By: Jason Mayes
“The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships – thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion, and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.” ~ Ayn Rand
Libertarianism is a political philosophy with intellectual roots in classical liberalism and emphasizes and defends personal liberty and economic freedom through free markets. Liberty is seen as a goal in itself and as a way to achieve other goals. To paraphrase the classical liberal historian Lord Acton, a libertarian is a person “whose polar star is liberty — who deems those things right in politics which, taken all round, promote, increase, perpetuate freedom, and those things wrong which impede it.”
Libertarians offer a principled defense of personal and economic freedom. They’re skeptical of political power and they consistently oppose government actions that would be considered wrong or unethical if you or I did it. They recognize that government is the institution with a legal monopoly on the use of physical force in a society and they oppose the threat or use of force for anything other than defensive purposes.
Libertarians disagree with each other about the exact implications and scope of liberty; in other words, some libertarians are more radical than others. But what is essential to being libertarian? What is the libertarian society? Discussion of libertarianism is often obfuscated by ideological purism which insists on a rigid, doctrinaire view of liberty that doesn’t allow for nuance and prescribes policy from the armchair, with a quick and easy deduction from the non-aggression principle. Reality is messier than this and not everything so neatly falls under the umbrella of the NAP as some libertarians would have it.
But there are three legs to the stool of liberty.
THE PRESUMPTION OF LIBERTY
This is similar to the presumption of innocence. Just as you are innocent until proven guilty and the burden of proof is on the accuser to demonstrate that you committed a crime before the state can do anything to you, so the burden of proof is on those who would restrict or infringe liberty to prove the necessity or propriety of their infringement. This is tricky of course because people, and especially power-lusters, can and will claim that it’s necessary to infringe or restrict liberty for all kinds of reasons. And once in awhile, but only rarely, they will be right. But the libertarian will stand as the defense attorney of liberty.
There is no liberty without tolerance. Tolerance of the many individual preferences, ways of being in the world, self-definitions, experiences, backgrounds, cultures, skin colors, sexual orientations; the very diversity that freedom brings is essential to the free society that respects the rights of others to live peaceably and pursue their own happiness. Racism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry are utterly incompatible with, and reprehensible to, the true libertarian. We will tolerate racists and bigots only insofar as the free society does not punish thought crimes, and only to the extent that they don’t violate the rights of others. But we will strongly condemn their actions and rhetoric.
Free markets, free trade, and property rights.
There is no bifurcation between economic freedom and personal freedom. Economic freedom is personal freedom.
As measured by various indexes, economic freedom is consistently correlated with general personal freedom, general prosperity, and less corruption, whereas the less of it there is, the more authoritarianism, widespread poverty, and corruption there tends to be.
Libertarians defend free markets as an essential component of freedom and also point to evidence and principles of economics which strongly suggest that excessive government controls tend to heavily distort incentives and market signals as well as lead to more cronyism, as cronies use the regulatory state to their advantage to control competition. There is very strong evidence of this in occupational licensure, as even the Obama administration recognized and on which they released a report.
Libertarians defend liberty on principle as the way in which we respect the personhood and autonomy of others, being ends in themselves who exist for their own sake and as the best way to achieve other goals, unleashing the creative energy and dynamism that lead to social progress.
Libertarianism is neither left nor right, but occupies a radical center which transcends these polarities.
In the words of Clark Ruper in his essay, libertarianism as radical centrism:
“We are radical in that while others may hold particular pro-liberty beliefs casually or on an ad hoc basis, libertarians advocate them from principle. Libertarians are found on the leading edge of issues that are first seen as extreme but through our advocacy are later taken for granted. We are centrist in that we are neither left nor right, but instead we project our ideas outward to inform the entirety of the spectrum.”