In Frederic Bastiat’s 1850 masterpiece, “The Law”, he poses the following question: “Since the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to allow them liberty, how comes it to pass that the tendencies of organizers are always good?” (Bastiat 46). Over 150 years later in today’s climate of economic upheaval, public and private corruption, and widespread systemic ineptitudes, this question is all the more relevant. Considering such a question could easily leave one agreeing with Henry David Thoreau in the idea “that government is best which governs least” (Thoreau 343). At the very least, with a more hands-off approach, the damage done through meddling would be limited. Individuals who are in agreement with these statements may also find agreement with the foundations of libertarianism. Libertarianism is a philosophy which holds liberty as its highest value, and is founded upon the non-aggression axiom, individual responsibility, and absolute property rights.
In order to speak of libertarianism one must first attempt to define the terms of greatest importance to the libertarian perspective. The first of these terms is liberty. One way of defining liberty is the “freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control” (Dictionary.com). Liberty is exemplified when the individual is in a state of independence so that he may make his own decisions about how his life will be lived. Liberty is threatened when an individual, group of individuals, or governing body tries to enforce control over another individual, group of individuals, or governing body. Liberty is an uncompromising position. There are no “what ifs” or “buts” when it comes to liberty. Either something helps to support liberty that already exists and creates a greater context where liberty can grow, or it inhibits liberty and works to exert greater control and a decreased freedom of choice and action.
Another way of defining liberty is “the absence of coercion of a human being by any other human being; it is a condition where the person may do whatever he desires, according to his wisdom and conscience” (Harper 3). It must be made clear that this definition leaves room for varying degrees and views of morality. Liberty in and of itself is neither “good” nor “bad”. Rather, it allows the individual to decide what is “good” or “bad,” and to make errors in judgment and behavior that they may learn from. Attempts to legislate morality in regards to an individual’s conduct tend to subvert individual liberty. Wherever there is liberty there must also be personal responsibility. If an individual were to value their own liberty they must hold themselves to a particular standard where she not only promotes liberty for herself, but for others as well. As Mary Ruwart has expressed, “Liberty requires respect for the personal choices that others make. In trying to control others, we will eventually find ourselves controlled” (Ruwart 1). One does not have to agree with another’s decisions or how he would live his life. However, at least a basic respect for their right to do as he chooses must be observed. If one individual or governing body were to create a rule which limits another individual’s behavior it only becomes a matter of time before a rule will be made which limits the law maker’s own behavior.
A third way of looking at liberty brings us back to Bastiat’s original question posed above. If we’re looking at liberty in terms of oversight, a libertarian tends to believe “that individuals and society can work out their own problems in the absence of top-down management” (Rockwell 1). It is not any other individual’s or governing body’s responsibility to tell another how to live, think, work, or play. In fact, liberty encourages the individual to have freedom of thought, word, and deed. The idea of liberty is by definition, nonrestrictive in regards to directing an individual’s code of conduct. In fact, libertarians tend to come from a diverse array of lifestyles. In order to further define what it is to be a libertarian one must also consider the other pillars that hold it up.
While the idea of liberty on its own may seem too broad to be pragmatic in today’s troubling and complex social climate, one must understand that libertarianism is not a strict platform of behavioral standards or a code of ethics. Instead, it is a basic framework of principles that all support and build on one another in the striving for maximum liberty. While libertarians may debate specific questions of morality and matters of public policy, the non-aggression axiom is paramount to libertarian ideals and helps to further define what it is to be a libertarian. Walter Block’s assertion that “we’re all libertarians if we agree on the non-aggression axiom and property rights” is an accurate one (Block 5:58). Someone who professes to be a libertarian yet finds exceptions in the non-aggression axiom is undermining the philosophic system as a whole.
Examples of the non-aggression axiom have appeared as early as ancient Greece. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus is credited with expressing that “The justice of nature is a pledge of reciprocal usefulness, neither to harm one another nor be harmed” (Morgan 423). This is the most basic pledge of the non-aggression axiom. Basically, a libertarian may not initiate the use of force or coercion against another. The only justification for a libertarian to engage in the use of force against another individual or property is in cases where one is acting in defense of aggression. Only in the defensive context may one individual encroach upon another. Unfortunately, this interpretation has taken a life of its own in this age of terrorism.
Some self-described libertarians have tried to argue that we live in different times and the idea of preemptive strikes laid out by the Bush Doctrine are compatible with libertarianism and the non-aggression axiom. This assertion is nothing more than a distortion of what the non-aggression axiom states. Not only is this axiom meant to govern the acts of the individual, but it also extends all the way to the state. Generally speaking, the foundational concepts of libertarianism apply to all of life’s contexts regardless of how large or small they happen to be. Acts of aggression against other nations are just as unacceptable as acts of aggression against the individual. Allowing preemptive acts of aggression is akin to allowing one group to impose restrictions on liberty to another group. Allowing for this exception would only go to undermine the foundations of the entire philosophy. Just as there are no “what ifs or “buts” in regards to liberty, there are none for the non-aggression axiom.
To further define the conditions that liberty and the non-aggression axiom set up, one must also consider the idea of absolute property rights. As Butler Shaffer says, “individual liberty and the private ownership of property are synonymous” (Shaffer 1). Under libertarianism, the ability to own private property is stressed to guide the exchange of goods and services, and as a further clarification in regards to what is protected under the non-aggression axiom. In a manner of speaking, one’s property is an extension of the self. Furthermore, each individual not only owns the extensions of the self but she also owns her person. By viewing herself as her own property and her property as a part of her self, it allows for the non-aggression axiom to be much clearer in regards to what can and cannot be aggressed upon. Each individual has the right to utilize what he or she owns in any way of their choosing as long as it does not violate the non-aggression axiom.
