The 7 Views Most Libertarians Have in Common

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.

19 thoughts on “The 7 Views Most Libertarians Have in Common

  1. In libertarian circles, the abortion issue is a thorny one, for the same reason as in the general political spectrum: it depends on a priori beliefs outside those of a political philosophy.

    It comes down to two different potential beliefs:

    1) The intrinsic “human-ness” of a fetus begins at conception, or viability, or wherever you define — but nonetheless prior to birth.
    2) “Human-ness” begins at birth.

    It’s a near-universal belief, whether libertarian, conservative, or liberal, that humans have certain rights. Libertarians nearly always define these as “negative rights”, i.e. freedom from external restraint. Liberals typically extend this significantly to “positive rights” or the common good, i.e. everyone has a right to an education, a square meal, health care, etc, and individuals may have some liberties restrained (i.e. income taxes, etc) in order to ensure provision of those positive rights for others. Conservatives, as far as I can tell, more define such positive rights as the ability to live in a stable, moral, traditional society, and are willing to curtail liberties (such as drug use, prostitution, etc) that threaten the wider societal “stability”.

    But either way, they all believe that individuals have rights and murder is wrong.

    If you believe the first proposition — i.e. that a fetus prior to birth has innate “human-ness” and thus human rights, to allow for that innocent “child” to be killed is murder. While there may be needs from time to time to balance rights of one against rights of another (i.e. when health of the mother is threatened, perhaps), one might side with the mother, but that would be considered a justified moral tragedy, not a dispassionate and lightly-considered “choice”.

    If you believe the second proposition — that a fetus prior to birth has no innate rights, then you have no issue with abortion. At that point the fetus can be considered an invasive and unwanted growth inside ones body, and the removal of such is entirely at the discretion of the mother, as it is her body and thus her choice.

    The belief in the first or second proposition is not covered by any moral theory of libertarianism that I’ve come across. Thus, if you define your view of abortion as a logical outgrowth of the rights the fetus does or does not have, you can impart that a priori belief into libertarianism.

    As with all beliefs, there are a lot of people who have gut instincts but have never put in the hard thinking to really boil this down to proposition 1 or 2, and then accept the consequences thereof. Most tend to choose a pro-life or pro-choice position and then try to work backwards to justify it in arguments… But then that’s true of most political debates — the average layman incorporates a lot of subconscious values into his/her belief system, and then chooses the political party that “feels” right based on those subconscious values.

    But I personally think that the entire debate over abortion boils down to whether one believes proposition 1 or proposition 2. That is fundamentally not a libertarian, conservative, or liberal belief — regardless of the fact that there’s significant overlap between religions who believe proposition 1 and conservatives, and many secular and liberal folks who believe proposition 2. Believing proposition 1 and allowing abortion is philosophically inconsistent, and believing proposition 2 and disallowing abortion is a violation of individual freedom of the mother.

  2. In libertarian circles, the abortion issue is a thorny one, for the same reason as in the general political spectrum: it depends on a priori beliefs outside those of a political philosophy.

    It comes down to two different potential beliefs:

    1) The intrinsic “human-ness” of a fetus begins at conception, or viability, or wherever you define — but nonetheless prior to birth.
    2) “Human-ness” begins at birth.

    It’s a near-universal belief, whether libertarian, conservative, or liberal, that humans have certain rights. Libertarians nearly always define these as “negative rights”, i.e. freedom from external restraint. Liberals typically extend this significantly to “positive rights” or the common good, i.e. everyone has a right to an education, a square meal, health care, etc, and individuals may have some liberties restrained (i.e. income taxes, etc) in order to ensure provision of those positive rights for others. Conservatives, as far as I can tell, more define such positive rights as the ability to live in a stable, moral, traditional society, and are willing to curtail liberties (such as drug use, prostitution, etc) that threaten the wider societal “stability”.

    But either way, they all believe that individuals have rights and murder is wrong.

