In preparing this encyclopedia, our hope has been to offer a general guide to the social and political philosophy that today goes by the name of libertarianism. Although the title is comparatively new, the doctrine is not. Libertarianism is the heir to 19th-century classical liberalism and to the Whig ideology in the period prior to that. Indeed, its roots can be traced back to the earliest discussions of the nature of freedom in Western philosophy. At its most general, it embraces the view that men should be treated as autonomous individuals, free to make their own decisions regarding how to live their lives and how to determine their own salvation without being constrained to act against their wishes. Of course, this is not to suggest that their decisions will invariably conduce to their greatest happiness, nor that they will never be hurtful to others. But so long as their decisions were made freely and do not directly harm their fellow men, the only option open to others in trying to divert them from their chosen path is moral suasion and not force.
It is for this reason that libertarians are so distrustful of government, not because they fear the behavior of all collectivities, but because governments rest on law and all law is ultimately based on the threat of force. All law seeks to alter behavior, either by preventing people from acting in ways that, in the absence of law, they would freely choose to engage in or by inducing them to behave in manners foreign to their more agreeable wishes. These modifications in behavior are in every instance brought about by the government’s threat to use force or by its actual use. Thus, fines, imprisonments, and even death itself are attached to engaging in certain actions or dissuading us from doing others. This aspect of law is seldom, if ever, considered. We often encounter distasteful conduct that we feel can be eradicated by the passage of some law or another. However, we seem unaware of the fact that, although we might benefit from the law’s effectiveness, it has as its corollary that numbers of people will be punished for disobeying the law and even greater numbers will be thwarted from engaging in activities they would freely choose under pain of punishment. It is a basic principle of libertarian politics that no one should be forcibly prevented from acting in any way he chooses provided his acts are not invasive of the free acts of others. John Stuart Mill’s justifiably celebrated words in the first chapter of On Liberty, written almost a century and a half ago, give eloquent testimony to this view:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind is warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is selfprotection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he does otherwise.
This noble principle has, since the dawn of civilization, found itself at war with the notion that private decisions are not solely the prerogatives of individuals who are immediate parties to their outcome, but by groups of experts or committees representing the wishes of the larger population who claim to have some interest, however tenuous, in the consequences. This approach is predicated on the perception that nothing is totally private, that all acts affect the general public in some way or another, and that the entire collectivity has a legitimate interest in the results of any decision we make, whether it is what we read, what we ingest, whom we choose as our sexual partners, indeed any and everything that touch our lives that might be viewed as harmful to the community or ourselves. What is truly remarkable about the millions who support extensive governments is that they seem to have lost sight of the fact that those whom we empower to write and enforce the laws are no more moral and decent than the rest of us. Indeed, they are no less unethical and corrupt; in fact, there is substantial evidence that they are often more so than those over whom they govern, that for the most part their overriding interest is their own immediate welfare and their concerns extend no further than the next election. Yet we constantly rely on them to correct the evils we see around us and express surprise when no improvement occurs.
The facts are that ultimately we are either autonomous individuals empowered with primary control over ourselves and the property we create, or we are not. There are those who would claim that we are a mix of both, but these philosophers have been unable to locate the point at which individuals have surrendered their autonomy to some sovereign entity or in what that entity consists, whether an individual sovereign or a collectivity, or who is empowered to determine when the decisions of the sovereign take precedence over the wishes of the individual. Perhaps the most compelling of these theories of political obligation, however, and one embraced by almost all libertarians is that put forward by John Locke and that formed the theoretical underpinnings of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Jefferson wrote, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish
it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Despite attempts by some political theorists to translate these words into a defense of an all-pervasive government, their intent is clear. The crucial test of all government, no matter how constituted, lies in whether it respects the inalienable rights with which all men are endowed. These rights, Locke and Jefferson maintained, owe their existence neither to convention nor to the presence of a sovereign who both created them and made their exercise possible. They are rooted in man’s very nature and are unconditional and nontransferable. Men do not, nor can they, compromise them by entering into civil society, nor can these rights be modified in some way to conform to the dictates of the magistrate. The transcendent purpose of government is the preservation of these rights. The rights to which Jefferson refers—and here he clearly follows Locke—are to be understood not as mandating individual or collective acts of any kind, but rather as restraining men from acting in certain ways. Put more simply, my right to something, say my liberty, entails only prohibitions on others and not positive commands. To the extent that I am free, I am “let alone,” not “forced,” “required,” “commanded” by others to do (or not to do) something that I “can,” “am able,” “have the capacity” to do. The only boundaries limiting the actions of other men are those prohibitions against others that extend around my liberty.
The protection of this sphere constitutes the legitimate boundary of state action. When rights are understood in this manner, the rights of individuals cannot conflict because their rights do nothing more than constrain others from acting toward rights possessors in certain ways. The notion that rights are forever competing with each other arises when one includes in an enumeration of rights those that impose obligations on others and afflicts most contemporary discussions of the subject. We commonly speak of the rights of members of a community as in perpetual conflict, but this is in large part due to the fact that politicians and others who have vulgarized the language of political theory have found it to their ideological advantage to encourage the view that such conflicts are an invariable part of political life. Thus, my right to smoke directly conflicts with your right to a smokefree environment and my right to spend my wages as I alone see fit conflicts with your right to a superhighway. For once it is conceded that rights, of necessity, compete, there can be only one referee, and that is the modern democratic state.
In the past 100 years, the language of politics has become so mutilated by politicians and their ideological henchmen that no principled position makes sense, and we are reduced to a war of all against all in which the battlegrounds are our periodic elections. The result is the creation of a leviathan state that attempts to cater to an increasingly broad spectrum of more specialized interests. Even with the end of a world conflict to which the federal government had dedicated the blood and treasure of its citizens, the various levels of American government currently expend no less than 32% of all the goods and services produced in the nation. This scenario is hardly what the Founders had in mind when it limited the functions of government to securing the lives, liberties, and estates of its citizens. Nor is there any truth to the vicious canard, so often broadcast without the least evidence, that in the absence of a massive government apparatus the charity and compassion of private individuals would be insufficient to help the needy.
What this volume seeks to do is to offer a series of brief articles on the historical, sociological, and economic aspects of libertarianism and to place them within their broader context. They offer a commentary on the unending attempts of countless individuals to emancipate themselves from the control of an oppressive and overweening state, whether one is controlled by a despot or one is acting in the name of the wishes of the people. What these articles have in common is the search for a world in which man’s subjection to the will of others is brought to a minimum. We do not seek, as those who would malign us claim, emancipation from the laws of God or the forces of nature, to which we are all, depending on our beliefs and our circumstances, more or less subject. Rather, we wish an open and divergent society, in which each may act as he thinks best, despite the consequences of his actions. We may exhort others from acting in ways that we feel may harm them, but we cannot use the police power of the state to punish them from so acting. This open society, to which Periclean Athens inclined, was, we are told, an education to all of Greece. So there was a time when America was an education to the world, and it is to this time to which we seek to return.
Ronald Hamowy Rockville, Maryland
Originally published August 15, 2008.