What Is A Libertarian? – Opting Out


The other day a friend asked me, “How exactly do you define a libertarian anyway?”

I’m glad these questions come to me when they do, because it enforces a second thought on things I only assume to be true. It’s worth having another look just to be clear. Even if I haven’t changed my mind much, every once in a while it’s important to do that.

I will define a libertarian in the way I think that makes the most universal sense. I won’t be overly referencing historicity, or how some thinker in the past defined it, but how it works today for the majority of people.

I believe libertarians are people who hold individual liberty as the highest political value.

In-between the lines of any political debate is the question, “Which value should political decision makers prioritise?” If your answer is “individual liberty,” then you are a libertarian.

Individual liberty is defined as the absence of initiatory force upon a person. This is a condition where the individual is free from the initiation of force or violence, or the threat of such force or violence. The individual is free to do what they like, provided they do not use force against anybody else. 

Issues may arise when we consider the implications of this principle. Does this mean, then, that anything the state does, being the monopoly of the legal use of aggressive force, is a violation of individual liberty? Many self-described libertarians believe so, many do not. This conflict is exemplified in the eternal debate between anarchists (no state) and minarchists (minimal state).

To what extent do our property rights belong to our person? Is there a limit to what we can do with our own property, or tell others what to do on our own property? 

These are all interesting conundrums, but irrelevant to the question of who is a libertarian. If the goal is individual liberty, then all is fair game. We’re just arguing the finer points.

What someone believes constitutes a violation of individual liberty is less important to the definition than what their intuition tells them, their underlying value system. If your inclination when debating anything political is towards individual freedom, then you are a libertarian. 

This is a “big-tent” view in some ways, a “small-tent” view in others. It includes both minarchists and anarchists, provided they hold liberty as the highest political value. The minarchist who believes that one’s liberty is ensured by a national military, as far as I’m concerned, is a libertarian. This is despite the fact that I believe this is a mistaken view. Provided liberty is the most important thing for someone, they’re a libertarian. 

Take the abortion debate among libertarians, one even more virulent than the anarchist versus minarchist debate. The pro-life side sees abortion as a violation of the baby/fetus’ person, and an encroachment on liberty. The pro-choice side sees abortion as the free choice of the pregnant woman, and not in violation of anybody’s liberty. Both of these kinds of people are libertarians. Even if one side is proven “correct,” the other side don’t stop being libertarians. They are simply mistaken on the implications (if that is what is proven).

You can apply this way of thinking to any intra-libertarian debate you can think of. 

Now to who this definition doesn’t apply to. Broadly, the definition doesn’t apply to anybody who, when considering political matters, values something else other than individual liberty. For example, the person who values “fairness” above all else is not a libertarian (see Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, or Jeremy Corbyn*). Somebody else might value national security more than individual liberty (see any neoconservative). If liberty is not number one, you’re not a libertarian.

I’m not implying that these people don’t care about liberty at all. These people certainly do, it’s just that they value other things more. There is maybe not a single individual in the world who does not value freedom in the slightest. Just as most libertarians claim to value other things other than liberty, say community, family, and tolerance, for the non-libertarian, it’s almost always the case that liberty is simply lower down on their priorities compared to other values.

This definition does not include all people who share similar policy prescriptions to libertarians. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez certainly shares most libertarians’ desire to decriminalise (at least some) recreational drugs. This doesn’t make her a libertarian. All this shows is that she has sided with a policy that increases freedom on this particular issue. In fact, the way she frames her understanding of cannabis legalisation demonstrates she prioritises fairness or equality above individual liberty.

She says, “It does not look like any of the people who are reaping the profits of this are the people who were directly impacted.”

For Ocasio-Cortez, the problem with cannabis prohibition was of the disproportionate effect on racial minorities, and the problem with legalisation is that the majority of cannabis business owners are white and male. Nowhere in this discussion is the effect on freedom, per se.

I should probably mention also, this definition doesn’t mean that non-libertarians aren’t nice people. People have different values, and that’s fine. Regardless, I believe people ought to be libertarians, or at least support libertarian policy prescriptions, because liberty provides a foundation from which other values can be satisfied. 

This is the Drug Policy Alliance’s interpretation of Cortez on cannabis: “We must legalize marijuana in a way that recognizes & repairs the disastrous, disproportionate harms of the drug war & mass criminalization on people of color.” An irritating sentence, and not just because of the sheer number of Americanised spellings – it seems to be implying that we cannot legalise cannabis until we can satisfy these other things. In other words, racial minorities are better off in prison than suffering inequality in the cannabis industry. 

On the contrary, libertarians say: freedom first! After that, it’s up to you.

* Here I’m referring to their stated political values. These may not be the same as their demonstrated preferences, economically speaking. For any politician, their stated values might be at odds with their political decisions. 

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.