    If you believe the first proposition — i.e. that a fetus prior to birth has innate “human-ness” and thus human rights, to allow for that innocent “child” to be killed is murder. While there may be needs from time to time to balance rights of one against rights of another (i.e. when health of the mother is threatened, perhaps), one might side with the mother, but that would be considered a justified moral tragedy, not a dispassionate and lightly-considered “choice”.

    If you believe the second proposition — that a fetus prior to birth has no innate rights, then you have no issue with abortion. At that point the fetus can be considered an invasive and unwanted growth inside ones body, and the removal of such is entirely at the discretion of the mother, as it is her body and thus her choice.

    The belief in the first or second proposition is not covered by any moral theory of libertarianism that I’ve come across. Thus, if you define your view of abortion as a logical outgrowth of the rights the fetus does or does not have, you can impart that a priori belief into libertarianism.

    As with all beliefs, there are a lot of people who have gut instincts but have never put in the hard thinking to really boil this down to proposition 1 or 2, and then accept the consequences thereof. Most tend to choose a pro-life or pro-choice position and then try to work backwards to justify it in arguments… But then that’s true of most political debates — the average layman incorporates a lot of subconscious values into his/her belief system, and then chooses the political party that “feels” right based on those subconscious values.

    But I personally think that the entire debate over abortion boils down to whether one believes proposition 1 or proposition 2. That is fundamentally not a libertarian, conservative, or liberal belief — regardless of the fact that there’s significant overlap between religions who believe proposition 1 and conservatives, and many secular and liberal folks who believe proposition 2. Believing proposition 1 and allowing abortion is philosophically inconsistent, and believing proposition 2 and disallowing abortion is a violation of individual freedom of the mother.

  3. In libertarian circles, the abortion issue is a thorny one, for the same reason as in the general political spectrum: it depends on a priori beliefs outside those of a political philosophy.

    It comes down to two different potential beliefs:

    1) The intrinsic “human-ness” of a fetus begins at conception, or viability, or wherever you define — but nonetheless prior to birth.
    2) “Human-ness” begins at birth.

    It’s a near-universal belief, whether libertarian, conservative, or liberal, that humans have certain rights. Libertarians nearly always define these as “negative rights”, i.e. freedom from external restraint. Liberals typically extend this significantly to “positive rights” or the common good, i.e. everyone has a right to an education, a square meal, health care, etc, and individuals may have some liberties restrained (i.e. income taxes, etc) in order to ensure provision of those positive rights for others. Conservatives, as far as I can tell, more define such positive rights as the ability to live in a stable, moral, traditional society, and are willing to curtail liberties (such as drug use, prostitution, etc) that threaten the wider societal “stability”.

    But either way, they all believe that individuals have rights and murder is wrong.

    If you believe the first proposition — i.e. that a fetus prior to birth has innate “human-ness” and thus human rights, to allow for that innocent “child” to be killed is murder. While there may be needs from time to time to balance rights of one against rights of another (i.e. when health of the mother is threatened, perhaps), one might side with the mother, but that would be considered a justified moral tragedy, not a dispassionate and lightly-considered “choice”.

    If you believe the second proposition — that a fetus prior to birth has no innate rights, then you have no issue with abortion. At that point the fetus can be considered an invasive and unwanted growth inside ones body, and the removal of such is entirely at the discretion of the mother, as it is her body and thus her choice.

    The belief in the first or second proposition is not covered by any moral theory of libertarianism that I’ve come across. Thus, if you define your view of abortion as a logical outgrowth of the rights the fetus does or does not have, you can impart that a priori belief into libertarianism.

    As with all beliefs, there are a lot of people who have gut instincts but have never put in the hard thinking to really boil this down to proposition 1 or 2, and then accept the consequences thereof. Most tend to choose a pro-life or pro-choice position and then try to work backwards to justify it in arguments… But then that’s true of most political debates — the average layman incorporates a lot of subconscious values into his/her belief system, and then chooses the political party that “feels” right based on those subconscious values.

