The essence of libertarianism is that a person should be free to live his life in any manner he chooses as long as his activities are peaceful, his interactions are consensual, and his associations are voluntary.
Conservative godfather Russell Kirk (1918–1994) was right, at least on this point, when he said that a man who calls himself a libertarian because he “believes in an enduring moral order, the Constitution of the United States, established American way of life, and a free economy” is actually “a conservative, even if he labors under an imperfect understanding of the general terms of politics.” That is because to the libertarian, liberty is the chief end: freedom from aggression and violence against person and property as long as one respects the person and property of others.
Now, I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t want such freedom and wouldn’t readily assent to this “nonaggression principle” — until you bring government into the picture. I don’t know of anyone (except perhaps a criminal) who wouldn’t say that acts of aggression and violence against one’s person (like murder or assault) or against one’s property (like burglary or arson) are wrong and should be prosecuted and punished. But libertarians go a step further and consistently extend their nonaggression principle to actions of government.
Libertarians believe that as long as a man doesn’t infringe upon the liberty of others by committing, or threatening to commit, acts of fraud, theft, aggression, or violence against their person or property, the government should leave him alone to pursue his own happiness, engage in commerce, make his own choices, take part in economic enterprises, enjoy the fruits of his labor, and accumulate wealth — all without license, permission, regulation, or interference from the state.
Most conservatives, however — including those who believe in the Constitution and the enduring moral order, established American way of life, and free economy described by Kirk — deem it completely appropriate for government
(1) to punish people for engaging in entirely peaceful, voluntary, and consensual actions that do not aggress against the person or property of others; or
(2) to take people’s resources against their will, by force if necessary, and transfer or redistribute them to other citizens or foreigners as the government sees fit.
In a libertarian society, that is, a free society, the only possible legitimate functions of government are defense, judicial, and policing activities. That does not require anything like a monolithic, authoritarian, intrusive, nanny state such as the U.S. government has become. In a libertarian society, there is simply no justification for any government action beyond keeping the peace, prosecuting and punishing those who initiate violence against person or property, providing a forum for dispute resolution, and constraining those who would attempt to interfere with people’s peaceful actions — and the case has even been made that elements of those could be handled privately. In a free society, there would be no such thing as nebulous crimes against nature, society, or the state. Every crime would have to have a tangible and identifiable victim.
But if there is one thing aside from its simplicity that makes libertarianism the ideal political philosophy it is its consistency.
The aforementioned Russell Kirk bemoaned, “The ruinous failing of the ideologues who call themselves libertarians is their fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle — that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil social order, and indeed of human existence.” Some conservatives, when writing about libertarianism, are fond of quoting a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” — without regard to context or meaning — “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” And it’s not just conservatives who bewail libertarianism’s consistency. Tony Greco, writing against libertarianism for the leftist Daily Kos, says that libertarians can never achieve mass appeal because they are “hobbled by their principled consistency.”
But libertarianism is anything but foolish or provincial, and its consistency is its strength. Unlike liberalism and conservatism, libertarianism consistently applies the nonaggression principle, and consistently applies to government actions the same standard. This is because libertarians consider the nonaggression principle to be both absolute in scope and universal in application.
We can see the consistency of libertarianism in operation by contrasting it with the liberal and conservative responses to some concrete examples of government actions that occur on a regular basis that violate some aspect of the non-aggression principle.
We can look first at an example of how the government punishes people for engaging in entirely peaceful, voluntary, and consensual actions that do not aggress against the person or property of others.
Liberals and conservatives are united in their belief that the federal and state governments should classify drugs on a schedule, have a drug-enforcement agency, have drug-abuse prevention programs, and decree that certain drugs are legal for anyone to purchase, to be kept behind the counter, available for purchase only in limited quantities, to be used only by physicians administering medical treatment, available only if prescribed by a licensed physician, or illegal for anyone to purchase.
However, liberals and conservatives differ among themselves and each other on the type and amount of drugs that should be restricted or prohibited. Should marijuana use be legal for medical purposes? Should the possession of small amounts of marijuana be decriminalized? If so, then how many joints or how many grams should be allowed? Should the recreational use of marijuana be permitted? Should users of crack cocaine do more prison time than users of powder cocaine? Should stores keep certain legal drugs behind the counter? Should drug policy be left entirely up to the states? Should the United States help other countries to wage war on drugs? Should drug “traffickers” receive stiffer sentences? Should some drug dealers not be eligible for parole? Should drug possession be a felony or a misdemeanor? Should there be mandatory minimum prison sentences for possessing certain amounts of illegal drugs?
Libertarianism considers those questions to be irrelevant. It consistently maintains that there should be no laws, restrictions, or regulations of any kind regarding the buying, selling, growing, processing, manufacturing, advertising, using, or possessing of any drug for any reason. The war on drugs has failed to reduce drug abuse, drug smuggling, drug availability, and drug overdoses. The financial and human costs of the drug war far exceed any of its supposed benefits. The war on drugs has needlessly clogged the judicial system, swelled prison populations, fostered violence, hindered legitimate pain treatment, corrupted law enforcement, eroded civil liberties, and destroyed financial privacy.
But even if none of those things were true, since it is neither the proper role of government nor the business of any individual to regulate or prohibit what a man desires to inhale or ingest into his own body, the war on drugs is really a war on personal freedom, private property, personal responsibility, individual liberty, personal and financial privacy, and the free market. The solution to the problem of drug abuse is to be found in family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, religion, treatment centers, and ministers — not in the government. A free society includes the freedom to use or abuse drugs just as a free society includes the freedom to use or abuse alcohol.
Almost exactly the same thing could be said regarding other victimless crimes such as gambling and prostitution. Vices are not crimes.
We can next look at some examples of how the government violates the nonaggression principle by taking people’s resources against their will, by force if necessary, and transferring or redistributing them to other citizens or foreigners as the government sees fit.
Liberals and conservatives are united in their belief that the federal and state governments should provide public assistance, have entitlement programs, maintain a safety net, and guarantee income security. Liberals and conservatives both believe that government should take money from some Americans and redistribute it to other Americans in the form of cash benefits and job training to the unemployed; cash assistance to those who are disabled (SSI) or have a temporary need (TANF); food aid to low-income women who are pregnant or have small children (WIC); Social Security and Medicare to the elderly; refundable tax credits to the working poor (EITC); and Medicaid, subsidized health insurance (SCHIP), food stamps (SNAP), free or reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches (NSLP), rent subsidies (Section 8), and heating assistance (LIHEAP) to those below some arbitrary poverty line.
However, liberals and conservatives differ among themselves and each other as to the type of, amount of, work requirements of, eligibility for, frequency of, permanency of, and cost-of-living increases of the welfare. Should unemployment benefits be extended? If so then for how long and in what amount? Should Medicaid pay for abortions or birth control? How much should doctors be paid for procedures covered by Medicare? Should food- stamp and SSI benefits have annual increases? Should WIC benefits be increased if a woman has a child out of wedlock? Should cash benefits have a work requirement or a time limit? Should passing a drug test be required before one can receive welfare benefits? Some conservatives object to cash payments of any kind but have no problem with other forms of welfare — except when it comes to Social Security. In that case, both liberals and conservatives think Social Security should be “saved” so that future generations of the elderly can be supported by the young.
Libertarianism considers those questions to be irrelevant. It consistently maintains that providing welfare of any kind is an illegitimate and unconstitutional function of government. And it is always wrong to take money from those who work and give it to those who don’t. Therefore, no American — not men, not women, not single mothers, not pregnant women, not children, not the hungry, not the disabled, not the sick, not the elderly, not the unemployed, not the poor — should receive any welfare benefits from the government of any kind or for any reason. The government has no resources of its own. Everything it has to give to some Americans has first been involuntarily transferred out of the pockets of other Americans. Generosity is a hallmark of Americans. But government charity crowds out genuine charity. All Americans should therefore be able to keep the entirety of the fruits of their labors and give or not give to those in need — individually or through charities — as they see fit. But charity must be voluntary. A free society includes the freedom to be generous or stingy, benevolent or miserly, charitable or uncharitable. But that is up to each individual American to decide.
