What is Libertarianism?

I think a good starting point for this blog is to attempt a provisional definition of terms. The term “Libertarian” has in recent years received such varying treatment in the mainstream media, that the newcomer to this issue is hamstrung by a hotch-potch of misleading connotations and associations. “Libertarianism” in the public mind has come to be associated with political right-wing extremism, armed U.S. compounds of camouflage-clad survivalists, eye-popping religious extremists… the list goes on, and is uniformly negative.

Perhaps that’s merely because people like that are good entertainment on television—albeit as zoo exhibits. The vast majority of people who describe themselves as Libertarian bear no resemblance whatsoever to such extreme, if amusing, stereotypes. I personally know many Libertarians, and speaking to them you’d be hard pressed to find anything immoderate about their appearance, behaviour or views.

So, to definitions. Libertarianism can be provisionally defined as the theory that human beings, individually and collectively, are best able to progress, develop and lead fulfilling and happy lives when afforded the maximum decision-making control over their own lives, and the power of the state to interfere in the lives of individuals is correspondingly minimized. There are many variations on this theme: you can read the Wiki definition here. It’s a simple enough definition, but it needs some amplification:

Libertarianism is not Conservatism. This is the first confusion people make when they come across this topic. Libertarianism should not be confused with conservatism, any more than conservatism should be conflated with right-wing politics. Historian J.G.A. Pocock, in his introduction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, defined conservatism as

…the claim that human beings acting in politics always start from within an historically determined context, and that it is morally as well as practically important to remember that they are not absolutely free to wipe away this context and reconstruct human society as they wish.

That change should be evolutionary, not revolutionary, is how we generally condense it in my country.

Have a look at the Nolan Chart above. This gives the best depiction of the difference. Conservatism, which speaks to the pace of change, not the freedoms of an ideal society, is not represented, although right-wing politics since at least the 1950s has been the natural home of conservatism in the western world. Right-wing politics typically grant citizens higher degrees of economic freedom, and lower personal freedom. Left-wing politics does the opposite, promoting personal freedom at the expense of economic freedom, imposed through a harsh taxation regime. Populist, or totalitarian regimes grant neither personal nor economic freedoms, seeing citizens as mere functionaries of the state. Under this definition, examples of right-wing governments would include Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and Pinochet’s Chile. Left-wing governments would include much of Western Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries. Totalitarian governments would include North Korea, Burma (Myanmar) and the former Soviet Union. Most modern democracies tend to straddle the dotted left-right axis somewhere, reflecting the nature of democracy driven by the news cycle.

By contrast, Libertarianism promotes both economic and personal freedom. On some issues they take positions generally associated with the political right (gun control, anti-smoking legislation, free-market), while on other issues (drug prohibition, gay rights) they take positions regarded as left-wing. What defines these positions as Libertarian is that they leave choice to the individual, at the expense of interference by the state.

Generally, Libertarians believe government should be limited to providing some primary functions – the military, police and courts, which exist to enforce common law and protect life, liberty and property rights. Additionally, the maintenance of basic infrastructure such as roads, sewers and so on, are the proper function of government. In fact, Western governments before the First World War were generally of this type – that is, a liberal democracy. Since then, they have slowly but inexorably morphed into social democracies, devouring along the way the rights and responsibilities once the domain of the citizen. Inevitably, vast welfare states and ever-increasing bureaucracies have made government the plaything of social engineers and closet totalitarians, regardless of their political colour. Such governments inevitably attract those with an innate desire to tell others what to do, and assert the domination of the state over the individual.

Some people simplistically dismiss Libertarianism as a simple, selfish grab for rights, at the expense of the freedom of others. Radical environmentalists, to take one example, interpret Libertarianism as a claim for freedom to pollute and degrade the natural environment, and call stridently for an ever-increasing body of laws to constrain citizens to behave as they themselves (the environmentalists) wish. (I’ll be treating this in detail in my next post.) This comes to the central point. Libertarianism does not begin with a claim for individual rights. It begins with an assertion of individual responsibilities – the responsibility to look after one’s own family and extended social circle; ensure your children are fed, clothed, educated and raised as happy, healthy and responsible citizens; the responsibility to look after one’s own local environment (leaving the environments of Antarctica and the Himalayas to look after themselves); the responsibility to drive safely, fund your own health care, avoid littering, and so on and so forth. Then we are in a position to start claiming some rights.

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9 Responses to What is Libertarianism?

  1. Pointman says:

    Thanks for the invite. I’ll pop in. Do I need to register?


  2. G’day pointy, thanks for coming.

    No, you don’t need to register at all. You’re now an approved commenter, anything you post will be published immediately.

  3. Pointman says:

    Thanks. Goodluck with the new arrival. Enjoy.


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