What we libertarians agree about

Here is the best summary, that I know of, of what libertarians of the kind who read and write for Libertarian Home all agree about. We libertarians all believe in:

The right of all persons to life, liberty and justly acquired property;

The voluntary exchange of all goods and services; 

Each individual’s liberty to pursue his or her chosen lifestyle, but not to impose it forcibly on anyone else;

Elimination of coercive intervention by the state, the foremost violator of liberty.


Those words come from an introductory pamphlet produced by the Libertarian Alliance, some time in the mid to late 1970s.

It’s all there. Liberty, property, trade, lifestyle freedom but not forcing your preferred lifestyle on others, and hostility to the large tax-and-spend coercive state such as all countries in the world are now more or less burdened with.

This short summary of what we libertarians believe is equally admirable, in my opinion, for what it omits. In particular, it does not say why or how we have each arrived at being libertarians. There are many reasons to be a libertarian, and we argue amongst ourselves about which of these reasons are the best, or even true. 

Some of us, for instance, have arrived at a belief in a libertarian view of what the rights and duties of the individual should be, and consequently believe in whatever wider legal and political arrangements follow from these principles being adhered to. Such libertarians justify the large-scale consequences of libertarianism by showing how these consequences result from right and true principles being applied, in each small-scale case, to the world. Since those principles are right, so also must the consequences of adhering to them be right, no matter what those consequences turn out to be. You can perhaps tell, from the somewhat clunky and off-putting way that I describe this attitude, that this was not how I myself became a libertarian.

 Libertarians of my sort prefer to argue in the opposite direction, from the consequences of libertarianism, to the rightness of the principles that libertarianism consists of. Libertarians like me look at the world, note that the places that most nearly accord with libertarianism seem to be the most attractive and the most productive places, and that the least libertarian places are the worst, and conclude that therefore an even more distilled and more principled libertarianism than prevails anywhere now would be the best way of all to govern human affairs.

 However, the world being what it now is, we libertarians also disagree about how to put our shared ideas into practice. Politics? If politics, then should we join existing political parties, asnd try to make them more libertarian? Maybe we should try to start our own political party? Either way, which political policies of a libertarian sort does it make sense to prioritise? Or, should we perhaps remain apart from day-to-day politics and concentrate on the long-term ideological struggle? In which case, some of us at least should probably be concentrating on getting rich, both for its own sake, and in order to finance such ideological struggles, for instance by helping our most prominent and promising thinkers and scholars to make headway in academia.

 My own attitude to such tactical debates about how to do libertarianism and how to be an effective libertarian is: all of the above. Let each of us choose what his or her preferred contribution to our shared cause can and should be. In other words, I think that we should apply the principles and methods that we urge upon the world, to make the world better, to our own libertarian efforts. We should practice what we preach. Happily, this is how most libertarians already think and act.

 Pieces actually describing what libertarianism is are surprisingly rare at Libertarian Home. But Richard Cary’s posting in 2012, entitled Libertarianism: What I think it is should be mentioned, if only because Carey’s view of how we libertarians agree about a core libertarian curriculum, so to speak, but disagree both about why we are libertarians and about how to be libertarians, is so very like mine: 

We converge at the axiom, but our starting points are different and our conclusions often likewise.

 However, I think that my anonymous Libertarian Alliance pamphleteer from long ago did improve upon how Carey earlier defined “the axiom”:

Libertarianism is an individualistic political philosophy, based on one primary ethical imperative; non-aggression.

 That’s about right as far as it goes, but what does it mean in practice? My preferred and slightly longer exposition of what we libertarians agree about, consisting of four propositions rather than just the one, goes into just enough detail to make it much clearer what “non-aggression” means in practice, and is, I think, the better for it. (But, see what commenter on Cary’s piece, “Lucian”, says about how “individualistic” is perhaps off-putting. And see also what Nico Metten says in his posting about “non-aggression”.)

 Commenters on this posting of mine will say whatever they want to say. But the comments that will most interest me, if any such comments materialise, will be the ones that are about how accurately my quoted definition of libertarianism actually does describe what we libertarians agree about, and what causes some of us to seek out each other’s company, and to regard ourselves as playing for the same intellectual, political and philosophical team, even as we dispute so many of the details. If the summary which I have offered is not accurate, what might be a better one?

Why Is Trump So Successful?

A lot of people seemed to be baffled by the success that a rude dupe like Donald Trump has on the ballot box at the moment. The establishment is fighting tooth and nails to try to stop him from winning. But no matter what they do, the more they fight him the more approval he seems to get. They clearly have no idea where his success is coming from. And because they don’t understand it, they are unable to come up with a good solution to stop him.

An explanation of why the establishment seems unable to understand the phenomenon Trump (and of course also Sanders to a lesser degree) is because his main appeal seems to be that he is anti-establishment. If you ask people why they like Trump, the most common answer you will get is, ‘he says what he thinks’ or ‘he is independent and is self funding his campaign’. It is this anti-establishment feel that has even caused some confused Libertarians to become enthusiastic about him. The understandable hatred for the establishment seems to blind some people to the fact that whenever Trumps makes a concrete policy proposal, he is almost without exception taking the anti liberty, that is to say the authoritarian position.

Trump, is for example an opponent of free trade. As part of his economic policies, he wants to introduce all kinds of tariffs to stop the perceived exploitation of America by foreign nations like China. Apparently, receiving real goods in return for printed Dollars is exploitation in Trump’s mind. Of course it is the Chinese who should really be upset about this. The only reason they are not is because, contrary to the cliché, China is in many ways still a centrally planned economy in which the leadership does not really understand economics. But neither does Trump. He wants to negotiate trade deals in which America will be the winner. Of course he misses that trade is always mutually beneficial and not a zero sum game. Trump does not seem to understand this very basic and important principle of economics. It should surprise no one that he thinks like that. If you look at his own business success, he has used the government many times to impose his conditions on his trade ‘partners’. No wonder he things that trade is a battle with winners and losers. That is how he does business.

But there are unfortunately many other things on which Trump is horrible from a libertarian perspective. He wants to give the already completely out of control police more power. He is openly in favour of torture and although he is not shy in speaking his mind, he is not a fan of freedom of speech either. He wants to strengthen libel laws, so that he can shut up people that say things about him he does not like. And of course he wants to close the border to foreigners and build high walls around the country. I cannot see much love for liberty in his agenda.

But blaming all the misery on foreigners really seems to be at the heart of his campaign. He theory about the position of America in the world seems to be that there is a huge foreign conspiracy going on. So he will fight these foreign conspirators, to make America great again. Unfortunately, the left has make a mockery out of the word fascism, by labelling every one of their opponents with it. But for Trump I cannot think of a better description. He is in the true sense of the word a fascist.

The establishment however must be a bit confused by the popularity of his campaign slogan. ‘Making America Great Again’. Why again? According to any establishment publication, America is already great. Of course it is the moral leader of the world blah blah….. But more importantly, it has the strongest and most productive economy. You see, in America, the central planners have everything under control. They have successfully battled the great recession of 2008 with intelligent monetary policy. That is why the economy has almost full employment, low inflation and is on the path to growth. And in the middle of this great party, Trump comes in and attracts people with ‘Making America Great Again’. Why aren’t the people in US more grateful for the blessings the establishment has given them?

The answer of course is that it just ain’t real. The truth is that the establishment has tried to fix the economy with the printing press. Everyone who understands real economics knows, that that cannot work. Printing money is just another tool to redistribute wealth from one pocket into another. It is just a little bit less obvious than other tools like direct taxation. But that does not mean that the redistribution is less real. And as with all redistribution schemes, it is damaging the real economy in the process, as capital is shifted from productive into unproductive hands. So all they have done is to put some makeup on the economy and to continue damaging it.

But as in countless other centrally planned systems before, it seems that the establishment has lost touch with reality. It looks like they have bought their own propaganda. That is not difficult to understand, since they are on the receiving end of the money printing redistribution. They have seen their wealth gone up quite substantially in the last couple of years. And if you live in this bubble it is probably easy to confuse the cooked unemployment, GDP and inflation statistics that are coming out of their own government with reality.

