Lesson 3: what is a libertarian?

It has recently become clear the my grand-libertarian-poobah-in-waiting doesn’t actually have a clear idea what it means to be a libertarian. I didn’t know I had this much work left in front of me. Here we go…

At the core of libertarian philosophy is the simple idea that humans own themselves. 

Some people dismiss libertarianism as “propertarianism” because we believe in private property rights. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to own something. Ownership simply means the ability to control the use of something. Any time something is used it is effectively being owned (though if that thing is almost infinite in supply the ownership will never be formally claimed). So all political philosophies believe in ownership.

The issue is simply this — what is the legitimate way that ownership can be transfered. The unique thing about libertarians is that we believe property should be transfered voluntarily. We oppose violence and coercion (threat of violence) as something that undermines the freedoms and self-ownership of individuals & control of your own destiny, and therefore undermines what it really means to be alive.

No political philosophy defends the idea that violence should be indiscriminate. However, many people believe in the virtues of having one institution that should regularly use violence/coercion — the government. While most libertarians accept the need for some government, our opposition to violence/coercion means that we believe that the government should be as small as possible to maximise the scope for voluntary behaviour.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum are the socialists, who believe that government should run most aspects of life and free voluntary individual actions should be subject to state approval. That undermines the very essense of what it means to be alive and is subsequently the philosophy of death.

What I have described above is the deontelogical argument for freedom and against government. People should be free because freedom is better than the alternative (violence, slavery, socialism). While true enough, freedom isn’t the only moral good in the world. The other moral good is utility/happiness. Thankfully, liberty and utility are often correlated. Many libertarians started as utilitarians or economists (who are nearly always utilitarian) who simply worked out that letting people be free generally lead to them being happier, wealthier, healthier and better in bed.

There are of course moments of conflict between liberty and utility. A strict deontelogical libertarian may dismiss utilitarian concerns, but most libertarians accept that there can be an argument for government if (and only if) there is strong evidence that the governmet intervention will increase utility. But because of the inherent virtue in free voluntary behaviour the burden of proof lies with the person who wants to promote their preferred government policy.

Most people have a few “except for…” in their philosophy. Abortion. Guns. Environment. Labelling laws. Heroin. But while we all enjoy beating each other up on our issues of disagreement, we can recognise that we are generally on the same size because we recognise that the government is far too large and we don’t have enough freedoms. We are united in our love of human freedom and dignity, our skepticism of government, our appreciation that freedom is the best path to dynamic growth, success and happiness, and our belief that people should be free until proven otherwise.

That’s the basics. Unfortunately, Graeme seems to have confused these beliefs with communism. This isn’t an easy mistake to make. The topic of what communism actually means is complex enough to deserve it’s own post… but in brief it should be recognised that a fundamental difference is that communists reject the market — and a market is simply a voluntary exchange between free people. So communism is obviously inconsistent with libertarianism.

As an aside, communism in it’s strict form doesn’t exist. Not only do communists oppose the market (voluntary behaviour) but they oppose the government (involuntary behaviour), so they are left with no behaviour. Communists of the world, unite! And stand still forever! When most people say communist, they means socialist.


23 Responses to “Lesson 3: what is a libertarian?”

  1. Mark U Says:

    So where do libertarians stand on competition/anti-trust laws?

    Do libertarians believe that government’s can have a role in establishing new markets (eg. electricity dispatch or a market for carbon credits)? Or do libertarians believe that these markets will be set up by private individuals?

    Shouldn’t armies and police also be privately established and run, on the grounds that if they are government run they provide a potential for restricting individual freedom (eg. Thailand, Burma etc. etc. etc.)?

  2. John Humphreys Says:

    What the…

    No, no, no. This isn’t supposed to replace the libertarian blog (www.alsblog.wordpress.com). This is for me to tackle head-on the heterodox musings of the nearly-hero Graeme.

    There is no single libertarian position for all libertarians. We’re an individualistic mob. But the cliche libertarian answer (and the one I believe) is that we should not have anti-trust laws. Abolish the ACCC.

    The virtue of competition is not the static allocative benefits of perfect competition but the dynamic benefits of immitation and innovation. Anti-trust laws strive for the former at the expense of the latter and also give a false impression of the virtues of the market which helps the socialists sell their story.

