book review: Schmidtz and Brennan’s “A Brief History of Liberty”

Actually, this is more of a book recommendation than a book review. David Schmidtz is one of my favorite philosophers; it was his book “Social Welfare and Individual Responsibility: For and Against” (written with Robert Goodin) that first began to wake me from my dogmatic political slumbers circa 2006, when I was an undergrad back at GSU. At the time, I was not at all sympathetic to the classical liberal position. In fact, when I first met Dr. Schmidtz in person during the spring of 2008 when I was spending some time in the philosophy department at ASU, I basically called him a heartless bastard, through tears. Alot has changed since then; I will save the story of my changing political beliefs for another day. Anyway, now I am happy to call Dr. Schmidtz an advisor and a friend. So of course I wanted to read this book. Here are its chapters:

Introduction: Conceptions of Freedom – Nothing groundbreaking here, but a nice setup for the rest of the book. Covers negative & positive liberty, republican freedom, and responsibility, as well as discussing the role of institutions and government and the difference between ideal and non-ideal theory.

The Rule of Law: AD 1075 and Religious Freedom: 1517 – During these chapters, you will gradually begin to realize that you are reading a philosophical history book, not an historical philosophy book; they went a little slowly for me. This is not the fault of Schmidtz and Brennan, whose writing is clear, concise, and covers alot of important ground. However, don’t get discouraged and put the book down because the best is yet to come.

Freedom of Commerce: 1776 – This chapter is the standout of the book. Its thesis:

“As trade emerges, there emerges with it a new way of being self-sufficient: in a market society, people can produce enough to meet their own needs by producing enough to meet other people’s needs. Freedom of commerce under the rule of law empowers people to cooperate on a massive scale, liberating each other from poverty”

Happily, this part of history is new and interesting enough to be accessible even to a history-challenged person such as myself. Topics include the results of commercial development (less poverty and war; more culture and free speech) and the conditions or “ingredients” that allow such progress to occur (the legal right to decline economic transactions, the price mechanism, adequate currency, defined and enforced property rights, the division of labor, economies of scale, specialization). I especially enjoyed the discussion of pecuniary vs. non-pecuniary externalities (a distinction I had never previously considered) and the establishment and treatment of this difference in the law (p. 142-145).

Psychological Freedom, the Last Frontier: 1963 – Here, Schmidtz and Brennan argue that freedom of the will is more of a psychological issue than a metaphysical one, and that psychological freedom comes in degrees. They survey some of the work in situationist social psychology (Milgram, Asch) which suggests that our behavior is disturbingly susceptible to social pressures. They also discuss cognitive features of humans (confirmation bias, anchoring and adjustment, confabulation, etc) that make it difficult for us to be rational and happy. The authors close with a few thoughts on how an individual can work at countering these obstacles to increase her degree of freedom.

All in all, A Brief History of Liberty is quite good. I am very pleased that the authors did not focus on negative liberties at the expense of positive liberties, and gave what I found to be a rather balanced treatment throughout. I would recommend the book to anyone wishing to dip a toe into the intersection of political philosophy & history, especially if you feel like you are deficient in historical knowledge but can’t bring yourself to pick up something heavy and dry. Fellow IHSers and philosophy graduate students might not find anything life-changing in “A Brief History of Liberty,” but the book fulfills its purpose well – summarizing and explaining important historical trends as they pertain to liberty, broadly construed. It’s not “neutral,” in the sense of lacking a political stance, but it is honest.

PS – Just for the record, I was the one who tipped off Dr. Schmidtz to the studies that failed to replicate the Asch conformity effect! (Chapter 6, note 22, p. 237).


  • It’s a pleasure to find someone in philosophy who uses it to better life rather than to hear themselves think. As a writer, therapist my passion is to explore the truth whatever the cost. thanks for thinking well.

  • David Schmidtz’s ‘The Institution of Property,’ is one of my favorite philosophy papers ever.

  • It looks like I will be needing to add this to the collection. I’d be interested in hearing more on your change in philosophy in a future blog if it’s not too personal.

  • Did someone say philosophical history? Just ordered it today!

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