Libertarianism Research Paper

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Predominantly an American political movement of the twentieth century, libertarianism is a political doctrine whose deepest commitment is to liberty. Libertarians believe that the freedom of the individual is the most important value that should guide political reflection; and that the good society is one in which that freedom is respected. Yet libertarians disagree about what a commitment to individual liberty entails politically; and about the basis of this commitment. To understand libertarianism, then, it is necessary to come to terms with the variety within its tradition; and with its relationship with other political ideas.

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Libertarians approach liberty by asking what are the legitimate functions of the state. Broadly, they offer two kinds of answer. The libertarian anarchist answer is that no state is legitimate; for minimal state libertarians, however, the state is legitimate to the extent that its activities are confined to a limited range of functions, including national defense, the protection of individual rights, and the enforcement of contracts. Even within these alternatives, however, further divisions are to be found. Libertarians differ over the proper scope of government, but also over the foundations of individual freedom. Any consideration of libertarianism, then, would have to account not only for the fundamental principles or commitments which give it shape, and for the differences between minimalist and anarchist libertarianisms, but also for the varying doctrines advanced by libertarians from Robert Nozick to Murray Rothbard.

1. Fundamentals Of Libertarianism

1.1 Origins

Libertarianism is a species of liberalism. Liberalism is a tradition of political thought which understands the good society as one in which individuals are free to pursue their own ends rather than one which enforces one particular understanding of what constitutes the good life. Central to liberalism is a commitment to individual liberty. For the liberal, liberty is a good which ought to be honored and protected; and doing so requires recognizing that each and every individual is entitled to a domain within which he or she may act without interference from others. Liberalism, however, describes a broad tradition which includes thinkers as diverse as John Locke in the seventeenth century and John Rawls in the twentieth century.

Libertarianism is that side of liberalism which emphasizes the importance of individual freedom from the state, and which is generally wary of the operation of government. It is skeptical about power, but especially about governmental power. Modern libertarians see themselves in this regard as the heirs of a long tradition in European thought which champions the rights of the individual against the state. While they insist that this tradition stretches back into medieval times, when kings could not create law, or legislate, but only find or declare law, it is to writers of the seventeenth century that they most commonly turn when looking for the first expressions of libertarian thinking. In particular, it is the ideas of the Levellers—John Lilburne, William Walwyn, and Richard Overton—and later of John Locke, which provide the inspiration for much of libertarianism.

Libertarians take two fundamental ideas from these thinkers. The first is that each individual is entitled to live as he or she chooses provided he or she does not try to force others to live as he or she thinks right. The second is that each individual is entitled to acquire and keep property. If government is necessary, it is to protect these rights by securing individuals against those who would invade or aggress against their property and their persons. But any government that itself violates these rights by coercing them or taking their property without their consent is tyrannical and may rightly be resisted.

Libertarianism has its origins in these ideas, and its heroes are thinkers who have, in different ways, asserted the rights and liberty of the individual against the state. However, libertarianism as an intellectual and political movement did not emerge until after World War I, in America. It arose largely as a response by some intellectuals to the growth of government and the rise of socialism. The most important writers who criticized socialism, central planning, and the growth of government were the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek who, throughout the 1930s and 1940s, debated the advocates of central planning over the feasibility of socialism. Although based in Europe, their work received a more enthusiastic reception in the USA among intellectuals hostile to the politics and economics of the New Deal. These included H. L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garret, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Henry Hazlitt—journalists, writers, and economists who wrote warning of the dangers to constitutionalism posed by the growth of the state, touting the merits of free-market economics, and defending the virtues of American individualism.

It was in the 1950s that the term ‘libertarianism’ first came into use to describe this political stance, when Leonard Read, who established the Foundation for Economic Education, began calling himself a libertarian. While the term was rejected by writers like Ayn Rand and her followers, it came into use in the 1960s, and in 1971 the Libertarian Party was founded.

1.2 Principles

Libertarians share two sets of convictions. First, all individuals are entitled to live as they choose, free from interference by other persons or by the state. Second, in the absence of deliberate design by government or the state, order will prevail: granted the freedom to contract and exchange, markets will coordinate the production and distribution of goods better than any other available institutional mechanism. Yet while most libertarians see these two convictions as consistent and mutually supportive, they differ over which is the fundamental basis of libertarian thinking. For Mises the commitment to individual freedom rests on straightforwardly utilitarian considerations: capitalism produces greater human welfare than socialism or the mixed economy. Yet for Murray Rothbard, the rights of the individual are defensible independently of any consequentialist argument.

