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A Brief History of Liberty (Brief Histories of Philosophy) Paperback – 22 Jan 2010


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"Although the book has a strongly classical liberal flavour, italso contains some interesting discussion of positive liberty. Forone thing, Schmidtz and Brennan argue that the progress of negativeliberty in western societies has massively expanded almosteveryone′s range of real options. For another, they suggest thatthis greater (negative and positive) external freedom can open theway to a greater internal or psychological" freedom". (ThePhilosophers′ Magazine, 13 August 2010)

"Its brevity and simplicity is perhaps understandable, given thehistorical focus and ambitious scope of the book, and the authors′evident desire to get the light, entertaining and up–beat narrativemoving." (The Philosopher′s Magazine, August 2010)"The bookweaves together a number of figures in social, political,philosophical, economic, and even psychological theory, in a waynot commonly found, and it does so rather effectively." (NotreDame Philosophical Reviews, September 05, 2010)

"Schmidtz and Brennan offer their readers insights into thefreedom debate by following it through the broad sweep of Westernhistory...[A Brief History of Liberty]... comprehensive notes andbibliographies and...deserve[s] to be taken seriously by those withan interest in liberty." (The Philosopher, summer 2010)

From the Back Cover

Liberty is a lofty concept. But whatexactly  is liberty? What kindof  value does it have? What institutions bestpromote and protect the forms of liberty that are worth wanting?And what are the specific benefits and dangers inherent inso–called free societies?
 
Using a fusion of philosophical, social scientific, and historicalmethods,  A Brief History of Liberty offers asuccinct survey of pivotal moments in the evolution of personalfreedom, drawing on key historical figures from John Knox andMartin Luther to Karl Marx and Adam Smith to Roger Williams andThurgood Marshall.  The authors examine how past (ifincomplete) successes in the struggle for liberty have led many ofus to liberty′s "last frontier": internal psychological obstaclesto our being as autonomous as we would like to be.  Readersare encouraged to reflect on their own concepts of personal freedom–– what it is, where it comes from, why they have it, and what ithas done for them. 

Stimulating and thought–provoking, A Brief History ofLiberty offers readers a philosophically–informed portraitof the elusive nature of one of our most cherished ideals.


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Amazon.com: 4 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Interesting, Not Entirely A "History" of "Liberty" 7 Aug. 2010
By MT57 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this book. It is indeed brief, with 6 official chapters, although there is a long introduction that amounts to a 7th. The introduction discusses the meanings the word "freedom" can carry and the difficulty of defining it in a widely agreed sense. Particularly, they discuss the difference between "negative" freedom and "positive" freedom although those terms themselves being abstractions they do not seem to me to make the matter much clearer. They note that freedom can mean one thing in the context of an individual and another in the case of a people or nation (sovereignty). They concentrate on the former. They also note that they will discuss the idea as it evolved in Western civilization because it is what they are familiar with, This discussion was interesting and reasonably brief.

Each chapter has a thesis stated at the beginning and a list of questions at the end, I guess for classroom or reading group discussion. There are many endnotes at the end of each chapter and they are very interesting. There is a rich bibliography that would take a lifetime to study.

Chapter 1, "Prehistory" covers 40,000 years of history in 25 pages. The main thesis, stated at the beginning, is that trade and commerce have led to freedom. It focuses on ancient Greece and the Roman empire.

Chapter 2 "Rule of Law" covers the development of the rule of law from the Dark Ages to the 17th century, The thesis is that the rule of law enabled trade and commerce which led to greater freedom. I must say that I reached a different conclusion based on this chapter, that freedom for a wide number of people in a society depends on laws curtailing the freedom of the most powerful in that society.

Chapter 3, Religious freedom, deals with the development of different religious approaches in the West eventually leading to tolerance of religious differences. It covers the same period as chapter 2. Prominent figures include Roger Williams and Martin Luther. This was a good chapter although probably the least controversial subtopic.

Chapter 4, Freedom of Commerce, focuses on the growth in prosperity in the 18th century. The main figure is Adam Smith. The thesis is that trade and commerce under the rule of law generate prosperity. This section, I felt, strayed a good deal sometimes from the "history of liberty". For example, there is a discussion of Bastiat's demonstration of the "broken windows fallacy" which, regardless of its merit, I could not perceive to be closely connected to the history of liberty.

Chapter 5, Civil Liberty, focuses on the expansion of rights in the US from 1776 through 2010, from a nation in which the vote was held by landowning white males to one where it is held by nonlandowning men and women of all colors. It also touches on reproductive liberty. The principal figure is Martin Luther King, Jr. Like the religious freedom chapter, it is not at all controversial but at the same time the authors manage to generate many insights in a short amount of text.

Chapter 6, Psychological Freedom, covers a number of scientific experiments in which people's decisionmaking is shown to be constrained by things like social pressure or the way a choice is phrased. It suggests this topic is relevant to the "history of liberty" because many people are not so interested in political rights as they are in personal independence. I found the connection strained although the topics covered are certainly interesting.

None of the chapters is limited to a recounting of history or dry in any sense. The authors liberally introduce philosophy and political theory into each chapter. They do so in plain and easily comprehended language. Overall, I found it interesting and thought provoking. At the same time, it was not necessarily a rigorously coherent work, more of a compendium of interesting thoughts and ideas centered, sometimes tightly and sometimes loosely, around the topic of freedom and organized in a mostly chronological fashion.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Good smart book for general readers too 21 Mar. 2010
By K. Kehler - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is a great little book. By looking at a series of about a half dozen epochs, the authors generalize about liberty and the various obstacles (physical/anthropological, social, history, psychological) it has had to overcome, over the centuries. (Indeed, as they start in human prehistory, one could speak of the obstacles liberty had to overcome over the millennia.)

The authors write well and clearly. They are learned without being pedantic. They provide a fair bit of information that surely most general readers are already going to know (e.g., Luther was born here; the civil rights movement was about this), but one can put up with that because the ratio of thoughtfulness to "known facts" is so high. They are certainly to be commended for getting their points across concisely and interestingly: the book could easily have been twice as long, but they obviously strove to keep the verbiage down. And yet there are numerous insights in every chapter. So, if you want to know something about liberty, and are prepared to read a well written work that combines insights from economics, political thought, philosophy and psychology -- though especially the first two of these -- then you will be pleased with this book. And better informed once you've read it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
A Page-turner for Fans of LIberty 26 May 2011
By Studio Hayek - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is fantastic! I underlined a few sentences on nearly every pages of the first few chapters. I was especially fascinated by the first chapter: A Pre-history of Liberty.

All great except the last chapter on psychological freedom didn't meet my expectations.
A different way to approach the narrative of liberty 5 Dec. 2014
By Hunter Hastings - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
There is a choice in the ways to chart the history of liberty. One is to track the writers and thought leaders over time and reflect on their content and their influence. Examples include Henry Hazlitt's The Free Man's Library, and George H. Smith's The System Of Liberty. Schmidtz's approach is different - he attempts to track the evolution of freedom's boundaries. He begins with the rule of law, and how it emerged from Feudalism and Magna Carta, then religious liberty, then economic freedom, then civil liberties, and he concludes with "psychological freedom" (the weakest and most speculative chapter). Overall, a nice opportunity to think about liberty - where we are now and where we came from. He's not very good on the erosion of liberty by today's bureaucratic state, because he is eager to present a narrative of progress, not regression. Nevertheless, it is well researched, well presented, and gives the reader an opportunity to refresh one's reading list.
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