Libertarianism is like being short. Just how tall do you have to be, in order to be short? Would a millimeter in one direction or the other be enough to move one in one direction or the other?
There is always an element of personal preferences involved in such definitions. And, it would be bad for libertarianism in general, to define the word too strictly, according to our personal preferences. Doing so could eliminate every one from this category but our individual selves. We would be similar to fundamentalist Baptists—each convinced he is a true believer, but suspicious of every other Christian he meets.
Similarly, if our definition is too loose, everyone is a libertarian. It makes libertarianism a meaningless term. To have no limits is to define libertarianism out of existence: to strip it of any substance. This is particularly dangerous since virtually everyone in Western, liberal, market-based nations is libertarian on one issue or another.
Very, very few people consistently oppose individual liberty and individual rights. As for limited government: everyone believes in limited government! Who actually says they want unlimited government? No one. Not even rampant statists such as Paul Krugman believe in the unlimited state. It might comfort my anarchist friends to know there are far more people in America (and probably most countries) who believe in no government, than who believe in unlimited government.
But I wouldn’t get too comfortable. I’m not sure the difference between “unlimited” government and the rampant statism proposed by some, albeit with some limitations, is actually all that meaningful.
What defines a libertarian? What is the core principle? Some argue that it is the principle of non-initiation of force—that no individual should be allowed to initiate force against another individual. That would encompass a violation of either their life, their liberty or their property. I do like the principle, certainly it is a good personal moral value for one to hold and should be used.
For most of everyday life, this principle will serve you well. But there are feasible situations where it wouldn’t. In libertarian bullshit sessions people invent creative scenarios to illustrate this. For instance: If you are on your 10th floor balcony and slip over the railing, grabbing the flag pole on the 9th floor balcony in order to save yourself. Are you violating the property rights of the tenant on the 9th? Are you obliged to let go in order to remain libertarian?
Very few of us are careless enough to fall over a railing, and those who are never seem to be lucky enough to land on the flagpole (except in Hollywood. But it illustrates a point. Are there times when the unusual circumstances justify a violation of the rights of another? If so, does one such incident mean you are no longer a libertarian?
I start with a relative loose definition for libertarian and then fine-tune it, hopefully reaching a place that is neither fundamentalist nor meaningless. First, a libertarian starts out with a presumption for liberty. In every situation a libertarian first assumes that the use of state coercion has to be justified on a case-by-case basis. Liberty is the default setting.
That alone removes the likes of Paul Krugman, Barack Obama and George W. Bush from the category. But, clearly having this, as a primary definition, is not sufficient. Some people would have very low thresholds for the proof necessary to justify coercive measures. But it is a good place to start.
From there I move to the three main categories of politics: economic, social and international. Economic areas of life are fairly well understood: it is all the buying, selling, exchanging that goes on in the realm of material goods, property, labor, etc. The international realm includes matters of foreign policy, international trade, and the international movement of people—though this latter category also falls into the social sphere. The social sphere is areas of individual life: matters like freedom of speech, censorship, sex laws, drug laws, prohibitionism, etc.
In the social sphere, there is almost always overlap with economic freedom. For instance, the conservative who wants to ban erotica is wanting to ban the production, distribution, sale and ownership of a product. Those are all economic activities. A social conservative, who wants to do this with things like porn or drugs, is clearly not in favor of a free market, at least in these areas. Similarly the conservative campaign to make it a crime to hire individuals who are in the U.S. without bureaucratic permission slips is a violation of labor contracts between willing buyers and willing sellers.
This is one reason that conservatives seem to endlessly betray their claims to support a free market. The free, depoliticized marketplace leads to results contrary to the centrally planned, social sphere that conservatives envision. Since depoliticized markets betray the conservative’s social goals, the conservative betrays free markets. They can’t achieve their social goals in a world with truly free, depoliticized markets. For conservatives, free markets are more rhetorical than real.
In actual existence, these three broad categories overlap constantly. Consider foreign policy: matters of war and peace. War is always accompanied by state attacks on civil liberties and economic freedom. There has never been an exception to that rule. As we saw, something like drug prohibition not only impacts civil liberties but is also a flagrant attack on free markets and property rights. The three main spheres of politics—economics, social, and international—overlap and are interrelated. Tinkering with one of them has consequences for all of them.
The libertarian, with a presumption for liberty, then would logically have to favor depoliticized markets, social freedom and a pro-peace, non-interventionist foreign policy coupled with freedom of movement for capital, labor and goods. The interrelated nature of these freedoms makes this a package deal, in this blogger’s opinion.
The two polar opposites then in politics are the authoritarian and the libertarian.
The authoritarian would have a presumption of state control. That would lead them to advocate a violation of social freedom, political control of the marketplace, and an aggressive, coercive foreign policy. Adolph Hitler comes to mind as a prime example of this sort of thinker. Similarly, so do Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mugabe, and Mussolini.
The conservative tends to support just one sphere of liberty: economic freedom, although they are forced to do so inconsistently by their other policies. Most conservatives are foreign interventionists and tend to oppose social freedom. Their support for free markets is tepid at best and usually no deeper than a campaign promise.