    But I personally think that the entire debate over abortion boils down to whether one believes proposition 1 or proposition 2. That is fundamentally not a libertarian, conservative, or liberal belief — regardless of the fact that there’s significant overlap between religions who believe proposition 1 and conservatives, and many secular and liberal folks who believe proposition 2. Believing proposition 1 and allowing abortion is philosophically inconsistent, and believing proposition 2 and disallowing abortion is a violation of individual freedom of the mother.

  4. Oh, BTW, I didn’t want to hijack your post to talk about abortion… I just saw your mention that most libertarians are pro-choice and wanted to mention that this comes from prior beliefs that are not part of philosophic libertarianism.

    If you want to boil libertarianism down to its most basic philosophic statement, it is this:

    “An individual should have the right to do what he desires for himself, so long as the exercise of that freedom does not trample on the right of another. We may judge whether his desire is moral, or try to convince him to choose another path, but it is improper to stop him, by force, from exercising his right.”

    An argument for the efficacy of free markets is common amongst libertarians, but it is a utilitarian and not libertarian argument. A belief in the morality of free markets does, however, grow out of the general statement above, as it pertains to an individuals right to exercise use of his own property in the manner he sees fit — i.e. trade, give, or sell the property that he rightfully has acquired.

    • Thanks, Brad, for the thoughtful replies. On the abortion issue, I trying to say that one position is more correct than the other, just that it’s been my experience that libertarians are usually more pro-choice than pro-life. My own views are more complex given that I think abortion is the most difficult moral issue there is.

      Your two sentence summary of philosophical libertarianism seems right to me, but I wasn’t trying to advance a philosophical summary. Rather, I wanted to put together a set of positions (philosophical, yes, but not exclusively) that are probably held by most people who would call themselves libertarian. It is certainly possible — likely, even — that there are people who hold some of those views who aren’t libertarians and that there are libertarians who reject some of those views. But when I speak of libertarians above, I mean the kind who label themselves that in everyday political discourse, not the kind who look the term up on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  5. Oh, BTW, I didn’t want to hijack your post to talk about abortion… I just saw your mention that most libertarians are pro-choice and wanted to mention that this comes from prior beliefs that are not part of philosophic libertarianism.

    If you want to boil libertarianism down to its most basic philosophic statement, it is this:

    “An individual should have the right to do what he desires for himself, so long as the exercise of that freedom does not trample on the right of another. We may judge whether his desire is moral, or try to convince him to choose another path, but it is improper to stop him, by force, from exercising his right.”

    An argument for the efficacy of free markets is common amongst libertarians, but it is a utilitarian and not libertarian argument. A belief in the morality of free markets does, however, grow out of the general statement above, as it pertains to an individuals right to exercise use of his own property in the manner he sees fit — i.e. trade, give, or sell the property that he rightfully has acquired.

    • Thanks, Brad, for the thoughtful replies. On the abortion issue, I trying to say that one position is more correct than the other, just that it’s been my experience that libertarians are usually more pro-choice than pro-life. My own views are more complex given that I think abortion is the most difficult moral issue there is.

      Your two sentence summary of philosophical libertarianism seems right to me, but I wasn’t trying to advance a philosophical summary. Rather, I wanted to put together a set of positions (philosophical, yes, but not exclusively) that are probably held by most people who would call themselves libertarian. It is certainly possible — likely, even — that there are people who hold some of those views who aren’t libertarians and that there are libertarians who reject some of those views. But when I speak of libertarians above, I mean the kind who label themselves that in everyday political discourse, not the kind who look the term up on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  6. Oh, BTW, I didn’t want to hijack your post to talk about abortion… I just saw your mention that most libertarians are pro-choice and wanted to mention that this comes from prior beliefs that are not part of philosophic libertarianism.

