August 28, 2012 columns

Arguments for Libertarianism

An introductory overview of the basic philosophies of libertarianism.

As a political philosophy, libertarianism, in the broadest sense of the term, places liberty first. The role of the state is to protect the liberty of its citizens and its citizens must respect the rights of each other.

This is big tent libertarianism. Within that tent, however, are numerous political philosophies, each with its own way of arguing to the primacy of liberty and each with its own reasons for doing so.

In this new series, I’ll explore that variety. I’ll introduce the major schools of libertarian thought, giving an overview of each—including arguments for and against each—and provide resources to explore these schools further. A school that seems compelling to one person may not work for another, but it is my hope that somewhere in this catalog of libertarianisms, you’ll find one that clicks with you.

While there as many theories of liberty as there are libertarians, broad categories do emerge. For some, often called natural rights libertarians, libertarianism results from respecting rights. Most of us believe humans, by our nature, have rights. Violating these rights is always morally wrong, whether the violation comes from an individual or from a group acting under the label “government.”

Among these is a right to property, which includes a right to own one’s self. If I own myself and you do not, then it is a violation of my rights for you to coerce me into behaving in ways I disapprove of or for you to take the product of my labor for your own gain. Many natural rights libertarians see all or most government activity as falling within just these sorts of rights violations.

Consequentialist libertarianism takes a different approach. Rather than argue from what’s morally right—and what’s morally impermissible—consequentialists discuss what works best. No matter one’s views on rights or their particulars, consequentialists hold that if a given policy won’t fulfill its objectives and will instead make us worse off then we have little reason to implement it. Likewise, if a policy will make us better off than we are now, then we have cause to at least consider it.

From this perspective, consequentialist libertarians argue that a policy of limiting government, respecting individual liberty, and encouraging markets, will improve our lot far more than the alternatives. Libertarianism, the consequentialist holds, just works better.

There is another approach to justifying libertarianism. Imagine a world before government, perhaps even before society. Everyone has gathered to create a system of rules that will govern us going forward. Each of us will be treated equally in these negotiations. What would we agree to? Contractarian libertarians say we’d agree to some form of libertarianism. We’d agree to respect for basic rights, including the right to property.

Each of these approaches can be broken into or joined by virtue approaches, the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, Hayekianism, Austrian approaches to economics, philosophical anarchism, left-libertarianism, and more. I hope to explore all of these over the course of this series. What’s important to keep in mind throughout, though, is not all the ways these schools disagree, but what they have in common. Every single theory sees modern government as too big, too grasping, too damaging to the liberty and livelihood of its citizens. Every one would have us dramatically scale back the size and scope of government and establish liberty as the ultimate aim of politics.

I’ll begin next time with a look at the natural rights theory of Robert Nozick.