The System of Liberty

[Amazon Link]

A short, excellent book requested successfully via the Boston Library Consortium. (Thanks for the loaner, Tisch Library at Tufts University!) It comes out under the stamp of the Cato Institute, who sponsored the author, George H. Smith.

It is—wait a minute, don't go to sleep yet—a history/exploration of the roots and themes of classical liberalism, spanning multitudinous political theorists and thinkers over centuries. Pictured on the cover are five biggies: Jefferson, Locke, Herbert Spencer, Paine, and J. S. Mill. But dozens more appear in the text.

There is no mistaking where Smith's sympathies lie, but he presents all sides: liberals vs. the illiberals, of course, but also a careful explication of the differing views between various flavors of liberals. He's particularly illuminating (and convincing) that the anti-natural rights approach favored by Bentham and his followers was ultimately a blank check to statists.

I didn't expect to find the book as interesting as I did. But Mr. Smith does a fine job of making old controversies seem alive. (Understandably: because those same issues are, while almost never specifically acknowledged, behind many of today's political debates.) One good example is Smith's chapter on "The Anarchy Game"; since "anarchy" was a widely acknowledged Scary Bad Thing, both liberals and their opponents sought to show the other side's arguments would irrevocably lead there. This is not without humor.

Although a lot of the folks Smith discusses are well-known to political-theory dilettantes (by which I mean: me), not all are. I was, anyway, previously unaware of Thomas Hodgskin. Amazingly, Wikipedia deems Hodgskin a "socialist", but in the excerpts quoted by Smith, he sounds more like a 19th-century Nick Gillespie.