Saturday, January 01, 2005

Practical Libertarianism for Americans: Part I

This is a work in progress. I welcome constructive criticisms and suggestions. Please send an e-mail to: libertycorner-at-sbcglobal-dot-net .


This essay is an explanation and examination of libertarianism by a libertarian who comes to his "faith" from experience, rather than from the precincts of philosophy or law. Die-hard libertarians will find nothing new here but my particular interpretation of libertarianism. I am writing for neophyte libertarians and curious non-libertarians who seek a practical guide to the origins, principles, and policy implications of libertarianism.

My focus is on American libertarianism because the Constitution of the United States of America holds the promise of liberty. Building on that promise, Americans can strive to perfect liberty in the United States. But the rest of the world isn't bound by our Constitution, and it is foolish to think that the rest of the world prizes America's liberty. America's stance toward the rest of the world should, therefore, be aimed first at preserving the lives and liberty of Americans. We should next strive to promote America's prosperity through free trade -- to the extent that trade doesn't weaken our defenses. Finally, we should intervene diplomatically and militarily in the affairs of other nations to the extent that such intervention is necessary to preserve the lives, liberty, and prosperity of Americans. And we must be prepared to intervene until that glorious day when the whole world (or any part of it that may threaten us) is bound in -- and acts according to -- a constitution of liberty. America's sovereignty and strength is the shield of America's liberty, imperfect as it may be. The terms of intervention are debatable, the need for it is not.

What is libertarianism, and why should you embrace it? Here is a formal definition of libertarianism, which has disappeared from Wikipedia but survives (for now) at
Libertarianism is a political philosophy which advocates individual rights and a limited government. Libertarians believe that individuals should be free to do anything they want, so long as they do not infringe upon what they believe to be the equal rights of others. In this respect they agree with many other modern political ideologies. The difference arises from the definition of "rights". For libertarians, there are no "positive rights" (such as to food, shelter, or health care), only "negative rights" (such as to not be assaulted, abused or robbed). Libertarians further believe that the only legitimate use of force, whether public or private, is to protect these rights….
Here's my rendition:
If you are doing no harm to anyone, no one should harm you physically, coerce you, defraud or deceive you, steal from you, or tell you how to live your life. "No one" includes government, except to the extent that government is empowered -- by the people -- to defend life, liberty, and property through the circumscribed use of police, courts, and armed forces.
Those principles are consistent with the concept of self-ownership: No one can "own" you; therefore, as a matter of principle, you can "own" no one else. You may vest limited power in government to defend your life, liberty, and property -- and to tax you just enough to defray the cost of that defense.

Whether or not you subscribe to the abstraction of self-ownership -- a concept that I will address later -- there are practical reasons to favor libertarianism. Think of yourself as a business. You know that you are good at producing certain things -- as a family member, friend, co-worker, employee, or employer -- and you know how to go about producing it. What you don't know, you can learn through education, experience, and the voluntary counsel of family, friends, co-workers, and employers. But you are unique -- no one holds the key to what you should produce, how you should produce it, and what you should do with the love, friendship, goodwill, and money you receive from others in return for producing it. If you are left to your own devices -- and as long as you don't harm, coerce, or steal -- you will make the best decisions about how to run the "business" of getting on with your life. When everyone is similarly empowered, a not-so-miraculous thing happens: As each person gets on with his or her own "business" of life, each person tends to make choices that others find congenial. As you reward others with what you produce for them, they reward you. If they reward you insufficiently, you can give your "business" to those who will reward you more handsomely.

If all of that seems too subtle, consider this, from Wikipedia:
Some libertarians do not attempt to justify their beliefs in any external sense; they support libertarianism because they desire the maximum degree of liberty possible within their own lives, and see libertarianism as the most effective political philosophy towards this end.
But remember that your liberty is only as secure as the liberty of your neighbors. If you use the law to advance your interests at your neighbors' expense, your neighbors can do the same thing to you.

I hope that this brief introduction to libertarianism entices you to read the rest of this essay, where I have more to say about the origins, principles, and practical implications of libertarian principles for Americans. (I will have little to say about the many internecine controversies of libertarianism. For a taste of those controversies go here and here, for example, and follow the links.)

As you read what follows, please keep these points in mind:
  • Equality before the law is a noble ideal, as long as the law serves everyone's liberty.
  • Liberty is indivisible; to restrict economic liberty is to restrict social and political liberty.
  • Prosperity is a concomitant of liberty, not its enemy.
  • Prosperity isn't a zero-sum game. Absent corporate welfare and protective regulation (both of which are anti-libertarian), the wealthy get that way not by robbing others but by providing jobs, products, and services for them.
  • Liberty comes from the people -- or the liberty-minded among them -- not from the state. Yet, the state -- properly governed by the people's representatives -- can serve as a bulwark of liberty.
  • The American state's first and foremost obligation is to protect the lives and liberty of American citizens; the Constitution is not a suicide pact.
Finally, there are many paths to libertarianism, as I'll discuss. But there are libertarian purists who put great stock in following the "right" path. I'm not of that ilk. What matters, in the end, is whether you believe that life would be better with a much smaller, far less intrusive, and far less costly government -- one that's focused on defending your liberty -- and whether you act accordingly.