Libertarianism: A Brief Introduction

Curious about libertarianism? You’re in the right place.

Congratulations! If you’re reading this and you’re not already a libertarian, then you’re probably about to embark on a life changing journey of knowledge seeking. I’m honored to be the one giving you this introduction to libertarianism, so if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

What is libertarianism?

Libertarianism: A Brief Introduction
Libertarianism: A Brief Introduction

If you ask ten people this question, you might get ten different answers. Those of us who have been studying it the longest, those of us who follow its concepts through to their ultimate logical conclusions, will tend to agree that libertarianism is the belief in a concept known as the non-aggression principle. That aggression, or initiatory force and fraud are impermissible, and may be responded to with defensive force, while all else is permissible, and may not have force used against it.

Libertarianism is the prescription for proper application of force in society
Libertarianism is the prescription for proper application of force in society

You probably already live by this in most of your daily life. If you understand that it is not okay to assault people, or steal, or kidnap, or murder, if you understand that it is okay to use violence to defend yourself against people who would do these things to you, then you’re probably already a libertarian. Libertarianism is sort of a lowest common denominator. Some might call it a political philosophy, some might call it a moral code, but in its practical application, libertarianism is a standard of conduct. One which we believe, all people should be able to adhere to. It is the prescription for the proper application of force in society. It tells us when force is acceptable, and the answer is, never. Since the only legitimate use of force is in self defense, then, if everybody adhered to the standard, then there would be no violence, because there would be no violence to defend oneself against. Most of us understand that there will always be violence in the world no matter how much we disagree with it, and so defensive violence is a core tenet of libertarianism.

The primary difference between libertarians and non libertarians in this sense, is that non-libertarians, whether they be centrists, liberals, conservatives, or some other ideological strain, is that they make exception to this rule for a class of people who call themselves “the State” or “the government”, or they for some other reason think violence is acceptable outside of defense of person and property. To them, the people who call themselves the government are allowed to use violence, and the people the government controls are not allowed to defend themselves.

How does libertarianism see government?

There are people who call themselves libertarians who will disagree with what I’m about to say. We’ll discuss them soon, but ultimately libertarians view government as fictional. There is no government, there are only individual human beings acting within a given society. Government is the excuse that some people use to violate the non aggression principle. A “ruling class” if you will, who are exempt from the rules of civil society that the rest of us follow.

How Does Libertarianism View Government?
How Does Libertarianism View Government?

The easiest example of this is taxation. Pretty much everyone pays taxes in some form or another, even if we do so indirectly. Some people are very happy to pay taxes, but others are not. If someone refuses to pay taxes, the people who call themselves the government will threaten them with violence. It might not seem this way at first, lots of people violate tax laws and nothing happens to them. Very few (if any) of us actually understand tax laws, so we almost certainly violate some of them some of the time.

However, every once in awhile, the people who call themselves the government begin sending letters to someone who doesn’t want to pay taxes. Those letters start off quite civil, claiming money is owed, or that forms must be filed. If the person on the receiving end of those letters does not comply with the demands, then the letters become more threatening. At first saying more money will be owed, then that they must appear in a court, and if compliance is not gained, ultimately armed men will break into the recipient’s home and kidnap him and take him to jail.

Imagine you behaved like government?
Imagine you behaved like government?

Just imagine what would happen if you tried to do this yourself. If you lived in a place where guns were not outlawed, then you would probably get yourself shot when you tried to break into the victim’s home. If not, you would end up in jail yourself. More importantly your community would look at you as a violent and dangerous person. They would call you a thief, or an extortionist. They would not trust you, or do business with you, or be your friend, they would hate you. Since libertarians do not view the people who work for government as special, since they do not have special privileges, since they too are bound by the non-aggression principle, we view them like we view anyone else in society who behaved this way.

This can be applied to any number of “victimless crimes”. The war on drugs, smoking bans, various banking and business regulations, prostitution laws, speed limits, even “drunk driving”. If there is no victim, there is no crime. So every time a police officer arrests someone for smoking marijuana, we view this as kidnapping. Every time they give threatening letters (commonly known as tickets, or citations) to motorists who haven’t harmed someone,  we view this as theft by extortion.

Since it is wrong for police, or taxing authorities, or anyone, to use violence against these people who have not harmed anyone, it is acceptable for those people to use violence to defend themselves against it. This means it is perfectly acceptable to kill police and tax collectors in self defense. Saying that makes most people very uncomfortable, and so most people who call themselves libertarians will find some way of dancing around the subject. It is also supremely impractical to do this in most cases, since government has so many well armed people ready to kill at its disposal, but nobody is telling you to flush your life down the toilet by violently engaging a superior enemy over a traffic ticket. Only that you would be justified from a moral/philosophical standpoint if you decided to do so.

Is Libertarianism Actually Anarchism?
Is Libertarianism Actually Anarchism?

