Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Essay on Libertarianism: Revisiting the Basics

Libertarianism: Revisiting the Basics

Tibor R. Machan

Libertarianism emerged from the classical liberal tradition, as a
purified or more consistent?or radical?version of its pedigree. Figures
such as John Locke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill of the classical
period and Ayn Rand, Murray N. Rothbard, Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek,
John Hospers, and Robert Nozick from recent times spring to mind as major
influences of the position as it is now understood and discussed. Others,
such as Douglas B. Rasmussen, Douglas J. Den Uyl, Anthony De Jasay, Jan
Narveson, Loren Lomasky, Eric Mack, Aeon Skoble, Roderick Long and myself
have been closely associated with discussions and defenses of this
political outlook.

The focus of libertarianism is on the political priority of individual
(negative) liberty (i.e., being free from others? intrusiveness,
invasiveness, aggression, trespass, and so forth). In the libertarian
view the basic rights of every (adult) individual to life, liberty and
property are the central normative claims underlying the political, legal,
economic and social system most suitable for human community life.
Libertarianism stresses the legal fundamentality of the right to private
property (where property includes land, inventions, poems, factories, or
herds of cattle) since it is by reference to what can be owned that
concrete borders?and thus spheres of authority or sovereignty?between
individuals can be clearly enough identified. Everyone has the right to
seek to obtain and hold, if obtained without rights violations, whatever
can be owned.

There are several strains of libertarianism but the differences concern
mainly the supporting philosophical argument. Two major versions have
emerged as prominent: a more or less positivist (or social scientific)
line of argument and one that involves mainly normative (or moral)

Positivists focus on the common human objective of prosperity or wealth,
something preeminently likely in a society wherein private property rights
are respected and protected. Prosperity, along these lines, is identified
subjectively?that is, by reference to how citizens perceive themselves to
be satisfied, enriched, fulfilled, successful, etc.

The normative libertarian takes value judgments to be objective, albeit
most often agent-relative (i.e., depending upon many individual, social,
and other aspects of the individuals involved). Among these is the
central condition?to be secured for everyone within a community?of
individual self-determination, personal sovereignty or autonomy. This
value, as others, is established by reference to what and who an
individual is?in this case by reference to everyone?s essential moral

Because the morally successful individual must take the initiative to do
the right thing?to act ethically?the condition of liberty (spelled out by
the set of basic individual rights) is indispensable for everyone?s moral
development. Private property is the concrete condition of moral autonomy
and political sovereignty making individual choice possible, for better or

Individualism?or either psychological or ethical egoism?is crucial in
libertarianism, as a step in the argument for it. Some version? not
necessarily that referred to (by critics) as atomistic?is closely linked
to libertarianism. Personal determination of and responsibility for one?s
own action?so that the individual person is decisively (though not
exclusively) involved in initiating judgment and shaping conduct?is vital.
Yet sociability as an essential component of human life?provided it is
not coercively imposed?is also compatible with the libertarian vision.

Whether arising from positivism or a normative approach, the concrete
socio-economic result in libertarianism is a polity stressing the supreme
significance of the right to individual liberty. Such notions as
?justice,? ?equality,? ?order,? ?welfare,? etc. also have a role in the
development of the libertarian?s basic legal framework or constitution,
albeit never superseding the right to individual liberty. Government is
thus limited, if it is admitted as proper at all.

Libertarian justice consists of a legal system?s primary focus upon the
standards of due process that bans involuntary servitude, regardless how
worthy the objective might be (e.g., fighting crime or terrorism,
defending the country, fostering the arts, sciences, health care,
education, recreation, etc.). Such objectives needn?t lack widespread
acceptance or even objective value. Yet, having to reach them without the
violation of individual rights (for example, without taxation, universal
conscription, state transfer or redistribution of wealth) is the central
prerequisite of justice. In a system of libertarian justice democracy has
limited scope, mainly involving the election of officers of the law,
legislators and such whose task is to administer the system in line with
the basic libertarian constitution.

Equality, too, is understood by reference to the mutual condition of
liberty that every citizen must enjoy?that is, everyone is equal in
respect of having the right to life, liberty and property, regardless of
whether equality prevails in natural assets, good fortune, health,
well-being, sexual appeal, etc. Thus libertarianism tolerates various
types of so called ?social? injustice?for example, personal betrayal,
economic exploitation, and racial discrimination?so long as no coercive
force or fraud is involved. Furthermore, while it is egalitarian at the
political and legal levels of community life, there is no insistence here
upon the political priority of equality in economic, educational,
athletic, or similar opportunities, let alone equality of conditions or
results, level playing fields, etc.

Libertarianism is concerned with political?not social or economic or
racial or ethnic?justice and equality. While the latter are not, by at
least some libertarian lights, incapable of being identified and sought
out, they must be pursued without recourse to the violation of individual
rights to life, liberty and property. Order, progress, cultural
diversity, ethnic, racial and gender harmony are similarly regarded as
possibly valid but never primary values for a good political community. As
F. A. Hayek put the point,

That freedom is the matrix required for the growth of moral values?indeed
not merely one value among many but the source of all values?is almost
self-evident. It is only where the individual has choice, and its
inherent responsibility, that he has occasion to affirm existing values,
to contribute to their further growth, and they earn moral merit.

There is no room here to consider the innumerable theoretical objections,
let alone aversions, expressed against libertarianism. Put simply,
libertarians take most of them to stem from utopian or idealistic
thinking?the hope that all the ills of human life can be dealt with via
politics, by government policies. Libertarians have address this on
innumerable fronts, including with theories of public choice, the
socialist calculation problem, the tragedy of the commons and similar
ideas showing the impotence of aggressive government policies for purposes
of rectifying personal and social problems.

Indeed, at the level of comparative political thinking the libertarian
may be distinguished by a lack of utopianism. (This is especially true of
the normative libertarian, who does not see human nature conducive to
perfectibility via politics or to any institutional guarantee against
immoral conduct?imprudence, dishonesty, stinginess, greed, sloth.)

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