The Libertarian Argument

In this video, the narrator discusses what he calls the “Libertarian Argument” and why he finds it “particularly unconvincing as an argument.”

The Libertarian Argument

This is what he defines as the “Libertarian Argument”:

“The government has no right to tell people what they can or can’t do in the privacy of their own homes, places of business or public spaces.”

Those of you who have interacted with Libertarianism on some level, I want you to tell me: is this the “Libertarian Argument”? No. It is not. Sadly, I fear that most of you, even those of you who consider yourselves to be Libertarians, might have answered “Yes.” I think this is a critical problem, and one I’m hoping to correct.

What IS the Libertarian “Argument”?

Well, first off, there is no such thing as a “Libertarian Argument.” Libertarianism is the application of a certain set of principles to political and economic policy. You may have heard Libertarians say something like the above at one point or another, but there is a much deeper foundation to that statement that must be understood before progressing.

There are three fundamental principles behind Libertarianism, or “The Philosophy of Liberty.” Indeed there is one that forms the bedrock of the entire philosophy and two that build upon it. Without having these as the foundation of your understanding of libertarianism, you are bound to be led astray. Starting with the argument that government can’t tell people what to do is anarchistic and childish. However, understanding these three principles will guard against misunderstanding and misapplication of libertarian principles.

What are those three principles? Self-Ownership. The Non-Aggression principle. The Rule of Law.

Self-Ownership

The principle of Self-Ownership is simply what it sounds like. You own yourself. Now I don’t mean this in the psychobabbly self esteemy way of “feel good about yourself,” “follow your dreams,” or whatever other ideas are out there these days. I mean simply, that nobody else has a greater claim on you than you do. You are nobody’s property. You are nobody’s slave.

You own your self. You own your life. You own your body. You own your time. You own the property that you have justly acquired. You have the right to defend these things. To take away your life would be murder. To take away your liberty would be slavery. To take away your property would be theft. To damage your property would be vandalism or battery if the property in question is your physical body.

As with any relationship between an owner and the thing owned, you have sole right to determine how your life, liberty and property should be used. If you own a popsicle, I don’t have the right to eat it. If you own a bicycle, I don’t have the right to take it back to my place and ride it whenever I want. I don’t have the right to your life. I don’t have the right to your liberty. I don’t have the right to your property, including your physical body. I cannot kill you. I cannot take your things. I cannot demand that you do what I tell you to do. I cannot assault you.

You alone have the right to determine what will make you happy, and you have the right to pursue that happiness, so long as you are not in violation of someone else’s self-ownership.

The Non-Aggression Principle

Which leads us to our second principle, which is the Non-Aggression Principle. I have already hinted at it in my description of the Self-Ownership Principle. The Non-Aggression Principle simply states that because of a person’s Self-Ownership it is objectively immoral to commit aggression against that person. It is absolutely wrong to use aggression to coerce someone into compliance to your will. What qualifies as aggression? Aggression is the initiation of any action which violates your life, liberty, or property, be it through force, the threat of force, or fraud. As before, I do not have the right to compel you to do my will. I cannot hold a gun to your head and make you do what I want. I cannot hit you to spur you on to some action. A cannot trick you into doing something you don’t want to do.

The Rule of Law

Finally, the third principle is the most critical for understanding Libertarianism as a political philosophy. The first two, left alone, simply amount to the golden rule. This final one, however, takes us into the realm of political policy. That is Rule of Law. The Rule of Law arose in the late middle ages in response to the abuses of power perpetuated by the monarchs of Europe. It gave rise to Parliaments, the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights and other ways in which the people put restraints on the crown in order to make sure that the highest authority of the land was the Law, not the King.

In those days, the people judged, rightly, that being king did not give someone the right to violate the law. Even the King must submit to the Law. Thus, the King cannot commit murder or theft. This was the ultimate motivation for the revolution. The colonies felt that the King was abusing his power and so they wanted to separate themselves from him.

