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What Libertarianism Is Not

What Libertarianism Is Not
Profile photo of Logan Albright

scoldingAs libertarianism begins to gain in popularity and seep into the youth culture, there is increasing pressure from certain strains of the movement to attempt to modify the theory and transform it into something that it is not.

To begin with, let us examine what is meant by the term “libertarian,” what its limits are, and what it attempts to explain. Libertarianism is exclusively a political philosophy describing the legitimate use of force in society. It claims that humans have the right of self-ownership, and that theft, assault and other forms of aggression violate this right, except in the case of legitimate self-defense against an aggressor. This is where the philosophy begins and ends, and although some libertarians dispute the circumstances under which force is acceptable (the Night Watchman state versus no state at all), it still has the legitimate use of force as its core.

It is not an economic philosophy, although its conclusion tends to support free market capitalism due to the lack of coercion inherent in such a system. Still, there is no dictum against collective ownership so long as it is voluntary. This is what anarcho-communism is all about.

Similarly, libertarianism has little to say about politics except for what follows directly from its central precept. Taxes are immoral because they involve coercion. Democracy is no better than dictatorship if it imposes the will of the many onto the few by force. And so on.

But because libertarianism has become fashionable among a certain segment of the population, and because we wish to expand the movement and convert others to it, there has been a push to expand this simple definition into a more holistic ethical code encompassing every aspect of life, almost akin to a religion. We are told that non-discrimination based on superficial characteristics like race and sex is an inherently libertarian position. It is not. So long as discrimination does not violate anyone’s rights of self-ownership, the theory simply has nothing to say about it (although we can observe that a capitalistic system is unlikely to encourage such behavior due to the way it tends to impact profits.)

Where these well-meaning meddlers go wrong is in assuming that just because libertarianism per se doesn’t have a position on racism, that libertarians qua human beings do not have such a position either. This is absurd. Libertarianism is by its nature a narrow philosophy, with plenty of room to coexist along with other philosophies as well. Just as being a vegetarian does not exclude one from being Jewish, so does being a libertarian not exclude one from being a humanitarian.

We are more than a simple political philosophy, and while this defines the moral lens through which we see much of the world, it is not the totality of our being. For example, libertarianism has nothing to say on the subject of suicide. If we own ourselves, we have the right to terminate ourselves. Period. However, no libertarian I have ever met would encourage such an activity, and most would find it utterly reprehensible. The point is that you can hold a belief that something is wrong without having to fold it into a specific political philosophy where it has no business being.

Granted, certain ethical outlooks fit nicely within libertarianism while others do not. Kant’s categorical imperative that we treat humans as ends in themselves rather than means to an end works well, as does the Biblical Golden Rule, treat others as you would like to be treated. They are not explicitly part of libertarian theory, but they are compatible with it.On the other hand, one would be hard pressed to combine a restrictive set of laws, such as Sharia, with the non-aggression principle.

The trouble is that by attempting to redefine a narrow political philosophy to encompass all things that we like and think are nice – like non-discrimination, like treating people as ends rather than means – we dilute its power and simplicity. We destroy what makes it great. Once we proceed down the road of declaring everything we think is good to be “libertarian,” we will quickly find that libertarianism suddenly has no meaning at all.

Let’s leave the philosophy of non-aggression where it belongs, and feel free to supplement it with any other moral or ethical codes we also hold. It is a mistake, however, to try to combine all our views about life into one amorphous blob of watered-down libertarianism.

  • Rob

    For accurate info on Libertarianism see http://www.libertarianinternational.org

    • Mark

      I like the site, specifically it's endorsement of Direct Democracy at a time where Austrians are attempting to revive Federalist ideology that a "republic" isn't a Democracy.

      • Hatting

        Are you a troll or just a really old guy that wants kids off his lawn?

        • Mark

          That's a stirring & provocative counter-point, food for thought, could change the way people think about the topic.

  • https://www.facebook.com/gary.albright1 Gary Albright

    I've noticed that so many people resort to name calling when the can't put together a coherent, logical argument.

