Is the libertarian position really as extreme as it is generally thought?

The Libertarian Idea

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Jan Narveson

"Producers and consumers of theory of justice literature should read this book. It is a major work...both libertarianism and welfare state liberalism are articulated and put to the test by Narveson. The book is well written, and quite funny, and is therefore suitable for classroom use."
The Journal of Politics

In his analysis of the philosophy of libertarianism, Jan Narveson distinguishes it from conservatism, with which it is often confounded, and asks if the libertarian position is really as extreme as is generally thought. A controversial theory that equates moral legitimacy with maximum individual freedom, libertarianism appears to have radical social and political implications. In his discussion of the essentials of libertarian theory, Narveson weighs major arguments that have been advanced for and against it and considers the difficulties encountered in applying the principle to real-life situations and in the formulation of public policy.

Libertarianism, as understood in current moral and political philosophy, is the doctrine that the only relevant consideration in political matters is individual liberty—insofar as it does not infringe on another person’s individual liberty. Asserting that this is the pure form of liberalism, the author provides an exposition and defense of the coherence of libertarian theory and examines the question of its foundations. After addressing the questions "Is libertarianism possible?" and "Is libertarianism rational?" in the first two parts of the book, the author considers how the theory could be applied to matters of policy. Treating such diverse issues as abortion, the rights of children, public education, freedom of speech, the legalization of drugs, public property and zoning laws, discrimination in hiring, and questions of defense and international relations, he shows both the merits and the limitations of the position. Throughout, Narveson employs the contractarian approach.



"An original and well-rounded contribution to two growing traditions: libertarianism and contractarianism. As such, it should be of considerable general interest among political philosophers. Its originality is equally evident in its style of exposition, its argumentative strategy, and the conclusions reached, combining to an uncommon degree an acute understanding of high-level moral theory with a serious concern for how this bears on concrete social policy. In short, it is a thoroughly challenging and quite engaging book."
Canadian Journal of Philosophy

"This book is indeed a major contribution to the philosophical controversy over libertarianism. It ranks in importance with Nozick's [Anarchy, State, and Utopia], [and] John Rawlins's A Theory of Justice."

"Narveson has written an original and important book that opponents of libertarianism will have to study and that libertarians will enjoy studying. No one who reads it can fail to be provoked and enlightened."
Reason Papers p>"[In] Narveson's new, bold, and highly readable book...he aims, quite simply, to provide the secure foundations that libertarianism apparently lacks."
Canadian Philosophical Review

"This is a scholarly, well-thought-out book by someone who knows the current scholarly literature as well as knowing his way around thoroughly in ethics and social philosophy."
John Hospers, University of Southern California

"Narveson provides an original contribution to philosophy. He raises three principal questions about libertarianism. First, is it possible? Second, what are the policy implications of libertarianism? And third, is libertarianism rational? ... A relevant and stimulating discussion."
David Gauthier, University of Pittsburgh




Part I: Is Libertarianism Possible?
Prologue: The Knock at the Door

1. Liberalism, Conservatism, Libertarianism
A Preliminary Definition • Liberal/Conservative • Left, Center, Right • Liberal Individualism as One Kind of Conservatism

2. Liberty
Another Preliminary Definition • The Subject of Liberty • Liberty and Autonomy • The Nonatomic Individual • What Is Liberty? • Liberty: Freedom to Bring About • Freedom From and Freedom To • Utter Freedom • Interferences: Where the Action Is

3. Liberty: Negative versus Positive
Negative and Positive Liberty: Freedom versus Power • Lack of Desire: A Constraint? • Lack of Reason: Another Constraint? • Our Subject: Social Freedom • A Note on Slavery • Is “Positive Liberty” Liberty?

