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The Best Introduction to Libertarianism

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Libertarianism Today by Jacob H. Huebert
(Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), 254 pages.

Major books on libertarianism seem to come in pairs. First, in 1973, there was Murray N. Rothbard’s For a New Liberty (Macmillan, with a revised edition in 1978) and John Hospers’s Libertarianism: A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow (Nash Publishing). The year 1997 saw the publication of David Boaz’s Libertarianism: A Primer (The Free Press) and Charles Murray’s What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation (Broadway Books). Then, just last year, Jeffrey A. Miron’s Libertarianism, from A to Z (Basic Books) and the book under review here, Jacob H. Huebert’s Libertarianism Today (Praeger), came out.

Scattered among all of these books are other works, such as David Bergland’s Libertarianism in One Lesson: Why Libertarianism Is the Best Hope for America’s Future (Orpheus Publications, 1984, now in its ninth edition), Mary J. Ruwart’s Short Answers to the Tough Questions (SunStar Press, 1999), Harry Browne’s Great Libertarian Offer (LiamWorks, 2000), and Jan Narveson’s Libertarian Idea (Broadview Press, 2001).

And then there are two recently published collections of essays on libertarianism: David Boaz’s Politics of Freedom: Taking on the Left, the Right, and Threats to Our Liberties (Cato Institute, 2008) and Tom G. Palmer’s Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice (Cato Institute, 2009).

With so many different books on libertarianism to choose from, libertarians, and those interested in an introduction to libertarianism, need one book that is both comprehensive and contemporary. That book is Jacob Huebert’s Libertarianism Today.

That does not, of course, mean that those other books are not important or worth reading. Certainly Rothbard’s For a New Liberty will be a must-read for generations of libertarians to come. But Huebert’s book is the best introduction to libertarianism on the market.

The author is an attorney, an adjunct professor of law at Ohio Northern University College of Law, a writer on the popular and academic levels, and a former law clerk to a U.S. Court of Appeals judge. More important, Huebert is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Libertarianism Today is organized around 11 chapters and a conclusion. The first two chapters serve as a general introduction to libertarianism. The rest of the chapters are arranged as fighting for or against something. There are five chapters on the fight for certain things to be free from government interference (the economy, drugs, health care, education, and guns), three chapters on the fight against the government’s doing something (abusing the Constitution and expanding its power through the courts, engaging in wars and the violations of civil liberties that wars bring, and devising and protecting the notion of intellectual property), and one chapter on the fight for votes (voting and libertarian political parties, projects, and organizations).

Notable features of the book include the division of chapters into sections and subsections, a detailed index, copious notes at the end of each chapter, and a section for each chapter on further reading that lists between two and six recommended books or articles, with annotations. The most important feature of the book, however, is its consistently radical libertarianism. That is evident in the book’s first chapter, where government is termed a “criminal enterprise” and its politicians and bureaucrats “through their legalized killing and stealing” are labeled “the world’s largest and most successful criminal gang.”

Myth busting

As mentioned, the first two chapters serve as a general introduction to libertarianism. In them the author forthrightly states what libertarianism is and what it isn’t. The origins and schools of libertarian thought are presented, as well as a brief history of Old Right libertarians.

Huebert grounds the libertarian idea that people should be free to do “anything that’s peaceful” on the “nonaggression principle.” Libertarianism is “just a political philosophy” and therefore “has nothing to say about how one should live one’s life within the broad limits of peaceful activity.” But because he believes that the nonaggression principle should be extended to the political realm, Huebert indicts the government for stealing (taxation), kidnapping (conscription), and violations of personal freedom (the war on drugs) and shows nothing but contempt for politicians, bureaucrats, and others who want to interfere by threats and violence with persons freely making voluntary exchanges (“the market”). That is not to say that this is an angry book. Huebert even treats fairly libertarians whom he views as deviating from libertarianism. The book is balanced, yet uncompromising.

Huebert stands a number of widely held misconceptions on their head. Businesses are at the mercy of consumers because “only those businesses that are best at providing what consumers want, at the best price possible, will succeed.” The American economy is hardly a capitalist one, since it is “hampered by countless interventions.” Libertarians do not reflexively defend “big business” — just “those aspects that are compatible with genuine free-market capitalism.” That the free market can fail to do something is “a myth.” Since individual action is “the basis for understanding economics,” utility is subjective and “cannot be measured, and cannot be compared between people.” There are “few cases, if any, where government intervention could create greater prosperity.” Even money “should be left to the free market.”

The different types of conservatives are surveyed in chapter two, “Libertarians Are Not Conservatives (or Liberals).” Although some conservative schools of thought have some overlap with libertarianism, they all have one thing in common: they are not reliable allies of libertarianism. In this chapter too Huebert is a myth-buster: It is not true that liberals favor personal liberty and conservatives favor economic liberty. The Reagan Revolution was more rhetoric than reality. George W. Bush was not just a bad president, he was “probably one of the worst ever.”

Huebert demolishes myths about libertarianism as well. The Nolan Chart can be inaccurate, mainly because it leaves out one of the greatest violators of personal and economic freedom: war. It is not obvious that “libertarianism favors same-sex marriage.” Libertarianism is not necessarily “pro-choice.” Libertarianism does not require the “promotion of certain liberal social values.”

Government intervention

Five chapters follow on the fight for the economy, drugs, health care, education, and guns to all be free from government interference. In his chapter on the economy, Huebert absolves libertarianism of any blame for the economic crisis, correcting the misconceptions of Judge Richard Posner in the process. Huebert clearly and succinctly presents a libertarian perspective on money and banking, booms and busts, government bailouts and stimulus spending, and the Fed and monetary policy. He correctly defines inflation as an increase in the money supply and nothing short of government theft.

Huebert devotes an entire chapter to the subject of drugs. He boldly states that “libertarians support legalization of all drugs and view all drug prohibition as destructive and immoral.” And no one “should need a doctor’s permission to use marijuana or any other drugs.” He favors an immediate end to the drug war. I found his history of drug regulation and prohibition in the United States to be extremely interesting and informative. He faults not only government for the war on drugs but also the law-enforcement and prison-industry lobbies. He is careful to make it clear that being a libertarian does not mean that one must advocate the recreational use of drugs.

On the subjects of health and education, Huebert offers what some may consider to be radical proposals. But that is because “radical change is needed.” Contrary to what many people think, our current health-care system is not the greatest in the world, health insurance as we know it “is not really insurance,” and “the current healthcare system is not a free-market system at all.” He says things can be fixed only by “repealing existing government interventions, not by adding new ones.” His prescriptions, which are nothing more than consistent libertarianism, include not just repealing Obamacare, but abolishing the FDA, ending government medical licensing, legalizing organ sales, deregulating health-insurance companies, and ending the divide between prescription and nonprescription drugs.

He sees numerous problems with public (that is, government) schooling: compulsory funding, compulsory attendance, teachers’ unions, compulsory curriculum, the encouragement of conformity and mediocrity, political correctness, regimentation, environmentalist propaganda, and, of course, the pro-government slant inherent in government schools. His solution is not a voucher system, a popular idea among some libertarians, but is rather a complete separation of school and state. A truly free market in education would resolve the problem of conflicting parental values and “provide an enormous array of alternatives.”

In chapter 7, “The Fight for Gun Rights,” the author goes after “gun grabbers,” the NRA, and even the recent Heller case, wherein was recognized that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. This trilogy of dissent is not the result of taking a middle-of-the-road approach. To the contrary, Huebert doesn’t defend the inviolability of gun rights just because of people’s natural right to self-defense, or because more guns in people’s hands reduces violent crime, or even because guns serve as a check on government power. Gun rights should be absolute because “libertarians think one should be allowed to own just about anything, as long as it is not stolen and one is not using it to aggress against anyone.”

The Constitution and war

Those five chapters are followed by three against the government’s abusing the Constitution and expanding its power through the courts, engaging in wars and the violations of civil liberties that wars bring, and devising and protecting the notion of intellectual property.

Although Huebert chronicles how the federal government has far exceeded its constitutional authority through its abuse of the “necessary and proper” clause, the “commerce clause,” and the “general welfare clause,” he does not view the Constitution as a guardian of liberty, “because it gives the State an appearance of legitimacy that it does not deserve and empowers it to violate rights.” He not only concludes that the Constitution has failed “to limit government and preserve rights,” but questions whether it was even intended to do so. The author strongly favors decentralization “as an additional or alternative means of checking government power,” along with nullification and secession.

Huebert is fearless in his chapter on libertarianism and war. In war, “Governments commit legalized mass murder.” Killing civilians is an “unjustifiable war crime.” Lincoln’s and Sherman’s “total war” was terrorism. Churchill and Truman were war criminals. Defense contractors are “merchants of death.” Conscription is “slavery.” And, quoting Randolph Bourne, “War is the health of the state.” Huebert exposes the hypocrisy of the United States for condemning other countries for wanting to have “even one nuclear weapon,” when it has a stockpile of nearly 4,000 of them. He calls for “total nuclear disarmament.”

