May 29, 2016

Things That Don’t Make a Libertarian

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

Gary Johnson, who doesn’t believe business owners should be able to discriminate their customers, just today became the Libertarian Party nominee. Yes, this individual who couldn’t even define the libertarian framework, is the nominee of a party that has the label “libertarian” on it.

Aside from the reminder that the Libertarian Party has been nearly worthless since Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard left in the 80’s (and why many libertarians associated with the Mises Institute aren’t even interested in the LP), this news made me want to list some things that many people, including so very many self-described libertarians, wrongly consider as important aspects of libertarianism. When asked what libertarianism is, or what the libertarian believes about a certain issue, far too many people are completely fine with one or more of these. But this understanding of libertarianism is either flat out wrong, or too misleading to be of any help.

And I don’t just mean non-libertarians or run of the mill members of the libertarian party. I’m talking about libertarian-light organizations and groups like Reason Magazine, Institute for Humane Studies, Students for Liberty, Cato (and the related libertarianism.org), the Libertarian Party, and others associated with the Koch empire. That is to say, most pop-libertarians have a deficient understanding of the doctrine.

1. Libertarians are social liberal and fiscally conservative.

-No. Libertarianism is a theory of property rights and aggression in light of those property rights. It also has implications for what individuals in a government can or cannot do. Libertarians can be either social liberals or social conservatives.

2. Libertarians believe that we shouldn’t judge other people’s lifestyles (or alternatively: are open minded about people’s personal lifestyle choices.).

-No. Libertarianism is a theory of property rights and aggression in light of those property rights. It has nothing to do with whether or not someone chooses to judge someone’s lifestyle or are open minded about it.

3. Libertarians believe we shouldn’t discriminate against people who are not like us.

-No. Libertarianism implies that people have a legal right to discrimination for whatever reason.

4. Libertarians believe that society has moved beyond cultural traditions such as on sex and gender issues, and believe that conservatives are “on the wrong side of history.”

-No. Libertarianism is a theory of property rights and aggression in light of those property rights. It has nothing to do with opposing social and cultural traditions, unless said tradition can be clearly shown to be an aggression against someone’s property rights.

5. Libertarians believe that we “ought to leave other people alone.”

-No. Libertarianism is a theory of property rights and aggression in light of those property rights. It can be more accurate to say that libertarians believe that the government ought to leave other people alone. But this is different. We are allowed to annoy people, to initiate interaction with them, to persuade them, to debate them, and so on. So long as in doing these things we don’t aggress against their property.

6. Libertarians must be politically correct.

-Most libertarians don’t actually say this. But many so-called libertarians jump all over people who aren’t politically correct as if adhering to the authoritarian standards of modern public niceties is actually a libertarian issue. But libertarianism is a theory of property rights and aggression. So this is irrelevant.

7. Libertarians can be summarized with the phrase “Don’t hurt people.”

-No. Libertarianism is far more specific than that. This phrase misleads the listener into thinking that libertarians are pacifists who don’t believe in self-defense, or are somehow opposed to voluntary fighting and so forth (hence why many conservatives automatically think libertarians are necessarily softies). Rather, libertarianism emphasizes aggression against the property rights of another individual. Moreover, it doesn’t explain why libertarians are against contract breaches, trespassing, and theft. “Hurting people” is broad, ambiguous, and does a disservice to the painstaking efforts of libertarian theorists like Rothbard and Hoppe to define everything precisely and completely.

8. Libertarians want the state to be more efficient.

No. Libertarians want the state to get out of the way completely. State activity has a negative impact on the life, liberty, and prosperity of individuals and we don’t want to make the state more efficient at doing these things. Short of getting completely out of the way, it is more consistent for the libertarian to hope the state is less efficient and terrible at what it does, which would allow the market to actually solve the problems society needs taken care of.

For one of the best articles on myths of libertarianism (though these are different types of objections than the ones above), see Rothbard’s classic essay here. 

Conclusion: Consider this excerpt from one of the best essays on the nature of libertarianism ever written, titled What Libertarianism Is by Stephen Kinsella:

It is said that libertarianism is about: individual rights; property rights; the free market; capitalism; justice; the non-aggression principle. Not all these will do, however. Capitalism and the free market describe the catallactic conditions that arise or are permitted in a libertarian society, but do not encompass other aspects of libertarianism. And individual rights, justice, and aggression collapse into property rights. As Murray Rothbard explained, individual rights are property rights. And justice is just giving someone his due, which depends on what his rights are.

The non-aggression principle is also dependent on property rights, since what aggression is depends on what our (property) rights are. If you hit me, it is aggression because I have a property right in my body. If I take from you the apple you possess, this is trespass, aggression, only because you own the apple. One cannot identify an act of aggression without implicitly assigning a corre- sponding property right to the victim.

So capitalism and the free market are too narrow, and justice, individual rights, and aggression all boil down to, or are defined in terms of, property rights. What of property rights, then? Is this what differentiates libertarianism from other political philosophies —that we favor property rights, and all others do not? Surely such a claim is untenable. After all, a property right is simply the exclusive right to control a scarce resource. Property rights specify which persons own—have the right to control—various scarce resources in a given region or jurisdiction. Yet everyone and every political theory advances some theory of property. None of the various forms of socialism deny property rights; each socialism will specify an owner for every scarce resource. If the state nationalizes an industry, it is asserting ownership of these means of production. If the state taxes you, it is implicitly asserting ownership of the funds taken. If my land is transferred to a private developer by eminent domain statutes, the developer is now the owner. If the law allows a recipient of racial discrimination to sue his employer for a sum of money—he is the owner of the money.

Protection of and respect for property rights is thus not unique to libertarianism. What is distinctive about libertarianism is its particular property assignment rules—its view as to who is the owner of each contestable resource, and how to determine this.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • @nsmartinworld

    The Mises libertarians are following Lew Rockwell who is following a Murray Rothbard essay championing populism, which leads them to Trump. Yes, the LP is worthless, and has been since Ed Clark’s campaign to attract liberals; but the Mises Institute cultists have wandered into a desert without discernible libertarian features. Considering the political foolishness of Rothbard and Rockwell in the past, this is no surprise. I do feel a bit sorry for Lv Mises, though.

  • JdL

    I’m delighted to see that, for once, Mr. Engel has left out flaunting his rabidly anti-abortion (and anti-libertarian) views.

  • Robert Farrior

    There’s a lot more to freedom than that!
    robertsrevolution.net

  • Lando Calvinian

    So how does the typical Libertarian in reality vote or act in contrast to the LINO (Libertarian In Name Only)? The nomination of Trump was what caused me to leave the GOP and join the LP. (And I joined knowing it wouldn’t be a 100% fit.)