Politics

The Structure of Liberty by Randy Barnett

This is the book that convinced me to become an anarcho-libertarian. Previously I was a miniarchist libertarian: that is, government is terrible at almost everything, so we should limit it to being as small as possible. Anarcho-libertarianism goes a step further, and Barnett makes the argument like this: if government always does things badly, why would we ever want it to do anything at all? That is, perhaps we'd be ok with having the government make paper clips, since it's a noncritical function, and it could do so badly. But then, why bother?

Barnett is a practicing lawyer - he represented the defends in the eminent domain case that came before the Supreme Court recently - so he know the legal system from a hands-on, in-the-trenches perspective. In other words, this is no stuffy academic sitting in his ivory tower dispensing philosophically sound but utterly impractical ideas. It is this perspective which makes the book such genius. He describes not only why anarcho-libertarianism is a good idea, but shows exactly how it could work at a detailed, day-to-day level.

The book starts by building up a description of natural law - useful for those not already familiar with the subject. From here it transitions into describing how the legal system would work in an anarchist society - from law making, to police, to judges and courts.

What, you say? Police and legislators in an anarchy? Well, yes. When people think anarchy they think free-for-all. Barnett and anarcho-libertarians in general suggest nothing of the sort. Rather they suggest that the functions of government be decentralized, spread out amongst many competing organizations, each of whom will face the competitive pressures of the market, which of course is what keeps their services good.

Here's the bit, though, that astonished and pleased me the most: we're much closer to this that most people think. Law as a decentralized process? Actually, we already have this. It's called commonlaw. The core of America's legislated laws came from English law, and this in turn was all built on common law.

The truth is that commonlaw is the law that really matters. Legislators are in a never-ending cycle of trying to make legislated law match commonlaw. This process is necessarily imperfect, in particular because it is slow. For example, in 2007, American commonlaw holds that smoking pot is not morally wrong, and neither is downloaded mp3s from the Internet. Legislated law will no doubt catch up with commonlaw in a decade or so. Of course most legislated law does match commonlaw: killing is bad, stealing is bad, breaking contracts is bad, etc.

In fact, judges (in America and elsewhere) often cite commonlaw in their rulings. Doing something morally wrong is always wrong, regardless of what legislated law states. Judges (and everyone else on the planet) know this implicitly, and act on it.

The one flaw in this book is that Barnett's presentation is very dry. I remember one section in particular which had a sentence that started with something like "For the issue of cross-species morality, let's consider the hypothetical case of vampires." Suddenly I perked up at the chance for something a bit more exciting: "Yes, let's!"

But I hope that won't deter anyone from reading it. The material within is absolute genius, and changed my whole perspective on the world. But even better is that it was such a positive change: anarcho-libertarianism is not only a vastly better system for ensuring the prosperity, liberty, and happiness for every human being, but it's an outcome that is much closer than we think.

Rating: 5 of 5
Back to book list
Other books by Randy Barnett:
none