What Is a Libertarian? A Brief Summary of Libertarian Beliefs
By | Updated
“The fact is, America is a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. Our libertarian values helped to create the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and those documents in turn shape our thinking about freedom and the limited powers of government.”
– David Boaz, Who Killed Gun Control?
What is a libertarian? According to Wikipedia, libertarians wish to “maximize autonomy and political freedom, emphasizing free association, freedom of choice, individualism and voluntary association.” In essence, the libertarian is anyone who upholds liberty as their core guiding principle and wants to preserve their own rights as well as the rights of others.
Libertarians also want to limit state power, albeit to varying degrees. Anarcho-capitalists want only a “night-watchman state,” the purpose of which is limited to protecting people from aggression, enforcing private property, and a few other aspects of private life which the free market typically doesn’t concern itself with. (This is not to be confused with anarchism, an ideology that usually rejects private property.) Consequentialist libertarians who believe free trade must benefit society as a whole may tolerate greater government power if it does genuine good rather than merely hinder individual autonomy.
People hearing about libertarianism for the first time might assume it’s some fringe ideology. You could argue that it is, but you would have to acknowledge a large reason why: Libertarians seek to take power away from the government and not give it to anyone else. Any powerful person or organization which owes their lofty position to the status quo has every incentive to marginalize libertarianism.
Libertarian Views and Their Beliefs
Summarizing a complete political and economic philosophy in a few paragraphs is a hefty task. It took Murray Rothbard (aka Mr. Libertarian) over 300 pages to do about as much when he penned For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto.
But let’s set the books aside for a moment and briefly explain what libertarians believe, with the understanding that libertarians disagree on many things as well.
Libertarians believe everyone should enjoy total autonomy. Do as you please with your life. Spend it with whomever, doing whatever, wherever. Just don’t forcibly interfere with anyone else’s liberty and we’re all square.
Libertarians believe in entrepreneurialism and the free market. Innovation is wrought from passion and hard work, not duty. A government that taxes the industry is only stealing products to give to those who haven’t earned it. With less government control comes greater access to the free market, and more opportunity to create wealth for all.
Libertarians do not recognize official authority in most cases. The man in Washington, the man in Moscow, the man in the Vatican – none of them can nullify your right to live free and independently. The libertarian rejects authority’s need to violate their rights for the “greater good.” To the libertarian, there is no greater good beyond the preservation of those very rights.
Why is the Libertarian Party’s symbolic animal a porcupine? Because it bothers nobody and expects the same favor in return. But if you do decide to bother it, you may reasonably expect a snoot full of barbs.
Libertarians on the Issues
No true libertarian country exists. One might argue the political ideology has a built-in kill switch, as the very people who value individualism and economic freedom seldom want to helm an organization which controls people and taxes them.
While conservatism and liberalism are espoused by America’s two dominant political parties, either of which proffers a very noisy presidential candidate every four years, libertarianism remains something of a question mark in most people’s minds.
What are the libertarian positions on the big issues? They are seldom publicly advised or officially implemented, so you have to examine them for yourself if you want greater insight into libertarian beliefs.
The Libertarian view on War
Democrats and Republicans both believe that a war is an awful, awful thing whenever the rival party has started one. In contrast, the libertarian is unequivocally opposed to war. At its very core libertarianism is a rejection of militarism, which by definition entails the implementation of violence to force others to do as the state wishes.
War breeds nationalism, an ideology diametrically at odds with individualism. It incentivizes corruption, as Smedley Butler elaborates in War Is a Racket, and ultimately poses a net loss to society as Ludwig von Mises explains in Nation, State, and Economy. The state at war demands its citizens to forfeit their rights – and their own lives – for the good of the collective. Although war invariably increases state power, its cessation almost never decreases it. And while this may go without saying, the natural rights of individuals do include not getting killed.
Libertarianism condemns war as a facet of foreign policy, yet it does not prescribe absolutist pacifism. You have every right to strike a man who is attacking you. The non-aggression principle forbids the initiation of force, not forceful defense. Likewise, many libertarians accept that war is a necessary evil in some cases. Few libertarians argue that the United States ought to have remained a British colony, and fewer still would prefer to ignore Kim Jong-un if he decided to glass San Francisco. Yet the staunchest libertarians may also advocate unwavering pacifism to the extent where war could never be an option. Whether their ideology is practicable in so hostile a world is a matter of speculation.
The Libertarian view on Criminal Justice
Most libertarians advocate for limited government – not zero government – as they agree some degree of official intervention is required to protect citizens from aggression, theft, and other transgressions against their private property and civil liberties.
