Christina Annesley explores what libertarianism is, and what it definitely isn’t.
OVER the past year I have become increasingly incensed by the amount of people who call themselves ‘libertarians’ when they quite frankly have no idea what the word means. Not only is it a personal irritation when big-state advocates attempt to park themselves in a camp with somebody like myself who disagrees with everything that they stand for, it creates a lot of confusion amongst the general public or even non-libertarian political activists as to what libertarianism stands for, and gives many of us a bad name. Although, like any word, the meaning is up for debate, there are a few consensuses in the libertarian community as to what it generally includes, and to what it certainly does not. Please note that for the purpose of this article I will be referring predominantly to property-based libertarianism; libertarian socialism is an area that I have little expertise on, and would welcome any input on in the comments section – rest assured you are not purposely excluded!
What libertarianism is
The Standford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines libertarianism as “the moral view that agents initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things.” Although I would take issue with the word ‘moral’ as it excludes consequentialist libertarians, I’d argue that this is a fairly decent definition. It would concur with the strictest and most commonly accepted interpretation of what constitutes libertarian in the libertarian community itself, which split between anarchism and minarchism.
Whilst trying not to sound too much like a nature documentary, this is the probably the most common form of libertarian you’ll find today. It is the belief that states should exist, but their only function is to uphold the non-aggression principle amongst their citizens. This means in its strictest sense funding the military, the police, and the courts, although some would include prisons, fire departments and even roads in this definition. This is often referred to as a ‘night watchman’ state. Notable minarchists include Ludwig von Mises, Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand. Branches of minarchism include objectivism, the philosophy that Ayn Rand laid out that justifies minarchism in a moral sense, although some objectivists are anarchists. Geo-libertarianism is another form of minarchism, which argues that land itself cannot be private property and thus justifies a form of land value tax in order to fund a minarchist state. Tax can be a polarising issue under minarchists; some, such as Ayn Rand, believe that it should be voluntary, whilst others believe that enforced tax is necessary. Most believe that the state should hold a monopoly on coercion, i.e. that private protection agencies should be illegal. Minarchists, like anarchists, do not tend to believe in democracy or ‘tyranny of the masses’, but instead prefer strong constitutional limits set to prevent the state from developing beyond its night watchman duties.
Libertarian anarchists (as opposed to anarcho-communists) believe that property rights are either a right or are consequentially beneficial, and that the state does not need to exist to enforce them; indeed, they cannot exist alongside a state, as the state violates them by merely existing. This is most frequently referred to as anarcho-capitalism, but many have taken up the term voluntaryist or market anarchist to avoid the negative connotations associated with the word ‘capitalism’. Anarchists would have all services run by private individuals and exchanged by voluntary means, including policing and courts. This would result in both the most efficiently services, as force and monopoly never provide this, and, for rights-based libertarians, the only means of organised society that fully upholds property rights in accordance to the non-aggression principle. How a libertarian anarchist system would look is not for us to decide; many ‘right-wing’ libertarian anarchists imagine it to be mostly small businesses run according to capitalist principles, whereas many ‘left-wing’ market anarchists would prefer trade unions and co-operatives and even communes to play a bigger role (see Centre for a Stateless Society http://c4ss.org/market-
What libertarianism debatably is – classical liberalism
Classical liberals pose a problem for categorisation. Most libertarians in both the minarchist or anarchist camp would be hesitant to categorise classical liberals being ‘libertarian’ mainly because the definition of what constitutes classical liberalism is quite broad. Some that call themselves classical liberals would call for the state to fund via voucher-type systems or even provide education in order to address inequalities of opportunity, and many would argue that voucher-type systems for healthcare are also justifiable. Noted classical liberal Adam Smith supported publicly-owned roads and canals. Public transport is another area classical liberals are often in support of. The definition is so broad and the degrees of state intervention in classical liberalism are so varying that I, personally, would not classify classical liberals as libertarians; in fact, many classical liberals attempt to distance themselves from the label libertarian, knowing what a radical perception it gives off (and perhaps rightly so!). Many classical liberals are also sceptical supporters of democracy, which is a pretty clear departure from minarchy and anarchy. However, I would bare no ill will to those classical liberals who would choose to use the term libertarianism; they are allies in liberty and their use of the word is in no way damaging. Notable classical liberals include F. A. Hayek, who supported a ‘safety net’ provided by the state, and Milton Friedman, who supported limited economic intervention by the state and state provision of some public goods that private businesses were ‘unable’ to provide.
What libertarianism definitely isn’t :
Here, we arrive at the two main groups of people who call themselves libertarians without having any understanding of the ideology whatsoever.
“I think we should cut tax a bit, and maybe legalise marijuana, and I like gay people.”
This type is generally found in the Conservative party, and is likely to use the word libertarian because it’s catchier than classical liberal and it sounds a bit cooler than ‘conservative’ amongst their left-wing friends. The accuracy is about the equivalent of a Blairite calling themselves a communist. Typically young and therefore socially liberal, these are people who think that the 50p tax rate should probably be cut and oh, maybe a flat-tax of around 30% would be nice eventually but we’ve got to get the deficit under control first and marijuana doesn’t really do much harm so there’s no point in not legalising it, but if presented with full-fronted minarchism they’ll call you a dangerous idealist and anarchism an absolute lunatic. Usually supporters of Obama and the NHS and assume that the USA is an example of why privatised healthcare will never work. Often believe that heroin and guns should remain illegal. If your beliefs are a combination of any of the above views and you’re calling yourself a libertarian – stop. You’re a centre-right pragmatist. I don’t care what you label yourself as, but you’re not a libertarian, and my ideology isn’t a fashion trend.
“I believe in a minimal state promoting individual liberty that should build a thirty foot electric fence around the UK, outlaw homosexuals and hang people.”
This type essentially personifies the average middle-aged socially conservative UKIP or Conservative activist. Believes in economic freedom to a small extent and often bangs on about how the Tories aren’t cutting tax and how Labour are dangerous socialists, but in reality probably doesn’t support much more of a reduction in taxation than its young equivalent above. Believes strongly in the concept of the ‘nation state’, and is passionately Eurosceptic based mainly on the concept of ‘national sovereignty’. Loathes immigration partially due to benefit tourism but mostly due to the misguided belief that dirty foreigners are coming over, eating up delicious slices of the job pie, and ruining our glorious British culture with, erm, Indian restaurants and the like. And bringing in Sharia Law, of course (gosh, I didn’t know that privatised polycentric law was allowed in the UK – I must alert David Friedman immediately). Often believes in bringing back the death penalty, or at least having a referendum on it, because if over half the population vote for the state to be able to legally murder people we must be enjoying our democratic liberties. Justifies his or her opposition to same-sex marriage on the bizarre belief that having the state lift its discriminatory ban on people of the same gender joining in a voluntary and often secular union is somehow an anti-libertarian concept (and no, the ECHR is not going to force churches to marry same-sex couples, so please get over it and find another justification for your bigotry http://thebackbencher.co.uk/
And thus concludes my rant on libertarianism. I hope I haven’t offended anyone (except, perhaps, the latter group); my intention was to educate, not to exclude. Comments welcome below, especially if I’ve missed out any groups.
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