What is Libertarianism?

Libertarians: Abortion is a matter for individual conscience, not public decree

edited by O Society June 27, 2018


We, the members of the Libertarian Party, challenge the cult of the omnipotent state and defend the rights of the individual.

We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.

Governments throughout history have regularly operated on the opposite principle, that the State has the right to dispose of the lives of individuals and the fruits of their labor. Even within the United States, all political parties other than our own grant to government the right to regulate the lives of individuals and seize the fruits of their labor without their consent.

We, on the contrary, deny the right of any government to do these things, and hold that where governments exist, they must not violate the rights of any individual: namely, (1) the right to life—accordingly we support the prohibition of the initiation of physical force against others; (2) the right to liberty of speech and action—accordingly we oppose all attempts by government to abridge the freedom of speech and press, as well as government censorship in any form; and (3) the right to property—accordingly we oppose all government interference with private property, such as confiscation, nationalization, and eminent domain, and support the prohibition of robbery, trespass, fraud, and misrepresentation.

Since governments, when instituted, must not violate individual rights, we oppose all interference by government in the areas of voluntary and contractual relations among individuals. People should not be forced to sacrifice their lives and property for the benefit of others. They should be left free by government to deal with one another as free traders; and the resultant economic system, the only one compatible with the protection of individual rights, is the free market.

Libertarian Statement of Principles approved in 1974

“For right now, can we just do what every motherfucking American believes, which is stop giving so much money to the corporations, let the people have more control, let us smoke dope, let us have sex with whoever they want as long as there’s consent. And let us do this in every state. Let us love who we want and enjoy life the way we want. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Is this a nut position?”

Penn Jillette – Libertarianism for Beginners

Michael Wilson: With the apparent ongoing demise of the capitalist state, many people are looking at other ways to be successful, to run their lives, and I’m wondering what you would say anarchy and syndicalism have to offer, things others ideas — say, for example, state-run socialism — have failed to offer?  Why should we choose anarchy, as opposed to, say, libertarianism?



Noam Chomsky: Well what’s called libertarian in the United States, which is a special US phenomenon, it doesn’t really exist anywhere else — a little bit in England — permits a very high level of authority and domination, but in the hands of private power:  so private power should be unleashed to do whatever it likes.

The assumption is by some kind of magic, concentrated private power will lead to a more free and just society.  Actually that has been believed in the past.  Adam Smith for example, one of his main arguments for markets was the claim under conditions of perfect liberty, markets would lead to perfect equality.  Well, we don’t have to talk about that!  That kind of —

Wilson:  It seems to be a continuing contention today …

Chomsky: Yes, and so well that kind of libertarianism, in my view, in the current world, is just a call for some of the worst kinds of tyranny, namely unaccountable private tyranny.

Anarchism is quite different from that.  It calls for an elimination to tyranny, all kinds of tyranny.  Including the kind of tyranny that’s internal to private power concentrations.  So why should we prefer it?  Well I think because freedom is better than subordination.  It’s better to be free than to be a slave.  It’s better to be able to make your own decisions than to have someone else make decisions and force you to observe them.  I mean, I don’t think you really need an argument for that.  It seems like … transparent.

The thing you need an argument for, and should give an argument for, is, ‘How can we best proceed in that direction?’ And there are lots of ways within the current society.  One way, incidentally, is through use of the state, to the extent it is democratically controlled.  I mean in the long run, anarchists would like to see the state eliminated.  But it exists, alongside of private power, and the state is, at least to a certain extent, under public influence and control; could be much more so.

And it provides devices to constrain the much more dangerous forces of private power.  Rules for safety and health in the workplace for example.  Or insuring people have decent health care, let’s say.  Many other things like that.  They’re not going to come about through private power.  Quite the contrary.  But they can come about through the use of the state system under limited democratic control … to carry forward reformist measures.  I think those are fine things to do.

The whole economy changed in significant ways to concentrate power, to undermine workers’ rights and freedom.  In fact the economist who chaired the Federal Reserve around the Clinton years, Alan Greenspan — St. Alan as he was called then, the great genius of the economics profession who was running the economy, highly honored — he testified proudly before congress that the basis for the great economy that he was running was what he called “growing worker insecurity.”  If workers are more insecure, they won’t do things, like asking for better wages and better benefits.

