The Libertarianism FAQThe Outline
There are a number of standard questions about libertarianism that have been periodically resurfacing in the politics groups for years. This posting attempts to answer some of them. I make no claim that the answers are complete, nor that they reflect a (nonexistent) unanimity among libertarians; the issues touched on here are tremendously complex. This posting will be useful, however, if it successfully conveys the flavor of libertarian thought and gives some indication of what most libertarians believe.
A. Definitions, Principles and History:
A1. What is a libertarian?
The word means approximately "believer in liberty". Libertarians believe in individual conscience and individual choice, and reject the use of force or fraud to compel others except in response to force or fraud. (This latter is called the "Non-Coercion Principle" and is the one thing all libertarians agree on.)
A2. What do libertarians want to do?
Help individuals take more control over their own lives. Take the state (and other self-appointed representatives of "society") out of private decisions. Abolish both halves of the welfare/warfare bureaucracy (privatizing real services) and liberate the 7/8ths of our wealth that's now soaked up by the costs of a bloated and ineffective government, to make us all richer and freer. Oppose tyranny everywhere, whether it's the obvious variety driven by greed and power-lust or the subtler, well-intentioned kinds that coerce people "for their own good" but against their wills.
A3. Where does libertarianism come from?
Modern libertarianism has multiple roots. Perhaps the oldest is the minimal-government republicanism of the U.S.'s founding revolutionaries, especially Thomas Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists. Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and the "classical liberals" of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were another key influence. More recently, Ayn Rand's philosophy of "ethical egoism" and the Austrian School of free-market capitalist economics have both contributed important ideas. Libertarianism is alone among 20th-century secular radicalisms in owing virtually nothing to Marxism.
A4. How do libertarians differ from "liberals"?
Once upon a time (in the 1800s), "liberal" and "libertarian" meant the same thing; "liberals" were individualist, distrustful of state power, pro-free- market, and opposed to the entrenched privilege of the feudal and mercantilist system. After 1870, the "liberals" were gradually seduced (primarily by the Fabian socialists) into believing that the state could and should be used to guarantee "social justice". They largely forgot about individual freedom, especially economic freedom, and nowadays spend most of their time justifying higher taxes, bigger government, and more regulation. Libertarians call this socialism without the brand label and want no part of it.
A5. How do libertarians differ from "conservatives"?
For starters, by not being conservative. Most libertarians have no interest in returning to an idealized past. More generally, libertarians hold no brief for the right wing's rather overt militarist, racist, sexist, and authoritarian tendencies and reject conservative attempts to "legislate morality" with censorship, drug laws, and obnoxious Bible-thumping. Though libertarians believe in free-enterprise capitalism, we also refuse to stooge for the military-industrial complex, as conservatives are wont to do.
A6. Do libertarians want to abolish the government?
Libertarians want to abolish as much government as they practically can. About 3/4 are "minarchists" who favor stripping government of most of its accumulated power to meddle, leaving only the police and courts for law enforcement and a sharply reduced military for national defense (nowadays some might also leave special powers for environmental enforcement). The other 1/4 (including the author of this FAQ) are out-and-out anarchists who believe that "limited government" is a delusion and the free market can provide better law, order, and security than any government monopoly.
Also, current libertarian political candidates recognize that you can't demolish a government as large as ours overnight, and that great care must be taken in dismantling it carefully. For example, libertarians believe in open borders, but unrestricted immigration now would attract in a huge mass of welfare clients, so most libertarians would start by abolishing welfare programs before opening the borders. Libertarians don't believe in tax-funded education, but most favor the current "parental choice" laws and voucher systems as a step in the right direction.
Progress in freedom and prosperity is made in steps. The Magna Carta, which for the first time put limits on a monarchy, was a great step forward in human rights. The parliamentary system was another great step. The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, which affirmed that even a democratically-elected government couldn't take away certain inalienable rights of individuals, was probably the single most important advance so far. But the journey isn't over.
A7. What's the difference between small-l libertarian and big-l Libertarian?
All Libertarians are libertarians, but not the reverse. A libertarian is a person who believes in the Non-Coercion Principle and the libertarian program. A Libertarian is a person who believes the existing political system is a proper and effective means of implementing those principles; specifically, "Libertarian" usually means a member of the Libertarian Party, the U.S.'s largest and most successful third party. Small-l libertarians are those who consider the Libertarian Party tactically ineffective, or who reject the political system generally and view democracy as "the tyranny of the majority".
A8. How would libertarians fund vital public services?
By privatizing them. Taxation is theft -- if we must have a government, it should live on user fees, lotteries, and endowments. A government that's too big to function without resorting to extortion is a government that's too big, period. Insurance companies (stripped of the state-conferred immunities that make them arrogant) could use the free market to spread most of the risks we now "socialize" through government, and make a profit doing so.