    I don’t think carbon credits will be set up naturally. But I’m not convinced their needed, so no problem. But I (like most libertarians) am happy to admit that the market and free voluntary behaviour will not always lead to the perfect outcome.

    The debate about private armies and police is a common one among libertarians and one I enjoy. But not one I’m going into here. For a good defence of anarcho-capitalism (privatise everything, no government) see David Friedman’s classic: Machinery of Freedom.

  3. graemebird Says:


    Well I’m not quite sure how you manage to insinuate that I’m in some sort of standing disagreement with any of the above.

  4. John Humphreys Says:

    I know you’re not Graeme.

    And you know I’m a libertarian, and yet you wrote “I’ll just assume he’s a commie until proven otherwise”


  5. graemebird Says:

    Yeah thats my working assumption for this thread.

    A working assumption isn’t a best guess or a sober estimate. Its a working assumption for the sake of argument.

    Until I can get past this cocoon of nonsense to find out your world-view I’ll just assume you are a commie in cahoots with John Z.

    I’ll just assume you are an agent of influence picking up a cheque each month from Riyadh and another from Beijing.

  6. Jason Soon Says:

    John has been to China lots of time, Graeme. You could be right …:-)

  7. John Humphreys Says:

    Dui Jason, wo qu zhongguo san ci he wo hen xihuan. (translation: correct Jason, I’ve been to China three times and I like)

    I can’t get into Saudi Arabia though.

    Graeme — your childish reaction suggests that it is not only your understanding of the world that needs to mature. I am the definition of libertarian. If you don’t like the philosophy of freedom and anti-state then say so now so I don’t waste my time.

    If you can’t understand how an anti-state libertarian might oppose huge government spending that helps the government grow and takes away liberty, then Jason has massively over-estimated you.

  8. terje (say tay-a) Says:

    I am the definition of libertarian.

    Thats a big claim.

  9. John Humphreys Says:

    Poetic licence. I don’t literally think my picture is next to “libertarian” in the dictionary.

    Nobody who knows libertarianism and me could deny that I am libertarian.

  10. graemebird Says:

    I’ll be the judge of whether you are libertarian or not.

    But first I would need your defense policy.

    I don’t know what the fuck you are so afraid of. I mean we are not asking you to fight man.

    Its a sweet deal if you ask me. You don’t have to fight. I don’t have to fight. Nobody who doesn’t want to has to fight. Since other people volunteer to fight for your freedom and mine.

    And what I expect from you is a little bit of fucking gratitude. The most ingrateful thing any of us can do is buy into this delusion that our freedom is independent of the willingness of righteous crazy-brave farm boys who are willing to kill and die for their country.

    But whether all of us fight or only a tiny minority….. Nonetheless it is our responsibility, all of ours, or at least all of us blokes… it is our responsibility to defend our country…. and most particularly our sheilas. And the kids.

    Now how cool is this. We can defend our country and we don’t even have to fight. We don’t have to fight and if we think ahead far enough we don’t have to take any risks. And if we are really smart and think ahead then we can sort it out that even the guys who have signed up to fight and kill and die seldom have to embrace the last of these options.

    For those of us who don’t wish to fight, or to take risks it is our special duty to do everything we can to support the guys who are ready to commit to these things.

    It is our job to show these people gratitude (but never obsequeiousness, or fearfullness. They are, and must be under civilian control) that means whenever a young soldier or an old soldier is there one of us is buying their drinks. And if its an old American soldier then we would be buying for him and any woman he’s squiring around.

    But most of all it means we must pay a ridiculous premium in terms of giving them the best training and equipment we can give them. A ridiculous overcompensation to them and/or their estates if they are injured or killed… And it means we must have a military doctrine that inherently makes it more likely that they will die in their beds and not on the field.

    And all these things cost money.

    Now on the other hand I never miss an opportunity to listen to Hoppe and other anarcho-capitalists on the idea of private defense.

    So far I think Hoppe has shown that such a system, having been established, might one day be sustainable.

    What these guys haven’t yet shown is how to transition to such a system without risking a utilitarian catastrophe in the meantime.

    I think about the transition all the time.

    But I simply cannot see us getting there any time soon.

    And we Australians live in a tough neighbourhood.

