Libertarianism, from A to Z

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Libertarianism, from A to Z by Jeffrey A. Miron Basic Books * 2010/2011 * 198 pages $24.95 hardcover; $15.99 paperback

Reviewed by Aeon J. Skoble

Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron's primer on libertarian thought proceeds just as the title indicates: a collection of alphabetically arranged short essays on 105 topics. This is a more effective technique than one might imagine: Since many people unfamiliar with libertarianism approach it by way of specific questions and challenges, Miron provides answers.

Readers of The Freeman will be familiar with this experience: How would libertarianism handle drunk driving? (That's under "D.") What do libertarians think about organ sales? (Under "O.") What do you mean by "unintended consequences"? (Look under "U") The entries are not at all superficial, though; they are well thought out and carefully reasoned discussions of the topics. Just as important, they are well written: Since Miron's intention here is to communicate the good sense of these ideas, it really makes a difference that he can write clear and effective prose. And he goes beyond surface-level questions (such as minimum wage) to tackle more complicated issues like Pareto efficiency, fiat money, and abortion. Miron also includes entries on how libertarianism differs from conservatism and (modern American) liberalism, and how consequentialist approaches differ from rightsbased approaches.

Another asset of this book is the way Miron uses some of the basic concepts of economics in ways that are not only accessible to the non-economist but also show how the "economic way of thinking" applies to a variety of problems that the average reader might not think of as economic. For example, in the entry on protection of endangered species, Miron appeals to the concept of incentives. Although this solution is counterintuitive, assigning private property rights in endangered species or their habitats will create better incentives for good stewardship. There are many examples in Africa of the success of this approach, so Miron is able to supplement the theoretical explanation of why this works with empirical evidence. He contrasts this effectively with statist approaches by showing how these end up being counterproductive. Worse than being ineffective, these policies can create incentives for behavior that is the opposite of what is intended. It's important that Miron can show this. Since a book like this has its chief value in outreach, it needs to provide answers to these sorts of questions from people who might not be predisposed to classical liberalism or the economic way of thinking. When he does appeal to precise notions like externalities or moral hazard, the reader is directed to entries on those.

Another feature I found compelling is the way Miron acknowledges the reality of moral disagreement where relevant, while nevertheless directing the reader to think in terms of policies that might make a positive change. …