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What is Libertarianism

A personal interpretation.

by James Leroy Wilson
April 29, 2004

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What is Libertarianism_James Leroy Wilson-A Personal Interpretation Over the last few years, the word "libertarian" has been used with increasing frequency in the media. Where once was said "the conservative wing of the GOP is concerned about..." has now become "the conservatives and libertarians in the GOP are concerned about..." People are more apt to use the word to describe their own political philosophy, even if they disagree with much of, say, the Libertarian Party platform.

The word is hard to define, which makes misunderstanding it quite easy. Some people think that it stands for selfishness in the worst senses: greed, materialism, and absence of restraints. Some have even mistook our culture to be a libertarian society because they see this kind of selfishness all over the place.

Others associate libertarianism with moral, political, and economic philosophies of extreme personal liberty in both personal and economic behavior. Such views, critics say, just do not reflect reality. They are naive. People will starve. There is too much unchecked greed and irresponsibility. And to even suggest that the government abide by the Constitution can make the critics laugh. Much of the Constitution is filled with anachronisms, they say: it is incapable of governing a modern society. Libertarians ought to grow up.

There are many fallacies with the above opinions, which I have tried to expose from time to time in this column. But I've never clearly stated how I personally understand libertarianism.

In its narrowest definition, it is a moral principle for human action; in its broader sense, it is a vision for humanity's promise.

The moral principle is called the Zero-Aggression Principle. As L. Neil Smith puts it: "... no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advance or delegate its initiation. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not." That is, while I am justified in defending myself, my property, or others and their property from attacks, I can not attack, coerce, or steal from others to suit my own ends - nor can I authorize other people, or the government, to use force on my behalf. If you want others to respect your rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, you must accord others the same right. Everyone ought to be free, and respect the equal freedom of others.

Smith goes a bit further - saying that those who do not consistently apply the Zero Aggression Principle "are not libertarians, regardless of what they claim."

I understand where Mr. Smith is coming from, and I agree substantially with him. But the definition might turn off some who believe that some social restraints are needed but are otherwise sympathetic to a wide variety of libertarian causes. Some people believe that government is necessary, and that good government can only be formed by a moral and religious people. Hard-core libertarians disagree, holding that free markets and civil society form their own restraints, holding on to the principle that just because a person is irresponsible and prone to vice doesn't make him unfit for liberty, only unfit for prosperity and happiness. Conservatives believe that immorality leads to tyranny, but libertarians believe that dependence on government leads to both immorality and tyranny.

Nevertheless, libertarianism is the only body of political thought that is carrying on the Liberal tradition of the 19th century, and the Whig tradition of Britain and America before that. F. A. Hayek's essay "Why I am Not A Conservative" bears this out (though Hayek didn't like the word "libertarian"). Many present conservatives, and not a few modern liberals, want to carry on this tradition and have been deceived or kept ignorant of libertarian thought. I think the common element of the Whig-classical liberal-libertarian tradition could be summed up in the words of the 19th century British liberal, Lord Acton: "Liberty is the highest political end of man."

What does that mean? What is "liberty," exactly?

I'm not going to say what liberty is, exactly. I've given up on the idea that moral and political language can be defined with enough precision to be both understood and agreed upon by everyone. But I think if there is one common element underlying what many people understand or feel about liberty, it is the concept of initiative.

If a person has an end in mind to improve his condition (however he defines it: economic, moral, physical, spiritual, social) has discerned the means to achieve those ends, and is free to act toward those ends, then he is living in liberty. A person is free to the extent that his initiatives are not stifled. When they are stifled, when his virtues and productivity are punished, he is encouraged to wallow in short-term gratification.  The more the people as a whole are denied liberty, the very fabric of civil society and social progress can crumble.  That's why ex-communist states are having a hard time recovering - communism destroyed civil society itself.

It is this freedom of initiative by which civilizations are advanced in arts, science, technology, and health. While 18th century Whigs, 19h century liberals, and the FDR critics of the Old Right preserved some old loyalties to crowns and constitutions, and assumed some government-imposed restraints, none of them were "conservative" in that they wanted to use the government to stifle social change brought about by individual initiative within the civil society. On the other hand, they also resisted the government from imposing social change - rewarding some individual initiatives but not others. Society would build build on, not destroy, the achievements of the past through the free actions of free men, not from decisions by the government.

When liberals of the past advocated liberty but created exceptions, or believed that government was absolutely necessary to make liberty possible, they were honestly expressing fears of dangers as they saw them. Their prejudices may have been mistaken and their analysis flawed, but on the whole they advanced the cause of freedom to more and more people. They saw - they experienced - the benefits of free trade and free markets. They knew that freedom promoted peace and prosperity.

And this is the tradition which libertarianism inherits. No other movement or system of political thought does. Going beyond the Zero Aggression Principle, we perhaps need a broader definition of libertarianism for what freedom has done and can do for humankind. None of the "Founding Mothers" who inspired the modern libertarian movement - Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand - held to the virtual anarchism of many of their intellectual successors. Nor did Ludwig von Mises, whom Liberty magazine declared "Libertarian of the [20th] Century."

I would rather go back to Acton, that one can safely be called a libertarian who believes that liberty is the highest political end - but will not necessarily break all traditional structures, loyalties, and restraints. Acton was a liberal and a nobleman in the British Empire, just as Mises was all at once a liberal, a Jew, a Pole, and a nobleman in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A prudential unwillingness to forsake traditional institutions shouldn't make one any less a libertarian.

In other words, the libertarian movement might be better off including all of those who believe in the Whig (including the Founding Fathers), and classical Liberal traditions. If your political principle is to advance freedom, and the free-market civil society, then you are either a libertarian or at worst an ally of libertarianism. But if your loyalty is to something else - the equal distribution of wealth, or national glory and Empire, social order based on your religious conceptions of a good society, or ideological crusades to impose "freedom" abroad at the cost of it at home - then you are not a libertarian.

Libertarianism is the belief that society flourishes when the individual - when freedom - is allowed to flourish.

Comments (2)

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Barnabas from The Partial Observer writes:
April 29, 2004
Thanks to James Wilson for including me in the fold, according to his ending paragraphs. I am (at least) an ally of libertarianism in what we commonly oppose.

If I sometimes sound otherwise, it is more likely inexact communication on my part.

Jonathan Wilson from Chicago writes:
April 29, 2004
I also embrace this manifesto. It is complete, well-stated and convincing.

I have one comment, which is not a criticism: Libertarianism has also, in a very important sense, made progress from the Whigs of the 18th Century and the liberals of the 19th, in that the Libertarians of today are not blind to the humanity and inherent freedom of people of color. I say this because the Whigs of the 18th were Libertarian in their context, and the Liberals of the 19th were Libertarian in their context. These contexts included a pervasive presumption about manifest destiny and the benefits of empire, respectively. I am not saying that all Whigs and Liberals were imperialistic, but I am saying that it was easier to talk about freedom and mean it in reference only to White People, than it was to talk about freedom for All People. One of the great failures of the Confederacy, as JLW wrote in the last couple weeks, is that the liberties which they defended with such courage were not inclusive. The practice of slavery in the Southern U.S. was as anti-Libertarian as it can be, in that it deprived slaves of the right to bear arms and the right to move freely.

I am glad to know the traditions in which I stand in the modern polis thanks to this article.

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