    If you want to boil libertarianism down to its most basic philosophic statement, it is this:

    “An individual should have the right to do what he desires for himself, so long as the exercise of that freedom does not trample on the right of another. We may judge whether his desire is moral, or try to convince him to choose another path, but it is improper to stop him, by force, from exercising his right.”

    An argument for the efficacy of free markets is common amongst libertarians, but it is a utilitarian and not libertarian argument. A belief in the morality of free markets does, however, grow out of the general statement above, as it pertains to an individuals right to exercise use of his own property in the manner he sees fit — i.e. trade, give, or sell the property that he rightfully has acquired.

    • Thanks, Brad, for the thoughtful replies. On the abortion issue, I trying to say that one position is more correct than the other, just that it’s been my experience that libertarians are usually more pro-choice than pro-life. My own views are more complex given that I think abortion is the most difficult moral issue there is.

      Your two sentence summary of philosophical libertarianism seems right to me, but I wasn’t trying to advance a philosophical summary. Rather, I wanted to put together a set of positions (philosophical, yes, but not exclusively) that are probably held by most people who would call themselves libertarian. It is certainly possible — likely, even — that there are people who hold some of those views who aren’t libertarians and that there are libertarians who reject some of those views. But when I speak of libertarians above, I mean the kind who label themselves that in everyday political discourse, not the kind who look the term up on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  7. I think I would suggest another view that most libertarian’s hold; that as a direct consequence of (6), most market intervention will either exacerbate the problems it purports to solve or generate additional and equal problems. I realize that it is implied, but I think it needs to be explicit. Otherwise, the views are sufficiently broad that a substantial portion of the left and right would be classified “libertarian” to a greater or lesser degree.

    And while I certainly believe the majority hold some libertarian views, it is the initial presumption that market intervention will fail that distinquishes libertarians from (modern) liberals, who think that (6) can be overcome, and conservatives, who are prepared to countenance market intervention when it either serves big business or aligns with their moral feelings.

      • I do think that (5) and (6) imply it. But I think that the typical liberal and conservative accept (5) and (6), and then think that the implication can be overcome through the proper combination of urgency/moral necessity, comprehensiveness, and strong enforcement provisions. It is the belief that the implication can’t be overcome that differntiates libertarians.

  8. I think I would suggest another view that most libertarian’s hold; that as a direct consequence of (6), most market intervention will either exacerbate the problems it purports to solve or generate additional and equal problems. I realize that it is implied, but I think it needs to be explicit. Otherwise, the views are sufficiently broad that a substantial portion of the left and right would be classified “libertarian” to a greater or lesser degree.

    And while I certainly believe the majority hold some libertarian views, it is the initial presumption that market intervention will fail that distinquishes libertarians from (modern) liberals, who think that (6) can be overcome, and conservatives, who are prepared to countenance market intervention when it either serves big business or aligns with their moral feelings.

      • I do think that (5) and (6) imply it. But I think that the typical liberal and conservative accept (5) and (6), and then think that the implication can be overcome through the proper combination of urgency/moral necessity, comprehensiveness, and strong enforcement provisions. It is the belief that the implication can’t be overcome that differntiates libertarians.

  9. I think I would suggest another view that most libertarian’s hold; that as a direct consequence of (6), most market intervention will either exacerbate the problems it purports to solve or generate additional and equal problems. I realize that it is implied, but I think it needs to be explicit. Otherwise, the views are sufficiently broad that a substantial portion of the left and right would be classified “libertarian” to a greater or lesser degree.

    And while I certainly believe the majority hold some libertarian views, it is the initial presumption that market intervention will fail that distinquishes libertarians from (modern) liberals, who think that (6) can be overcome, and conservatives, who are prepared to countenance market intervention when it either serves big business or aligns with their moral feelings.

      • I do think that (5) and (6) imply it. But I think that the typical liberal and conservative accept (5) and (6), and then think that the implication can be overcome through the proper combination of urgency/moral necessity, comprehensiveness, and strong enforcement provisions. It is the belief that the implication can’t be overcome that differntiates libertarians.

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