On Liberty: Impossible Dreams, Utopian Schemes

My new book is now available at Amazon.com,

in paperback or on Kindle.


The paperback version is priced much too high at $16.95, though it’s just above the minimum dictated by Amazon. The Kindle edition is only $6.95.

What’s in it? An introductory chapter and 56 essays drawn from posts at Politics & Prosperity and Liberty Corner.

Here’s the text of the introductory chapter, “What Lies Ahead” (1. INTRODUCTION, 2. UNDERSTANDING LIBERTY, etc., refer to the five parts into which the book is divided):


The next two essays are “A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance” and “Parsing Political Philosophy.” “A Declaration…” tells you where I’m coming from, if you haven’t already figured it out by reading the first volume, the preface to this one, or this introductory essay. “Parsing…” details my political philosophy (right-minarchism), puts it in perspective, and presages much of what follows in Parts 2 — 5 of this volume.


I begin Part 2 with essays which argue that liberty is a product of social intercourse, not abstract principles, and certainly not ratiocination. Liberty is a modus vivendi, not the result of a rational political scheme. Though a rational political scheme, such as the one laid out in the Constitution of the United States, could promote liberty.

The key to a libertarian modus vivendi is the evolutionary development and widespread observance of social norms that foster peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation. And that is liberty. The state’s sole legitimate role, other than procedural ones (e.g., the administration of voting) is the defense of liberty from foreign and domestic predators.

Is my claim that liberty is a modus vivendi based on social norms an endorsement of moral relativism? It is not, as I explain. There is also much in Part 2 about civil society, the institutions of which (family, church, club, etc.) are the keepers and transmitters of social norms. The second part also addresses the relation of liberty to science, religion, and democracy. There are several essays on the state of liberty in America (and many more in Volume I [my previous book]).


Liberty enables a person to exercise rights, which are the subject of Part 3. Those rights derive from social norms, which set the boundaries of permissible behavior. Social norms arise from the operation of the Golden Rule. Rights are “natural” only in the sense that they result naturally from social intercourse; they are not mysterious essences that inhere in human beings.

In a regime of liberty, rights are negative rather than positive; that is, they oblige others (including the state) to leave a person alone when his behavior is within the boundaries established by voluntarily evolved social norms. Positive rights, by contrast, entitle certain identifiable groups to benefits, the costs of which must be defrayed by everyone else. This is a fool’s game, of course, because it spurs the creation of additional positive rights for yet other groups, leaving almost everyone in the position of paying, indirectly, for benefits received. But it’s not a zero-sum game because the “house” — government — rakes in a percentage of the take.


In Part 4, I explain why traditional conservatism is true libertarianism. I also detail the vacuousness and fatuousness of the doctrines that commonly pass for libertarianism, anarchism among them.

Standard leave-me-alone libertarianism (based on the harm principle) is a form of rationalism: an undue reliance on pure reason, without regard for the realities of nature and human nature. Rationalists are fond of conjuring “perfect” political arrangements that simply won’t work.

Part 4 also exposes the essential authoritarianism of some so-called libertarians — oxymoronically called left-libertarians — who are intolerant of liberty when it yields the “wrong” results. In that respect, many so-called libertarians are like modern liberals (i.e., leftists). So, I end the Part 4 with some essays that trace the descent of modern liberalism from classical liberalism, and illuminate the parallels between modern liberalism and the “libertarian” left. (The sins of modern liberalism are treated at length in Volume I.)


The final part explores Objectivism, anarchism, utilitarianism, and fascism. (I will tackle another prominent and relevant “ism” — “libertarian” paternalism — in a later volume.)

I address Objectivism because it is often confused with standard leave-me-alone libertarianism. Objectivism is a cult whose members swear fealty to “reality,” in the name of an unrealistic, sophomoric philosophy. It might as well be standard leave-me-alone libertarianism.

As long as I’m writing about unrealistic, sophomoric philosophy, there’s anarchism. I address it fleetingly in Parts 1 – 4. I return to it in Part 5 just to drive home my arguments against it.

Utilitarianism isn’t to be confused with consequentialism, which simply holds that liberty and its concomitant, negative rights, are desired (and thus desirable) because of the superior social and economic consequences of peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation. (Liberty is desired and desirable on its own account, of course.) Utilitarians are wont to evaluate social and economic policies from the standpoint of a dictatorial actor (though utilitarians don’t seem to grasp this implication of their practice). The conceit of utilitarianism is the (implied or express) existence a social-welfare function which (somehow) sums the happiness and unhappiness of a relevant portion of humanity (the portion in which a utilitarian is interested). A policy or program is favored if it yields a greater sum of happiness (“the greatest amount of happiness altogether”), even if that greater sum includes a rise in A’s happiness at the expense of B (who is unlikely to be amused by the outcome).

Finally, I come to fascism, which seems to be the inevitable fate of representative democracies. Popular imagery to the contrary notwithstanding, fascism isn’t jack-booted despotism; rather:

Fascism is a system in which the government leaves nominal ownership of the means of production in the hands of private individuals but exercises control by means of regulatory legislation and reaps most of the profit by means of heavy taxation. In effect, fascism is simply a more subtle form of government ownership than is socialism. Under fascism, producers are allowed to keep a nominal title to their possessions and to bear all the risks involved in entrepreneurship, while the government has most of the actual control and gets a great deal of the profit (and takes none of the risks). The U.S.A. is moving increasingly away from a free-market economy and toward fascist totalitarianism. [Linda and Morris Tannehill, The Market for Liberty, p. 18]

Fascism usually is described as a right-wing phenomenon, but with respect to liberty there’s no difference between the extreme right and the extreme left. They are merely different manifestations of despotism. In the United States, fascism takes the form of a “soft” despotism, one that is outwardly benign, but which suppresses liberty nonetheless.

The arrival of American fascism (“soft” despotism, if you prefer) was inevitable because representative democracy empowers government to act on behalf of “the people.” But government can do so only by stripping power from the people through taxation and regulation. Politicians hold onto their power by seeming to deliver special benefits to various segments of the populace.

That the benefits are largely illusory, as discussed earlier, matters little. The benefits are visible (to those who receive them), while the tax and regulatory burdens are diffuse. And so, “the people” keep asking for more, and the state keeps spending, taxing, and regulating to deliver it.

Thus does democracy destroy liberty.

On that cheery note…