There’s No Such Thing As Too Much Liberty

Some great books are products of lifetimes of research, reflection and discipline. Others are written during moments of passionate discovery, with prose that shines forth like the sun when new understanding first brings the world into focus.

The Market for Liberty is that second type of classic. Written by Morris and Linda Tannehill after intensive study of the writings of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, it has the pace, energy and rigor you would expect from an evening’s discussion with these two giants.

More than that, the authors put pen to paper at precisely the right time in their intellectual development, that period of rhapsodic freshness when a great truth had been revealed and one has to share it with the world. Clearly, the authors fell in love with liberty and the free market and they wrote an engaging book-length paean to these ideas.

This book is radical in the true sense of that term: It gets to the root of the problem of government and rethinks the whole organization of society. Starting with the idea of the individual and his rights, the Tannehills work their way through the market, expose government as the enemy of mankind and – surprisingly – offer a dramatic expansion of market logic into areas of security and defence.

Their discussion of this controversial topic is integrated into their libertarian theoretical apparatus. It deals with private protection services, private arbitration agencies to resolve disputes and private insurers to provide profitable incentives for security. It is for this reason that Hans-Hermann Hoppe calls this book an “outstanding yet much-neglected analysis of the operation of competing security producers.”

The section on war and the state is particularly poignant:

The more government “defends” its citizens, the more it provokes tensions and wars, as unnecessary armies wallow carelessly about in distant lands and government functionaries, from the highest to the lowest, throw their weight around in endless, provocating power grabs. The war machine established by government is dangerous to both foreigners and its own citizens, and this machine can operate indefinitely without any effective check other than the attack of a foreign nation.

Also remarkable is their plan for desocialization, or transition to a fully free society. The Tannehills argue against privatization as it is usually understood on grounds that government is not the owner of public property, so it cannot sell it. Instead, they say, public property should be seized by people with the strongest interest in it and then put on the open market. If that seems crazy to you now, you might change your mind after reading this book.

But think what this means in general. Here we have a book written more than 40 years ago that already anticipated the need to transition out of state control into a market system.

Remarkably, The Market for Liberty actually predates Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. It had a huge impact when it came out in 1970, especially among the generation that was debating whether the state needed to provide basic functions or be eliminated altogether. Rothbard even chose it as one of the top 20 libertarian books of all time, to be printed in his Arno Press series.

The authors were drawn to Rand’s ethical outlook but Rothbard’s economics and politics. But clearly, they were surrounded by classics of all ages when they wrote. So this fiery little treatise connected with the burgeoning movement at the time, providing just the type of integration that many were seeking.

Since the 1980s, however, the book has languished in obscurity. If the authors are still around, no one seems to have heard from them, a fact that seems only to add to the mystery of this never-to-be- repeated book.

There is no reader who can possibly agree with all its contents. I find the section on intellectual property rights to be completely wrong, and obviously so. Their defence of IP even seems to call upon a theoretical idea they had already ruled out, namely, the labour theory of value. However, this was written before the digital age, when the real challenge to the idea of IP had not yet presented itself. Their fallacies are obvious to me but so is the corrective.

However, in other ways, these authors made great leaps forward, particularly regarding the usefulness of the market institution of insurance for the provision of security. They write as if they knew that there had to be a market-based solution to the problem, and they struggled to find it. Libertarians have been drawing on their insights ever since.

The Market for Liberty makes a bracing read for a person who has never been introduced to these ideas. For the person who has an appreciation of free enterprise, this book completes the picture, pushing the limits of market logic as far as it can go. No reader will be left unchanged by it.


Jeffrey Tucker
for Markets and Money

This article originally appeared in Markets and Money USA.

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My comment relates not to the book itself (though I have a copy but I have not yet read it) but to the libertarian worldview (not that all libertarians agree on all things). It is interesting that a discussion of this sort of text appears on an Australian website, though I know that Jeff Tucker wrote it for the DR-USA; and Jeff is an Austrian economist, if memory serves me correctly. Australia has not traditionally provided a market for liberty, at least of the kind in this book. As a Christian, I oppose the notion of anarcho-capitalism, espoused by Rothbard.… Read more »
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