What Libertarianism Is Not

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My recent piece on the death of neckties generated far more critical mail than anything else I have written for LRC. Most of the mail contained one of two common threads: some wrote that I was "unlibertarian" for expressing a fondness for ties; while the others complained that an expectation for someone to wear a tie (presumably, by anyone in any situation) is a suppression of "individual liberty."

Since it appears that some may have misconceptions about what libertarianism is — and what it is not, let’s examine these two fundamental misunderstandings in more detail.

1. Libertarianism is not necessarily a moral endorsement for all voluntary behavior.

Libertarianism is only a political philosophy; it has nothing to do with religion, other types of philosophy, morality outside of politics, etc. It seeks only to address the question of when it is permissible for one person to initiate force against another — and the conclusion it draws is "never." This conclusion is based mostly on the rationale that everyone is born, by virtue of being a human being, with a natural right to control their own lives, bodies, and property, so long as they are not infringing on anyone else’s body or property. But it’s also based, to a lesser extent, on the pragmatic fact that force is the least efficient way of accomplishing anything, and it produces all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences (like black markets).

So, while they may disagree on the details of how best to bring it about (no government, one kind of government vs. another, etc.), all libertarians, by definition, believe in liberty, which is a condition where everyone is legally free to do as they please, so long as they are not committing tangible damage to anyone’s body or property.

As Murray Rothbard wrote in his essay, Six Myths About Libertarianism, "The fact is that libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life. Political theory deals with what is proper or improper for government to do, and government is distinguished from every other group in society as being the institution of organized violence. Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should he free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism.

"It should not be surprising, therefore, that there are libertarians who are indeed hedonists and devotees of alternative life-styles, and that there are also libertarians who are firm adherents of u2018bourgeois’ conventional or religious morality. There are libertarian libertines and there are libertarians who cleave firmly to the disciplines of natural or religious law. There are other libertarians who have no moral theory at all apart from the imperative of non-violation of rights. That is because libertarianism per se has no general or personal moral theory. Libertarianism does not offer a way of life; it offers liberty, so that each person is free to adopt and act upon his own values and moral principles. Libertarians agree with Lord Acton that u2018liberty is the highest political end’ — not necessarily the highest end on everyone’s personal scale of values."

There are numerous behaviors that libertarians believe should be legal — such as prostitution, recreational drug use, smoking, gambling, eating an unhealthy diet, drinking alcohol excessively, etc. — that they may also regard variously as unwise, self-destructive, immoral, unethical, gross, etc. It’s ludicrous to assert that, if you’re a libertarian, you can’t have any opinions, preferences, likes, dislikes, etc. about any of the peaceful, voluntary behavior you believe should be legal, and with which you have no desire to forcibly interfere.

Using ties as an example, it would be unlibertarian of me to wish for the government to force men to wear ties, or not wear them (except for government employees, which would be the government’s implied prerogative under a voluntary, employer-employee contract). Of course, I do not advocate any such thing, nor did I even hint at it in my article. By contrast, it is in no way unlibertarian for me to wish that more men chose to wear ties; to bemoan the erosion of standards of proper attire in society; or even to wish that voluntary establishments on the market, like employers and restaurants, would institute stricter dress codes on their property.

2. Libertarianism is not an exaltation of individual liberty above all — especially not above property rights. Indeed, it could not be, because individual liberty and property rights are indistinguishable.

Again, libertarianism is only a political philosophy, so it advocates individual liberty as it relates to the State. (Anyone outside of the political system who initiates force against others is, by definition, a criminal.) Libertarianism has nothing to do with individual liberty outside of politics.

Further, individual liberty is not only compatible with property rights; it is wedded indivisibly to it. One person’s unfettered individual liberty ends where another person’s property begins.

In Chapter 15 of The Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard wrote, "Liberals generally wish to preserve the concept of u2018rights’ for such u2018human’ rights as freedom of speech, while denying the concept to private property. And yet, on the contrary the concept of u2018rights’ only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard."

As an example of this, if an employer required his employees to wear any clothes during their working hours, would any sane person assert that the employer is infringing on an employee’s "individual liberty" to walk around naked anywhere he wants? Obviously not, because the employee has no such "right" on someone else’s property; the best he can have is the privilege, given by the property owner.

Likewise, how can an employer be said to infringe on an employee’s "individual liberty" by requiring a certain kind of clothing, such as a necktie, during working hours on the employer’s property, in the context of a voluntary relationship?

He cannot; under the libertarian concept of property rights, an employee has as much "individual liberty" to flout his employer’s dress code on his employer’s property as he has to punch his employer in the face for no reason.

But, if the employee doesn’t like his employer’s rules, he still has all the individual liberty in the world in such a situation — to exit the employer’s property and find another job.

Conclusion

Libertarianism is not a philosophy of morality or a guide to proper behavior. It is simply a political philosophy that holds that everyone should be legally free (in other words, free from coercion) to do as they please, so long as they don’t violate anyone’s body or property (in other words, so long as they don’t initiate coercion against anyone else); and that the State, if it should exist, should be bound by the same rules as the rest of society.

And that philosophy of liberty is grounded in property rights — not in unfettered individual liberty, regardless of the property owner’s wishes.

Johnny Kramer [send him mail] holds a BA in journalism from Wichita State University. He is one of the authors of the first-ever biography of Ron Paul, Ron Paul: A Better Way, which will be released in Fall 2008 by Variant Press. For more information on his work, or to hire him as a writer, editor, or to speak at your next event, please visit his website.

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