BooksPath Reviews

Modern Liberty: And The Limits of Government (Issues of Our Time)by Charles Fried

Posted in Politics by bookspath on March 9, 2007

And The Limits of Government (Issues of Our Time)In this book, Harvard professor and former Solicitor General (Reagan-era) Charles Fried mounts an elegant defense of “modern” liberty. “Modern” liberty, in Fried’s lexicon indicates the freedom associated with natural rights tradition of the English/Scottish Enlightenment, and is to be contrasted with the “ancient” liberty of Rousseau and Sparta. While ancient liberty was about political participation, the essence of Fried’s modern liberty is the absence of coercion.

This is an idiosyncratic book for a contemporary conservative thinker, since the ancient/modern dichotomy is today primarily shop talk among Straussians, who seem to come down against “modern” liberty. But then, Fried is not really a conservative, he is a consistent and principled libertarian. Like J.S. Mill or Kant, he is clearly in love with the modern age and he has no time for tradition, status, or organic hierarchies.

“Modern Liberty” is an easy read, but it is dense with ideas. Fried never mentions names but it is clear that, beneath the surface, he is engaged in point-by-point debate with the entire pantheon of modern political philosophy. He takes on Rawls and Walzer and Cohen, but you don’t need to know these names to enjoy the book. (Most thrillingly for me, he utterly demolishes the “capabilities” theory of freedom, advanced by Amartya Sen.) He knows all of these arguments by heart and engages them vigorously.

There are no strawmen here. Fried’s entire theory is built upon the value of individual rationality, and his argument fully engages the rationality of his interlocutors. He does not belittle or insult anyone’s ideas. He presents their arguments in good faith and in the best light possible, and then demonstrates what is wrong in them.

This is a brief but serious book, intended for a popular audience. Libertarians will find a goldmine of intellectual ammunition here, but this book would also make a great text for a beginner’s course in political philosophy (especially when used in contrast with something like Sen’s “Development as Freedom”).

Reviewer: The Dilettante

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