Barnett’s Structure of Liberty – New Edition

Randy Barnett’s 1998 book, The Structure of Liberty, is an underappreciated gem of libertarian thought. If you haven’t read it yet, you really should, especially now that it’s available in a brand new second-edition.

Randy’s book had a major influence on my own thinking. When I first became a libertarian, I was strongly attracted to some version of natural rights theory. But critiques like those of David Friedman and G.A. Cohen caused me to question that commitment.

It was in the midst of this questioning that I first read The Structure of Liberty. I didn’t know it at the time, but one of Randy’s long-standing philosophical projects was the reconciliation of natural rights and consequentialist analyses. The Structure of Liberty represents the culmination of that research project, presenting a very useful analysis of natural rights as hypothetical imperatives, and integrating and extending Hayekian concerns about the use of knowledge with public choice concerns about the limitation of power into a novel, systematic libertarian theory.

Barnett’s discussion of a polycentric constitutional order was also an eye-opener for me, and will be of great interest to those of you with an interest in anarchism. (I might suggest reading it along with this piece by Roderick Long, which is probably the best, most convincing essay I’ve ever read on the topic of political anarchism).

The second edition contains a brand new afterword on “The Modesty of Modern Libertarianism.” You can read the whole thing here for free. Here’s a taste:

Most libertarians hold the “radical” views they do for the very same types of reasons that others hold theirs: they believe that people will be “better off” in the highest sense if their liberties are acknowledged and respected. Libertarians would not bother to hold and advocate their views if they did not care about the well-being of others; they would just go about their business. Instead, they expend their scarce energy and resources learning what social structures work best, and which worse, and then advance their answers against the contending alternatives.

In this sense, then, libertarians are no more “radical” than other advocates of societal reform who identify goals toward which they think social structures should strive. They just have a different view of how society should be structured so as to make people better off.

There’s lots more, including an extended response to various critics. Go ahead, buy the book, and read the whole thing!

  • jdkolassa

    It has a Kindle version! Yay! Not enough Kindle versions of libertarian books. (Looking at Buchanan’s book “Why I Too Am Not A Conservative.”)

    Also, I get this one screwed up with Smith’s “The System of Liberty” in my head all the time. Smith’s is a great book, though, I totally recommend it.

    One thing that always interests me about Barnett is that he seems to be the go-to guy for the topic of “why the rule of law is important.” I was actually working on a blog post earlier for another publication on the erosion of the rule of law and why it is so bad for our country, and I was thinking, “Hmm, which expert should I quote/cite to help my readers understand its importance? Ah, yes, I’m certain Professor Barnett has something I can use…”

    • Sol Logic

      What blog do you write for? I’d like to check it out.

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