[This review appeared in the Conservative Review, May/June 1997, pp. 38-40.] 

Book Review


What It Means to be a Libertarian

by Charles Murray

Broadway Books, New York, 1997


Reviewed by Dwight D. Murphey

            This is a brief and very readable statement of libertarian social and political philosophy, written as a "personal interpretation" by Charles Murray, who together with the late Richard J. Herrnstein wrote The Bell Curve.

            For Murray, a function of this book must certainly be to remind the world that his candid discussion of intelligence and its implications in The Bell Curve was in no sense an indication that he was either a "racist" or a "fascist," as critics were wont to believe. Here, instead, is a man who argues passionately for a free society and who seeks to state his credo as to its meaning.

            It is both a strength and a weakness of What It Means to be a Libertarian that it must count as a popularization rather than as one of the more serious philosophical explications of the position. Readers who want depth and a thorough-going consistency will find several such explications available. But for a readability based on clarity and an inviting personal warmth, Murray's book is hard to beat.

            At the cost of such readability here, it is worth discussing, at least briefly, the nature of that philosophic shallowness. It comes from the fact that Murray seems unconscious of the full implications of the methodological differences that exist within libertarian (and more broadly, classical liberal) thought.

            Some authors argue strictly from axioms, such as those that Murray states when he speaks of such principles as: that each person owns himself; that no one has a right to initiate force against anyone else; that voluntary exchange benefits both parties; etc. Unconsciously, these authors may bring in considerations from outside the axioms, but that isn't what they intend. (An essential criticism of this method is that the thinker must be careful that the axioms contain the sum of all human wisdom; if they do not, and it is almost impossible that they can, the axiomatic system is flawed, perhaps very seriously so.)

            Other authors see such principles not as axioms for strict deduction, but as important presumptive guideposts; a principle's actual application will depend on circumstances that will vary with time and place, and on the entire spectrum of human values and of truths about human life. The question here becomes: does the model envisioned of a free society actually work well in servicing human needs, keeping in mind that individual liberty is both an essential means and a valued end?

            Needless to say, the latter method involves much broader thought about society and about context. This can lead to conclusions that are at odds with what is arrived at by strict axiomatic deduction. (For example, a strictly axiomatic approach can lead to the view, say, that the Grand Canyon should be privately owned and therefore open only to those who will pay the price of admission charged by the owner. Thinkers taking a broader approach might believe such a conclusion ludicrous almost to the point of parody, and will think that a system centered strongly on private property will be better served by treating something so unique as the Grand Canyon as a "commons.")

            In the book under review, Murray pursues some of each method, but without seeming to be aware that he must justify what he is doing, other than to say that his libertarianism isn't as "pure" as that of some others. There are reasons for this difference in "purity," and anyone making a systematic study of the philosophy needs to explore them. (But again, readers who welcome the book for its personal warmth and readability will be pleased that he does not.)

            A still more important point remains to be made. It is that books like Murray's are rapidly becoming obsolete. His primer may be the last of the many basic statements of fundamental individualist philosophy, of which there are many, going back more than a century and a half (such as to Bastiat's The Law). Advanced technology based on computers is blasting its way across an increasingly competitive global marketplace like a hurricane. For several years there will be enormous opportunity for anyone with intelligence and hustle. But the secular tendency will be for technology to become more and more "non-labor-intensive." Tens (indeed, hundreds) of millions of people whose temperament or intelligence do not lend themselves to becoming "highly skilled" will have less and less ability to participate rewardingly in the economic system. (Even if those millions were amenable to high skill, there won't be that much need for high-skilled workers, anyway.) The "downsizing" that has been sweeping the economies of the advanced industrial countries for two decades isn't a temporary thing, but an increasing feature of post-modern economic life. And here's the "kicker": that it makes problematic virtually every feature of the libertarian system. What is desperately needed is a discussion of how those of us who value individual liberty can best formulate the theory of a free society in a context where work and income-flowing-from-work play an ever-decreasing role.

            Murray has previously shown that he is at least partly aware of this sea-change. In The Bell Curve, he and Herrnstein saw the growing polarization of society into a highly rewarded, skilled elite, a dwindling middle class, and a growing underclass. They ascribed it to the impact of differing intelligence rather than to the onrush of "information technology," but at least they saw the looming contours of the problem.

            Murray would have been well advised to have stayed the course, pursuing the implications of polarization. This would have taken him into uncharted waters, where he could have made a major contribution. Instead, he wrote a primer that might just as well have been written in 1880 or 1950. He admits (on p. 169) that "on a pessimistic day" he still sees the coming divisions within American life. What we must understand is that this amounts to a dismissal of something that is going to send all social thinkers back to the drawing boards. Those who do not seriously rethink their philosophic systems will run the risk of becoming hateful in the eyes of the millions who are set adrift in a market economy without any understanding of or rationale for what is happening to them. It is those who cling most ferociously to their axioms who will be least able to do this rethinking.

            The need for a rethinking is not the end of the world. Everything that lovers of individual liberty have valued remains important. The question is how to bring it to bear on the circumstances that are rapidly engulfing us.