On Wednesday, 1819 News asked self-professed libertarians in Alabama what they thought a libertarian was and where libertarianism comes from. But where do libertarians stand on the issues?
If there is one thing for sure, it is that there is a lack of consensus among libertarians.
Lew Rockwell is the founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn and runs LewRockwell.com. The Mises Institute is a popular voice in the libertarian movement today. It was founded by Rockwell and Murray Rothbard in 1982 and has been supported by other key figures in the movement, such as former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Thomas E. Woods Jr. and Hans-Hermann Hoppe.
Rockwell has been critical of the Libertarian Party in the past and does not believe that politics is a solution for achieving liberty. However, he describes himself as an “anarcho-capitalist,” which is often considered a type of libertarianism.
“In the past, if you ask ‘What is a libertarian?’ then there’s always somebody you don’t want to be affiliated with, unfortunately,” Rockwell said.
Libertarianism covers many political philosophies, ranging from right-wing anarchism to constitutionalism to even anarcho-socialism. Though libertarians all claim to hold liberty as the core political value, they disagree about what liberty is and how to uphold it.
“Ayn Rand would probably say she’s different from a Murray Rothbard or a David Friedman,” said Joey Clark. “She would probably even say she’s different from a Milton Friedman. There are different gradations of libertarian.”
Clark is the host of News and Views on NewsTalk 93.1. He describes himself as a libertarian.
Is Libertarianism right-wing or left-wing?
Though the word “libertarian” originated as a term to describe 19th-century left-wing anti-authoritarians and individualist anarchists like Lysander Spooner, the term in 20th-century America generally refers to right-wing advocates of laissez-faire or anarchic capitalism, negative rights and private property.
Rockwell said he thinks libertarianism in the United States is “more on the right than the left.”
“One can be as left or as right in their political ideology as they want as long as they’re going to force that view on others,” said Gavin Goodman, chair of the Libertarian Party of Alabama.
Jonathan Realz is running for Congress as a Libertarian in the Second Congressional District. He said that whether or not a libertarian is on the left or right just depends on the person.
“That’s the beauty of being a libertarian ... you can be as far left or far right as you want as long as you don’t force your beliefs on someone else,” Realz said.
Realz said he thinks there are a lot of people on the left that might be open to libertarian ideas, even though the message is typically marketed to the right.
Left-wing or egalitarian libertarian ideas do exist, but some libertarians see libertarian principles as contradictory to egalitarian beliefs, including Rothbard, who wrote an essay titled “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature.”
“... equality of all men - the egalitarian ideal - can only be achieved if all men are precisely uniform,” Rothbard wrote. “... The egalitarian world would necessarily be a world of horror fiction - a world of faceless and identical creatures, devoid of all individuality, variety or special creativity.”
Libertarians are divided on many social issues, namely abortion. According to the Libertarian Party website, some libertarians hold pro-life views, and others support abortion.
Some libertarians also might oppose something on a moral or cultural level, such as prostitution or drug usage, but do not want the state to intervene.
Libertarianism and Christianity
Though some influential figures in the libertarian movement, such as philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, are staunch atheists, Clark, Realz, Goodman and Rockwell all agreed that libertarian principles are compatible with Christianity.
Rockwell is a Catholic and said that he sees more Christians in the libertarian movement now than he did when the movement started.
“Christians can be libertarians, and libertarians can be Christians,” Rockwell said. “There are plenty of examples of that … In the earliest days, Rand had an influence on a lot of people. If you were part of her group, she wanted to toss you out if you were [religious].”
Rockwell said that Rothbard was not religious, but there was evidence that he was becoming religious towards the end of his life due to the influence of his wife, who was a Christian.
Anarchism vs. minarchism
Libertarians often divide themselves into two camps pertaining to the level of government they find favorable: minarchists and anarchists.
“A minarchist believes that there are certain crucial functions of government, that you can’t have a market for violence, that you can’t have a market for security and courts,” Clark said. “The anarchist would think, ‘No, you can actually have competing firms that might have differences down the line,' but they start to agree and converge on certain fundamentals.”
Minarchists like Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick believed in a “night watchmen state” which would be limited to specific functions such as police and courts.
Anarchists like Rothbard and Rockwell believe that all functions of the state can be provided by the market, even defense, infrastructure and arbitration.
Clark said he thinks the distinction between the two blends together in practice. Most minarchists don’t want a one-world government, even one that is limited, and most anarchists don’t want a complete absence of law.
Realz said he thinks the real battle libertarians face is not between minarchists and anarchists. It’s between libertarians and authoritarians.
“The mentality if they’re actually honest, we’re all working toward the same goal,” said Realz. “That’s reducing the harm that the government does as effectively as possible and shrinking the government and its footprint as much as possible. At the end of the day, I’m probably not ever going to see the government shrink enough in my lifetime to where I even have to worry about, ‘Well, are we going to be a minarchist society or an anarchist society?’ My kid will probably never see that day, but we should be working together to shrink that government size as much as possible.”
