A lot of people who are acquainting themselves with libertarianism for the first time might be tempted to view it as a negative philosophy. After all, aren’t libertarians those people who gather under banners which read “End the Fed” or “Cut Government Spending” or “Abolish such-and-such an agency”?
Libertarians spend a lot of time talking about what they are against. Is this not an angry philosophy, obsessed with eliminating things and not interested in positive, constructive action or thought?
To answer this question, I would like to first talk about minimalism.
People who live minimalist lives focus on determining what is the least amount of possessions and entanglements which they can have, so that they can go through life unburdened by these things. Minimalism is a positive philosophy: it supposes that the minimalist can design his life in such a way that he can own few things and thus can be free to turn on a dime and pursue opportunities in a fast-acting, flaneuristic style.
The minimalist, in order to approach a happy minimalism, must design his environment to reflect minimalist philosophy.
In most cases, this means that he must eliminate the unnecessary. Consider the case of a person who is a hoarder, and lives among many possessions which he uses infrequently or even hangs on to simply because his neuroses preventing him from letting go. He is surrounded in his home with old bottlecaps and shoelaces and candlesticks and video cassettes and other valueless collections of dusty junk which he does not need.
One day, our hoarder is struck with an inspiration that he must become a minimalist. His task now is one of paring down his possessions to the most minimal. He must eliminate his things: by giving them away or selling them or throwing them away. In this example, we see that though the hoarder-turned-minimalist is setting out on a positive journey – to design his lifestyle around a new, liberating philosophy, he must engage in mainly negative tasks: tasks of strategically eliminating his possessions and/or replacing them with sleeker, more functional and purposeful items.
The hoarder-minimalist’s vocabulary would consist of negative terminology: “I must remove this,” “I must eliminate that,” “I must pare this down.” And yet this negativity exists only because he began his journey from the situation of being already entangled in too many possessions, and he must proceed by rethinking his life in a more minimal way.
Consider an alternative example: a man who has just been robbed, or has had to flee his country in a hurry, or is returning from a trip around the world, or has just been released from jail. Such a person might have no possessions, save the clothes on his back, and might also have a need to rebuild or restructure his life. If this man is likewise inspired with the philosophy of minimalism, he will affirmatively try to build up his life in such a way as to procure only the most minimal set of things which he might need to own.
This exile-turned-minimalist will have a goal which is similar to that of the hoarder-minimalist, but his language will be different. It will consist of positive terminology. He will say, “I need to find things which are useful to me.” He will be compiling a group of minimalist possessions, but his tasks will be positive ones, to seek out and find possessions which he will need.
When we observe the two minimalists who are in different positions, we come to understand that, though their goals are the same, their starting points differ. This is the reason why the first minimalist must engage in proximally negative thought, vocabulary, and action, while the second minimalist must engage in proximally positive thought, vocabulary, and action.
We must also consider that minimalism, despite the language and actions of the hoarder-minimalist, is a positive philosophy. Minimalism is not about eliminating things! It is about having only the essentials, and nothing more. The core of minimalism is not about what you eliminate, but about how you live. The difference between the two types of people in the above thought experiment is not a difference in the way that they experience minimalist philosophy, but it is instead a difference in the direction from which each must approach minimalism.
This thought experiment has been provided as an analogy for why we most often see libertarians using negative language and tactics. Libertarians are minimalists with regard to government. As such, libertarians ask: what is the government we can have which will preserve the rule of law while having the fewest moving parts? Libertarians want to build a small, minimal government.
Unfortunately, most Western countries are governed in a way which resembles the overcrowded, dusty, disorganized homes of hoarders. Rather than operating with lean, minimal governments which leverage great action from few resources, most governments are fat, bloated, and bureaucratic, containing many levels of redundancy, unnecessary offices, and fatty and overinflated books of redundant and dilatory laws.
The libertarian who lives in such a society might resemble the hoarder-minimalist. Though his goals are to live freely in the context of a minimal system of government, the way he must approach that system is by working to trim away the fat of the system in which he currently operates, to eliminate the unnecessaries which he wakes up to find himself surrounded by.
By contrast, if you were to release libertarians into an ungoverned state of nature, you would not find them running about with signs which read “End this” or “Abolish that.” Instead, they would be asking each other philosophical questions about how to design a system from the ground up which will be able to have maximum effectiveness from the leanest, most minimal set of parts.
Of course, you more likely live in an inflated hoarder-state than you do in a lawless state of nature, and as such, the libertarians you will meet will seem, upon cursory inspection, to be negative, angry people who want to destroy things and smash the system down.
But that analysis would be careless and facetious! I encourage you to look further than that, and to try to visualize not the negative, ugly process of paring government down which libertarians need to engage in in the short term, but instead to visualize the minimal, lean government which might exist in the happy future where minimal-government libertarians are able to achieve these goals. Concentrate on the positivity subjacent in the message, for it is there that you will be able to come to understand the positive, beautiful nature of libertarian philosophy.