1. In the words of economist Ludwig von Mises:
“Classical liberalism is no religion, no world view, no party of special interests.
“It is no religion because it demands neither faith nor devotion, because there is nothing mystical about it, and because it has no dogmas.
“It is no world view because it does not try to explain the cosmos and because it says nothing and does not seek to say anything about the meaning and purpose of human existence.
“It is no party of special interests because it does not provide or seek to provide any special advantage whatsoever to any individual or any group.
“It is something entirely different. It is an ideology, a doctrine of the mutual relationship among the members of society and, at the same time, the application of this doctrine to the conduct of men in actual society. It promises nothing that exceeds what can be accomplished in society and through society. It seeks to give men only one thing, the peaceful, undisturbed development of material well-being for all, in order thereby to shield them from the external causes of pain and suffering as far as it lies within the power of social institutions to do so at all. To diminish suffering, to increase happiness: that is its aim.
“No sect and no political party has believed that it could afford to forgo advancing its cause by appealing to men’s senses. Rhetorical bombast, music and song resound, banners wave, flowers and colors serve as symbols, and the leaders seek to attach their followers to their own person. Liberalism has nothing to do with all this. It has no party flower and no party color, no party song and no party idols, no symbols and no slogans. It has the substance and the arguments.”
2. To stress this important point again, libertarianism has nothing to do with pressure group politics. It concerns itself, on the contrary, with the general interest, the common good, which, it holds, is not only not incompatible with but rather is attainable only through individual freedom and minimal, at the most, night-watchman government.
3. Libertarianism, sometimes called classical liberalism or true liberalism, then is an ideology, a set of political doctrines which result from the use of social sciences, such as economics and political philosophy, to provide a vision of how a particular society, for example, the United States, functions best. “While praxeology, and therefore economics too,” Mises goes on, “uses the terms happiness and removal of uneasiness in a purely formal sense, liberalism attaches to them a concrete meaning. It presupposes that people prefer life to death, health to sickness, nourishment to starvation, abundance to poverty. It teaches man how to act in accordance with these valuations.”
In other words, liberty, while possessing great value in itself (even animals revolt against artificial constraints), is also essential for prosperity and high civilization. Neither the left nor the right understands that. The left, for instance, still dreams of tying the world up with a straitjacket of utterly unworkable socialism (e.g., in health care) or, failing that, crippling the free market by giving the government enormous and arbitrary powers in domestic affairs, e.g., to arbitrate “disputes” between the alleged “oppressed” groups and the “oppressor” groups. The right, on the other hand, has of late expressed the desire to blow certain unlucky countries up through nuclear war and to “invade the world,” in Murray Rothbard’s memorable phrase. They fail to grasp that liberty is the mother not the daughter of order. Society is self-organizing in ways which no central planner can predict.
Note that, as Mises points out, “This collaboration of collectivist creeds in their attempts to destroy freedom has brought about the mistaken belief that the issue in present-day political antagonisms is individualism versus collectivism. In fact it is a struggle between individualism on the one hand and a multitude of collectivist sects on the other hand whose mutual hatred and hostility is no less ferocious than their abomination of the liberal system.” E.g., in the US the red-state fascists hate the blue-state socialists and vice versa, though both loathe libertarianism.
4. To that end, libertarianism extols freedom of the individual, private property rights, and peace. It seeks to minimize the role of government in our lives. It seeks, in short, irrelevance of politics and a vibrant civil society, in which the ruler-subject hegemonic bond is replaced by contractual bonds among equals in dignity. It embraces laissez-faire capitalism, free markets, and trade unencumbered by sanctions, tariffs, quotas, and other barriers. It loves commerce and its globalization and celebrates the crucial role of the entrepreneur. As Mises argues:
The rich, the owners of the already operating plants, have no particular class interest in the maintenance of free competition. They are opposed to confiscation and expropriation of their fortunes, but their vested interests are rather in favor of measures preventing newcomers from challenging their position.
Those fighting for free enterprise and free competition do not defend the interests of those rich today. They want a free hand left to unknown men who will be the entrepreneurs of tomorrow and whose ingenuity will make the life of coming generations more agreeable. They want the way left open to further economic improvements.
Libertarianism abhors protectionism, subsidies to private corporations, state-run enterprises, coercive labor unionism, and state-mandated professional licensing intended to reduce supply and raise prices. It does not look kindly on probably the vast majority of business regulations, including the regulatory schemes resembling “market socialism”; taxation on any level above, perhaps, local (the reason being that it could be argued that a city is the biggest “natural” human association); and fiat currencies, inflation, and fractional-reserve banking.
Libertarianism is mindful of the subsidiary principle, which counsels that problems should be solved by those closest to them, thereby stressing the value of private property, decentralization of political power, and the right to self-determination. It is not against secession, should it be properly authorized by the people of a seceding territory. (In fact, we regard the American Revolution and the War between the States as wars of secession, the former successful, the latter, not.) It knows of the value of competition among political entities for citizens and businesses, thus again justifying federalism and radical devolution of power to states and localities. Libertarianism heartily enjoys bourgeois culture and the virtues and faith that sustain it.
5. Libertarians are fully against war, however the ruling class justifies it. It is therefore boldly pro-peace and anti-interventionist. It believes that peace and friendship between nations are beneficial to both the stronger and the weaker countries. At the same time, again, to quote Mises:
What is needed to make peace durable, is neither international treaties and covenants nor international tribunals and organizations like the defunct League of Nations or its successor, the United Nations. If the principle of the market economy is universally accepted, such makeshifts are unnecessary; if it is not accepted, they are futile. …
The spirit of conquest cannot be smothered by red tape. What is needed is a radical change in ideologies and economic policies.