Both of these convictions are intimately associated with libertarian thinking; however, it is the first which is more important philosophically, since it better identifies what is theoretically distinctive about libertarianism. For libertarians are particularly concerned to defend the freedom of individuals to live without being subject to aggression by others—against their persons or the property they may rightly acquire. An early statement of the first aspect of this claim is was offered by the Leveller Richard Overton, in An Arrow Against All Tyrants: ‘To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any: for everyone as he is himself, so he hath a self-propriety, else could he not be himself, and on this no second may presume to deprive any of, without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature …’ (Overton 1646, p. 68). This is the thesis of self-ownership. And for libertarians, out of this thesis comes the contention that individual freedom includes the freedom to own private property. The most famous formulation of this claim is John Locke’s in his Second Treatise of Government: ‘Though the earth, and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.’ The centrality to libertarianism of self-ownership, and the corollary right to own property, has led many to conclude that, perversely, the fundamental value for libertarians is not ‘liberty’ but the right to private property (including, but by no means only, one’s property in one’s person). All individuals must enjoy liberty; but only that liberty that is consistent with a respect for the property rights of others.

This understanding of individual rights is the basis of the libertarian view of the justification, and proper role, of the state. If individuals own themselves and have a right not to be aggressed against, no government is legitimate save that which enjoys the consent of the people. And the purpose of government is nothing more or less than protecting individuals against those who would violate their rights by invading their persons or their property. Libertarianism, in this regard, is profoundly antipaternalistic. It is no part of the purpose of government to improve people or society, or even to provide for their welfare. It should not busy itself with human needs or deserts. Its only concern is individual rights.

1.3 The Market

Although its philosophical principles are what make libertarianism distinctive, the emphasis its adherents place on free markets and the virtues of market society is no less important. Libertarians defend capitalism and the market order. For many libertarians, capitalism is simply that form of economic organization which grows out of the freedom of individuals to exchange private property. For others, market society should be defended because it has important virtues of its own.

For thinkers like Hayek and Mises, the defense of the market was crucial to the defense of freedom because they saw the challenge to freedom as coming from modern socialism. Socialism, seemingly being put into practice in the former Soviet Union, and gaining intellectual adherents in the West, criticized the market for being, at once, insensitive to the poor, who fared badly under capitalism, and less efficient than a properly planned economy. Markets were wasteful in production and inequitable in distribution. Socialism’s attack on the market made the defense of the market necessary.

In the 1930s, Hayek and Mises devoted their energies to showing the impossibility of socialism, understood as a form of economic organization which eschewed markets. In the absence of the signals sent out by market prices, economic coordination could not happen, and central planners could not acquire the knowledge needed to effect such a coordination, for that knowledge was dispersed throughout society, and often available temporarily and locally. Coordination without markets would produce shortages of some goods and an excess of others: supply and demand would never be in step. Hayek further argued that the deeper danger of socialist central planning was not economic but political. In order to pursue the goal of production without markets, planners would have to resort increasingly to coercion, to curb people’s natural proclivities to trade. Central planning required the creation of monopolies; and this would require suppressing those whose activities, intentionally or not, competed with monopoly suppliers. In the long run, Hayek argued, this posed a threat to political freedom, for it would undermine the rule of law by granting to some privileges under the law.

This argument resonated particularly with libertarians in the USA in the 1950s. Here it was deployed less against socialism than against the expanding regulatory state. Government intervention in economic life, libertarians claimed, was neither necessary nor benign. More often than not it upheld privileges— notably those enjoyed by producers and professionals seeking protection from competition which might challenge their monopolies. The most notable proponent of this argument in popular forms was Milton Friedman, notably in his book, Capitalism and Freedom (Friedman 1962). However, libertarians, unlike conservatives, also challenged the defensibility of government intervention not only in the economy but also in other areas of society. Friedman and others took issue with the draft, the legal prohibition of drug use, licensing, and various other forms of compulsion by the state.

Another important target of the libertarian challenge was the welfare state. The state was not needed to provide what markets clearly could: health care, disability and unemployment insurance, pensions, among other things. Government, libertarians argued, would, like any monopoly supplier, provide such services at greater cost and lower quality than would be found under competitive conditions. In part they objected to the limiting of individual liberty: compulsory retirement insurance, for example, compelled people to invest old age savings with the state, which provided only one of a range of possible retirement contracts—and not a particularly favorable one at that. The reply that such institutions were needed to ensure that people were protected should they fail to make provision for themselves was rejected as paternalistic.

