Time to Retry Libertarianism

Article excerpt

For most Americans, libertarianism is a fringe political tendency with a narrow premise and a narrow ambition. The understood premise is that individual liberty is the ultimate political good, all else be damned. And the ambition is to produce a race of rugged individualists each living in a mountaintop cabin with a barbed wire fence and a "No Trespassing" sign outside.

That's how most Americans see libertarianism. But they won't after reading Charles Murray's splendid new book, "What It Means to be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation." I suspect it will soon become the prevailing interpretation of libertarianism in this country.This is because the book is not just sharply written and uncommonly clear but also quite unusual. Murray has taken a very old idea, classic 19th-century Anglo-Saxon liberalism (what we now call libertarianism) and given it a turn.

Murray's political ideal is not a society of discrete, atomized, if rugged, individualists living in a castle with a moat. His ideal is a soci ety where community and family, charity and volunteerism, good works and social intercourse of every kind flourish. His originality lies in arguing that the way to get to this communal end is by libertarian means, that you produce social conscience and promote compassion not by mandates, regulation and bureaucracy - as the welfare state has been trying to do for 60 years - but by setting people free. That belief rests largely on a theory of displacement: that, when government took over all the caring functions that for generations had been the province of family and community and charities and churches, it did not add to the welfare of those it was helping. It was merely substituting. In fact, it subtracted: By substituting the bureaucrat downtown for the churches, the social clubs, the charitable societies, it robbed these traditional caring institutions of their vocation and vitality. "One example," he writes, "is found in the extensive social-insurance functions served by fraternal and craft organizations. They virtually disappeared with the advent of Social Security. Another example lies in the web of parental pressures and social stigma that kept illegitimacy rare, combined with the private charitable and adoption services that coped with the residual problem. Intricate, informal, but effective, this civil system could not withstand the proliferation of welfare benefits for single mothers. …

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