What is Libertarianism?

Nor Gate Libertarianism blog by Tom Nor serves as an introduction to libertarianism, the political philosophy of liberty and human rights. Thankfully, this philosophy has recently experienced a resurgence and its influence has been growing dramatically over the recent years. I will explain what it is and what the positions are.

Both now and in past times, governments, including our own, have been and still are the major source of oppression, illegitimate violence, and human rights violations. Such violations are sometimes intentional and malicious, but in westernized countries in modern times such violations are often by people who mean to do well, but actually do harm. Libertarianism is the counter philosophy to all of these rights violations, those with malevolent and benevolent intentions. For those who are not familiar with libertarianism, this may seem to you like some idealist utopia that’s irrelevant to the real world. This blog will dispel that first impression misconception. This philosophy has nothing to do with the creation or acceptance of an ideal world.

Because many people have misconceptions about what libertarianism is, I will say it here myself. There are many variations; I will give the basic simplified kernel without elaborating on some of the nuances and attachments. Most people think that it means little or no government power. This is generally true, but is a terrible definition. A small government is not the end goal in itself, but merely a likely result of the end goal.

A reasonable definition is as follows:  the legal system where every individual has the right and freedom to do anything they want to as long as they are not being responsible for the a) harm of other people, b) violation of other people’s property rights (ex. stealing), and c) the inhibition of others from enjoying the same freedoms; and the government’s role and purpose is to enforce this system of natural individual rights. To enforce this system, the government can have police, judges, and military defense, etc. (although the roles of government should be few, the power to perform those few legitimate roles should be sufficiently great, no smaller). Another way to put it is:  no one should legally be allowed to violate property rights or initiate actual physical coercive force against an innocent person who themselves are not violating or using such force against others. Self-defense is acceptable, as this is RESPONDING to preexisting force with force, not INITIATING it (however, if you’re a Christian who interprets the scriptures of “turn the other cheek” and others to mean that one cannot even defend one’s self against aggression or stealing, then you may go above and beyond standard libertarianism to reject all uses of force, even self defense). Preventing fraud and enforcing contract agreements are also legitimate roles of the government, as violating a contract is a form of stealing. Some libertarians are full anarchists, but I think the main difference between libertarianism and anarchism is that libertarians believe in the small government role of protecting natural rights, as described above. Please note that libertarianism is not meant to be a comprehensive philosophy for life, it is only a political philosophy that applies to government (actually, it applies to any use of force between people). And, the word “freedom” generally means the absence of physically aggressive and forceful constraints enacted by other humans. This does not include natural constraints and forces. So, we mean freedom from people, not nature. For example, one can still be “free” in the political sense even if they are constrained by the force of gravity or the laws of nature.

The reason I focus so much on the use of force is that government is ultimately an institution of force; every law is a command to do something with the threat of force (backed by either police or military) for those who disobey. And, we libertarians believe that no person should INITIATE force against others, and this rule applies to people in government as well. Whenever the government passes an enforceable law or order that is outside of the legitimate scope of government described earlier, it is no longer RESPONDING to force, but INITIATING it.

You may wonder where libertarians lie on the modern left-right spectrum, but we are not on that spectrum at all. Some people call us extreme right, and some call us extreme left. Some people believe this because libertarians sometimes support issues that are considered extreme right and sometimes support issues that are considered extreme left. In reality, libertarians use a whole different scale, that of liberty versus statism (statism = government power). One might call this an up-down scale instead of a left-right scale. I guess anarchism would be at the top of the scale, with libertarians just below it, although still quite high on the liberty scale.

How do libertarians view the left-right scale and “conservatives” and “liberals”? We must be very careful when we use these words because they carry very vague ambiguous meanings that often differ from person to person and time to time. For example, “liberal” used to mean small government and free markets in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it usually means the opposite in the modern U.S. But, if we agree for the moment to use “conservative” and “liberal” in the most common modern usage in the U.S., then libertarians would describe them as: “liberal” = someone who generally favors freedom in personal and social matters, but disfavors freedom in trade/economic matters, while “conservative” = someone who generally disfavors freedom in personal and social matters, but favors freedom in trade/economic matters. For example, “conservatives” typically like the idea and rhetoric of a free market (even though they often violate it themselves), but they like making laws against alternative lifestyles and drug use. For “liberals”, it’s vice versa. This is, of course, not absolute and is missing many parts, but it is the broad character that typically distinguishes them. In addition, both “liberals” and “conservatives” have a myriad of conflicting views.

