Too Easy and Too Free: A Review of Murray\’s Libertarianism

Libertarianism was once the ideology of cranks. While not the kind of people to hand out leaflets at the airport or solicit your house uninvited, libertarians were humorously derided by many and considered suspect by the rest.

Then, during the 1970s and ’80s, as the country became disenchanted with government activism, libertarian ideas began to seep into the mainstream. People began to accept the idea of “limited government.” “Privatization,” for example, once considered a kooky idea, became a method endorsed by mayors and governors across the country for giving taxpayers cheaper and more efficient service. Perhaps the most telling indicator of libertarianism’s new found prestige was the willingness of many to wear its label. Educated and affluent people, even pillars of the community, started calling themselves libertarians, something that would have been unthinkable 20 years earlier.

So now libertarianism is respectable. Two questions remain. Is libertarianism viable? And is it moral? These are issues that Charles Murray tries to answer in his new book, What It Means to Be a Libertarian.1

Mr. Murray’s book is an excellent one and for several reasons. First, it is written with a clarity that is unusual in works that try to unite theory and practice. The syntax is simple. Concrete examples abound. It could be bedside reading.

Second, Mr. Murray is an accomplished researcher and statistician. Like all people who are truly accomplished in their fields, he gets to the core of the matter quickly. He understands the importance of conveying information to people who are not experts. Less accomplished social scientists often wrap their arguments in complex statistics so that they can prove how “knowledgeable” they are (or shield the weakness of their conclusions from the layman’s scrutiny). Murray is above all that.

Third, Mr. Murray does not gloss over criticism of the libertarian position. Occasionally, he will even side against the libertarian position (for example, in arguing that the government should probably have some continued role in funding education, though not actual control).2 This makes his work a more interesting – and honest – appraisal of libertarianism, and a more valuable one for conservatives who stand on the front lines of the debate.

Mr. Murray, in his own words, is a “libertarian,” not a “Libertarian,” and this helps to explain the success of the book.3 He is not a purist but, instead, someone who is trying to extract the best articles from the libertarian creed. At the same time, he has hooked his politics onto this rising star and therefore must defend both the morality and the viability of the libertarian project. He does so as well as anyone else. Still, there are some nagging problems about libertarianism that need to be aired.


Is a libertarian society really viable? Mr. Murray, for example, approves of unrestricted free-market capitalism. But what does market theory look like when translated into reality? According to theory, a man should constantly uproot in order to find the best market in which to sell his labor.4 This is what it means to work in a completely fluid labor market. Capital contributes to its fair share of the logic by “downsizing” in order to make a profit. But, in truth, the only person who can continually uproot himself and move from region to region to maximize his income as a laborer is a hobo. The perfect labor market, according to the theory of market capitalism, is a society of hoboes.

There is not much room for family values in a society composed of rootless, shiftless people who are encouraged to sever ties at the drop of a hat and troll through life looking for that extra bit of profit. And society does not think so either, which is why it has allowed government to put in place certain reform measures like unemployment benefits, welfare and social services. These prevent people from having to live hand to mouth, like a roving army in the field, chasing after their next dollar. But Mr. Murray does not include such social insurance in his model libertarian society.5

Mr. Murray notes that in such areas as discrimination in the workplace, motor vehicle accidents and life expectancy, things were already improving before government got into the business of making adjustments.6 His use of the historical record in these matters is effective and it makes the liberal welfare state seem almost redundant as a means to progress. Nevertheless, Murray should remember a much larger historical truth about the western democracies between the two world wars. They were teetering on collapse – some moving towards socialism, others towards fascism – because the market in its pure, pristine, self-regulating form was not able to respond to the fears of the little people in their everyday lives. Capital flowed freely across national boundaries, regulated by an impersonal mechanism called the gold standard and, in doing so, cut a path of (“creative”) destruction. Whole lives hung on the price of rubber or a bushel of wheat. The self-regulating market wrenched apart those small platoons of life – those small networks of ordinary folk people that Mr. Murray speaks so fondly of. In response, the little people grew angry and afraid, feelings that are not easily factored into cold economic equations. They responded with dangerous and radical politics. The welfare state, at least early on, was a very successful compromise.

This criticism of Murray’s What It Means does not represent paleo-conservatism

Posted in: News Series, The Right