Isn’t that anarchy?

Yes. If you can find some way to run a government without using or threatening peaceful people with violence, then by all means, feel free to do that. However, if an institution doesn’t use violence against peaceful people, we don’t usually call it a government.

This doesn’t mean that there are no rules, or no security. It only means that rulers are not imposed upon people without their consent. People are welcome to set any rules they like in their homes or businesses, or other property. They are welcome to hire security personnel to enforce those rules. They just cannot set the rules for anyone else’s home, business, or property.

What about the US Constitution? What about “limited government”? Isn’t Ron Paul a libertarian?

Some people view libertarianism as a sliding scale, that something is more or less libertarian than something else. By this definition, Ron Paul is certainly more libertarian than Barack Obama. The US Constitution as ratified in 1789, and the bill of rights as ratified in 1791, are certainly more libertarian than the government we suffer under today.

How Does Libertarianism View The US Constitution?
How Does Libertarianism View The US Constitution?

Still, the constitution, and any sort of “limited government” would provide for initiatory force, at least insofar as they allow for some form of taxes to be collected. Those taxes fund militaries, and history teaches us that those militaries wage wars. Those taxes fund police, and history teaches us that those police steal, assault, kidnap, and murder. These are things that libertarianism forbids, so while it may seem to be a noble goal to enter government and have these things happen less often, it is still less than libertarian. Even if it is closer to libertarianism than some other alternative.

More importantly, history teaches us that “limited governments” don’t remain limited for long. The United States was once the smallest most limited government ever. Today it is the largest, most powerful, most intrusive government in the history of mankind. It monitors (or attempts to monitor) all electronic communications on planet Earth. It has the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world. It spends more on its military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, England, Germany, Japan, India, and South Korea combined. This is about as far from libertarianism as one could get. So those of us who have studied history tend to see the experiment in “limited government” as perhaps the greatest failure in the history of mankind.

What about the Libertarian Party?

What about the Libertarian Party?
What about the Libertarian Party?

The Libertarian Party was formed in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the home of David F. Nolan on December 11, 1971. I personally spoke with Mr. Nolan in 2010, and in our interview he told me “I always intended the Libertarian Party to be an educational effort”. He also said in his paper “The Essence of Liberty” that “In an ideal world, there would be no taxation. All services would be paid for on an as-used basis.”

This would tend to indicate that Mr. Nolan himself was at least philosophically an anarchist, even if he saw a practical need to participate in State politics. There is plenty of difference of opinion on how freedom is achieved, and whether or not working within the system is good or effective or justifiable. The platform of the Libertarian Party has changed over the years, and many different types of candidates with many different ideas and motivations have come and gone.

But the libertarian party does not, cannot, and will not define libertarianism. It is only an institution originally intended to educate the public on the virtues of liberty.

What does libertarianism say about economics?

What does libertarianism say about economics?
What does libertarianism say about economics?

Libertarianism per se doesn’t have much to say about economics. As long as no initiatory force is used, people may arrange economies as they see fit. However, we generally realize that economics is a very important field of study, and libertarians who study economics tend to fall into a faction of libertarianism known as anarcho-capitalists, and strongly favor the “Austrian School” of economics. An entire explanation of what that means and all that it entails is beyond the scope of this document, but here is a brief introduction.

The non-aggression principle stems from the idea of self ownership. You are the owner of your body and your life. For someone to force you to do something against your will, would be to use your property (your body) without consent. Likewise, if you create things in nature by your labor, for example, if you build a home, or till a field, for someone to use those things without your consent, would be to take your labor without consent, and that would constitute slavery, which libertarianism forbids.

Once the resources are created, then the way they are exchanged is through voluntary trade. When two people exchange goods or services, they both tend to be better off for having done so, otherwise they would not do it. If I have a dollar, and you have a coffee, and I give you a dollar for a coffee, this indicates that you want the dollar more than you want the coffee, and I want the coffee more than I want the dollar. When we exchange the two, we both say thank you, and walk away feeling good about the transaction.

The money acts as a unit of account, and a store of value. Presumably, I acquired the dollar by performing some service, or providing some good, to someone else. For the sake of this demonstration, we’ll say that I fix computers for a living. The person who sells the coffee, he is generally a retailer. He bought the coffee from a distributor, who acquired the coffee from a manufacturer, who acquired it from a field owner, who hired workers to tend to his fields.

Clearly it would be supremely impractical for me to find a field worker and fix his computer in direct exchange for coffee. So when we agree upon a unit of account, and a store of value, for the purpose of trade, this makes trade more efficient. I am able to find computer work in a large city, I collect money for my services, and then I buy the coffee from the retailer.

