Misconceptions of Real Libertarians

real libertarians

If you’ve been involved within the liberty movement for any considerable amount of time, you have no doubt been accused at some point of not being a real libertarian.

Real libertarians are simultaneously common and rare within the movement. They are common enough in that they are always available to point out “fake” libertarians, but are also so rare that few (if any) have made it long without being dropped from the list of real libertarians.

There are two problems with most instances of these accusations. But first, a clarification: there certainly are people that adopt the libertarian label but don’t adhere to libertarian values. And pointing that out isn’t a bad thing. If one is going to go around claiming such and such is what libertarianism is, they should be reasonably accurate.

But onto the first problem with the excessiveness of tossing out this accusation, and that is the problem of definitions. Libertarianism has been defined in many different ways, but all share a few common concepts. Libertarianism is the support of individual rights and liberties, and the opposition to violence and state control.

But where do we draw the line? Anarcho-capitalism is libertarian principles taken to their most logical, extreme conclusion. But does this mean that anyone that isn’t an anarcho-capitalist can’t be a libertarian? Certainly not. Most self-described libertarians support a small state. A definition that eliminates a majority of people identifying as libertarian isn’t a very good definition.

Of course, there does have to be some boundaries. A definition without boundaries isn’t a definition at all. An advocate for nationalizing most industries and strict equality of outcome is obviously far outside the bounds of libertarianism.

So again, where do we draw the line? First, we must view libertarianism not as a certain set of policy positions, but rather as a mindset or perspective that holds liberty as a core value (often represented as the non-aggression principle). We draw the line not at a certain percentage of libertarian policy positions, but at the point where liberty is no longer considered a core value.

Thomas Sowell writes in A Conflict of Visions that political ideology can best be represented as a dichotomy of two opposing visions. Ideology, at its core, is a vision, and to subscribe to an ideology is to view the world from that ideology’s perspective. Positions on certain issues are then derived from this vision, but the vision is what matters.

Therefore, libertarians that support a small state are still libertarians, because their arguments against anarchism tend to be pragmatic, and are still argued from a mindset that values liberty. As Thomas Paine wrote, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

The second problem with many of these “you’re not a real libertarian!” accusations is that they often displace better arguments. We’ve seen how well this appeal to ideology works (not at all) during the U.S. Republican primaries with Donald Trump. Many anti-Trump conservatives devoted much of their time telling their audiences that Trump was not a real conservative, and real conservatives should oppose Trump. Similar claims about “true Christians” were also made regarding Trump.

These arguments aren’t very convincing. What should matter the most is the truth, not ideological purity. If someone makes an argument, responding with “That’s not a libertarian position” or “You’re not a real libertarian for believing that” doesn’t actually rebut the argument. This is a problem that some radicals on the left have been having. Rather than refute arguments, some just accuse the arguments of being rooted in racism or prejudice. This, of course, doesn’t amount to much.

Almost everyone who aligns with libertarianism does so because they believe it to be the most moral (non-aggression principle) and most accurate (Austrian economics) ideology. If we want to spread our beliefs and grow as a movement, we can’t be ostracizing everyone that is less than 93% libertarian, nor can we put ideological adherence over truth. For libertarians, they should be one and the same.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]


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