The Breadth and Scope of Libertarianism and the Role of Student Activism

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Libertarianism
stands apart from mainstream political debate because it proposes
a dramatic restructuring of current government. In addition to being
marginalized from the political mainstream, libertarianism is divided
within itself. An individual libertarian can be more specifically
defined by many other titles such as Libertarian v. libertarian,
minarchist v. anarchist, paleo-libertarian v. left-leaning-libertarian,
and probably more which I am unaware of. But this is just the beginning;
other factions of libertarianism don't fit so nicely in a counter
position relationship. Geo-libertarians assert that land must be
treated as a special type of property distinct from all others.
Libertarian socialists think that libertarians should organize themselves
in communal societies. Libertine libertarians encourage breaking
existing laws to demonstrate freedom. Objectivists follow the teachings
of Ayn Rand. And still there are more I know nothing about. Like
all ideological debates these arguments have created rifts among
individual people who promote them and among the organizations they
associate with. How can the greater movement for liberty possibly
succeed when it seems so disorganized?

Each
group is quick to claim themselves as the only true proponents of
liberty and dismiss the others as detrimental to the greater cause
of freedom. It's no wonder they don't seem to play well with one
another. While I personally tend to favor particular arguments,
scholars, and institutions over others within the movement, I will
try my best to find a silver lining amongst all this bickering to
form a perspective of libertarianism as a unified movement. It is
not my goal to convince you that a particular branch of libertarianism
is superior to the others. Libertarianism itself is superior to
other non-libertarian political ideologies because of its diversity,
opportunity for debate, and enlightenment found through such debate.

Libertarianism
is a political philosophy; it must compete in the field of discourse
amongst the other political ideologies. One of the most important
concepts to remember when analyzing political theory is that ideas
matter. Government must derive its power through some form of consent
by those who are governed, even if that consent is only a tacit
one. The battle over political ideas is a battle of pure numbers
and majority. At first glance, the previous statement really bothers
me. I have always been taught to be skeptical of such fallacies.
What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not
always right. The first hurdle libertarianism must surmount as a
successful political movement is democracy itself. Democracy is
a majority rule system, and the majority of people still don't know
what libertarianism is. Goal number one in advancing liberty must
be to spread the message of liberty and convince people of its benefits.

Ideas
do not defend themselves. People must form them, people must discuss
them, and people must support them in the face of opposing ideas.
If ideas could argue themselves than changing society for the better
would be no more difficult than giving copies of For
a New Liberty
, The
Law
, The
Constitution of Liberty
, or perhaps our own United States
Constitution to politicians as stocking stuffers at Christmas
time. But are we to believe that the rulers of the world simply
haven't heard about the benefits of liberty? Surely they have. The
issue is not the ideas themselves, but where the ideas lay. If they
are not in the minds of the people, we cannot expect them to be
on the minds of politicians who clamor for their votes.

The
success of any political ideology depends on the ability of rulers
to utilize ideas to gain support and action from the citizenry.
The relationship between the government and the governed forces
policies to take a moderate shape (for a clear description of the
median voter theorem, rationally ignorant voter theorem and general
treatise of the Public Choice literature see: Buchanan, J. and Tullock,
G. (1962),
Calculus of Consent
). The goal of liberty is not centered
on convincing the political types of the benefits of liberty and
wasting time having ideas diluted by moderacy, but rather convincing
the citizenry of the benefits of liberty. Once convinced, the state
will be pitted against a body of independent individuals and be
forced to change the face of its authority, if not completely and
ideally, at least in the direction towards true liberty and freedom.

Libertarians
are starting from a losing position in terms of popularity. Michael
Badnarik received dismal press coverage despite his comparative
voting turnout to other third party candidates (comparative but
low nonetheless), and academics devoted to advancing the scholarship
of liberty still take second-seat positions compared to their statist
counterparts. Below I attempt to offer some thoughts on how I view
libertarianism as an attractive political ideology for most people,
in hopes to give ideas on how libertarianism can be framed to attract
motivated individuals to the cause of liberty.

