It would be hard to imagine a larger deficiency in modern American society than the one we find in the ability of individual citizens to understand their proper relationship with government, and each other. Beneath the endless cacophony of varying special-interest groups lies a fundamental misunderstanding of the role we each play in a free society, and the role government plays in guaranteeing our place in a free society.
Immigration, taxation, healthcare, charity and welfare, gun control, free trade, foreign policy, and private property are just a few of the issues that dominate mainstream debate today, and the loudest voices on both the Left and Right clamor for rights that do not exist, for controls that should not be imposed, and for special treatment of their pet projects. Few actually understand the freedom they claim to desire for themselves and others. The moral posturing adopted by the various and many proponents of government intervention in society have little to offer those who wish to live in peace.
What moral compass should guide Americans when viewing the issues of the day? Through what prism ought we, as free citizens, view the actions of public officials and concerned interests, and the policies they pursue, allegedly for our benefit? The answer to that question is simple: libertarianism.
Libertarianism has a long political pedigree, dating back centuries. From the radical Levellers of the 17th century and the “Round Heads” of the English Civil War (who sought to limit the powers of the King through Parliament) was born the Whigs, and their revolutionary Lockean proclamations regarding fundamental rights and the origin of private property. From the Whigs were born the Liberals, opponents of the Tories and their stultifying conservatism. Albeit imperfectly, the Liberals fought against monopolies (which were the result of government-imposed prohibitions against competition, not the free market); the comingling of church and state and its inevitable by-product, religious discrimination; interference with commerce; and slavery. And from the Liberal tradition grew modern libertarianism.
Put simply, libertarianism is the political philosophy that holds that all people, as the Declaration of Independence promises, are endowed by their creator with certain “inalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” that we are all equal before the law, and that government and law exist for no other purpose than to protect us from those who would deny or infringe on our ability to make the most of ourselves in whatever way we choose – provided we respect the equal right of others to do the same.
At the root of libertarian morality is the concept of self-ownership and its corollary, private property. If we are each, as individuals, the rightful captains of our own destiny, it is essential that force and coercion be abolished from society to the greatest possible and practical extent. As a means to social harmony, force can only be legitimate if it is employed to defend the rights of society’s individual members against an aggressor.
Properly understood, force is only morally acceptable if it used in self-defense; we libertarians reject the initiation of force. “Live and let live,” in other words. Respectively, we may each arrive at this destination from any number of varying origins – constitutionalism, objectivism, religion, natural rights, “pragmatic sanction,” the Golden Rule, etc. – but the goal is peaceful coexistence.
As Ayn Rand observed, the type of government we choose will depend on our ethical imperative. If we truly believe that individuals are free and autonomous beings, with rights that must be respected by our fellows and a just claim to the fruits of our labor, government must be instituted for no other reason than “to secure these rights” – it must only provide the laws necessary to protect us from those who would deny or infringe our rights. And it must refrain from any such actions itself!