Goodman said that the majority of libertarians in the Libertarian Party are minarchists, but a large part of the people who simply identify themselves as libertarians are similar to what Robert Heinlein called “rational anarchists” in his novel “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”
The Non-Aggression Principle (NAP)
One of the key principles that all libertarians share is the belief in the non-aggression principle (NAP).
The NAP states that force can only be used in defense against aggression. While libertarians define what qualifies as defense, force and aggression differently, they usually provide few, if any, exceptions for the state.
“Non-aggression to me simply means that the only legitimate violence is defensive, in defense of your person or your property,” Clark said.
“[The NAP] essentially states that you will not initiate violence to forward a political goal,” said Goodman. “Libertarians do not believe that initiating force and violence is a way to achieve any political goal. … We believe in people’s voluntary acts. If you choose to do something, to vote or go and buy a car … that’s your choice, but when someone forces you to do it, then it's no longer liberty.”
Goodman said believing in the NAP is the only requirement to join the Libertarian Party. Members have to sign an agreement that they believe in and abide by the rule.
Realz said the NAP simply means, “Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.”
“Everything the government does in its current fashion is pretty much a violation of the non-aggression principle,” Realz said. “They’re involved in our lives in so many different ways.”
Capitalism and private property
Rockwell, Clark, Goodman and Realz agreed that private property rights were central to libertarianism.
Clark said he thought that societies that abolish private property might be able to come up with rules that look like libertarianism but that wouldn’t be libertarian.
“I think in many ways, human rights are inextricably tied to property rights, whether its owning land or owning personal possessions or owning first-order capital goods,” Clark said. “It’s being able to order your own kingdom as long as it's peaceful with others. It’s crucial to what it means to be human, and it also sets boundaries to where it’s not just an abstract thing.”
“Private property is absolutely essential to libertarianism,” Realz said. “Private property is an extension of yourself. Self-ownership is foundational to being a libertarian, and self-ownership is a human right in my opinion … Nobody should be allowed to pollute your property, take your property, come onto your property without your permission.”
“Property that is not private does not exist,” Rockwell said. “It’s run by the government or people but private property is necessary to the running of a free society. It’s clearly important. The left, of course, hates it.”
Some left-wing libertarians are libertarian socialists. Though Goodman does not consider himself a libertarian socialist, he said they are often misunderstood due to the nature of the word “socialist.”
Goodman said libertarian socialists, or “lib-socs,” mainly just want to form small voluntary communes on their own. They do not want to impose that way of life on other people, as large-sale state-driven socialism or communism might seek to do through the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
“Taxation is theft”
If there’s one thing libertarians are known for, it’s the popular phrase, “taxation is theft.”
“It’s a little bit of a bumper sticker phrase that libertarians like to use,” Realz said. “... We as libertarians believe that government is a bad steward of your money. You could do more good in this world for either your family, your community or your neighbors if you had more control of the money that you worked hard to earn. The money that you earned comes from your labor. It comes from your hard work, and that work that you put in, you’re selling your body. Your body, you own. The government does not own your body or the products of your labor.”
“I don’t care how many people voted for you, or I don’t care what you claim God has given you as a right to rule over others,” Clark said. “Whatever justification you come up with when you claim that I need to take your wealth against your will under punishment of law … Yeah, that comes across as theft to me.”
Clark said certain types of taxes are more or less theft than others. He said the income tax is indisputably theft.
“The income tax is absolutely an abomination,” Clark said. “It is outright theft. It is the claim that whatever you produce in the given year, we get to take as the government. It’s a little bit different if they’re like, ‘Hey, we do have these roads for this municipality. If you drive on them, pay the tax.'”
“The government tells you how much you’re going to pay,” Rockwell said. “They take your money, and they decide how much they’re going to take, and it’s a vicious system. Of course, taxation is clearly theft. How many people would be happy to pay their taxes otherwise?”
“I’m one of the libertarians that think we’ve got to stop saying that,” Goodman said. “Not because I don’t believe it. I do believe it in that I think our system has become pretty corrupt. Where libertarians are coming from when they say taxation is theft is that … you cannot opt out of taxes. It is your property being taken by force.”
Goodman said there might be ways to fund public goods outside of forced taxation, such as voluntary contributions or private enterprise. Unlike some libertarians, he is content with the taxation of corporations.
Inflation and central banking
Historically, libertarians have called for an end to the Federal Reserve and fiat money. They generally support a return to sound money, such as gold or silver. Other libertarians have invested heavily in cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin.