But Joe six-pack does not get his information about the economy from FED statistics. He is on the side of the exploited in the money printing scheme. He has to try making ends meet in the less and less productive real economy. As a result, his standard of living has declined in the last couple of years. In other words, he knows that the great economic news coming out of the establishment media is complete hogwash.

And in this climate, Trump comes along and puts on a different tune to the establishment propaganda. He must look like a Messiah to a lot of working class Americans. Of course the establishment cannot understand that. If they wanted to understand that, they would need to somehow manage to look through their own propaganda. But they are too deeply embedded in it at this point. And like so many out of touch establishments before them, they now face being washed away by anger, before they have a chance to understand what is going on.

None of that should come as a surprise to Libertarians. It was always clear that the current system would end in a crises. But Trump represents a real problem for Libertarianism. Learning from history, it is clear that at the point of crises one of two things can happen. Either the people turn to liberty and against the state or they turn to a strong man who promises to save the day. History tells us that the latter tends to not improve the situation. Countless strongman revolutions have ended in a longing for the good old days of the establishment.

I am sorry to say this, but given that people are now cheering for the fascist strongman, it looks as if Libertarianism has failed for the moment. The fact that even some Libertarians have started to cheer for Trump makes me very pessimistic that we can convince other people that, while the system is in crises, Trump is exactly the opposite of the right thing. What we need is not a stronger government. What we need is less government and more liberty.

There seem to be several ways events can develop from here. Maybe there is still a chance that Trump won’t win this time and then in the next election the increased anger will channel towards a more libertarian revolution. That would probably be the best outcome. On the other hand it might turn out to be the exact opposite. Four more years of the establishment might make the Trump movement unstoppable in the next election. In that case we would be better off having the misery now.

In case Trump wins the presidency, one needs to understand that the President does not have nearly as much power as generally assumed. The bureaucracy just continues to run its cause no matter who is in office. That will prevent the worst of Trump’s horrible agenda. Hopefully, it will call the bluff on his presumed greatness. This could lead to a bigger disillusion with the system itself and ultimately be good for libertarianism. On the other hand, maybe his supporters are stubborn enough to not accept failure. In that case we will probably see an even bigger blame on the illusional conspiracy of foreign powers. This could turn the US from its currently soft police state into a full blown dictatorship.

No one knows what will happen in the next few years. We certainly live in interesting times. Let us hope that they are not going to get as interesting as the 1930s and 1940s. There is still a chance for liberty, however it is looking increasingly grim. Particularly because a lot of Libertarians seem to prioritise their hate for the establishment over the love of Liberty. And if Libertarians do not prioritise Liberty, who will? Let us hope for the best.

Is Specific Performance an Argument against Libertarianism?

Here is an issue that I am struggling with at the moment. Imagine we live in a libertarian society. Everyone owns themselves and their private property. Everyone is able to make contracts with others on the basis of this property. In this society, let us say a billionaire is very worried about his health. He imagines that at some point he might get sick and will need a new liver. So he is looking for potential donors that have livers that are compatible with his body. He finds 10 people who are suitable and offers each of them 1 million Dollars in return for their liver in case he needs it. The potential donors can see that the chances are very slim that they will ever have to deliver on this agreement. So chances are high that they will get 1 million for nothing.

But now it happens that this billionaire does get sick and needs a new liver. So he picks one of the 10 donors who he has a contract with and demands that he delivers his part of the contract. It is clear that this comes down to almost a death sentence. The person might survive plugged to machines for the rest of his live, but any good life is over for him. The question is, can he break the contract? Can he for example say, instead of giving you my liver, I would like to settle in cash. Or is it OK for the billionaire to insist on the specific performance and enforce the contract with all means necessary?

Another example, I have a contract with a women to have sex with me for money. I pay her in advance and we meet up. Just before we are about to have sex, she has second thoughts. She says she cannot do it and gives me my money back. Can I reject the money and force her to have sex with me, because that was what the contract said?

