On Liberty (Todd Seavey Explains Libertarianism)

April 12, 2016


For Beginners Books

I just hope everyone there – and all of you out in blogland – keep in mind Bryan Caplan’s Ideological Turing Test: Strive to model your opponent’s thinking as human and well-intentioned, not demonic. I always do, even though everyone is stupid.

Todd Seavey 

I love the above quote for a number of reasons, not least because, although laced with irony, it gingerly hints at a fundamental ignorance among vast swathes of the population. Not simply of economics, which, admittedly, is a seemingly abstruse, esoteric area of knowledge that routinely confuses even credentialed experts in their chosen field, but of simple cause and effect relationships. It also illustrates the acerbic wit of its author, who’s used his withering sarcasm-along with a broad-based knowledge of American history, as well as economic and political philosophy-to great effect in service of libertarianism for the better part of the past two decades.

The latter is deployed liberally throughout  Libertarianism For Beginners, which, as Mr. Seavey’s introduction to the philosophy of Spooner, Mises, and Rothbard for laymen, is available for purchase today! Although his trademark caustic humor is sublimated throughout this book in order to explain the essential philosophical underpinnings of libertarianism-and persuade you of their pertinence to human civilization-the book itself is replete with amusing anecdotes and descriptive illustrations which puncture the logical fallacies upon which collectivist ideologies are constructed.

In fact, this work is actually something of a graphic novel, with artist Nathan Smith providing the reader with visual cues to basic libertarian concepts. The tone is set prior to the introduction, when you see a cover displaying a Randian Atlas figure shouldering a globe containing a large land mass in the shape of a porcupine-the personification of the Free State Project-as he kneels before a Gadsden rattlesnake pictured in the foreground.

The whimsical nature of the cover art, slyly winking at those readers already deeply steeped in libertarian culture, is a bit of a tell. Because even as this thorough exposition of libertarianism gives the novice-or those completely unfamiliar with the precepts of libertarianism-a solid grounding in the teachings of free market economists, individualist philosophers, and anarcho-capitalist professors, often through the use of colorful analogies, it also reaffirms and solidifies the beliefs of those ideologically committed to thwarting the ever-metastasizing encroachments of the state. It reveals that the author of this work is indeed an insider, although one who is willing and eager to share the fruits of his knowledge with an audience whose thinking on this subject is muddled, to say the least. 

One of Mr. Seavey’s great achievements is to fully delineate the differences between separate strands of libertarianism, from agorism and voluntaryism to mutualism and left-libertarianism-as well as to define the fundamental difference in approach between natural rights and consequentialist libertarians-without getting bogged down in minutiae that would be of little interest to laymen. He concentrates the reader’s mind on the cornerstones of this philosophy, which include a non-negotiable opposition to any policies which condone fraud, theft, or violence, as well as a belief in the inviolability of private property, including your own body.

It is a philosophy which hinges upon the rejection of coercion as a form of public policy. Notwithstanding the negative connotations left libertarians have applied to the term, every libertarian properly understood is a propertarian. In the sense that he or she subscribes to the belief that any and all contracts are valid only through the mutual consent of the contracting parties, and that the mediating bureaucratic institutions with which we have become so familiar are wholly illegitimate, even if they are sanctioned by current law.

The other great accomplishment of the author is his simple, yet utterly persuasive, explanation of why these principles-terrifying, if not repellent, to a large segment of the population-are not only practicable, but yield outcomes superior to the collectivist approach in virtually any human social interaction. We live in a society where property rights are conditional, and rest upon the property owner’s obeisance towards an evolving set of social norms determined exclusively by the state-and which are often enacted through the lobbying pressure of interest groups who don’t realize that the only true rights are those held and exercised by individuals.

The notion that it’s not in the economic interests of a business owner to discriminate against any class of  potential customers, or that the harm inflicted by a bigoted entrepreneur upon a theoretical customer who’s denied service is vastly outweighed by the harm done through the coercive intervention of progressive government functionaries, is simply inconceivable to a modern, university-educated citizen. A person who, more often than not, views this debate exclusively through the prism of feelings rather than rights. Although by no means a comprehensive rebuttal, Libertarianism for Beginners goes a long way towards explaining why this is a short-sighted and ultimately counterproductive way of viewing things, and why consensual exchange, even if not resulting in a perfect outcome under every circumstance, is the most likely route to the maximization of happiness. Something that is of the utmost concern to a utilitarian like Seavey.

