by David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2010. 280pp. Cloth: $84.95. ISBN: 9781405170802. Paper: $29.95. ISBN: 9781405170796. Adobe e-Book format. $84.95. ISBN: 9781444318296.

Reviewed by: Lida Maxwell, Department of Political Science, Trinity College, Hartford, CT. Lida.Maxwell [at] trincoll.edu.


In A BRIEF HISTORY OF LIBERTY, the philosophers David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan seek to offer a brief “history of liberty, not a history of theorizing about liberty” for a general readership (p.1). By this, Schmidtz and Brennan mean that they want to tell a story about how liberty arose on the ground and, from telling this story, teach us something about how we should understand the conditions and problems of liberty today. The authors admit at the outset that they are telling “a story of liberty” (my emphasis, p.18) and not the story of liberty. Their story, as they make clear, is a story of the rise of negative liberty, which they define as individual liberty, secured by the rule of law and property rights: “The point of negative liberty has less to do with what liberty guarantees and more to do with what liberty gives people the chance to do for themselves” (p.9). Yet they also want to make the case that securing negative liberty encourages the development of positive liberty, which they understand as the development of the capacities to live a good life through having meaningful choices about what kind of life to live. Securing negative liberty, they suggest, “has a history of enabling people to achieve positive freedom. That is to say, in (negatively) free countries, people generally have more real choice” insofar as they have “options together with the capacities to exercise these options successfully” (p.17).

Schmidtz and Brennan’s story about liberty begins – ambitiously – about 40,000 years ago and locates its origins in the advent of trade and the “rudimentary rule of law” that it birthed. Trade depended on secure “property rights”: “you had to identify and respect the difference between what you brought and what someone else brought to the table – or trade would never get off the ground” (p.34). They suggest that the first known (Sumerian) word “referring to the concept of freedom in a written language” exemplifies this connection between trade and liberty, since the word “amagi” is thought to refer to “a man freed from debt servitude” (p.37). What “liberty” refers to here, then, is the “right to make a living in peace” (p.36), without interference from others. Trade enables the emergence of this right – and the rule of law that protects it – because it depends on peaceful cooperation. If we are to trade in mutually beneficial ways, we must have agreed to conditions that allow us to securely barter, talk, and travel with goods.

Schmidtz and Brennan expand upon this story about how trade and commerce generate the rule of law and liberty over the course of six substantive chapters that deal with, respectively, “A Prehistory of Liberty,” “The Rule of Law,” “Religious Freedom,” “Freedom [*691] of Commerce,” “Civil Liberty,” and “Psychological Freedom.” Each chapter (except for the last two) posits an explicit connection between commerce and liberty. The “Prehistory of Liberty” tells the story of liberty’s origins that I have discussed above. The chapter on the “Rule of Law” explores in greater detail the thesis that the rule of law grew from trade and, in turn, secured liberty “to make a living in peace” in the context of the decline of feudalism. The chapter on “Religious Freedom” suggests that this experience emerged in historical contexts where merchants had leisure to think about religion: “With trade came wealth, and with wealth came leisure. With leisure came time to think for oneself about religious matters” (p.93). The chapter on “Freedom of Commerce” suggests that under a fully evolved rule of law – in the United States – commerce produces not only wealth and leisure, but the capacity for culture, art, and innovation. They suggest that in economies like America’s, where people “are liberated so completely from the shackles of material deprivation that they need not concern themselves with food production at all,” people are free to “make lasting contributions in literature, art, and technology” (p.121). This is why, they say, “a civilization’s commercial hubs will also be its cultural hubs” (p.127). Indeed, even if you find market society “repulsive,” you will find “the most devastating critique of markets” in market society’s hubs: “The places for top-quality criticism are London, New York, or Boston – not Pyongyang, Havana, or even Moscow” (p.127). The chapter on “Civil Liberty” also tries to find a direct link between commercialism and the pursuit of civil liberties – specifically, by suggesting that the struggle for civil rights has its roots in the notion of “self-ownership,” a marketplace understanding of the self (pp.169-170). Unlike the other chapters, however, the chapter as a whole does not have a clear narrative line. Instead, the authors offer disconnected stories about individuals who pursued civil rights (p.199). The chapter on “Psychological Freedom” discusses the difficulty of retaining “self-ownership” in the context of the wide array of life choices available to many contemporary American citizens.

It is understandable why, in an attempt to tell a “brief history of liberty,” the Schmidtz and Brennan would select only one concept of liberty as a starting point for that story. Yet by beginning with that concept and then looking to find its development as a concrete experience in history, they end up insufficiently acknowledging that the rise of the concept of individual (negative) liberty – and especially the idea that it was birthed in commerce – itself has a history. As Albert Hirschman shows in his classic account, THE PASSIONS AND THE INTERESTS, the idea that commerce and material interest encourage liberty is of relatively recent (17 & 18th century) vintage. Before this period, material desire was often seen as destructive and, by civic republicans like Bolingbroke in 17th century Britain, as a potentially dangerous passion that could hinder freedom (cf. Kramnick 1968). Thus, Schmidtz and Brennan’s suggestion that negative liberty was birthed in commerce 40,000 years ago ends up offering a somewhat misleading picture of how freedom was understood in some historical periods (like ancient Athens or 17th century Britain). Indeed, some of the figures offered as exemplars of negative liberty – Solon of Athens, for [*692] example, or even Spinoza or Locke – would likely not have described themselves in the terms offered by the authors.

