What It Means to Be a Libertarian

In this breezy, engaging manifesto, Charles Murray reveals himself to be a regular boy scout, brimming over with can-do optimism. He wants "greater individual fulfillment, more vital communities, a richer culture." He celebrates the very "stuff of life" defined as "being engaged with those around you in the core social roles of spouse-parent, son or daughter, friend and neighbor"—life stuff we have disastrously assigned to "the bureaucracies" that now do too much and do it badly by way of "feeding the hungry, succoring the sick, comforting the sad, nurturing the children, tending the elderly, chastising the sinners." These tasks must be done by individuals in bracingly voluntaristic but overflowingly decent communities. If communities are to engage us, they must have vital tasks to do. If we take away these vital tasks, communities become mere husks, hollowed-out debris. For life "acquires texture not just from the hours one devotes to an activity but through an ongoing consciousness of engagement and responsibility."

Sure, some people will retreat and remain aloof. But that is their choice. Most will not. Most will put their shoulders to the wheel and do the right thing nearly all of the time. And they will do so through engagements in social life "grounded in the neighborhood churches, lodges, service organizations, charities, and schools." Sounds good. So what’s wrong with this picture?

Well, for one thing, it is based on far too lofty and ambitious an account of human nature. We are pretty much unfettered selves, in Murray’s view, or, at least, in a genuinely free society we would be. But such unfettered beings, through their untrammeled free choices, bind themselves to one another and to a decent and fair life. We engage in "voluntary and informed" exchanges; that is what life is about. Life is not about coercion or the initiation of force. In a free society this is never permitted. The one legitimate function of government is "exclusive possession of the police power" through criminal law and tort law. But, beyond that, government should stay out of the way.

Why is it wrong to resort to coercion? Because each of us "owns himself." (The herselves own themselves, too.) Yet these self-possessing self-owners are called to social life, presumably because they recognize that there are goods to be derived from the free exchanges of self-owning beings that are available in no other way. Here Murray derives "that elusive concept, a public good," and thereby distances himself from the "strictest libertarians" who hold that there is no such thing. However, that public good is unaffected by robust mutual consumption. If I consume, I don’t take away from anybody else. Nonpublic goods exist in the zero-sum world much beloved by econometric types and their epigones in all of the social sciences.

The depth and breadth of Murray’s optimism knows almost no bounds. (Some might uncharitably call this naïveté.) Working from a market model through which economic freedom generates "spontaneous order," Murray generalizes to the rest of life. We will always be mindful of our personal responsibilities. So, to further this project, government must cease and desist in lots of arenas: No more regulation of products and services, but tighter enforcement of liability law; no more regulation of terms of employment, but tighter protection against employer force and fraud; no more regulation of workplaces, but ever more vigilant enforcement of liability; eliminate all extant civil rights regulations, but replace them with a constitutional amendment that does not permit any government at any level to "pass any law that requires discrimination by ethnicity, race, religion, or creed." And so on. In fact, Murray’s libertarian polity ironically depends on the passage of a small blizzard of constitutional amendments in order to get things cranked up right. For example: We also need a constitutional amendment to the effect that "Congress shall provide for the enforcement of laws against fraud and deceptive practice and shall provide for efficient administration of civil tort law." Congress, in his scheme of things, becomes one big tort overseer.

So what else is wrong with this picture? It radically understates the role government has always played in enabling and constraining the market; it traffics in edifying but politically unfeasible and philosophically simplistic nostrums; it understates our capacity for evil and underplays our calling to do good that goes much beyond Murray’s rather anemic representation of a public good. This is a heartfelt document and as clear a statement of a modified version of libertarian philosophy as one is likely to encounter. But it falls short-way short-of a workable public philosophy.

Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: 
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Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political theorist, authored more than a dozen books, including Women and War (1987), Democracy on Trial (1993), Augustine and the Limits of Politics (1996), and Sovereignty: God, State, Self (2008). She was a frequent contributor to Commonweal and covered many subjects in our pages, including feminism, family, just war, criminal justice, and capitalism.

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