For the Philosophy of Liberty, this ultimately means that the King cannot use aggression to coerce people to do his will. To do so would be to make him a tyrant by definition. The same is true for a democratically elected government. A government that uses force, the threat of force, or fraud to coerce its citizens into any compliance of any kind is violating the Rule of Law by violating the Non-Aggression Principle, which violates each citizens Self-Ownership. To deny this would be to imply that government, or society owns each person, and thus to outright deny Self-Ownership.

What’s left for government to do then, if it cannot use force to govern? Well there are legitimate uses of force. National Defense is one, provided that it’s national defense and not national offense in terms of nation building and war mongering. Another is criminal prosecution. If an individual citizen or group of citizens violates someone’s life, liberty or property, then they need to be brought to justice. This is done not to offend the criminal, but to provide justice for the victim. Finally, there are civil courts of arbitration wherein the government can provide an impartial judge to settle disputes over contracts and torts.

Libertarians believe that any other action by government is inherently coercive.

Why it Matters

I’m very intent to clarify these things, because if this guy, who says he once served as a County Chair for the Libertarian party has missed these points, then it’s very possible that the outside world has missed them too. Be honest, when you think of Libertarians, you think of a bunch of people whiney, crazy, whacko, conspiracy theory believing, gun toting, leave-me-alone, hermits who want nothing to do with the rest of this world and wants to be left alone to practice his abominable wickedness no matter what anyone else things. The likes of Alex Jones really haven’t helped that perception, but I digress.

This incorrect perception of Libertarians as inherently hedonistic, libertine, rebellious and immature, is our greatest hurdle to convincing the world of our positions. In reality, Libertarians are socially and fiscally responsible, believing that people can and should govern themselves. They believe in the sanctity of life (though they don’t always follow the super strict conservative definition), and everything that goes into protecting it.

This guy’s very characteristic of Ron Paul in his contrived scenario typifies the libertarian stereotype, though. I don’t think it was a slam on Ron Paul so much as libertarians in general. Why won’t Ron help? Because he’s selfish and lazy!

Let’s clarify something. Ron Paul has no right to the group’s food by default. Neither does the group have any right to Ron Paul’s labor by default. The group does not own Ron Paul. They don’t own his time. Ron Paul has the right to trade his labor for the group’s food. If he chooses not to do so, then he has decided to live with the natural consequences of it – starvation. I say natural consequences to differentiate starvation from being beaten by the group, which would be an unnatural and immoral consequence. It would be aggression for the group to use force or the threat of force in order to coerce Ron Paul into building a fire.

Collectivism vs Liberty

He draws a dichotomy. He says either Ron Paul suffers or the group suffers. Ron Paul is such an jerk for making the others suffer isn’t he? This is collective statist thinking at work here. This is the same line of thinking behind Obama calling tax hikes “spending cuts.” The government is spending money by allowing you to keep some of their money when they collect fewer taxes. How insane!

Collectivists believe that you do not own yourself. They believe that the community owns you. That you have inherent responsibilities to the community because they are the community and how dare you be around and not pulling your own weight! We have to make this guy do what we want! But really, is it that much harder for the other three to pitch in together to build a fire? Santorum is just standing around with a pair of binoculars all day, for crying out loud.

So it boils down to this. Do you own yourself, or are you a slave to your community? Now you might think that I’m the one drawing a false dichotomy here. I’m taking the classic Individualism vs. Collectivism line here aren’t I? Well in a sense I am, but consider that in a collectivist society, the individual is always violated for the sake of the collective. His only recourse is through votes which may or may not even count. In an individualist society people are free to voluntarily form their own small collectives if they so wish. But even better, through voluntary cooperation, the entire whole community is improved. That is, unless we assume that people won’t behave in their own rational self-interest.

