A few days ago a friend of mine introduced me to an article written by Connor Kilpatrick for the online news magazine AlterNet, provocatively entitled “The Libertarian Con: Favorite ‘Rebel’ Ideology of the Ruling Class”. In this article, Kilpatrick attempts to cast libertarianism as a cabal comprised of cruel and heartless wealth-mongers and their sycophantic followers. He relies on tabloidesque style and inflammatory cynicism to emphasize complete misconceptions and fabrications that bear little resemblance to the writings of actual eminent libertarian thinkers; a tactic all the more befuddling as AlterNet’s published journalistic standards allege to confront “the vitriol and disinformation of right wing media, especially ‘hate talk’ media.”
The article reminded me that there are many politically active and educated people that have serious misconceptions about libertarian thought, or who indeed have no conception whatsoever. In this article I will attempt to provide a concise yet rich overview of libertarian theory as I currently understand it as well as to provide resources for future inquiry.
In a Nutshell
Libertarianism is fundamentally a political school of thought based on intrinsic beliefs about natural rights as well as empirical evidence from certain economic schools. It is not meant to convey a specific moral code but rather the proper way to organize society. Essentially, it emphasizes the autonomy of individuals to make personal choices and seeks to diminish the role of “the state” or any other authoritarian institution as much as possible. At the root of libertarianism is “liberty”, or the ability for individuals to have agency or control over their own actions. This comes not only from a moral belief that individuals should be free to make their own choices but also from the belief that society as a whole benefits as this social order is the most conducive to the flourishing of diverse people with competing interests. What is important to understand, but often lost in the shouting match of competing ideologies, is that libertarians do not simply believe these principles because they allow them to behave conceitedly out of their own self interest, rather they believe that they produce the best possible social order for the most people. Not perfect, not a utopia, but the best possible.
Key principles include:
- The non-aggression principle – The initiation of force or violence against a person or his or her property is inherently immoral. It is not the same as pacifism as it does not preclude violence in the name of self-defense.
- Self-ownership – Individuals retain the right of exclusive control over their bodies and lives.
- Governments are bound to the same moral standards as individuals. Their explicit purpose is in service, not authority, to the citizens and they are utilized unjustly when they use coercion for plunder, aggression, redistribution, or prohibition.
Libertarian ideology stems from two different ethical sources. One is deontological libertarianism, which posits that certain moral principles, such as natural rights theory, provide the moral basis and justification for the emerging ideological framework. The other is consequentialist libertarianism, which seeks to show that individual liberty, private property, and non-aggression demonstrably lead to favorable consequences such as prosperity, efficiency, and social harmony.
A common quick-and-dirty way of describing libertarians to people who think that republicans and democrats are the only two political belief systems is that libertarians are socially liberal yet fiscally conservative. This is okay for many examples, but I prefer a definition that distances itself from the false left-right paradigm. If you look at those things that are considered “liberal” issues or “conservative” issues, there is little rhyme or reason as to why an issue is on one side of the dichotomy or the other, other than tradition. Conservatives tend to denounce abortion but support capital punishment. Liberals tend to favor looser restrictions for marriage licensing but greater restrictions for business transactions.
A better way of organizing issues is to define them as either supporting individual, autonomous freedom, or supporting authoritarian control. Does a particular policy give you less freedom or more freedom (don’t forget that we must consider the effects on all groups, not just one)? Libertarians support political issues that allow greater freedom for individuals to make their own choices. A list of example issues can be found towards the end of the article.
Libertarians support capitalist free markets. I find that many people these days have some amount of discomfort at the idea of capitalism, typically because of current problems in the economy that were not actually caused by capitalism, per se, at all.
Capitalism follows three basic tenets: free markets, voluntary contracts, and private property rights. That’s it; the accumulation of “capital”, lending, interest, banking, currency, etc. all arise from those three fundamental principles.
People in capitalist free market economies privately own the means of production and the fruits of their labor. Every economic transaction, whether buying an apple, hiring a worker, or lending money is done through voluntary contracts. Force, fraud, and coercion have no legitimate role in a free market.
The opposite of a free market economy is a planned economy, one in which oligarchs determine the best way to utilize and distribute resources. They always fail because a small group of planners is incapable of acquiring all the dispersed knowledge of individuals with distinct goals and incentives. The belief that a government can do this is what Friedrich Hayek referred to as the fatal conceit. According to Hayek, solving the knowledge problem cannot be done through government action, but rather is done through the spontaneous order of individuals acting out of self-interest. Adam Smith refers to this as the invisible hand.
