We’ve all had that experience where someone around us repeats a word endlessly, until a point where it loses its meaning in our heads altogether. Oftentimes referred to as semantic satiation, insults can likewise lose meaning when repeated ad nauseam. And with libertarians, one saying stands above the rest. We’ve all heard it before, whether in disagreements with friends or echoed to strangers across social media: “You’re not a real libertarian!” Supposedly representing the gravest of insults and the worst label one can be associated with, thrown senselessly back and forth amongst libertarian circles.
But what is a real libertarian? While it may seem meaningless from its overuse today, I believe there are a few key components that ought to be recognized as what you might call necessary prerequisites to libertarianism.
One of the reasons this saying gets thrown around as often as it does is because people tend to fall prey to the “purity tests,” whereby if someone doesn’t check off every single thing among a laundry list of opinions and viewpoints, they’re ostracized from being seen as a real libertarian. We frequently see this between different sects of anarchists, minarchists, classical liberals, etc. who falsely conclude that because someone doesn’t fall perfectly in agreement with every opinion they hold in their head, this somehow makes them incorrect in their beliefs. I do not subscribe to this line of thought; instead, I like to think there are a couple basic points that need to be accounted for and a few optional extras that may aid someone’s journey through libertarianism, but other than that, people are free to do as they wish.
First up, as most of you could probably guess, is the non-aggression principle (NAP). The NAP states that a person may not initiate force against another person. The key word here obviously being “initiate,” meaning that the voluntary consent of others is crucial in all matters, both economically and socially, without exception – as I’ve laid out in greater detail here. And as you’ll see, these ideas build upon one another.
With that in mind, our next element is the recognition of self-ownership, or more broadly, property rights. This is a foundational principle, and one that is easy to start with for most people; often because rejecting self-ownership is a performative contradiction. By claiming to reject the idea of self-ownership, they have inherently shown their ability to make decisions regarding their actions and beliefs for themselves and have subsequently demonstrated self-ownership. From here, we recognize that by owning oneself and, therefore, our own labor, we also own that which we exchange our labor for – private property. In keeping with our first component (NAP), we see that one cannot aggress against the private property of others either, as it is an extension of oneself. Pretty simple so far.
Our final idea is a bit more nuanced than the first two and it’s most often where people begin to fall off the wagon, which is recognizing the state for what it is: a contradiction of the first two principles.
There are those who make their way into libertarianism due to feelings of frustration towards Democrats and Republicans, whereby they seem to think libertarianism is simply about “small government” and nothing else. You’ll often hear things like “anarchists are ruining libertarianism” or “libertarianism isn’t about just hating the government.” While that last one is technically true, the examples show a misunderstanding of what Murray Rothbard described as “the anatomy of the State.” If a libertarian holds the first two ideas to be true (as we do), then it naturally follows that we recognize the state exists in contradiction to them. It monopolizes the initiation of force against otherwise peaceful individuals, and it secures its livelihood through the exploitation and disregard of individuals’ private property rights and consent. Regardless of the cliché arguments against the state’s coercive nature (many of which I’ve responded to here), it’s vital that this distinction be understood if one hopes to remain a consistent libertarian for any length of time.
Now, here’s where the nuance comes in. While philosophical principles play an important role in this, the reality of pragmatism and compromise must also be accounted for. While the saying often goes that “the difference between a libertarian and an anarchist is only six months,” in actuality, that isn’t always the case. And that’s okay. Not everyone will come around to endorsing full-blown anarcho-capitalism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t real libertarians. The important aspect here is recognizing the state for what it is and what it is not, and not becoming an apologist on its behalf. Some people believe in voting as a mechanism to achieve libertarian ideals, whether through secession or other policy prescriptions; while others may want to disengage with the system entirely or find alternatives as their solution. Although we each have our personal preferences, there’s no reason to monopolize one method as being the real libertarians. As long as we recognize that when referring to the state as a “necessary evil,” the key word in that description is “evil,” and as such, is not a vehicle to suddenly be used morally when the “right people are in charge.”
At this point, it’s beneficial to point out the “optional extra” I alluded to earlier that will certainly aid libertarians, which is a basic – although the more thorough, the better – understanding of Austrian economics.
Ultimately, and through no fault of its own, libertarianism will lead you to places that will make you uncomfortable in your beliefs. (This is especially true for those of us who experienced public schools growing up, where we were chronically imbedded to believe “correct” opinions and shun “wrong” opinions.) When this inevitably occurs, it’s important to not only have the fortitude to apply the aforementioned principles without exception, but also possess the ability to work through the fallacies engrained in arguments designed to persuade you back towards popular opinion. Without the proper knowledge, whether through reading or other avenues, it seems that people either gain a misunderstanding for what libertarianism is or incorrectly conclude it to have failed in its objectives. Fortunately, there are more resources to aid you in this task than ever before.
With all that said, we can see how this leaves a wide spectrum of detailed beliefs for people to land in and remain real libertarians. We still have quite a few things to accomplish in our current societal arrangement for minarchists to be arguing over inconsequential details with anarchists, so let’s forget the pointless purity spiraling and alienation of potential allies, and instead, let’s focus on instilling these values on others by providing principled examples through our own actions.
Thomas J. Eckert
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