There is a one-upmanship game among libertarians. You know how it goes: "I'm more libertarian than you are because I believe in X and you don't," or the other way. In these times so hostile to liberty, I think we need to think about including rather than excluding people in the scope of "libertarianism."
On the other hand, "libertarian" is becoming the hot buzzword that "liberal" was about a century ago. NAACP may be praised as a "liberal" institution by the left, but further reading reveals that "liberal" in those days is what we call "libertarian," or sometimes "classical liberal." I had a left-wing friend advocating all kinds of government interference defend himself by saying he was basically "libertarian." (He was also the guy with a law degree explaining to an engineer-scientist how science works, that the majority of opinions determines the burden of proof in scientific inquiry.) Any definition of libertarian that includes a big-government, believe-in-the-majority, left-wing liberal, or a right-wing, religious-right-values zealot, is insulting to a dedicated movement in human dignity that has its 800th anniversary on 2015 June 15.
In a tone emulating Thomas Kuhn in his lecture where he tried to define "science," I seek a definition of "libertarian" that includes those who embrace libertarian principles, and excludes those who clearly reject them. For those on the fence seeking clarification of their status, well, I'm not sure any web-page essay is going to accomplish that. "Am I a libertarian? And if I'm not a libertarian, then what's wrong with me?"
My own credential for establishing such a definition is that I'm a mathematician and an engineer who has produced considerable wealth in the private sector. My career for the past third of a century is figuring out the essential aspects of a problem, what information we need to solve it and what mathematical algorithms and computations are required. (I'm also good at building those solutions in computer software, but that credential isn't as useful for this discussion. Fortunately, modesty on my part isn't required either.)
The right definition of a mathematical field of study, or a political ideology in this case, is a set of axioms or postulates from which we can derive logical conclusions. The axioms are derivable from some set of facts and we can draw logical conclusions from our study. It's a kind of thought-process bottleneck, the narrow point in the path from reality to understanding. Euclid based all of geometry on five postulates so all we have to do is convince ourselves of their validity and all the rest follows. In the same vein, once we accept libertarian principles from a good foundation we have a logical basis for any conclusions derived from that foundation.
There is an interesting duality here, at least interesting to a mathematician. We accept axioms on faith as we study a field, so geometers do not question the axiomatic properties of points, lines, and angles and topologists do not question the basic properties of neighborhoods and open sets in their quest for mathematically interesting conclusions. When we seek to apply the field, the axiomatic structure becomes a conclusion of a more-foundational process. We scientifically determine that points, lines, and angles in our own universe have Euclid's properties and only then can we take comfort in the rest of his derivations. Einstein's revelation (at least for my purpose today) was that one of Euclid's postulates actually does not apply in our universe and, therefore, some of the geometric conclusions we used to draw are not valid.
So our process is first to define "libertarian" in a good way, one that encompasses the views we libertarians share, and then to determine what we can base those beliefs on. Are we okay with that?
Let's start with this definition of "libertarian": Libertarian is the political point of view that embraces a moral foundation based on five principles: human life, liberty, property, livelihood, and contract. How you get those moral values and where you think they come from aren't terribly important, only that you respect them in the political process. That's it.
This definition has the advantage of including all the various factions of libertarian-thinking people I know. It includes religious people and atheists, so-called "normative" and "utilitarian" libertarians, anarchists and limited-government proponents, along with both socially-liberal and fiscally-conservative factions. I'll start by explaining the foundation of these morals and later I'll show how they encompass the beliefs of most libertarians out there.
The religious libertarians I know see the basic human rights as coming from some kind of deity. God is the source of these values. They see religion in the Declaration of Independence, "the laws of Nature and Nature's God," and follow that path to the moral values above. There are others (like Ayn Rand) in this "normative" class that accepts these morals as being the rock-bottom foundation of good political process.
Atheists and agnostics may reject the divinity of these morals but accept that following them is a good path for humanity. Those societies and communities that have respected human life, liberty, property, livelihood, and contract have lived better by just about any measure of success than those that have not. Similarly, there are others who believe the value of a moral code is in its results and rely on the favorable history of these five values.