Indeed, if goods do not cross borders, then soldiers will, as Bastiat put it. It is also true that if the principle of the market economy is universally accepted, political liberty itself is unnecessary; if it is not accepted, it is futile. The second part of the statement is a reply to those who think we can abolish or restrict free enterprise and keep our civil rights and meaningful elections. What happens and has happened instead is the government becomes autonomous and authoritarian, and the people, morally corrupt. The first part is true simply because under laissez-faire lobbying the government and voting are unimportant. We no longer fight over who gets what share of the trillions of dollars of government loot. There prevails, on the free market, a harmony of “rightly understood” interests of all human beings.
While capitalism as a system of production can be channeled into supplying the war effort with stunning efficiency, in its essence it both requires and encourages peaceful relations between all the nations of the world. It requires peace, because without secure property rights and long-term planning by individuals and firms the market process cannot get off the ground. War introduces chaos and destruction. The very efficiency of capitalist production is used not to “diminish suffering, to increase happiness,” as stated above, but to increase suffering and to diminish happiness. The wartime taxes and inflation substitute government sovereignty for consumer sovereignty. The undertakers, the arms merchants, and the bureaucrats may benefit — in the short run; the larger society loses in every way. Capitalism encourages peace, because free trade under international division of labor makes the trading partners useful to each other. Since only individuals and companies trade, it is contrary to their interest to permit the governments of the nations in which they are located to attack one another.
For example, if America were now to go to war with Japan, American consumers would have to bear with using inferior and more expensive transport equipment, cars, semiconductors, electrical machinery, chemicals, electronics, and whatever else Japan exports to the US, or even do without them at all. The intricate structure of production within which the numerous US and Japanese companies and workers are now intertwined would be annihilated. Exporting and importing would come to an end; foreign-own enterprises would be expropriated; jobs will be lost. And the repercussions would be felt everywhere, not merely in the US and Japan. Wars tear societies apart instead of knitting them together into a planetary web of economic, scientific, and cultural production, cooperation, and exchange, thereby bringing prosperity and the fruits of civilization to everybody. The more advanced a society is, the greater the damage and disruption done by wars.
Libertarians hold that spreading “democracy” at gunpoint, “decapitating” foreign regimes the US government considers unworthy of existing, economic sanctions, and similar measures are absolutely inappropriate means of bringing about a freer world. Trying to prod a horseman of the apocalypse into doing works of mercy never seems to work. It is a fact that the state will use whatever values are held dearly by the populace, be they freedom, the rule of law, democracy, Christianity, whatever, and claim that its acts of aggression actually further and promote these values. In other words, the state wants a libertarian gloss on its depredations. It thus presents itself as a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a demon masquerading as an angel of light.
In condemning wars, libertarians are not being isolationist. On the contrary, they want to engage the entire world into social cooperation under division of labor. They want all barriers to trade and to free movement of capital and labor to disappear. They want international travel to be as hassle-free as possible. They support the gold standard, in order to further unify the world by making gold and/or silver the single international currency not subject to manipulation by political elites in every country in the world. It is our acts of war that isolate us and make the rest of the world hate us.
6. Libertarians believe that, at the most, the only legitimate function of the state is to secure life, liberty, and property, and even that task is often best offloaded to private agencies. Security, we think, is to a great extent a private economic good, such that no liberty need to be sacrificed for its attainment.
Libertarianism distrusts those in power and those in the pay of those in power. The state knows that its might and privileges are ultimately dependent upon the explicit or tacit consent of the governed. Hence the alliance between the state and its “court intellectuals” whose role is to persuade the public of the goodness, necessity, or inevitability of the rule of the current political elite. Our job is to counter that propaganda.
Libertarianism belongs to the citizens of the world and, though it is patriotic insofar as the love of liberty presupposes the love of the country in which that liberty is to flourish, it is ultimately concerned with the well-being of the people of the entire world. As Murray Rothbard put it, libertarianism favors “universal rights, locally enforced.”
7. Libertarianism condones the use of only defensive force, either in self-defense or as punishment. As a political doctrine it completely disavows aggressive violence against person and property. As such, it seeks to apply the moral laws which we obey in our private lives to government action. Thus, if murder is wrong, then so is murder amplified a thousand-fold called “war.” If kidnapping and slave labor are wicked, then so are the draft and the alleged jury duty. If theft is a crime, then so is taxation. If counterfeiting money is evil, then so is inflation. If torturing people is madness, then government madmen should, too, be brought to justice for their crimes. In short, government, in a system of liberty, is not to be exempt from the moral laws that apply to the rest of us.
One can get what one wants from another person in three ways: through charity, trade, or force or fraud. Leaving out charity for our purposes, we see that there are two means to acquiring wealth: trade or the “economic means to wealth,” and force and coercion which are termed the “political means to wealth,” according to Franz Oppenheimer’s classification. The former are peaceful appropriation of unowned resources, production, and exchange for mutual benefit. The latter are pillage and plunder, extortion, theft, and death to those who resist. Libertarians hold that the political means to wealth are completely illegitimate, whether perpetrated by private criminals or by public criminals in charge of the machinery of state. So, what we have is State practicing “politics” and Society practicing “economics” in pursuit of their aims, locked in an eternal struggle. Whenever the state power begins to assert itself, there is decay and degeneration; whenever social power is prevalent, there is the unleashing of human creative powers, prosperity, and a zest of continuous improvement.
8. To conclude this brief introduction, it should be noted that libertarianism is not at all interested in pleasing the “respectables” of this world, those who are comfortable with the status quo and who are horrified at any suggestion of radical reform. Libertarianism has always been, since Étienne de La Boétie and Locke, and remains now, a revolutionary doctrine. We hope that you, our gentle reader, will not begrudge us of a little (or a lot of) adult rebellion.