Here are three questions.
They are not rhetorical.
Who owns you?
Whom do you own?
When is it proper to use or threaten violence
Libertarianism has specific answers to all three:
No one (or yourself).
to defend against someone else’s initiation of force.
Libertarianism is the political philosophy that holds that
individual liberty is the highest political
value, and that the protection of individual rights is the only proper use of
force, the only proper end of government.
And by individual rights, we mean the fundamental right of
self-ownership and additionally the corollaries of individual self control and
choice, and the consequences thereof, including the right to one’s property as well as responsibility for one's acts. In the view, the relations among people that
we call “society” are voluntary and mutually beneficial; society is a “positive
sum game.” We come together because we
For most libertarians these benefits are not primarily
material, but first of all moral, spiritual, or psychic, they are matters of human dignity
and human flourishing. After all, each
individual human being is an autonomous agent.
We each have control of ourselves by nature. Being forced into a political relation where
one is controlled by another against one’s will is an unhappy state of affairs;
it’s oppressing, it can crush the spirit.
Conversely, being free to pursue what one thinks best is the only system
compatible with our natures. Even should
one choose to follow a leader, there’s all the world of difference between this
and being compelled to do so. Additionally,
a society of freedom also provides superior material benefits, as free
exchanges in the market lead to specialization, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Hence, for libertarianism, freedom is both a
moral principle and a pragmatic one.
The prerequisite for this “positive sum game” is respect for
individual rights. If individual rights
are not respected, then social relations begin to include the sacrificing of
some for others’ benefit. And if we begin
institutionalizing this, we set up a zero sum game of winners and losers, a
world of dog eat dog, might makes right, a world of rent-seeking and perpetual
war for advantage. In fact, justice is
the respect for and defense of these individual rights.
Injustice is the violation of them.
Individual rights, in this view, are the bedrock of
civilization. And libertarianism is the
political ethic of rights, informed by reason.
There’s another important way of looking at individual
rights: they are restrictions on our
behavior. They tell us what we may not do.
We may not violate
others’ self-ownership. We may not use
force, fraud, and deception to gain for ourselves at their expense. And if we ignore others’ rights we can be justly
met with force to make us stop.
What’s the underlying origin or nature of these rights? Libertarians have given multiple answers,
including natural rights theory, utilitarianism, theological origins, and
perhaps others. As Tom Palmer puts it
(in his Realizing Freedom
these arguments have in common is that rights are imprescriptable
, that is, rights aren’t doled out by political
authorities, the set of rights is not arbitrary or ad hoc, and they can’t be
violated without injustice, without invoking dog-eat-dog principle.
Most of this is likely obvious to libertarians. But there are some important implications
that are sometimes missed, and that’s when libertarians can start to go off the
rails. So let’s look at a few of these.
1. Libertarianism is a political philosophy,
not an all encompassing worldview.
libertarians act as though libertarianism is a complete theory of
everything. It isn’t. If two people agree on what rights are and
that respecting and protecting them is the paramount political concern, they
are both libertarians, yet they might differ on fundamental philosophical
issues, as well as everything else imaginable.
One can arrive at libertarianism from a
wide variety of philosophical starting points.
Those I’ve encountered include (but are hardly limited to) Objectivism, Aristotelianism,
Kantianism, deism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, utilitarianism, pragmatism. John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart
Mill, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman – all were
libertarians, as defined here. Yet they
did not generally share the same, or even similar, basic philosophies. I’m met Christians who derived their
libertarianism from the Bible and Muslims who derived theirs from the
Koran. All agree on what are individual
rights, and all agree that preserving them is the fundamental political goal. Despite deep philosophical differences on
other matters, all are libertarians.
There’s no such thing as “the
libertarian position” on ontology/metaphysics or epistemology. Ontology and epistemology are important, but separate
from political philosophy. Libertarians
who argue that their own particular positions on these are the
authentic libertarian doctrine (as did Rand, and as do some
natural rights libertarians) are simply wrong.
If one insists on respect for individual rights, one is a libertarian.
