What's a Libertarian?
by Ari Armstrong, October 4, 2002
You've probably seen the word "libertarian" in the media or heard it come up in casual conversation. But maybe you're not quite clear on what libertarians believe. Libertarians play an increasingly important role in the formation of public policy, so they're worth understanding, at least. Perhaps you'll discover that you also share some libertarian views.
In short, libertarians advocate free markets, voluntary solutions to social problems, and freedom from government interference in personal affairs.
Libertarians are not liberals or conservatives, at least according to how those terms are commonly understood. Liberals tend to call for more centralized control over the economy. Conservatives tend to call for more centralized control over personal behavior. Libertarians want less centralized control in all areas.
Among Democrats and Republicans, the debate is typically over how much to increase state spending every year, a lot or only a little. Libertarians debate about whether there should be taxes at all. Democrats and Republicans might discuss whether to expand gun registration to gun shows. Libertarians call for the complete repeal of every gun law on the books. Libertarians want to end the failed policy of drug prohibition and get the government completely out of the education business.
For libertarians, the only purpose of government is to protect people and their property against violence, theft, and fraud. In all other areas of life -- education, charity, medicine, family structure, business, and so on -- libertarians trust individuals to make responsible decisions more than they trust politicians.
Libertarians don't like force, except for self-defense. We don't think politicians should be able to force some people to give money to others, for example. Relationships should be based on the voluntary decisions of self-responsible individuals.
Of course, libertarians don't always agree with each other. We fight about vouchers, foreign policy, strategy, and so on. The libertarian movement is much broader than the Libertarian Party -- thus we distinguish "small-l libertarians" from party members. Indeed, some libertarians believe political participation is immoral.
We libertarians are often misunderstood, and usually it's our own fault. Here's an example. A libertarian might say, "I want to end welfare." What many people think is, "Libertarians don't want to help the poor." But what libertarians really mean is, "We want to help the poor through voluntary charities, not through forced welfare."
Libertarians believe the ends don't justify the means. It's a good thing to help the poor. But it's bad to force others to give money to the poor. The goals are important, but so are the ways we try to reach those goals. Libertarians are usually criticizing unjust means. But they often forget to explain how to achieve good ends through appropriate means.
Libertarians want people to live fulfilled, responsible lives. Lives free from Big Brother and the Nanny State.
Libertarians want more freedom. Freedom means personal responsibility. Freedom means dignity. Freedom means honest, respectful, voluntary human relationships. Freedom means persuasion, not force. Freedom means an end to the special-interest squabbling that has dragged down American politics.
Freedom means living with each other in peace. Make trade, not war! Freedom is about owning up to the responsibilities we have to ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. Keep your word. Tell the truth. If you choose to have children, take the time to raise them well! Don't hurt people. Don't take people's stuff without their permission.
Libertarianism is not fundamentally a critique of government, though that's part of it. At its root, libertarianism is a philosophy that asks people to take responsibility for their lives, rather than abnegate that responsibility and hand it over to politicians and bureaucrats in Denver or Washington, D.C.
Handing politicians the reins to our lives doesn't work. Politicians can't solve our problems, at least not very well. Often, politicians make our problems worse, or they create entirely new problems. But it's not really the fault of politicians, not at root. It's really the fault of every person who expects politicians to do what he or she is supposed to be doing.
Thus, in his classic libertarian book "Anything That's Peaceful," Leonard Read writes, "If we would have a good society then look not to it, but to excellence in all things -- and above all to virtue and integrity in our every deed and thought."
Being a libertarian is about taking back control over your own life. Libertarianism is a political philosophy, but one that wants politics to take a back seat to self-governance.