In order to quickly describe libertarians in terms that most people are accustomed, we usually say that we are sort of like a “conservative” in trade/economic matters, but “liberal” in personal and civil matters. Some describe us as “fiscally conservative” and “socially liberal”. In other words, we have the pro-freedom part of each left-right group. We are more consistent on freedom. We don’t only like freedom in personal OR trade matters, we like freedom in BOTH personal AND trade matters. Libertarians are also generally against military intervention in other countries, and against frequently starting wars everywhere, in contrast with the typical modern Republican (and Democrat?). We are suspicious of the war on terror. We are suspicious of excessive police power. We place a high priority on warrants and privacy rights. We are suspicious of domestic spying programs. We favor open borders without immigration restrictions. We also strictly separate church and state, in the sense that we don’t think it’s appropriate to force a religious belief on someone else through law. But, libertarianism is much, much more than just taking some of the pro-freedom parts of both left-right groups and putting them together. When thinking about libertarianism, just remember the first definition I gave earlier. Lastly, we are NOT the Tea Party, even though some of our fiscal goals are similar.

There are many different definitions of capitalism. Based on the definitions that most people give, libertarians do not favor capitalism, contrary to popular conception. We favor a free market and strong property rights, which is different from most people’s conception of capitalism.

There may be some Christian readers who think that there is a conflict between their religion and political libertarianism. They likely perceive this conflict in personal lifestyle matters. In addition, because the Bible teaches that God ultimately owns everything on Earth, including our own bodies, the libertarian advocacy of property rights may seem unchristian. These seem like conflicts on the surface, but in reality, no conflict exists. As a Christian myself, I am very interested in these subjects and will write about how it is easily possible to be both a Christian and a libertarian. In fact, I actually believe that libertarianism or something very close to it is the only political ideology that is consistent with biblical teaching.

I make a distinction between the end goal and the path used to get to the end goal. As you read my blog, you will eventually start asking “path” questions like, “I like the idea of a libertarian society, but, how can you accomplish this goal given that there’s so much money controlling politics?”, “You can’t accomplish this goal because the 2-party system controls everything, so how can you bypass that hurdle?”, “Most people don’t see or understand these sophisticated libertarian philosophical arguments, so how are you going to persuade the majority of people to be libertarian?”, or “Exactly what structure would this libertarian government have, and what constitution?” These are great questions, and I hope to get a chance to eventually address them, as they are very important and relevant. However, the above questions focus on how to get to the end goal of a certain political philosophy, on what paths or methods should be used to achieve the goal. I think that the first and most important question is, “what is the end goal?”. If most people disagree about the end goal, why spend so much time debating about what path to use to get there? Get where? Once we start to settle the question of where we want to go, then we can focus on how to get there. This blog will mainly focus on the end goal questions of “what should be legal in the first place?”, “What areas of life should the government be able to forcefully intervene in?”, and “Should a person have the legal right to do x?”.

Also, as you become more familiar with libertarianism, you might notice that there are some crazies in the group: the conspiracy theorists, like Alex Jones. Sorry about that. Inevitably, when there is an alternative radical political philosophy, like libertarianism, that aims to threaten the establishment in power, it tends to also attract conspiracy theorists. It comes with the territory, I guess. This doesn’t mean that they are always wrong about everything. I admit that there is some truth in some of the things that they say, but that’s always the case about conspiracy theories; there’s always some truth about them. For example, it’s true that the government has some secret (or, used-to-be secret) spying programs that collect information from innocent people. Whatever has a basis in reality, we libertarians will accept it. But, there are a lot of other things that conspiracy theorists say that don’t make any sense, like that whole thing about chemtrails, or the government putting fluoride in the drinking water in order to somehow hurt us. Please don’t associate libertarianism with conspiracy theory. Don’t worry, you don’t have to accept all that weird stuff to become a libertarian.

This blog should not be seen as a comprehensive, fully in-depth description of libertarianism. I myself do not know absolutely everything about libertarianism. I do not have all the answers. But, I have gradually found that any attack on libertarianism can be soundly defeated if the libertarian defender is knowledgeable enough. This is why I still have great confidence in libertarianism even though I myself may not yet have a sufficient reply to every question out there, as I know that other libertarians greater than myself usually do. I hope I’m not discrediting myself too much for you, I’m just acknowledging my own limits. But, I am confident that I can and will provide a solid and persuasive introduction in brief form for you as time goes by and as posts are added. If you want any more detail and justification than I provide here, then please read actual books by the professionals on the subject matter. You will notice that I don’t follow strict academic rules of citing and referencing every little thing that I say. That level of thoroughness can be found from other sources. This blog is just an introduction for the average person.