Book Review

The Libertarian Reader ---
Classic and Contemporary Writings from Lao-Tzu to Milton Friedman

David Boaz (Editor)

(458 pp., $27.50, ISBN 0-684-83200-3, The Free Press, New York, NY, 1997.)


As the Republicans and Democrats move closer to becoming a single body polity, the two faced basilisk which they have become, is rapidly devouring the last remnants of privacy and freedom. The promise of the "1994 Conservative Revolution" has come and gone in a shameful display of pusillanimous groveling by the Republicans. GOP efforts to "please" have been so absolutely devoid of substance and ethical principle, that even the most loyal are beginning to look elsewhere. While those on the Left, who appropriately hold the jackass as their symbol, are still clearly the traditional foes of freedom, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate those astride the pachyderm that call themselves "friend." Remember, except for Medicare/Medicaid, almost all the policies so destructive to American medicine over the last forty plus years have been sanctioned and supported by the Republicans (i.e., political and economic favors to managed care, DRGs, RBRVS, and the Kassebaum-Kennedy law, to name just a few).

David Boaz of The Cato Institute offers the anti-emetic de jour in the form of The Libertarian Reader. This book is a must read for those few disillusioned souls that still believe in such outdated and politically incorrect concepts as freedom, liberty and justice. The 458-page work is an anthology of the best of classic and contemporary libertarian thought and presents opinions from a plethora of sources, running the gamut from the Bible to H.L. Mencken to John Perry Barlow, Iyricist for the Grateful Dead. Actually, Barlow sings the praises of computers and an emerging virtual reality that is uncontrollably revolutionary and could ultimately humble the monster state.

What is libertarianism? It's an ideology predicated upon the non-contradictory application of freedom to the life of every human being as an individual. The roots of libertarian development, like the yearning for freedom itself, span time and cross all cultures. Early Taoist writings of Lao-Tzu (6th Century B.C.) exhibit a definite desire to limit authority over individuals: "Without law or compulsion, men would dwell in harmony." In the 1640s, John Lilburne and the Levellers began to offer a relatively cohesive philosophy that espoused religious toleration, freedom of the press, and lower taxes, all based on an early concept of private property. These ideas were expanded and further defined by such notables as John Locke, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and David Hume, among others. The Founding Fathers echoed a strong libertarian bias in their unyielding concern for the supremacy of the individual over the state. However, it wasn't until the 1950s that this movement toward individual freedom and liberty found a name and was so christened by Leonard Read, who considered himself a libertarian.

The Libertarian Reader is organized into seven separate sections dealing with pertinent philosophical issues, beginning with perhaps the most basic "Skepticism About Power." The pithy insights of de Tocqueville dominate this section as he ponders the contradiction of a citizenry that desires the paternalism of government, but deludes itself by thinking that its demands for freedom are met as long as the power to elect their own tyrant is maintained. He assails the benevolence of government guardianship by stating:

It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have long been an admirer of Isabel Paterson and was delighted to see the piece entitled "The Humanitarian with the Guillotine" (which is an essay taken from her masterwork, The God of the Machine, in which she attacks the pervading ideology that the primary justification for ones existence is to do good for others.

If the primary objective of the to help others, his ultimate good requires that others shall be in want. His happiness is the obverse of their misery. The humanitarian wishes to be a prime mover in the lives of others. He cannot admit either the divine or the natural order, by which men have the power to help themselves. The humanitarian puts himself in the place of God...what the humanitarian actually proposes is that he shall do what he thinks is good for everybody. It is at this point that the humanitarian sets up the guillotine...The humanitarian feels the utmost gratification when he visits or hears of a country in which everyone is restricted to ration cards. Where subsistence is doled out, the desideratum has been achieved, of general want and a superior power to 'relieve' it. The humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action.

Ms. Paterson ends her essay by stating: "The philanthropist, the politician, and the pimp are inevitably found in alliance because they have the same motives, they seek the same ends, to exist for, through, and by others."

Paterson was an established writer with The New York Herald Tribune and wrote in the Books section from 1924-1949. She was a close friend and mentor of Ayn Rand during the latter's formative years shortly after fleeing Soviet Russia. Paterson and Rand, in addition to Rose Wilder Lane, are arguably the founders of the modern libertarian movement with the publishing of their respective works in 1943: The God of the Machine, The Fountainhead, and The Discovery of Freedom.

Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and other who speak from the pages of The Libertarian Reader with great eloquence, extol the virtues of free markets and the concept of capitalism as the best and most efficient means of production for mankind. Their works alone make the book well worth reading. However, Rand's objectivist ethics created a maelstrom by offering a very cogent, but different pro-free market argument. Rand's greatness lay in the formulation of a unique concept that approached capitalism as a purely moral doctrine. Capitalism was good, not because it was the most efficient system of production, but because it was the only economic system consonant with reason, logic, and human freedom. Hence, capitalism is desirable on a moral or ethical basis. not merely because it is a good provider.

The Libertarian Reader is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the intellectual side of freedom and its relation to power and government. It is a well organized group of essays that speaks to the continually evolving concept of freedom.

Reviewed by Dexter Blome, MD, PhD
Zanesville, OH

Dr. Blome is a plastic surgeon and a member of the AAPS Board of Directors. His address is 945 Bethesda Drive, Suite 200, Zanesville, OH 43701.