A9. What would a libertarian "government" do and how would it work?
Enforce contracts. Anarcho-libertarians believe the "government" in this sense can be a loose network of rent-a-cops, insurance companies, and for-profit arbitration boards operating under a shared legal code; minarchists believe more centralization would be necessary and envision something much like a Jeffersonian constitutional government. All libertarians want to live in a society based (far more than ours now is) on free trade and mutual voluntary contract; the government's job would be strictly to referee, and use the absolute minimum of force necessary to keep the peace.
B. Politics and Consequences:
B1. What is the libertarian position on abortion?
Most libertarians are strongly in favor of abortion rights (the Libertarian Party often shows up at pro-rights rallies with banners that say "We're Pro-Choice on Everything!). Many libertarians are personally opposed to abortion, but reject governmental meddling in a decision that should be private between a woman and her physician. Most libertarians also oppose government funding of abortions, on the grounds that "pro-lifers" should not have to subsidize with their money behavior they consider to be murder.
B2. What is the libertarian position on minority, gay & women's rights?
Libertarians believe that every human being is entitled to equality before the law and fair treatment as an individual responsible for his or her own actions. We oppose racism, sexism, and sexual-preference bigotry, whether perpetrated by private individuals or (especially) by government. We reject racial discrimination, whether in its ugly traditional forms or in its newer guises as Affirmative Action quotas and "diversity" rules.
We recognize that there will always be bigotry and hatred in the world, just as there will always be fear and stupidity; but one cannot use laws to force understanding any more than one can use laws to force courage or intelligence. The only fair laws are those that never mention the words "black" or "white"; "man" or "woman"; "gay" or "straight". When people use bigotry as an excuse to commit force or fraud, it is the act itself that is the crime, and deserves punishment, not the motive behind it.
B3. What is the libertarian position on gun control?
Consistently opposed. The revolutionaries who kicked out King George based their call for insurrection on the idea that Americans have not only the right but the duty to oppose a tyrannical government with force -- and that duty implies readiness to use force. This is why Thomas Jefferson said "Firearms are the American yeoman's liberty teeth" and, in common with many of the Founding Fathers, asserted that an armed citizenry is the securest guarantee of freedom. Libertarians assert that "gun control" is a propagandist's lie for "people control", and even if it worked for reducing crime and violence (which it does not; when it's a crime to own guns, only criminals own them) it would be a fatally bad bargain.
B4. What is the libertarian position on art, pornography and censorship?
Libertarians are opposed to any government-enforced limits on free expression whatsoever; we take an absolutist line on the First Amendment. On the other hand, we reject the "liberal" idea that refusing to subsidize a controversial artist is censorship. Thus, we would strike down all anti-pornography laws as unwarranted interference with private and voluntary acts (leaving in place laws punishing, for example, coercion of minors for the production of pornography). We would also end all government funding of art; the label of "artist" confers no special right to a living at public expense.
B5. What is the libertarian position on the draft?
We believe the draft is slavery, pure and simple, and ought to be prohibited as "involuntary servitude" by the 13th Amendment. Any nation that cannot find enough volunteers to defend it among its citizenry does not deserve to survive.
B6. What is the libertarian position on the "drug war"?
That all drugs should be legalized. Drug-related crime (which is over 85% of all crime) is caused not by drugs but by drug laws that make the stuff expensive and a monopoly of criminals. This stance isn't "approving" of drugs any more than defending free speech is "approving" of Nazi propaganda; it's just realism -- prohibition doesn't work. And the very worst hazard of the drug war may be the expansion of police powers through confiscation laws, "no-knock" warrants and other "anti-drug" measures. These tactics can't stop the drug trade, but they are making a mockery of our supposed Constitutional freedoms.
Libertarians would leave in place laws against actions that directly endanger the physical safety of others, like driving under the influence of drugs, or carrying a firearm under the influence.
B7. What would libertarians do about concentrations of corporate power?
First of all, stop creating them as our government does with military contractors and government-subsidized industries. Second, create a more fluid economic environment in which they'd break up. This happens naturally in a free market; even in ours, with taxes and regulatory policies that encourage gigantism, it's quite rare for a company to stay in the biggest 500 for longer than twenty years. We'd abolish the limited-liability shield laws to make corporate officers and stockholders fully responsible for a corporation's actions. We'd make it impossible for corporations to grow fat on "sweetheart deals" paid for with taxpayers' money; we'd lower the cost of capital (by cutting taxes) and regulatory compliance (by cutting regulations that presume guilt until you prove your innocence), encouraging entrepreneurs and letting economic conditions (rather than government favoritism) determine the optimum size of the business unit.
C. Standard Criticisms
C1. But what about the environment? Who speaks for the trees?
