A Way of Living: Wendy McElroy’s The Art of Being Free

Book Review

[McElroy, W. (2012). The Art of Being Free: Politics versus the Everyman and Woman. Baltimore,MD: Laissez-Faire Books.]


As a person who is anti-politics, one thing I seek not to do on this site is write about politics, political events, and politicians. I neither belong to nor support any political party, I do not partake or involve myself in political events, nor contribute to political campaigns. I hold politics in disdain and, for the most part, to be antithetical to life. Rather than serving life, politics and politicians intrude upon and impede living on most levels. So this essay is the closest I’ll come to any political discussion. However, who I am discussing and her work that I’m reviewing are perfect for my purposes, which can be gleaned merely by looking at the title of Wendy McElroy’s book, The Art of Being Free: Politics versus Everyman and Woman. Inherent in the title is the idea that politics, rather than a necessity, if one wants to live freely, is something to abandon rather than embrace.

The Thrust of McElroy’s The Art of Being Free

Wendy McElroy’s The Art of Being Free is the application of a libertarian manifesto to the problems that people face in their day-to-day struggles in the arenas of politics, economics, and law. [Please note the small-case “l” in libertarian]. It is written for the person who faces those struggles on the streets of everyday living, hence the subtitle of the book: Politics versus Everyman and Woman. McElroy, a confessed Rothbardian, applies anarchical thought to the issues she discusses; however, she is her own thinker, not someone who merely restates what Rothbard advanced. Because the book both addresses the gritty issues of the day and does so in an appeal to the Everyman & Woman on the street, it is an intelligent, yet down-to-earth analysis, as well as an enjoyable read. Isn’t it about time that intelligence is once again defined as a discussion of issues where the rubber meets the road? Such an approach to living is called wisdom. One of the best things that can happen to a discussion about personal liberty is to remove the dialogue from the elitist, pedantic, and the academe, and bring it home to what McElroy describes as the working people. In addition to being a book on ideas, an arena where McElroy displays her passion, The Art of Being Free fulfills its title in addressing the art of living. And the art of living entails living out one’s passion, which, in turn means living as though the State is irrelevant.

Structure of the Book

Theoretical Footing

McElroy divides her work into four sections. Section I provides a “theoretical footing” that forms the thread that holds the work together. One encounters both an intelligent and a passionate love of ideas where McElroy describes her ideological framework within which her various discussions are set. She openly describes her theoretical perspective as classical liberal, libertarian, and radical individualism. Her discussion of Natural Law and natural rights set squarely on the history of ideas as witnessed in the writings of Lysander Spooner, Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Jay Nock, and Murray Rothbard. In classical liberal terms, she distinguishes the State from society and embraces spontaneous order in contrast to social design or social engineering. The right of an individual to his or her self – his or her body – forms her core value by which she examines all other concerns throughout the book.

Practical Application

Section II of McElroy’s work applies her theoretical foundations to the political, social, economic, and legal concerns of the day. These concerns are addressed in terms that everyday working people face as they struggle to carve out their lives for themselves in a free market. How are their businesses and fruits of their labor impacted by taxation and government spending policies? How are their daily lives restricted through mechanisms of social control? And how are their lives changed or devastated by legal sanctions that criminalize actions that would otherwise be considered harmless to others? The section addresses a wide variety of issues and concerns, including workers’ rights, public education , drug laws, issuing of passports, the post office, debtor’s prison, and constant militarism and war. Throughout McElroy’s discussions, the rights of the individual are upheld and her analysis of the State as contrasted to society is unrelenting.

An Historical Excursion

Section III of McElroy’s book provides an interesting historical excursion of ideas from individuals who have impacted the author’s libertarian journey. Moreover, the section highlights one of McElroy’s themes that ideas are not simply abstractions that exist apart from the day-to-day living of the Everyman & Woman. Ideas are not separate from people. And ideas have their impact through the passionate way that people live them out. The biographical sketches that the author produces in this section are both interesting and inspiring. Readers will become familiar with La Boetie, Voltaire, Thoreau, Garrison, and Hoiles. Several questions are addressed through the short discussions of these individuals’ lives. La Boetie addresses the question: Why should people obey unjust laws? Voltaire explores the question of how one navigates the relationship between freedom and tolerance. Although one hears the adage repeatedly that it takes the masses to change, or, you can’t fight city hall, a sketch of William Lloyd Garrison’s work addresses the question as to whether or not one person can truly make a difference. And furthering the theme of the work regarding the art of living, an inspiring discussion of R. C. Hoiles’ stance against the interment of Japanese in America during WW II, calls forth the idea of how an individual’s choice to live excellently might impact other people’s lives and become a shrine of how we should all strive to live out our passions and values. McElroy has a passion for ideas and readings in the history of ideas. And this section displays that passion in a manner that seamlessly fits the overall theme or her work.

Creating a Free Society

Having laid the theoretical foundations and discussed how to apply those foundations along with some historical examples of individuals who lived out ideas of liberty, Section IV deals with the how of bringing about free society. Rather than offering dictates to the masses, McElroy discusses the importance of various grassroots movements taking place in America, ranging from the fathers’ rights movements to advocates for homeschooling, and the growing public concern over the police state and abuse. She calls for us to ask what we can do in our own backyard in combating and eventually abolishing the State. Although as a libertarian, McElroy doesn’t have set rules for how everyone should live, there are some principles on which she stands and calls for us to consider. We must address the question of evil and banality of evil. What do we consider to be evil, and how do we stand against what we consider evil? We must confront the question of whether or not America is now a police state. If so, how did a supposedly free-loving people allow such a phenomenon to come into existence? Additionally, McElroy stands for an all-out abolition of the State as opposed to government by expedience and gradualism. Gradualism will only keep institutions of the State in tact. Because libertarians operate off the non-aggressive axiom, a call for an abolishment of the State is not a call for violent overthrow; but it is a call for individuals to stand against the State. Such actions as boycotts, refusing to support certain institutions financially, and not engaging in the political inanities of the day are some ways that people can diminish the State in their lives. The art of living free is not a project on the collective level, but one we each must strive to carve out in our own day-to-day lives and communities.


Libertarianism is a movement for working people. McElroy’s work stresses the importance of the Everyman & Woman. Her work speaks to me on several levels since I have been associated with academia now for some twenty-odd years. The Art of Being Free, rather than being some inane political rallying point, calls forth the question for me as to how I want to live. Where do I go from here? How do I live out my ideas and passions? I am not sure I can answer that question within the confines of academia. But regardless of where we work, I believe that the questions and concerns raised by Wendy McElroy are both inspiring and challenging. Although we are called to the challenges that life presents, especially today in terms of the State, we are also here to live. So as we face these challenges that power and State thrust upon us, how might each of us take these challenges on, while at the same time choosing to live in spite of the State? The art of living free – The Art of Being Free – is found in living out our passions and values, and living them out, at least from my perspective, as though the State – and politics – are irrelevant to our lives.

[Note: I first came across Wendy McElroy’s writings via her website IFeminist.com. Since then, I have followed her blog and various writings.]

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D./May 14, 2015