Commentary Magazine


What It Means to Be a Libertarian by Charles Murray

What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation
by Charles Murray
Broadway Books. 178 pp. $20.00

In thinking of libertarianism, what comes most readily to mind is a thoroughly individualistic, atomistic, freedom-loving, don’t-tread-on-me mentality which exalts the autonomous self and the unregulated free market and vilifies government as a form of coercion or nannyism. In this sense libertarianism tends to be strikingly different from conservatism, particularly traditionalist conservatism, with its emphasis upon the authority of religion, inherited beliefs, codes of moral restraint, and customary institutions and usages—to libertarians, forms of imprisonment all.

Yet despite their differences, the two “isms” have to a surprising degree made common cause in the United States in the years since World War II. Such unity, based in large measure on a shared opposition to the threat of Communism abroad and statist liberalism at home, did not come easily or without conflict. Were it not for the efforts of shrewd and skillful leaders—notably William F. Buckley, Jr., whose National Review became the principal forum for libertarian/traditionalist exchange—the postwar conservative movement would certainly have divided, and been rendered ineffective.

One is inevitably reminded of this history in reading Charles Murray’s What It Means to Be a Libertarian, a timely and highly accessible introduction to the libertarian “way of looking at the world.” For Murray’s book appears at a moment when the abiding tension between “social” and “economic” conservatives (as the two camps are commonly denominated today) is now largely uncountered by foreign-policy considerations, and once again threatens to pull the conservative movement apart. And that is not the only historical reference point one could cite. For Murray’s outlook in this book is strikingly reminiscent of the work of Frank Meyer, a National Review editor of the 1950′s and 60′s who sought to moderate the libertarian/traditionalist conflict by propounding a hybrid of the two that he called “fusionism.”

As for Murray himself, he is principally known as the author of two influential and controversial critiques of recent American social policy, Losing Ground (1984) and, with the late Richard J. Herrnstein, The Bell Curve (1994). But he is also someone whose own world view is not well understood. Here he attempts to outline the philosophical principles of that world view and to show how they might be applied positively to present-day issues. But though he advances a compelling defense of freedom, as well as many specific proposals of the kind one would expect from a believer in minimal government, that is not all he attempts to do. Murray is also trying to rescue the name of libertarianism from the extreme positions commonly associated with it.

Hence, one finds in this book a surprising degree of sympathy for a thinker like Edmund Burke, usually considered a founding father of traditionalist conservatism; for the wisdom and efficacy of the common law; and for the idea that freedom is to be prized not merely for its own sake but as the necessary precondition of a virtuous life and virtuous society. Like Meyer before him, Murray offers a brand of libertarianism designed to appeal precisely to those traditionalists and moderates who distrust libertarianism, and to convince them that the libertarian emphasis upon “spontaneous order” is an essential complement to their own aspirations.

In thus proposing a new fusionism (though without using the name), Murray emerges as something of a moralist. He believes that there is such a thing as “the good life,” and that the freedom to aspire to such a good life touches upon the very core of our humanity. He speaks, as well, about the importance of personal responsibility—“freedom’s obverse”—in enabling us to achieve happiness or to experience any degree of genuine satisfaction in our lives.

Where he is implacable, however, is in his hostility to government. Here Murray is clearly harking back to the arguments he made in Losing Ground regarding the negative or negligible effects of government interventions on our various social problems: poverty, education, health, safety, income, crime, the family. Government, in his view, is not only largely ineffectual in altering the course of a modern society, it can even make things worse by displacing the “civil response” that would have developed had government done nothing at all. The only choice left, therefore, is to limit government to those things it can do well, or to those things that only it can do—and do the other things ourselves, both individually and through the networks of free, uncoerced association that make up the structure of civil society.

What would this mean in practice? Though he sees little essential difference between his own view of government and that of the American Founders (thus once again demonstrating his traditionalist credentials), in Murray’s Washington precious little would remain of what we think of as the normal machinery of our modern government: no regulatory agencies, no business or agricultural subsidies, no civil-rights enforcement apparatus, no HUD, no HHS, no Energy Department, no Transportation Department, no Commerce Department, no Post Office, no Social Security, no Medicare, no Medicaid. Murray grants that, in order to achieve this goal, we would need a period of transition out of our current arrangements (particularly in the case of the last three items on the list), but the end result, he contends, would be a society freer, more energetic, more vibrant, and more prosperous than what we enjoy today.

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This, in a nutshell, is Murray’s effort to present libertarianism as offering a pathway to a better world—one grounded, moreover, in venerable American political traditions. Interestingly, though, in his pursuit of that latter objective, Murray is obliged to push to the side some nettlesome issues which a more severe libertarian would have engaged frontally. One of them is foreign policy, always a difficult subject for libertarians. Aside from a proposal to discontinue all foreign aid, there is virtually nothing said in this book about the conduct of foreign affairs. Would a libertarian America mean an isolationist America? Murray does not answer.

He also studiously avoids discussing some of the most divisive moral issues of our time, including abortion, physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and the like. In a libertarian society, it seems likely that such matters would be decided strictly on the basis of contractual or consensual agreements, without any recourse to notions of higher moral obligation, or of the state’s “interest” in preserving the necessary elements of a stable and decent social order or in protecting the lives of its citizens. Clearly, some Americans would be happy enough to live this way. But just as clearly, many more would not, and could not tolerate others doing so—just as most of the nation could not, in the end, abide complicity in the dehumanization represented by slavery, or the “moral diversity” represented by polygamy. Our dominant religious and moral traditions are built upon “commanding truths” that do not allow us to be neutral about these issues.

Here, too, Murray is largely silent, though one may infer that his vision of things might well require us to accommodate an enormous amount of moral diversity, perhaps far more than a modern nation-state could, or should. Indeed, many libertarians do acknowledge that it may be impossible to maintain a strong national state with such a thin, procedural, and morally neutral public culture; and that is perfectly all right with them. For them the state, in the words of the libertarian advocate Albert Jay Nock, is our enemy.

Murray does not want to go that far. But how he would answer such concerns, or how he might support the minimal (but essential) underlying consensus needed to sustain genuine diversity, is far from clear. One hopes so graceful and so lucid a writer will see fit to visit these issues in the future.

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About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.




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