Libertarianism is a philosophy and a theory about government and society in which liberty is the highest principle. Other libertarian values include freedom, autonomy, responsibility, and non-coercion. Libertarians have always (and especially in Obama’s two terms) been very skeptical about state power (e.g., the government). Laws — from being drafted into the military all the way down to motorcycle helmet laws — are ideally few and only those which are absolutely necessary for social functioning and human welfare. The motto of a person holding libertarian values goes something like “I am a free and autonomous individual. I want to pursue my own ends in ways of my own choosing with other individuals (or not!) and government has very little justifiable reason to prevent me from doing what I wish – as long as I don’t harm other people.” In this blog, I explore libertarianism, highlight a few notable libertarians, contrast it with modern/American political liberalism, and generally share some information and critique of libertarian values.
Josiah Warren (1798–1874) was an inventor, proto-sociologist, and virtually the originator of the term “individual sovereignty”. This American was thought of as the first “anarchist” and influenced John Stuart Mill, which is saying a lot since by and large England took little influence from its colony of roughnecks. Warren pointed out that States “commit more crimes upon persons and property than all criminals put together.” Other prominent early libertarians include Claude-Frédéric Bastiat (a Frenchman who lived in the first half of the 1800s), abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and influential author Henry David Thoreau.
The libertarian vision is in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal; no one ought to have any special rights and privileges in his social relations with other people. We have certain rights — to our life, to our freedom, to do what we please in order to find happiness. Government has just one purpose: to help us protect those rights. And if it doesn’t, then we get to “alter or abolish it.” ~ Brian Doherty
According to Wikipedia, the definition of “State” is “a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a certain geographical territory. Speakers of American English often use the terms state and government as synonyms, with both words referring to an organized political group that exercises authority over a particular territory.”
The nature of the State is important because the issues libertarian liberals and egalitarian liberals argue about typically hinge on the proper role of the State (e.g., the state and federal governments). By “egalitarian liberals” I am referring to those who in America are on the political “Left” and consider themselves progressives or simply “liberals.” You know, Ted Kennedy, Larry David, Fareed Zakaria, Bill Maher, Dennis Kucinich, and Jon Stewart are examples of “liberals”.
In An Inquiry Into the Principles of a Good Society, prominent conservative Walter Lippmann wrote: “In a free society, the state does not administer the affairs of men. It administers justice among men who conduct their own affairs.” That is a tight and solid quote that adequately represents libertarian values. The question, though, is what is meant by state. I am only 50% in agreement with his characterization in that quote. Society is not a “them” or “it,” but it is us. Is the ant colony not just a bunch of ants? It’s definitely food for thought. I respect Lippmann but if he means “a faraway government in Washington,” I’m not sure I can agree with him.
Libertarianism offers an alternative to coercive government that should appeal to peaceful, productive people everywhere. No, a libertarian world isn’t a perfect one. There will still be inequality, poverty, crime, corruption, man’s inhumanity to man. But, unlike the theocratic visionaries, the pie-in-the-sky socialist utopians, or the starry-eyed Mr. Fixits of the New Deal and Great Society, libertarians don’t promise you a rose garden. Karl Popper once said that attempts to create heaven on earth invariably produce hell. Libertarianism holds out, not the goal of a perfect society, but of a better and freer one. It promises a world in which more of the decisions will be made in the right way by the right person: you. ~ David Boaz
Well, in the long history of libertarianism, other early proponents include Albert Camus, Emma Goldman, H. L. Mencken, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky. The thinkers from the middle of the timeline include Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, and Milton Friedman. They all have an outsize influence on modern American politics (and especially in the case of Friedman, in some Latin American countries) either because of their writings or because of the Reagan revolution in the 1980s (Reagan ate the stuff up). Personally, I see a notable difference between the intentions and the writings of someone like Chomsky or Goldman and folks like Nozick or Friedman. They may share libertarian values, but it feels to me like the difference between an omnivore and a carnivore, though they are both animals.
Noam Chomsky is most associated with left-libertarianism. Here is one paragraph from Wikipedia describing it:
“While maintaining full respect for personal property, left-libertarians are skeptical of or fully against private property, arguing that neither claiming nor mixing one’s labor with natural resources is enough to generate full private property rights and maintain that natural resources (land, oil, gold, and vegetation) should be held in an egalitarian manner, either unowned or owned collectively. Those left-libertarians who support private property do so under the condition that recompense is offered to the local community.”
You can see the libertarian values coming through, but they are pretty egalitarian and non-individualistic in nature. Contrast that with someone like Nozick or Friedman or Rand, and you get the flavor of libertarian values that has more to do with individualism, non-interference, and personal financial gain. Chomsky doesn’t think much of the United States government, stridently arguing it is a terrorist state and the like. Think Malcolm X. However, Friedman would probably be more forgiving of things the government does in Latin America and other far-away places as long as they do not tax him and other libertarians much. Think Newt Gingrich.
Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: [the United States government should] stop participating in it.
So, to sum up, libertarian values are somewhat disparate, and can range from what I would consider laudable and defensible, such as statements like “The U.S. government will do all kinds of immoral and objectionable things, just like the Israeli government does, and it needs to be kept on a short leash, in the sunlight, subject to the will of the voters” or “No one should be held by the civil authorities without certain legal protections codified in the Bill of Rights; we must adhere to the rule of law, not what some Sherriff or Senator believes to be best.” This follows a long and glorious thread that included cries of revolution in the American colonies and in monarchical France in 1789. “Give me liberty or give me death!,” as Patrick Henry famously declared, and the Boston Tea Party, ignited the hearts of his countrymen and led to the British colonies throwing off the corrupt yoke of the Parliament and the King.
