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Friday, October 3, 2008

Libertarian Ideas

Intro | -Pt 1: Ideas- | Pt 2: History | Pt 3: Solutions | Conclusion

Libertarian ideas are incredibly diverse, originating in a number of historical times, cultures, and writings, rooted in myriad differing philosophical premises, and aiming to accomplish different and sometimes contradictory social agendas. So to speak of libertarianism as a strictly monolithic unity would be careless.

There is also however, a formidable unity to libertarian thought. To borrow a theme from the English poet, C. S. Lewis, my purpose in this section will be to present a sort of "mere libertarianism," the philosophy of liberty reduced to some of its barest essentials, with which most self-described libertarians would agree.

Libertarianism: A Definition

According to the Cato Institute, libertarianism (or market liberalism as they often prefer to call it) "combines an appreciation for entrepreneurship, the market process, and lower taxes with strict respect for civil liberties and skepticism about the benefits of both the welfare state and foreign military adventurism."

This is essentially an expression of the frequently used, simplified explanation that libertarians are "economically conservative, and socially liberal," that they agree with "conservatives" about less government intervention into markets, and that they agree with "progressives" about less government intervention into private social issues and foreign affairs. But why do they hold these policy preferences? What principle is at root here?

According to the Mises Institute, libertarianism "can encompass a wide range of thought from Jeffersonian classical liberalism to the modern anarcho-capitalism of Murray N. Rothbard... The core conviction is what matters: peaceful exchange makes everyone better off; private property is the first principle of liberty; intervention destroys wealth; society and economy need no central management to achieve orderliness."

This strikes closer to the fundamental libertarian idea: that peaceful, voluntary interaction is the only proper relationship between human beings. The use of coercion is never an appropriate means of dealing with each other. The use of force should never be initiated against a human being, and its only legitimate use is as a response to defend oneself or others from someone who has initiated its use.

Non-Aggression: The Moral Principle of Libertarianism

To enjoy freedom or liberty presupposes a prepositional object. To be free from what? To enjoy liberty from what?

Thomas Hobbes understood liberty to mean "license" -license to do whatever one pleases. Hobbes found liberty- as he understood it- to endanger human happiness and prosperity. Without a strong, central government to forcibly limit our destructive whims at whatever price (including the destruction wrought by the government's own whims!), life would be a "war of all against all," rendering the average human life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Indeed the liberty to follow any whim or wish at anyone's expense, running roughshod over the lives of other human beings, would be a very dangerous kind of liberty. Who could have any liberty at all if anyone else who pleased could come along to rob, enslave, or even murder them? But there is another way to understand liberty: to be free- not from whatever principle, convention, or constraint impedes one's every terrible whim as Hobbes defines it- but to be free from aggression. It is in this sense that libertarians understand freedom.

Libertarians believe that all human beings should be free to live their own lives, make their own choices, and pursue their own separate interests without forcible interference by others. The only moral society, is a civil or peaceful society, a society in which no human being can threaten any other by aggressing against them to destroy, diminish, or expropriate their lives, or their liberty or property- which are necessary preconditions of and corollaries to a human being's right to his or her own life.

The Proper Role of Government

The purpose of government (for those libertarians who believe government has a proper role at all in a civil society) is to act as a policeman and final arbiter between peaceful people and their aggressors. When government forcibly takes from some to give to others, it does the very thing it exists to safeguard against happening. When it takes such an action, it becomes an aggressor itself. It ceases to be an impartial arbiter between free and equal citizens to ensure their liberty, and it becomes a biased, partisan advocate for special interests, using the legal power and force of its laws to favor them at the expense of the lives, liberty, and property of others without their consent and voluntary cooperation, which is morally outrageous.

So all political questions- which is to say, all those questions pertaining to government policies- must necessarily reduce to this: "Is policy x a proper use of force?" If policy x only involves the use of force against aggressors to protect the peaceful, then it is a proper use of force and a legitimate function of government. Examples of such policies would include laws against aggressive acts like theft and murder, a well-equipped police force to stop and apprehend domestic aggressors, and a court system to try and sentence them. Such policies would also include a military to defend against foreign aggressors, and a legislative and executive body to carry out necessary administrative functions.

On the other hand, if policy x involves the initiation of force against peaceful non-aggressors, then it is an improper use of force and an illegitimate function of government. Examples of such policies abound. They include, among other things: price and quantity controls, which forcibly interfere in the voluntary exchange of goods by mutually consenting parties; the criminalization or penalization of certain social behaviors by peaceful, consenting adults, such as religious observance, recreational drug use, homosexuality, or interracial marriage; and property redistribution from some groups to other special interest groups, such as corporate bailouts or entitlement programs.


It is thusly that all political questions and controversies reduce to only one simple question for the libertarian, and that is the proper role of government, a role which is predicated on the libertarian moral principle of non-aggression. Libertarianism is not a philosophy of unqualified license, libertine hedonism, or selfish exploitation of others. It is the (one and only) way of peace, the champion of the exploited, the enemy of social injustice, the exemplar of true humility, and the fullest expression- in political terms- of a deep and abiding love for and good will toward all humankind.

Libertarianism is a robust philosophy with many, many other ideas and corollaries. What I have described above is its foundation and essence. The libertarian understanding of the social and economic sciences also offers many richly-detailed insights into human nature, history, and society, too numerous for proper treatment in the space of this short treatise. These insights include, among others: the nature and origin of private property rights, the unmatched elegance of the price system as a rationing mechanism, the cause of "boom-and-bust" cycles, and the solutions for global poverty reduction.

In the next section, we will briefly explore the history and effects of the libertarian mindset on the world.

Intro | -Pt 1: Ideas- | Pt 2: History | Pt 3: Solutions | Conclusion