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Courting Lady Liberty

Reviewed by Henry Olsen

Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government
by Charles Fried
W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, 217 pages.


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C
harles Fried is an esteemed scholar and public figure—the former solicitor general of the United States and a Harvard law professor. So it comes as no surprise that he is unafraid to tackle such a serious issue as the relationship between liberty and government. The result, his new book Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government, is a thought-provoking treatise that deserves our appreciation—but also our close critical scrutiny.
It is clear that Fried intended to author what might be called a love poem to liberty. Indeed, he begins his book by paraphrasing the Aeneid, writing, “it is of the liberty of the moderns that I sing.” He attempts to show that this liberty—the liberty of an individual human being to live, insofar as possible, a self-chosen existence—is central to life in modern democratic societies. As such, democratic political decisions ought to be made with the scales of justice tilting firmly in liberty’s direction.
This is all well and good, and most citizens in modern democratic states would certainly agree with these general outlines, but the flaws in Fried’s argument become apparent once we delve into the details. In certain ways, Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government is oddly unsatisfying. Far from clearly establishing those limits on state power, this book demonstrates exactly how difficult it is to define them, and why any attempt to derive a practical account of freedom from an abstract theory of rights is inherently problematic.


Henry Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute and director of its National Research Initiative.






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