What Is a Libertarian?

The Principle

Libertarians accept the use of force to defend one’s life, liberty, and justly acquired property. Libertarians do not accept the initiation of force or fraud to aggress against the life, liberty, or justly acquired property of others. This is the “nonaggression principle (NAP).”

The Philosophy

This libertarian idea is based on the principle of self-ownership. You own your life. To deny this is to imply that another person has a higher claim on your life than you have. No other person, or group of persons, owns your life nor do you own the lives of others.

You exist in time: future, present, and past. This is manifest in life, liberty, and the product of your life and liberty. The exercise of choices over life and liberty is your prosperity. To lose your life is to lose your future. To lose your liberty is to lose your present. To lose the product of your life and liberty is to lose the portion of your past that produced it.
A product of your life and liberty is your property. Your property is the fruit of your labor, the product of your time, energy, and talents. It is that part of nature (e.g., land) that you turn to valuable use (e.g., fencing land to enclose your livestock). It is the property of others that is given to you by voluntary exchange and mutual consent. Two people who exchange property voluntarily are both better off or they wouldn’t do it. Only they may rightfully make that decision for themselves.

At times, some people use force or fraud to take from others without willful, voluntary consent. Normally, the initiation of force to take life is murder; to take liberty is slavery; and to take property is theft. It is the same whether these actions are done by one person acting alone, by the many acting against a few, or even by officials with fine hats and titles.
You have the right to protect your own life, liberty, and justly acquired property from the forceful aggression of others. You may rightfully ask others to help protect you as well, but you do not have a right to initiate force against the life, liberty, or property of others. Thus, you have no right to designate some person to initiate force against others on your behalf.

You have a right to seek leaders for yourself, but you have no right to impose rulers on others. No matter how officials are selected, they are only human beings and they have no rights or claims that are higher than those of any other human beings. Regardless of the imaginative labels for their behavior or the numbers of people encouraging them, officials have no right to murder, to enslave, or to steal. You cannot give them any rights that you do not have yourself.

Since you own your life, you are responsible for your life. You do not rent your life from others who demand your obedience. Nor are you a slave to others who demand your sacrifice. You choose your own goals based on your own values. Success and failure are both the necessary incentives to learn and to grow. Your action on behalf of others, or their action on behalf of you, is only virtuous when it is derived from voluntary, mutual consent. Virtue can only exist when there is free choice.

This is the basis of a truly free society. It is not only the most practical and humanitarian foundation for human action, it is also the most ethical.

Problems that arise from the initiation of force by government have a solution. The solution is for people of the world to stop asking officials to initiate force on their behalf. Evil does not arise only from evil people, but also from good people who tolerate the initiation of force as a means to their own ends. In this manner, good people have empowered evil throughout history.

Having confidence in a free society is to focus on the process of discovery in the marketplace of values rather than to focus on some imposed vision or goal. Using governmental force to impose a vision on others is unacceptable aggression and typically results in unintended, perverse consequences.

Application

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence-it is force! Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”—George Washington

Libertarians apply the “nonaggression principle (NAP)” to all political issues. The NAP is not a guide to what individuals should do with their lives, rather it is a guide to what individuals should not do to interfere with the lives of others—live and let live. Voluntary action and persuasion are the hallmarks of libertarian remedies to political concerns.

The Market

When people face problems in the world, they often turn to officials in government to solve these problems. The libertarian asks if there was some government action that caused these problems in the first place. Remove that cause and you have a pretty good start at market solutions. Voluntary behavior and competition typically provide incentives for a prosperous world: lower prices, better services, and greater innovation.

For instance, it is natural to experience benevolent impulses to help the poor. Rather than taking money by force from one person to give to another, however, the libertarian can find ways that government force has been used to impoverish people.

People feel they are helping the poor by asking government to mandate higher wages. The libertarian observes that government’s taxing, regulating, and spending raises the cost of goods and services, constantly eroding the purchasing power of wages.

Direct and indirect taxes, such as regulations and the printing of money, add to the cost of everything consumers wish to buy. Secretly and unobserved, inflation robs the poor and redistributes wealth to the government and to others with hard assets that rise in value when the government’s paper money loses value.

Food is expensive because trade barriers prevent the purchase of much lower cost food from poor farmers abroad. Thus, trade barriers impoverish both consumers at home and poor farmers abroad. Tariffs are regressive taxes that place a high burden on the income of poor people. The beneficiaries of protectionist trade barriers are influential special interests who gain from these government privileges.

Rent has become expensive because of the many ways government prevents low-cost housing with zoning laws, building codes, and rent controls. For instance, the councils of government reduce the land available for housing; they outlaw low-cost mobile homes; they tax landlords who pass the costs along to tenants; and they fix rental prices so low that maintenance, repair, and new construction are obstructed.

Community values and security can be achieved through private, voluntary covenants rather than by governmental mandates that service the politically influential. Licensing, regulations, and quotas often serve special interests who wish to eliminate competition and raise their prices. Thus, job and wealth opportunities are lost, especially for the poor.

Civil Liberties

Libertarians champion the right of individuals to pursue their lives in any manner they choose, so long as they respect the same right of others. This is demonstrated by a strong appreciation for constitutional constraints that guarantee the rights of individuals against dictators or the tyranny of majorities.

Freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly are foremost in the libertarian mind. Government officials have found a multitude of ways to restrict these rights in the name of “the public good.” Officials control broadcasts on radio and television; they censor theater, books, newspapers, and the internet; and they manipulate commercial and political expression.
Libertarians, on the other hand, hold that freedom from the shackles of government is the ultimate public good. Libertarians oppose the excuses for government power that result in conscription, imprisonment for victimless crimes, and widespread official theft by taxation and property condemnation.

Individuals have a right to live life as they choose, even when their paths are eccentric or unpopular. Thus, adults have the right to consume what they wish, have sexual relations with whom they wish, and may participate in games of chance as they wish…all at their own risk and responsibility.
It is unconscionable that majorities put people behind bars for personal lifestyle choices involving consenting adults. Likewise, libertarians believe that the decision for offering assistance to others is also a matter of personal, voluntary choice, rather than by government mandate.

Minimizing the role of government is a way to minimize the potential for majorities to wield destructive power against people of any minority whether by race, religion, gender, sexual preference, or any other classification.

Libertarians champion the right of individuals to the ownership of guns and personal defense because they do not trust government officials to protect individual rights to life, liberty, and property. This is not just for defense against the rapist or freelance robber, but for the purpose of guarding against the ever-looming threat of repressive government that people throughout history have fought so hard against.

“I heartily accept the motto, — ‘That government is best which governs least;’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — ‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” —Henry David Thoreau

Nonintervention

People have the will to fight for and defend their freedom, i.e., the American and French revolutions sought freedom from monarchs. Governments around the world have abused their power to tax and print money, enabling a multitude of unnecessary and avoidable wars of extraordinary tyranny, aggression, and waste.

War is the health of the state. Governments manipulate popular fears to increase the powers of the state through the confiscation of wealth and the expansion of control. In the aftermath of every war, the size and power of the state becomes substantially greater than at prewar levels as new threats are conjured and targeted.

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”—H.L. Mencken

“When goods don’t cross borders, Soldiers will.”—Frederic Bastiat

Just as government should not interfere in the domestic affairs of individuals, no government, including the U.S. government, should interfere in the affairs of other nations except in self-defense. The more nations trade with each other, the less likely they are to resort to international conflict because of the mutual economic risks.

Drug wars waged by the U.S. government are harmful to American citizens and are even more harmful abroad because of the terrible consequences from corruption, black markets, and criminal gangs. These forms of intervention impoverish peoples around the world and drive them from their homes.

The Difference

The political arena is often characterized by left wing and right wing, originally derived from discourse after the French Revolution between fans or foes of the monarch. Fans sat on the right side of the French Assembly and foes sat on the left side. Over the years various labels have been attributed to these sides, with conservatives, reactionaries, and fascists on the right and progressives, socialists, communists, and radicals on the left. In the libertarian view, they all represent high degrees of governmental control for varying purposes.

In American politics, the Republican Party is associated with the right wing and the Democratic Party with the left wing. Until the year 2000, the color red used to be associated with the left wing because of red flag symbolism of the Communist Party and the Red Guard. Then the color red was redefined by the media as associated with rural American states, “rednecks,” and Republican party politics. The color blue became associated with the Democrats.”

The word “liberal” originated as a libertarian term advocating all forms of freedom, as it is still used in Europe today as classical liberal. But in the U.S., the word “liberal” came to be associated with the left wing in the 20th Century. As the term became unpopular with voters, the left wing abandoned it for the “progressive,” a term that took root in the early 20th Century under the Progressive Party of Sen. Robert LaFollett and President Theodore Roosevelt.

Libertarians are neither right nor left, though they might occasionally identify with either side on particular issues. For instance, the right wing sometimes, though not consistently, favors less government control over business and the economy with lower taxes and less commercial regulation. The left wing frequently favors more government control and taxes on business and commercial regulation.

On the other hand, the left wing sometimes, though not consistently, favors less government control over personal lifestyle decisions. Conversely, the right wing frequently favors the imposition of more government controls on personal lifestyle behavior such as sex, drugs, and gambling.

In the absence of principle to guide their behavior, right-wing and left-wing advocates can be found vacillating on important issues. For instance, in the 19th Century gun control was opposed by many on the left and favored by many on the right. Then in the 20th Century, their relative positions on gun control flipped. Libertarians are consistent on the issue of self-defense by applying the NAP.

The right wing and left wing have both favored aggressive military interventions abroad. Most American wars in the 20th Century have begun under Democratic administrations while Republicans have enthusiastically supported them. The reverse occurred in 2001 with recent wars in the Middle East. Libertarians tend to support only strictly defensive military action and prefer behavior that keeps the nation out of foreign affairs.

“Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
—Thomas Jefferson

By subscribing to the nonaggression principle (NAP), libertarians remain consistent in championing all forms of personal freedom, at home and abroad, at any given time or with any particular issue.

About The Author

Ken Schoolland is Vice President for International Relations at Liberty International. He is an Associate Professor of Economics at Hawaii Pacific University and the author of The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible: A Free Market Odyssey, now published in 55+ languages with theatrical productions on four continents.

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