Libertarian Keywords

Libertarianism, and its direct predecessor, classical liberalism, are both ideologies which do not seem to strike people as obvious. In fact, most people seem to think that libertarian ideas are cold, impersonal, egoistic, mechanical, controversial, poorly founded or downright hostile to the general welfare of the society as a whole. I think much of this confusion arises because the core concepts we libertarians use, and the lines of thought we associate with them, are often presented out of context.

This essay/manifesto is an attempt to present certain fundamental libertarian thought patterns in an accessible way, organized around common terms one might expect a libertarian to utilize. In essence, it is a concentrate of the kinds of whats, whys and hows libertarians deal in, written in the hope that at least some of the confusion surrounding libertarianism might be dispelled.

However, one should always remember that libertarianism isn’t a monolithic ideology. Far from it—many schools of thought exist within the libertarian movement. So, to make my background clear, I am a moderate utilitarian minarchist, with leanings towards the viewpoints of von Mises, von Hayek, Friedmans senior and junior, Coase, Buchanan, Tullock and Narveson, plus some mild suspicion towards natural rights hardliners like Rothbard and Hoppe. Nozick I haven’t really decided on, yet. Rand I don’t really consider a libertarian. So, the following is compatible with most libertarian thought one is likely to come in contact with, but the viewpoint is distinctly utilitarian and minarchist. There are also certain sides to the discussion which I place more weight on than most libertarians, like the trouble with unlimited democracy.

For the record, I use the term liberal in the classical sense, as opposed to its meaning in contemporary American vernacular of social‐democrat.

Of politics and political ideology

Politics is about managing groups of people and their internal social interaction. A political ideology is an organized collection of beliefs about what politics would be like at its best. Libertarianism is a particular political ideology, with roots in the philosophy of the Enlightenment era. It is part of the liberal project which aims at constructing a rational or objective theory of politics based on individual freedom. These are unusually strong requirements, and they give a highly distinctive flavor to liberal political reasoning: not everything is objectively measurable, and what is not measurable cannot be a part of an objective theory. To liberals, limiting politics to what can be objectively studied is as important as the actual content of the remaining theory.

Of people and societies

The liberal approach to politics is based on methodological individualism: it views individuals as the source of all human action. Libertarianism is a subset of liberalism which

Liberal theory is based on the idea of people as beings of reason, capable of informed choice. Contrary to common misconception, this does not mean that emotions are forgotten. In fact, liberals view reason mainly as a tool people use to satisfy their wants, whatever those may be. Politics becomes a tool with which to intermesh individuals, with their independent, possibly contradictory wants, into a coherent whole. This whole is what is meant by the word society, and its structure is the object de jure of politics.

Society is an aggregate. It is a group of people who interact, nothing more. True, it has emergent properties which a non‐interacting group couldn’t possibly possess. But societies cannot think. They cannot choose; they are not rational; they are not beings. Thus a society cannot have wants, and the fulfilment of a societal want can never be the aim of politics. To think it could be is to submit to the fallacy of composition. Hence, what harm social interaction brings to an individual should be minimized, and what extra possibilities are opened by it should be directed at best satisfying individual wants. Denying an individual something purely in the interests of common good is not an option.

Wants are something experienced by each individual separately. They cannot be directly experienced by others or scientifically quantified. Sometimes they cannot even be communicated with precision. We say that wants are purely subjective. What is observable is action. Actions can be precisely characterized, experienced by outside observers and have objective qualities. As libertarians tend to require scientific qualities of their political theory, only the measurable qualifies as a justification for policy. Politics only becomes relevant with regard to how the presence of other people affects an individual, and other people’s wants and thoughts can only be experienced through the actions they conspire in. We arrive at the first libertarian maxim, freedom of thought: thoughts are intrinsically private, and so outside the realm of politics. As a corollary, morality cannot, per se, be used as a justification for policy.

Of secondary effects

As individuals are capable of choice, actions which they give rise to are their responsibility. Actions by others cannot be used to justify misdeeds by an individual, since the individual can always refuse from illdoing himself. Hence, secondary effects of people’s actions cannot be the object of policy; only primary ones can. Whatever harm we wish to mitigate in a society, the task can be better accomplished by regulating the behavior of those directly responsible, rather than someone farther removed from the problem.

In particular, speech can never harm anyone directly. It can only give rise to uncalled‐for behavior in individuals who choose to act badly in response to the speech. Hence, the responsibility always lies with those who act, never with those who just speak. We get the second important libertarian maxim, freedom of speech.

