Current political discourse is rife with aggression, divisiveness, and alienation. With the election of Donald Trump, many see a wave of protectionism and authoritarianism seeping into the right. On the other hand, the former liberal position of free speech is being curtailed for the sake of “Social Justice.” This has former progressive Dave Rubin saying “the left is no longer liberal”, and some now refer to progressives now as the “regressive left.” The truth is, most Americans do not want to build a physical wall on the border, nor do most Americans believe in a 90% tax rate. Many Americans do not see themselves in the authoritarian right or the regressive left. Libertarianism is one such philosophy that does not fit either of these molds.
First, a bit of clarification. This article reflects the liberty movement and libertarianism as a set of ideas, not the party. A few Republican representatives (namely Justin Amash and Thomas Massie) are often thought of in the libertarian space, whereas former libertarian Presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, was known for taking many non-libertarian positions. The libertarian political philosophy goes far beyond a few politicians. In fact, the philosophy has its roots in classical thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith, the American founding fathers, and classical economists like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.
Uniting libertarians and defining libertarianism mirrors what herding cats looks like, except cats might stop fighting for a minute in order to get something accomplished. I am going to try and define it, but understand that the word “libertarian” itself often takes on many different and sometimes contradictory meanings. I define libertarianism as: “The political philosophy that, based on a premise of natural rights, advocates for laissez-faire capitalism, personal responsibility, and non-interventionist foreign policy.” The definition is kept purposefully broad in parts, in order to make room for the differences in opinion, but those three principles are prevalent throughout libertarian thought of all varieties, so I am going to touch on each of them.
Quickly put, natural rights is a concept found in ancient times, but became well known with English philosopher, John Locke. Locke posed that every human is born with three natural rights: life, liberty, and property. More definitively, every individual has the right to live, doing what he/she wishes, keeping what he/she owns, as long as he does not infringe on anyone else’s rights to life, liberty, and property. Most libertarians base their opinions on the market, non-interventionism, and personal responsibility in this idea. The idea that one cannot infringe on another’s individual liberty and property rights is often the primary moral justification for libertarian policy positions.
Belief in a laissez-faire, free-market economy, might be the most uniting belief among libertarians. This is often referred to this as capitalism, but a portion of the movement, referred to as “left-libertarians,” often reject the term. This simply means that the government has no place in regulating what businesses can and cannot do and promotes a complete separation of state and economics. This includes little to no regulations on business, no more business subsidies, a complete elimination of corporate welfare, and a huge cut in taxes. Where this differs from establishment Republican belief is the complete rejection of business subsidies and meddling in the economy. Many Republicans would like a freer economy compared to Democrats, but many are often okay with government management of regulations in things like health-care and transportation. Libertarians reject Keynesianism, explaining that unintended consequences arise when a government tries to plan the economy or manipulate the market. Libertarians are often divided between what are called the “Austrian School,” pushed by thinkers like Murray Rothbard, Ludwig Von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek, and the “Chicago School,” spearheaded by more modern economists like Milton Friedman. Regardless of this division, libertarians promote a free market economy void of government intervention.
In addition, libertarians believe in the most politically incorrect of ideas, personal responsibility. The fundamental principle of self-ownership that runs throughout libertarian thought logically leads to this conclusion. This is applied across the board to all issues, which create problems when looking through either of the typical political lenses. On the conservative end, things like drug use and prostitution create issues. Many conservatives believe that the government has a place in maintaining morality within the state, writing laws against things like recreational marijuana use. Libertarians, on the other hand, believe that people have the capacity to make their own decisions, and even if someone found a particular behavior immoral, a libertarian does not believe in enforcing their values through the state. From the progressive’s point of view, they believe that the state has to provide health care and education to everyone. A libertarian rejects this as well, stating that it is an individual’s responsibility to take care of their own well being, and that the government’s job is not to provide charity. Charity, to a libertarian, should be left up to the private sector.
Finally, a libertarian believes in a non-interventionist foreign policy. This is the biggest departure libertarians have from the rest of the right, where the right often conflates the position as “isolationism.” While the position can differ from being a pacifist to a use of the “Powell Doctrine,” most libertarians believe that America should use its military solely to defend itself. The non-interventionist position takes that a country should only intervene in global affairs when America is attacked or seriously threatened. Non-interventionists are opposed to things like the UN or the European Union, as they seek to involve themselves in the matters of many nations, rather than keeping to their own domestic affairs. Simply, if the US can stay out of a foreign affair, it should do so.
This philosophy is alive despite the loud voices of alt-righters and social justice warriors. Young Americans for Liberty (shortened as YAL), a student organization that came out of the “Students for Ron Paul 2008” organization has over 900 chapters at universities and high schools nationwide, including a chapter right here at S&T. Representatives and activists are uniting with think tanks like the Mises Institute and the Cato Institute. Bills like “Audit the Fed” are actually moving through congress as I type this. Despite what many would wish, the liberty movement is alive and well, and it is fighting for a more free country, in market, in philosophy, and in life.