on November 22, 2013
I was given this book by somebody who loved it and I promised to read it.
I must confess that I approached it with prejudice. I've never met a poor libertarian, my prejudice is that libertarianism is a philosophy of convenience for the rich. The way I see it, the minority of people who pay tax directly (we all do indirectly) need to feel good about something. And this is a philosophy that helps them stand for a set of ideas, rather than merely be indignant about being "soaked" on tax.
I was so prejudiced about the whole thing, I bought a book by a Nobel Prize winning economist / historian / philosopher about the role of institutions (for example: the government) and read it first. I thought it would educate my mind on the subtleties of the issues I'd confront in any book about libertarianism and give me a bank of ideas to compare with as I'm reading.
I needn't have. David Boaz' "primer" is not an ambitious book. It never goes deep enough into issues that you could vehemently oppose. Equally, it does not build its arguments on an axiomatic basis; so you can't go through and look for errors in logic that isn't there. This is a presentation of a bunch of ideas. "Primer" is probably overselling it, much as it says so on the cover.
I am not exposed to philosophy, so I hate taking literally what "popular philosophy" books have to say. The history of the various ideas will inevitably be interpreted from the angle of the author and important thinkers will invariably be mixed with less important thinkers who are closer to the ideas of the author. Well, if this author did so, he certainly did it without me noticing. It was fun to read what he had to say.
That said, he completely failed to change my mind on any of my prejudices. How do I know? Easy: on the back of the book there is a questionnaire that helps you decide if you are a libertarian or not. I don't think I'd have answered any of the questions differently before and after having read the book, and I indeed remain of the opinion that this is a philosophy of convenience for taxpaying Americans.
Which brings me to the first major benefit I gleaned from reading this book. I finally understood why libertarianism is big in America and nonexistent everywhere else:
As the author argues, and from having lived there I'd have to agree, in America people who are free-thinking about the economy tend to be conservative about personal liberties. They call themselves the "conservatives." And people who are free-thinking about personal liberties tend to be anti-market when it comes to the economy. They are, of course, the "liberals." What here in Europe you'd call normal (even if we don't necessarily practice as we preach) is difficult to find in America as an ideology. But Americans call it libertarian. Over here there's no point giving it a name. We may not truly practice this combination of free markets and personal freedom around here, but we all advocate it.
It's actually easy to see why things are different in America, and this is me talking now, not the book: in America, personal liberties are de facto significantly more circumscribed and under attack. Much as Americans are free to carry guns (or perhaps because they do) your life can be under threat if you perform abortions, for example. Some states will lock you up forever after the third petty crime. The percent of Americans in jail is a vast multiple of what it is in any European nation. A cop catches you speeding around here in the UK, you actually don't have to show him your driver's license. You have 48 hours to present it to the cop shop of your choice. No American believes me when I tell him that, he's thankful if he does not get splayed on the hood of his car. This week, French cops are refusing to police riots in Brittany because they're scared. Peaceful "occupy Wall St." protesters got pepper spray in their face. Better not to get into Wikileaks, drones etc. Meanwhile, the US government taxes much less than any European government (at 25% of GDP between state and federal, significantly less than half of French or Italian tax, for example, and two thirds as much as British or German) so the economy is vastly "to the right" of Europe, with many "natural monopolies" fully privatised. The most celebrated Democrat president of the last 50 years got rid of the Glass Steagall act, allowed pharmaceutical companies to advertise drugs on TV and on his last day in office pardoned the country's most famous tax dodger. So there is a distinct "losing side" in America: the "liberals." It's game set and match, really.
As a result, the axis along which the friction occurs is between the losing "liberals" and the winning free-market / lower personal liberties "conservatives."
The a la carte fellows who don't want either package and want low government involvement in the economy and more personal freedoms have a name in America, they call themselves the "libertarians." They tend to be rich, because the poor are too busy, of course. That's the first thing I learned from this book and it makes good sense, much as it is very obviously a sweeping generalisation. But it explains a lot.
The other idea I found appealing in this book is the idea of "natural rights." Yes, I'm revealing that I know diddlysquat about philosophy, but that probably makes me the target reader. As a young student I was told that the mathematics is out there and all we humans have to do is go discover the theorems. We're not making them, we merely go find them. So we now have proofs that you can pack spheres particularly well in 24 dimensions, that you can color a map with 4 colors, that there are 52 types of finite groups and no more. The book argues that we have natural rights and all we have to do is go find them. We set up courts and we grope toward the truth. Sounds awesome to me. Don't know if it's wrong or right, on the other hand. Maybe it's fanciful. David Boaz states it as an axiom, but God knows he needs to do better than that.
Similarly, the author argues that in a free economy every time I transact with you by definition we must both be winners, otherwise the transaction would not occur. So a market economy works via billions of such win-win transactions and gets us to a place where a planned economy could never go. Yes, agreed, but a second year course in Economics in every single university in the world has a few weeks dedicated to stuff that people cannot achieve in this manner. Dunno, air traffic control. The author is rather pathetic when he goes looking for examples that defy this theory. Yeah, congratulations, there's a country where people got together and built lighthouses, but it was the country that controlled the seven seas for a few centuries.
More to the point, yes, I see where the author is coming from. But he has not made me move from where I started. He states that restaurant owners should be allowed to admit smokers. I have not met anybody who is not extremely happy about the smoking ban. Maybe not at first, but pretty much everybody I know has turned on this issue. The state got involved and stopped people from harming themselves in public places. It was necessary for somebody to nudge us that way (and I'm sorry I'm borrowing the hyper-popular term) but now car companies don't fit an ashtray as standard anymore, and that's because this small nudge (there I go again) has moved us all to a better place.
I'm a mathematician, that's proof by counterexample. QED, baby.
Regardless, I enjoyed the book. It's far too prosaic for me to award it more than three stars, but it informed me, it entertained me and it made me think. Bring on Nozick! He won't be as easy to dismiss.