An Unorthodox Introduction to Libertarianism

“An idea whose time has come cannot be stopped by any army or any government,” said then-presidential candidate Ron Paul in 2012. The idea Paul was speaking of was libertarianism, and though no armies or governments rose to smite it, political realities were more than able to strip the gears of the movement Paul led. Despite drawing considerably more enthusiastic supporters than the doomed Mitt Romney, Paul didn’t so much as sniff the Republican nomination, and his successor to the libertarian candidacy, Gary Johnson, earned less than one percent of the popular vote in that November’s election.

Of course, election results do not always signify the trajectory of a movement, and an idea may well be in the ascendancy while suffering electoral losses. In important ways, Barry Goldwater’s shellacking in 1964 paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s triumph in 1980, and his obliteration of Walter Mondale four years later. And, interestingly, libertarianism was a component of both Goldwater and Reagan’s campaigns, a fact which suggests that Paul’s statement may have needed revision. It may have been better said that, in 2012, libertarianism was an idea whose time was coming back.

This was not, however, the way that Paul’s supporters (myself among them) saw it at the time. Goldwater and Reagan may have used libertarian rhetoric, but they had failed to pursue libertarian policies. Adopting a mentality that is uncomfortably close to the way socialists think, libertarians contended that true libertarianism had never been tried and, thus, had never failed. And they were probably right. True libertarianism has never been tried, though, like socialists, libertarians misunderstand the reason why. The reason is that libertarianism, like socialism, is incompatible with the nature of man and society.

The basic principle of libertarianism is this: individuals have the right to do whatever they want to do, so long as they don’t impede the rights of other individuals to do whatever they want to do.

But we’ve placed the cart squarely in front of the horse. In order to understand why libertarianism comes into conflict with nature, we must first understand what libertarianism is. And though that seems to be a straightforward question with a seemingly straightforward answer, like most questions regarding political labels, complexity soon enters the picture and refuses to leave.

The basic principle of libertarianism is this: individuals have the right to do whatever they want to do, so long as they don’t impede the rights of other individuals to do whatever they want to do. John Stuart Mill called this his “one very simple principle,” and on the surface it seems very simple indeed, so simple that it’s hard to see how libertarianism could fail to be the most unified political movement in modern American politics.

But, as anyone familiar with libertarianism can tell you, the libertarian movement is far from unified. In fact, it may be more divided than any other group. Whereas conservatives and liberals (or, if you prefer, Republicans and Democrats) at least coalesce around opposition to the other side, libertarians take pride in disagreeing with everybody – including other libertarians.

Part of this is because of the personality type of the average libertarian. Persnickety doesn’t even begin to describe it. But it is also due to the fact that while the principle may be simple, its application isn’t, and neither is its foundation or ultimate aim. What results is a factious movement, filled with purges and purity spirals, ever splintering into smaller and wackier branches. Every political movement has its subsets, and libertarians – with their fusionists, minarchists, and anarchists – are no exception. But the spectacle of anarcho-capitalists arguing with anarcho-syndicalists over which is the better representation of the philosophy is a real phenomenon within libertarianism, and one that could only take place under its auspices. The Libertarian Party currently has a Mises Caucus, dedicated to the unfettered free market, and a group of avowed socialists, both seeking to leverage libertarianism to advance their otherwise irreconcilable goals.

Conservatives are not convinced by libertarianism’s suggestion that politics can be hermetically sealed off from the rest of human life.

The right-left divide is thus every bit as strong within libertarianism as it is within the culture at large. Whereas some libertarians locate the libertarian idea within the traditions of the past, traditions that (so the theory goes) clearly though imperfectly expressed libertarian ideals, others see libertarianism as nothing less than a revolutionary venture, one which seeks a total break with the past and its stifling traditions. One group seeks freedom in the past, and the other seeks freedom from the past. In this way, one strain of libertarianism is conservative, and the other is liberal, and the two sides hate each other with a fire equal to any partisan battle in Congress.

All this suggests that libertarianism’s principle is not just simple, but simplistic, incapable of addressing larger questions or even providing enough common ground for its own adherents to collaborate from. This is one reason why most outsiders feel a pervasive ambivalence about libertarianism, finding it simultaneously appealing and repulsive. Conservatives, for instance, are often drawn to libertarianism’s powerful arguments against statism but are put off by its licentious attitudes towards morality, which are far from incidental to the ideology. Nor are most conservatives convinced by libertarianism’s suggestion that politics can be hermetically sealed off from the rest of human life. No, the fissures within libertarianism reveal that not only is political life an indissoluble element of the social whole but that for the vast majority of humanity, libertarians included, culture trumps politics. 

This is not to suggest that libertarianism gets everything wrong. On the contrary, it is because libertarianism contains kernels of truth that it is able to masquerade as a viable political movement and a coherent philosophy of life. This is also the reason why it remains attractive to people with a strong suspicion of arbitrary power, particularly in times of upheaval. There are real areas of agreement between conservatives and libertarians, which we will explore soon. But these agreements mask the truth that libertarianism operates from distinct and incompatible assumptions when compared with conservatism, a topic which will also be the subject of future elaboration.

As it turned out, libertarianism’s time did not arrive in 2012, and it has gotten arguably more irrelevant over the course of the intervening decade, the rampant authoritarianism attendant to the coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding. As the social maladies of our day have become clearer and more severe, libertarianism’s remedies have rung increasingly false. Whatever may be said for the importance of liberty (which, in truth, is a great deal), it cannot be said that the solution to our ills is simply more freedom. 

The irreducibly complex realities of humans living in society with each other do not admit of facile schemes, though the will-o’-the-wisp of easy answers continues to attract ideologues like moths to a flame. And libertarians are among those flitting around the fire.

Benjamin Lewis is an experienced writer whose works have appeared in multiple outlets including Bastion Magazine and the Tenth Amendment Center.

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