    You don’t want to fight do you? I would fight under some conditions and not under others. But I don’t want to fight either.

    And further to that I don’t want our guys who volunteer to fight. I don’t want them to fight either. I want them to have the capacity to fight and not have to use that capacity.

    Now thats not quite realistic because a country has to show every now and then that they are serious and not to be trifled with.

    But the fact is I don’t want to fight. I know you don’t want to. And I want the life expectancy of our armed forces to be higher then the life expectancy of any other armed forces.

    So how do we acheive all this?

    Well its in the nature of this world that if you prepare enough for a war thats a war that you don’t have to fight.

    We simply have to do what we have to do so that we don’t have to fight the big catastrophic wars.

    Now that sounds easy enough. But we cannot expect the public, in a democracy, to back our efforts to head off a catastrophic war if regimes are already intimidating people in our countrry.

    From time to time various regimes do project intimidation into our country.

    And if we suspect this is happening and we cannot stop it it means we are not doing enough in terms of our defense.

    Because once this process takes hold then its not to be thought that the situation is retrievable.

    One of the great things about the last 15 years or so is the rise of the Chinese people. From a situation of near concentration camp conditions to a condition of a great deal of defacto freedom and property rights.

    One hopes that this upward spiral continues.

    One hopes this because we want them to carry on and extend many of the achievements of the West just as the West built on things that the Chinese invented.

    Everywhere you see Chinese people forging ahead in all areas of acheivement.

    They are there at the Juilliard and they are there in the sciences.

    We want this to continue. But its not going to continue if we end up in a catastrophic war with them.

    We have a very big danger that this catastrophic war could happen between now and mid-century. But the danger-zone is particularly strong between about 2012 (lets say) and 2030.

    Now its our absolute duty to extend our own freedom. And its also a duty of ours to make sure that this war doesn’t happen and if it does that we win quickly and with few deaths to our soldiers and to their civilians.

    Now I don’t know how to pull this moral necessity off and slash our defense spending. I think, if anything we need to increase defense spending.

    Because we cannot rely on being able to ramp it up when a threat starts emerging. And we cannot rely on the idea that our multi-cultural population will maintain a total resolve under intimidation like the population of 100 years ago would have.

    There is no way to cut costs on this defense business.

    Its going to be expensive. But in the context of our threat profile over the next few decades its a bargain at the price. And cheaper then the alternatives.

  11. John Humphreys Says:

    You’ve introduced a nuanced and interesting debate on defence spending, the nature of deterance and the potential efficacy of anarcho-capitalist solutions. All great debates. If you didn’t start the debate by questioning my commitment to freedom I wouldn’t have to call you a fuck-wit. Fuck-wit.

    I agree that the issue of defence spending is difficult for the US. They do indeed need to maintain a big stick. The issue for Australia is less clear-cut. We currently maintain the ability to successfully defend our nation from an invasion of any country except one (the US). I think we can easily afford a nominal freeze on defence spending for one year to help pay for signficant tax cuts… and then maintain real defence spending after that.

    But generally I think we need to maintain a sufficent defence force to be able to project force in our region. We already do that in spades.

  12. graemebird Says:

    A freeze?

    What historical precedent do you have to be so confident on the ongoing capacity and benevolence of the United States?

    They are in so much hock and they are being taken over by creeping post-modernism.

    Its dishonourable to bludge off our good good American friends in any case.

    Being in debt to people (financially to the Asians and morally to the Americans) and being involved in all sorts of international agreements hems us in and makes it harder for the decision-maker of the day to move quickly.

    These things are an attack on our soveriegnty.

    We need to be able to bring the first, second and third slipper down with or without the Americans.

    We need to be able to bring the slipper down in such a way as to create the impression that we are caterpillers and with a never-ending supply of slippers.

  13. John Humphreys Says:

    Yeah, a freeze. One year. It wouldn’t make much difference to our defence capacity.

    It is still in America’s interest to defend Australia. I don’t pretend that the US will defend us out of love or honour… but it is still in their interest and will be for the forseeable future.

    I’m not a pessimist about the American economy or debt levels. I’m in debt and I love it.

