Many people believe that liberty is the core political value of modern civilization itself, the one that gives substance and form to all the other values of social life.
They are called libertarians.
WHAT IS A LIBERTARIAN?
Libertarians believe that, in politics, liberty is the most important value. Almost everyone wants freedom for themselves, but a libertarian also seeks to protect and expand the freedom of others.
When people are free, we can create a more just, more prosperous, safer, and better world for everyone.
A libertarian is committed to the principle that liberty is the most important political value. Liberty means being free to make your own choices about your own life, that what you do with your body and your property ought to be up to you. Other people must not forcibly interfere with your liberty, and you must not forcibly interfere with theirs.
There are many values other than liberty that are morally important, and there are many forms of liberty outside of political liberty. People talk about the freedom to be one’s self, without being ostracized by a narrow‐minded society. They talk about the freedom that comes from financial independence. And they talk about freedom from oppression by sources other than the state.
Some libertarians see the fight for liberty in politics as part and parcel of a broader struggle; others take a more limited view. A belief that liberty is the most important value in politics is what unites them.
Libertarians envision a pluralist, cosmopolitan society united by commerce and travel, not divided by nationalistic antagonisms. They envision a world where people are free to experiment with different ways of living, free to try new ideas that might just be crazy enough to work. A world driven by the entrepreneurial spirit that is always asking questions like “How could this be better?” and “Can I make something entirely new?” Such a society may have a patchwork messiness about it, but it would also be vibrant and humane.
Because all people are moral equals, each possessing a wide domain of rightful autonomy, libertarians believe that claims of special authority—like those claims made by governments throughout history—require special justification. In other words, people claiming the right to infringe upon our liberty carry the burden of explaining why they’re entitled to do so.
Furthermore, libertarians tend to believe that most (if not all) of the claims to special authority made by the various governments around the world are unjustifiable. Governments assert wide‐reaching powers to control people’s day‐to‐day conduct, take their belongings, and even conscript them into fighting wars. If they offer any justification for these powers, it’s only as an afterthought.
When ordinary people aren’t careful to respect their neighbors’ privacy, or presume to boss other people about or physically interfere with them, those of us concerned with justice and civility object. We might say: “Stop that. Mind your own business.” But the agents of the state act like the same rules don’t apply to them. Once they decide they want to do a thing, they generally don’t stop to consider whether doing it is any of their business in the first place, or whether they’re going about doing it in a way that disrespects the dignity or autonomy of their fellows. Legislators, bureaucrats, police, and other agents who enforce the state’s commands treat other people as pawns on a chessboard to be maneuvered into whatever configuration they deem best. Too many fail to see people as independent agents with their own desires and plans. That’s true even in relatively free societies.
Libertarians think that we ought to hold ourselves, and our governments, to a higher standard—that a freer society is possible and desirable. When people cooperate with one another peacefully, with respect for each other’s rights and liberties, we are capable of incredible things.
THE CORE PRINCIPLES OF LIBERTARIANISM
Many cultures around the world have a tradition of liberty, shaped by each society’s particular circumstances and by the thinkers who lived there. As the world grows more interconnected, these different traditions are increasingly in dialogue. Libertarians often view themselves as the modern heirs to the tradition of liberty that developed in Europe and colonial America.
Libertarianism is rooted, historically and philosophically, in the liberalism of the Enlightenment.
Libertarianism is rooted, historically and philosophically, in the liberalism of the Enlightenment. But although it belongs to an intellectual tradition dating back centuries, libertarianism embraces a vision of political liberty which is, even today, revolutionary. The Enlightenment liberals stood against the idea, older than human civilization, that some people ought to boss others about, setting the table for a conflict still playing out in society today. The old idea, sadly, dies hard.
Liberals like John Locke argued that because people are people, there are certain things you can’t do to them, not because they’re hereditary aristocrats or have some other kind of special status or group membership, but just because they’re people who share with you a common humanity. The things you can’t morally do to a person constitute that person’s rights. We are all born to these rights—in which sense, they are natural rights—and we do not owe them to the generosity or authority of any third party, whether individual or group, mundane or supernatural. Our rights delineate our spheres of individual autonomy. We have rights to bodily integrity and to own legitimately acquired property. Put another way, it would be immoral for someone to assault or kill us, or to seize or damage things we own.
