The Philosophy of Freedom
[This originally appeared in the first issue of The Invisible Hand]
I’m sure that a lot of people reading this newsletter are wondering exactly what libertarianism is about. For them I am going to outline the basic foundations of libertarian thought. Note that the word “libertarian” is sometimes used in Europe to describe socialist forms of anarchism, and “liberal” is the word generally used to describe what I am discussing below. “Libertarian” is also sometimes used in philosophy to denote a belief in free will. However, the word is today mainly (and in common American usage, almost exclusively) used to describe the political philosophy I am outlining in this article. Many libertarians may not have heard the exact terminology of what I am saying here, but most probably at least subconsciously believe all of it, even if they express it in different words.
The heart of libertarianism is the belief in the individual human. 1.)A libertarian believes each person owns himself, and therefore no other person has a higher claim to the individual’s life. People must not be coerced into sacrificing for the state, the leader, the priest, the race, the class, or any other individual, group of individuals, or alleged good. 2.)A libertarian believes that individuals, though never perfect, are capable of making decisions for themselves and should alone bear the consequences of their actions. If humans were really all evil at heart and bent on destroying each other, no authority could stop them from doing so and there is no way that humanity could have advanced to the stage it is at now before going down in chaos and utter ruin.
Following from both 1 and 2 is the Zero-Aggression Principle (ZAP), sometimes called the Non-Aggression Principle. The ZAP is so critical to libertarianism that the Libertarian Party requires members to sign a pledge of belief in it before they may become a full member of the party with voting privileges. Put simply it states that no individual has the right to initiate force on another individual. This basically means that you can’t hit the other person first. The word “initiate,” instead of the word “use,” is there for an important reason: because your life belongs to you, you have the absolute right to prevent an aggressor from taking it, so long as you do not initiate force on an innocent person in doing so. That which violates the ZAP victimizes someone and is therefore a crime; that which does not violate the ZAP creates no victim and is therefore not a crime. Government agents are not immune from the ZAP, as they are people like the rest of us. I would suspect that even most people who are not libertarians would find the ZAP reasonable on its own, but are just not convinced it can apply to politics and government.
Also following from statement 1 is the inalienable right to property. Because you own your life, you own the products of your labor. The ability to exchange goods or services with whoever will voluntarily trade with you by whatever terms you both agree upon is an essential part of the right to property. To truly own property you must be able to dispose of it in any way you wish that does not initiate force on another human. The ZAP forbids theft, which a libertarian would define as the seizure of property without the consent of its owner, except when committed for the compensation of an aggressor’s victim at the expense of said aggressor. In other words, demanding payment by threats of harm or confinement is theft unless it is done after due process of law to make an aggressor pay his victim for compensation and pay the court, police, and prison for their services. If the aggressor cannot afford to pay, he will work until he can, a solution much more humane than the current system which compels the victim and innocent bystanders to pay for the incarceration of the aggressor via taxation (which pure libertarians also consider theft – remember the ZAP applies equally to everybody).
Following from statement 2 is the idea of spontaneous social order. Societies and economies run fine without government intervention; government interference only causes problems, which authoritarians then blame either on the market or certain human characteristics. People can develop both social and economic relations better without the “help” of government. Central planners are unable to engineer society, as the knowledge needed to make such complex arrangements is dispersed in the minds of millions of people who create order by everyday action, often without even the thought of creating order.
From the right to property and spontaneous order comes the libertarian belief in free markets. A free market does not mean government handouts to the rich, as the term is commonly misused today. A true free market entails a complete separation of business and state, respect for property rights, and the freedom for everyone to trade or not trade as they desire. In a libertarian system, nobody can use political power to create unfair advantages against competition, simply because there is not enough political power in existence to wield. This does not mean that voluntary communal ownership would be forbidden by law in a libertarian society, as the right to associate with others in a way that does not initiate force upon them would be upheld. However, any communal arrangement would have to be strictly voluntary and tolerant of capitalist neighbors in order to be in accordance with the ZAP.
From all this comes the libertarian theory of government - that government is best which governs least. Some libertarians, called minarchists, believe that a tiny government with powers strictly limited to retaliatory force (i.e a small military, punishment of aggressors, compensation of victims) is the best way to protect liberty, while others, who are usually called anarcho-capitalists, hold that there should be no government. This disagreement is more of a debate than a dispute these days, as both groups generally agree that big government is the cause of most human suffering and that either ideal is very far from what we have today and would require moving in the same direction to realize. Libertarians of all types generally agree that it is morality, not authority, that keeps brother from killing brother and that government intervention sets all against all by encouraging people to compete for favors, power, and stolen property. Powerful government brings out the worst characteristics in people and encourages the most evil people to rise to power. In a libertarian society thieves would be punished and forced to compensate their victims, not re-elected. The bloodthirsty and power-hungry would not have a powerful state to use to legislate murder.
There are many more concepts important to libertarianism. As you can see, our opposition to big government is primarily due to principle, and not simply because war and welfare programs are too expensive. To see a good animated introduction to libertarianism, go to http://isil.org/resources/introduction.html. And of course, see our website for more information.
Libertarianism is at its core a belief that order, health, peace, progress, prosperity, charity, morality, and other social goods cannot be produced by coercion and that they derive from the liberty of thought and action that historically has been restrained by government. It is the belief in humanity’s capability to survive without the restrictions of rulers who think that they somehow know more than the rest of us and feel above the wickedness they see in the general population. Libertarians know exactly what Thomas Jefferson was talking about when he told the nation, “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? Or, have we found angels in the form of kings, to govern him? Let history answer this question.”