Libertarianism has been defined as an ethical system that seeks to preserve the liberty of individuals and as a political philosophy concerned with the permissible use of force or violence. These are two sides of the same coin.
As libertarianism’s greatest theorist, Murray Rothbard, explained,
Libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life. Political theory deals with what is proper or improper for government to do, and government is distinguished from every other group in society as being the institution of organized violence. Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism.
It is that simple.
Libertarianism is not …
Yet, some people still just don’t get it. The simplicity of libertarianism is a stumbling block to them. And because some have made libertarianism more complex by confusing it with certain elements of liberalism or conservatism, reading into it what they think it means, expanding it beyond what it professes to be, blaming it for market “failures,” ascribing to it what its critics have falsely said about it, or equating it with the absence of morality, myths regarding libertarianism abound. It should be therefore noted that —
- Libertarianism is not libertinism.
- Libertarianism is not amoral.
- Libertarianism is not indifference to the plight of the poor or less fortunate.
- Libertarianism is not just about economics.
- Libertarianism is not a lifestyle.
- Libertarianism is not utopian.
- Libertarianism is not about greed and selfishness.
- Libertarianism is not pacifism.
- Libertarianism is not “dog eat dog.”
- Libertarianism is not about making the government more efficient.
- Libertarianism is not hedonism or licentiousness.
- Libertarianism is not being naive about human nature.
- Libertarianism is not atheistic or materialistic.
- Libertarianism is not some particular school of aesthetics.
- Libertarianism is not “every man for himself.”
- Libertarianism is not privatization.
- Libertarianism is not being socially liberal and economically conservative.
- Libertarianism is not egalitarianism.
- Libertarianism is not antinomian.
- Libertarianism is not inimical to tradition or religion.
- Libertarianism is not “survival of the fittest.”
- Libertarianism is not “the free market.”
- Libertarianism is not “low-tax liberalism.”
- Libertarianism is not anarchy.
- Libertarianism is not “unfettered capitalism.”
- Libertarianism is not limited government.
- Libertarianism is not a social attitude.
- Libertarianism is not rebellion against all authority.
- Libertarianism is not acceptance of alternative lifestyles.
Libertarianism celebrates individual liberty, private property, peaceful activity, voluntary interaction, laissez faire, personal freedom, financial privacy, individual responsibility, free markets, free thought, and a free society.
It is that simple.
The principle undergirding the libertarian philosophy is what is known as the nonaggression principle. Again, as Rothbard explains,
The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress”) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.
The nonaggression principle is designed to prohibit someone from infringing upon the liberty of another. It is the core premise and linchpin of the philosophy of libertarianism. Aggression is the initiation of nonconsensual violence, the threat of nonconsensual violence, or fraud. The initiation of aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong. Force is justified only in defense or retaliation, but is neither essential nor required.
It is that simple.
A libertarian society
In a libertarian society, people are free to live and let live.
In a libertarian society, it is legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided that he not threaten or initiate violence against the person or property of others.
In a libertarian society, every individual is free to pursue happiness in his own way — even if his choices are deemed by others as harmful, unhealthy, unsafe, immoral, unwise, stupid, or irresponsible.
In a libertarian society, people are free to live their lives any way they choose as long as their conduct is peaceful.
In a libertarian society, people are free to participate in any activity with anyone else as long as their behavior is consensual.
In a libertarian society, people are free to associate with, discriminate against, do business with, and interact with anyone (or no one) as long as their association and business are voluntary and their discrimination and interaction are peaceful.
In a libertarian society, individuals, groups, and businesses are perfectly free to associate, discriminate, interact, and conduct business for any reason and on any basis — regardless of how illogical, irrational, or unreasonable the reasons are perceived to be or how stereotypical, prejudicial, or biased the bases are perceived to be.
In a libertarian society, people are free to engage in any economic enterprise or activity of their choosing without license, permission, restriction, interference, or regulation from government as long as they don’t commit violence against others, violate their property rights, or defraud them.
In a libertarian society, people have the right to keep the fruits of their labor and decide for themselves what to do with their money — whether that means save it, spend it, invest it, donate it, hoard it, or waste it.
In a libertarian society, people are free to accumulate as much wealth as they can as long as they do it peaceably and without committing fraud.
In a libertarian society, buyers and sellers are free to exchange with each other for mutual gain any product of their choosing for any price.
In a libertarian society, charity, relief, and philanthropy are entirely voluntary activities.
In a libertarian society, individuals, organizations, and businesses are responsible for their actions that negatively affect others.
It is that simple.
One major difference between libertarians and libertarian-leaning liberals, conservatives, and fellow travelers is that libertarians extend the nonaggression principle to government. Libertarians oppose or otherwise seek to limit the intervention, regulation, and control of governments, which, after all, are the greatest violators of the non-aggression principle, personal liberty, and property rights. Those who are not libertarians believe that it is appropriate for government to punish people for engaging in entirely peaceful, voluntary, and consensual actions that do not aggress against the person or property of others. But as Rothbard also stated, “Libertarians simply apply a universal human ethic to government in the same way as almost everyone would apply such an ethic to every other person or institution in society.” They “make no exceptions to the golden rule and provide no moral loophole, no double standard, for government.”
It is that simple.
In a libertarian society, the only legitimate purpose of government is to prosecute and punish those who initiate violence against others, commit fraud against them, or violate their property rights.
In a libertarian society, government actions beyond judicial and policing functions to keep the peace are themselves unpeaceful and in violation of the nonaggression principle.
In a libertarian society, vices are not crimes and incarceration is limited to violent criminals only.
In a libertarian society, the government leaves those alone who don’t threaten or initiate violence against the person or property of others.
In a libertarian society, the government doesn’t legislate morality.
In a libertarian society, every crime needs a victim.
In a libertarian society, freedom is not the absence of morality, the rule of law, or tradition; it is the absence of government paternalism.
In a libertarian society, actions are prohibited that involve the initiation of violence against persons (murder, manslaughter, rape, assault) or property (burglary, robbery, embezzlement, shoplifting, vandalism, trespassing, arson) and permitted that don’t.
In a libertarian society, behavior that some consider to be immoral, unsafe, addictive, unhealthy, risky, sinful, or destructive (drug use, alcohol use, skydiving, smoking, using pornography, bungee jumping, adultery, sodomy, boxing, gambling, prostitution, et cetera) is none of the government’s business.
In a libertarian society, what is considered immoral, unethical, or sinful is the domain of conscience, family, and religion, not puritanical busybodies, nanny-statists, or government bureaucrats.
It is that simple.
A libertarian society is a free society.
This article was originally published in the June 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.