Here is a great description of a free market economy from Lawrence Reed:
“Call it what you want—capitalism, free enterprise, laissez faire or whatever—but a system that upholds property rights and otherwise allows free people to be themselves is remarkable precisely because it’s not a ‘system’ per se. No deluded, pretentious planners devise or direct it. It’s no Rube Goldberg contraption of mandates and decrees. It’s simply what happens when you leave peaceful people alone. They produce more and satisfy human wants to a far greater extent than empty nanny-state promises could ever hope to deliver”
The Role of Government
Here, there is some amount of disagreement among libertarians. Some believe that the government should provide social goods that benefit all citizens, while others believe there should be no government at all. What is essential was I think best described by Ron Paul earlier this year when he said:
“The fundamental hallmark of a free society should be the rejection of force.”
A government cannot justifiably act with the initiation of force. Any legitimate government action must be to protect individuals from force initiated by someone else. Most libertarians support to some extent the use of the police and court system to protect individuals from crimes of force, fraud, or coercion perpetrated against them. They also tend to support government-organized militaries to protect citizens from foreign aggression.
After that there are a range of beliefs. Some support the government’s role in building roads and providing education, others do not. Some think that some amount of taxation is necessary and proper, others believe that government should only by funded through private donation. Despite this diversity, there are certain principles generally held to be true. One is that any government must be constitutionally limited so as to protect the natural rights of its citizens. Another is that private institutions are generally preferable to public ones. Yet another is that the size and scope of government should be as small as possible and as local as possible. Libertarians tend to almost always reject federal-level programs but are somewhat more receptive to state and local programs.
Libertarian Perspective on Selected Issues
Income Tax – Governments do not create wealth. Any money that the government has it must necessarily take from productive citizens. There are ways to fund government that don’t involve taxes, such as voluntary funds, user fees, and lotteries. Some believe that certain taxes, like sales, customs, and excise, may be justified to ensure funding essential roles of government. In any case, the income tax is the worst form of taxation and cannot be justified from a libertarian perspective. The income tax directly attacks the property rights of the citizens and is taken through force with the threat of violence. Philosophically, the income tax presumes that the government has a claim on the productive efforts of members of society. The income tax is a product of the desire of an ever-expanding paternalistic government, and rather than restraining bureaucrats it provides them with a dangerous level of control over the people. By requiring such an intrusive tax to fund a large government, large sums of money are misallocated to sectors where it is not needed or desired according to spontaneous order. It inevitably destroys wealth.
Minimum Wage – Minimum wage laws increase unemployment, particularly among low-skilled and low-educated workers. This causes certain segments of the population to become chronically underemployed as they are prohibited from acquiring first jobs through which they can increase their skills and move up. Incidentally, this also increases the number of people who require welfare entitlements. Politically, libertarians believe that welfare handouts are more dehumanizing and socially retarding than low-wage jobs.
The War on Drugs – From the belief in individual autonomy comes the belief that people should be free to put what they will into their bodies. It is not a question of whether or not certain substances are good or bad to use, the question is rather who has the authority to make that choice. Prohibition is misguided for it only considers the negative consequences that are mitigated by a policy but never considers the negative consequences that result from a policy. The criminalization of the use of various substances has created a monstrous unnecessary prison system, which disproportionally incarcerates certain groups. It also incentivizes violence. As police and the courts cannot be called upon to settle trade disputes, fraud, and theft, the drug trade creates all manner of gang violence. It is not the drugs themselves that breed crime, but rather their prohibition.
C. S. Lewis critiques the idea that a government is capable of knowing what is best for its citizens, when he said:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Gay Marriage – Marriage is not singularly owned or defined by any one culture. Rational consenting adults should not be prohibited by the state of contractual agreements that are available to others. Libertarians question what role, if any, that government should even play in marriage.
Business Regulations – There is no such thing as an “unregulated market”. All markets, by definition, are regulated. The question is not whether or not markets should be regulated, but rather who should do the regulating? In a free market, people cannot just do whatever they want, they are necessarily regulated by market forces, such as scarcity and demand. The only role of a government is to prosecute actual crimes of, you guessed it, force, fraud, and coercion. Governmental regulations tend to limit entrance into markets, disrupt price signaling, and produce unfair advantages for certain lobbying groups. For more on this topic, see this article from Reason.
Some Controversial Issues
Abortion – Not all libertarians agree on this issue. Some believe that the autonomy of the mother imbues her with the right to terminate a pregnancy. Others believe that abortion violates the right to life of the fetus.
Foreign Wars – Many libertarians are military non-interventionists. Some, however, advocate for a strong and proactive military that is used to ensure liberty by, for example, preventing certain nations from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Have any questions about libertarianism that were not addressed in this article? Wondering what the libertarian take is on other issues of the day? Sound off in the comments below!
Check out this article where I explore some of the most common misconceptions about libertarians!
Here are two good videos that offer a brief introduction to libertarianism from Learn Liberty.
“What Does it Mean to be a Libertarian?” with Stephen Davies
“What it Means to be a Libertarian” with Jeffrey Miron
Here you can find a list of articles from The Mises Institute compiled by Robert Wenzel that offers an excellent introduction to libertarian thought. It is called “The 30-Day Reading List”.