Friday, 23 February 2007

Cue Card Libertarianism: LIBERTARIANISM

Each 'Cue Card Libertarianism' entry forms part of a series intended to introduce newbies to the terms used (or as used) by New Zealand libertarians. The series so far can be found archived here, and the Introduction here.

LIBERTARIANISM: Libertarianism as a political idea is four-square for freedom. At the basis of libertarianism is the principle that all adult human interaction should be voluntary, or to put it another way, that capitalist acts between consenting adults should be legal.

There are many ways to put the point. In a political context, freedom has only one specific meaning -- freedom from the initiation of force by other men. US libertarian Murray Rothbard puts it this way:
"The Libertarian creed rests on one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the non-aggression axiom. Aggression is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else."
This point has been well enough rehearsed under other Cue Card entries, but it should be noted at this juncture that many advocates of the Non-Aggression Principle, including myself, do not regard it as an axiom.

An axiom is a fundamental, self-evident truth; it does not require “grounding’.” The Non-Aggression Pinciple is fundamental, but far from self-evident; it does need grounding. The question for libertarians is how it is grounded.  Rothbard boasts that not insisting on such a foundation has enabled the Libertarian movement to be "eclectic." As the US Libertarian movement demonstrates, this has not been an unequivocal virtue, the "eclecticism" encompassing a "broad church" of adherents from all manner of philosophic (or non-philosophic) positions, including emotivism, hedonism, Kantian a priorism, Nozickism, neo-conservatism, pacifism and many others. Few of these positions are defensible. Most of them are represented in US Libertarianism.

 Objectivists in particular regard it as positively dangerous to treat the Non-Aggression Principle as axiomatic, and insist on the need for an ethical/epistemological foundation. Objectivist Peter Schwartz, for instance, says that without the correct philosophic base, "liberty means nothing…"
“Ultimately [however], liberty is justified because it is a necessary condition of human survival; force is unjustified because it is an attack on man’s means of cognition. Only philosophy can identify so fundamental a connection.” 
 Mr Schwartz goes on to attack (correctly) the more bizarre subjectivist elements of the American libertarian movement. As Shwartz points out, and this article explains, this principle of the non-initiation of force was formulated and popularised by Ayn Rand, and her advocacy of individual rights and limited government in her novels and speeches was largely instrumental in the rebirth of libertarianism in the 1960s. Sad that so many US libertarians fail to give her her due.

Her thought is still a major influence in the general libertarian movement, but Rand herself thought the differences so great that she rejected the label "libertarian," and called libertarian luminaries such as Rothbard (accurately) "Hippies of the Right." She preferred to be known as a "radical for capitalism." In the American context, I sympathise with that view.

In the New Zealand context, however, where any talk of freedom is foreign and libertarianism is still nascent, Not PC supports the position of both Schwartz and Rand but recognises that the perfect should not be made the enemy of the good.. For example, I would regard a Christian who endorses the non-initiation of force principle – however untenable the means by which he or she arrives at it – as less likely to threaten freedom in his actions than one who doesn’t, and as someone who can be persuaded to do better. Mr Schwartz, however, eschews such attempts. Such is his right.

Just to be clear, at this blog I use the term libertarian to denote, supportively, the Non-Aggression Principle; I believe in grounding this principle in sound antecedent principles; however for the most part I maintain (or try to maintain) cordial relations with those who regard the Non-Aggression Principle not as a principle, but as a self-sufficient, self-evident axiom, or with those whose antecedent principles we regard as unsound.

This is part of a continuing series explaining the concepts and terms used by New Zealand libertarians, based on the series originally published in The Free Radical in 1993. The 'Introduction' to the series is here.

RELATED POSTS ON: Cue Card Libertarianism, Libertarianism, Politics-World, Objectivism, Philosophy


  1. "freedom from the initiation of force by other men"

    and women


    Yes I know your sentence potentially encompassed humankind of general, not just the masculine sex, but it doesn't hurt to remind people that women can - and do - use force against other people too.

  2. Oh, don't be an old woman. ;^)

  3. A good summary Peter, well done.

  4. I'm intrigued to see some libertarian sites like LewRockwell posting articles by the likes of John Pilger...

    Strange bedfellows?


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