Originally published: 1997
178 pages
Chapter 19

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A LIBERTARIAN


Charles Murray

Opening a book that aims to analyze the relationship between individuals and their government with a lengthy excerpt from Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address seems almost necessary. As the new president spoke of individual freedom and our right to care for ourselves, he observed that these were not quite enough to bring happiness. He noted that a wise and frugal government was also necessary, one that "did not take from the mouth of labor the bread it had earned." Jefferson was thinking, of course, of the new government's power to tax (the power most hotly contested during the Constitution's ratification battle).
     Jefferson's understanding of human nature was reflected in the precision with which he described the boundaries that separated and the interdependence that linked governors to the governed. That relationship is based upon the comprehension each must have of their reciprocally reinforcing rights and duties. In the view of Charles Murray and the Libertarian movement, fidelity to the Jeffersonian principle of rights and duties is not just a definition of government, but its very essence.
     Murray begins his exposition of Libertarianism by defining the goal of the Founders of the American system of governing: limited central power and protection of individual rights. The dignity of the individual and the integrity of every person's property and opportunity are Murray's points of departure. He doesn't suggest that his readers will misunderstand these ideas; he merely seeks to set the stage. Murray

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takes particular interest in where government and the governed actually fit together at the dawn of the twenty-first century. From his perspective that intersection is best defined by Libertarianism; implementing an active libertarian philosophy in practice is his goal.
     The difference between government and all the other aspects of an individual's life is that people give government some power, but not necessarily the absolute right, to use force to effect what appears to be the consensus of the governed. The problem, Libertarians emphasize, is that consensus is rarely reached. Murray asserts that the lack of such accord should mean a corresponding reduction of action or intrusion on the part of government. The logic of this conclusion seems in equal measure inescapable and ignored. (For more on this point see Bertrand de Jouvenel's On Power, Chapter 15.)
     Politicians all too often act to the contrary of Murray's hypothesis both while running for office and once elected. They become infatuated with passing laws and/or implementing regulations that deny the individual the right to engage in voluntary and informed transactions. Those in power do this because of pressure from special interests or their own hubris. They think they have been chosen to lead, so they are going to do so; often they attempt to lead through their personal sense of justice (or pique), which is not always fully shared by the electorate at large. The bottom line for Libertarians, as reflected in the essays of Lord Acton (Chapter 9), is that the right of the individual to be free is a higher right than any purpose of government, even a noble purpose. The conflict often ceases to be a debate over whose nobility is more sacrosanct, that of the person or that of the
collective. Instead, it becomes a struggle over power. In modern times, it is the collective that has the edge for it automatically has most of the power. Individuals are left with but one weapon-right.
     Murray dissects government at its basic level. What is the minimum amount of government needed? (That should be the maximum allowed.) How may individuals best pursue that elusive concept of "happiness" so succinctly articulated in the Declaration of Independence? And, perhaps the most pressing question, what are our responsibilities to ourselves, to our neighbors, and to the body politic?
     The dividing line between the Libertarian approach to governing and the more intrusive manner of today's liberal politicians is the concept of equality. Libertarians start from a point of equal opportunity and equal responsibility, whereas liberals aim at equal result or condition. For the liberal, obtaining this equal result is the responsibility of the

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political class. Thus, not only is the starting point remarkably different between Libertarians and liberals, their respective views of human nature and the goal of government are also different.
     The result is that in the eyes of each group government becomes a notably different tool. In the one case, it is a minimalist effort embodying control of legislative and bureaucratic excess while leaving the individual free to live his own life. In the other case, government tends to be a substantially enlarged interventionist effort to ensure equality for all. The latter in its worst form moves toward a redistribution of wealth through a confiscatory tax system that can-only initially and only briefly-produce a more equalitarian society but which cannot produce equality. The eventual economic result of such intervention is the reduction of incentives via progressively higher taxes that then cause economic contraction, eventuating in reduced living standards for almost everyone because of reduced economic activity and opportunity. Obviously when market production declines the government receives reduced tax revenue. A vicious cycle of tax increases to offset lower tax collections repeats itself, with a concomitant reduction in market activity. These actions unfortunately throw more people out of work, which results in a call for even more government assistance, ad nauseum. Society eventually operates on the basis of the lowest common denominator rather than the highest. There is another unintended consequence as well: almost invariably there arises a privileged and generally corrupt arrangement favoring the redistributionist elite ensconced in government.
     For Murray, the concept of freedom of thought, choice, and action is fundamental. A person seeking to fully experience this freedom must be responsible for himself and to others. Murray makes an interesting conceptual note early in his definition of freedom by stating,

               Responsibility is not the "price" of freedom but its reward.

     He asks the reader to think about what his most enduring satisfactions have been. For most of us they will have been when we were true to ourselves, our principles, and our moral judgments. That, for Murray and all the Libertarians, is the essence of their philosophy. It is an appealing outlook, especially when taken to its logical conclusion that our socially relevant private activities (i.e., those that we individually do for ourselves to avoid burdening others) determine our personal satisfaction in life.

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     But Libertarians sometimes engage in a romantic fantasy, that personal responsibility, which is the foundation of ordered liberty, can be achieved across the population if government would just get out of the way. That this is beyond the full capabilities of human beings is self-evident, thus the
tension between Libertarianism and government itself is a never-ending balancing act.
     The assessments that Murray makes-using specific examples of current and past government intervention-remain instructive, thought provoking, and structurally helpful. His contention that in most instances the good intentions of government are not realized makes one wonder why we continue to tolerate so much government. Is the explanation found in habit, lethargy, or the continued allure of hope in the face of reality? Murray does not tell the reader how to act on these issues, but he does make one think. His intention, of course, is that at the end of that thought process we will arrive at the less government solution-the Libertarian solution.
     Murray's Libertarianism brings his readers back to fundamental concepts and relationships. His program for more effective and responsible governing-less is more-cannot be dismissed as some utopian ideal because much of what he writes makes too much sense. For Murray and anyone who thinks about it for a moment, government is not "they;" it is "we." We must take responsibility for ourselves and the governing paradigm we seek to create. Murray's work dovetails nicely with the classic catch phrase, "We get the government we deserve." In other words, if we devote too little time to governing ourselves, and if we think that our responsibilities as citizens are completed when we put down our pencils after marking our ballots, then we get bureaucrats and politicians who do for us what they think we want and need, or worse, what they think we should want or need. Murray seeks to change this thought process and its results. A reordering of both government's publicly accepted goals and its means toward those goals, he avers, could occur pursuant to our return to the Founders' vision of minimal governmental intervention and maximum personal responsibility and opportunity. If we take away the crutch of government, then our society changes fundamentally for the better. That is the goal of Libertarianism.

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About the Author
Charles Murray is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Born in 1943 in Newton, Iowa, he earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1965 and then spent six years in Asia as a Peace Corps volunteer and then as a researcher. Upon his return home he earned a Ph.D. in political science in 1974 from MIT. His investigations into crime, poverty, and social programs led him to write Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-80. This book did much to set the tone of President Ronald Reagan's domestic policy.
Murray's career as one of the nation's most influential conservative thinkers is well established. He lectures and publishes widely and is a frequent witness before congressional committees. Murray's most controversial book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (with Richard Herrnstein) posits that wealth and other positive social outcomes are a product of intelligence and that intelligence is an innate characteristic that it is foolish to pretend either isn't important or can be compensated for in some fashion (political or otherwise) that eliminates the need to recognize its existence. Published in 1994, the book caused a still-continuing social debate.

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