- - Tuesday, December 12, 2017



Edited by Jason Brennan, Bas van der Vossen and David Schmidtz

Routledge, $225, 466 pages

It’s become fashionable for conservatives to associate themselves with libertarianism. While these two groups share some similarities with respect to small government, low taxes and more personal liberties and freedoms, how accurate is it?

Jason Brennan, Bas van der Vossen and David Schmidtz’s “The Routledge Book of Libertarianism” provides an intellectual smorgasbord for conservatives (and non-conservatives) who want to learn more about this political theory. Their impressive volume examines components of libertarian thought, and how libertarians attempt to transcend traditional right- and left-thinking about people, places and things.

The book consists of 31 thought-provoking essays divided into five sections: libertarianism and other theories, questioning libertarian principles, property and the market, role of the state and applied libertarian issues. Readers will surely gain a more vivid understanding of what it means to be, or to call yourself, a libertarian.

For instance, Jacob T. Levy explores how libertarians and classical liberals “have often accorded centrality to a cluster of ideas derived from John Locke.” This includes property rights being regarded as “moral or ‘natural,’ ” and that “political, coercive government derives its legitimacy from the (often tacit or imputed) consent of the governed.”

Yet, Mr. Levy also believes “pervasive Lockeanism is a problem for (both academic and popular) libertarianism,” and the “various configurations and adaptations of Lockean ideas in various versions of libertarian and classical liberal thought overlap but are far from identical.”

Gerald Gaus critiques the classification of political theories (including libertarianism) because, “while critical to understanding” various intricacies, it can “run the danger of distorting a specific political view by stressing some features over others.”

In particular, he believes the distortion with classical liberalism “is especially manifest” with respect to F.A. Hayek’s work. He looks at Hayek’s concept of the “Great, or Open, Society,” a moral order “that extends trust and notions of fairness to massively extended networks of cooperative interactions,” and shows how he was more of an old Whig than either a classical liberal or conservative.

Peter J. Boettke and Rosolino A. Candela look at liberal libertarianism. They believe the two philosophies go hand-in-hand, unlike another contributor, Samuel Freeman, because “libertarianism, properly understood, is a liberal view that structures social interaction, one where human interaction is open-ended and exchange is initiated by individuals’ purposive plans.”

A liberal view of libertarianism “sees the possibility of social cooperation under the division of labor as crucial to securing the autonomy and independence in cooperation with others,” and “not only sets the institutional preconditions for freedom of choice, but also tolerates the freedom to engage in choices that may be considered immoral but are not necessarily legally prohibited.”

Thomas Mulligan’s profound essay examines what’s wrong with libertarianism. He contrasts libertarians to meritocrats, who are often seen as like-minded but, in his view, “are hopelessly at odds.”

The former is “founded in the philosophy of John Locke,” which is contrary to Mr. Levy’s position, sees liberty as “an emanation of our natural rights,” and believes the free market “is a necessary, not a contingent, feature.” The latter is a “theory of justice based on the idea that people ought to get the things that they deserve.” Hence, jobs are distributed “strictly on the basis of merit,” income is distributed “on the basis of productivity” and, unlike libertarians, they don’t “fetishize the free market.”

Other interesting contributions include: Peter Jaworski on what can be for sale (“Anything that we can permissibly have, use, be, or exchange, for free, we can do so for consideration, through markets. That is the markets-without-limits thesis [t]he default is liberty or permission; if anyone seeks to limit that liberty or permission, the burden is on her to defend the restriction”).

And there is Anna Stilz on property rights (“Libertarians differ amongst themselves on the extensiveness of natural property rights. While left-libertarians hold that external resources may only be appropriated on an egalitarian basis, right-libertarians typically adopt a weaker construal of the constraints on appropriation”).

There is also Ilya Somin on freedom and knowledge (“When voter ignorance incentivizes political elites to pursue policies that benefit narrow interest groups at the expense of the general public, their expertise ends up harming the public good rather than promoting it. Indeed, in such cases, greater expertise may sometimes actually make things worse”).

“The Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism” is intellectual, engaging and controversial. What will likely be the biggest revelation for readers? Even the most learned adherents of this philosophy don’t necessarily follow, to paraphrase Hayek, one particular road to libertarianism.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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