Liberty for the 21st Century, Contemporary Libertarian Thought

A Thought-Provoking, Challenging, and Substantive Book


Mr. Carolan is the executive editor of National Review.

This is a substantive book, written almost entirely by professional academics, and full of abstract language about things like deontology, meta-normative principles, and prisoner’s dilemmas. Not easy reading at times.

But working through Liberty for the 21st Century is worthwhile. It is thought-provoking, challenging, and will last in value as a classic short exposition of multiple libertarian themes.

After a fine introduction on the meaning of libertarianism by John Hospers, the early essays address what might be called the foundations of liberty, which at first seems a curious issue. Isn’t it self-evident that political freedom is necessary? The authors examine the deeper anthropological, metaphysical premises on which political liberty is based. Each author comes at the idea of political freedom from a different political tradition. Is freedom rooted in some prior notion of social contract (Jan Narveson), a deduction from the deontological notion of persons as ends in themselves (Eric Mack), or is it a precondition for the kind of human flourishing that the ancients envisioned (Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen)? Here alone one can learn much.

Then follows an interesting survey, by Aeon Skoble, of the fascinating debate between limited-government and anarchist libertarians. Can there be a natural obligation to turn over certain personal property to fund even a restrained government?

Following a naturally logical progression, the middle part of the book introduces essays which apply libertarian principles to longstanding political issues: warfare (Eric Mack), civil rights and affirmative action (Steven Yates), business ethics (Machan), environmentalism (journalist Mike Gemmell, the only non-academic in the bunch), education (J.E. Chesher), and drug prohibition (Mark Thornton). This is a fine section as well, with the authors not giving so much attention to current names and places as to risk dating the book. The essays offer concise analyses for the long haul. If I had one minor objection to this section, it was that it did not address a traditional public-relations millstone for libertarians: the subject of prostitution.

The final section responds to objections from critics of different stripes, most proposing positive rights to the property of others, or the lack of nuance in the classical liberal/libertarian view and the need for more community-minded (statist, bureaucratic) solutions. The most enjoyable section of the book, as the authors do a clinical job—with absolute, truly admirable honesty and solicitude for ideas—of analyzing and dissecting critics of libertarian thought. Of particular note were the demolitions of rights to welfare by Machan and Den Uyl, and the argument against moral minimalism (claiming too much common ground with critics of libertarianism) by Gregory Johnson.

Once again I must stress that despite the challenging abstractions in the book, the sheer respect for ideas and the ethical use of argument here is apparent and worth experiencing. It was this very quality which so attracted me to libertarian thought in the first place.


October 1996

comments powered by Disqus


* indicates required
Sign me up for...


July/August 2014

The United States' corporate tax burden is the highest in the world, but innovators will always find a way to duck away from Uncle Sam's reach. Doug Bandow explains how those with the means are renouncing their citizenship in increasing numbers, while J. Dayne Girard describes the innovative use of freeports to shield wealth from the myriad taxes and duties imposed on it as it moves around the world. Of course the politicians brand all of these people unpatriotic, hoping you won't think too hard about the difference between the usual crony-capitalist suspects and the global creative elite that have done so much to improve our lives. In a special tech section, Joseph Diedrich, Thomas Bogle, and Matthew McCaffrey look at various ways these innovators add value to our lives--even in ways they probably never expected.
Download Free PDF