Libertarianism isn't about winning elections; it is first and foremost a political philosophy--a description of how, in the opinion of libertarians, free people ought to treat one another, at least when they use the law, which they regard as potentially dangerous. If libertarians are correct, the law should intrude into people's lives as little as possible, rarely telling them what to do or how to live.
A political and economic philosophy as old as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, but as alive and timely as Rand Paul, the Tea Party, and the novels of Ayn Rand, libertarianism emphasizes individual rights and calls for a radical reduction in the power and size of government. Libertarianism For Beginners lays out the history and principles of this often-misunderstood philosophy in lucid, dispassionate terms that help illuminate today's political dialogue.
About the Author
Nathan Smith (aka bluefluke) is a writer and illustrator who specializes in the classical western esoteric tradition. His notable works include The Psychonaut Field Manual, Am I Evil?, and the Discordian Tarot Collection. See his art at: bluefluke.deviantart.com or bluefluke.tumblr.com
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By Todd Seavey, Nathan Smith
For Beginners LLCCopyright © 2016 Todd Seavey
All rights reserved.
Estimates vary, but when the libertarian Cato Institute did an opinion survey designed to find out if Americans were both "SOCIALLY LIBERAL" (not wanting the government to interfere in their personal behavior) and "FISCALLY CONSERVATIVE" (wanting low taxes, low government spending, and few regulations), they found that 15%–19% of the population may thus qualify as libertarians (loosely defined). The number who actually think of themselves as libertarians is much smaller, perhaps 5% or less of the population. The Libertarian Party, which wins only about one quarter or one third of self-proclaimed libertarians' votes in presidential elections, struggles to win more than 1% of the general electorate.
Ultimately, however, libertarianism isn't about winning elections. It doesn't even promise to win over the rest of society to its views, though libertarians will sometimes try. It is first and foremost a political philosophy — a description of how, in the opinion of libertarians, free people ought to treat one another, at least in the use of the law, which they regard as potentially dangerous. If libertarians are correct, THE LAW SHOULD INTRUDE INTO PEOPLE'S LIVES AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE, rarely telling them what to do or how to live.
That sounds pleasant and easy-going enough — live and let live! So why are libertarians so often despised and ridiculed? As is often the case with an unfamiliar philosophy, many people are prepared to believe the worst about libertarianism and, understandably, may not be motivated to seek out the best and brightest champions of the philosophy.
Hearing only cursory descriptions from critics of libertarianism — on both the left and the right — the casual observer might be left with the impression that libertarians, because they are laissez-faire capitalists, recommend that we stop caring about the poor (or even that we hate the poor) and that we allow commercial enterprises to sell poisonous food or exploding vehicles without legal consequences, all the while permitting greedy millionaires to buy up forests and burn them down for no reason.
As you may have guessed, this is not a very accurate picture. And since libertarianism has been getting a little more popular lately, you may be relieved to hear that.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy that emphasizes individual rights, including strong property rights, and the radical shrinking or abolition of government (since government routinely interferes with your use of your body and property). Libertarians believe, roughly stated, that you have the right to do as you please with your own body and your own possessions so long as you do not use the body or possessions of others without their permission.
The principle of "like liberty" for everyone has been articulated, in varying forms, by the likes of nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, whom we'll hear more about later. As it is sometimes summarized, Mill's view was that your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of his nose. Do what you like, but don't harm others.
Even Mill was arguably not a full-fledged libertarian, though, and this book is partly about how the contemporary philosophy with that name arose gradually from its intellectual forebears over the course of several centuries.
The meaning of the word "libertarianism" may have been fought over even more frequently than libertarian policy proposals themselves.
In twenty-first-century U.S. political parlance, and for most purposes in this book, the word refers broadly to a political philosophy that advocates the shrinking (or even elimination) of government; preserving the freedom of individuals to control their own lives; and making strong property rights a central feature of law and a bulwark against interference by the state in personal decision-making.
Beyond these basic principles, however, there is often furious disagreement over how to define "libertarian." Indeed, as in so many disputes in public life, fighting over terminology becomes a means of fighting over boundaries with tribal fierceness. There is a temptation to think that if one cannot quite defeat an opposing argument, one can at least excommunicate the person making the argument on the basis of terminology, minimizing the chance of the contagion spreading to the rest of the movement.
This book will not use any artfully designed or overly restrictive definitions of "libertarian" in an effort to dismiss or conceal troublesome or divisive arguments. It will be assumed throughout that there are always more caveats and clarifications that could be provided. The goal here is to explain, not exclude. This will be a basic, consensus view of what libertarianism is, and areas of disagreement among libertarians will be noted as impartially as possible. This does not mean that there are no correct answers when disagreements arise, only that this book is an attempt to describe what an array of views and subsidiary movements have in common rather than to describe one narrow version of those views.
