Defining Libertarianism

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Alex Wissner-Gross, Harvard Ph.D. in physics, has developed an equation that may explain intelligence itself, which some libertarians may find very flattering:

Intelligence is a physical process that seeks to “maximize future freedom of action and to avoid constraints in its own future.”

Reading this really got me thinking about how libertarianism would be best defined, especially since, if as the late, great Thomas Szasz said,

“The battle for the world is the battle for definitions.” 

…then it is probably important for libertarians to attempt to define “libertarianism”—if we don’t do it, someone else might do it for us. I know this is asking for trouble. Asking a group of anti-rule individualists to agree on anything is akin to herding cats, but being a bit of a philosophical masochist, I asked a score of those who I believe to be leaders in contemporary libertarian thinking for their clearest, most succinct definition of the term “libertarian.”

Now, I can’t speak to what motivated the silence of the non-responders—perhaps, they didn’t have a good reply; perhaps, they were too busy; perhaps, they simply didn’t like the way I asked, etc. But I only received four replies. Granted, they were exceptional replies though; three were from professional philosophers and one was from an economist. Here they are:

[L]ibertarianism is best understood as a kind of family resemblance concept, not a concept that can be defined in terms of a neat set of necessary and sufficient conditions.

But if I had to do it in a sentence, I would say that a libertarian is someone who believes that the only thing individuals may legitimately demand from each another as a matter of political right is liberty, where liberty is understood (in the words of John Locke) as freedom “to dispose and order as he lists his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.” 

Not very pithy is it? Ah well. I tried. —Matt Zwolinski

This seems reasonable, although it leads me to ponder the definitions of a whole host of other terms, especially the theory of property that Zwolinski endorses—is it the Lockean theory of property?

The others that responded didn’t include propertarian notions in their short responses:

In libertarian ethical philosophy, people have the natural right to do anything that does not coercively harm others and the right to be free from coercive harm, harm being an invasion rather than a mere offense due to one’s beliefs and values. —Fred Foldvary

Foldvary is a geolibertarian, and maybe, that is why I thought he might include some sort of a concept of property in his definition. I was delightfully surprised that he didn’t, but his definition does seem to pivot instead upon the idea of a “natural right.” While I am friendly to the ideas in geolibertarianism, I am not so enamored of the idea of some sort of “natural law.” I think there is a very strong tendency for libertarian thinkers to use theories of property and natural rights as a bit of a crutch.

Libertarians believe respect for individual liberty is the central requirement of justice. They believe human relationships should be based on mutual consent. Libertarians advocate a free society of cooperation, tolerance, and mutual respect. —Jason Brennan

This definition is quite appealing, I think, largely because of the use of the word “justice.” It seems that both humans and animals share an inherent sense of fairness, and this provides a solid foundation to build a notion of liberty upon. Along this same vein of fairness reasoning, the last respondent defined liberty thus:

I don’t really do definitions, but the most important thing about libertarians is that they think that if it is wrong for you to do x, then it is also wrong for the state to do x. —Michael Huemer

I think the above definition is my favorite among all these wonderful definitions (although I may be exhibiting a smidge of bias here since Huemer now teaches at the university that I attended as an undergraduate).

My own formulation defines libertarianism as a qualifier of pacifism (noting that it is not pacifism):

A libertarian is a pacifist that will punch you back. —Me

I am rather enamored of the idea of anarchy without hyphens, so my own definition eschews the theories of property and rights that seem to demand strains of dogmatism. Persuaded by Hayekian notions of “The Pretense of Knowledge” and Robert Anton Wilson’s model agnosticism, I am largely uninterested in dogmatism—I am becoming more of a catmatist, I suppose, catmas coming with no obligation to believe. Additionally, I skip reference to the state in my definition because I tend to believe that the state is a myth, or in other words, it is just an excuse some people use to treat other people rather dreadfully. To rephrase it in a more dramatic or bombastic Nietzschean manner, “The state is dead.”

In the tradition of Nietzsche declaring God to be dead and Szasz announcing the “Myth of Mental Illness,” I would like to put forth the proposition that “Government is dead,” that government is a myth. As Nietzsche brilliantly noted about the problem of the subject-predicate relationship in human language, slave morality detaches subject from predicate, the doer from the deed. The 21st Century libertarian is the Nietzschean “overman” in light of this fact and illuminates a third way, a way without slave morality or master morality. No more separating the doer from the deed, instead a path of self-determination where recursive cybernetics are the only law. Hail Eris!

(This article originally appeared in my newest book, Strange Attractor.)

About Author

Jake Shannon

Jake Shannon (1973 - ) was born in Colorado and has worked in a hodgepodge of professions including "Quant" (i.e., financial mathematician), serial entrepreneur, Discordian Pope, radio talk show host, Chairman of the Libertarian Party of Utah, Luchador (i.e., mexican wrestler), and Comedy Hypnotist before settling upon pursuing an unwitting vow of poverty as an independent writer, practical magician (Chaos Magick) and more importantly, as a stay-at-home dad (his greatest accomplishment by far). He currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah (which still surprises him) with his lovely wife, three bright children and three loyal dogs.

  • JetForceF22

    This is a very well written and enlightening article. Keep up the good work!

  • JetForceF22

    As I have ‘re-read this article, I would like to issue my own definition that incorporates elements of each definition in a way that is hopefully easy to read.

    Libertarinisim is the idea of one being fiscialy conservative (in the government sense) while being socially liberal. The central belief is that individual liberties are the core requirements for the basis of justice. Persons are able to do as they please as long as they are not infringing on another’s liberty, and government or entities of the government have no entitled right to infringe on your liberty or act above the law. And while peaceful in nature, libertarians will react and defend their liberty when liberty is threatened.

  • NAP

    Non aggression principle and self ownership is better. Roots libertarianism in a foundation of moral philosophy everyone can understand. No tedious definitions necessary.