In
2005 I moved to Washington DC, "the belly of the beast,"
to begin my graduate studies. The city was a hot bed of political
discourse and election fever. I couldn't escape the buzz even in
my own new home. I moved in with some old friends from high school
who had recently purchased their first house and didn't mind a little
help making the mortgage payments. We quickly found ourselves talking
politics, and I quickly defined myself as a libertarian. My roommate's
response still makes me laugh. "Libertarians are just pot-smoking
Republicans!" she asserted. Though it makes me laugh, it deeply
concerns me at the same time. It's funny because anyone who knows
anything about libertarianism knows that it's not an accurate statement,
yet it demonstrates how few people there are who truly know anything
about libertarianism. So allow me to proceed this article with some
description of what libertarianism is.

Libertarianism
is a normative discipline as opposed to a positive discipline. While
positive disciplines describe the world around us through statements
about what is, normative disciplines offer claims about what should
be. I have found economics a fulfilling and enriching area of study
from a positive perspective. Learning economics teaches a person
about principles and relationships that exists in the world of commerce.
Because man cannot live on bread and water alone, I have found libertarian
thought to be the appropriate normative perspective to describe
my values. Libertarianism is a synthesis between morality, philosophy,
and politics. It is a critical lens of legitimacy through which
the enlightened libertarian can view the world, and gives the libertarian
the ability to take a stand on what he feels is right and wrong.
This lens is defined by the single universal conception known as
the non-aggression axiom.

The
non-aggression axiom is simple to understand. Murder, rape and theft
are illegitimate actions of human behavior and people should not
perform them, because they degrade the quality of life of the victims,
civilization, and all of society. Dan
McCarthy recently clarified the issue:
"Libertarianism
is a political philosophy, not a complete system of ethics or metaphysics.
Political philosophies address specifically the state and, more
generally, justice in human society. The distinguishing characteristic
of libertarianism is that it applies to the state the same ethical
rules that apply to everyone else."

The
non-aggression axiom is the umbrella under which all forms of libertarianism
fall, and it has our greatest potential for mass marketing. All
subgroups of libertarianism believe they hold true to the non-aggression
axiom. How can this be? Surely when separate divisions assert different
claims, some of them must be distorting or misinterpreting the axiom?
This may be true, but it is not an accurate description of the debate
amongst the libertarian factions. The debate is not in regards to
the non-aggression axiom itself but rather to the terms which it
applies to; murder, rape, and theft.

Allow
me to return to describe some of the divisions of libertarianism
mentioned earlier. Some paleo-libertarians claim that there should
be restrictions on immigration into a country, while left-leaning
libertarians support open border policies. Neither group is changing
the face of libertarianism away from the non-aggression axiom. They
are debating over classifying specific events that take place in
regards to immigration as theft or free exchange appropriately.

The
minarchist v. anarchist debate is a hot topic in libertarian circles.
Minarchists tend to be more moderate in their proposals to limit
state power: they recognize the legitimate role of government to
be the protection of property through the provision of police, courts,
and national defense. Anarchists on the other hand, attribute these
minimal institutions as unnecessarily monopolized by the state,
and assert that they should be provided on the market no different
from any other good or service (see more on Anarcho-Capitalism).
The Libertarian Party by definition would naturally be inclined
to fall towards the minarchist wing of this spectrum. I doubt specific
numbers are available on this particular issue explaining how many
Libertarian Party members consider themselves minarchist v. anarchist,
but I do feel confident saying I have met members who represent
both opinions.

While
studying at the Mises Institute this summer I spoke with some Libertarian
Party members who had recently attended the preliminary nominations
in Atlanta Georgia. They shared the following humorous anecdote,
"Lots of our members are converted Republicans while others
are anarcho-capitalists; the Republicans mumble under their breadth,
u2018I can't believe there are anarchists here!' While the anarchists
share their discomfort by stating u2018I can't believe there are Republicans
here!'" For some libertarians, being an anarcho-capitalist
keeps them from joining the political party but for others it doesn't
seem to be such a big deal.

The
real point of note on the issue of anarchy is merely the application
of the non-aggression axiom. If taxation to provide police, courts,
and defense is viewed as aggression, the viewer is an anarchist.
If the viewer doesn't think such taxation is theft then he's a minarchist,
but the non-aggression axiom holds true for both.

