The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, March 07, 2005

Reasons to be cheerful

Nick Gillespie, Editor-in-Chief of Reason, has kindly sent me a review copy of Choice: the best of Reason magazine, published by BenBella Books. (Full disclosure: Reason once ran an interview with me.) It's a book to dip into, and I've been dipping into it. I haven't read all of it, so this isn't a review.

First, though, the book looks good. The cover design is classy. The picture of the Statue of Liberty (obligatory under a little-known but grimly enforced Federal regulation of libertarian book covers) is cropped to hardly more than a nostril. In the text the font is easy on the eye. It all looks mainstream. The contrast with almost every other libertarian paperback I have on my shelves is striking: all but one of them have covers that holler of crank. (It isn't a question of radicalism of content - the one exception is the fine Open Court second edition of The Machinery of Freedom, by David Friedman.) Choice is libertarianism you can bring home to mother.

The selections - not all of which I've read - have a likewise mainstream tone. The default voice of Reason is American think-piece journalism. This is good. Even if you detest libertarianism, this is good. I appreciate it when people I disagree with advance specious arguments couched in civility and enlivened by wit. I've read enough of the other kind. Nor has it anything of the hell-in-a-handbasket mood of much libertarian writing. No Princess Leia drama-queen holograms flicker the message that the old Republic is dead. This is the cheerful libertarianism that David Brin once asked for.

Here are no debates about how many angels have the right to dance on the head of a pin. The closest cut to the bone of principle is Jesse Walker's attack on the culturally stifling effects of copyright laws. Nor, to be unfair, are there any about the abiding libertarian concern, foreign policy, a.k.a. imperialism. The omission looks strategic.

But much is included. A cliche of praise for a collection is to single out one of the items as itself 'worth the price of the book'. (The selection there wouldn't be mine.) Choice has several contenders. Jesse Walker's article goes off the corporate-lib reservation entirely. The interview with Christopher Hitchens shows the contradiction of a historical materialist sensibility without a socialist hope. Charles Paul Freund praises vulgar commercial culture, and rescues from oblivion that most reckless of counter-cultures, the Stalin-era stilyagi. Jacob Sullum documents the horror of what the War on Some Drugs does to patients in chronic pain and denied opiates. Nick Gillespie runs some numbers on the culture boom. (I'd quite like to see a serious Marxist response to that one.) Milton Friedman, interviewed, politely scathes think-tanks and the bought thought of policy wonks. Every reader will have their own opinion as to which article justifies the collection, and which should have been binned as if by an invisible hand. This may not sound like the best of reasons for reading it, but it is.


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