In everyday conversation, “liberal” most commonly refers to someone left of center in mainstream politics, but not as far left as a communist.
Here, we are using “liberal” in a more general and older sense of the word that is still used in everyday conversation outside of the United States. Rather than being the opposite of “conservative,” this broader meaning encompasses large parts of both the left and right of modern American politics. It also includes modern libertarians and the “classical liberal” thinkers of the Enlightenment that influenced modern liberals of all stripes.
Libertarian philosophers and economists tend to view themselves as the true heirs of classical liberalism, taking the important core ideas of classical liberal thinkers and building on and refining them. Other modern liberals, like John Rawls or John Maynard Keynes, rejected libertarianism because they disagree with libertarians about the right direction to develop classical liberal thought. Liberals are united in opposition to illiberal, authoritarian ideologies, like communism, fascism, or theocracy.
Liberals like Adam Smith explained the mechanisms by which a free economy can change and adapt to best produce the goods and services people want without any centralized plan or planner. This idea—that economic production and consumption can be and largely are carried on in a state of spontaneous order—is one of the foundational principles of both modern economics and libertarian theory. We need no maestro directing goods where to go; people trade goods and services independently using their own judgments, and the sum of their choices produces a system that helps allocate resources to their most efficient ends, making us all richer.
Modern day politicians on the left and right sometimes pay lip service to these ideas, but in practice they reject them. Legislation is all about imposing an order from above, rather than letting one emerge from below. And in creating their schemes, politicians all too often fail to give citizens their due as people, treating them as pawns and running roughshod over their rights to decide and plan for themselves.
THE NATURE AND ORIGIN OF THE STATE
A libertarian is suspicious of the claims made by the world’s various governments to legitimacy and authority. Many justifications for state authority involve some version of the “social contract” story—the idea that people in a society have agreed to be ruled so that they can achieve some aim that is only attainable collectively. But even when a written constitution uses the language of the social contract, there are still big problems with justifications of this sort.
For one thing, we know that as a matter of history the state had its origin as an institution not with the people of this or that society banding together for the common good, but rather in conquest—looting and murder. Roving warlords evolved their strategies from violent theft to extorting tribute payments, which was less risky and more remunerative in the long run. They would eventually settle down in one place instead of roaming, establishing themselves as an aristocratic class and protecting their turf from rivals. With this history in mind, the various academic justifications for the state’s legitimacy start to seem like self‐serving “Just So” stories that gloss over the state’s bloody, exploitative historical origin.
Even if some version of the social contract story works—and the more sophisticated ones take the historical reality of the state’s origin into account—libertarians recognize that the people in a given society could only delegate to a state powers they themselves already possess. If it wouldn’t be permissible for an ordinary person or group of people to take some action, there are no emergent properties of states that would permit them to take that same action. You have a right to defend yourself against thieves and murderers, so you could delegate that power to the state. You don’t have the right to force your neighbor not to drink beer on Sundays, so the state could never legitimately be given such a power.
Today, many states are still openly run so that a ruling class can extract resources from a subject class. And even high‐functioning democracies that purport to serve the public good share the essential features of their more brutal and openly exploitative cousins:
- A monopoly on the use of legitimized force within a geographical area
- The power to make and enforce rules
- The power to seize money and other assets and to coerce the performance of labor
These features make control of the state extremely appealing to people who want to use its power for the benefit of themselves and groups they favor, at the expense of groups they disfavor or society as a whole. Some of them are just greedy for money and power. Others embrace ideologies holding that using the state to benefit a favored group is morally good. Motives aside, these features of the state have a tendency to set us against one another when we participate in politics. Politics makes us worse.
