Book Review: “Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know”, by Jason Brennan

I have just finished listening to the audio edition of “Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Jason Brennan, (

In “Libertarianism”, Brennan examines what libertarians believe and explores the different schools of the libertarian philosophy.

Brennan distinguishes between hard and soft libertarians. Hard Libertarians, he argues believe that we have a moral duty to help the poor. However the state has no right to force us to do so through taxation, as we have an absolute right to do as we please with our property (provided that we respect the property rights of others), and government has no right to force us (through taxation) to assist the needy. In contrast soft libertarians contend that some form of social welfare may be justified. Brennan sights, for example Milton Friedman’s support for some form of basic income.

Both hard and soft libertarians believe that the best way to help “the poor” is by removing barriers to them entering the labour market. For example libertarians oppose minimum wages due to their belief that these reduce employment amongst the unskilled. They contend that minimum wages cause employers to hire less workers, introduce technology which reduces the need for workers or, in some instances even go out of business. This, they argue benefits neither the poor nor the employer.

Libertarians also favour abolishing labour market regulations, or, at the very least greatly reducing their scope on the grounds that regulations prevent poor people from starting businesses thereby trapping them in poverty. Brennan sights the example of an African-American wishing to offer eyebrow threading. In order to do so she needs a hairdressing license. She can not afford this (in his view) unnecessary license, therefore she is deprived of a source of income and remains poor.

Many libertarians support doing away with immigration controls. They believe that it is morally wrong to condemn the poor to a life of poverty in the third/developing world when there are jobs for them to do in the richer west. Allowing poor people to immigrate into richer countries, enhances their economic opportunities and also benefits those who are willing to employ them. It is, in effect a win win situation for all concerned.

Libertarians respond to concerns that uncontrolled immigration would lead to a ballooning welfare state by pointing out that, under a libertarian regime there would exist no (government) welfare. Therefore immigrants would (along with the native born population) have to support themselves or rely on private charitable provision.

Libertarians are not Conservatives, although they do, as Brennan points out, share with the latter a belief in private property as a bulwark against tyrany and as a means of enhancing the freedom of the individual.

There is, within Conservatism a school of thought which advocates state intervention to protect the poor. For example the Conservative Party in the UK introduced the Living Wage. It is illegal to pay someone an amount under the Living Wage, something which is seen as anti competitive by other strands within the Conservative Party (and by all libertarians).

Whilst Brennan’s case against immigration controls possesses a certain superficial attraction, he does not answer the question as to where all these new entrants to the USA (and other developed countries) would live. As there would be no state provision, I, for one have visions of the development of vast shanty towns with the rise in crime that plagues such places in countries such as Brazil. When people are desperate (and they have no social welfare safety net) some of them will turn to crime in order to survive. The libertarian advocacy of no immigration controls has the potential to lead to disaster.

Are libertarians selfish?

Brennan argues that libertarians are no more or less selfish than the adherents of Conservatism or Socialism. One finds selfish and altruistic Conservatives and Socialists. The same holds true for libertarians. Granted libertarians tend to oppose a welfare state, but many of them do give to charity which gives the lie to the idea that libertarians are selfish.

Brennan is, I believe correct that one can not label libertarians as selfish. Many of them do give to charity. However one can legitimately ask whether a libertarian society (one lacking any form of social welfare) would be more humane than societies in which social welfare is provided. The answer is, I would argue, no. Whilst private charity can (and does) play an important role in aleviating poverty, it can not fill all the gaps currently being plugged (admittedly not always successfully) by welfare states. So, whilst they are undoubtedly well meaning, libertarians who are sincere in their belief that unfettered free markets are the answer to almost all social problems, they are, I believe hopelessly optimistic (even naive) in their advocacy of unfettered markets.

Libertarians (rightly) criticise Socialists for their advocacy of failed collectivist solutions to social and economic problems. However in there blind belief that market solutions are (in almost every case) the only possible solutions, they are just as blinkered as the Socialist collectivists.

There is much in Brennan’s book with which libertarians (with a small l) would agree. The libertarian belief that the state/society has no right to dictate how consenting adults live (including their sexual preferences) is a view with which I strongly agree. Again, the support of libertarians for civil liberties is something with which most of us (in the west at least) would agree.

As libertarians point out, “the war on drugs” is not working. Whilst many libertarians would like to see the wholesale decriminalisation of drugs, there are arguments in favour of controlled legalisation (I.E. places where those addicted to drugs can legally obtain them, together with the help they need to kick their addiction). Such a policy would not be a “free for all”, but a compromise between the unworkable “war on drugs” and the libertarian “free for all”.

In conclusion, as someone who would describe themselves as a libertarian (with a small l), there is much in libertarianism with which I agree. Libertarians are correct that private property is essential to personal freedom. They are, I believe also right to highlight the failings of collectivism and to press for limits to be placed on the power of the state. Where they are wrong is in their blind, almost slavish belief that free markets can solve almost every problem. Certainly the lack of markets in Communist societies caused huge problems in terms of sluggish economic growth and the lack of personal freedom. But unregulated Capitalism can lead to child labour, the growth of slums and other social ills. So, in short a very good read but I’m not going to join the UK Libertarian Party any time soon.

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