I have discussed these five values elsewhere. My point here is these values define a point of view that is reflected in the Magna Carta and America's foundation and they constitute the core of libertarian thinking, enough to be a valid definition of "libertarian."
Government redistribution of income clearly goes against these morals, violating liberty and property. Government departments of education, energy, and environment go against these morals violating liberty and livelihood.
Government meddling with education or health care or housing or racial quotas or any of a long list of liberal causes clearly violates liberty and, when somebody has to pay for it, violates property. When government starts telling people what they can and can't do for a living, then we're violating livelihood. When they tell people that promises entered in good faith don't have to be honored because of some social change, then they're violating contract.
Government deciding who is allowed, or not allowed, to marry whom, or deciding who is forced to marry them in their halls of worship clearly steps outside this value structure, along with government deciding who can use which recreational drugs. On the other hand, employers having to hire people who marry people they don't like or take drugs they don't like is similarly outside these values of human life, liberty, property, livelihood, and contract.
Matt Kibbe summarizes libertarian as "Don't hurt people and don't take their stuff." That's close, but there are too many ways I can obey that directive that aren't libertarian to make me happy with it as a definition of "libertarian." After all, people who oppose prostitution and pornography involving consenting adults haven't hurt anybody and haven't taken their stuff and yet they're clearly not libertarian. It's a good sound bite (and I'm not being sarcastic, I really mean it, and I liked it enough to buy his book), but it's not comprehensive or foundational in my view.
Others define "libertarian" as the principle of non-initiation of force. I have two problems with that definition. First, it defines one term in terms of another wanting definition. Human life, liberty, property, livelihood, and contract are just as self-evident in their definitions as "force." (Telling somebody that a "gribble" is defined as an "ignu," only helps somebody who already knows what an ignu is.) My second objection is that it's not quite true. My example is a man shoots a gun into a crowd and misses everybody. He has initiated no force and done no harm and yet I would join an angry mob in subduing that fellow, clearly initiating force. With smugness befitting a clever mathematician, I'm going to insist that just about any definition you use for "force" allows me to find some situation where a pre-emptive use of force is appropriate and consistent with what most libertarians believe. It's good illustration but not a good definition.
Ayn Rand believes in this set of values as a first principle. I differ with her on the primacy of them as I believe they should come from somewhere else. (The morally-smug communists claim the same moral primacy, but their results hardly appeal to me.) In my case they come from the last millennium of human history where societies following them have simply lived better and those who have violated them, in (her words) "the expediency of the moment," have suffered horribly. She goes a step further, however, where I do not follow, in suggesting that voluntary giving without payment is somehow a violation of libertarian principle. I explain elsewhere that she's putting the heart before the course just as Christianity got the Golden Rule backwards from the original Jewish version. Not taking from others is a far cry from not giving to others.
I see these don't-do-wrong foundations for libertarian in the light of a scene from the movie "Office Space." Peter Gibbons is answering the hypothetical question of what he would you do if you had a million dollars? Peter says, "I would relax. I would sit on my ass all day. I would do nothing."
His neighbor Lawrence replies, "Well, you don't need a million dollars to do nothing, man. Take a look at my cousin: he's broke, don't do shit."
The same way, defining a political posture, or a social directive, by what we will not do limits our vision of what we want to accomplish. Since our founding principles from the Magna Carta through our Constitution are precisely directives about what government should not do, there is a conundrum here. I'm suggesting we should define a negative stance with positive direction. It's hard, but I think it's important to do it that way.
A good definition includes what we want to include, excludes things we don't want included, and does so in an illustrative way. I believe my definition of the moral principles of human life, liberty, property, livelihood, and contract do precisely that. They prescribe a world where government (and any other nosy busy-bodies who have nothing better to do) keep out of other people's lives. They don't require any particular religious, scientific, or political viewpoint, only the insistence on maintaining this particular dignity in how people interact.
