Libertarianism; what I think it is

If I were to give my definition of libertarianism, and we can all play the parlour game, I would say: Libertarianism is an individualistic political philosophy, based on one primary ethical imperative; non-aggression.

Prior to this may come a belief in individual liberty as a natural right, a product of an inalienable property we have in ourselves, or there may be no such belief at all, but instead a rational, utilitarian assessment, that a society governed by non-aggression would be for the greater good of the greater number, or there may be no such intellectual ruminations, but rather a more heartfelt, visceral impulse to resist the tyranny and coercion of others, a flintlock of defiance, ever-ready to spark within us, or a combination of all the above, or I know not what, but however this may be, whatever the prior motivation, it is the adherence to and approval of, the axiom of non-aggression which defines the individual a libertarian.

Using the twin methods of logical deduction and drunken discourse, libertarians attempt to agree upon the implications extending from this axiom, with regard to society, its laws and institutions, as well as to the individual person and his relations with others, always bearing in mind the limitations placed upon us by nature; the uneven distribution of abundance and scarcity, and what the scientists can tell us of such matters.

And then crashing into our speculations comes the unavoidable reality of the state and its power, and the strictures it has placed, through regulation and the threat of force, on our freedom of action in almost every direction.  We consider its legitimacy, or lack thereof, and also consider war and crime, the government, the democratic system, the administration of the law and the functioning of the economy, especially with regard to the effects of state action. We are individualists, and our discussions reflect this.

Interwoven is a debate on our prior motivations as noted above, for the differences between these are reflected in other differences of opinion. We converge at the axiom, but our starting points are different and our conclusions often likewise. Supplying points of reference is that body of work, we may call the Libertarian Tradition; the writers, thinkers and doers, extending back to the Enlightenment and beyond, who have explored and mapped the territory around us. They each take their own paths, and concern themselves more with one thing than another, and, of course, as individual libertarians we are free to branch out for ourselves, as long as we can trace our way back to the non-aggression axiom.

Now let us consider how each of us relates to this tradition and its expression, how we are bound in some way to those other souls, who for whatever reason and through whatever window, have looked at the world and drawn the same conclusions, that freedom is a prerequisite for true happiness, that it is an imperative of our very nature, and to assert these values and resist their infringement is a right we may claim, if not an obligation we evade only through an abdication of moral rectitude.

In summary, libertarians seek to establish, not only in theory but in fact, a society where non-aggression is the rule, and the defence of liberty is supported by the law, and each individual is free to pursue his own betterment, through voluntary exchange and thus, happily, howsoever incidentally, through service to others, in short: we seek a society where liberty reigns and justice is done.

Cross-posted at the Pro Liberty website

  17 comments for “Libertarianism; what I think it is

  1. Nov 11, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Here here. The fact that we all cross paths at the non-agression principle is what makes the movement possible at the scale it is operating at and ensures a high maximum scale (and I do think it can scale out to become dominant).

    Without NAP, we objectivists, anarchists, and classical liberals are merely similar, with NAP we are logically compatible. Big difference.

    • Feb 16, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      ‘dominant as a philosophy, or in governance?

  2. Nov 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    If I ever tweeted, I’d tweet this. Failing that…

    A measly 5% of Britons would vote for an anti-state party and it’s time for all Tories to drop the libertarian language

    5% based on the question they asked is frankly huge. But he’s right, the Tories should stop pretending to be anti-state, it doesn’t fool anyone.

    Notice he says “Libertarian Brave New World”. Anyone here think he doesn’t know what Brave New World actually means? Anyone? No, didn’t think so. What a massive c***!

  3. Richard Carey
    Nov 12, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Damn right! On that poll, 5% of the population are anarcho-capitalists. I’d say that’s quite impressive. We’ll have a statute of Murray Rothbard on that fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square some day.

  4. George Mulberry
    Nov 12, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    My 5 cents worth is that there are libertarians and Libertarians. The former are socially liberal and economically conservative (by which I mean properly liberal), and are potentially a large block. The latter seem to dominate libertarian movement and are the hardcore ancap, anti-state crowd who put off the former with talk or privatising the NHS and legalising all drugs (not that I think there is anything wrong with these positions!) The trick is to build movement the both types can all get behind…

    • Richard Carey
      Nov 13, 2012 at 1:46 am

      I think you’re largely correct, but I think that there is another grouping, which is the next generation down, who could play a decisive role.

  5. Lucian
    Nov 16, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    I agree that the NAP is the defining and most important aspect of libertarianism.

    But I don’t think it is necessary to stress an “individualistic” aspect. In fact I suspect that this term puts people off, needlessly, as it scares people into thinking that libertarians want a brutal loner’s world with no charity, no neighbourliness, and no community groups.

