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The “L” Word

What is libertarianism, and who, exactly, counts as a libertarian?

By From the December 2008 - January 2009 issue

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(This review appears in the December/January issue of The American Spectator.)

The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, edited by Ronald Hamowy (Sage, 664 pages, $125).

WHAT IS LIBERTARIANISM, and who, exactly, counts as a libertarian? For years, anarcho-capitalists, minarchists, teenyarchists, Randroids, and assorted laissez-faire true believers have fought pitched battles over these vexing questions of ideology and identity. Now they have a whole foot-breaking reference book to help remind them of those old, tender memories.

The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (The Encyclopedia hereafter) doesn’t seek to give definitive answers where none exist. In fact, there isn't a single entry marked “Libertarianism” to consult. Readers will just have to make do with entries on the “Liberal Critique of Libertarianism”; “Liberalism, Classical”; “Liberalism, German”; “Liberty, Presumption of”; “Liberty in the Ancient World”; and “Locke, John”; as well as the General Introduction.

At first pass, that seems a glaring omission. It’s hard to imagine encyclopedias of conservatism, fascism, feminism, or Buddhism that didn’t contain entries on… conservatism, fascism, feminism, or Buddhism. Especially as The Encyclopedia has entries on three of those four topics--four entries total when you add in “Conservative Critique of Libertarianism.” Why not just come out and say what libertarianism is, gentlemen?

The General Introduction asks, “In what does libertarianism consist?” and answers, “This question is much more difficult and profound than one might at first suppose.” Difficult, maybe, but profound seems a bit of a pat on the back. Writing for the editors, Manchester Metropolitan University’s Stephen Davies lays out five different ways that one could analyze the “major ideologies of modernity” and dances around a concrete definition of libertarianism. My guess is, a workable consensus definition couldn’t be found. What’s that old Jewish saying? Four libertarians, five opinions.

However, the Introduction does tell us that libertarianism is big--huge! It is “a major feature of intellectual and political life… at one and the same time a movement in politics, a recognized philosophy, and a set of distinctive policy prescriptions” whose adherents “play a prominent role in intellectual and political arguments in  several countries.” Rarely a winning role, however. In Washington, D.C., recently, you could be near certain that any policy wonk charging valiantly but futilely against the massive government bailout was either a cranky conservative or an understandably angry libertarian.

Despite its recent emergence as a popular term, libertarianism is no Milton-come-lately ideology either, argues Professor Davies: “Contemporary libertarianism is only the latest manifestation of an intellectual, cultural, and political phenomenon that is as old as modernity, if not older.… [It] is only the most recent chapter in a long story that, in the Anglo-Saxon world, traces itself back to classical liberalism.” Before there was the American Constitution, there was An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, or The Bling of Nations, as kids tend to shorten it these days (see “Smith, Adam”).

Of course, not all libertarians will agree about that. Some radical libertarians see many of the towering figures of classical liberalism as tainted or not hard-core enough. The entry on the economist and agitator Murray Rothbard--by freewheeling libertarian historian Brian Doherty--correctly notes that Rothbard believed “even such free-market icons as Adam Smith represented regressions from largely forgotten previous advances in economic thinking.”

We could dismiss the radicals as freedom’s bitter enders but this reviewer happens to think they’re on to something when they posit a gulf between classical liberals and modern libertarians. For its special Millennium issue in 1999, a writer for the classical liberal British newsweekly the Economist pretended to review The Wealth of Nations as if it were the year 1776 and this were the hot “new book… winning praise from every quarter.”

Despite all of Smith’s “strictures about the dangers of governments acting in league with producers,” the Economist reminded, “he proposes an enormous extension of the role of the state,” including “universal education, at public expense,” something like antitrust law, and “roads, canals, bridges and other works necessary for universal opulence but too costly to be undertaken at private expense.” The reviewer predicted that “Mr. Smith’s book” may be remembered, in the long run, “for laying the intellectual foundations of, for want of a better term, big government.”

ONE MIGHT APOLOGIZE for the digression at this point, and normally I would. Except, except. This is exactly the sort of rabbit-trailing The Encyclopedia encourages. The volume can be used as a straight reference, but it’s at least as valuable as an intellectual curiosity. It’s a product of the Cato Institute, that Beltway beachhead for sober free market thinking. However, it is intended to be broadly representative of libertarian thought and history. It usually succeeds at hitting that target.

Most major libertarian figures are included here, if grudgingly. During the recent Republican primaries, cosmopolitan Catoistas were known for their hostility to former Libertarian Party nominee and antiwar candidate Ron Paul, because of his more populist positions on immigration and social issues. Paul’s entry in The Encyclopedia by Cato executive vice president David Boaz is all of seven column inches (a typical page has 18 column inches), but it’s here--along with 546 pages full of entries on everything from the common law to the revolution in France to Puritanism to the accomplishments of Swedish economist Knut Wicksell.

This book will appeal to libertarians of all stripes, of course, and intellectual history buffs, as well as to anyone who has ever wondered, “I wonder what libertarians would think about X,” or even “Why would libertarians think that?” Though if you have, my friends, let me just warn you: it’s a slippery slope.

(This review appears in the December/January issue of The American Spectator.)

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.