What does it mean to be a Libertarian?

“I don’t believe in black rights,” I told my friends. When they started to get angry at me I decided to explain further. “I also don’t believe in women’s rights or gay rights,” I told them.

Before my friends decided to kill me and dump my dead body in the Genesee River, I explained further that the only rights I believe in are human rights (also known as natural rights).

It doesn’t matter what: race, gender, religion, orientation, income level, age or any other demographic, natural rights are ignorant of the differences in societies, cultures and national borders. A human is a human and should receive the same treatment under the law as any other individual.

Libertarians see all people as equals under the law. If they are not, then the law affecting them adversely should be repealed, rather than creating a patchwork of ineffective laws to ensure rights to particular groups.

A libertarian’s foundation is based on the axiom that no person may aggress against another person or their property.

This is where the term liberty comes into play. A person has the absolute right to be free from aggression. This gives someone social or “civil” liberties such as freedom of speech, right to privacy, right to marry, and freedom of religion.

A libertarian would be opposed to the death penalty, and laws that prevent people of different orientations or races to marry, and would support freedom of the press. This could be considered as an extremely left-wing, or liberal, view.

A libertarian opposes the aggression of private property. The only exchange of property would therefore be voluntary mutual exchange (a free market) and not one of oppression (theft).

Therefore a libertarian would be opposed to government regulation, prohibitions and subsidies in the economy which both create perverse incentives and interupt the evolved processes of markets.

This is considered an extremely right-wing, or conservative, view.

Although this position seems odd — to have socially liberal views and economically conservative views — it is in fact the only consistent position for the liberty of every individual and one that the United States of America was founded upon.

The benefit of living in a libertarian society is that people can have many different beliefs and still live together.

For example, different religions comprised different beliefs and sects can coexist without imposing their particular religious beliefs on one another.

A person of some religious affiliation may be opposed to gay marriage while someone else of another religious affiliation would be completely accepting of gay marriage.

Therefore, in a libertarian society one group would not be able to impose their views on others. For instance, gays will be given equal rights under the law, including the ability to marry.

Another example would be a group of individuals who may want to organize themselves in a communal or a communistic setting.

Individuals and groups could live in a communistic environment as long as they all mutually agree to it and would not force others to live like them, participate in it or prevent them from leaving.

It irks me when someone says libertarians are nutty or crazy, when they don’t understand what Libertarians are in the first place.

If the term had existed in the 1700s and 1800s, the founding fathers and early presidents of this country would have proudly classified themselves as Libertarians and defenders of freedom.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “the policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, rather restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.” So you tell me, are we really that nutty?

Updated: Edited to change all usages of the term Libertarian to libertarian, reflecting the difference between the creed and current Libertarian party.



You can contact Stephen at gmacaski@u.rochester.edu.

    15 Responses to “What does it mean to be a Libertarian?”

    1. Aaron Burro says:

      It’s interesting that you reference the founding fathers in your defense of why you don’t believe in black or womens’ rights. They may certainly have believed in the equal rights of all white men, but they conspicuously ignored the rights of blacks and women. Because of THIS foundation that our founders gave us, we have institutional and cultural racism and sexism that can’t be addressed by simple hands-off social and fiscal policy. Libertarianism sounds fantastic in the abstract. But in the real world, where our historical policies create real and substantial disadvantages for certain groups of our population, it might make sense to reconsider whether simply ignoring “black rights,” “women’s rights” or “gay rights,” really creates the kind of utopian, free society you envision.

    2. Stephen Macaskill says:

      Interesting. I don’t believe I ever used the founding fathers to explain why I believe in individual rights. I merely pointed out that they would have been libertarians.

      You’re right that they did not give everyone equal rights under the law which would not be considered libertarian, today. However, it would be absurd to say that if they were alive today that they would be white male supremacists.

      A “hands off” policy does not mean that laws should not be changing. Laws should constantly change to keep up with the times and changes in business practices and technology. Probably not as fast as they should, and that is because of public choice problems.

      So what you’re advocating for is that some groups should be unequal under the law as opposed to other groups? Instead of making everyone equal under the law, those who had historical advantages should be “punished?” Perhaps you mean that the wealth of those with historical advantages should be transferred to the groups who were disadvantaged?

      • Stephen Macaskill says:

        I mean laws should be changing faster than they are*

      • Aaron Burro says:

        Policies that attempt to equalize social and institutional racism or sexism do not “punish” those who have had historical advantages. They just neutralize the significant structural/institutional racism/sexism/classism/etc that exists in society today. It’s not about making up for the past just for the sake of making up for the past, it’s about making things right today (and the reason they aren’t right today is, yes, often times because of history). It’s not about transferring wealth to make everyone equal, but using our resources to help boost the ability for certain groups to compete on the same level as historically advantaged groups.

        • Stephen Macaskill says:

          You’re saying that some groups should be unequal under the law as opposed to other groups to “equalize social and institutional racism.” However, giving one race or gender different laws to another race or gender is in itself, racist and/or sexist.