    So long as interactions are non-aggressive, it doesn’t seem necessary that libertarians act in an “individualistic” way rather than a group-oriented way. Many people want to give and share with their family, neighbours, faith group, commune, or whatever, and this is perfectly consistent with the NAP so long as the sharing/giving is voluntary rather than forced.

    • Richard Carey
      Nov 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm

      “But I don’t think it is necessary to stress an “individualistic” aspect. In fact I suspect that this term puts people off, needlessly”

      I disagree. Some things we have to fight to defend and individualism I think is one of them, so I don’t see it as needless. If you stress that individualism is the antonym of collectivism, I think it is not difficult to defend.

      Libertarianism *is* an individualistic philosophy, because it sees the individual as the necessary starting place for any rational discussion on society. Collectivists see it the other way round, but let them try to rationally defend it.

      Arguing for liberty means having to fend off certain predictable attacks, such as ‘you want poor people to starve, don’t you?’ or ‘you want my kids to smoke crack, don’t you?’, or ‘why don’t you move to Somalia?’ The mischaracterisation of individualism as a synonym for selfishness is one of these common slurs, and I am sure that pithy quotes from some of the past masters of our tradition can be found to make our case well.

      I must say, however, despite the likely disagreement of others round these parts, that quotes from Ayn Rand don’t usually help in defending this point.

      • Richard Carey
        Nov 16, 2012 at 5:16 pm

        I might add that if someone argues against individualism, you can always point out that the very act they are engaged in demonstrates that they are an individual, possessing reason, and possessing a unique perspective, i.e. they are contradicting themselves.

      • Nov 16, 2012 at 5:30 pm

        I don’t disagree. I’m only likely to disagree if you told me that making an ethical argument is damaging. I don’t always present the arguments the best way myself but Rand’s idea that our politics are the consequence of our moral understanding is essential. Make it a naked appeal to NAP if you prefer it to rational egoism but the moral argument is necessary.

        I’ve never said that Rand is the best person to quote, she evidently isn’t.

        • Richard Carey
          Nov 16, 2012 at 5:58 pm

          Fair enough. I’m certainly not against ethical arguments. The only alternative is to argue on the grounds of pragmatism, which is inherently weaker IMO. Most arguments involve a blend of ethical points, practical points, purely rational, value-free statements, humour, ad hominems and sundry rhetorical tricks.

    • Nov 16, 2012 at 5:12 pm

      That’s an interesting point. There was a time when liberals* used to call themselves individualists; they switched to “liberal” for precisely this reason. “Individualism” is perhaps misleading, it’s not really an -ism. The reason we have to stress the individual is that socialism (broadly) says there are no individuals, or that we should pretend that there aren’t. It’s absurd that this should be necessary, since autonomous individuals are an empirical fact, but we really really do.

      *libertarians

      • Richard Carey
        Nov 16, 2012 at 5:25 pm

        This is true, and then the tide turned, at least according to a somewhat optimistic Ernest Benn, writing in 1929 (don’t know if this helps, or hinders!) …

        Students of the English language will in later years discover that about the beginning of the year 1927 the word ” Individualism” reappeared in the English vocabulary. For a year or more prior to that a little group of political” discontents” met on several occasions to discuss ways and means of dealing with the Collectivist mania then and now sweeping through human affairs. The problem was how to revive that sense of personal pride which threatened to desert the English character, of which it is the most precious part, and without which the glorious.history of Britain and of the British Empire would not have been written.

        That little group, of which I was a member, hesitated long and thoughtfully before adopting the word” Individualist” as· a label. Strange as it may seem to~day, some of us demurred only as recently as two years ago even to breathe the word. It was objected against it that it was harsh, hard, materialistic, out of keeping with the popular notions of service and citizenship, and it was solemnly predicted that any movement so ticketed would be doomed to failure from the start. We played with “Freedom, ” “Liberty,” “Prosperity,” “Life,” and “Liberalism,” and many other symbols of our dominant thought were mooted. Then we took our courage in both hands, and, in spite of warnings that would have deterred men whose convictions were not so deeply rooted and unshakable, plumped for” Individualism.”

        There are few who can now doubt·that the word is destined once· more in our history ·to ·serve as a weapon of victory, of victory over the forces and influences making for disruption and disintegration in our national life.”

        http://library.mises.org/books/Sir%20Ernest%20Benn/The%20Return%20to%20Laisser%20Faire.pdf

        • Nov 16, 2012 at 9:03 pm

          That one’s already in my ever-expanding PDF library, probably from one of your previous posts(?)

          Yep, a little over-optimistic. Individualism still means me me me to most people. It causes confusion amongst libertarians too; some people just don’t see the distinction between being treated as an individual and being a sociopath.

          • Richard Carey
            Nov 17, 2012 at 12:35 am

            Those are the choices, huh? individual, sociopath or atom of collective blob; WE?

            Still choosing the first

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