Another
issue of debate amongst libertarian activists separates the movement
by ethical perspectives on social issues such as, sexual promiscuity,
drug use, prostitution, and so on. Libertarianism is unified in
holding that such behaviors are not appropriately criminalized by
the state and should be left to the free decisions of consenting
adults. Libertarians themselves tend to represent a broad spectrum
of opinion as to the moral and ethical qualities such behaviors
imply. Going back to my roommates comment about "pot-smoking
Republicans," we see that this is a gross misrepresentation
of libertarianism. Sure some libertarians use drugs and find a convenient
legitimacy in libertarianism, but other more socially conservative
libertarians also exist to counter-balance their presence. I'm not
promoting either camp specifically, just trying to show how social
behavior alone is not sufficient for acceptance or rejection of
libertarianism since a broad diversity of opinions exists within
the greater movement.

At
first glance, these many diverse opinions and ideologies within
the greater title of libertarianism may seem disoriented, unfocused,
and serve as a disadvantage to libertarianism when compared to traditional
political ideologies. I claim that within this heterogeneity is
where we hold a comparative advantage over the mainstream. A lower
case "l," libertarian is a libertarian ideologue but does
not identify himself with the Libertarian Political Party. I've
never heard of any lower case "r," Republicans. Why is
this? Because Republicans lack the ideological consistency of the
non-aggression axiom. No republican ideology exists outside of the
political party. Amongst the factions of libertarianism we do not
see dissention for its own sake but rather we see disagreement because
our devotees are thoughtful and investigatory in the search for
truth and justice. For the seriously motivated political activist,
libertarianism is where the party is at.

Finally,
I'd like to discuss the role that universities play in the shaping
of ideas, and more specifically the emphasis that students can have
on the way in which their school presents ideology. The movement
for liberty is well underway by professors and academics dedicated
to preserving and promoting the cause of liberty in the university
setting. To them we can say thank you and keep up the good work.
This front is young and may be small in comparison to its opponents
but it is motivated and underway no doubt. What is less developed,
but has great unrealized potential, is a strong student presence
dedicated to promoting liberty.

In
my last year of undergrad, I became involved with re-founding a
dismantled student organization. I worked closely with many of the
organization's former members who were alumni of my university.
At this point I'll make a disclaimer that I do not claim there to
be a conspiracy on the part of any university, especially mine,
to deceive alumni, but merely wish to comment on an apparent disjuncture
that existed between the alumni's opinions of the ideas expressed
by the school community and the actual ideas expressed by the school
community. I'm trying to point out the obvious, schools are run
by money, and money comes from alumni willing and capable of supporting
the school. Libertarianism is more appealing to individuals who
want to see money put to work than any other political ideology.
Libertarianism is a more appealing political ideology no matter
who you are (with the exception of murderers, rapists, and thieves).
Students play an important role in this relationship between alumni
and university. They simultaneously define the identity of the school
and the future identity of the alumni; it is only right that they
voice their preferences in what ideas are available to learn.

Libertarian
students can change the face of academic material presented and
covered in universities. In this regard the best advice I can think
of to give a libertarian student is "read, read, read!!!"
Knowing the ideas of liberty can give you the ability to understand
different ideas in perspective. A class of forty students learning
about constitutional law, is not the same class as it is if one
of those students is a knowledgeable libertarian and willing to
ask questions that the professor wouldn't typically have covered.
I've seen it happen in many classes where a single student can raise
liberty-minded questions and instill the idea of freedom in the
minds of his fellow classmates. Other students ask follow-up questions,
which draw on the idea the professor originally may have tried to
dismiss. And finally the professor is left with no choice but to
address the concerns of his interested class and allow the discussion
to take place. It is this discussion which we must strive for before
we can hope to succeed in applying freedom.

This
article was first presented as a lecture to the Loyola College Libertarians.
The author would like to thank Loyola University’s Student Government
Association for providing funding for the event and the College
Libertarians for their organization and promotion efforts, particular
recognition to the officers Karl Weiss, Patrick McDermott, Nick
Snow, and Virginia King.

April
12, 2005

Daniel
J. D'Amico [send him mail]
is a graduate student in economics at George Mason University. Visit
his blog.

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