Libertarianism is, as the name implies, the belief in liberty. Libertarians strive for the best of all worlds – a free, peaceful, abundant world where each individual has the maximum opportunity to pursue his or her dreams and to realize his full potential.
The core idea is simply stated, but profound and far-reaching in its implications. Libertarians believe that each person owns his or her own life and property, and has the right to make his own choices as to how he lives his life – as long as he simply respects the same right of others to do the same.
Another way of saying this is that libertarians believe you should be free to do as you choose with your own life and property, as long as you don’t harm the person and property of others.
Libertarianism is thus the combination of liberty (the freedom to live your life in any peaceful way you choose), responsibility (the prohibition against the use of force against others, except in defense), and tolerance (honoring and respecting the peaceful choices of others). (From Libertarianism.org)
Unpacking Self Determination:
Different strains of the philosophy of freedom find root in other ideas, but for most (as we read above) the most basic virtue, foundation and tenant of liberty is this: Self-Ownership.
One of the first western thinkers to describe this philosophy was John Locke:
…every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. (Second Treatise of Government, 1689)
From this idea comes the conclusion that, if each man is his own “property”, then certain rights, authorities and responsibilities are granted to only the individual; no congregation or congress of men acting in unison, or by majority processes, may morally abrogate, repeal or do away with those most basic liberties.
Ayn Rand once wrote, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”
Starting with a powerful quote, economist David Henderson presents this idea particularly well:
There will be no license, no free space, in which the individual belongs to himself…The decisive factor is that the State… is supreme over them regardless whether they are owners or workers. All that, you see, is unessential. Our Socialism goes far deeper… Why need we trouble to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings. – Adolf Hitler to Hermann Rauschning
In civilized societies, the vast majority of people think that slavery is wrong. I share that belief. But why is slavery wrong?
The essence of slavery, and what makes it morally repugnant, is that the very bodies of slaves are treated as if they are owned by others. In a famous speech that Frederick Douglass gave at an abolitionist meeting in New England, [he] told his audience that he had stolen this body that was standing before them. The point of his bitter irony was that if slavery is justified, then the body that he occupied was owned by the man whose plantation he escaped and that, by escaping, Douglass had committed theft…
What if, instead of a particular person owning a slave, the government had claimed to own slaves? That is what Hitler meant when he said, “We socialize human beings.” Does government ownership of slaves make slavery morally acceptable? No. So that excludes the idea that other people can own you and the idea that the government – which is also other people – can own you. Who does that leave? Here’s a hint: Look in the mirror. The only person who can own you is you. YOU OWN YOURSELF. (The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey, 2002)
Thomas Jefferson echoes these sentiments in his most famous writing:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (The US Declaration of Independence, 1776)
Our rights are self-evident and unalienable…
No rights supersede these and no man can be severed from these rights. These rights are sacred and universal from birth.
It was the change from historical prescription to natural rights that represents the radical core of the American Revolution and the American Founding. It was not the rights of Englishmen [that] was the subject of the Declaration, but the rights of man derived, not indeed from any particular constitution or positive law, but from nature. (Edward Erler)
Our rights include Life…
A person’s body is their own, no one may arbitrarily usurp or deprive another of their life or health. All being equal, no one may bring harm or violent coercion against another in the course of normal human affairs.
…the law of nature [provides] a right to punish the transgressors of that law… but yet no absolute or arbitrary power, to use a criminal [according] to the passionate heats, or boundless extravagancy of his own will; but only to retribute to him, so far as calm reason and conscience dictate, what is proportionate to his transgression, which is so much as may serve for reparation and restraint…” (John Locke describing the Right to Life and the restraints it places even on the treatment of criminals)
… include Liberty…
A person has a grant of freedom to act as they see proper or so desire. While not a positive grant of comfort, security or survival, it does grant that no other’s means of comfort, security or survival may be forcefully procured from you by limiting your freedom to act or directing you to act in some way contrary to your wishes.
[The Declaration contains a vision of] a world in which all behavior was voluntary and therefore all coercion unnecessary. (Richard Ellis)
… include the pursuit of Happiness.
We are not guaranteed happiness, no one may be forced to provide us the means to our happiness, but we are protected against those who would violently procure the means to their happiness from us as well. We are guaranteed the freedom to pursue, in any way that does not violate another’s rights, through any voluntary cooperation, and achieve our happiness as our abilities, circumstances and fortune will provide.
