Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know

By Chartier, Gary | Independent Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know


Chartier, Gary, Independent Review


* Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know

By Jason Brennan

New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Pp. xviii, 214. $74.00 cloth, $16.95 paperback.

Jason Brennan's Libertarianism is an excellent book. It offers an accessible overview of libertarian positions in philosophy, economics, and politics. It is ecumenical, treating diverse libertarian options fairly. Moreover, the attractiveness of Brennan's exposition of libertarian ideas makes his book an outstanding one to offer to someone who wonders who libertarians are and what they believe.

Brennan's book joins a number of other recent introductions to libertarianism, including Jacob Huebert's Libertarianism Today (New York: Praeger, 2010) and Gerard Casey's Libertarian Anarchy (London: Continuum International, 2012). However, Libertarianism covers a broader range of libertarian positions than either of these other books, and it does so in a fetchingly engaging way.

The book is organized as a set of responses to questions interlocutors of various sorts might have about libertarianism. Brennan considers "the basics" and proceeds with discussions of what freedom is and why it is important, human nature and ethics, government and democracy, civil rights, economic freedom, poverty, contemporary sociopolitical problems, and libertarian involvement in the political process. Because he discusses 105 different questions, the answers are necessarily short and crisp. A glossary and an appropriately catholic bibliography follow the main body of the text.

At various points throughout the book, Brennan returns to a taxonomy of libertarian positions that he develops in the first part. There are, he suggests, three varieties of libertarians: classical liberals, hard libertarians, and neoclassical liberals.

Roughly speaking, classical and neoclassical liberals embrace a broadly consequentialist political morality. Both groups are convinced that free markets benefit the poor and that their doing so is part of what makes them morally attractive. Classical liberals include free-market stalwarts such as Adam Smith and David Hume as well as such high-profile libertarians as Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, and Richard Epstein. Neoclassical liberals--Brennan himself and a number of other contemporary libertarian thinkers, including several of those associated with the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog and movement--are more explicit about the role that concern for the economically vulnerable plays in motivating and justifying a legal and political regime that safeguards freedom, are comfortable in talking about "social justice" (pp. 129-37), and are perhaps more explicit about embracing socially and culturally tolerant and inclusive positions. Classical and neoclassical liberals favor small government, though both maintain that in principle the provision of poverty relief using tax funds is appropriate--even as both also maintain that market freedom is the demonstrably most effective source of poverty relief in general.

Hard libertarians tend to favor deontological positions in political morality. Often committed to belief in self-ownership as morally fundamental, they believe that people enjoy inviolable rights against aggression that either prelude state action entirely--many hard libertarians are anarchists--or else regard as indefensible anything beyond what Ferdinand Lassalle called the "night-watchman state." Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard are especially well-known exponents of hard libertarianism.

Brennan treats diverse libertarian positions with respect and expounds on them in terms that their proponents would be inclined to endorse. He notes, for example, that hard libertarians are not insensitive to the importance of consequences. And he explains libertarian anarchist views clearly and sympathetically, noting anarchism's moral and political attractions and responding helpfully to common objections to anarchism. …

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