Chapter 1 

A Note on Labels: Why "Libertarian"?

Some people say they don't like labels. After all, each of us is too complicated to be summed up in a word, whether it's a word like black or white, or gay or straight, or rich or poor, or an ideological term like socialist, fascist, liberal, conservative, or libertarian. But labels serve purposes; they help us to conceptualize, they economize on words, and if our beliefs are coherent and consistent there probably is a label to describe them. In any case, if you don't label your own philosophy or movement, someone else will label it for you. (That's how the system of human creativity and progress in a free market got labeled "capitalism," a term that refers to the accumulation of money, which happens in any economy. It was capitalism's sworn enemy, Karl Marx, who gave the system its name.) So I'm willing to use the term libertarian to describe my political philosophy and the movement that seeks to advance it.

Why would anyone choose such an awkward term as "libertarian" to describe a political philosophy? It's a clunky neologism with too many syllables. It probably wouldn't be anyone's first choice. But there's a historical reason for the word.

Elements of libertarianism can be traced as far back as the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu and the higher-law concept of the Greeks and the Israelites. In 17th-century England libertarian ideas began to take modern form in the writings of the Levellers and John Locke. In the middle of that century opponents of royal power began to be called Whigs, or sometimes simply "opposition" or "country" (as opposed to Court) writers.

In the 1820s the representatives of the middle class in the Spanish Cortes, or parliament, came to be called the Liberales. They contended with the Serviles, the "servile ones," who represented the nobles and the absolute monarchy. The term Serviles, for those who advocate state power over individuals, unfortunately didn't stick. But the word liberal, for the defenders of liberty and the rule of law, spread rapidly. The Whig party in England came to be called the Liberal party. Today we know the philosophy of John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill as liberalism.

But around 1900 the term liberal underwent a change. People who supported big government and wanted to limit and control the free market started calling themselves liberals. The economist Joseph Schumpeter noted, "As a supreme, if unintended, compliment, the enemies of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label." Thus we now refer to the philosophy of individual rights, free markets, and limited government--the philosophy of Locke, Smith, and Jefferson--as classical liberalism.

But "classical liberal" is not much of a name for a modern political philosophy. "Classical" sounds old, outdated, and carved in stone. (And in this era of historical illiteracy, if you call yourself a classical liberal, most people think you mean Teddy Kennedy!) Some advocates of limited government began using the name of their old adversaries, "conservative." But conservatism properly understood signifies, if not a defense of absolute monarchy and the Old Order, at least an unwillingness to change and a desire to preserve the status quo. It would be odd to refer to free-market capitalism--the most progressive, dynamic, and ever-changing system the world has ever known--as conservative. Edward H. Crane has proposed that today's heirs of Locke and Smith call themselves "market liberals"--retaining the word liberal, with its etymological connection with liberty, but reaffirming the liberal commitment to markets. That term has been well-received by market-liberal intellectuals, but it seems unlikely to catch on with journalists and the public.

The right term for the advocates of civil society and free markets is arguably socialist. Thomas Paine distinguished between society and government, and the libertarian writer Albert Jay Nock summed up all the things that people do voluntarily--for love or charity or profit--as "social power," which is always being threatened by the encroachment of State power. So we might say that those who advocate social power are socialists, while those who support State power are statists. But alas, the word socialist, like the word liberal, has been claimed by those who advocate neither civil society nor liberty.

In much of the world, the advocates of liberty are still called liberals. In South Africa the liberals, such as Helen Suzman, rejected the system of racism and economic privilege known as apartheid in favor of human rights, non-racial policies, and free markets. In Iran liberals oppose the theocratic state and press for Western-style "democratic capitalism." In China and Russia liberals are those who want to replace totalitarianism in all its aspects with the classical liberal system of free markets and constitutional government. Even in Western Europe, liberal still indicates at least a fuzzy version of classical liberalism. German liberals, for instance, usually to be found in the Free Democratic Party, oppose the socialism of the Social Democrats, the corporatism of the Christian Democrats, and the paternalism of both. Outside the United States, even American journalists understand the traditional meaning of liberal. In 1992, a Washington Post story datelined Moscow reported that "liberal economists have criticized the government for failing to move quickly enough with structural reforms and for allowing money-losing state factories to continue churning out goods that nobody needs." Liberal economists such as Milton Friedman make similar criticisms in the United States, but then the Post calls them conservative economists.

Here at home, though, by the 1940s the word liberal had clearly been lost to the advocates of big government. Some classical liberals resisted for a time, doggedly insisting that they were the true liberals and that the so-called liberals in Washington were in fact recreating the Old Order of state power that liberals had fought to overthrow. But others resigned themselves to finding a new term. In the 1950s Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, began calling himself a libertarian. That word had long been used for the advocates of free will (as opposed to determinism); and, like liberal, it was derived from the Latin liber, free. The name was gradually embraced by a growing band of libertarians in the 1960s and 1970s. A Libertarian Party was formed in 1972. The term was still rejected by some of the greatest 20th-century libertarians, including Ayn Rand, who called herself a "radical for capitalism," and Friedrich Hayek, who continued to call himself a liberal or an Old Whig.

In this book I accept the contemporary usage. I call the ideas I advocate, and the movement that seeks to advance them, libertarianism. Libertarianism may be regarded as a political philosophy that applies the ideas of classical liberalism consistently, following liberal arguments to conclusions that would limit the role of government more strictly and protect individual freedom more fully than other classical liberals would. Most of the time, I use liberal in its traditional sense; I call today's misnamed liberals welfare-state liberals or paternalistic liberals or social democrats. And I should note that libertarian ideas and the libertarian movement are far broader than any political party, such as the Libertarian Party. References to libertarianism should not be taken to indicate the Libertarian Party unless that is made explicit.

The old ideologies have been tried and found wanting. All around us--from the post-communist world to the military dictatorships of Africa to the faltering, bankrupt welfare states of Europe and North and South America--we see the failed legacy of coercion and statism. At the same time we see moves toward libertarian solutions--toward constitutional government in Eastern Europe and South Africa, privatization in Britain and Latin America, democracy and the rule of law in Korea and Taiwan, demands for tax reduction everywhere. We even see people in many parts of the world--Quebec, Croatia, Bosnia, northern Italy, Scotland, and much of Africa, not to mention the 15 new republics of the old Soviet Union--challenging the large, intrusive, incorrigible nation-states that they find themselves in and demanding devolution of power. Libertarianism offers an alternative to coercive government that should appeal to peaceful, productive people everywhere.

No, a libertarian world isn't a perfect one. There will still be inequality, poverty, crime, corruption, man's inhumanity to man. But, unlike the theocratic visionaries, the pie-in-the-sky socialist utopians, or the starry-eyed Mr. Fixits of the New Deal and Great Society, libertarians don't promise you a rose garden. Karl Popper once said that attempts to create heaven on earth invariably produce hell. Libertarianism holds out, not the goal of a perfect society, but of a better and freer one. It promises a world in which more of the decisions will be made in the right way by the right person: you. The result will be, not an end to crime and poverty and inequality, but less of most of those things most of the time--often much less.

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