[Men] may act as they choose in their search for ease, comfort, felicity, and grace, either by owning property or not, by accumulating wealth or distributing it, by opting for material success or ascetism, in a word, by determining the path to their own earthly and heavenly salvation as they alone see fit. (Roger Hamowy)
As Brian Doherty has written:
The libertarian vision is in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal; no one ought to have any special rights and privileges in his social relation with other people. We have certain rights – to our life, to our freedom, to do what we please in order to find happiness. Government has just one purpose: to help us protect those rights. And if it doesn’t, then we get to “alter or abolish it.”
The Declaration makes no assertions, guarantees, promises or grants, other than that the individual will be left alone, left free to the furthest extent possible, to pursue his or her own interests and ends. “[Jefferson] believed that safeguarding the rights of man was the end (and limit) of the powers granted to government,” Luigi Bassani. It is one of the clearest contracts in the history of humanity between a government and a citizenry, guaranteeing the latter’s rights of self ownership and individual determination.
Thomas Jefferson again, writing regarding the celebration of the 4th of July:
May [the Declaration] be to the world… the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of SELF-GOVERNMENT. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has NOT been born with saddles on their backs, NOR a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them. (emphasis added)
The Problems Of Freedom:
But if “property in [our] own person” is a foundational right of all mankind, why is it that billions on Earth still live without basic economic and political freedoms?
There are those in the world today who simply live under the rule of naked force. Those whose societies have never risen past the law of violence, for whom there is not even lip-service to individual rights and human liberty.
But even for those us who are blessed to live in nations with written, codified rules protecting our freedoms there are still hard, sticky problems with freedom and liberty. Problems that are used to justify drives to erode our rights to self-determination and personal choice; justifications with labels like “compassion”, “fairness”, “equity” and others. The problems with freedom, arise because of the difficult consequences of freedom. Freedom means living with some tough realities:
Freedom means reliance on private, voluntary solutions to problems…
“If we can but prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.” Thomas Jefferson
Freedom means freedom to fail…
“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” Mahatma Gandhi
Freedom means equality before the law, regardless of some desired outcome by a majority or bureaucracy…
“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” Abraham Lincoln
Freedom means each taking responsibility for themselves, in the good and the bad…
“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.” Eleanor Roosevelt
The hardest problem with liberty… is that so many fear it so badly.
As George Bernard Shaw once stated, “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” But as the Biblical authors wrote, out of dread, out of fear, can come wisdom. Wisdom from perspective, wisdom from caution, great wisdom from preparation, learning and experience.
But fear can also paralyze. It can be used to bring men under heel. It can be used by those who desire power and need a process by which to subjugate followers. Fear is a terrible cudgel when wielded by those with an interest in ruling.
So how do we separate the fear that gives us a healthy respect for the unknown, the fear that brings us wisdom, from the fear that grips us and holds us back from our next accomplishment, the fear that seduces us into handing over our self-ownership to others.
I hypothesize nothing but education is up to this task.
Reading, listening and watching materials about freedom, about the history of liberty and unfettered economic exchange, can make people secure in a foundation of liberty and leave them confident in standing against those who would limit their freedoms. I think if people do the research and put in a little time they will agree on some basic beliefs:
- A belief that it is clearly evident, from theory and from history, that freedom is virtuous, and that our liberty has value beyond measure.
- A belief that those who take the time to understand the power of freedom will agree that it should be protected against all who would restrict it.
- A belief that those who take the time to learn about liberty will also understand the cost. A cost that is so much higher than just old sayings about soldiers standing on walls. A cost counted in the every day actions of citizens taking responsibility for themselves and making no requests for coercion; no pleadings for services forcefully appropriated.
- A belief that the true cost of freedom is the massive undertaking of a pluralistic society built on peaceful cooperation. Each person creating value and then bringing it to the table to exchange voluntarily for value in return.
- Finally, a belief that good character, ethical behavior and moral society not only can endure in conditions of extreme personal liberty and economic freedom but in fact require those conditions for their true survival, growth and flourishing.
My hope is that you will take the time to test out my hypothesis. Take the time to look over some brief videos presented on this page, then dig deeper by exploring my original articles and resources around the internet like Learn Liberty, The Foundation for Economic Education, and others.
Finally, come back, drop me a note, give me a call, mail me a letter, look me up on Twitter or Facebook, and let me know if you think these beliefs bear out under the burden of the evidence, under the weight of the historical record.
I think they will… but even if they don’t, thank you so much for visiting and I look forwarding to hearing your thoughts.
P.S. If you want a quick primer on the different “flavors” of libertarianism and classical liberalism more broadly, check out Dr. Nigel Ashford’s excellent bite size summary videos below…