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

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

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts