What is libertarianism?

As a political blog inspired by libertarian ideas, I feel it is worth explaining what exactly I mean by the term “libertarian” in the context of discussions here.

There is no “official” definition of libertarianism, so there is no official definition of what makes one a “true” libertarian either. While some libertarians have self-organized to create an eponymous capital-L Libertarian political party, not all libertarians are Libertarian Party members or even believe in participating in electoral politics. While some libertarians are fervent followers of Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian school of economics that he helped to popularize, not all libertarians are Austrian economists. And while some libertarians use the so-called Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) as the mooring foundation of their moral and political philosophy, not all libertarians strictly adhere to the NAP.

At the risk of adding yet-another-definition-to-be-debated to the pile, I will attempt to define libertarianism in a way that is inclusive of all of these strains of thought, and, more to the point, in a way that best describes how I will be using the term throughout discussions on this blog. I don’t intend to use my own personal definition of libertarianism to “other” some libertarians as “not true libertarians”. I am simply putting some conceptual boundaries in place to make it clear what I mean when I discuss libertarianism on this blog.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy rooted in the maximization of individual liberty; that is, the expansion of the realm of human thought and action, as much as possible, starting with oneself but extending equally to all people. Libertarianism is an individualist political philosophy that respects the agency of each person as an individual, in contrast to collectivist political philosophies such as statism or communism that promote group progress at the expense of individual agency (but not all communists!). That doesn’t mean that libertarians are inherently selfish, that they don’t also want what is best for their chosen groups; it simply means that when push comes to shove, there are limits on group behavior based on respect for the agency of individuals within the group.

Why is the maximization of individual liberty so important? Why choose this hill to die on? While one could fill a library with books attempting to answer this question, I will attempt to answer it as succinctly as possible here. The reason why the maximization of individual liberty is so important to me, at least, is because I have seen that it is this principle that has generated the most value for human society and advanced our species to the point we are at today (while I don’t believe they consider themselves libertarians, the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom is actually a good place to start if you want to dive into some research about this). Humanity flourishes despite the many violations of individual liberty we have suffered, not because of them.

Simply put: by maximizing individual liberty, we can give everyone the freedom and space needed to pursue happiness, to solve problems for oneself and others, and to ultimately advance humanity toward higher standards of living, toward longer and healthier lives, toward lifestyles of pleasure rather than suffering (unless you enjoy suffering, then by all means do that instead, just don’t force suffering onto others).

As it exists today, government, the institution in society granted a monopoly on the legitimization of violence, has used its authority to greatly restrict individual liberty, in some parts of the world more than others but nonetheless universally so. Due to the many prohibitions and regulations imposed by governments, people on every inhabitable inch of Earth are born into a maze of red tape with roadblocks at every turn with nearly every venture they embark upon.

These restrictions are all ostensibly intended to keep the citizenry safe from themselves or each other, but the effect has been to greatly reduce the ability of people to solve problems for themselves and others, and often serves to enrich a select few who benefit monetarily from these restrictions. For example, manufacturers of synthetic pharmaceuticals benefit monetarily from the prohibition of certain drugs because they are protected against competition from natural alternatives that have been prohibited. This policy of prohibition is great for pharmaceutical companies, but not so great for patients who are missing out on potentially cheaper or safer natural drugs.

Recognizing the harm to human progress posed by the artificial and often self-serving restrictions that governments place on people, libertarians are frequently (some would say inherently) critical of government policy. However libertarians also recognize ways in which non-governmental forms of oppression restrict human freedom. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of interpersonal and collectivist bigotry restrict individual liberty by closing off spheres of social or economic interaction due to traits that individuals have no choice over. While the freedom of association may take priority, morally speaking, over one’s desire to belong, libertarians still recognize the need to shift hearts and minds towards a world where people are “judged by the content of their character”, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr, rather than be judged based on immutable, involuntary traits they were born with. We must strive for this social tolerance as well so that we can fulfill our goal of maximizing individual liberty for all people.

I recognize that there are legitimate arguments for putting guardrails around human behavior to prevent harm. For example, business contracts are often filled with restrictive agreements that are designed to reduce risk and increase the chance of success in a given venture. However any attempt at putting guardrails around people should be in balance with their individual agency, with a bias toward freedom and nonviolence. A worthwhile project for libertarians has been and will continue to be to find compatible methods of reducing harms while increasing freedom and prosperity, for example new regulatory institutions and incentive programs that guide people toward making better decisions and taking better calculated risks without the threats of violence that typically accompany government policy.

Although libertarianism remains a big tent with much disagreement over the details of the philosophy and its implications, I have found that nearly all libertarians share the desire to maximize individual liberty for all people. Although the exact route to get there remains a matter of debate – a debate I hope to continue to foster here on this blog – the destination is clear.

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