Friday, December 21, 2007

what is libertarianism?

Broadly speaking, there are two types of libertarians: rights theorists and consequentialists.[1] Rights theorists (some of whom may be deontologists) assert that all persons are the absolute owners of their lives, and should be free to do whatever they wish with their persons or property, provided they allow others the same liberty. They maintain that the initiation of force by any person or government, against another person or their property—with force meaning the use of physical force, the threat of it, or the commission of fraud against someone—who has not initiated physical force, threat, or fraud, is a violation of that principle. They do not oppose force used in response to initiatory aggressions such as violence, threat of violence, fraud or trespassing.

Consequentialist libertarians do not have a moral prohibition against "initiation of force," but believe that allowing a very large scope of political and economic liberty results in the maximum well-being or efficiency for a society. They maintain that a limited government is necessary for the maximization of liberty and therefore advancement of these goals. This type of libertarianism is associated with Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and James M. Buchanan. Some writers who have been called libertarians have also been referred to as classical liberals, by others or themselves. Also, some use the phrase "the freedom philosophy" to refer to libertarianism, classical liberalism, or both.[2][3] For example, they may differ over abortion issues, and some support the U.S. led coalition's invasion of Iraq while some oppose it.[4] There is a distinction between a libertarian and a member of a Libertarian Party, the latter of which would be called a Libertarian with a capital "L", as not all libertarians agree with any particular libertarian organization's platform.

Libertarianism is most popular in the United States, where it is claimed to be the philosophy advocated by Thomas Jefferson and several of the Founding Fathers.[5] Libertarianism is often bundled with American conservatism, because many conservatives aim to retain the ideas of the Founders (although many conservatives are not comfortable with libertarianism).[6] Polls show that 10 to 20 percent of voting-age Americans have libertarian views.[7][8]

1 comment:

Craig J. Bolton said...

You know, here's the problem with that: when you offer a definition of a term the definition should be broad enough to encompass all, or almost all, of those set members properly falling under the term. While it is fine to then go on an distinguish between proper subsets, it is more than a little confusing to do so before you have the class characteristics down.

Try this for a first approximation:


Somehow, since those dim days in the 60s when former classical liberals and traditional Americans were looking for a new label to describe their political outlook,
we have lost our way. We have lost our way, I believe, partly because the original vision was never crystal clear. It was distorted, at the beginning, by what Hayek once called “Individualism: True and False.” But it also has become more distorted over time by the success, such as it is, of the “libertarian ideology.” A popular ideology is one that people want to associate themselves with, no matter how different their own views may be.
So the purpose of this little essay is simple. It is to “set the record straight.” It is not to establish a “bright line,” not to establish a new dogma, for there are always grays at the margin, but it is to say something about what libertarians must, at a minimum, believe if they are, in fact, libertarians.

First of all, libertarians acknowledge that society is bigger than a political ideology, or, at least, it should be. A society is the many many ways that peaceable human beings interact with one another for what they believe to be their mutual benefit. There is no “political issue” in a society, qua society, since a society is simply about peaceable and voluntary interactions between individuals. Some of these interactions may turn out to be in fact mutually beneficial, some will not, but they are all initially voluntary and peaceable.

As opposed to voluntary and peaceable interactions, government is essentially about coercive force. It is the agency or institutionalization of approved or sanctioned coercive force. Now since coercive force is antithetical to peaceable and voluntary social interaction, the use of government in a society is, or should be, a last resort. Government may be useful (or it may not be) to suppress those individuals who are themselves persistently violent in their dealings with other persons. It may be useful in thwarting a military invasion of a society by a different, aggressive and hostile society. But it is never useful in promoting “good morals” or “spreading freedom” or any of the other fine sounding goals that we may desire for our society and others, but which we cannot effectively promote through the use of coercive force.

The foregoing is libertarianism. That is all there is to libertarianism – this distinction between society and government, and the associated understanding of what government is suited to accomplish and not suited to accomplish. Libertarianism is not about having a “free spirit,” or thinking independently or asserting that “people have rights,” although all those things may be good things in themselves. Libertarianism is simply about a fundamental understanding of the nature of society and the nature of government. If you have and consistently apply this understanding then you are a libertarian, regardless of your other views on other topics. If you have views contradictory to that core understanding, then you are not a libertarian.