To both of these examples my gut feeling is that people can indeed break their contract and settle in cash instead. Forcing people to die or to have sex, even when they at some point seemed to have voluntarily agreed to it seems very cruel to me. But I also like to call myself a Libertarian. All Libertarians I know, emphasize that we own our own bodies. That is why libertarians insist that drugs cannot be made illegal or prostitution needs to be allowed. But if I have ownership in my own body, then I should be able to sell it like any other property.

Let us say I am selling a stock to someone. We make a contract and agree on a price. After we have singed the contract he pays me and therefore the ownership of the stock changes hands. Now I have seconds thought, because the stock is now suddenly trading at a higher price. So I think I have made a bad deal. Can I now say, here is your money back, I will keep the stock? Of course not. That would be the end of contracts. The whole point of a contract is that you cannot legally break it.

But if this is true and if I really own my own body then the only logical conclusion that I can draw from that is that I indeed can sell my body or parts of it like any other property. Once sold, I should not be able to get out of that contract legally. At the moment I cannot see how anything else can be called the libertarian position.

But that does not change the fact that I am very uncomfortable with this idea. In other words, if this is the libertarian position, I might have found a limit to how far I am willing to go along with Libertarianism. I tend to think that contracts involving a specific performance of someone’s body should be able to be broken. In other words, it should always be possible to settle such a contract in cash or other properties. However, if that is true than I suppose I have a fundamental problem with the idea of self ownership, have I not?

The virtuosity of individualism

Conventional wisdom dictates that individualism is a destructive force which has enraptured and degraded our society. According to leftist orthodoxy it manifested itself in our culture with Thatcherism and rampant consumerism and has infected the “selfish” millennial generation, the only explanation for their worrying right-wing tendencies.

Conventional wisdom is, as is so often the case, quite wrong. I do not recognise this warped image of individualism and contrarily believe that Britain is sadly lacking in this most noble of traits.

The free expression of individual thought and the exercise of individual autonomy is extremely weak in our society. The eccentric, independent minded and assertive individual was once a celebrated part of British culture. The strong willed and fearless individual with a protective barrier of self reliance is resistant to group think and, for me, characterises what individualism is all about.

Now such a trait is attacked from all directions and individualism is repressed and tamed. Society is intolerant of eccentric thoughts that stray too far from conventional wisdom. “You can’t say that” has so rapidly become “you can’t think that”, and now whenever anyone expresses an opinion that goes beyond whatever the sheep are currently bleating a reaction of outrage, bewilderment or total misunderstanding is positively expected.

Autonomy, as exercised by the individual, or the self-reliant family, or the tight-knit community, is increasingly cowed by the state which aggressively cultivates a relationship of dependence.

Individualism is a much criticised and misrepresented principle. Elements of the right dislike it because they see it as a manifestation of selfishness and irresponsibility. Not only is this based on an oversimplified definition, it is wrong because individualism allows us to achieve moral awareness. As we learn from our own experiences, and make our own choices, we become well rounded individuals with a greater sense of ourselves and our responsibilities.

“He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision.” – J.S Mill

Outside influences shape us as people, but it is the exercise of autonomy and the making of our own choices that hones our judgement and helps us to become responsible moral agents.


Yes. Be this guy.

The whole idea of individualism is a total anathema to the left because they believe it undermines solidarity and violates communitarianism. A central tenet of Communism, Socialism and Fascism is that the state has primacy over the individual whose interest must be sacrificed for (what the state, or the dictator, deem to be) the common good. In a collectivist society the central authority must be endowed with the power to control social life in order to subordinate the individual and centrally plan the economy. The state considers itself the embodiment of the nation and the people are bound to it, and each other, through involuntary obligation. This leads inevitably to the violation of the individual’s liberty, property and right to the pursuit one’s own goals.

Over-reliance on a distant, monolithic and (supposedly but never actually) morally neutral provider is not conducive to the self-reliance of individuals, families or communities. It undermines the impulse to voluntarily fulfil our relational obligations i.e. the obligations to those around you – family members, neighbours, communities etc.