    A one year freeze would not constitute bludging off America. The reality is that nobody could successfully invade Australia now, with or without America’s help. That wouldn’t change after a one year freeze. When China gets the capacity (which is probably inevitable) then we will need America even if we triple defence spending.

    I agree with your implication that we are in too many international agreements.

    As for need to speedily change tactics when needed — we shouldn’t have nukes now, but we should keep ourselves in a position where we could acquire nuclear capacity in a relatively short period. For all I know, that already is our position (obviously, we couldn’t advertise the fact).

  14. graemebird Says:

    What is the point of a fucking freeze?

    If we want to stay free we need to keep getting stronger all the time.

    Can you get a freeze from the Chinese or the Indonesians as well?

    Can you throw out the Chinese spies and then do the freeze?

    We cannot allow a situation where some ruthless commies can get a sub… penetrate close into (lets say) Brisbane and just shoot over a nuke at fairly close range and us with no comeback in the world.

    Because if it gets to that stage which it could do at any time, then when our guys sit down with the foreign bastards they will start selling us out.

    We want the best planes and the best subs to keep people right away from the continent.

    And we need some way to get to the leadership of pretty much any country who wrongs us.

    We want to be nuclear in the sub department. Because the water is a great shock absorber and we can’t afford to put our subs against some foreign subs and lose.

    We don’t need city-destroying nukes and it would be a wicked and threatening thing to have them.

    We really have to think about having a violent comeback directly at the offending regimes (hopefully mostly overpassing their civilians) for any contingency that arrives.

    Or else we wind up pretending the regimes aren’t involved.

    Such a pretense has become something of a mania.

  15. John Humphreys Says:

    The point is to save tax money. Get back to me when you understand that concept.

  16. graemebird Says:

    But what is the point of a freeze?

    As opposed to a slow-down or a speed-up or cutting it in half or getting rid of it altogether.

    You are never going to understand you fucking faggot. But get back to me anyway.

  17. John Humphreys Says:

    “But what is the point of a freeze?”

    To save tax money. Is there an echo in here? We don’t need to waste more tax money but we shouldn’t have drastic cuts. A freeze is a relativey painless way to have a moderate reduction in waste. Enforced efficiency savings are fairly standard in the public service. But you wouldn’t know that because you pride yourself on your ignorance.

  18. terje (say tay-a) Says:

    I would not currently advocate a freeze on expansion in military expenditure. Not when there are so many other forms of expenditure that should be frozen first.

  19. John Humphreys Says:

    Put this in context Terje… I would advocate a freeze in defence spending AND a freeze or reduction in every other area. Under my preferred approach defence would definitely make up a higher percentage of government spending.

    And I’m not sure I follow your rationale. Are you saying that unnecessary government spending should be kept because there is other worse government spending out there?

  20. graemebird Says:

    But why a freeze you illogical Cretin?

    Shit you are one dumbass fuckhead!

    Why a freeze you dope?

    You are not going to get away with a series of non-answers.


    What a dummy.


    I’ll simply have to repost until your intellectual constipation finds some relief:

    “But what is the point of a freeze?

    As opposed to a slow-down or a speed-up or cutting it in half or getting rid of it altogether.”

    I suspect you won’t be a pair-of-safe hands on this matter for a decade or two.

  21. Terje Petersen Says:

    Are you saying that unnecessary government spending should be kept because there is other worse government spending out there?

    Every spending cut consumes political capital. I’m just saying that you should save your powder for the main event. Sure we can walk and chew gum at the same time but make sure you decide which of the two you are going to focus on when the pressure is on.

  22. John Humphreys Says:

    Actually Terje, I think it would be a good move politically to cut defence (in real terms) to show that we are serious about small government and not just being right-wing.

    It is a very easy area to cut because we are clearly over-spending there, there is lots of waste and inefficiency in the department and it’s our third largest federal portfolio (behind welfare & health).

    Graeme, if you find “freeze” offensive, then think of it as keeping the budget the same in real terms but then taking a 3% efficiency saving out of the department. Whatever. The idea is making a small budget saving out of the defence department because there is fat to cut from there and I want bigger tax cuts.

  23. terje (say tay-a) Says:

    we are clearly over-spending there, there is lots of waste and inefficiency in the department

    Which part of the military do you see as being wasteful and in what regard? Or is it all pervasive?

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