‘Libertarianism’ is a word with two meanings. In the earlier of the two it refers, exactly as one might expect, to any body of attitudes or ideas in which central importance is attached to freedom. In that sense of ‘libertarian’, the arguments of this book are libertarian. More recently, however, the word has come to refer to something altogether different and more specific, namely a certain assertively right-wing, pro-free market philosophy. This book’s subject is libertarianism in the second sense. Its aim is to outline that doctrine’s main arguments and to expose its shaky structure to public view. This book is thus - and in the latter sense of ‘libertarian’ - anti-libertarian.
Libertarians (of the second sort) maintain three central theses. First, as indicated, they maintain that the market (or ‘free’ market) is good. Indeed, libertarians of this sort make enormous claims on behalf of the free market, the very least of these - and the most apparently pragmatic - being that the market is the distributive mechanism which ensures the satisfaction of needs and preferences most effectively. For most libertarians of this type, though, the market is more than that - much more. It is the nearest thing there is to the realisation of the perfect moral order on Earth. (I do not exaggerate. ) Second, libertarians (of the sort who form the subject of this book) hold that the state - except in its minimal or ‘nightwatchman’ form, if that - is evil. Third, as its chosen nom de guerre suggests, libertarian doctrine asserts that freedom is of supreme importance. It is this third thesis which acts as the crossbar, or strut, connecting the first with the second. Thus, the market is held to be good principally because, or so it is claimed, only the free market can supply the fertile soil in which the fragile flower of freedom can bloom. The state’s intrinsically evil character is correspondingly held to flow from the fact that any (other than minimal) state is necessarily freedom’s iron enemy.
The foregoing theses will be extremely familiar to most readers, including readers who weren’t previously aware that - within philosophy if not elsewhere - these ideas tend to be labelled ‘libertarian’. This very familiarity ought to be sufficient in itself to demonstrate the extent to which libertarian ideas have recently come to supply the small coin for a certain debased ideological currency. I would put it even more strongly. Libertarianism may not be the most subtle philosophical doctrine extant, but, with socialism temporarily out of fashion, it is - at least arguably - the political philosophy which has brought the most influence to bear on practical affairs over recent years. I should like to think that this gives the arguments I present here some point.