  • Frank Zeleniuk

    I have read that Ayn Rand was hard to get along with, on that point you may be right, but let me know what you think of Libertarianism when you get to high school.

    • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008223248273 Daniel O'Connell

      I had the privilege of hearing Ayn Rand speak a couple of times at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston, and she was absolutely intolerant (you could even say "mean") with some questioners. However, in context, that occurred when the question and questioner were similar to the (now deleted) commenter we replied to. It wasn't pleasant to watch, but after her own experience of being publicly disrespected for years, I couldn't judge her too harshly for her attitude. On the other hand, I found her to be very pleasant and patient when responding to an intelligent question, no matter how basic, from a respectful questioner.

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008223248273 Daniel O'Connell

    Some points to think about…and reply to at more length than I can now. For now, thanks for your response.

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008223248273 Daniel O'Connell

    Well, I'm certainly persuaded.

    Apparently, per Obama, you read Rand in high school and got over her, and Libertarianism. But apparently not your own misery. Why are you on this site at all?

    BTW, clever monicker. Are you a strap-on?

  • http://Soloenespana.wordpress.com Dawn

    I dont see why Sharia can't be included – if all involved agree on it, it isn't any different than communism IMO

    • Frank Zeleniuk

      Under Libertarianism, anyone can believe that Communism or Sharia is best all round but they must grow as movements, if they can, by reason and not force. Force is something that neither of those philosophies are averse to using in order to achieve their ends. If they were libertarian, they would have to abandon that element of their philosophy. Communism, then, would no longer be a revolutionary force and would have to achieve its end, that being the total global state, through a progressive socialist model. Communism would essentially take a back burner until the majority felt revolution was ripe and force could be used. Would Sharia grow progressively with the same end?

  • Osaka Ali

    I had high hopes for this article. It held the promise of being an elegantly distilled formula, a kind of E=MC(squared) of what Libertarianism is/is not, to settle the matter for the ages. How eagerly I awaited the outcome of a question answered once and for all.

    The more that I read, the more excited that I got. Yes, it seemed to say, *you too* can be a Libertarian. Racist? Okay! Sexist? Okay! Communist? Come on in! Believe everyone should be free to commit suicide if they so choose? What are you waiting for! Want to use people as a means to your own ends? As long as you don't use force, here's your membership card!

    Wow, I thought, this Libertarianism is quite a non-exclusive party. Perhaps there's a place for even … me. Until I read the dress code:

    "On the other hand, one would be hard pressed to combine a restrictive set of laws, such as Sharia, with the non-aggression principle."

    Looks like its black tie only. Sorry, I'm not trading in my 'Shalwar Kameez' just to get in.

    • EndTheFed

      Convince me that the Sharia and Koran do not require or incite followers to convert the infidel individuals to Islam. It's a serious request. I still don't know what to believe. I see enough within the Islam community on both sides; however, there appears to be a lot that would impose Sharia law on others by force.

      • Osaka Ali

        Davi Barker of Muslims4Liberty makes the case that Islam is not incompatible with freedom of conscience. His article, "Is Libertarianism Compatible with Islam" may serve to inform your research. I recommend that you consider the points he makes in it in order to inform your decision:
        http://www.muslims4liberty.org/davi-barker/is-lib

  • http://www.patrickbarron.blogspot.com Patrick Barron

    Very well stated, Logan. How many times have you been accosted with the charge "If you believe A, then you must believe B."? We libertarians are accosted with this all the time. Your essay is a good answer.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Mark

      Milton Friedman, founder of Libertarianism, would take issue with the statement that Libertarianism doesn't incorporate economics.

      Read Friedman's "Capitalism & Freedom", or, refer to Friedman's debates with Hayek over Monetary expansion & intervention, or, refer to Friedman's stance against a gold standard, then you'll understand the difference between Libertarian and Austrian economics.

      You don't currently realize there's a difference.