Of utility

When an individual acts, we assume he is satisfying some want. By this we mean that wants can be defined as whatever it is that makes individuals act—after all, the existence of wants cannot be directly verified, unlike the actions they inspire. Irregardless of the exact nature of what motivates people, we talk of utility as whatever it is that drives individuals to act. When we talk about utility maximization, we talk about individuals doing what they think is best for them. Of course, sometimes a choice may be available the outcome of which doesn’t matter for the individual. Then we say the individual is indifferent as to the outcome.

Utility is entirely subjective; it cannot be directly observed. It is also ordinal instead of cardinal, which means that even the individual himself can only tell a better alternative from a worse one, and not measure their relative goodness on any numerical scale. Hence, direct inter‐personal utility comparisons are never possible. Consequently, no unique utility measure exists for a group of people of size more than one; there is no total utility. However, we say that a group of people is better off when one or more individuals in the group have higher utility with the rest staying the same. We then say (Pareto) efficiency prevails when no individual in a group can choose so as to make the group the better off.

It was already pointed out that libertarians think highly of individual wants. Stated in the language of the above paragraphs, we state that the aim of politics is efficiency with respect to the whole society.

As an interesting corollary, being better off is only defined for a fixed group of individuals. If the choice is made by someone which leads to the birth of a new individual, this new individual is not part of the group. Hence, if a decision is taken by someone to reproduce, this someone must be better of by so doing, and consequently the group has to be, as well. The utility of the individual being born does not enter the picture. If no such decision is taken, efficiency must be attainable in the absence of a birth. Politics must then be indifferent to the decision to reproduce; this is one way to arrive at the right to reproduce. Of course, efficiency from the time of birth forwards must be defined with respect to the new, enlarged society.

Of equality

Of self‐governance

Of the Common Good

Libertarianism is often accused of being an egotistic ideology. The argument takes many forms, the most common being that libertarians posit individual liberties as superior to the common good and so end up hurting the society as a whole.

This is deeply misguided. Libertarians indeed hold individual wants in high regard, but it does not follow from this that the common good is neglected. On the contrary, the libertarian legal framework aims at strict alignment between individual and societal gain. The point of private property, the Rule of Law and volition in libertarianism is precisely to get the individual to bear as large a part of the consequences of his actions as possible, good or bad, and to give other people a veto on the rest. This means that whatever comes out of individual decisions in a libertarian society only minimally affects other people, or otherwise must be agreed upon by those affected. Hence, only decisions not impacting others or strictly good to them can be implemented. Self‐interest is well aligned with the common good.

The same applies to few other ideologies. In socialism, for example, everything is common. Hence, no consideration of others’ well‐being need enter an individual’s decision‐making process. Where the individual can gain at the expense of others, any self‐interest whatsoever drives him to work against the common good, and nothing can stop him. Such situations abound, and consequently self‐interest becomes diametrically opposed to the common good.

Thus, it is not that libertarians encourage egotism. Rather, libertarians admit that egotism exists, and expect their ideal society to be able to accommodate it. Libertarianism is the one ideology which could function in the presence of pervasive egotism, while not ruling out other modes of behavior.

Of property

Of needs, wants and rights

Whereas some ideologies separate needs from wants, a libertarian cannot safely draw such a distinction—neither can be externally quantified. Consequently, any distinction between them must also be purely subjective and so outside the realm of politics.

Of efficiency

‐consumer surplus vs. GNP and the like!

Of the enforcement of rights and retribution

In the libertarian mindset, pure retribution is a slim excuse for the punishment of an offender. Retribution mostly incurs cost, both on the offender and the punisher. By itself it only makes the society worse off.

So, instead of seeking retributive justice, rationality demands something else, namely, adequate deterrence.

However, for the sake of efficiency, maximum deterrence isn’t the only consideration—what if we end up suppressing activity which might be of use? What if the law isn’t correct for a particular pressing situation, after all? What if by punishing an offender we end up causing more distress to him than we gain in the form of deterrence?

Usually we would gauge people’s interests against each other by their willingness to pay for what they want. But it would seem that this is not an option in connection with infractions against the law. No price exists for such infractions.

The solution is to introduce the price. We want a high enough price for deterrence, but also want people to be able to break the law in pressing circumstances. The optimal solution is to introduce choice into the picture, and just fine people for their infractions. When the price is high enough to get efficient deterrence, low enough to make getting caught more profitable than expending lots of resources to hide from the law and lowered to equalizing compensation when the perpetrator gives himself in, we get adequate deterrence with the possibility of sidestepping the law when it is deemed inefficient.

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