Born Free

What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation

by Charles Murray
Broadway Books, 178 pp., $20.00

Charles Murray is the author of two books that have become touchstones (or lightning rods) of a sort in American political debate. Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980 argued that postwar welfare programs have actually made people worse off; The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (written with Richard J. Herrnstein) argued that antidiscrimination policies like affirmative action are futile, since black Americans have lower intelligence than white Americans. These were, in form at least, empirical arguments. What It Means to Be a Libertarian is an attempt to sketch out a complementary political philosophy.

This was not an absolute necessity. A person might believe that welfare policies have been counterproductive, or that affirmative action programs are a wasted effort, without concluding that government is pointless as such. But that is what Murray claims he does believe. “It is not that government intervention hasn’t done as much good as people think,” he says, “but that it has not made any perceptible change in the outcomes of life that matter. It is said that roosters think the sun rises because they crow. Politicians are much the same.” He calls the philosophy that he derives from this conviction “libertarianism.”

As Murray presents it, libertarianism is the belief that the fewer the number of laws there are to abide by, the more law-abiding people will become. This paradox is founded on a common-sense notion, which is that if you understand the risks of following a certain course of conduct, you will conform voluntarily to the most responsible pattern of behavior possible, and you will seek to avoid contact with people whose patterns of behavior you consider dangerous or distasteful. People, in this view, are imagined as fully competent calculators of costs and benefits, and society is imagined as a self-regulating organism which does not require a government to dictate its rules or to correct its tendencies. Requiring individuals to bear the full risks of their actions is thought to instill virtue; permitting society to solve its problems by the give-and-take of the market rather than by legislative fiat is thought to promote efficiency.

These are by no means uncommon or eccentric views, although, as Murray admits, not all the people who share them would choose to call themselves libertarians. Murray’s philosophy, as he spells it out, is really a hybrid of several political theories, including libertarianism (in the emphasis on the decriminalization of most types of personal behavior, such as prostitution and drug use), nineteenth-century, or “classical,” liberalism (in the emphasis on the efficiency of free markets), republicanism (in the emphasis on the inculcation of civic virtue), and communitarianism (in the emphasis on the moral self-determination of local communities).

These various theories are not ordinarily run together in this way. Libertarians and classical liberals tend to celebrate the autonomous individual, who is a figure republicans and communitarians tend to contemplate with loathing. But they all do share something that makes them congenial to Murray’s purposes, and that is …

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