Schmidtz and Brennan may have chosen to set aside this issue in the interest of telling a clear and simple story about liberty for a general readership – a story that certainly raises some important questions about contemporary dilemmas involving liberty. And indeed, if the authors had acknowledged that their narrative of liberty is itself the product of a particular historical moment and set of conditions, they would not have been able to make the broad claim they do – that from the beginning of western civilization, commerce has enabled the development of individual liberty and, in turn, positive liberty – because they would have had to pay attention (for example) to how the Greeks, themselves, understood freedom, perhaps in ways that challenge the authors’ own understanding of liberty (cf. Meier 1990; Frank 2005). Yet while sacrificing this broad claim, they might have been able to tell a more nuanced story by acknowledging the contested character of liberty – on the ground and otherwise. First, they might have been pressed to pay more attention to historians of political thought like Quentin Skinner who make compelling arguments that negative liberty is not the only prominent understanding of liberty to have developed in modernity. Indeed, in all of his work, and notably in LIBERTY BEFORE LIBERALISM (1998), Quentin Skinner argues that liberty was an essentially contested concept in early modernity. When we assume that something like “negative liberty” is the only concept of liberty to have emerged in modernity, Skinner argues that we lose sight of another important theory of liberty that developed out of concrete historical practice in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries – specifically, a neo-roman understanding of liberty (that he finds theorized especially in James Harrington’s work) that emphasizes the importance of collective freedom (a “free state”) as a prerequisite to individual liberty. J.G.A. Pocock similarly argues that such a neo-roman theory of liberty was influential in the United States in the revolutionary period (1975; cf. Kramnick 1990). Second, if the authors had been more attentive to this essentially contested character of liberty in the period of its greatest intellectual theorization, they might have been pressed to be more attentive to the persistent critics of the idea that individual liberty is produced through commerce. While Montesquieu, for example, was a proponent of “doux commerce” as enabling of liberty, he nonetheless noted in THE SPIRIT OF THE LAWS that the Spanish pursuit of wealth in his own time had become a horrific and oppressive project (1989, pp.390-397). Similarly, Edmund Burke – no friend of “negative liberty” in any moment – deeply criticizes the British pursuit of wealth in the 18th century insofar as it led the nation to engage in oppressive practices abroad (oppressive practices bound to rebound on Britons at home) (1981). Karl Marx and the political movements he inspired have framed commerce as ultimately antithetical to true freedom. Hannah Arendt suggests that imperialism and capitalism are intimately connected and, given their combined effect of uprooting individuals and stimulating race-based thinking, were an enabling condition of totalitarianism (1968, 123-303). None of these criticisms are given much hearing in the book – an absence that [*693] seems problematic in the context of a general readership that may not have the knowledge or resources to seek out such criticisms on their own. Finally, if the authors had noted the essentially contested character of liberty, they might have been pressed to pay more attention to non-western understandings of liberty. While the authors say that they are going to tell a history of liberty in the western context (because that is what they are most familiar with), they might also have acknowledged that their view of liberty is a product of the West (and more specifically of a particular Anglo-American context).

To conclude, this book may be appropriate to use in an undergraduate upper level course on theories of freedom – especially if used at the beginning as a way of opening up the question of the nature of liberty. Indeed, the book seems to be aimed at this purpose, as every chapter begins with a “thesis” and ends with discussion questions. Alternatively, the book could be used as one exemplar of a liberal view of liberty, again in an undergraduate course.

Arendt, Hannah. 1968. THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM. New York: Harcourt.

Burke, Edmund. 1981. “Speech on Fox’s East India Bill,” THE WRITINGS AND SPEECHES OF EDMUND BURKE, volume V, ed. P.J. Marshall. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp.378-404.

Frank, Jill. 2005. A DEMOCRACY OF DISTINCTION: ARISTOTLE AND THE WORK OF POLITICS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Kramnick, Isaac. 1968. BOLINGBROKE AND HIS CIRCLE: THE POLITICS OF NOSTALGIA IN THE AGE OF WALPOLE. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Meier, Christian. 1990. THE GREEK DISCOVERY OF POLITICS, trans. David McLintock. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Montesquieu. 1989. THE SPIRIT OF THE LAWS, trans. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, Harold Samuel Stone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Skinner, Quentin. 1998. LIBERTY BEFORE LIBERALISM. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Lida Maxwell.