Libertarianism in One Sentence

Dictionary Series - Politics: libertarianWe libertarians tend to be a thoughtful bunch. Most of us were not raised in households espousing the views of individual liberty and personal responsibility, but rather came from more traditional Republican or Democrat families. We could not simply adopt the opinions of our parents without subjecting them to intellectual rigor. We therefore had to arrive at our views through long study and a great deal of philosophizing.

Having gone through this process ourselves, however, we tend to forget that most people are not particularly inclined to the sort of arcana that gets bandied about in libertarian circles. Whether intellectual property exists, the distinction between radical federalism and constitutionally limited government power, whether anarchy is desirable or even sustainable and whether we have the right to sell ourselves into slavery are debates far too obscure and irrelevant to the daily lives of the average citizen to draw much attention except from the already converted.

These types of debates are the reason why the mainstream media is fond of labeling libertarians as crazy extremists, out of touch with reality and, in all probability, dangerous to civil society.

This is a shame. In fact, most of us are not extremists. Most of us are perfectly reasonable, and we are certainly far from dangerous, as anyone with even the most basic understanding of the non-aggression principle should be able to see.

Therefore, to demonstrate that our ideas are not as crazy as they appear and hopefully make a few moderates take a moment to think, with an open mind, about libertarianism, I have attempted to boil the philosophy down to one sentence, a simple question. While I do not presume to speak for the community as a whole, this is what libertarianism is all about for me on a personal level.

The sentence is this:

Is it right to imprison people, robbing them of their liberty, when they have harmed no one and violated no property rights?

That’s it. That’s all there is to the philosophy. If you think the answer to that question is “no,” then you are a libertarian. For me, it’s a no-brainer. It is horrific to me to think of people being locked away in a cage who have done no harm to anyone else. Yet we are constantly doing this, or else threatening to do so.

The first scenario that likely springs to mind is that of drug use, and that is certainly an important issue, but it is far the only application of the above principle. Any law, however trivial, requires an enforcement mechanism. You can start with fines and penalties, sure, but ultimately, if people refuse to acknowledge the law, there are only two options – imprison the offender or fail to enforce the law at all.

Let’s take gun control as an example. It sounds reasonable to many people to ban certain types of firearms because they are dangerous and not really very necessary for hunting or self defense. “Why do you need an assault rifle?” they ask, not realizing that this is the wrong question. The truth is, most people don’t need an assault weapon, but the proper question to ask is “what are you prepared to do to me if I defy your ban?” A ban on assault weapons would, sooner or later, mean throwing someone in prison who had inflicted precisely zero harm on another human being, taking away his freedom because of an object he owns, not due to any anti social behavior. Is that just? Is that moral? I don’t see how anyone can think so.

We cannot see the future. We cannot predict whether someone deemed “dangerous” will actually hurt anyone, and it is wrong to assume some hypothetical future guilt. This is the major argument against involuntary commitment, which rears its ugly head after every school shooting. There are those who want to lock people up because of what they might do in the future, not due to what they actually have done.

In most cases, people’s fear of the law is such that very few, if any, are actually imprisoned for disobeying it, but this does not alter the underlying principle. A very good example comes from the homeschooling movement in the United States. Well-meaning lawmakers thought it would be a good idea if all children were educated – it seems reasonable enough – so they made a law, never pausing to think about what it would mean to enforce it in the face of flagrant disobedience.

Then, some parents decided they wanted to educate their children at home. They felt so strongly about this, that they did it in spite of the full force of law, choosing to chance the consequences rather than bend to the will of the state. Suddenly, the government found itself in an awkward position. If it could not bully mothers into sending their children to school, it would have to put them behind bars. In many cases, this is exactly what happened, but it was a public relations disaster once people started hearing about it. Innocent, peaceful mothers were being imprisoned for the crime of teaching their own children out of love and concern for their well-being. It was plainly absurd. Suddenly, the “reasonable” mandatory schooling law didn’t seem so reasonable anymore.

In this instance, the law was changed to avoid a politically unpopular method of enforcement, and that’s great, but we should apply the same kind of thinking to every law in society. What if people suddenly said “no?” Would it still seem reasonable to lock them up?

The next time you’re tempted to utter the tired phrase “there ought to be a law,” take a moment to think about the consequences of enforcement. Is it right to imprison people when they haven’t hurt anyone? I hope you’ll agree with me that the answer is a resounding “no.”

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6 Responses to “Libertarianism in One Sentence”

  1. Jerry says:

    Obviously doesn't have much concern for his own person or property and perhaps family.

  2. BKC says:

    If my neighbour stores a big tank of gasoline in his house, without any safety measure, do you suggest there should be no law to stop him from doing that? He hasn't hurt me, but his action pose a huge risk to the safety of my family and my property.

    • It's a good question, and a difficult one, but I don't think I could see my way to imprisoning someone (I'm assuming he won't relinquish his gasoline voluntarily) for the things he stores on his private property. I would hope your neighbor would be willing to listen to reason as to why that is not a good idea.

  3. Walter Block says:

    Dear Logan:

    Beautiful. Magnificent. Wonderful. Lovely.

    Walter Block

  4. Excellent! Professor Thomas Patrick Burke of Temple University has written what I consider to be the definitive book on the subject–No Harm: Ethical Principles for a Free Market.

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