Critics of individualism argue that dependence is natural and desirable and they portray individualism as an atomisation of society into a Darwinist rat race between competing selfish individual entities. This is nothing more than a leftist caricature, a mythical extremist individualism exemplified by the selectively edited quote from Margaret Thatcher “there’s no such thing as society”.

In response to this straw man argument I would contend that there is an essential difference between the natural and essential interdependence of human beings (which is in no way denied or eroded by individualism) and the dependence on a distant, impersonal central authority.

Interdependence between human beings on a personal level fosters the bonds of family, friends, neighbours and community. It instils self-reliance, personal responsibility, self-restraint, dignity and an independence from government that essentially undermines its authority.

In contrast, dependence on the state provides for our needs without obligation (except financial) and without connecting us to our local networks, thus it actually breaks down relational obligations. It weakens the family and it weakens the community thus the interdependence of human beings on a personal level is severely undermined. This position is constantly undermined by the perpetuation of the aformentioned misquote of Margaret Thatcher. Now is an appropriate time to reveal the full quotation:

There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

This has rather a different meaning than that which the left falsely attribute to her. It is not saying that there is no society per se, but is conveying the individualist’s society defined by personal responsibility, family, obligation and voluntary association. It is the antithesis to the collectivist society as embodied by the state, the destroyer of personal responsibility.

Dependence without obligation is corrosive because it gives the illusion of independence from our fellow citizens and weakens our sense of obligation to each other. It fosters the attitude of those who have no moral qualms about cheating the welfare system or shunning work because they see it as an entitlement and justify their actions by believing they are only cheating a faceless, distant authority rather than their fellow citizens.

It is desirable that everyone has enough to eat, somewhere to live and a job to do because this makes for a fair, happy and prosperous society. Dependence on the state turns what is a societal issue of human decency and compassion into a “right” to various “benefits”. It fosters a sense of entitlement and has a pernicious effect on the soul; the response to the granting of such “rights” is generally resentment and demoralisation rather than gratitude. It is not seen as the generosity of the collective but an entitlement handed down by a paternal state that renders them subordinate.

Dependence without obligation, for example, leads to the shameless dropping of litter or fly tipping because those doing it know, and expect, that the council will clear up after them. It leads to the attitude of those who see a street in their neighbourhood besmirched with litter and take no action except complaining that the council really ought to do something. Before you know it, the entire neighbourhood is filthy with litter, and then covered in graffiti, before gradually degrading into squalor. All the while the residents wait for someone else to do something about it.

It weakens associational life; that realm of voluntary institutions established by citizens independently of the state that make up an essential part of “civil society”. The death of civil society would need a nationalised sector to replace it, but it can only ever be a soulless, bureaucratic shadow of a true voluntary sector.

In Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville imagines a world in which this element of society has been killed off. It is a depiction of a society infantilised and divided by dependence:

“Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind […] Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood.”

The leftist resentment of individualism and their utopian approach to achieving solidarity and equality is hypocritical and false. It leads to a type of equality in which we are equally dependent on the state as a provider. It breaks apart groups of people – family and communities – because they are freed from obligations to each other, and creates individuals who are equal only in their dependence on the state as provider.

So, contrary to the belief that this is an alternative to individualism and a means of creating social solidarity, what it actually does is uses the powerful force of the state to atomise society.

This is the collectivist’s morally neutralising and truly destructive form of individualism that is created as an accidental consequence of their utopian folly. The repression of individualism and the cowing of people into compliant dependents coerced by the “benevolent” state into certain behaviours creates only artificial cohesion. Individual autonomy is far more nurturing of social mindfulness and virtuosity and creates stronger, and naturally occurring, social bonds.

A people who become over reliant on the state are meek, weak, and easy to manipulate and oppress. In a society with a herd mentality, where the individual does not matter, groupthink prevails and free thought dies.

Britain is becoming a conformist society and we are expected to submit to and celebrate that conformity. In a free, individualist society the virtues of self-reliance, independence of thought, individuality and creativity are allowed to thrive. Social solidarity is not forced from above but occurs naturally, not as embodied by the state, but through an organic common culture and shared heritage.

Think for yourself, don’t accept the demonisation of a virtuous personal and societal trait.