Libertarianism in a nutshell

I am wondering what libertarianism in a nutshell would be. Property, Rights, and Liberty would make a great bumper sticker, but is that libertarianism in a nutshell?

Libertarians will often agree on a wide variety of policies and principles. I find great agreement on many things among the many libertarians and libertarian leaning people that I interact with in various places. Especially on Twitter among my friends there is a lot of agreement on many things, but cat-fights do break out on various issues at times. We find that our allies and friends don’t always agree with us on every item. Such is life, eh?

Libertarian Nolan Chart_0

It is not always easy to get agreement on what libertarianism’s defining characteristic is if you stray too far from some buzzword like “liberty” which everyone defines differently anyway. So what is “libertarianism”? What makes it different from other political systems of thought? I have heard people say that  libertarianism is all about individual rights, property rights, the free market, capitalism, justice, or the nonaggression principle — or some mixture of these things. Murray Rothbard wrote “For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto” which outlines the whole system in book length form and is free from the Mises Institute. Bu I am looking for a shorter “in a nutshell” description.

To me, libertarianism starts with the non-aggression axiom and builds a philosophy from that one axiom. The system we want to define is much more than this starting axiom just as Euclid’s Geometry is much more than the few axioms you begin with in a Geometry course. But we begin it all with the non-aggression axiom.

Murray Rothbard put it his way:

The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.

In other words, the only way to violate rights is by initiating force to commit aggression against the innocent who has not aggressed against you. One may legitimately use force as a response to aggression but you may not legitimately initiate force. We are immediately faced with the “right” not to be aggressed against and that leads to talk of other rights or a fuller explanation of what the right not to be aggressed against means. The school of thought that follows the system that Rothbard built believes that individual rights are property rights. And justice is just giving someone his due, which depends on what his property rights are. In other words, protecting individual rights boils down to upholding property rights.

Von Mises and Rothbard both explain that capitalism is just what happens as humans act together voluntarily in the face of scarcity. With freedom from aggression and property rights, humans will work together to trade and utilize the division of labour that is at the heart of laissez-faire free markets. Even the non-aggression principle is dependent on property rights since who is committing aggression depends on property rights.

Protection and respect for property rights is not unique in political systems of thought even though one might get that idea living in the modern State dominated world. Most systems of thought, if not all, believe in ownership of property even if they might differ on what property is exactly, what is “ownership”, and what are the “property rights” derived from that ownership. What is distinctive about libertarianism is the way it assigns property to owners or its assignment rules. Who owns a particular resource? How to decide?

Only libertarianism believes in total self-ownership. You own and completely control your own body. The statists believe that the state or the collective controls your body to some extent. You want to smoke pot? Then you need to get permission in the statist philosophy. In the statist view, the fruits of the labour of your body does not belong exclusively to you; the state allows you to keep what it wants you to have.

Only libertarianism believes that the first person to use a property — to mix his labour with it — becomes the owner and he remains the owner until he sells the property or gives it away. Statists believe that only the state, or the collective, owns property.

So, libertarianism in a nutshell could be summed up as the non-aggression axiom grounded in properly understood property rights. At least that is my view of the matter.


4 thoughts on “Libertarianism in a nutshell

  1. Just want to add that many people can’t imagine how property rights could be agreed upon or protected without the force of government. So it may be helpful to show them how it has been done before, with great success–at least until government moved in to spoil it. (How we prevent that is another problem entirely.) A real-life, American example of voluntaryism at work is detailed in Tom Woods’s book, ’33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask,’ chapter 6, “Was the ‘Wild West’ Really So Wild?” To sum it up, referring to the period from the 1840’s to early 1900’s, during the time of “wagon train governments,” which were voluntary organizations, the settlers relied upon “…non-governmental means of establishing and then protecting property rights…” The actual historical record, in stark contrast to Hollywood’s version, shows that, “…in spite of the formal absence of government, civilization did not collapse. It thrived.” The chapter goes into quite a lot of detail based on scholarly studies of actual records from the time.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I have read about the old west and the real story before. Tom Woods did a good job of explaining that to a whole new audience. I think you are right though — that we must reinforce to people that life without rulers telling us what to do every step of the way has been the norm in many places in many different time periods.

      I think I would like to do a post on that soon. Maybe over the weekend when I have some free time. Good point you made.

  2. Pingback: The Old West and property rights | On the Mark

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