When not debunking popular misconceptions about libertarians, including the mistaken perception that opposing government redistribution of private wealth is synonymous with enmity towards the poor-when, in fact, they sincerely believe that government anti-poverty programs are simply a misallocation of resources, which ultimately eradicate more successful voluntary efforts-Seavey is describing in colorful detail the historical antecedents to contemporary libertarianism. One of the main reasons libertarian ideas are greeted with such skepticism by the general public is because most people don’t realize how recently the managerial state came into being. One of the chief conceits of government is that it is perpetual, whereas even a cursory examination of history would tell you that banking, health care, the court system, transportation, and even as vital a function as national self-defense were all once capably provided by private institutions to one degree or another in nations throughout the globe, including our own.

The deep skepticism faced by exponents of free markets and individual rights actually harkens back to the pre-Enlightenment era, when the pronouncements of the aristocracy and clergy were given precedence over human observation, discovery, and experimentation. Although the bishops and kings have been replaced by jurists, congressmen, administrative heads, and obsequious journalists (courtiers), the dynamic at work remains largely the same. That’s why Todd’s mini-biographies of classical philosophers and economists, sprinkled throughout the book, are essential to any coherent understanding of libertarianism’s evolution. The views of contemporary libertarians don’t seem so alien-like a bizarre, Dr. Frankenstein-like creation cooked up by the Koch brothers and Peter Thiel-once you discover their lineage in the writings of Locke and Burke, as well as much more recognizably libertarian thinkers such as Frederic Bastiat and Lysander Spooner.

The framers of libertarianism as a cogent political philosophy are presented, as well libertarianism’s economic forebears from the Austrian school, i.e. Böhm-Bawerk and Menger, and their intellectual heirs, Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. The monetarist school of thought is also outlined in the form of the much-maligned Milton Friedman and his anarchist son David, who’s done as good a job as anyone at explaining why privatizing the law won’t result in rival gangs of marauding mercenaries putting bullets through each other’s skulls-when they’re not murdering innocent bystanders in the lurid fantasies dreamed up by statists.

And for those intersectional feminists among you, Todd Seavey has given his readers a tantalizing primer on three titanic figures of the contemporary liberty movement: Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Ayn Rand, who-despite her various critics on the left and the right-managed to create a work of literature which remains the single most popular evisceration of egalitarianism and self-destructive altruism ever published. Lord knows why notionally  independent women believe their lives should be directed by a paternalistic-presumably non-misogynistic-overseer, but the biography of a penniless, persecuted Russian immigrant who manages to escape government oppression to find wild success and acclaim for her ideas in the land of opportunity-in an intellectual sphere dominated by men, no less-would seem to disprove this misguided theory of female empowerment.

Finally, the author gives us a brief overview of some of the issues that continue to sow discord within the movement itself, including antitrust regulations/corporate consolidation, immigration, and the morality of codifying the rights to intellectual and artistic works. One of the animating if not the central principles of libertarianism is property rights, which is contingent upon the scarcity of resources, but if intellectual property-by definition-is not scarce, does the state have a right to restrict access to it, even in a minarchist society? Libertarians believe individuals have the right to travel to and live wherever they choose, so long as they do so without encroaching upon the property or rights of others. But should people in a non-libertarian society be forced to defray the expenses of someone-or many people-who want to migrate to that society in order to elevate his standard of living? Why should the wealth of an individual be seized in order to facilitate the freedom of movement of someone else? Also, how does the fact that the newcomer can use his franchise, i.e. force, to enhance his own life at the expense of others’ property  factor into this conversation?

These are all knotty conversations that will not be easily resolved, however the fact that they are occurring is an indication that libertarianism, for all its faults, is at least a philosophy which takes ideas and their implications for humanity seriously. As Todd Seavey readily concedes throughout this volume, libertarianism does not presume to have all the answers, but it at least tries to ask some useful questions of those who would have us accept their dogmatic solutions without further examination or question.

Like the brilliant anti-prohibitionist classic Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do, written by the late Peter McWilliams-who many consider to be a martyr in the horrifically misguided War on Drugs-Libertarianism for Beginners explains why the desire to control the lives of other human beings is not only morally unjustifiable, but ultimately futile. Like that book, it presents its case in a witty, lively manner-with abundant quotes and pictures-while also being intellectually potent.

Buy this book, either for yourself or a friend tentatively exploring libertarianism for the first time, or even for that Bernie Sanders devotee who doesn’t quite understand the laws of supply and demand-perhaps packaged with Chomsky for Beginners, in order to make it more palatable.  It’s a wonderful gift in any of those cases, one which libertarians and non-libertarians alike should be grateful exists. Even if, as Mises rightly inveighed, they’re all a bunch of (crummy) socialists, it’s always good to be reminded of the exceptions to the rule.


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