What Does It Mean To Be Libertarian?

Release Date
August 10, 2011


Role of Government

According to Dr. Stephen Davies, libertarianism is first and foremost a political doctrine. Libertarians seek a society most conducive to human flourishing amongst autonomous self-defined individuals. Libertarians argue that this state of affairs is accomplished when the role of government and power is kept to a minimum. Although some have argued that libertarianism is a cult or rigid creed, Dr. Davies argues it is not, as there is a great deal of debate within the libertarian tradition. These internal debates are a sign of intellectual vitality, and are healthy for any intellectual tradition.

What Does It Mean To Be Libertarian?
What is it to be a libertarian? Well, first of all, I would say that being libertarian does not involve any kind of substantive moral commitment. Libertarianism is essentially a political doctrine. It’s a doctrine about the nature of human beings, the nature of human society, and the kind of human society that is most conducive to human flourishing.
Libertarians believe that the most important thing in life is human flourishing, human wellbeing, human happiness if you will. They also argue that human beings are ultimately autonomous, self-defined, choosing individuals. And that the kind of social order which is most conducive to the widest and most diverse range of human flourishing is one in which the role of power and government is kept to the minimum.
Now this does not mean, however, that they need support a particular moral code or anything like that. It’s perfectly possible for someone who’s a traditional Christian, someone who’s a complete atheist to both to be libertarian in the way I’ve just described. What does this mean for certain particular policy issues? Are there any kind of specific major questions or politics that really you have to take a certain position on if you are to be a consistent libertarian? There are a few certainly.
It is certainly the case, for example, that you have to support free markets, you have to support free trade, you have to support the free movement of people, you have to support free speech, you have to support constitutional and limited government, you have to be opposed to coercive paternalism, and things of that sort. However, there are a number of policy positions where it is not clear what exactly you have to believe if you ought to be a consistent and principled libertarian.
In foreign policy, for example, many libertarians think that the consistent position is to be a noninterventionist, but in fact, I think it’s perfectly possible to be a libertarian and to advocate a more interventionist foreign policy. That’s not my own view, but I don’t think that those who have it are ipso facto not libertarians. Another is abortion, where I think it’s perfectly possible for consistent and sincere libertarians to be either pro or opposed to that particular policy option.
The fact that libertarians can hold opposed views in a wide range of policy issues is an indication that this is not a cult or some kind of rigid creed, but rather a diverse and complex philosophy in which a whole number of positions can be held by people who share certain essential underlying presumptions and beliefs. And it’s also a sign of intellectual vitality and the continuing evolution of the ideas.
There are two responses you can make to the accusation that libertarianism is a politically irrelevant creed which condemns you to a complete lack of influence in politics. The first is the one that economists make, which is that as a single voter you’re already completely irrelevant to the political process. The chance that your vote is actually going to have any effect on the process, will be decisive in any way, is minimal. You’ve probably got a greater chance of winning the lottery. And, therefore, you should simply be what you believe and vote what you believe as well.
The other thing is this: Political positions or sets of beliefs that are marginalized or held by only a small number of people in given times are not condemned to remain that way. The evidence of history is that it’s possible for small but dedicated and organized groups of people to have a disproportionately large effect upon the political process and upon public debate. And there are many, many examples of this. And I think that that’s what you should always hold to if you’re a libertarian, or indeed a member of any unpopular political persuasion.