      • thellama73

        Of course I have read Capitalism and Freedom and of course I realize that there is a difference. Austrian economics deals with positive statements about the limits of knowledge and how efficiency is better achieved in the absence of central planning. Libertarianism is a philosophy that makes normative statements about the use of force. Milton Friedman was not the first person to coin the term libertarian, and he was not even close to the first person to formulate its ideas.

        • Mark

          Ahh, so, if the founder of the Libertarian movement doesn't support Austrian ideology, then, he is no longer the founder of Libertarianism….because the word "Libertarian" was said by someone before him.

          From where I sit, it looks like your blog intends to tell the masses that Libertarianism is being conveniently reinterpreted while offering a conveniently reinterpreted version of Libertarianism to make your case.

          • Hatting

            I'm sorry but Milton Friedman is, at best, the founder of "neoliberalism" which would be the watered-down social-democratically friendly iteration¹ of [classical] liberalism which includes: central banking, government roads and withholding taxes.

            ¹ not really an iteration as much as it is a PC rehash

          • Mark

            While I get the attempt to insult, ironically, you've nailed the difference between classic liberalism (Austrian) and Libertarianism, as well as Friedman's Monetarist economic theory – despite the premise of the above blog citing Linertarianism doesn't involve economics, Friedman's concepts revolved around monetary expansion in place of Keynesian spending.

            Classic Liberals, F. Hayek's "Austrian" economics, were the ones to oppose Fed intervention & aspire to a gold standard, not Libertarians.

            He attributed the gold standard as causal to the Great Depression, citing central banks were unable to expand m-supply.

            So then, how is it we hear so much about "abolish the Fed" & "Gold standard" from self titled "Libertarians"?

            The problem, you somehow think "Austrian" Classic liberalism is the same as Libertarianism.

            The funniest part, now you're implying Friedman wasn't a Libertarian when it's explained that Friedman, the founder of Libertarianism wasn't a classic Liberal.

            You exemplify the blogs point, that self titled Libertarians are reinventing Libertarianism.

  • Adam12

    Fantastic, and thank you.

  • Steve Blair

    As a lifelong Libertarian and as one who supports property rights, I am very bothered by a recent strain of libertarianism that denies all forms of intellectual property. Someone may spend years or decades of hard intellectual effort to develop something new, but many libertarians now say that the fruits of their labor are not property. Because you can't bump your head on it, it's not property and it belongs to everyone. That is just another form of communism. I would say that the hard work of someone's labor is more their property than a rock or stone that they found, or a piece of ground that they were lucky enough to find first and put a fence around. What say you?

  • Jim

    Steve, isn't it coercion to tell another that he cannot use an idea that he came up with even if it is similar to your own?

  • https://www.mises.ca/members/logan-albright/ Logan Albright

    Hi Steve,
    My own view is that there is no such thing as intellectual property rights because I think property implies scarcity. If I take your physical property, you are deprived of it and can”t use it at the same time, hence the injustice. We cannot properly say that theft exists without some kind of loss on the part of the victim.

    When I use an idea you had, there is no such loss. You still have the full use of the idea and my actions have not deprived you of anything that was rightfully yours. A common argument is that you would be deprived of potential revenues, but there is no right to other people’s money. The fact that they may choose to give their business elsewhere does not violate your rights in any way. With this in mind, I view intellectual property protections as a government-granted monopoly, which is rarely a good and productive thing.

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008223248273 Daniel O'Connell

    Hi Steve,

    I tend to agree with you, but I will admit that Jim and Logan do bring up some good points.

    I think this is a very tricky area, and I intend to think about it some more. But for now…

    By tricky, I mean, how would Jim and Logan answer these examples, and I will provide my current thinking also:

    1. As a computer programmer (which I am), I write a complex and unique program that does X, and it makes me some money. Subsequently, another programmer writes an equally complex and unique program that also does X, but is in terms of code not at all similar to mine. It is completely original. In this case, I say we are both entitled to make money providing the solution to "X".