But why would we assume that? People behave in their own rational self-interest all the time. Anytime someone does something it is because he has judged that it will make him happy. He may be acting foolishly, but it is not mine to force him into wisdom. Generally it should be assumed that people are rational adults who are capable of making these judgments for themselves. That is, unless you want the government to treat us all like children!

Most collectivists believe that greed is the only possible outcome if people are allowed to behave in their own self-interest. It is true that people are prone to greed, but if the only way to interact with someone else is by getting their voluntary consent, then the natural check on my greed is your greed. But while people are sinful and given to our own selfishness, we have learned to play well with others by the time we are adults. Even if I wasn’t religious or moral, I would have learned that it’s in my own rational self-interest to interact with my neighbors in a kind, generous, cordial way. I would have learned that It’s within my self-interest to trade my time for my employer’s money; that it’s in my self-interest to trade my money for the grocery store’s food; that it’s in my self-interest to trade my time lending my neighbor a hand for the favor he now owes me.

It’s in Ron Paul’s own rational self-interest to trade his labor for the group’s food. Why wouldn’t he do it? Perhaps because he has decided to value something else above the food provided by the group and the possibility of being rescued with them. And that’s the key issue. For the community to think that they have the right to direct an individual’s behavior is for them to claim the right to tell him what to value. Human beings choose their actions based on what they value. We do what we think will make us happy.

The community mindset says that everyone must accept the values determined by the community. If you don’t agree and want to value something else, too bad for you. The statists will say, “we voted on it,” but that is just tyranny of the majority. Let’s take the classic contrived scenario in that the group cannot find any food or any fish, so they vote and decide to eat Ron Paul. Would Ron Paul be a jerk for not wanting to comply? Either Ron Paul suffers or the community suffers!

The lesser example is something like marijuana. There is no crime involved inherently with pot. Smoking pot does not inherently violate my neighbor’s life, liberty or property. There are ways in which I could violate his life, liberty, or property through my particular use of pot, and there are other crimes around pot that happen because of the way that pot is against the law by fiat. But in and of itself, there is no criminal activity inherent in pot. Yet even if we came to understand this, the world would still want it to be illegal. Why? Because the self-righteous don’t care about the principles of liberty, they care about setting the value system of other people. To them, smoking pot is an unacceptable way to be happy, regardless of whether it’s perfectly harmless. It’s just wrong!

Liberty Benefits the Community

Rather liberty says that if people are free to value what they want and can make choices based on those values, they will pursue the course to maximizing their happiness that seems best to them. So long as they stay on the rails of not violating another’s life, liberty and property, there is nothing wrong – in a human sense – with what they do.

When people are free to behave in their own rational self interest in this way, they interact through voluntary mutual consent. When two people interact this way, they both leave better off. Why would anyone voluntarily consent to something that wouldn’t make him happy? The only exceptions fall into some category of force or fraud, which is considered criminal in libertarian thought. In any case, the default scenario is that both parties benefit. When you have a series of these mutually beneficial transactions take place, the whole community benefits in the long run.

Conclusion

So, does the government have the right to tell me what I can or cannot do?

The government has a right to tell me that I cannot defraud my neighbor. It has the right to tell me that I cannot commit force against on my neighbor. Government can tell me not to steal or murder. But the government does not have the right to tell me what will make me happy. The government does not have an ownership claim on my life, liberty or property. So as long as my actions harm nobody, then the only way for the government to enforce anything that it might tell me to do would be through force. Because of the Rule of Law and the Non-Aggression Principle, Libertarians judge that this would be unjust and wrong. In that sense, no they can’t tell me what I can or cannot do. But I hope I’ve helped you understand a little better what the constraints of that statement are, and the underlying principles that must be understood.

Since this series is primarily about whether Libertarianism is an appropriate political philosophy for Christians to espouse, I hope to examine each of these fundamental principles in the coming posts in order to determine whether they are Biblical. If they are Biblical, then they must be held by Christians. If they are not Biblical, then they must be abandoned by Christians. Please join me in this quest.

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