Libertarianism is also not a complete ethical system. It is not supposed to be. It doesn’t tell one whether or not one should
or shouldn’t work hard, give to the poor, drink moderately, swear, believe in
God, treat friends and neighbors politely, nor does it say anything on the
many, many other questions of ethics that don’t involve questions of utilizing
force, except that these are not matters
for the police. This is not the
same, as some dishonest conservatives (e.g. Russell Kirk) have claimed, as
libertarianism being immoral. It is
simply that libertarianism holds that morality isn’t to be enforced at
Similarly, there are numerous dimensions of
knowledge apart from libertarianism, since they are not part of political
philosophy. For example, there’s no such
thing as the libertarian version of history.
Some libertarians imagine that their own personal views on, say, Lincoln
and the Civil War, or the founding of Israel, are a part of libertarian
doctrine. But they are not. Neither are positions on other subjects, such
as climate change, or mental illness and psychotherapy. Often libertarians who hold strong positions
on these subjects seem to think their views are the libertarian doctrines.
But they are not. Libertarianism
is political philosophy, not an account of history, nor a theory of geophysics,
nor of medicine. There’s no libertarian
position on evolution. There’s no such
thing as “libertarian physics,” “libertarian chemistry,” “libertarian
mathematics,” “libertarian mechanical engineering,” “libertarian theory of
football strategy,” “libertarian diet,” etc.
Most emphatically, there’s no
such thing as “libertarian economics,” and anyone who supposes there is
understands neither libertarianism nor economics.
I will address “libertarian history”
further in a future post, because of its prominence in some very embarrassing (and
sometimes malicious) confusions from which libertarianism needs to be
divorced. I will also post something on
libertarianism and science, perhaps with special reference to climate change.
2. Libertarianism is not “hating the state;” it
is respecting and defending rights.
Listen to enough libertarians, and you’re bound to come across some who
are so vituperative when it comes to “the state,” and so cavalier when it comes
to the rights of individuals, that for them the fundamental defining criterion
of libertarian is opposition to the state, whether they are fully conscious of
this or not.
Now there are often good reasons to hate
the state. But from a libertarian
standpoint, this can only be when the state violates rights – a common
occurrence, but not a universal one. What
if “the state” actually defends individual rights in some instance – as it
often does? I’m using quotation marks
around “the state” because of the tendency in this line of thinking to
personify the state, to treat it as the seat of all social evils, and to attribute
to it a singular purpose – an evil one, of course. This is a strawman state, and the arguments
that presume such a “state” tend to have little to offer in terms of how to
preserve and expand liberty.
The reality of the state is that it consists of people of varying objectives and knowledge organized under a set of
institutions, and hence is every bit as complex as other social phenomena. What is different about the state is the near
monopoly it holds over force. Since the
fundamental tool of the state is force, libertarianism holds that it needs to
be strictly constrained to defensive activities – defending individual rights
from force and fraud. It also must be
minimal, as small as possible.
Libertarians can disagree on how small this
is. If the state can be reduced to zero,
and rights preserved, then this would be the preferred alternative under the libertarian criterion. Anarcho-capitalists believe such a system is
feasible. Perhaps it is. On the other hand, suppose
that abolishing the state leads almost surely to a power vacuum, followed by conflict
among the most ruthless, from which a tyranny is likely to emerge; in that case a
minimal state that prevents this would be the preferred libertarian alternative. A libertarian might believe in one or the
other (anarchism or minarchism); neither is the
libertarian position. (In my view,
neither of these choices as commonly conceived by libertarians is a very good
alternative, perhaps the subject of a future post.)
There can also be considerable dispute
among libertarians on how force
should be employed to defend rights. Is any
particular application of force justified?
What is and what isn’t defensive?
This is often a much more difficult matter
than it might seem. Going from the
libertarian ethic to application in the real world can be very, very
complex. What are the legitimate rights in any particular case? Furthermore, what are the facts? Who really is the aggressor, and who the
defender? Can force be justly employed
in a pre-emptive fashion? If so, what
standard must met to justify pre-emptive force? How much force? What about side effects? These sorts of questions arise particularly in the cases of foreign policy
(broadly defined to include relations in an anarcho-capitalist world) and war.
I will feature at least one post each on
foreign policy and war – I particularly want to address some of the nonsense
written by libertarians on these subjects, because it is so rarely examined
critically from a libertarian standpoint.
There it is – a short, careful description of what
libertarianism is, and isn’t. There’s
also your playbook for my coming posts for “Reclaiming Libertarianism” month.
As always, comments welcome.
And don’t forget, for this month, also welcome are on-topic guest posts from all comers.