And that’s healthy for the economy from a certain point of view, a point of view that says workers ought to be oppressed and controlled, and that wealth ought to be concentrated in a very few pockets.  So yeah, that’s a healthy economy, and we need growing worker insecurity, and we need growing student insecurity, for similar reasons.  I think all of these things line up together as part of a general reaction — a bipartisan reaction, incidentally — against liberatory tendencies which manifested themselves in the ’60s and have continued since.

Exactly What’s Wrong with Libertarianism


The selfish actor model of human nature was tacitly endorsed with the rise of “Neo-Darwinism” in evolutionary biology during the 1970s, as epitomized in biologist Richard Dawkins’ famous book The Selfish Gene.  As Dawkins summed it up, “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes… I shall argue a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness….we are born selfish.” 

A line from libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s path-breaking book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, says it all: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group [or state] may do to them without violating their rights.” (When asked to specify what those rights are, libertarians often cite philosopher John Locke’s mantra “life, liberty, and property.”)  Not to worry, though.  Through the “magic” of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the efficient pursuit of our self interests in “free markets” will ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. 

One problem with this (utopian) model is we now have overwhelming evidence the individualistic, acquisitive, selfish-gene model of human nature is seriously deficient; it is simplistic, one-sided and in reality resembles the pathological extremes among the personality traits we find in our society.  The evidence about human evolution indicates our species evolved in small, close-knit social groups in which cooperation and sharing overrode our individual, competitive self-interests for the sake of the common good. (This scenario is reviewed in The Fair Society and Holistic Darwinism.) 

We evolved as intensely interdependent social animals, and our sense of empathy toward others, our sensitivity to reciprocity, our desire for inclusion and our loyalty to the groups we bond with, the intrinsic satisfaction we derive from cooperative activities, and our concern for having the respect and approval of others all evolved in humankind to temper and constrain our individualistic, selfish impulses (as Darwin himself pointed out in The Descent of Man). 

So we are not, after all, like bumper cars in a carnival, where we all range freely, and, if we cause “harm” by crashing into others, we simply say “excuse me” and move on.  Rather, we are (most of us) embedded in an exceedingly complex network of social relationships, many of which are vital to our well-being.  Every day we confront issues relating to the needs and wants of others and must continually make accommodations.  And in addressing these conflicting interests, the operative norm is – or should be -fairness, a balancing of the interests and needs of other parties, other “stakeholders.”

What’s the Matter with Libertarians – Psychology Today


The American Libertarian party uses the Statue of Liberty as its symbol.

Libertarianism in the United States is a movement promoting individual liberty and minimized government. Although the word “libertarian” continues to be widely used to refer to anti-state socialists internationally, its meaning in the United States has deviated from its political origins. The Libertarian Party asserts the following to be core beliefs of libertarianism:

Libertarians support maximum liberty in both personal and economic matters. They advocate a much smaller government; one limited to protecting individuals from coercion and violence. Libertarians tend to embrace individual responsibility, oppose government bureaucracy and taxes, promote private charity, tolerate diverse lifestyles, support the free market, and defend civil liberties.

Libertarianism in the US – Wikipedia

In addition to the United States’ version, right-wing libertarianism, there is also a version better-known in the rest of the world, “left-wing libertarianism.” Both endorse full self-ownership, but they differ with respect to the powers agents have to appropriate unowned natural resources (land, air, water, minerals, etc.).

Right-libertarianism holds  such resources typically may be appropriated. For example, by the first person who discovers them, mixes her labor with them, or merely claims them, without the consent of others, and with little or no payment to them.

Left-libertarianism, holds such unappropriated natural resources belong to everyone in some egalitarian manner. For example, require those who claim rights over natural resources to make a payment to others for the value of these rights. This can provide the basis for a kind of egalitarian redistribution.

Libertarianism – Stanford Encylopedia of Philosphy

“I hear Republicans and Libertarians and so forth talking about property rights, but they stop talking about property rights as soon as the subject of American Indians comes up, because they know fully well, perhaps not in a fully articulated, conscious form, but they know fully well that the basis for the very system of endeavor and enterprise and profitability to which they are committed and devoted accrues on the basis of theft of the resources of someone else. They are in possession of stolen property. They know it. They all know it. It’s a dishonest endeavor from day one.”

