Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How Do You Define Libertarianism?

I've often debated with people on the idea of whether libertarianism (or any other -ism, "movement", category, etc.) should be a Big Tent or a Little Tent. Obviously, the Tent gets bigger the broader your definition of a category tends to be.

Some people associate libertarianism with wanting more freedom, therefore anyone who claims to want more freedom, however it is defined, would be a libertarian.

A prominent libertarian blogger many of you have heard of once told me that a libertarian was anyone who hates the State.

My preferred definition of libertarian has always been "Anyone who accepts the primacy of the Non-Aggression Principle in social affairs and who applies this principle in interpreting the acts of other individuals, as well as themselves, in a fully consistent manner, making no excuses or exceptions."

I admit my definition is a bit wordy (surprise?) but I think it is more technical and specific. Sometimes I add as a corollary that acceptance of the NAP implies self-ownership and self-ownership implies private property rights. But I think at a minimum a libertarian is someone who sees the initiation of the use of force by any individual, in any society, at any time to be a criminal act.

I think you can want more freedom without being a consistent advocate of the NAP. Wanting freedom and understanding the NAP are not necessarily dependent ideas.

I think you can hate the State without being a person who consistently applies the NAP to their observations of human action. For example, you could be a common thief and still hate the State. Therefore, I think you can hate the State and still not be a libertarian.

I'm not trying to pick nits here, rather I am trying to wrestle with something important. If I'm going to label myself and be labeled by others as a libertarian, I need to have a clear, consistent and sufficiently restrictive definition of what that word means if I am to understand it myself. If I don't understand it myself I have little chance of communicating it to other people.


  1. Is it possible to arrive at the NAP without the Hoppe derivation beginning with self-ownership?

  2. Not sure I have a thoughtful response to that unless you have a proposed alternative you want to put up for consideration.

  3. I don't have an alternative but was simply wondering if you knew of any.

  4. I am not sure how you construct a moral framework around the NAP without relying on or utilizing the concept of self-ownership. It's hard to define "aggression" without the pre-existing boundaries established by self-ownership.

    There may be another way but I don't know what it is myself.

  5. I think this is a great way to distinguish between the rationalist, or natural law, libertarian and the utilitarian-libertarian.

  6. Zach bush,

    What is? How do you define it?

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