4. Two Conceptions of Liberty as a Social Concern
The Two Ideas • What Constitutes Interference? • Coercion • Pressuring • Interference versus Nonassistance

5. Rights
Rights Defined • Rights and Duties: Definition or Mere Correlation? • Rights without Duties? So-called ”Liberty Rights” • Duties without Rights? Rights, Duties, and Justice • Duties to No One in Particular? • Enforceability • Enforcement and Force • A Paradox: My Freedom Is Your Unfreedom? • Rights Prima Facie or Rights Absolute? • “Side Constraints” • ’General’ and ’Particular’ • ‘Natural’ and ‘Conventional’ • Negative versus Positive Rights • Negative versus Positive Rights to Liberty • Libertarianism and Negative Rights

6. Liberty and Property
How Liberty and Property Are Related • Property Rights • Property in Oneself • From Liberty to Property in Things • Property Rights and the ”Freedom Entails Unfreedom” Paradox

7. Initial Acquisition
Getting Ownership Started • Rights to Things Are Rights to Act • Another “Libertarianism Restricts Liberty” Argument • ”Acquiring” Not an Act • Arthur’s Argument: Acquisition as Harmful

8. Property Rights Concluded
Transfer • Equality • Capitalist Rights Not to Be Capitalists • Resources and Generational Considerations

Part II: Foundations: Is Libertarianism Rational?

9. lntroduction
On ’Foundations’’ • The Options

10. lntuitions in Moral Philosophy
Two Kinds of Intuitionism • Metaphysical Intuitionism • Mysteriousness • Futility • Disagreement • Society-Dependence • Generality • Importance • Methodological Intuitionism • Disagreement, Again • Reflective Equilibrium • The Practicality of Morals • Moral ”Science”?

11. Morality
The Need for Clarity about Morality • ‘Personal’ versus ‘Social’ Morality • The Compleat Deontologist? • Conventional versus Critical Morality

12. Contractarianism
The Idea of the “Contract” Approach to Foundations • Universality? • Hobbes • The Prisoner’s Dilemma • The Sovereign • Is Cooperation Possible? The Prisoner’s Dilemma • Gauthier‘s View • Morality, the Real World, and Prisoner’s Dilemma • Being Able to Complain

13. The Logic of Contractarianism
The Basic Appeal • The “Natural Law” • A Note on Utilitarianism

14. Contractarianism to Libertarianism?
The Project • A Challenge • The Road from Contractarianism to Libertarianism • Values • A False Start: Autonomy Generalized • Another False Start: An Argument from ”Survival” • The Central Argument • The Right to Liberty, Properly Grounded • The Crucial Question • Can We Improve on the Libertarian Option? • Efficiency versus Justice? • The Gospel According to St. Pareto

Part III: Libertarianism and Reality: What Does Libertarianism Imply about Concrete Social Policy?

15. Society and the Market
The Free Market • Market and Morals • Two Views about Society and the Market • Market Morality as a Public Good • What Is Economic? • Capitalism and Consumerism • Information • Perfect Competition • A Question about Factor Rent

16. The State
The State, Government, Public, Associations, Us • A Note on Democracy • The Down Side of Democracy • Political Authority • Authority and Coordination • The Right to Protection • Protection and Nozick's Argument for the State Law • Enforcement and the Problem of Punishment • Punishment: The Options • Retribution • The Deterrence/Protection Theory • Restitution

17. Redistribution
Redistribution and the State • A Tale of Two Scrooges • Public Goods Arguments • A Note on the ”Minimal State” • A Tale of Three Rules about Mutual Aid • A Note on Symphony Orchestras

18. Insurance Arguments and the Welfare State
The Libertarian Reply • Insurance and Charity • Overwhelming Majorities and Administrative Overhead • A Defense of Charity • Duties of Charity • The “Social Minimum”

19. The Problem of Children
The Problem • Nonfundamental Rights • Children’s Rights • Abortion and Infanticide

20. Freedom and Information
Education: Should We Sell the Schools? • The Orwin Thesis • Knowledge • Freedom of Speech and the Ideological Marketplace • Pornography, Hate Literature, and the Like • A Libertarian Postscript

21. The Public and Its Spaces
"Public Property" • Zoning Laws • Rules, Regulations, and Bureaucrats • Sell the Streets? • On Discrimination in Hiring • Discrimination, Inefficiency, and the Market • The Public Sector

22. Defense and International Relations
Libertarianism and War • Foreign Policy toward Nonliberal States • The Nonrevolutionist’s Evolutionist Handbook

Epilogue: Reflections on Libertarianism
What Has Not Been Proven • The Lure of Nationalism • Privatization, Trivialization, and the Eternal Yuppie • The Secular Problem of Evil • Advice to Libertarian Political Parties • Does It Matter? • Concluding Note



About the Author(s)

Jan Narverson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

Subject Categories

Philosophy and Ethics

In the series

Ethics and Action, edited by Tom Regan.

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