If a survey were to be taken of non-libertarian Americans asking them what libertarianism stands for, my hunch is that the vast majority of them would say either that they don’t know or that it’s rightwing or conservative.
That’s a shame, especially given that the libertarian movement is at least 75 years old. You would think that after 75 years, people would have a good understanding of what libertarianism is all about. They might not agree with its principles but at least they would know what it stands for.
In fact, if the same question were to be asked of self-labeled libertarians, I believe the answers would be all over the map. That’s because there is no longer a libertarian “brand.” Or to be more precise, whatever “brand” there is consists of a mush of conservative reform-oriented positions that actually violate libertarian principles.
The libertarian brand began with a focus on liberty. The brand was based on the natural, God-given right to live one’s life the way he chooses, so long as his conduct is peaceful. Thus, as long as a person doesn’t initiate force or fraud against others — e.g., murder, rape, burglary, etc. — he is free to make whatever choices he wants as he travels the journey of life.
In libertarianism, this is called the non-aggression principle. It holds that it is illegitimate to initiate force or fraud against another person. It is the core principle of libertarianism, one from which all other libertarian principles flow.
Thus, the original libertarian brand opposed Social Security, Medicare, and all other socialist programs. That’s because people have the right to keep everything they earn and decide for themselves what to do with their own money. The original brand was based on the principle that it is morally wrong to force anyone to share his money with other people, especially since that involves the initiation of force against others. Genuine libertarianism is opposed to any form of mandated charity.
The same with immigration. People have the right to pursue happiness, to associate with others, to travel, to visit, and to tour by crossing political borders. Initiating force against people who are engaged in a purely peaceful activity involves a violation of the libertarian non-aggression principle. The genuine libertarian brand embraces the concepts of free markets (i.e., markets free from governmental interference) and open borders.
The same with education. People have the right to have their families educated in any way they choose. Compulsory school-attendance laws and school taxes violate the libertarian non-aggression principle. The libertarian brand encompasses the separation of school and state.
The same with drug laws. People have the right to ingest whatever they want to ingest, no matter how harmful. Initiating force against drug users, drug possessors, or drug sellers violates the libertarian non-aggression principle.
The same with the national-security state form of governmental structure, along with its omnipotent powers, such as assassination, secret mass surveillance without warrants, invasions, occupations, coups, and support of violent dictatorships. The genuine libertarian brand necessary entails the restoration of a limited-government republic, which was the type of governmental system on which America was founded.
If libertarians had maintained the genuine libertarian brand over the past 75 years, my hunch is that most people would today know what libertarians stood for. Our brand would be well-known and well-understood.
Unfortunately, however, during the past 7 decades many self-labeled libertarians did not hew to the genuine brand of libertarianism. Instead, they decided to embrace and advance policies and positions that violated the libertarian non-aggression principle and, even worse, to do so under the rubric of advancing libertarianism.
Part of the reason for this was the wish to be considered respectable and credible within mainstream society. Another major factor was the large number of conservatives and Republicans who flooded into the libertarian movement and who simply could not give up much of their conservative and Republican statist baggage.
Consider, for example, Social Security and Medicare. Today, many libertarians are loathe to call for the immediate repeal of these two socialist programs. Instead, under the label of libertarianism they advance such reform positions as Social Security “privatization” and health-savings accounts, both of which violate the libertarian non-aggression principle.
Or consider immigration. Many libertarians, in the name of libertarianism, support the government’s socialist (and deadly) system of immigration controls, along with the immigration police state that comes with it. They are deeply afraid of a free-market immigration system or what is commonly known as open borders.
Education. Many libertarians call for school vouchers as a way to improve the state’s socialist educational system. They either favor public (i.e., government) schooling or they are afraid of what people will think about them if they call for the separation of school and state.
Drug laws. Some libertarians, while favoring the legalization of marijuana, hold that the possession or distribution of hard drugs should continue to be criminalized. They simply do not believe that people have the right to ingest harmful or dangerous drugs.
National-security state. Many libertarians are convinced that the Pentagon, the vast military-industrial complex, the CIA, and the NSA are essential to keep the nation “safe and secure.” At most, they advocate reform, not replacing the national-security state with a limited-government republic. Their primary focus is on ending the national-security state’s “forever wars,” favoring only quick foreign interventions that are in “our national interests.”
There is something important to consider in all these reform-oriented, conservative-leaning positions: They all involve, for at least some length of time, a violation of the libertarian non-aggression principle.
Is it any wonder that the vast majority of Americans have no idea what libertarians believe or stand for, especially when so many libertarians believe in and promote programs that violate the libertarian non-aggression principle?
The best thing libertarians could ever do is to focus on restoring our libertarian brand to its genuine principles of liberty and limited government. Yes, there is a chance that even if our fellow Americans know exactly what libertarianism actually is, they might not join up with us. But one thing is for sure: When the libertarian brand consists of nothing more than a reform-oriented, conservative-libertarian mush, the chances of achieving liberty become significantly more difficult.