What Libertarianism Is Not

Courtesy of Logan Albright @ Mises.org:

As 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.

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