All philosophical movements, whether political, religious, social, or economic, have internal disagreements. But disagreement is not necessarily the same as logical contradiction. Differences of emphasis are not necessarily insurmountable rifts, nor evidence that someone on one side or the other is engaged in deceit. Widely differing premises may lead people of good will to very similar conclusions. Similar premises may also lead people of good will to divergent conclusions, with all of them still in one movement, or in closely associated movements, working together on most issues.
Beyond libertarianism as defined above, however, the term has been used for other purposes by additional groups large enough that they should be acknowledged at the outset.
This is not to say that these other groups have no useful arguments or that they have no right to use the term. (Most students of political philosophy wish there were more precise labels for the dizzying array of ideas and factions in the world.) Libertarians have no desire to "steal" the term from anyone else; they are just using the current lexicon. These other groups, while interesting in their own right, are simply not the focus of this book.
Some of these rival meanings of the term — the kinds of "libertarianism" this book does not explain — are as follows:
5 THINGS THIS BOOK IS NOT ABOUT
1 Beginning in the eighteenth century, the term "libertarian" was sometimes used to connote belief in the existence of "free will" in the sense that philosophers mean it — that is, the opposite of "determinism," which is the control of all human decision-making by causal factors such as climate, biology, and historical circumstance.
Around the same time, the term "liberal" (itself open to many interpretations) came to mean politically anti-authoritarian and characterized by respect for individual autonomy. "Libertarian" in our sense means something similar but hardly identical to what "liberal" meant to people of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as will be explained later.
2 The term "libertarian" (or an approximation of the word in other languages) is sometimes used in Continental Europe and associated regions to denote a philosophy closer to Marxism or socialism in orientation — that is, anti-property rather than pro-property.
Association (or confusion) with our definition of libertarianism lies in the fact that Continental European users of the term often see themselves as "liberating" people from economic or historical circumstances. It bears emphasizing that their policy recommendations are nearly the opposite of the ones contemporary American libertarians urge. The two strains interact and influence each other very little. (Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister who resigned during that nation's debt crisis of 2015, called himself a "libertarian Marxist.")
3 Bearing greater affinity with libertarians as we define them are American anarchists, who sometimes use the term "libertarian" as a near synonym of "anarchist" (yet another term with multiple meanings). But anarchism is often taken to imply opposition to both government and capitalism (and other organized systems). Linguist and leftist political commentator Noam Chomsky has sometimes used the term in that sense. The brand of libertarians examined in this book, by contrast, generally opposes government but supports capitalism (though even that term has been used in conflicting ways and was coined as a slur by the consummate anti-capitalist, Karl Marx).
4 "Libertarian" is sometimes used, especially in the United States, as a shortened form of "civil libertarian." The latter term, however, connotes a somewhat vaguer philosophy that is often, but not always, compatible with our libertarianism. That set of principles animates the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, which tends to place a greater emphasis on specific constitutional, legal, or procedural rights (or purported rights) that may or may not be compatible with property rights. Civil libertarians at times override property rights completely and call for substantial intervention on the part of the government. Libertarians in our sense of the word will often, but not always, agree with civil libertarians.
5 Further complicating the lexicon, there are people who are quite familiar with the meaning of "libertarian" as used in this book but who use it to describe only certain aspects of their own (or others') views rather than a coherent, consistent philosophy. That is, people sometimes claim to be "a libertarian on fiscal issues" or "a libertarian about drugs" without being in favor of more sweeping deregulation of human activity. Sometimes people casually self-identify as "libertarian" without extending libertarian arguments to all aspects of life, often to the confusion of the general public.
Hardcore libertarians sometimes debate whether it is helpful to have such people engage in public discourse or whether it is counterproductive as a source of confusion, if not deliberate obfuscation. Regardless, we are primarily concerned in this book with the philosophical arguments in favor of being "libertarian about everything," so to speak.
OTHER COMMON TERMS IN THE LIBERTARIAN LEXICON
Though not all full-fledged libertarians treat property rights as the foundation of their political philosophy — and even the most ardent advocates of strong property rights normally have deeper reasons for advocating them — thinking about property does provide a convenient framework for predicting what moral and political positions libertarians will take.