CONFLICT AND COOPERATION IN HUMAN SOCIETY
You can divide the methods humans use to acquire goods and services and accumulate wealth into two broad categories. Sociologist Franz Oppenheimer called them “the economic means” and “the political means.” The economic means encompasses production and exchange—that is, making things yourself out of what you already own or are able to harvest from nature, and trading with other people or giving and receiving gifts. The political means covers all the various ways of taking things that belong to other people by force or fraud, including the organized force of the state. It may seem odd at first to think of stealing as “political”—but keep in mind where states come from. When Oppenheimer called taking goods by force the “political means” of acquiring wealth, he had in mind the historical origins of states as extractive institutions with the purpose of enriching a conquering class at the expense of a conquered class as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
For a libertarian, a cooperative society, and moreover a moral one, is a society in which people rely on the economic means of acquiring wealth. In the market nexus, we are able to come together to find others who share our interests and cooperate with them to achieve gains we could not alone by undertaking enterprises together or engaging in trade. Sometimes, of course, our foresight isn’t perfect and we fail to achieve those gains—but because market interactions can create wealth, rather than merely move it around, they can be positive‐sum; one party winning doesn’t entail another party losing. That encourages us to see other people as potential collaborators, and it rewards all of us for cooperating with one another. Indeed, economic science tells us that the wider the range of potential trading partners we have, the wealthier we will be.
Human life—civilization—isn’t only about wealth in the narrow sense, of course. People interact with one another and organize into all sorts of groups for a wide variety of purposes. What’s important to a libertarian is that we make our dealings with our fellows peaceful and consensual. It’s in that way that we can show the appropriate respect for each person’s autonomy and humanity.
Peaceful, consensual interactions, whether in the market or other aspects of human life, are essentially pro‐social. Politics, libertarians think, is fundamentally anti‐social.
Every law—whether just or unjust, well‐known or obscure, old or new—is ultimately a threat made at gunpoint: Don’t cross this line, or else. When it comes to laws against violating people’s rights, that way of doing things might be appropriate, but a great many laws are not of that type. Solving problems politically means a group of people using violence—or getting others to use violence on its behalf—to impose its will on others without their consent. For that reason, a libertarian tends to be wary of politics playing a large role in human affairs. The humane, peaceful way is better.
LIBERTARIANISM ON THE ISSUES
Mencius/Mengzi was a philosopher who dedicated his life to traveling throughout ancient China, giving rulers advice on how to rule virtuously. Although he was writing in the 4th‐century BCE, many of his ideas have themes that often arise in libertarian thought. He believed that moral and material prosperity was best achieved by the state leaving people to develop freely. According to Mencius, those in power are to be held to a high standard. Just because a person has the state’s backing does not mean they can do whatever they wish.
We have seen that when it comes to big questions about the nature of politics and the state, or about what makes for a good society, libertarians have a distinctive way of thinking. That distinctiveness carries over to the way libertarians think about smaller questions, too. You might have heard someone say that on public policy, libertarians are “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” That’s misleading. Even when libertarians agree with the left or the right on a given issue, they often have very different reasons for the conclusions they draw, and much of the time libertarians disagree with left and right both. When evaluating different specific policies and institutions, libertarians have a coherent set of ideas all their own. That’s not to say libertarians always agree. They don’t. And what’s more, they shouldn’t, because libertarianism properly understood is an ongoing conversation, not a dogma.
Let’s begin, however, with a topic where libertarians tend to strongly agree.
Across the years and around the world, no single issue unites libertarians more than war, and no other issue is more important. A libertarian despises war. In fact, one could view the whole libertarian project as opposition to war and militarism: A libertarian disapproves of using violence to induce other people to do what one wants. Furthermore, a libertarian is hostile to the state’s attempts to impose military regimentation on society as a whole, treating citizens like soldiers—organized and trained by the state to effect the state’s ends.
The indirect effects of warmaking abroad are often inimical to liberty at home. The size and power of the state, which grow during war time, rarely return to prewar levels after the fighting stops.
Because wars inevitably create widespread death and destruction of property, threaten civil liberties, and encourage nationalist thinking instead of individualism and cosmopolitanism, libertarians treat war as, at best, an absolute last resort. Libertarians like Christopher A. Preble have cogently argued that a libertarian foreign policy must be restrained, shunning wars of choice, and that the military should be of an appropriately small size for that purpose. Some libertarians, like Bryan Caplan, think there are good reasons to oppose any and all wars, and many libertarians are inspired by the ideas and deeds of pacifists like Leo Tolstoy or William Lloyd Garrison.