My interpretation of Thomas Jefferson's writing in our Declaration of Independence is "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" refer to what we are and what we have to live by as a result. Human beings are capable of great things, but they are a couple of hormones away from unspeakably horrible things, too. (If you don't believe me, then you can visit sub-Saharan Africa (preferably with your face painted dark and without your passport) or you can read Out of America by Keith Richburg about his adventures.) This code of ethics, summarized by Jefferson is inalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, is a code that allows our goodness to come through and our badness to be controlled.
Doesn't this expression of human life, liberty, property, livelihood, and contract sound a lot like "truth, justice, and the American way"? Who isn't in favor of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The answer is that 95% of the world lives in countries founded on values quite different from these. Half of America believes these values should be subjugated to the short-term expediency of somebody's needs defined in a political process. They regard income redistribution, tax-funded subsidies, racial quota policies, and government control of news media as a natural, basic part of their lives. Most of the world's people regard travel restriction, even within their own counties, as normal.
What we called "the third world" is still far away from these principles. The government kills people they don't like and they approve and deny permits for business arbitrarily. Protection from rape isn't an option in much of the world, maybe most of the world. (The United Nations had a conference about twenty years ago on the narrowly-defined, sharply-focused topic of women. I had to picture American women complaining when their mechanics treated them like girls and overcharged them for automobile tune-ups while African women were wondering when they would be able to drink from the same village well that the men used, or not to have their bodies ravaged and mutilated. It really is a different world "out there," and not a nice one.)
It is my belief that the big difference between savagery and civilization is understanding and respect for property. I'll go out on a limb and suggest that property is something scarce that people care about. Neither subterrannean mineral rights nor air pollution were a big deal in 1789, but they sure are important today. We treated lakes and rivers as communal dumping grounds until there wasn't enough capacity, the waters became polluted, and the resource became scarce. So the ground beneath us, the air above us, and the waters around us have become property. Intellectual property (patents) are an important part of law and will remain so even if they're handled privately in a free society. The ownership of an invention and the wealth it produces is too important to treat it like the community river that everybody can dump their waste into.
My own visualization of an American-libertarian society looks like America of 1912 plus all the technology and wealth we have produced since then. It would look pretty-much like the Constitution with its first ten amendments. Federal government would be extremely limited, only defense, international travel, and mediation of interstate issues (courts). Notions like anti-trust and so-called "equality of opportunity" would be foreign concepts along with any federal assistance or subsidy programs. Local and state public institutions would probably still exist to enforce laws against crimes with victims. (While I believe private institutions could deal with murder and rape and robbery and muggings, I doubt it would happen that way even in the most libertarian society we would actually construct.) Through organizations that look like homeowners associations, local communities would fund neighborhood streets and parks. (They might even decide to fund schools, although I believe a libertarian community would decide to fund schools through well-organized payback systems much as we have mortgages today to fund houses we otherwise could not afford to buy.)
There are a couple of changes I think we would see in our interconnected, interwoven, Internet society with more commonly-shared physical resources.
Privacy is mentioned in neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution, but I think we all want it to be part of the fabric of our lives. When the National Security Agency (NSA) bugs all our phones and emails we get annoyed, and rightfully so in my libertarian opinion. We need a legal structure, probably with a mix of public and private components, to ensure our personal lives remain free of outside scrutiny.
In my opinion, even a libertarian society needs a limited concept of anti-discrimination. One one hand, the Rosa Parks issue was completely a government boondoggle with a public, government-monopoly bus system creating discrimination and then private alternatives disallowed by the same government. On the other hand, when the only restaurant on a lonely stretch of road refuses to serve blacks, even libertarians get outraged. My own solution is to have some legal definition of "public facing" that would include road-access restaurants but not private clubs. Road owners might require restaurants on their highways to serve all comers. Maybe business would carry a Non-Discrimination seal of approval, kind of like Good Housekeeping, issued by a private agency, and those of us who care about such things would only patronize those businesses. It's an issue not addressed in 1789 that I believe is important today.
Environmental issues, and reserved natural spaces like National Parks, also can be handled privately. There is a huge interest group who can buy shares in a preservation society, a kind of cross between the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy. It would be voluntary, but only members would have access to its resources. I contribute significantly to the preservation of places I enjoy and believe I'm far from alone in being comfortable doing that.
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