If the concept of self-ownership were rejected, the implication would be that another person has a higher claim on an individual’s life than the individual himself would have. An individual who is the property of another, and not owned by the self, is by definition a slave. Libertarians reject this notion that human beings are born and exist as slaves. The product of one’s life and liberty becomes his or her property. Exerting time, energy, and talents towards a goal which produces wealth of some kind entitles an individual to hold that production as their property. Property is the fruit of one’s labor, so-to-speak. By disallowing the ownership of property is to subject individuals to a life which also in turn equates to a life of slavery. If individuals each possess property, exchange of said property is an eventuality.
The free exchange of property, or commerce, is an offspring of property rights and is governed under the principles laid out above. Therefore, the non-aggression axiom will govern how people engage in trade with one another. This allows an individual to hold his own property and do with it as he wishes, free from coercion. If an individual feels she is being unfairly treated in dealing with another, she may choose not to engage in business with that person. It is this idea of voluntary interaction and exchange which is the key to understanding the libertarian philosophy. Under libertarianism, the belief is that voluntary society is morally and practically the best form of society. In such a system of living, individuals become personally responsible for their own actions and their dealings, and with whom they themselves deal with.
This idea of individual responsibility acts as the glue which holds liberty, non-aggression, and private property together. Without a sense of individual responsibility, no benevolent system will ever come to fruition and exist for very long. If an individual refuses to be responsible and uphold the non-aggression axiom and allows for exceptions to creep into his or her day to day behavior, other individuals will eventually defend against the aggression which in turn will threaten each individual’s liberty. If care is not taken to be responsible in dealing’s of private property, the chances of the same dire result of the loss of property, liberty, and increased aggression becomes more of a reality. These dangers are not only apparent on a personal level, but also in a societal context.
In order to explore real fundamental change in our society, the libertarian philosophy becomes a convenient and effective filter of examination. A society structured under libertarian principles would function much differently than our current society does today. An adjustment of ideas and priorities must take place in order for it to be understood, to take hold, and to succeed. Libertarianism cannot be viewed in the same light as the dominating political philosophies that exist in contemporary American society. During each national election, for example, the voting public makes a decision in regards to which group of people to involuntarily plunder and who to redistribute that which has been plundered. This is done through the mechanism of taxation. Rather than having a debate about whether or not individuals would prefer to retain property and do with it however one would see fit, the debate is framed in such a way that doesn’t even raise this basic concept of the libertarian philosophy.
Individuals do not have the right to use coercion to fix social problems, so the state should not have that right either. If a man were to take the property of a woman and give it to a third individual, we would consider this theft. When the state engages in the same basic activity it is framed as taxation and redistribution or subsidization. If it is wrong to steal, then it should also be wrong to tax. If it is wrong to kidnap, then a government should not be allowed to institute a draft or other mandated compulsory service to the state. That which is illegal in private society should also be illegal in public matters. Instead, individuals are lead to believe that all of these actions are done in the common good of man.
Unfortunately, many programs and systems in place that function under this image do just the opposite. Public institutions tend to be far more inefficient than their private counter parts. People who believe in the libertarian philosophy feel that economic incentives in the free-market should act as the carrot which drives innovation and harbors solutions. Government interventions in the markets are viewed as an act of force or coercion in the dealings of private citizens, which not only distorts market prices but also slowly erodes basic liberty. One may argue that the act of voting will make these actions that of the people themselves. The libertarian would argue that it does not matter who or what the source of such actions happens to be. Increasing the number of people who agree to take property from one individual or group and give it to another does not justify the action or change whether it is right or wrong.
Rather than exercising the right to vote in the voting booth, the libertarian philosophy proposes that individuals take responsibility to stay informed and vote with his actions and dollars. In a true free-market system, each and every time someone engages in commerce, he or she is casting a vote. If the integrity of the person, the product, or service being offered is in question, it is then the responsibility of the individual to cast a vote by disengaging from further business with the entity that is in doubt. If government sponsored coercion in the form of taxation, subsidies, and other meddling in the market place were to cease, the market itself would be determined by man. In an artificially stimulated environment, not only do markets become distorted, but individual responsibility and morality become subverted as well.
In a society that has systems designed to subsidize industry, legislate morality, and exert control over the liberty of man, libertarians believe that many of the incentives and ingrained rugged individualism that is part of the American tradition have been overthrown. If there is no risk of failure, then there is no real incentive to take care of and improve said systems. Rather than taking care of one self, family, and community, individuals rely on the state to take care of basic needs. This leads to an inefficient mode of living, and allows systems and ideas that have long lost their use and value to live on; prohibiting expansion, growth, and progress. Only under the ideas presented in the libertarian philosophy can we begin to adjust our ideas and the systems that spring up around them in such a way that truly benefits the common good, and respects the individual’s right to engage voluntarily in the activities of his or her choosing.
In America’s history, a 1% tax by the British on tea was enough to spark a revolution. Today, we see state sponsored looting on a scale far greater than 1% on a single product. If some time was taken to have an honest and healthy debate about the functions of state in society, and the individual’s role in the absence of a statist entity, ideas could easily begin to shift and adjust toward greater liberty. Through liberty and the non-aggression axiom, individuals could find themselves in command of greater resources and increased peace of mind knowing that each individual were their own house’s keeper. Accepting the weight of responsibility that comes with such a free philosophy would be nil in comparison to the demands placed by the state, the increased poverty, and lack of liberty which comes along with it. Maybe it is finally time to respond to Frederic Bastiat’s question, and take the steps necessary to advance the cause of liberty. Perhaps it is time for another revolution, a revolution of ideas.
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