Liberty Understood

Liberty Understood

This article from the November 2013 edition of the IPA Review is by Researcher at the IPA, James Bolt.

On the inside cover of this book, Tom Palmer, a recent guest of the IPA in Australia, is introduced as someone who has lived his life by one ideal: ‘Liberty is for everyone.’ In addition to fuelling his academic life, the pursuit of this ideal has pushed him to smuggle books into the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, and in recent years to lecture across the oligarchies and new democracies of the Middle East. Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History and Practice is a collection of essays, papers, submissions and articles that Palmer has written defending the concepts of individual liberty and free market capitalism.

The book is divided into four sections: Theory, History, Practice and Books and Ideas.

Theory, the first, is the least engaging of the four sections, however it is still interesting and Palmer’s intellect shines through. Palmer is a libertarian, and this section features his works outlining libertarian philosophy and the dangers that collectivism and statism pose to the freedom of the individual.

The most important of these is his essay ‘No Exit: Framing the Problem of Justice’, which critiques the views of the influential communitarian John Rawls and the threats to liberty and justice his ideas would lead to. Though not as important, the most entertaining is ‘Twenty Myths About Markets’, where twenty common criticisms of the free market are articulated—views everyone has heard countless times—and dismisses them point by point. It is arguably the most enjoyable essay outside of Practice.

Although Palmer touches on many ideas critical to liberalism, the most constant theme of Palmer’s collection is the importance of the protection of property rights, and this is very present in the Theory section. Palmer believes property rights are both the key to an economically free and productive society and the most misunderstood concept of the free market system.

Misunderstood in the sense that collectivists often confuse the idea of ‘limited government’ in liberal thought as meaning ‘weak government’. Government should be limited, says Palmer, but it should not be weak. Weak governments can be persuaded against protecting the property rights of those it represents, and if that is allowed to happen, the economic freedom of the individual is lost.

In the History section, Palmer critiques the Marxist interpretation of history and explains how a liberal interpretation is more accurate, as well as outlining how the modern concept of liberty has been cultivated over time. Palmer sees history more as a struggle between the individual and the state rather than class-based, focusing on the separation between church and state, the limiting of the powers of kings and the rise of constitutionalism as essential developments in human history. These are summarised in an article on mankind’s biggest achievements of the last millennium, written by Palmer in 1999. Though that article certainly comes close, it is Palmer’s 1990 article on the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union which is no doubt the standout of this section.

Those sections are enjoyable to read and well argued, but it is the Practice section of the book that is the most illuminating and reflective of Palmer’s skills as a writer, thinker and campaigner. This section includes Palmer’s writings on the state of liberal thought in the modern world, and because of his extensive travel and experiences, he offers an insight extremely few people can hope to match.

For example, his article ‘Six Facts About Iraq’ was penned after having ‘been to Iraq three times since the fall of Baghdad.’ Whereas any writer could criticise the Egyptian government for imprisoning a student for blogging, Palmer’s article is different because he had met and was in contact with the blogger, knew the background of the story, and had extensive knowledge of Egypt’s political climate from his travels within the country.

This section also includes a speech Palmer delivered to members of the Iraqi National Assembly in 2005 on the problems of implementing democracy on a nation not used to it. It is an incredibly interesting article that is intelligent and nuanced, but it stays with the reader for the envy it inspires towards Palmer’s life. What an existence it must be to travel from oppressed people to oppressed people and helping to fight for a system of governance that allows individuals to pursue happiness without fear of a tyrannical government.

The fourth and final section of the book, Books and Ideas, is a mix of reading guide and more libertarian theory. The first article of this section is a collection of books Palmer believes is essential reading for students of classical liberalism. It is an exhaustive list and Palmer has clearly put deep thought into it. The rest of the articles are book reviews, though not mainly for books he likes. These do turn into defences of libertarianism and individualism, however they are separated from the works in Theory because these are far more conversational in prose, and are at times exceptionally funny when exposing half-baked collectivist and statist philosophies, and nonsensical attacks on libertarianism.

Overall, Realizing Freedom is a book which serves as a glowing testament to a fierce campaigner for individual liberty and economic freedom.

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