© Andy Bolton 1988, 1993.
“The central idea of libertarianism is that people should be permitted to run their own lives as they wish. We totally reject the idea that people must be forcibally protected from themselves. A libertarian society would have no laws against drugs, gambling, pornography – and no compulsory seat belts in cars. We also reject the idea that people have an enforceable claim on others, for anything other than to be left alone.” (1)
In this article I aim to describe briefly the aims of and ideas behind libertarianism. Libertarianism is based upon a single axiom from which a complete logical coherent ideology follows. The basis is the non-aggression axiom. This states that no man or group of men may initiate violence, or the threat of violence, against the person or property of another human being.
From this it follows that the libertarian favours the free market economy with no government intervention. In fact the maximum that a libertarian would allow the state to operate would be national defence, the police and courts – the nightwatchman or minimalist state. Such minarchists include Robert Nozick, Friedrich Von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. On libertarianism Stephen L. Newman comments:
“Its intellectual appeal lies in its theoretical coherence and logical consistency. Equipped with a vigorous critique of state power, libertarians do not merely protest government policies; they question the fundamental legitimacy of government itself. Libertarians, however are not merely economic conservatives nostalgic for the free-market. Their movement is also more broadly anti-authoritarian. It condemns imperialism in language reminiscent of the student left of the sixties, and is as quick to defend alternative lifestyles as it is to criticize government regulation of the economy. Gays, feminists, black seperatists, environmentalists, survivalists and other such groups are all welcome in the libertarian camp. Libertarianism offers … the option of cultural laissez-faire. Libertarians delight in their failure to conform to an ideological stereotype. They advertise themselves as having transcended the conventional left-right continuum of politics, not by an eclectic borrowing of positions but through a commitment to a set of logically coherent political principles.” (2)
Libertarian anarchists are more consistent than minarchists however, as they regard any state as an aggressor, and so oppose it. They do so because for the state to provide even these basic services it must tax, which they regard as theft; for if you do not pay the states taxes, it imprisons you. this is where the social contract theory, as proposed by Rousseau, fails because nobody has ever signed this imaginary contract.
Lysander Spooner, the 19th century individualist referred to this in his pamphlet “The constitution of no Authority”. The Libertarian anarchist would prefer to see defence and policing become services to be offered on the free-market. Thomas Paine said of government:
“Government is no further necessary than to supply the few cases to which society and civilisation are not conveniently competent; and instances are not wanting to show, that everything that government can usefully add thereto, has been performed by the common consent of society, without government. The instant formal government is abolished, society begins to act. A general association takes place, and common interest produces common security. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman and every occupation, prospers by the aid which it receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their laws. The more perfect civilisation is the less occasion it has for government, because the more it does to regulate its own affairs, and govern itself;” (3)
Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, Morris and Linda Tannehill and others have presented arguments that dispel the “public good” myth that surrounds such services as roads, pollution control, policing etc., but as yet they have to provide adequate concepts for the private provision of National defence. Friedman recognises this fact in his book “Machinery of Freedom.” After arguing for the demonopolisation of defence, replacing it with institutions funded by voluntary means, Friedman states;
“What will I do if, when all other functions of our government have been abolished, I conclude that there is no effective way to defend against aggressive foreign governments save by money taken by force from the taxpayers? In such a situation, I would not try to abolish the last vestige of government. I do not like paying taxes, but I would rather pay them to Washington than Moscow – the rates are lower. I would still regard the government as a criminal organisation, but one which was by a freak of fate, temporarily useful. I do not approve of any government, but I will tolerate one, so long as the only other choice is another, worse government.” (4)
All consistent libertarians stand behind individual rights, commonly known as civil liberties. These include free speech, consensual sexual acts (including prostitution), pornography and gambling. The libertarian opposes such actions as the present farcical attempts to ban “SpyCatcher” and the seizure of material belonging to Duncan Campbell during the Zircon affair. If somebody is a believer in private property they cannot condone such an invasion by state powers, for whatever reason, as the present Prime Minister does. The libertarian, since he believes in the individual’s ownership of his body, does not oppose the use of drugs. They believe it is an individual’s own decision whether or not to ingest or inject opiates, hallucinogens, marijuana, tobacco, alcohol or any other drug, but that they must bear the responsibilities for their actions. After all, are drugs as dangerous as we are told by the media and state? Professor Alec Jenner, head of the department of psychiatry at Sheffield University, thinks not:
“Some doctors and nurses, and others, have lived respectable lives while using drugs daily. Further, much that addicts suffer medically is from dirty syringes and poor black market drugs, hence the abcesses, AIDS, damaged joints etc. Some professionals believe that it is strategically unwise to assert that heroin is medically less dangerous than cigarettes or alcohol. But heroin as such, however addicting, does not cause cancer of the lung, heart diseases, dementia, blindness, liver disease, peripheral neuritis, gastritis etc, etc. Obscuring the truth must at least be questioned in an informed democracy.” (5)
The libertarian is often accused of being immoral or amoral because of his views, though this is not the case. Quite often a libertarian will argue the case for derestriction of a particular act while actually being opposed to it personally, such as smoking, prostitution or homosexuality. This is not however inconsistent as the libertarian sees that he has no right to inflict his morals on anyone else.
What is common to all libertarians is the hatred of the state, a contempt for all its interventionalist actions. As Murray Rothbard, the Marx of the modern libertarian movement, says:
“If you wish to know how the libertarian regards the state and any of its acts think of the state as a criminal band, and all of the libertarian attitudes will fall into place.” (6)
John Locke, founder of the minimal state favoured by minarchists, said of man and state;
“The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule.” (7)
Finally, Rothbard looks forward to an age of freedom from statist oppression, war and threat of nuclear obliteration:
“Liberty has never fully been tried in the modern world; Libs now propose to fulfil the world dreams of liberty and prosperity for all mankind. Only we offer technology without technocracy, growth without pollution, liberty without chaos, law without tyranny, the defense of property rights in one’s person and in one’s possessions. Libertarianism will win eventually because it and only it is compatible with the nature of man and of his world. Only liberty can achieve mans prosperity, fulfillment and happiness. In short, libertarianism will win because it is the correct policy for mankind, and truth will eventually win out. I am convinced that the dark night of tyranny is ending, and that a new dawn of liberty is now at hand.” (8)
(1) David Friedman The Machinery of Freedom.
(2) Stephen L. Newman Liberalism at wits end.
(3) Thomas Paine Rights of Man.
(4) Friedman. Machinery of Freedom.
(5) Prof. Alec Jenner Heroin: Why not make it legal?
Yorkshire evening post, Jan 17th 1985.
(6) Murray N. Rothbard For a New Liberty.
(7) John Locke The Second Treatise of government.
(8) Rothbard. For a New Liberty.
© Andy Bolton 1988, 1993.