Nonetheless, libertarians have always disagreed over whether or not it is part of government’s role to provide a welfare safety-net. Hayek maintained that government needed to supply some forms of welfare because markets and charity would not be able to meet the demand. Friedman argued for a negative income tax to ensure that no-one dropped below some minimum threshold. Insofar as libertarians have accepted the need for a public policy response to such problems as welfare, however, they have sought to remove the discretionary power of governments, which they think more likely to be captured by particular interests than to become the guardian of the general good.

2. Varieties Of Libertarianism

While libertarians share certain general commitments or attitudes, they often differ both in the specific content and in the justification of their philosophical positions. The post-War period has seen the development of numerous attempts to state the case for, and the basis of, libertarianism.

2.1 Nozick’s Minimal State Libertarianism

The most important mainstream libertarian is Robert Nozick, whose 1974 book, Anarchy, State and Utopia (Nozick 1974), has been widely discussed and criticized. Beginning wit the presupposition that ‘Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)’; and the conviction that ‘So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do,’ Nozick set out to examine, from a libertarian point of view, three of the fundamental questions of political philosophy: can the state be justified?; what principles of justice must govern such a state?; and what would a good society look like if it ran along such principles?

Nozick’s first concern is the repudiation of anarchism. He is a minimal state libertarian, and the task of the first part of his book is to show how such a state can, and must necessarily, arise out of a prepolitical state without violating individuals’ rights. For Nozick, individuals have rights to their persons and their property; and these rights act as ‘side-constraints’ on the actions of others, forbidding such others to act in any way that violates rights—even if violating rights would improve the general welfare or, indeed, help reduce the number of rights violations. Rights are absolute; they are also fundamental: rights are good in themselves, and are not derived from some other, more basic, good. For this reason, rights cannot be weighed in the balance with other, competing, goods.

In these circumstances, how could a state ever be justified? Nozick tries to show that, without rights being violated, a minimal state would emerge out of a state of nature in a four-stage process. First, individuals would form mutual protection associations in that condition, so a number of protection agencies would appear. Second, one agency or federation of agencies would come to dominate any given area— through its superior economic efficiency, and without any violation of rights. Third, the dominant agency will rightly be entitled to protect its clients against independent agencies because individuals have the right to protect themselves. Finally, however, the dominant agency will have to extend its protection to those independents by way of compensation for the violation of their (and their clients’) rights. Emerging out of all this is a minimal state—one which claims a monopoly on the use of force, while offering protection to all.

What remains doubtful in all this is whether such a state is indeed consistent with libertarian principles, since it must deny persons the right to enforce their rights against others, and require them to pay taxes. And Nozick has duly been criticized for this, particularly by libertarian anarchists. No less controversial, however, is Nozick’s insistence that only a minimal state is justifiable: it is no part of the state’s right or duty to do more than offer protection. Nozick’s theory of distributive justice explains why.

According to Nozick, justice is a matter of how people have come to have the goods they have rather than a matter of the pattern of distribution of people’s holdings. Unlike the theory of John Rawls, Nozick’s theory is historical rather than structural. There are three principles of justice in holdings: a principle of justice in the acquisition of property; a principle of justice in transfer; and a principle of justice in rectification of past injustice. According to this view, if property is justly acquired, and justly transferred, the resulting distribution of property is, necessarily, just—however small or great the resulting differences of wealth or income among people.

What, however, would make an original appropriation of property just? Can the first person to come across unowned property simply acquire it all? In Nozick’s theory, original acquisition is constrained by the ‘Lockean proviso’: that each is allowed to appropriate as much as he or she desires provided ‘enough and as good [is] left in common for others.’ The importance of this proviso lies not only in what it forbids by way of future appropriation, however, but also in its implications for all existing holdings. How a person may transfer property will also be governed by the Lockean proviso; and an earlier violation of the proviso may cast doubt on the worth of a particular property right.

Nozick’s insistence on the importance of the proviso is consistent with his view of justice as historical rather than structural. His theory is as much an attack on patterned or end-state theories as a defense of his own ‘entitlement’ theory. End-state theories think of justice in terms of some particular distributive outcome, with which principles of distribution must conform. For Nozick, this is incompatible with a proper understanding of justice and of rights. But he has a further objection: the attempt to secure preferred distributive patterns necessarily requires interference with the voluntary activities of individuals. Liberty upsets patterns, so liberty will have to be compromised if patterns are to be preserved.

Nozick’s theory of justice has been vigorously criticized, however, by those who reject his libertarian starting point as well as by others who want to resist his conclusions. The thesis of self-ownership, and Nozick’s account of its implications, have been subject to searching examination by G. A. Cohen, in particular.

