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
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
"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. …