          “but using our resources to help boost the ability for certain groups…” is a transference of wealth.

          • Taylor Boudreau says:

            Equality under the law does not mean equality or more importantly equity. Instead of striving for equal treatment, we should strive for results. However in order to accomplish this the concept of “fairness” in laws needs to be understood and ignored because “fairness” does not guarantee equal rights. The educational system is a great example of where “fairness” under the law fails to produce equity. The graduation and drop out rates of african american and hispanic students are much higher than those of caucasian students. This is due to the failure to provide the necessary systematic changes to produce equity for these minorities in an educational setting by allowing the system to claim equality because all students receive the same education. It is ignorant of the truth to say that because of an identical education two students are equal. The system is designed for caucasian students to have greater success because that is who it catered to before minorities were given the opportunity to become educated.

            My point is that equal rights are great, but equal rights aren’t equal if they cater towards the norm and fail to adapt to modern society. This involves throwing out the concept of “fairness” in order to achieve equity.

            • Richard Stands says:

              Should NFL teams be compelled by law to stop trading away low scoring players in order to produce equitable results? How about low producing salesmen? Or malpracticing doctors?

    3. Richard Stands says:

      In a free country, should non-violent citizens be free to be racist, sexist, or otherwise stupid?

    4. Taylor Boudreau says:

      Those examples are irrelevant to a this discussion. The system is not what puts them at a disadvantage, but rather the person themselves. Those are also not publicly provided goods and there is no “right” that says a person must be on an NFL team. These people work in private jobs and their performance is their own responsibility.

      However, there are laws that require children to go to school, and since these schools are publicly provided, it is the duty of the government to strive for equity.

    5. Aaron Burro says:

      Taylor made a whole lot of excellent points, all of which I agree with. At the risk of being repetitive, though, Richard:

      Your allegiance to “equality” as a goal that has independent value is misguided. The world is unequal, and will likely always be unequal. There’s too much history, bias and discrimination that permeates every single facet of our lives to pretend that, for instance, equal receipt of the benefits of laws is the only thing that matters. In fact, if every person equally benefited from the laws, we would have stark and continued inequality.

      You wrote “However, giving one race or gender different laws to another race or gender is in itself, racist and/or sexist.” No, it’s not. For instance, men generally don’t have as long paternity leave as women have maternity leave. If, like you advocate, look at that rule in a vacuum, it seems unfair. However, certain cultural and biological inequities that exist in the world (women being the ones who physically give birth to children, our culture being one that generally looks to the mother to provide most of the childcare in infancy) compel a different set of rules to be applied to people based on their gender. That’s not sexist. It would be sexist to ignore the fact that the women live in a country where giving birth would require them additional time off than their partners in order to be able to achieve the same level of results in the workplace.

      As for your comment ““but using our resources to help boost the ability for certain groups…” is a transference of wealth.” I’m not going to argue semantics, but rather: so what? What’s wrong with the government transferring wealth?

    6. Richard Stands says:

      What is the purpose of government? How is it chartered in the United States? Can government successfully perform what it’s chartered to do?

      If government exists to transfer wealth from some citizens to other citizens according to the wishes of third party observers (the observers’ view of equality, equity, entitlement, compensation, history), are Somali warlords “government”? Is a mafia don?

      Is government constrained by any charter? On a national level, what is the American congress empowered to do? Are these powers enumerated anywhere? Is the Congress empowered to unilaterally expand its powers? How are senators and congressmen distinct from nobility?

      Can government make all people equal? Can government produce equal outcomes for a third of a billion individuals? If it tries, how likely will it be to succeed? When comparing the results of any government organization in American history, how does that organization compare to its private analogs (post office versus Federal Express, public schools versus private and charter schools, VA hospitals versus private hospitals)?

      The vast majority of functions in a free society are performed by the people who comprise it in voluntary markets. Some of these functions can alternatively be performed by a ruling body enforcing its decisions with eventual coercive force if necessary. Without answering the questions above, how can you tell which body should most properly perform which function? Nations have dissolved (recently) over failing to ask these questions, or answering them unethically, unlawfully, or dysfunctionally.

      • Aaron Burro says:

        So, if I answer these questions, I save America?

        1. Somali warlords are not government.
        2. Mafia dons are not government.
        3. The US Government is limited by the Constitution.
        4. Congress is empowered to do what the Constitution states in Article I.
        5. The Constitution.
        6. No.
        7. They are elected.
        8. No.
        9. No.
        10. More likely that doing nothing.
        11. The government does a better job at serving a wider range of people. Private enterprise fills a niche where people with extra money can choose to exchange that money for goods and services they find valuable. They cater to a smaller group of people and serve their needs well. Public mail/schools/hospitals fill the gaps for people who do not have extra money to spend on basic human needs.

        So I just saved America.

    7. Richard Stands says:

      “The government does a better job at serving a wider range of people.”

      I’d agree that the government can affect more people than the market. If allowed, it can even affect those who would otherwise choose not to be affected. This is the advantage of government action. Consent is not required.

