What Libertarianism Is, and Isn't

The explosive growth in the number of converts to libertarianism since Ron Paul first ran for president is one of the most exciting developments of my lifetime. But I’d like to issue a note of caution.

There are several ways a young libertarian can distinguish himself. He can be an effective communicator of libertarian ideas as a writer or speaker. He can employ his unique talents — as an artist, animator, interviewer, or whatever — to convey the libertarian message in new and compelling ways. He can become a specialist in some area of scholarly inquiry relevant to libertarianism. Or he can add to the edifice of libertarian thought by solving a longstanding problem, critically reexamining an old question, or applying libertarian theory to new areas as technology develops and civilization evolves.

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By contrast, people might establish niches for themselves by devising their own peculiar version of libertarianism, and claiming that their discovery alone is the real thing. Not only is this method easier than the ones I described above, but it also allows the creator the pleasure of rendering sanctimonious judgment on those benighted souls who cling to plain old libertarianism, with no labels, no caveats, and no apologies.

Might we gain the sympathy of the left by parroting their language of egalitarianism and loudly proclaiming our allegiance to the moral strictures of the state? It is not absolutely impossible, I suppose. But I consider it far more likely that the left will be amused at such transparent attempts at ingratiation, and go on viewing libertarians with the same contempt as before.

But if we expect to trick people into becoming libertarians, we will fail. And if we think libertarian flirtation with egalitarianism is a good idea, we have already failed.

Yes, we do believe in unfashionable things like the abolition of antidiscrimination law. If we didn’t, we would not be libertarians. Bound up in the principle of freedom of association is every defining libertarian principle: self-ownership, the meaning of property titles, and nonaggression.

It’s easy to defend the rights of people who are popular and whose views are in fashion. It is much more difficult – thankless, even – to defend the rights of those whom society despises. Libertarians need not endorse or actually be such people – I know of no one proposing such a thing – but if we do not defend their rights we are frauds.

favor with them.

Consider the example of Ron Paul. He gave straightforward libertarian answers to whatever questions he was asked during his presidential campaigns. As we all should, he got a sense of his audience and explained those ideas in ways they were most likely to understand and appreciate. But he never backed down. Was he opposed to antidiscrimination law? Yes. Did he dissent from the received version of the Civil War, from which the regime derives much of its legitimacy? Yes. And so on down the line of unfashionable answers to the thought-controllers’ questions.

The result? The single greatest increase in youth interest in libertarianism in its entire history.

Libertarianism is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all. It is not anything else. It is not feminism. It is not egalitarianism (except in a functional sense: everyone equally lacks the authority to aggress against anyone else). It has nothing to say about aesthetics. It has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation. It has nothing to do with left-wing campaigns against “white privilege,” unless that privilege is state-supplied.

Let me repeat: the only “privilege” that matters to a libertarian qua libertarian is the kind that comes from the barrel of the state’s gun. Disagree with this statement if you like, but in that case you will have to substitute some word other than libertarian to describe your philosophy.

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As Rothbard put it:

There are libertarians who are indeed hedonists and devotees of alternative lifestyles, and that there are also libertarians who are firm adherents of “bourgeois” 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 “liberty is the highest political end” – not necessarily the highest end on everyone’s personal scale of values.

the nonaggression principle, we should be delighted. There is no need to complicate things by arbitrarily imposing a slate of regime-approved opinions on top of the core teaching of our philosophy.

Libertarianism is a beautiful and elegant edifice of thought and practice. It begins with and logically builds upon the principle of self-ownership. In the society it calls for, no one may initiate physical force against anyone else. What this says about the libertarian’s view of moral enormities ranging from slavery to war should be obvious, but the libertarian commitment to freedom extends well beyond the clear and obvious scourges of mankind.

Our position is not merely that the state is a moral evil, but that human liberty is a tremendous moral good. Human beings ought to interact with each other on the basis of reason – their distinguishing characteristic – rather
than with hangmen and guns. And when they do so, the results, by a welcome happenstance, are rising living standards, an explosion in creativity and technological advance, and peace. Even in the world’s partially capitalist societies, hundreds of millions if not billions of people have been liberated from the miserable, soul-crushing conditions of hand-to-mouth existence in exchange for far more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Libertarianism, in other words, in its pure and undiluted form, is intellectually rigorous, morally consistent, and altogether exciting and thrilling. It need not and should not be fused with any extraneous ideology. This can lead only to confusion, and to watering down the central moral claims, and the overall appeal, of the message of liberty.

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