    2. I write the same program, and someone, using little or no effort, uses a decompiler and is able to reproduce my exact code. I consider this theft of intellectual property, based on the type of coercion known as "fraud", and I don't believe this person has a right to make money from my idea. (Let's assume a perfect world, and I can prove the second program is a mere duplicate of my own.) Does anyone disagree?

    3. What I think is an even clearer example: I spend a year, two years, whatever, and write a lengthy, best-selling novel. I believe I am entitled to copyright that novel, and have a monopoly on selling it, at the very least for my lifetime, and perhaps pass it on to my heirs. Would anyone say that (forget the case of my heirs) as soon as my novel is published, anyone can copy it, publish it, and make money off of my original work?

    1. I

  • wootendw

    So if you write and a publish a book, and someone copies it and publishes it as though they wrote it, they are not violating your rights? You wouldn't feel offended if they did so? I would. I was annoyed when someone posted a photo of mine on Facebook and got likes for it even though it didn't cost me a cent.

  • Nick

    Perhaps you might consider what is gained against what is lost, if there was no copyright / patent?
    This article relating the early steam engine development (lack of) might help. http://levine.sscnet.ucla.edu/papers/anew01.pdf

  • https://www.mises.ca/members/logan-albright/ Logan Albright

    I do not believe this violates rights, no, because you don’t have a right to other people’s money that they might give you for your book. I would probably feel offended in the same way I would feel offended if I owned a pizza restaurant and another, better pizza restaurant opened across the street and attracted all my customers. The monopolist is always annoyed when competition diminishes his profits. But it has nothing to do with rights.

  • http://detlevschlichter.com/ Detlev Schlichter

    I agree with you. There is a libertarian right to intellectual property. You have a right in what you produce, whether it is material or not. Many immaterial and purely intellectual things are, of course, scarce. Even good jokes are scarce. If we had a technology that would prevent others from retelling or otherwise using your joke unless they paid you a fee, would we as libertarians say that it would be coercion to charge for the use of the joke? – I don't think we would. I think the British libertarian philosopher J.C. Lester has the best take on this. Please read here: http://blog.la-articles.org.uk/#post23
    And I do believe you have a libertarian right in your own picture.

  • wootendw

    "The monopolist is always annoyed…"
    The ownership of property, of whatever kind other than a person's body, could be called a 'monopoly'. If one grows an ear of corn, that ought to make it his property and thereby 'grant' him a monopoly on its use. If someone comes along and takes a bite out of his ear of corn, or uses it as baton, without permission, surely the corn owner's property right has been violated. Any claim on one's property is a monopolistic claim as it 'gives' him exclusive use of it.
    The principle of property rights should based, not on 'scarcity' but on the fact that it was produced or created by someone's effort – cause and effect.

  • https://www.mises.ca/members/logan-albright/ Logan Albright

    “Friedman is still considered the founder of Libertarianism.”

    By whom? Not by me. Not by Wikipedia either. And apparently not by a lot of people who read this site.

  • Mark

    lol, "Wikipedia" cites that the Libertarian movement was founded in 1971.

    Friedman was a founding member of "FEE" in the 1940's, considered the first Libertarian think-tank

    Friedman published "Capitalism and Freedom" in 1951, a breakdown & honest appraisal of both Keynesian and Classic Liberal ideologies. (Keynesians borrow too much, Classic Liberals over-simplify economics)

    Friedman and Hayek had some heated debates revolving around the role of the Fed, but let me guess – You feel Hayek was a "Libertarian"? … perhaps you feel Hayek founded Libertarianism?

    I'm back to my original statement, from where I sit it looks like there's a lot of cherry-picking going on to conflate Libertarian ideology as Austrian.

    The two are not the same.

    Let me put this in another context if you disagree – explain the differences between classic liberal/Austrian & Libertarian ideology.

  • https://www.mises.ca/members/logan-albright/ Logan Albright

    I don’t accept your conflation of Austrian economics and classical liberalism. One is a school of economic thought, the other is a political ideology. I think arguing that Friedman “founded” libertarianism ignores the contributions of earlier writers like John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Frederich Bastiat and Lysander Spooner. Perhaps where we differ is that you capitalize the L in libertarianism, viewing it as a specific group, whereas I do not, viewing it as a political philosophy that may include, but does not originate from, Friedman.

  • Mark

    I'm still asking that question – the difference between Classic Liberalism and Libertarianism.

    Where we're using Wikipedia –

    John Locke is revered as the "father of classic Liberalism" (Not Libertarian)

    Bastiat was also a classic Liberal, this is well known & Wiki verifies it..

    John Stuart Mill was a proponent of population control over the working caste – Eugenics is a form of "personal liberty"? – Is that Libertarian? (Sounds more Fascist…no?)

    Spooner, though I agree with the bulk of his theory, was against government regulation of interest rates for lenders – loan sharking would be legal, Fed rates would be relatively meaningless to the majority of us.

    While most of the above share common Libertarian interests, those alone do not define them as Libertarian.

    Again, I ask you to define the difference between Libertarian and Classic Liberal ideology.

    .

  • https://www.mises.ca/members/logan-albright/ Logan Albright

    You are the one who asserted that there was a difference, not me. I don’t really perceive one. Libertarian was just a new word for an old idea when progressives appropriated the word “liberal.” I do agree with you that there is a distinction from Austrian economics though.

  • Mark

    And there it is, as I've repeatedly stated, there's been a movement to redefine Libertarians as Classic Liberal.

    Semantics aside, you need to acknowledge there are ideological differences before defining them. (You don't)

    It all hinges on whether the belief that Friedman, not Locke, Bastiat or Hayek, was the founder of Libertarianism.

    Friedman went to great lengths to distinguish those differences, both from Keynesian, and Classic Liberals, if those differences don't appeal the the Classic Liberal ideology, apparently Classic Liberals have just decided to redefine Libertarianism.

  • https://www.mises.ca/members/logan-albright/ Logan Albright

    Well, I don’t know what to say. I disagree with you. Your argument is that Milton Freidman founded libertarianism and that therefore his beliefs are are libertarian, so when his beliefs contrast with those of classical liberals, his is by definition the libertarian position.

    I don’t accept this because I don’t accept your premise that Friedman founded libertarianism. I don’t know where you got this idea from. Wikipedia defines libertarianism as a set of related philosophies dating back to the enlightenment at least. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarianism

    The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy traces it back to Locke. http://www.iep.utm.edu/libertar/
    as does the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/libertarianism/
    as does Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/339321/

    I guess we will have to agree to disagree.

  • Mark

    Let me take this approach, a quote from your posted Wikipedia link –

    "Accordingly, libertarian socialists believe that "the exercise of power in any institutionalized form—whether economic, political, religious, or sexual—brutalizes both the wielder of power and the one over whom it is exercised". Libertarian socialists generally place their hopes in decentralized means of direct democracy such as libertarian municipalism, citizens' assemblies, trade unions, and workers' councils."

    This is where Friedman's forte lied, concentrated power has a negative effect on Democratic free market processes and price discovery.

    It appears that Classic Liberals abhor government-only, that's where a major difference lies, they also appear to endorse the "corporations are people" ideology, in conflict with the concept of Direct Democracy, as stated in that Wiki quote above.

    Friedman acknowledged the dangers of concentrated power, government & private, he addresses this in "Capitalism and Freedom".

    Classic Liberals appear to only acknowledge government monopoly, but ignore private monopoly, it seems Classic Liberals believe the free market will contend with monopolies.

    I disagree, monopolies & concentrations of power lead to oligarchy, aristocracy, plutocracy and eventual monarchy.

    Libertarians want personal freedom from monopoly & tyranny, classic Liberals conflate personal freedom as corporate freedom.

    A market is only "free" when it caters to the freedom of both buyer and seller, not just seller.

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Logan Albright is a writer and economist in Washington, DC.

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