The Libertarian Reader: Classic and Contemporary Writings From Lao-Tzu to Milton Friedman edited by David Boaz

A Mustering of Sharp Minds and an Invaluable Reference Work


Free Press • 1997 • 476 pages • $27.50

Dr. Peterson, an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation, is Distinguished Lundy Professor Emeritus of Business Philosophy at Campbell University in North Carolina.

Asked Shakespeare’s Juliet: What’s in a name? Yesterday conservatism was in as the name of what could be called the free-society movement. Today, increasingly, libertarianism as the catch-name is in. Recent books by Charles Murray (What It Means to Be a Libertarian) and David Boaz (the title reviewed here and his Libertarianism: A Primer) have put the word libertarian in front of many who were not previously familiar with it.

As editor David Boaz says in his introduction to this fine collection, it is easier to define libertarian ideas than to agree on a proper name for those ideas. The essays he has chosen succeed in explaining the essence of libertarian thinking. Believers in statism may not be won over (although they should be!) but after The Libertarian Reader, they won’t have any excuse for misrepresenting what libertarians stand for.

Mr. Boaz sets forth seven sections of selected readings, six of them on central ideas in libertarianism: skepticism about power, individualism, individual rights, spontaneous order, free markets and voluntary order, and peace and international harmony. The seventh section relates to the future of libertarianism and features a gem, Paternalist Government Is Out of Date by Michael Prowse of The Financial Times.

Selections and ideas match well, and make this a most handy reference work, even though many of the selections (such as James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence) can be found in conservative and other readers. Where Mr. Boaz especially shines is in his annotated comments and libertarian asides. He notes, for example, that Jefferson in his draft of the Declaration of Independence insisted on the phrase inalienable rights, that these rights are natural, that government can’t transfer or abolish them, that if it does, the people have the right to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.

Among these many selections are such other sharp questioners of state authoritarianism as John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Herbert Spencer, Frederic Bastiat, and, from the twentieth century, F. A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, H. L. Mencken, and Charles Murray. (Of interest to Freeman readers is Doug Bandow’s Private Prejudice, Private Remedy, which originally appeared in the July 1996 issue of this journal.) David Boaz knows the literature well and has wisely drawn from it.

Particularly noteworthy, I believe, is the essay The Right to Do Wrong by Roger Pilon, director of constitutional studies at the Cato Institute (where Mr. Boaz serves as executive vice president). Mr. Pilon endorses the Supreme Court’s 1990 defense of flag-burning as a First Amendment right not only of speech but of content. Pilon’s point is all speech is a form of action and, arguably, all action is, if not speech, at least a form of expression with which the government has no right to interfere—as long as the action is peaceful—no matter how much it annoys others.

Such jewels abound in this mustering of sharp minds.


July 1997

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July/August 2014

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