Who owns the trees? The disastrous state of the environment in what was formerly the Soviet Union illustrates the truism that a resource theoretically "owned" by everyone is valued by no one. Ecological awareness is a fine thing, but without strong private-property rights no one can afford to care enough to conserve. Libertarians believe that the only effective way to save the Earth is to give everyone economic incentives to save their little bit of it.
C2. Don't strong property rights just favor the rich?
No. What favors the rich is the system we have now -- a fiction of strong property rights covering a reality of property by government fiat; the government can take away your "rights" by eminent domain, condemnation, taxation, regulation and a thousand other means. Because the rich have more money and time to spend on influencing and subverting government, such a system inevitably means they gain at others' expense. A strong government always becomes the tool of privilege. Stronger property rights and a smaller government would weaken the power elite that inevitably seeks to seduce government and bend it to their own self-serving purposes --- an elite far more dangerous than any ordinary criminal class.
C3. Would libertarians just abandon the poor?
No, though abandoning the poor might be merciful compared to what government has done to them. As the level of "anti-poverty" spending in this country has risen, so has poverty. Government bureaucracies have no incentive to lift people out of dependency and every incentive to keep them in it; after all, more poverty means a bigger budget and more power for the bureaucrats. Libertarians want to break this cycle by abolishing all income-transfer programs and allowing people to keep what they earn instead of taxing it away from them. The wealth freed up would go directly to the private sector, creating jobs for the poor, decreasing the demand on private charity, and increasing charitable giving. The results might diminish poverty or they might leave it at today's levels -- but it's hard to see how they could be any less effective than the present wretched system.
C4. What about national defense?
This issue makes minarchists out of a lot of would-be anarchists. One view is that in a libertarian society everyone would be heavily armed, making invasion or usurpation by a domestic tyrant excessively risky. This is what the Founding Fathers clearly intended for the U.S. (the Constitution made no provision for a standing army, entrusting defense primarily to a militia consisting of the entirety of the armed citizenry). It works today in Switzerland (also furnishing one of the strongest anti-gun-control arguments). The key elements in libertarian-anarchist defense against an invader would be: a widespread ideology (libertarianism) that encourages resistance; ready availability of deadly weapons; and no structures of government that an invader can take over and use to rule indirectly. Think about the Afghans, the Viet Cong, the Minutemen -- would you want to invade a country full of dedicated, heavily armed libertarians? :-)
Minarchist libertarians are less radical, observe that U.S. territory could certainly be protected effectively with a military costing less than half of the bloated U.S. military budget.
C5. Don't you believe in cooperating? Shouldn't people help each other?
Voluntary cooperation is a wonderful thing, and we encourage it whenever we can. Despite the tired old tag line about "dog-eat-dog competition" and the presence of government intervention, the relatively free market of today's capitalism is the most spectacular argument for voluntary cooperation in history; millions, even billions of people coordinating with each other every day to satisfy each others' needs and create untold wealth.
What we oppose is the mockery politicians and other criminals call cooperation but impose by force; there is no "cooperation" in taxation or the draft or censorship any more than you and I are "cooperating" if I put a gun to your head and steal your wallet.
D1. How can I get involved?
Think about freedom, and act on your thoughts. Spend your dollars wisely. Oppose the expansion of state power. Promote "bottom-up" solutions to public problems, solutions that empower individuals rather than demanding intervention by force of government. Give to private charity. Join a libertarian organization; the Libertarian Party, or the Advocates for Self-Government, or the Reason Foundation. Start your own business; create wealth and celebrate others who create wealth. Support voluntary cooperation.
D2. Is libertarianism likely to get a practical test in my lifetime?
No one knows. Your author thinks libertarianism is about where constitutional republicanism was in 1750 -- a solution waiting for its moment, a toy of political theorists and a few visionaries waiting for the people and leaders who can actualize it. The collapse of Communism and the triumph of capitalist economics will certainly help, by throwing central planning and the "nanny state" into a disrepute that may be permanent. Some libertarians believe we are headed for technological and economic changes so shattering that no statist ideology can possibly survive them (in particular, most of the nanotechnology "underground" is hard-core libertarian). Only time will tell.
There's an excellent FAQ on anarchist theory and history at http://www.princeton.edu/~bdcaplan/anarfaq.htm with links to many other Web documents.
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Friedman, Milton and Friedman, Rose
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980).
The Constitution of Liberty
Hayek, Friedrich A.
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The Road to Serfdom
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(University of Chicago Press, 1944).
Rights, and the Moral Community
Lomasky, Loren, Persons,
(Oxford University Press, 1987).
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(Open Court, 1989).
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(Simon and Schuster,1988).
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(Open Court, 1991).
For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, 2nd ed
Rothbard, Murray N.
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