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Defining Liberty: How to Approach the Ideology of Libertarianism

April 19, 2012

Cody Segraves ’14

The political philosophy of libertarianism is often defined as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. This could not be further from the truth, however. In order to understand why this definition is incorrect, one must first understand what the terms “liberal” and “conservative” mean in the American lexicon. It is more accurate to define libertarianism as a philosophy of social liberty combined with fiscal practices which are considered “laissez-faire,” or free market. By understanding the definitions of each of these terms, it becomes easy to see that much of the criticism of the philosophy and its adherents comes from nothing but misconception and misunderstanding of libertarianism’s core values and what it promotes.

Why must libertarianism be considered laissez-faire rather than conservative? Fiscal conservatism does not, as it is often thought to, promote free market governmental practice. Instead, fiscal conservatism calls for low government spending and low taxation, along with relaxed regulation of the markets. That in itself sounds as though fiscal conservatism does indeed promote the free market. But there is another aspect to fiscal conservatism which makes it decidedly not a free market practice. Fiscal conservatives desire the government to create a positive business environment by giving special consideration to certain businesses or industries over others. They might do this by levying high enough tariffs on international goods to protect domestically produced ones, or offering tax breaks to businesses to allow them to produce or hire more. Contrast this with the laissez-faire belief of libertarians, who ask that the government step aside entirely. This means that while libertarians also support low spending and taxation (some go even further and call for no taxation, but that will be discussed later), they also believe that the government should do nothing, positive or negative, in the economy. This means no special tax breaks to businesses (as they wish taxes to be low for everyone), little to no regulation of businesses and industries by the government, and standard, low import tariffs (if tariffs are to be used at all). When these definitions are used, it becomes clear that libertarians simply are not fiscal conservatives but rather embrace free market principles more fully.

The comparison of social liberalism and social libertarianism is similar. Social liberalism and its proponents call for the deregulation of the personal lives of the nation’s citizens. This means that all personal functions of one’s life are out of the hands of the government and in the hands of each individual. Social libertarianism is much the same, but, like in fiscal matters, there is one key difference that separates social liberalism and libertarianism. In America, social liberals desire an equalizing effect across social strata. That is, social liberals in America promote practices such as affirmative action, where the government or private institutions, such as colleges, attempt to equalize opportunities for various races by giving a sort of preferential treatment in hiring or acceptance practices. While libertarians detest racism as a form of collectivism (defining a group and lumping individuals into a racial collective, in which they are seen as members of the collective rather than an aggregate of unique individuals), they typically do not go so far as to demand that the government force others to denounce their own possibly racist tendencies. Instead, it is in the workings of the free market that libertarians see a solution to issues in race relations.

With these definitions in hand, it becomes increasingly clear that libertarians desire, above all other things, liberty and freedom from government. These social and fiscal priorities put libertarians in an interesting ideological position, in which they reject all forms of coercion, whether social or economic. This naturally brings us to the non-coercion axiom, a libertarian belief that all individuals should have the liberty to do as they please, so long as they do not harm or infringe upon the rights and liberties of others. Libertarians thus view the government as being in violation of this axiom, since the basic governmental revenue collection function can be viewed as a form of coercion.To explain, if one does not pay their taxes, they can be carted off to prison. Resisting arrest can result in death or bodily injury, so taxation would then be seen as coercive in its very core. It is precisely because of this violation that libertarians oppose government (whether in part or fully is an entirely different discussion on the various schools of libertarian thought).

Defining libertarianism accurately is the only way one can begin a conversation on the merits and limitations of libertarian political philosophy. With working definitions in hand, it is quite easy to see that many critiques of libertarianism, such as the oft-repeated “You don’t care about people,” are misdirected and simply incorrect. Libertarianism is a philosophy of freedom and liberty, of individual and natural rights, and of limited government. The movement is growing, with mainstream think-tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies offering solutions to policymakers, and with students, a group which often seems detached and uninterested in politics, leading the charge and forming organizations such as Students for Liberty, or actively supporting and campaigning for candidates. A look at the Ron Paul campaign shows how much youth involvement there is in the libertarian movement. As the movement grows and evolves, it becomes increasingly likely that libertarianism will not only be much better understood, but also that libertarians will play a much larger roll in American politics than they have up to this point. As Ron Paul, a libertarian and Republican presidential candidate said, “Freedom is popular.” And indeed, the modern libertarian movement is proving that statement true.

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