04 Sep 2010

An Introduction to Libertarianism

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Chad Everson is helping me promote my online Mises Academy class on Principles of Economics (which starts September 8!). He asked me to explain how libertarianism fits into the conventional Republican/Democratic political establishment in the United States, because it often seems as if libertarians straddle the fence.

This is a common reaction when people begin encountering libertarian positions on hot-button issues. What I want to argue is that it is the libertarian who offers a consistent worldview, whereas the typical conservative/liberal or right-winger/left-winger or Republican/Democrat (though we can all see there is hardly any difference in this last “spectrum”) often uses arguments that conflict with each other.

Before diving in, let me give the disclaimer that I obviously can’t speak for all self-described libertarians, since they don’t all agree on every issue. There is also the difference between “big-L” Libertarians who are part of an actual third political party, versus “small-l” libertarians who embrace it as a philosophy but don’t focus on the ballot box as the means of achieving freedom.

Libertarians value liberty as the highest political goal, and view it as an end in itself. They think that people should have the legal right to do whatever they want with their own private property, so long as their actions don’t interfere with the ability of other people to use their property.

A common way of summarizing the libertarian position (in the context of American politics) is to say a libertarian is “conservative on economic issues but liberal on social issues.” This is because the libertarian tends to favor tax cuts, government spending cuts, deregulation of business, no minimum wage laws, etc. On the other hand, the libertarian also tends to oppose the drug war, laws against prostitution, the military draft, laws against homosexuality, etc. So generally speaking, the libertarian is allied with right-wing conservatives on fiscal/business policy recommendations, but the libertarian is allied with left-wing liberals on civil liberties issues.

Far from being inconsistent, the libertarian finds these positions to be perfectly straightforward: The libertarian quite consistently champions individuals and their use of private property, and opposes arbitrary government interference with such use. For example, the libertarian opposes the minimum wage because (a) politicians have no right to tell two consenting adults how much one has to pay the other, and (b) free-market economics shows that minimum wage laws actually hurt poor people.

But in a quite analogous fashion, the libertarian opposes laws against prostitution because (a) politicians have no right to tell two consenting adults how much one has to pay the other (for sex–in most places the only officially allowed price is $0), and (b) free-market economics shows that the crackdown on prostitution actually leads to more venereal disease and other social problems.

To the libertarian, it is ironic to hear the Left and Right discuss the US government. Depending on the issue, the government is either an incredibly evil, bumbling, and dangerous institution, OR it is the fount of aid, mercy, and intelligence.

For example, if we’re debating the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, or Guantanamo Bay, the typical left-wing liberal will accuse the US federal government of outright war crimes, and of being like Nazi Germany. In contrast, the typical right-wing conservative will defend the honor of US troops, the competence of intelligence agencies to keep Americans safe, and the motivations of the people who ordered the invasion.

Yet when we switch to socialized health care, all of a sudden the same liberals will wax eloquently about the government’s duty and ability to help the poor, to rationally plan the entire health-care infrastructure, and to make life-and-death decisions about how much care elders will receive. In contrast, all of a sudden the same conservatives will be very suspicious about the motives of the people in DC, and will complain about socialist power grabs, comparing Obama to Hitler.

The libertarian looks at such debates and says, basically, “You’re both right.”

Robert P. Murphy has a PhD in economics from New York University. He is the author of a new textbook, Lessons for the Young Economist, which can be downloaded for free. Starting September 8, he will teach a 10-week online course on the Principles of Economics at the Mises Academy.

7 Responses to “An Introduction to Libertarianism”

  1. lode cossaer says:

    and both wrong.

  2. f4kingit says:

    Unrelated, but here’s an article that discusses those two police beatings you posted on this blog before (about halfway down): http://freedominourtime.blogspot.com/2010/09/criminals-with-badges-denvers.html

  3. Jim D says:

    I’ve never read a Libertarian manifesto or party platform, but I have ‘hung around’ them. My take is that it’s a lot harder to ‘use’ a Libertarian, in the manipulated sense. Society is so far removed from personal responsibility that it’s difficult to implement Libertarian policies. For example, if you want to ride motorcycle without helmet; fine, but nobody has to pay for your immediate or long term medical consequences. If you want to use drugs, OK, same thing. Nobody owes you free needles, methadone programs, or multi-billion dollar research into the blood ailment you picked up along the way.
    People have a hard time letting others pay the price of their decisions; that’s why it will be difficult to implement. Full application is the only way it would work, otherwise it’s just license with a safety net. As a Christian I harbor some serious doubts. Look what God did to Sodom and Gohmorrah. I see this country headed the same way. On the one hand, I want to keep perverse things illegal. On the other, I realize that people simply don’t want those laws. The closest I can get to acquiescence is what I think Libertarianism would say: Fine, have your ‘gay’ marriage, but at the same time, you cannot use the government to educate children as to the validity of your lifestyle; you cannot use the government to force me into photographing your ‘gay’ wedding, or renting you an apartment. You cannot use the government to pay for research to cure your diseases.
    Also, if I’m not being too simplistic, I wonder if it can be said that the Austrian economic theory is the most honest? (it seems as though it is.)
    Back to being used, I’m trying to write a blog post about the very subject. I think a huge paradox is that the truth with the greatest potential for benefitting people is the truth that has the most potential for harm. Christianity is the single greatest truth given to man; yet it has been used for conquest and all manner of chicanery. The constitution is a great document; yet patriotism has been used to make wealthy the warmongers.
    Time will tell the extent that the father of lies will use partial Libertarianism toward his ends.

  4. Jim D says:

    Actually, gay marriage supporters probably don’t like the idea of allowing gay marriage on the grounds of less government interference. They want a judge to find a “right” to it in the constitution, thereby securing government endorsement, and paid protection.

    • bobmurphy says:

      I didn’t say anything about gay marriage. I’m talking about laws against sodomy.

  5. Ralph says:

    “You’re both right”. That’s why we keep electing republicrats :(

  6. venzingS says:

    Great…

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