      “Private enterprise fills a niche where people with extra money can choose to exchange that money for goods and services they find valuable.”

      Another way to express this is: Anyone who wants to interact voluntarily with anyone else. The shorthand term for this is: A market.

      “Public mail/schools/hospitals fill the gaps for people who do not have extra money to spend on basic human needs.”

      Why doesn’t the government provide public food? Isn’t this more essential than mail, schools, or hospitals? Do markets provide food? How would government action prove superior or inferior to markets in delivering goods and services? Why were there bread lines in the Soviet Union?

      The salient difference between government action and voluntary markets is that governments are instituted among men to secure certain inalienable rights deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Americans license their States and their Federal government to wield force.

      Given that there are saints, fools, and evil men in both private markets and governments, the only distinct element governments bring to the equation is their license to wield coercive force. When used to defend natural rights, this distinction of force is an appropriate use of that license. In all other aspects of human interaction (markets), force is unethical for a civilized society not ruled by warlords and dons. Force is also ineffective in delivering goods and services (as witnessed by any historical attempt at command and control economies). And force is unauthorized to the U.S. Congress for any non-enumerated power. There is no enumeration in Article 1, Section 8 for education, hospitals or food.

      Using government action instead of voluntary markets is an abuse of the governmental charter (no matter how well intentioned), just as much as initiating coercive force is an abuse within a voluntary market.

    8. Aaron Burro says:

      Richard.

      “Consent not required” is a possible, but not necessary, result of government action. Doesn’t negate the fact that it can provide for those who cannot participate in the free market.

      Yes, private enterprise provides a market. I don’t think that is particularly surprising.

      The government does provide public food. Food stamps.

      No, force is not the only distinct thing about government. The government is elected. The government also isn’t bound by a profit-first mentality like markets are and instead can act in ways that might not make sense from a pure market standpoint (poor facilities with lots of children still get to go to public school) but make perfect sense from a society standpoint (we want a well-educated country). Could you be forced to go to school against your will? Yes. I fail to see the harm. “Force” in and of itself isn’t a bogeyman that we can’t talk about rationally.

      Funny you leave out post offices, one of your first examples from your list. Because it’s actually in the constitution. The government acting in a world where a private market exists. As for education/hospitals: Congress doesn’t provide those services. States do. So the fact that it’s not in the Constitution is a-okay. And re-read the first line of Section 8 for further clarification on the constitutionality of welfare.

      I fail to see how you’ve supported your bright line rule about government action & markets. You say it as if it’s a truth that doesn’t need support. Government action can (and does) coexist with and supplement markets. And there’s nothing unconstitutional about it.

    9. Richard Stands says:

      “Yes, private enterprise provides a market. I don’t think that is particularly surprising.”

      I agree. Not surprising at all. I might use the terms ubiquitous, overlooked, integral, essential, and natural. But not surprising.

      I may have been too circumspect above, but the gist of my point was not that government *can’t* do things, but only that it shouldn’t (and perhaps that it is unauthorized and incompetent to do them). The very fact that government organization are unaffected by a profit-first mentality is exactly why they are so poor at delivering goods and services. When one has no competitors there is no incentive to improve efficiency or service except for personal integrity. And since people with varying integrity populate both private and government sphere’s, that quality washes out as any significant differential.

      A much more ethical and effective method to help people with fewer resources (the “poor”) is to allow voluntary trade among all people to bring prices down through a division of labor, comparative advantage, increased productivity, and market efficiency. This is the dynamism which creates wealth and has made America so wealthy that even America’s “poor” have a living standard far above the comparable poorer elements in the rest of the world. Americans are rich – even the poor ones – when viewed from the rest of the world. This is because they are, and historically have been, freer than much of the rest of the world.

      I left out the Post Office as a misapplication of U.S. federal government activity for just the reason you correctly state. The Post Office is an enumerated power of the Congress. Sadly, by its nature, it is also inefficient, costly, and unresponsive. Not illegal; just impractical.

      And while Congress is empowered to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States”, Jefferson put it this way:

      “To lay taxes to provide for the general welfare of the United States, that is to say, “to lay taxes for the purpose of providing for the general welfare.” For the laying of taxes is the power, and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised. They are not to lay taxes ad libitum for any purpose they please; but only to pay the debts or provide for the welfare of the Union.” — Opinion on National Bank, 1791.

      When one extends “general welfare” to loosely mean anything the given observer contends it means, the entire concept of enumerated powers becomes moot. Legislators become noblemen; favors from the treasury become the currency of the land; corporatism thrives.

      One can certainly mix the functions of government and markets. Americans have expediently allowed government to cast an ever-expanding overshadow private markets. It’s easier to assuage one’s own views of parity if government will eagerly expand its scope to force others in your market to finance your desires with tax money, borrowing, or “quantitative easing” (monetary inflation). It’s not that government cannot or has not done these things (however unethically and inefficiently). By its charter and the license granted to it by “we the people”, I simply withhold my sanction and maintain that it should not.



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