Review of Libertarianism for Beginners, Todd Seavey (For Beginners, 2016), 176 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1939994660; $9.57 on Amazon.com
Sometimes authors mistitle a book, hoping to boost sales or spark interest in the topic. This book is not one of those!
Libertarianism for Beginners is part of a series of books designed to introduce readers to complex topics, giving them a taste of a broader topic or issue of which they may not have been previously aware. As a lifelong libertarian, I can say with certainty that this book gives the reader a deep and broad grasp of the history and thought behind the libertarian political and philosophical movement.
Who Needs a Government?
Author Todd Seavey traces the history of libertarianism from its roots in 1600s England to today, explaining more than 50 historically significant events in the history of the movement. Instead of asking, like John F. Kennedy in 1961, how one can best serve their government, Seavey poses a more fundamental question: “Do we really need a government?”
Libertarian philosophy can become complex at times, and Seavey effectively explains the various internal disagreements among those in the movement. Libertarians, he writes, are generally socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and they wish to use government intrusion into individuals’ lives as sparingly as possible.
A More Perfect World
Envisioning a functioning libertarian society, Seavey explains, is not as hard as the reader may initially think. By imagining a world where everyone goes peacefully about his or her business, all exercising their own free will, the reader will have a good idea of what the world would look like if governments stopped their constant violations of individuals’ rights. Such a world would be a truly free market, free of government bungling and intervention.
Seavey explains how such a noninterventionist, laissez-faire world would be superior to the world we know: Resources would flow to those who provide valuable services to others, thus rewarding millions upon millions of individual contributions to peoples’ quality of life.
Seavey drives this point home with a quote from Our Enemy, Our State, an early 20th century book by the libertarian thinker Albert Jay Nock: “The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation. No primitive State known to history originated in any other manner.”
Messing Things Up
Instead of objectively improving people’s quality of life, government continually prevents people from improving their lives and others’, Seavey explains. Government doesn’t merely make mistakes occasionally, nor does it just waste some money. Making mistakes, wasting money and resources, and violating rights is the natural behavior of government.
Seavey serves as a tour guide for the reader’s trek through the libertarian sea of thought, using quotes from well-known libertarians such as the popular 20th century journalist and author H. L. Mencken. One quote that will stick with readers is Mencken’s quip, “the most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it.”
Meeting the Greats
In addition to explaining the thought behind libertarianism, Libertarianism for Beginners introduces the reader to many of its founders and greatest advocates. These brief biographies of contributors to the libertarian canon include descriptions of John Locke, Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick.
One especially interesting biography readers will enjoy is that of Adam Smith. The politicians of his day mistakenly mocked Smith for an alleged indifference to people’s quality of life, but he is rightly an icon for both conservatives and libertarians today.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interests,” Smith famously wrote in The Wealth of Nations, an observation that is as true today as it was in 1776. But what Smith was pointing out was that the way for people to do good for themselves was to do good for others, by providing things that the latter see as benefiting them.
Seavey’s explanation of the different flavors and brands of libertarianism, and the differences and similarities among those flavors, is a gold mine for readers interested in philosophy. By defining the different kinds of libertarianism and explaining how adherents might feel about common issues such as economic monopolies, cultural matters, or immigration, he highlights the defining characteristics of what could otherwise be dismissed as distinctions without differences.
Perhaps most importantly, Seavey takes care to include an excellent glossary, further defining terms discussed in the book for the curious reader. This epilogue also includes a set of frequently asked questions, so readers’ thirst for knowledge may be sated further.
With its thoughtful and entertaining reviews of centuries of political thought, and engaging illustrations breaking up what otherwise might be a challenging book for those not fully initiated into political thought, Libertarianism for Beginners serves as both a great introductory primer to the world of libertarian theory and an enjoyable “refresher course” for those already convinced of the failures of government.
Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.