In the current political climate, there seems to be much confusion on what it means to be libertarian. From those who merely advocate the legalization of weed to those who are “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” many individuals have adopted the mantle of libertarianism. But what if I told you that libertarianism is not about any of these things. Sure, libertarians can and do have opinions on drug legalization, as well as fiscal and social issues, but at its core libertarianism is not based upon these secondary topics.
I’ve seen numerous critics of libertarianism decry the “worldview of libertarianism.” Unfortunately for these individuals, there is no such thing. As political theorist Murray Rothbard explains, “The fact is that libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory.” Therefore, when individuals discuss the “libertarian view of such and such social or cultural issue” there is often simply nothing to discuss, for there is no single libertarian opinion on these matters. Although some viewpoints are definitely more consistent with the tenets of libertarianism, diversity of opinion does not preclude an individual from adopting the label of libertarian. What is libertarianism, then? At its root libertarianism is based upon two foundational issues: private property and nonaggression. Let me attempt to give a brief overview of these two topics in the remainder of this post.
At its core libertarianism is a relentlessly consistent view of private property rights. Starting with the right to self-ownership, libertarianism argues that each individual owns himself, which assumes the right to use natural resources for survival and enjoyment. How are these scarce resources allocated? Libertarianism holds that an individual obtains ownership of resources by mixing his labor with that resource or via trade with other individuals.
This viewpoint may sound pretty uncontroversial and I would agree with this assessment. After all, this is the view held by most classical liberals and natural law proponents. However, libertarianism is unique in applying these principles of property rights in a more consistent manner. Where philosophers like John Locke would make exceptions to these principles or apply them in an illogical manner, libertarianism attempts to take the natural right of self-ownership to its only logical conclusion: no man’s life or property can be confiscated or damaged, even for the supposed good of society. This brings us to the next topic.
When is it right for an individual to physically aggress against another person’s life or property? The answer to this question uncovers the essence of one’s political beliefs. The political theory of libertarianism answers this question through the Non-Aggression Principle, which, as Rothbard explains, states, “that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the ‘nonaggression axiom.’ ‘Aggression’ is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.”
Note that libertarianism is not pacifism. This principle decries the initiation of violence, but not the absolute use of violence. Specifically, violence is allowed for two simple purposes: defense and retribution. As Rothbard explains, “Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor.”
Admittedly, there’s much more that could be said on this topic. These underlying arguments likely bring up many questions about how these premises are applied to various issues.1 But rather than consider these secondary issues, I wanted to discuss the foundations of libertarianism because it is likely that many non-libertarians at least nominally agree with many of these principles. If you affirm the natural right to property, consider whether or not you think majority rule or the good of society supersede this natural right. If so, is it really even a natural right? You might affirm the nonaggression principle in theory, but make exceptions for its application. Are these exceptions legitimate? Or are they inconsistent?
This post was not intended to offer a complete defense of libertarianism. Rather, I wanted to address some misconceptions and clarify the underlying axioms of the libertarian political theory. Please consider the sources below for more detail on libertarianism and continue to read our posts as we address many topics from a consistent natural rights perspective.