The progressive, often erroneously called a liberal, tends to oppose economic freedom, but claims to favor civil liberties, social freedom, and is usually pro-peace in foreign policy.
However, foreign policy is always the messy issue. There are conservatives who support non-interventionism in foreign policy—often they are called the “Old Right” or paleo-conservatives. Similarly, there is a history of people on the Left advocating empire-building and aggressive foreign policies. Many of the Progressives in America, during the “Progressive Era” were rampant imperialists; similarly socialists in England were often the most vocal advocates of British imperialism.
Realizing these exceptions doesn’t disqualify the general rule of thumb that I use. We can thus conclude that the four general political positions are as follows:Libertarian
: non-interventionist foreign policy, supportive of social freedom, advocates depoliticized markets.Authoritarian
: aggressive foreign policy, opponent of social freedom, advocate of heavily politicized markets.Conservative
: aggressive foreign policy, opponent of social freedom, advocate of less regulated markets.Progressive
: less aggressive foreign policy, supports social freedoms, advocate of politicized markets.
If you attempted to outline this as a bar graph you could put the Libertarian on the far left. Moving to the Right you would find the Progressive next, then the Conservative and finally the polar opposite of the libertarian: the Authoritarian.
In my mind, one deviation does not disqualify one as a libertarian. For instance, Ron Paul’s position on abortion is not sufficient to classify him as a conservative, though it does raise warning flags. However, a convergence of issues can place one outside this category. Paul’s consistent support for socially conservative issues does place him outside the libertarian camp. For instance, he voted to keep sodomy a crime in Washington, D.C., he says separation of church and state is a “myth,” supports a state’s rights point of view over individual rights, opposes equality of rights for gay people; and opposes abortion.
Collectively, Ron Paul’s record on matters of social freedom is weak, as would be expected from conservatives. His foreign policy record is mixed. He tends to oppose war, and is well known for that. But his record on the free movement of labor, capital and goods is not as good. His voting record tends to be protectionist, even if his rhetoric is not. And while I don’t automatically assume that opposition to open immigration disqualifies one as a libertarian, I do think a general voting pattern in opposition to easier immigration, does say something important.
There are always individuals who are good on an issue, contrary to their general political sentiments. William F. Buckley was the epitome of conservatism: bad on foreign policy, bad on social policy, and fair on economic policy. Yet he came to oppose the war on drugs.
This is why I don’t tend to use single issues as a litmus test for classifying someone politically. But I do use the convergence of evidence in each category. Recognizing exceptions doesn’t change general trends. The conservative will tend to be on the wrong side of social freedom issues, especially when in matters that impact minorities. I can pick any random Republican and tell you how he will vote on matters like marriage equality or immigration, and generally be right. It’s not that I’m psychic; it is the nature of conservatives to be the way they are. Similarly, I know how the Democrats will generally vote on such matters as well. From a libertarian perspective I know that Robert Mugabe will be disgustingly bad on virtually any issue you mention.
This sort of foreknowledge, based on understanding the principles of the individual, gives one a general understanding of the person. I know that the chances are that Paul Krugman will be horrendous on most economic policy. He’s into economic S&M: he loves bondage when it comes to markets. I know the Laurel and Hardy of politics—Michael Moore and Ann Coulter—will be shrill, hysterical, dishonest whatever they are talking about, and usually wrong.
I don’t exclude someone from the libertarian camp over one issue, for the most part. Of course, there are theoretical single issues that would do so. If someone were a “pure” libertarian, however you define it, with one exception, that they favored gassing Jews, then the rest pales in comparison to the one deviation. I don’t care how pure someone is; if they advocate the wholesale violation of the rights of a body of people who are peaceful and who are not violating the rights of others, then they have moved outside the libertarian camp.
How serious must be this violation of rights in order to put one beyond the pale? That can be open to debate. I would tend to say that anyone advocating the sort of policies being used today against immigrants sans permission slips is not a libertarian. Measures like SB1070 in Arizona are an example of those policies. Laws that require businesses to get state permission to hire someone, or prevent banks from opening bank accounts for these people, or landlords from renting to them are part of a general trend. The wholesale violation of the rights of individuals in a broad range of categories is enough, in my mind, to disqualify one as a libertarian, no matter how pure they are in other areas.
Again, I am not disqualifying someone on a single “deviation” or even random deviations here or there. But when the deviations from liberty are grouped in one of the three main spheres of politics then the person is not a libertarian. And when those deviations tend to make broad exceptions that are imposed on one class of people alone, provided it is a class of people who are not guilty of violating the rights of others (such as rapists), then that sort of systematic denial of rights moves one outside the libertarian camp as well.
So, for me, a libertarian is one who has a presumption of liberty in the three main spheres of politics. He or she would support economic freedom, support social and civil liberty, and advocate a pro-peace, pro-trade foreign policy. He would apply these principles across the board to all groups of people. Making exceptions that consistently fall in one sphere of liberty does disqualify one as a libertarian. And making exceptions that fall on one group of peaceful people also disqualifies one as a libertarian.
Labels: classical liberalism, libertarianism