On the other end, libertarian values can seem fairly self-concerned, to the point of being austerely selfish. You sometimes wonder if this meme doesn’t characterize libertarianism in the post-Reagan era well, as it notes that government works well for Europeans and Scandinavians (and Aus/New Zealand) but here, where we basically have a system that can fairly be called crony capitalism, it is irksome:
One of the fair critiques of libertarianism is that it is a philosophy of the wealthy and the elite. It can be satirized with the following statement: “If you’re poor, it is probably because you didn’t make good decisions. It’s not up to me and the rest of society to save you from yourself. You either sink or swim based on your own capabilities. So, sink or swim. I’m not going to help you swim; it’s every man for himself. Sayonara!”
There can be no moral claim to something that would not exist but for the decision of others to risk their resources on its creation. What those who attack great private wealth do not understand is that it is neither by physical effort nor by the mere act of saving and investing, but by directing resources to the most productive uses that wealth is chiefly created. And there can be no doubt that most of those who have built up great fortunes in the form of new industrial plants and the line have thereby benefitted more people through creating opportunities for more rewarding employment than if they had given their superfluity away to the poor. The suggestion that in these cases those to whom in fact the workers are most indebted to wrong rather than greatly benefit them is absurdity. Though there are undoubtedly also other and less meritorious ways of acquiring large fortunes ( which we can hope to control by improving the rules of the game), the most effective and important is by directing investment to points where they most enhance the productivity of labor – a task in which governments notoriously fail, for reasons inherent in non-competitive bureaucratic organizations. ~ Friedrich A. Hayek
We liberals also feel that libertarians would fall asleep while on watch in regard to corporations. They spend so much time worrying about government being too “big” or powerful and making them wear helmets or not smoke in public that they miss the clear and present danger posed by corporations. Consider this quote by Thomas Jefferson:
“It was in America that the ideas and practices of liberty initially went furthest— and thus it is not surprising that the modern libertarian movement arose here. Libertarianism has its basis in economic, moral, and political theory, rooted in ideas about how workable order can arise uncoordinated by a single controlling mind, how and where it is proper for a human to use force against another, and the likely dire effects of concentrated, unchecked power. But the element that distinguishes libertarianism’s unique place in political thought is that it is radical, taking insights about order, justice, and the struggle between liberty and power further and deeper than most standard American liberals, patriots, or oldfashioned Jeffersonians.” ~ Brian Doherty
The idea of a “free market”, separate and distinct from government, has functioned as a useful cover for those who do not want the market mechanism fully exposed. They have had the most influence over it and would rather keep it that way. The mythology is useful precisely because it hides their power. ~ Robert Reich
“In a democracy, personal liberties are rarely diminished overnight. Rather, they are lost gradually, by the acts of well-meaning people, with good intentions, amid public approval. But the subtle loss of freedom is never recognized until the crisis is over and we look back in horror. And then it is too late.” ~ Andrew Napolitano
“While negative freedom is freedom from external interference, positive freedom is usually characterized as freedom to achieve certain ends; as a form of empowerment that allows an individual to fulfill her potential, to achieve a particular vision of self-realization, to reach a state of personal autonomy and self-mastery.”
Much of the disagreement between libertarians and liberals centers not just around the role of the State, but the nature of the word freedom. It can be negatively defined, such as “Freedom means that no person or entity can tell me what to do if I am just going about my own personal business.” However, it can be positively defined, such as “Real freedom is freedom from want, from fear, from impediments such as racism, class conflict, poverty, etc. How can you be ‘free’ if you didn’t even eat breakfast because your parents don’t make enough money?” This is more Rooseveltian, if you will. It is also beautifully described by the following meme:
“The prevailing discourse on liberty in the United States, largely dominated by those on the conservative right, focuses on a negative conception: the importance of being free from restrictions on speech, on gun ownership, on religious beliefs and practices, and even, at the limit of this conception, from government itself. However, there is a far more expansive notion of liberty — one which combines protections from arbitrary power with fostering the material and social preconditions that allow people to flourish and have the power to develop as human and political subjects.”
“Liberals have fought to give liberty to the poor, the sick, the homeless, and minorities. I contend that it was liberal ideas that liberated many in our society.”
Libertarian liberals, like Robert Nozick and Friedrich Hayek, argue that government should respect basic civil and political liberties, and also the right to the fruits of our labor as conferred by the market economy; redistributive policies that tax the rich to help the poor thus violate our rights. Egalitarian liberals like [author of A Just Society] John Rawls disagree.”
“John Rawls requires a hands-off policy in the matter of individual liberty but a hands-on policy in compensating for marked inequality in wealth and in opportunity.”
Look, I like keeping as much money in my pocket as I can. I get that government is just way out of control now (meaning, politicians take large amounts of money from wealthy individuals and corporations and don’t do the work of the people). We have many problems here, but look at Europe and Scandinavia and see how happy and functional they are with their governments. Their examples indicate that we need to get our political situation under control, and bring corporations and the 1% to heel, rather than neuter the government and make it more inefficient. Think of for-profit prisons and compare that image to the fire department. Which would you rather experience?
This meme perfectly exemplifies what I think libertarian values in modern America doesn’t get (or doesn’t want to get). After all, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It shows that libertarian values such as freedom, opportunity, responsibility, and individualism need to be defined and seen in its modern, very specific context.
“I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air – that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value. I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave.”
“We have to make it clear that the Moral Majority is really shaking the foundations of the American republic. In a free society, diversity of opinion, whether moral, political, philosophical, scientific, cultural, or religious will flourish, and any effort to oppose it is contrary to our deepest roots. The paradox intrinsic to the fundamentalist right is that, on the one hand, it claims to believe in “freedom,” but yet on the other, it is all too ready to legislate morality and belief.”