The field worker, the field owner, the manufacturer, the distributor, and the retailer, are an example of what is known as a division of labor. Just as it would be supremely impractical for me to trade computer services with the field worker, it would also be impractical for the field worker to pick the beans, grind the beans, package the beans, transport them all over the world, brew the coffee, put it in the cups, add milk and sugar, and sell them to customers. Instead, the field worker specializes in his trade, he works for the field owner who by whatever means acquired the capital to purchase the field that the field worker could not afford to buy. The field owner could not possibly tend to the entire field by himself, and so he hires people to tend it for him. The manufacturer buys the beans from the field owner because they specialize in preparing the coffee for distribution. The distributor specializes in making the deals with retailers, and so they buy the coffee from the manufacturer. The distributor doesn’t want to be bothered with small sales of individual cups of coffee, so he sells the coffee to the retailer, and the retailer sells it to me. In each step of this process, money exchanges hands, and everybody’s life is improved as a result.

This is commonly referred to as free market capitalism. It favors private property rights, and free exchange of goods and services.

If you consent to share your home and your field with your community, if there is no unit of account for the labor you all put into making these things possible, if you all feel comfortable with the concept of collective ownership over these things, this would commonly be known as communism or socialism. As long as it is voluntary, then libertarianism per se does not object to this.

However, economics is not a matter of opinion. Economics is a science. People will talk about different schools of economics, Keynesian, Marxist, Austrian, and others, but which economic theory you subscribe to is really irrelevant. Believing in Marxist or Keynesian economics will not make those theories true. An economic theory is either true or false. While non aggression cannot forbid collectivist societies, any honest study of economics will show that they tend to fail, resulting in violent conflicts. So libertarians who study economics objectively will tend to find themselves more closely associated with the Austrian school of economics, and favor what most would refer to as free market capitalism.

Since people have wildly varying ideas on what that means, this faction of libertarians generally refer to themselves as anarcho-capitalists, in order to draw the distinction between themselves and the incoherent economic ramblings of others who might still call themselves libertarians.

Ultimately it means that property, whether acquired through homesteading, mixing one’s labor with previously unowned resources, or by voluntary trade, is an extension of the individual. That to take, use, or destroy a person’s property without consent, is an act of force against that person, and justifies defensive force on the part of the victim. A person may acquire as much property as they are capable of acquiring. He may do with it as he sees fit. He may trade with it, keep it for himself, share it freely, or destroy it, and nobody has any right to interfere.

What rights does libertarianism recognize?

The concept of “rights” has been the subject of much debate over the course of human history, and led to a great deal of violence. Some people think they have a right to free food, medicine, and shelter. Some people believe they have a right to equality of outcome. Some people believe rights come from government, others think rights come from God.

Libertarianism does not have a list of rights that it recognizes aside from the right to be free from initiatory force, and to defend yourself with force if that right is violated. Libertarianism says that rights derive from property, so to a question like freedom of speech, you have the right to say anything you want, on your own property. If you went to someone else’s home and insulted them, this of course would make it his decision if he wanted to make you leave.

To the question of the right to keep and bear arms, you have the right to have whatever weaponry you want. Weapons are just another type of property. You have the right to use those weapons to defend yourself and your property. If you go to someone else’s home or place of business, and they don’t want you to carry weapons, then your choices are to disarm or depart.

This equation can be applied to anything. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a right to someone else’s property. Whenever you want to know who has what rights, simply ask “Who owns the property?” and the rest will become obvious.

Are libertarians conspiracy theorists?

Are libertarians conspiracy theorists?
Are libertarians conspiracy theorists?

What people commonly refer to as “conspiracy theories” are popular in libertarian circles, but libertarianism per se has no opinion on them. When one studies government objectively, it can be easy to assume the worst about it. So if you see government as a violent criminal organization that has murdered over 260 million of its own citizens in the last century, not including war, it is easy to believe that they are doing other terrible things. It can make sense to believe that they brought down the World Trade Center, or staged the Boston Marathon bombing, or are rigging elections, or are doing terrible things with psychiatric drugs.

How many of those things are actually true, well, those are subjects beyond the scope of this document. Many libertarians use conspiracy theories as propaganda to turn people against the government, and that can certainly have a positive or a negative effect, depending on how they are used.

I encourage you to do your own research and come to your own conclusions, but libertarianism itself has no opinion on the matter, and libertarians will argue vehemently with each other on the facts and strategies deployed by “conspiracy theorists”.

Want to find out more about libertarianism?

I hope this introduction was enough to catch your interest and get you started. You probably have more questions than answers at this point, but that’s a good thing. One of the most important things that libertarians (should) realize is that they don’t understand everything, nobody does, and that’s why government always fails. Governments try to centrally plan economies and world affairs under the false notion that they have the wisdom required to do so. The fact of the matter is, the world is entirely too complicated for any person or group to completely understand, and so it is best to leave individuals free to make their own choices.

A few other articles I’ve written may help you understand some other concepts of a free society, like

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Christopher Cantwell comedian, writer, voice artist, and Patriot.

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