What is Libertarianism?

From an interesting thread on /.

My definition of “libertarianism” stands from a firm principle of “live and let live”. That is, everyone is free to do what they want as long as they are not doing any direct harm to others against their will.

I put in the phrase “direct harm” because it is all to easy to declare anything you want as an “indirect harm” without any justification. When I say “direct harm”, there has to be actual clearly identifiable victims of that harm, and also clear, identifiable harm. Alas, much of what in politics and the law today that is declared “harm” isn’t really.

So, in essence, unless you see me actually doing something that is clearly harming someone else, you are to leave me alone. And I, of course, will do likewise.

I have lost count of how many times in my own life, for instance, someone has phoned the police on me simply because they *thought* I was dangerous, regardless of the fact that I had not done anything wrong nor had any intentions of doing so. And that has caused much damage — much harm — to me and my family, and yet no one learns from this. Police still encourages the public to phone everything in at the drop of a hat. Then they go out and harass innocent individuals, doing harm to them.

If I were libertarian-leaning before, such experiences have firmly pushed me into that camp.

My response:

You’re conflating social libertarianism and economic libertarianism. Not your fault, so is everyone else on this forum.

“Live and let live” is social libertarianism. You’re saying, “personal / private freedoms must not be infringed”. Economic libertarianism says, “there should not be ANY government regulation on the ‘free’ market”. Someone who buys into both of these ideas (or, more commonly, conflates them) is a social/economic libertarian. In other words, a modern libertarian.

Most American-style liberals (i.e., people who believe in the power of government to help society) are also social libertarians, just not economic ones. An example of a policy offensive to an economic libertarian but not a liberal is the minimum wage, or the 40-hour work-week. Interestingly, most American-style conservatives are economic libertarians, but NOT social ones. They don’t mind eliminating the minimum wage, but they do want to tell you what you can and can’t do in your bedroom with your consenting adult partner.

You would think that modern libertarians would hate both parties, and some do, but you find many more of them supporting Republicans than Democrats.

The reason? Modern-day libertarianism really has more to do with Milton Friedman than it does with the ACLU. Many are just brainwashed Chicago school amateur economists. They think that the “invisible hand of the market” will fix everything, while they benefit from the fruits of a century of progressive policies that are only recently being dismantled.

They conflate social and economic libertarianism because it is convenient to do so; the latter is so vulgar that if presented alone to most compassionate human beings, it would seem completely insane. No 40-hour work week? No controls on foods and substances? No safety labels on medicines? No nutrition labels on food? No seatbelts in cars? No environmental regulations on dumping and pollution? Yep — that’s economic libertarianism. The “market” will sort things out. Just let the invisible hand do its work, and all these things will magically be taken care of. [You often hear economic libertarians making the mistake of applying Darwin’s principle of natural selection to the market — those with the most money and skills are “selected”, and the rest should be left in the dust.]

Social libertarianism, on the other hand, jives with American sensibilities and our Constitution. And so, through the sheep’s clothing of social and personal freedoms, comes the wolf of the business-run “free” market.

Update: A Wikipedia article on the Nolan Chart, as well as the chart itself, elaborates this distinction. If I were producing the chart today, instead of making the x-axis “economic freedom,” I’d label it “opposition to government regulation of the market.” Certainly less succinct, but more accurate.

Another Update: I was revisiting the /. thread, and found a particularly good description of the difference between economic liberals and economic libertarians:

[…] the question fundamentally comes down to, “What do you fear the most?”

1. An inefficient government running roughshod over you (taxation, interference in property rights, tyranny of the majority, etc).
2. Powerful, unaccountable private entities running roughshod over you (monopolies, externalities, inequity of power, etc).

Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification (as is the notion that most people fit into these little political boxes), but it mostly suffices. I find that most libertarian and most liberal points of view come down to concerns that their favorite bogeyman will ruin everything if left unchecked and powerless. More nuanced views come from realizing that they both are pretty bad and that you have to make a choice how to balance them (even if you tend to throw the balance almost entirely one way or the other). The crazy ideologues you see here on Slashdot and elsewhere are the people who seem to never acknowledge that the other side’s feared enemy is a problem too.

I love this explanation. My personal belief, as elaborated in earlier posts in this blog, is that careful government regulation of business is a good thing. But the modern US administrations strip away regulation of businesses, while growing the government in its ability to censor, to control social and personal behavior, to use the national purse for foreign wars, etc. In other words, the worst of both worlds!

2 Responses to “What is Libertarianism?”

  1. Eric Marcarelli Says:

    I wanted to write a longer reply, but I have to go to work soon so I’ll limit myself to responding to some of the “problems” you listed. I support the right of people not only to say or do what they wish, so long as they harm no one else, but also for them to buy, sell, and contract as they see fit. That doesn’t mean there won’t be protections for people, but not all protection needs to come in the form of a law. I only support legislation that protects against force or fraud.

    > No 40-hour work week?

    If you want to choose to work more that’s your choice. People often look employment as a one way equation with the business holding all the power. This is not so. The business is buying your labor, and you choose the price and terms at which to sell it.

    > No controls on foods and substances?

    No one advocates this. Some people may advocate competing private organizations that will test and approve substances and put their seal of approval on them. I don’t think anyone could make the argument that the FDA does a good job protecting us. I wouldn’t want to see the FDA abolished tomorrow without replacement, but I think a transition to private agencies would serve us much better into the future. If these agencies lie (do you think the FDA is always right?) that is fraud and illegal.

    > No safety labels on medicines?

    Who would buy a bottle of medicine that wasn’t labeled? Consumers aren’t retarded. If the description of the medication is inaccurate, that is fraud and illegal.

    > No nutrition labels on food?

    People want this stuff, so companies that list it will have an advantage over others that do not. If the label is inaccurate, that is fraud and illegal.

    > No seatbelts in cars?

    I wouldn’t buy a car without seatbelts, would you? Car companies compete partly on their safety ratings… Besides, even in a crazy fantasy world where SOME cars don’t come with seatbelts you can always taken the car to a shop and get some installed like they did before seatbelts were standard.

    > No environmental regulations on dumping and pollution?

    If you’re polluting someone’s land (or air, or water) you are harming them against their will (force), and that is an area where the government should be involved.

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