A sticking point for some people — even some libertarians — is World War II. Huebert is not intimidated. While not discounting that “Hitler’s evil was great,” he correctly points out that “World War II was essentially a result and an extension of World War I,” Hitler “posed no imminent threat to the United States.” He “could not even succeed in his attempt [to] get past the English Channel, let alone across the Atlantic”; Hitler and Stalin “might have fought each other to the death” without U.S. and British intervention; and Stalin had a “more murderous” regime.

But it’s not just the death and destruction that war brings that Huebert is concerned with. War is a destroyer of civil liberties, is a tremendous waste of taxpayer money, and results in massive government intervention in the economy and society. Naturally, he condemns the USA PATRIOT Act, the TSA, the NSA, torture, national service, Japanese internment during World War II, militarism, and the war on terror. And contrary to libertarian Randy Barnett, whom he excoriates for defending the Iraq War, Huebert remarks that even if “Saddam Hussein had possessed weapons of mass destruction — this still would not have satisfied the criteria for a just war.” He also correctly concludes that “both [political] parties overwhelmingly support almost all wars, regardless of who starts them.”

The chapter in Libertarianism Today on intellectual property is worth the price of the book. Building on the groundbreaking work of Stephan Kinsella, Huebert rejects both copyrights and patents, not because they don’t necessarily foster motivation and innovation, but because intellectual property is not property at all. Intellectual property “rights” are “the product of government fiat — of statutes that grant inventors, writers, and artists a monopoly privilege to use certain ideas for certain lengths of time.” They are actually “a power to stop otherf people from exercising their own property rights.” The contrary views of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard are presented fairly. Huebert grounds his rejection of the concept of intellectual property on his belief in the supreme value of liberty, concluding that “even if we could determine that IP makes us materially better off in some respects,” it would “require a government empowered to interfere with individuals’ peaceful use of their own property.”

The last chapter, on voting and libertarian political parties, projects, and organizations (“The Fight for Votes”) presents the libertarian case for voting or not voting, the trouble with democracy, the pitfalls of a national Libertarian Party, and a very detailed explanation of the Free State Project. Organizations such as state libertarian parties, the Campaign for Liberty, and the Tea Party Movement are also discussed. I was glad to see Huebert note that the Republican and Democratic parties are “equally offensive to liberty.”

The conclusion to the book summarizes the book’s major themes. Huebert mentions two things here that nicely describe libertarianism: Libertarianism “is based on two unchanging fundamental principles, nonaggression and private property rights” and it “does not require anyone to alter his or her views on religion, lifestyles, charity, or anything else.”

Criticisms

For the most part, I have only minor criticisms of the book.

It is unfortunate that there is no discussion anywhere in the book of a libertarian perspective on some environmental issue except for a footnote lamenting the lack of space to take up the matter (p. 131). The use of the inclusive expression “he or she” (e.g., p. 4) is awkward, and is no doubt due to the political correctness of the publisher. I note only one typo, “entitled” for “titled” (p. 7); one missing word (“[to] get past,” p. 191); and one minor error; “eighteenth” for “seventeenth” (p. 139). And on page 49, the Federal Open Market Committee is implied to have 19 members instead of 12. It is not composed of “the heads of the regional banks plus the members of the Board of Governors.” In addition to the seven-member Board of Governors, the FOMC members include the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and the presidents of four of the other regional banks on a rotating basis.

There is one seeming contradiction. The Libertarian Party’s website slogan of “Smaller Government, Lower Taxes, More Freedom” is criticized because it “conveys no information on what distinguishes a Libertarian from a Republican and gives no reason for someone looking for something different to proceed any further” (p. 226). I agree. But then in the conclusion, the libertarian prescription is said to be “more freedom, less government” (p. 239).

More notable, though, is the book’s treatment, or lack of treatment, of the subject of immigration. Mention is made twice in the book that Ron Paul deviates from libertarianism on the subject of immigration. In one of these instances, this divergence is defined as believing “the government may properly restrict immigration.” But because there are differences on immigration between the views of Ron Paul (and other libertarians who stop short of calling for open borders) and the typical conservative, it would have been better if Huebert had presented what he believes to be the libertarian position on immigration, contrasted it with the views of assorted conservatives, and then noted any libertarian “divergence.”

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Libertarianism Today is the most important book on libertarianism since Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. Not only does it stand in the Rothbardian tradition, it is a principled, uncompromising, iconoclastic, consistent, and unvarnished defense of libertarianism that Rothbard would be proud of.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 edition of Freedom Daily.

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