2.2 Rand’s Objectivism

While Nozick has dominated academic philosophy, however, no libertarian has reached a wider audience than the Russian-born American writer Ayn Rand. In a series of novels, most famously The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (Rand 1943, 1957), essays, and newsletter articles, she offered a vigorous defense of capitalism, and articulated a comprehensive philosophy—‘Objectivism’—which claimed to set individual rights on a firm epistemological and metaphysical basis.

Capitalism, according to Rand, ‘is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.’ On this account, capitalism is understood, or at least defined, not as an economic system but as a social arrangement consistent with the principles of ethics. Capitalist society is one which respects individual rights. The question, however, is: what rights do individuals have, and why do they have these (and not any other) rights? Rand defines the rights an individual has by saying that ‘for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own oluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.’ Rights are thus freedoms to act, but not assurances of anything more than forbearance on the part of others. An important corollary of this, however, according to Rand, is that the individual has a right to acquire property, since human beings need property if they are to survive. The basis of individual rights, she argues, is the right to life. ‘The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life.’ But none of this means that an individual is entitled to any particular share of property. All it means is that noone may rightly be prevented from seeking to acquire property noncoercively, and that no one should be prevented from using as he or she wishes the property he or she has rightly acquired.

Rand, in her extensive writings, attempted to defend this stance by showing that it followed from a proper understanding of humans’ nature and a grasp of the value of life. This philosophy is called ‘objectivism.’ Beginning with assumptions about the existence of an ‘objective reality,’ the centralilty of life as a value, and the importance of reason for humans’ survival, she claims to have shown that the only ethically defensible social system is capitalism. Even within libertarianism these arguments have proven controversial. Nozick, for example, finds them unconvincing. But there has been no shortage of philosophers, such as Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen, for whom the construction and defense of a Randian position continues to be an important task.

Although Rand, unlike Nozick, receives little attention from mainstream academic philosophers, the extent of her influence, and the interest of her thought, should not be underestimated. Not only do her books continue to reach a large popular audience, making her one of the best-selling authors of the twentieth century, but she has also exerted a significant influence on academic philosophers, economists, and policymakers (the most famous being Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, and co- contributor to Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (Rand 1967)).

2.3 Murray Rothbard’s Libertarian Anarchism

For Ayn Rand, a proper understanding of human rights could yield only a conception of government whose role was limited to the protection of individual rights. Even then, taxation would have to be voluntary; for government, as policeman, could not violate individuals’ rights by taking by force what individuals were not prepared to give up. For many libertarians, however, individual rights are in no way compatible with tohe existence of the state. The most important libertarian defender of the anarchist position was Murray Rothbard.

Rothbard has been libertarianism’s great polymath: an economist in the Austrian tradition, he was also a historian and social philosopher, as well as a pamphleteer of the highest order. His works ranged from a treatise on economics, Man, Economy and State, to a history of America’s Great Depression, to a philosophical examination of The Ethics of Liberty (Rothbard 1970, 1972, 1982).

According to Rothbard, the ‘crucial axiom’ of the libertarian creed is this: ‘no man or group of men have the right to aggress against the person or property of anyone else.’ Aggression is defined as ‘the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of someone else.’ Central to libertarianism, then, is ‘the absolute right to private property of every man: first, in his own body, and second, in the previously unused natural resources which he first transforms by his labor.’ In Rothbard’s view, these two axioms, ‘the right of self-ownership and the right to ‘‘homestead,’’ establishes the complete set of principles of the libertarian system.’

In common with Nozick and Rand, Rothbard holds that individuals have rights to do as they wish for so long as they do not invade the rights of others. Thus, individuals should be free to use or dispose of their property as they see fit, and live their lives—as well or as badly—as they wish, provided they do not violate anyone’s rights. However, Rothbard also maintains that the existence of the state is incompatible with libertarianism, for the state, by definition, must infringe these basic rights. Nozick’s ‘immaculate conception’ of the state, he argues, is unsuccessful both because the logic of its derivation is flawed, and because, even if it could be shown that a state could arise without the violation of rights, this would not serve to legitimize that state (nor, a fortiori, any existing state). Nozick, however, has at least offered a philosophical argument attempting to rebut anarchism. Rand, on the other hand, according to Rothbard, does little more than evade the difficulty posed by her own libertarian principles for her claim that that there is role for government, and for her allegiance to the American state. Rand’s patriotic defense of America during the Vietnam War was, for Rothbard, untenable given the fact of military conscription—an unambiguous violation of the libertarian principle of nonaggression and its prohibition of involuntary servitude.

