I often find myself countering arguments about libertarianism by making statements of the following sort: “Yes, some libertarians believe [whatever policy the questioner is objecting to] but certainly not all of them. In fact, libertarians who believe that are in the minority–or at least not well represented in libertarian circles in which I move.”

A friend, who is very much not a libertarian, recently called me to task for this tactic. He wrote to me,

Everyone sees what they want to see in libertarianism. I’m sure a Randroid, Paultard, Teabagger, Teapartier, and Cato person would all classify themselves as a libertarian but they’d have little common ground outside of their insistence that “liberty” be protected and that the magical forces of the marketplace be allowed to solve the world’s problems.

Whenever we’ve discussed things it often involves my making a claim about what I’ve heard libertarians say and you then … responding about how only some think that. I’m curious about what they all think but I don’t believe there is much agreement there.

He has a point. Responding to attacks on the general field of libertarian political thought with “not all libertarians believe that” is, in a sense, dodging the question. So I took a moment to answer my friend, and I thought I’d share the answer here, as well.

The Essence of Libertarianism

Of course there’s disagreement within a field as broad as libertarianism, just as there’s disagreement within fields as large as liberalism, conservatism, progressivism, socialism, Marxism, anarchism, environmentalism, feminism, and so on, and so on.

A basic outline, however, of what someone within the libertarian camp likely believes, drawn broad enough to allow for all the variance, might look something like this:

  1. Individuals have rights it is impermissible to violate.
  2. The state has grown too large, too powerful, intrudes on too many aspects of our lives, takes too much of our money, and violates many of those rights while doing all that it does.
  3. We would be freer, wealthier, and happier if the state were smaller (and probably much smaller) than it is now.
  4. The engine of wealth creation is not the state but individuals and voluntary groups engaging in free and open competition within a marketplace.
  5. Solutions to problems that rely on harnessing the power of such a marketplace will typically be more effective and efficient than solutions that rely on further intrusion by the state.
  6. The problem of knowledge identified by Friedrich A. Hayek in his essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (and later greatly expanded both by him and others) is very real and very problematic for anyone who would like to use coerced collective action (i.e., the state) to solve problems.
  7. “Crimes” that don’t infringe upon the rights of others are not crimes and should not be prohibited by the state. These include pornography, sodomy and homosexual sex, gun possession, drug use, etc.

There are certainly more, but that’s enough to at least start to build a picture of what a typical libertarian believes. Disagreement among libertarians usually has to do with the ideal size of the state. Anarcho-capitalists would do away with it entirely. Minarchists would like to see it almost done away with, but remaining only large enough to provide police protection and national defense. Classical liberals, among with I include myself, allow an even larger role, though one much more limited than what the state does today.

Other minor points of disagreement can come up in monetary policy (the strict Austrians, such as Ron Paul, would abolish the Federal Reserve and enact entirely free banking, while those of the Chicago School, such as Milton Friedman, would continue to have a state currency), abortion (most libertarians are pro-choice, but not all of them), foreign policy (the Cato Institute is very non-interventionist, but not all libertarians share our views), intellectual property (with the debate hinging on whether the person sees it as legitimately property or not), etc. But all of those are at the margins. The seven points outlined above would likely be agreed upon by nearly everyone calling himself a “libertarian.”

As to the Tea Party people, there’s much debate about whether they represent a libertarian movement or a conservative one. I’m inclined to think they’re conservatives, as they don’t seem to want to, say, legalize gay marriage and end the War on Drugs. (And recent polling by the New York Times indicates that I’m right in my assessment of the Tea Partiers.) Keep in mind that the mere fact that someone advocates shrinking the size of government doesn’t mean he’s libertarian. Conservatives (at least prior to Bush) generally were in favor of a smaller state, too. Likewise, not everyone who believes the market is generally better able to tackle societal problems than the state is a libertarian.

That ought to be enough to form a general picture of libertarianism. Don’t expect the movement to be monolithic, just as you wouldn’t expect environmentalism or Judaism to be monolithic.