Book review: A Brief History of Liberty, Schmidtz and Brennan

A Brief History of Liberty by David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan “provides a comprehensive, philosophically–informed portrait of the elusive nature of one of our most cherished ideals”.

Each chapter begins with a thesis, comprises a lively, engaging and well-referenced discussion and concludes with questions to consider and comprehensive notes. The theses are as follows:

  • Introduction, Conceptions of Freedom. “Thesis: There are several forms of liberty. Whether they are conflicting or complementary is a matter of historical circumstance.”
  • Chapter 1, A Prehistory of Liberty: Forty Thousand Years Ago. “Thesis: The greatest threat to and the best hope for a better life, in the long run, comes from other human beings. Historically, trade has been a great liberator.”
  • Chapter 2, The Rule of Law: AD 1075. “Thesis: The evolution of the rule of law provided the essential foundation for the explosive economic progress of recent centuries that liberated the west from extreme poverty.”
  • Chapter 3, Religious Freedom: 1517. “Thesis: The Reformation sowed the field for liberty, but it would take time for much to grow.”
  • Chapter 4, Freedom of Commerce: 1776. “Thesis: As trade emerges, there emerges with it a new way of being self-sufficient: in a market society, people can produce enough to meet their own needs by producing enough to meet other people’s needs. Freedom of commerce under the rule of law empowers people to cooperate on a massive scale, liberating each other from poverty.”
  • Chapter 5, Civil Liberty: 1954. “Thesis: The security of civil rights, and ultimately liberal society within the rule of law, depend both on a culture of freedom and individualism, and on individual heroic catalysts.”
  • Chapter 6, Psychological Freedom, the Last Frontier: 1963. “Thesis: Freedom of the will is not an on/off switch, something you either have or not. Instead, real-world freedom of the will is an ongoing achievement that comes in degrees, and not to everyone to the same degree, Moreover, our wills can be more free in some circumstances than in others. Because our cultures and systems of government affect people’s inclination and ability to make up their own minds, the most intriguing versions of the free will problem today are personal, social, and political, not metaphysical.”

The book is historical and philosophical, not immediately practical, but it has nevertheless already been of use to me in speeches and an article. Here are two examples.

The discussion of positive liberty in the introduction makes the point that we can think of freedom as a power to do what is right. Further, our dignity consists of being at liberty to respect the moral law. In contrast, we realise our full moral worth and fully realise our freedom when we go ahead and choose to do what is right, out of reverence for the moral law.

These conceptions of freedom, dignity, moral worth and reverence for what is right appeal to me deeply. Lord Acton argued that liberty is a prerequisite for virtue: we cannot be virtuous without the opportunity to make a choice. It is this dignity and moral worth which is denied to individuals when state power assumes their vice and regulates them accordingly. We cannot develop as full human beings capable of independent moral conduct apart from the freedom to choose.

Second, in Freedom of Commerce, a reason for comparative poverty in the developing world is explored. The Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto sought to find out why in the West there are pockets of poverty while in the developing world there are pockets of wealth. People in the developing world are clever, industrious and willing to take risks so why do they not prosper?

Marx believed the problem is that the poor have formal rights but no property. De Soto demonstrated the opposite: the poor in developing countries possess real property but inadequate rights.

He estimates that the poorest of the poor in the developing world possess $9.3 trillion worth of land, which is roughly the size of US GDP, and perhaps a thousand times the size of the entire world’s non-military foreign aid budget.

But possessing land and owning it are not the same. In the developing world, people do not enjoy the infrastructure of formal law that enables them to prosper. It is an insight with profound implications, notwithstanding that the UK aid budget alone is about $17 billion: I believe the point stands if the value of the property of the poorest of the poor is only several hundred times all the world’s development aid…

The book pays little attention to the past century’s progressive replacement of social power with state power. It ignores the contemporary height of taxes, scale of government borrowing and extent of extraordinary monetary policy which is now required to cover past politicians’ promises. In striking an optimistic tone, it neglects the widespread managerialism of governments today and the fact that this managerialism represents a reversal from the great age of global economic integration which preceded the First World War.

Nevertheless, as a positive survey of the long rise of liberty under law and the benefits it brings to everyone, A Brief History of Liberty is a superb book which I thoroughly recommend.

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