Unfortunately, the current state of the American criminal justice system could hardly be described as “limited.” “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws,” as Tacitus wrote, and indeed America currently has so many laws in place that most citizens would become felons if they were only formally arrested and convicted. As Hunter S. Thompson (who is not to be confused with Tacitus) once put it, “In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught.”
Libertarians would advocate several measures to fix the broken criminal justice system. Qualified immunity, which effectively permits government officials to violate individuals’ liberty, would have to go. (The Cato Institute better explains why.) So too would police unions, which make it nigh impossible to terminate terrible police officers. Libertarians also call for an immediate end to the war on drugs, as conservative libertarian Milton Friedman supported when he endorsed legalizing marijuana. (Hence why the Libertarian Party is occasionally referred to as the “Dude Weed” Party.)
The Libertarian view on Civil Rights
A libertarian understands that their civil rights are not special permissions granted (or revokable) by their government. Rather, civil rights are intrinsic to humanity itself. To be born is to have the right to free speech, press, religion and so on. Certain civil rights only apply to those in special circumstances, such as the prisoner’s right to a speedy trial as protected by the Sixth Amendment (which is arguably violated when a criminal trial can last longer than five years).
A libertarian is soundly in favor of preserving existing civil rights as well as creating additional ones. For example, the Libertarian Party views government officials reading your emails as a very bad thing. A libertarian would also support the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee equal legal rights for all Americans regardless of their sex.
Equal rights are not to be mistaken for equal results, however. Friedrich Hayek explains how so in The Constitution of Liberty: “From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time. The equality before the law which freedom requires leads to material inequality.”
The Libertarian view on Guns
Gun ownership is the civil liberty which modern liberalism likes to conveniently forget. The Republican Party is friendlier to gun rights, but not nearly enough. Many GOP supporters were unhappy when President Trump instructed the ATF to treat bump stocks as machine guns, or when he said he would “think about” banning suppressors.
Ron Paul summed up the libertarian view on guns like so: “Nobody should tell you you can’t own a gun because it might be misused.” And George Orwell, a socialist of all things, explained why: “That rifle on the wall of the labourer’s cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.”
One of the libertarian ideas people often struggle with is this: Any political party or form of government has the potential to turn tyrannical. More than 250 million people were killed by their governments during the 20th century alone. Guns preserve political freedom by equipping people to fight back against the only organization which is legally allowed to kill them. In a country where gun confiscation has quite literally concluded with democide, it is crucial to remember that guns aren’t simply fun toys for rednecks.
The Libertarian view on Healthcare
Just like it places a premium on property rights, libertarianism maintains that you have total autonomy over your own body. You have the right to accept or refuse any medical treatment you wish to, just as you have the right to take any recreational drug that you please. (But if you get drunk and do something foolish, the consequences are all yours to enjoy.)
Libertarianism rejects the welfare state, including the government’s nationalization of healthcare. As Walter E. Williams put it, “There is no moral argument that justifies using the coercive powers of government to force one person to bear the expense of taking care of another.” Thomas Sowell completed the libertarian argument against nationalized healthcare: “It is amazing that people who think we cannot afford to pay for doctors, hospitals, and medication somehow think that we can afford to pay for doctors, hospitals, medication and a government bureaucracy to administer it.”
Free-market healthcare is subject to competitive forces that continually improve medicine; government-controlled healthcare must only satisfy whichever criteria impassionate bureaucrats create for it. As is always the case, incentivizing innovation is the surest way toward progress – not yoking it to government officials who are more concerned with polls than they are public health.
The Libertarian view on Education
John Locke summed up the duty we have to children in Some Thoughts Concerning Education: “Children are strangers to all we are acquainted with; and all the things they meet with, are at first unknown to them, as they once were to us: and happy are they who meet with civil people, that will comply with their ignorance, and help them to get out of it.” (Not all of the libertarian movement’s preeminent thinkers get it quite so right. Murray Rothbard’s assertion that parents have no legal obligation to feed their kids can be considered frosty at best.)
The experience offered by public education suffers greatly for its dependence on tax revenue. When teachers must place the demands of government officials before the diverse needs of their students, and when the public education system indoctrinates children with whatever ideologies the dominant political party prescribes, we fail our children. Many libertarians wish to shield vulnerable children from politicians and their special interests by divorcing education from the government entirely.
You have likely noticed that we peppered this article with mentions of several people. These are the thinkers whose work you should explore if you want a firmer grasp of libertarianism. (You had better add Ayn Rand to the list while you’re at it.) Keep learning, and one day soon you too may be able to bore your friends to tears with long-winded explanations as to why taxation is theft and the government should bugger off.