Sunday, February 03, 2008

Seven myths about libertarianism.

There is a decent chance that what you know about libertarianism, or classical liberalism, just ain’t so. Many opponents of libertarianism, on both the Right and the Left, have very distorted views of the concept. I don’t actually blame them for it. Many libertarians are similarly confused.

The basic principle of libertarianism is that each individual has the right to live according to their own values, in their own way, provided they respect the equal liberty of others to do similarly. There isn’t much confusion about that. It is the application of that principle that gets messy -- but that is how life usually is.

So what are some of the points of confusion?

1. Libertarianism is not pro-capitalist.

That comes as a major surprise to some people, especially to the Ayn Rand crowd. There is a difference between a free market and capitalism. Capitalism is a specific kind of economic order. A free market is merely a voluntary economic order. For instance, there is nothing to prevent a group of people from forming a commune, holding all property in common and practicing “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

A free market is nothing more than individuals freely engaging in voluntary economic activity. They are free to trade with one another, or not. There are no coercive trades imposed nor are there economic exchanges which are forbidden provided the equal rights of others is respected.

2. Libertarianism is anti-government.

People often confuse government with the state. Modern English language is often too loose and that helps lead to this confusion. Libertarians have no basic opposition to governance. But they assume that governing and ownership are intimately associated with one another.

For instance, in the commune mentioned above, those individuals are free to establish the rules for their society. The basic rule of respecting the rights of others applies to how they deal with all others. But they may voluntarily suspend certain principles in their own community. For instance, they may restrict membership only to individuals who eschew all private ownership. Similarly, a group of Christians could gather and restrict membership in their community to those people who follow certain, strict, moralistic regulations.

Libertarians see government more as something that originates that emerges from the bottom as opposed to something that is imposed from the top. Shopping malls have a government, a system that decides how people should act within the confines of the shopping mall. Individual home owners are similarly free to establish behavioural boundaries within the confines of their own home.

In some ways libertarians are for more government --- at least for more governments -- provided that those governments emerge from institutions that people create in the process of voluntarily associating with others. So instead of one central government ruling from the top they would envision the emergence of many small, local governments restricted to specific areas.

And strictly speaking libertarians are not anti-government even when it comes to centralized state control. Libertarians are not motivated by what they oppose. Libertarianism is a positive philosophy that advocates individual freedom. Limiting government is not an end itself but a means to an end -- the advancement of liberty for individuals.

3. Libertarians are necessarily in favor of international trade.

This is really a corollary of the first myth. International trade is no different than local trade. Borders don’t change the nature of economic exchanges, even if the protectionists imagine that they do. So, again, a libertarian favors a free, international market just as they favor a free, domestic market. Whether people actually trade, or not, is their own choice. No doubt most people will trade with each other. But the Lou Dobb’s types are absolutely free to live in their isolated, cocoon if they wish. All libertarians tell them is that they have no right to interfere in the voluntary exchanges of others. The problem with protectionists is not that they wish to avoid international trade but that they wish to restrict the trade of others.

4. Libertarianism are pro-gun or pro-free speech, or pro-abortion, pro smoking, etc.

Wrong. Libertarians are pro-freedom. Again individuals may voluntarily restrict their own choices or they may restrict the choices of others when these other people are on their property.

In a libertarian society a million flowers bloom. Restrictions on behaviour will vary. I know libertarians who restrict the carrying of firearms in their home. Many libertarians won’t allow smoking inside their house or their business. Rights are exercised within specific physical boundaries. And libertarians think that the individual or group, which owns the location in question, has the right to determine the rules for using their property.

5. Libertarians want no restrictions.

On your own property you are pretty much free to do what you want, provided you respect the equal rights of others. But the reality is that we interact with others all the time. And most of us spend a huge percentage of time outside the boundaries of our own property. That means we are constantly, voluntarily, restricting how we behave in order to conform with the wishes of the actual property owner. It may mean not smoking in their living room or having a bath in the sanctuary of the local Orthodox Presbyterian church.

The reality of life is that we are better off interacting and exchanging with others. The very process of exchange itself imposes restrictions on how we act. If you read carefully what has been said so far you will find numerous restrictions that may exist on individual actions.

First, there are the restrictions that say you must respect the equal rights of others. That prevents you from raping, stealing, killing, etc. Those actions that qualify as crimes (not vices) are forbidden by this principle.

Second, you spend much of your time on the property of other people. During those times you voluntarily subject yourself to the rules for using their property.

Third, you are in trading relationships with others. Each exchange imposes voluntary restrictions on you. A simple exchange may have few restrictions -- take what you want but pay for it. Or it may be complex and require a contract spelling out what you may or may not do, or even what you must do. Similarly the other parties to the contract have similar restrictions and/or obligations. The difference between a libertarian order and other forms of social arrangement is that you are free to avoid such restrictions if you prefer. You can opt out of such arrangements.

Fourth, you often follow certain moral principles that you believe. These also act to restrict your actions. In similar vein you may be the member of a group, secular or religious, which requires certain kinds of behavior from members -- such as avoiding “sin” or being charitable.

6. Libertarians can’t be racists, bigots, etc.

I wish this were the case but it isn’t. Someone could be a libertarian and still be bigoted or racist. Libertarianism has one basic principle -- that you not initiate force against others. It doesn’t require you to like others just to leave them alone. If you doesn’t advocate or use force against non-aggressive individuals you meet the minimum qualification to be categorized a libertarian. But that alone doesn't prevent you from acting in disgusting ways and spouting bigoted statements.

7. Libertarians are required to be tolerant of the views of others.

It all depends on what one means by being tolerant. One may not use force to prevent other people from expressing bigoted views. But, one is absolutely free to condemn bigotry and to refuse to deal with people who practice it. Tolerance doesn’t mean that you are required to sanction their actions.