In referring to "property rights," libertarians do not mean whatever property claims happen to be enforceable under the current legal system. They mean the rights that ought to be enforced regarding property in a fully (or nearly) libertarian society. Thus, if a libertarian says she favors strict enforcement of property rights, it does not mean that she endorses, say, a legal claim the government has granted you to your neighbor's house under eminent domain laws that might allow you to build a Walmart or highway off-ramp on his property. Likewise, since libertarians assume that individuals own their own bodies, it does not mean that slave owners have any legitimate claim to slaves.
According to libertarians, your body, like all your property, should be yours to do with as you please so long as you do not harm the body or property of others without their permission. Your property rights exist as moral claims even if society fails to recognize them — indeed, even if society actively undermines them or passes laws that make it difficult for you to exercise them.
The violation of property rights, then, is nearly always seen by libertarians as an authoritarian intrusion, both morally and legally illegitimate. Such violations are regarded as coercion, in the special libertarian sense of the term. Different factions of libertarians (all within the main sense of the word as used in this book) may disagree as to whether coercion should be completely eliminated, minimized, or merely limited to certain narrow forms.
Nevertheless, most libertarians understand the basic sense in which the word "coercion" is used here (even if they don't routinely invoke the term).
Coercion, then, in libertarian parlance, is roughly synonymous with property rights violations, including attacks on the body. Resistance to such violations lies at the core of libertarian philosophy. Retaliation or restitution for property rights violations — such as using a gun to repel a gun-wielding attacker — is not normally referred to as coercion by libertarians but rather as self-defense.
Thus, it is the initiation of force, rather than its retaliatory use (or its restitution-seeking use), that libertarianism expressly forbids. Keep in mind that libertarians regard the taking of property without permission as the initiation of force as well. For instance, holding a gun on someone to prevent him from fraudulently removing a piece of your property might well be justified. He would be the initiator of force, not you, even though you are holding a gun and he might merely be holding a TV set he had removed from your house without your permission or under the false pretense of being a repairman.
Just as libertarians respect the right of individuals to control their bodies and other property, so they respect the right to retaliate against force and fraud. Note that some libertarians might choose to be pacifists and never retaliate with more than a sternly worded letter, and most would prefer to outsource the job of retaliation to professional police or security guards. But libertarianism is generally taken to imply that victims are within their rights to retaliate with the force necessary to restore their property or defend their bodies.
When libertarians condemn government or the state, they refer specifically to the institution that most often and most routinely uses people's bodies and other property without permission, chiefly by regulating, taxing, or fining them. Libertarians do not deny the usefulness of rules reached by voluntary or contractual arrangement between individuals and that bind only those individuals. But they do not normally refer to such arrangements as "government." (Nor in this context do they mean "state" as in "state rather than federal," a frequent source of confusion in the context of U.S. law.)
It would be wrong, therefore, to accuse libertarians of being hypocrites who love government just because, say, they respect the right of individuals to form a bird-watching society or even a strict religious order. As long as individuals freely contract (whether in print or orally) to enter into such arrangements, they are still exercising control over their own bodies and property. And they are doing so even if they make a contract that gives the head of the religious order the right to rap them hard on the shoulders for falling asleep during religious gatherings (as is the custom in some Buddhist temples). But the moment the group begins to use the bodies or property of outsiders who never contracted to be in the group, as a government does, it is said to engage in coercion.
For libertarians, any large, centralized, coercive organization, especially one that claims a legal monopoly on the right to use force in a certain geographic area, is regarded as a government.
Other, less centralized forms of coercion certainly exist — such as terrorism, organized crime, gang crime, rape, slavery, burglary, kidnapping, and more — and libertarians morally reject all of these decentralized forms as well. (Critics of libertarianism often make the mistake of thinking that because libertarians spend so much time talking about government policy they are indifferent to other forms of coercion. Some critics even insist that libertarians logically ought to be indifferent to these other forms, thinking only government can stop them.)
Most libertarians, rightly or wrongly, complicate the legal and ethical picture by endorsing limited government rather than advocating no government at all. Libertarians who insist there should be none at all are called anarcho-capitalists. (How anarcho-capitalists would solve basic problems of social coordination normally handled by the state will be discussed in Chapter 7.) Libertarians who call for limited government are sometimes referred to as minarchists — that is, advocates of a minimal state rather than no state.
Excerpted from Libertarianism by Todd Seavey, Nathan Smith. Copyright © 2016 Todd Seavey. Excerpted by permission of For Beginners LLC.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by John Stossel,
1. The Basics,
2. Libertarianism in Action,
4. Classical Liberalism,
5. Modern Libertarianism,
6. Twenty-First-Century Factions,
8. Ten Dilemmas for Libertarians,
9. Major Libertarian Schools of Thought,
Frequently Asked Questions,
About the Author,
About the Illustrator,