~ Ward Churchill Libertarianism – Wikiquote


Perhaps the most interesting thing about libertarian thought is it has no way of coherently justifying the initial acquisition of property. How does something once unowned become owned without nonconsensually destroying others’ liberty? It is impossible. This means libertarian systems of thought literally cannot get off the ground. They are stuck at time zero of hypothetical history with no way forward.

You don’t have to take my word for this. Serious libertarians have more or less conceded this point.

“If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.”

Again, what’s so funny about this insight is not just as a persuasive counterpoint to libertarianism, but rather it seems to suggest libertarian principles themselves forbid property ownership.

How Did Private Property Start?


Pull up libertarianism’s floorboards, and look beneath the surface into the big business PR campaign’s early years. There you’ll start to get a sense of its purpose, its funders, and the PR hucksters who brought the peculiar political strain of American libertarianism into being, beginning with the libertarian movement’s founding father, Milton Friedman.

Back in 1950, the House of Representatives held hearings on illegal lobbying activities and exposed both Friedman and the earliest libertarian think-tank outfit as a front for business lobbyists. Those hearings have been largely forgotten, in part because now we’re too busy arguing over the finer points of so-called “libertarian populism.”

The purpose of libertarianism, as it was originally created, was to supplement big business lobbying with a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-economics rationale to back up its policy and legislative attacks on labor and government regulations.

There’s no idealism here. The notion libertarian ideas have captured the political imagination of millions in this country is a root problem: if we’re going to escape the corporate oligarchy running this country, their ideas can’t possibility be the alternative solution. This movement has to be recognized for what it is.

History of Libertarianism As an Ideology to Promote Corporate Interests

The Cato Institute is an American libertarian think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C. It was founded as the Charles Koch Foundation in 1974 by Ed Crane, Murray Rothbard, and Charles Koch, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the conglomerate Koch Industries. In July 1976, the name was changed to the Cato Institute. Cato was established to have a focus on public advocacy, media exposure, and societal influence.

Koch Cato Institute – Wikipedia


The anti-government fervor infusing elections represents a political triumph for the Kochs. By giving money to “educate,” fund, and organize Tea Party protesters, they have helped turn their private agenda into a mass movement. The problem with the whole Libertarian movement is that it’s been all chiefs and no Indians. There haven’t been any actual people, like voters, who give a crap about it. So the problem for the Kochs has been trying to create a movement. With the emergence of the Tea Party, everyone suddenly sees for the first time there are Indians out there: people who can provide real ideological power. The Kochs are trying to shape, control, and channel the populist uprising into their own policies.

Koch Brothers’ Covert Operations

One person’s individual plans — which may involve getting a job, starting a business, buying a house, and so on — may conflict with the plans of others, so the market makes many of us change our plans. But we all prosper from the operation of the free market, and there are no necessary conflicts between farmers and merchants, manufacturers and importers.

Cato Institute – Key Concepts of Libertarianism

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism has been and continues to be a major influence on the libertarian movement, particularly in the United States. Many libertarians justify their political views using aspects of Objectivism.

Ayn Rand – Cato Institute

In terms of political recommendations, libertarians believe most, if not all, of the activities currently undertaken by states should be either abandoned or transferred into private hands. The most well-known version of this conclusion finds expression in the so-called “minimal state” theories of Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand, and others, which hold that states may legitimately provide police, courts, and a military, but nothing more.

Any further activity on the part of the state—regulating or prohibiting the sale or use of drugs, conscripting individuals for military service, providing taxpayer-funded support to the poor, or even building public roads—is itself rights-violating, and hence, illegitimate.

Libertarianism – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

How Rand’s Philosophy Seduced Young Minds

When I was a kid, my reading included comic books and Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. There wasn’t much difference between the comic books and Rand’s novels in terms of the simplicity of the heroes. What was different was unlike Superman or Batman, Rand made selfishness heroic, and she made caring about others weakness.

Rand said, “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible….The choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequences of freedom, justice, progress and man’s happiness on earth—or the primordial morality of altruism, with its consequences of slavery, brute force, stagnant terror and sacrificial furnaces.” For many young people, hearing it is “moral” to care only about oneself can be intoxicating, and some get addicted to this idea for life.

How Ayn Rand Helped Turn the US Into a Selfish Greedy Nation


Ayn Rand Paul Ryan learns to miss Regulating the Supply of Alcoholic Beverages

What Is the Far Right’s Endgame? A Society That Suppresses the Majority.

The Libertarian Delusion


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