Liberals and conservatives are united in their belief that the federal government should have a Department of Education, give grants and loans to college students, and help fund the states’ elementary and secondary education programs. However, liberals and conservatives differ among themselves and each other regarding the amount of funding schools should receive, testing requirements, teacher qualifications, the extent of federal control, admission requirements, student-loan interest rates, the role of religion, and an assortment of school policies. Should Head Start be expanded to help more “at risk” children? Should students at public schools be required to wear uniforms? What should the interest rate be on federal student loans? What should the maximum Pell Grant be? Should Pell Grants have annual increases? Should vouchers be provided so that children can escape failing public schools and attend “the school of their choice”? How much control should the federal government have over state and local education policies? Should “No Child Left Behind” and “Common Core” be reformed or repealed? Should the power of the teachers’ unions be curtailed? Should there be higher standards for teachers? Should there be more technology in the classroom? Should prayer and Bible reading be restored to public schools? Should schools have health clinics? If so, should they provide contraception information and devices to students? Should the Ten Commandments be posted in schools? Should teachers be allowed to carry guns?
Libertarianism considers those questions to be irrelevant. It consistently maintains that it is an illegitimate purpose of the U.S. government to have anything to do with the education of anyone’s children. And it is immoral to force some Americans to pay for the education of other Americans’ children. That means that there should be no federal Head Start program; student loans; Pell Grants; Department of Education, vouchers; Elementary and Secondary Education Act; Higher Education Act; teacher education or certification requirements; school accreditation; math and science initiatives; or Title IX, special-education, diversity, or bilingual-education mandates. The education of children is the responsibility of parents, not the state. How they choose to do that should be entirely up to them. In a free society, education would be a service offered on the free market just like haircuts, tanning, car repair, or any other service.
Liberals and conservatives are united in their belief that the federal government should take money from American taxpayers and give it to foreign governments and organizations as foreign aid. However, liberals and conservatives differ among themselves and each other as to the nature and amount of the aid. Should the aid take the form of cash, food, construction projects, or technology? How much aid should be given? For how long should the aid be given? Should a country’s foreign aid be tied to its human-rights record, its free-speech and free-press laws, its voting pattern in the United Nations, its poverty rate, its GDP, its economic growth, or its actions in fighting the drug war? Should aid in the form of weapons systems and military assistance be prohibited? Should aid be given only to countries that are U.S. allies, friendly to Israel, or have overseas U.S. military bases?
Libertarianism considers those questions to be irrelevant. It consistently maintains that no country should receive foreign aid from the U.S. government in any amount, at any time, or for any reason. Like domestic charity, foreign charity should be entirely voluntary. And like the decision to aid one’s friends, neighbors, or family, the decision to aid foreigners is a decision for each American to make. A free society includes the freedom to be unconcerned or insensitive to the plight of foreigners who are less fortunate.
Liberals and conservatives are united in their belief that the federal government should take money from American taxpayers and use it to provide relief in foreign countries whenever there is a major earthquake, flood, typhoon, mudslide, tsunami, or other natural disaster. Even the few conservatives who object on principle to foreign aid are usually willing to support disaster relief. However, as with the subject of foreign aid, liberals and conservatives differ among themselves and each other about the nature and amount of the disaster relief. Should the relief take the form of medicine, food, equipment, generators, blankets, rebuilding infrastructure, and the erection of temporary shelters, or just providing engineering or technical assistance? How much relief should be given? For how long should the relief be given? Should there be any strings attached to receiving the relief? How much of a role, if any, should the U.S. military play in disaster relief?
Libertarianism considers those questions to be irrelevant. It consistently maintains that no country should be given disaster relief by the U.S. government at any time or for any reason. Just as taking resources from one’s neighbor to give to those in need is not distributing relief but engaging in theft, so U.S. government relief to foreigners in need instead of relief provided voluntarily through the generosity of American individuals and organizations is likewise theft. A free society includes the freedom to be unconcerned about the plight of refugees, insensitive to starving children, apathetic toward human suffering, and indifferent concerning natural disasters. If it is neither constitutional nor a proper function of the U.S. government to provide disaster relief to its own citizens, then it is certainly inappropriate to provide it to foreigners in other countries.
Libertarianism is simply consistent. Unlike all varieties of liberalism and conservatism, there is no hesitation in libertarianism, no apprehension, no compromise, no situation ethics, and no exceptions. Liberty is the chief political end. The free market is not really free unless it is completely free of government regulation and interference. Property rights are inviolable. Laissez faire is just and right, natural and inherent, moral and ethical. That means that government agents should leave alone the person and property of those who don’t threaten or initiate violence against the person or property of others.
The consistency of libertarianism is a bulwark of liberty, property, and peace.
This article was originally published in the September 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.