promoting the unwanted, redheaded stepchild that is individual liberty

Understanding libertarianism part II

In liberty and rights, politics on October 19, 2009 at 4:26 am

Fast forward to the 1960s where the beginnings of what is now the modern conservative movement were taking hold. Conservative founding fathers such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater were preaching a more aggressive foreign policy.

The ideological split today between conservatives and libertarians can be illustrated by the split between conservative and libertarian youth at the 1969 Young Americans for Freedom convention in St. Louis.

Nick Gillespie, senior editor of the popular libertarian magazine REASON, describes the events and underlying ideological differences leading to the split in his article The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics:

By the late ’60s, the ideological divisions in YAF between conservatives — who, heavily influenced by people such as Buckley in-law and Goldwater speechwriter, L. Brent Bozell, saw the state as a means to achieve a return to a “traditional” society — and libertarians — who championed individual liberty above all else — could no longer be masked over by an overriding commitment to anti-communism. The Vietnam War — or, more precisely, the draft — effectively split the organization. Conservatives felt the Cold War legitimized conscription; libertarians saw the draft as slavery.

Gillespies last line, libertarians saw the draft as slavery, is key to understanding the libertarian view on war and force.

Libertarians subscribe to a non-interventionist foreign policy. Why? Because libertarians do not believe in force and coercion unless they are in defense of an individuals liberty. The only time libertarians believe government, a surrogate power, has the right to use force is when infringement on an individuals liberty has occurred. Thus the government is only doing what the individual already has a right to do herself, and nothing more. 

If one expands the libertarians view on individual sovereignty to the world abroad, it becomes clear that a noninterventionist foreign policy is the only logical conclusion for the libertarian. For how can one nations government, the surrogate power of that nations peoples, force itself on the government and peoples of a foreign land?

Not only does a libertarian consider foreign intervention unconstitutional, he considers it outside the rightful jurisdiction of the American government. For the American government represents the American people and the American people alone. Only the America people are subject to its force.

However, the libertarian does allow for self defense, as it is the inherent right of the individual. Once an infringement on an individuals liberty has occurred, the individual then has the right to defend himself. In the same manner, the American government, acting in place of individual Americans, has the right to defend the nation.

Harry Brown, former Libertarian Party presidential candidate and libertarian philosopher, discussed libertarian foreign policy in his May 2003 article, Libertarians and War. Brown was surprised to see some self-described libertarians supporting the Iraq War, either arguing that A) Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat that demanded preemptive action, or B) the Iraqi people deserved to be liberated from such a dictator.

Brown concludes:

Government is force, and libertarians distrust force. On every count of libertarian principles, we should demand that the use of force against foreign countries be reserved for response to direct attacks — not to be used for “regime change,” not for “democracy-building,” not for pre-emptive attacks, not for demonstrations of strength.

It is possible to be a libertarian and believe in preemptive war and interventionism. But it is not libertarian to believe so. 

For further reading and understanding of libertarianism, check out REASON TV, Lew Rockwell and The Cato Institute.

  1. Very nicely done, Jessica, and I mean that sincerely. However, I’m still going to quibble. Part of the confusion is that the party and the ideology share the same name. No one would reasonably argue that if you’re Republican you must be conservative, nor vice versa, or that republicanism IS conservatism. No one would reasonably argue that if you’re a Democrat you have to be liberal, nor vice versa. It’s fairly well recognized that one is a party, the other an ideology, and the two are not in any way mutually inclusive. Neither, then, are Libertarians and libertarianism, in spite of the confusion of the shared name. Party platform doesn’t drive ideological philosophy, or at least should not.

    You did good research finding the history of the party. The connection with classic liberalism is strong indeed. Curiously, you left out the influence of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, which in and of itself is also not libertarianism. I believe objectivism created and drove the non-interventionist idea more so than classical liberalism/libertarianism, and yet the two had become so intermingled that many used “Libertarian” as a blanket term when they actually mean “objectivist”. Over time, the party platform started to become more and more objectivist in nature (albeit never completely) including the non-interventionist policy, and hence the definition of big-L Libertarian changed. I’m of the mind that once the non-interventionist philosophy appeared, there was a split in libertarianism itself. The party co-opted objectivism, went the way of non-interventionist and kept the name “Libertarian”, while those who shared the bulk of the classical liberal/libertarian philosophy but also believe in intervention as a necessary part of defense drifted toward conservatism, or at least labeled themselves as such in order to distinguish themselves from the non-interventionists. It’s those “conservatives” who are now drifting back, rediscovering the ideology, and trying to reclaim the idea and the name of small-L libertarianism from the party. Hence my belief that one does not have to be non-interventionist to be libertarian. In my opinion, that only applies to the party, which tried for many years to define the ideology as “what the party says”.

    This is an interesting discussion, and I’m happy you’ve taken the time to flesh out your thoughts on it in greater detail. I’m looking forward to input from others as well.

  2. Jessica and Joe,

    We are putting some many labels on things that I am getting confused. I like the relatively simple idea of limited government. Jessica has stated often that government, any government, is in fact force. I my simple way of thinking the less we force people to do things, within limits of which anarchy falls well outside, the better off we are. Americans settled almost an entire continent by acting in their own individual best interests, not because they were forced to act by government.

    Whatever “tag” we put on individual founding fathers, collectively they produced a doctrine of very limited government indeed, the Constitution. Here is what the federal government can do, and only these things. Everything else goes to the states or individuals.

    In the last 100 years we have gone so far beyond that simple concept that we forget how simple it really was. When was the last time the Supreme Court struck down any legislation because it exceeded the specified list of things allowed by the Federal Govenmnet in the Constitution.

    Add to that broad interprettions of amendments to the Constitution and see where we are now.

    Can you imagine the public uproar if the Supreme Court said Social Security and Medicare were unconstitutional because there is nothing in the Constitution that gives the Federal government the power to provide benefits to old people at the exclusion of others!! Public uproar or not, would we be a better country if such would happen, just as an example?


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