A Foundational Argument for Libertarianism

What do libertarians believe?  While many individuals identify themselves as libertarians, it is difficult to determine the common tenets of libertarianism [1].  At the very least, it seems that libertarianism is fundamentally a view about the role of government in society [2].  Some self-described libertarians advocate complete anarchy [3], whereas others simply desire a government smaller than the one under which they currently live.

Despite the wide variety of libertarian stances, I think all libertarians would accept the following argument:

 

Premise 1Actions involving force should be minimized, all else being equal.

What are “actions involving force”?  I basically refer to the exercise of power over another person.  Such actions include restricting a person’s movement (locking someone in a room, tying someone up), taking a person’s property (fraud, theft), physical violence (assault, murder), psychological abuse (bullying, harassment), and the threat of any of the aforementioned examples.

Why should actions involving force be minimized?  An action involving force strikes us as morally repugnant because it violates our notion of individual liberty.  For example, John generally shouldn’t lock Sam in a room because Sam has a right to walk freely.  People deserve freedom.

What do I mean by “all else being equal”?  This phrase indicates that the premise is true as a general rule but there may be notable exceptions.  For example, although John generally shouldn’t lock Sam in a room, John would be justified in doing so if Sam were a serial killer bent on murdering John.  Exceptions aside, though, actions involving force should be minimized.

Premise 2Government actions involve force.

What are “government actions”?  I mostly refer to actions by the legislative branch to support laws, as well as actions by the executive branch to enforce laws.

How do government actions involve force?  The government funds its programs by taxing (taking a person’s property) its citizens.  The government compels compliance with its civil laws by threatening to fine (take a person’s property) those who do not comply.  The government compels compliance with its criminal laws by threatening to jail (restrict a person’s movement) those who do not comply.  The government occasionally engages in armed responses (physical violence) with criminals, as well as war (physical violence) with other nations.  In fact, some authors have gone so far as to define the government as the “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” [4].  Indeed, it is hard to think of a meaningful government action that does not involve force.

Conclusion:  Government actions should be minimized, all else being equal.

This clearly follows from Premises 1 and 2.  I will refer to this as the Minimize Government principle.

 

I think every libertarian would agree with the Minimize Government principle, which I take to be a foundational tenet of libertarianism.

However, not everyone who agrees with the Minimize Government principle is a libertarian, since the principle as stated is relatively weak.  The phrase “all else being equal” leaves room for an unspecified number of exceptions, and some people might allow for a very large number of exceptions.  For instance, one might believe that government actions should be minimized unless the actions provide a social benefit.  This belief is consistent with the Minimize Government principle but is probably not libertarian.

Thus the Minimize Government principle is necessary but insufficient for libertarianism.  To further define libertarianism, one must provide more specific government limitations.

 

 

[1] For a more detailed discussion of this problem, see Bird, C.  The Myth of Liberal Individualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

[2] Notable exceptions exist.  E.g., the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy categorizes libertarianism as a moral view of persons. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/libertarianism/>

[3] E.g., Murray Rothbard. <http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard133.html>

[4] E.g., Max Weber. <http://www2.selu.edu/Academics/Faculty/jbell/weber.pdf>

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1 Comment

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One response to “A Foundational Argument for Libertarianism

  1. I very much agree with the definition, “(the) monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force”. While it may not paint government in a very pretty light, I think its rather irrefutable. In fact, even a statist should agree with it, since the whole idea is that the monopoly of force is supposedly more ethical than competing bands of force that would conceivably happen under anarchy.

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