertarianism is not a relic of the past,” Boaz writes. In fact, he adds, libertarianism is a framework for the future. “In American politics it is the leading edge — not a backlash, but a vanguard.”