“It’s my own view that ending the Fed would address the most vexing problems of politics of our time,” wrote Paul in his 2009 book “End the Fed.” “It would bring an end to dollar depreciation. It would take away from the government the means to fund its endless wars. It would curb the government’s attacks on the civil liberties of Americans, stop its vast debt accumulation that will be paid by future generations and arrest its massive expansions of the welfare state that has turned us into a nation of dependents.”
According to the Libertarian Party’s platform, Libertarians favor “free-market banking” and oppose “government guarantees or bailouts” and “inflationary monetary policies.”
“What about the roads?”
Libertarians get tickled when people ask them, “What about the roads?”
“The roads!” Clark said. “I’ve heard it said that people are going to build neighborhoods and developers are going to invest millions of dollars, then go, ‘Oh crap! We forgot to build roads!’
“... The roads question is funny to me because it’s the most common thing somebody might think of as a public good, but roads can easily be built privately, and it's one of these ideas I think people have been brainwashed into, that public goods can only be provided by the government and that government never secures private interest,” Clark said. “Often, private companies build public goods, and governments often serve private interest.”
“In the early days of this country, the roads were all privately built, and I think it’s no question that roads could be privately built today,” Rockwell said. “[They] might make a lot more sense than the ones built [by the government].”
“This article won’t be long enough for me to address the roads,” Realz said. “There are plenty of voluntary systems that could be used to make sure that our roads are taken care of and our infrastructure is taken care of, but, once again, we have people that are in office that take the money … they do not have to be good stewards of the money that’s not theirs … I mean, I run into potholes every single day in almost every single road in my district. The government’s not doing a great job of maintaining the roads, so maybe it’s time to start looking for better options and voluntary solutions.”
Anarcho-capitalist theorist Walter Block wrote a book in 2009 titled “The Privatization of Roads and Highways,” in which he argues that privatizing roads would be optimal for society.
Goodman, on the other hand, supported imposing use taxes on distribution companies, which use the roads more than the average citizen.
“If we were to add a use tax to distribution companies - Walmart, Amazon, etc. - the price of their products might go up a small amount, but this would also reduce the amount of wear and tear on the roads because there might be a slight reduction in use but also the people that are damaging the roads are now paying for them,” Goodman said. “The corporations that are damaging the roads are paying to fix the roads. That reduces the tax burden on the citizens. If Walmart becomes more expensive, it might encourage more people to shop at local businesses.”
Secession and decentralization
Discussion surrounding the ideas of secession and nullification are common in libertarian circles.
Secession is the “withdrawal of a group from a larger entity, especially a political entity.”
“Theoretically, secession is an absolute right of an individual and of a people of a certain plebiscite to say ‘We want to be an independent thing,'” Clark said. “It’s how … this nation was originally founded … It’s one thing to say that secession is a right. It’s another thing to say, ‘Well, how do we implement it practically?’ That sort of decision should not be done lightly or for bad reasons.”
Talk of national “divorce” or “breakup” is becoming more widespread as the political and cultural divide becomes more drastic. According to a University of Virginia Center for Politics poll in 2021, over half of the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and 41% of those who voted for Joe Biden at least somewhat favored either red or blue states seceding from the union.
Nullification is a related concept to secession. Nullification is “the failure or refusal of a U.S. state to aid in the enforcement of federal laws within its limits, especially on Constitutional grounds.”
According to Ryan McMaken of the Mises Wire, blue states such as Colorado, Washington and Oregon have effectively nullified federal drug laws by legalizing marijuana. Some red states have nullified federal gun laws by refusing to enforce them within their jurisdictions.
Clark said he thinks consideration for secession and nullification will increase the more people realize that the federal government has become corrupt.
Realz and Goodman were more skeptical of secession.
“If decentralization is moving power from the federal level to the state and then using the state level to force a belief, then that’s not compatible with libertarianism,” Realz said. “… We should be fighting for individual rights. Not state’s rights.”
Goodman said he would support secession as long as it “is the will of the people.”
Libertarians are almost always outspoken critics of foreign intervention and the military-industrial complex.
“People in this country are willing to look over the fact that [the United States federal government is involved] all over the world, involved in everybody’s business,” Realz said. “We’re killing people every single day. [Politicians are] just rulers. That’s how they treat us. They can take our money and spend it however they please, and a lot of times, that’s spending it on killing people in other countries. Then we’re down here on the ground just trying to make ends meet with all this crazy inflation and fighting amongst ourselves.”
The Libertarian Party platform disapproves of “entangling alliances” and “attempts to act as policemen for the world.” It also opposes conscription.
In his book “For a New Liberty,” Rothbard wrote that “war is mass murder” and “conscription is slavery.”
"Statism needs war,” Ayn Rand wrote in “Capitalism: The Unkown Ideal.” “A free country does not. Statism survives by looting; a free country survives by production.”
Don’t miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.