Libertarianism, Book/Article Reviews

George H. Smith on Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know

George H. Smith (of Atheism: The Case Against God fame, among other works) starts a commentary on my recent book Libertarianism here.

His overall take is positive:

With the recent publication of Jason Brennan’s Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know comes a new addition to my list of recommended introductory texts[…]  Brennan — Assistant Professor of Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy at Georgetown University, and a contributor to the Bleeding Heart Libertarianism website—has given us a splendid introduction to libertarianism.

This quotation is instructive:

 I remain reluctant to review Brennan’s book. Why? Because I agree with most of it, and to compile a laundry list of its many merits would quickly become tedious, at least for me and possibly for many of my readers, most of whom are already libertarians.

The reason it’s instructive is that Smith is what I dub (for the purposes of the book) a “hard libertarian”, while I’m what I like to call a “new classical” or “neoclassical liberal”. Still, while we might have different moral foundations, or perhaps we might describe our moral foundations differently, we end up agreeing on a large range of issues.

In his review, he raises two main issues:

  1. How should we define “libertarianism”?
  2. Who are these so-called “neoclassical liberals”, and why, after so many years in the liberty movement, hasn’t he met any of them?

Regarding 1: I decided to use the term broadly, to include all classical liberals, and used the neologism “hard libertarian” to describe natural-rights, deontological libertarians. Smith prefers to use the term in a more narrow sense. Libertarians are the radical branch of classical liberalism.

Regarding 2: I’m not part of a “liberty movement” myself. I’m just an academic at a research university who does some public intellectual-type stuff on occasion. Anecdotally, though, the young people I meet who describe themselves as libertarian tend not to be Rand or Smith-style “hard libertarians”, but tend to have the very moral concerns that constitute what I call “neoclassical liberalism”. As far as I can tell, hardly any academic libertarians–and there are lots of them–are “hard libertarians”. In the 70s, libertarians seemed to be of the “Social justice? Pssshah!”-type. But the libertarians I talk to now tend to say, “If you claim to care about social justice, why the hell are you so Marxist?”-type. At any rate, for the past few decades, the action in libertarian thinking in the academy has almost all been in what I call neoclassical liberalism.


  • It does not follow from the fact that X can correctly argue: “If you believe in Theory A you should recognize it does not lead to the conclusions you think it does” that X must believe himself in Theory A. Noting that Rawls’ conception of social justice does not lead to a redistributive State is a worthwhile argument to make, but it doesn’t require believing in Rawls’ conception of social justice. To believe Rawls’ theory, one would, among other things, have to clarify where Nozick’s multiple criticisms fail. To actually believe in social justice one would have to clarify exactly where Hayek went wrong in arguing the concept is meaningless. To actually believe in positive rights, one should be candid enough to provide clear examples of what negative rights one would be willing to violate in order to provide the positive rights one thinks exist.