For Rothbard, minimal state libertarianism must either abandon libertarianism’s core commitment to nonaggression or lapse into incoherence. None of the extant nonanarchist forms of libertarianism have come to terms with this problem, since none have been able to explain how the most fundamental need of the state—to raise revenue by taxation—could be accounted defensible in libertarian terms. More than any other libertarian, Rothbard has tried to push the principles of libertarianism to their logical conclusion, to show that if individuals have rights, no form of authority which might invade their persons or take their property without their consent is morally legitimate.

2.4 Hillel Steiner’s Left-Wing Libertarianism

In rejecting as flawed the libertarianisms of Nozick and Rand, Rothbard assumes that individuals not only have property in their persons but also can acquire just title to property in the external world. Indeed, for Rothbard, the right to acquire property is not constrained by anything like a Lockean proviso that enough and as good be left over for others. Should all land, for example, be appropriated by those who come to it first, leaving nothing for the johnnycome-latelies, that is simply the way of the world. Thus he rejects the idea, associated in the nineteenth century with Henry George, that the earth itself cannot be owned, even if individuals can own the product of their labor. If the original land is nature or Godgiven, he argues, then so are all the people’s talents, health, and beauty; if land must be owned only by society, so must everything else. Rothbard therefore rejects any idea that we start by assuming that everyone has an equal claim to land, or to the earth or its resources.

Yet this is itself a highly controversial issue. And some libertarians, notably Hillel Steiner in his An Essay on Rights (Steiner 1994), have argued that the correct starting point is an assumption of an equal right of all to the earth and its resources. Persons have, on this account, two original rights: to self-ownership and to an equal share of initially unowned things. Each ‘person’ is entitled to ownership of himself, for to be owned by others is to be a slave; and so only ‘things’ may be owned by others. But no one is entitled to appropriate every unowned thing. Indeed, no one is entitled to appropriate more than the Lockean proviso allows. In a world of fully appropriated things, ‘each person’s original right to an equal portion of initially unowned things amounts to a right to an equal share of their total alue.’ Moreover, and correlatively, any person’s possession of a just title to any thing encumbers him or her with a duty to pay every person an equal share of its value. Since there is, Steiner argues, no moral right of inheritance—for only existing, and not past or future persons have rights—the upshot of all this is that a just distribution of things must reflect our original rights, and not the accidents of history or geography. Our just entitlements do not depend upon where, or to whom, we were born. The implication of this libertarian view is that the recognition of libertarian rights is fully consistent with, and indeed requires, a significant measure of property redistribution among persons, and that means all persons, regardless of nationality.

From such libertarian premises, some, like Philippe Van Parjis, who would not describe themselves as libertarians ideologically, go on to argue that justice requires recognizing that everyone is entitled to a form of unconditional basic income. As he points out in Real Freedom for All, the core problem for libertarians is to find a non-arbitrary criterion of original appropriation. Homesteading, or an application of the principle of first come, first served, is not, on this view, morally defensible, for it would be a serious error to suggest that anyone could be free living under a regime in which he or she has no property rights, except in his or her person, since all property has already been appropriated and bequeathed. This left-wing libertarianism takes much more seriously the importance of equality as a moral consideratin, just as the other variants of libertarianism reject its significance altogether as a substantive value.

3. Libertarianism As Ideology

Politically, libertarianism is often identified as a ‘rightwing’ ideology but, in fact, its position on the ideological spectrum is problematic. While some libertarians, like Rand, describe themselves as opponents of ‘the left’ or as right-wing, others, like Rothbard, see themselves as having much more in common with the left as opponents of the state—which they tend to see as the captive or instrument of big business. Moreover, most libertarians try to distinguish (if not dissociate) themselves from conservatives, since they reject the conservative’s interest in the regulation of personal morality. To the extent that they align themselves with any other ideological viewpoint, libertarians are inclined to describe themselves as the heirs of classical liberalism. Libertarians as diverse as Hayek, Rothbard, and Steiner have been ready to describe themselves as classical liberals.

In public affairs, however, libertarianism has found itself allied, more often than not, with the conservative side of politics. Over the short history of modern libertarianism, some conservatives have tried to transform it by incorporating its commitment to liberty, but rejecting its hostility to authority and tradition. A notable advocate of such a ‘fusionist’ view was the American conservative Frank Meyer. To date, however, libertarianism has resisted such attempts. It remains a more radical political philosophy than conservatism can countenance.


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