Monday, March 31, 2014

What Libertarianism Is, and Isn't

By Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.

The explosive growth in the number of converts to libertarianism since Ron Paul first ran for president is one of the most exciting developments of my life. But I’d like to issue a note of caution.

There are several ways a young libertarian can distinguish himself. He can be an effective communicator of libertarian ideas as a writer or speaker. He can
employ his unique talents — as an artist, animator, interviewer, or whatever — to convey the libertarian message in new and compelling ways. He can become a specialist in some area of scholarly inquiry relevant to libertarianism. Or he can add to the edifice of libertarian thought by solving a longstanding problem, critically reexamining an old question, or applying libertarian theory to new areas as technology develops and civilization evolves.

I can think of people who fit all these descriptions. What distinguishes them all is that they worked very hard to establish their well-deserved niche within the community of libertarian thinkers.

By contrast, people might establish niches for themselves by devising their own peculiar version of libertarianism, and claiming that their discovery alone is the real thing. Not only is this method easier than the ones I described above, but it also allows the creator the pleasure of rendering sanctimonious judgment on those benighted souls who cling to plain old libertarianism, with no labels, no caveats, and no apologies.

Might we gain the sympathy of the left by parroting their language of egalitarianism and loudly proclaiming our allegiance to the moral strictures of the state? It is not absolutely impossible, I suppose. But I consider it far more likely that the left will be amused at such transparent attempts at ingratiation, and go on viewing libertarians with the same contempt as before.

Of course, it’s wonderful to collaborate on important issues with people who have different perspectives from ours. I should not be understood as opposing that. You would be hard pressed to find a more eclectic libertarian website than LRC. Mr. Libertarian himself, Murray N. Rothbard, was happy to talk with and learn from anyone he could, as his wide-ranging library, owned by the Mises Institute, amply attests.

But if we expect to trick people into becoming libertarians, we will fail. And if we think libertarian flirtation with egalitarianism is a good idea, we have already failed.

Yes, we do believe in unfashionable things like the abolition of antidiscrimination law. If we didn’t, we would not be libertarians. Bound up in the principle of freedom of association is every defining libertarian principle: self-ownership, the meaning of property titles, and nonaggression.

It’s easy to defend the rights of people who are popular and whose views are in fashion. It is much more difficult – thankless, even – to defend the rights of those whom society despises. Libertarians need not endorse or actually be such people – I know of no one proposing such a thing – but if we do not defend their rights we are frauds.

Some of what we believe may be hard for people to accept when they first hear it. But in the long run, they are more likely to be persuaded by a consistent and principled libertarian than by one who is obviously trying to curry favor with them.

Consider the example of Ron Paul. He gave straightforward libertarian answers to whatever questions he was asked during his presidential campaigns. As we all should, he got a sense of his audience and explained those ideas in ways they were most likely to understand and appreciate. But he never backed down. Was he opposed to antidiscrimination law? Yes. Did he dissent from the received version of the Civil War, from which the regime derives much of its legitimacy? Yes. And so on down the line of unfashionable answers to the thought-controllers’ questions.

The result? The single greatest increase in youth interest in libertarianism in its entire history.

Ron always conducts himself as a gentleman, of course, and his kindly demeanor, coupled with his pure and unrehearsed remarks, certainly added to his appeal. But people were drawn to him because unlike his focus-grouped opponents, he told them the truth, and without shame or apology.

Libertarianism is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all. It is not anything else. It is not feminism. It is not egalitarianism (except in a functional sense: everyone equally lacks the authority to aggress against anyone else). It has nothing to say about aesthetics. It has nothing to say about race or nationality. It has nothing to do with left-wing campaigns against “white privilege,” unless that privilege is state-supplied.

Let me repeat: the only “privilege” that matters to a libertarian qua libertarian is the kind that comes from the barrel of the state’s gun. Disagree with this statement if you like, but in that case you will have to substitute some word other than libertarian to describe your philosophy.

Libertarians are of course free to concern themselves with issues like feminism and egalitarianism. But their interest in those issues has nothing to do with, and is not required by or a necessary feature of, their libertarianism. Accordingly, they may not impose these preferences on other libertarians, or portray themselves as fuller, more consistent, or more complete libertarians. We have seen enough of our words twisted and appropriated by others. We do not mean to let them have libertarian.

As Rothbard put it:
There are libertarians who are indeed hedonists and devotees of alternative lifestyles, and that there are also libertarians who are firm adherents of “bourgeois” conventional or religious morality. There are libertarian libertines and there are libertarians who cleave firmly to the disciplines of natural or religious law. There are other libertarians who have no moral theory at all apart from the imperative of non-violation of rights. That is because libertarianism per se has no general or personal moral theory.
Libertarianism does not offer a way of life; it offers liberty, so that each person is free to adopt and act upon his own values and moral principles. Libertarians agree with Lord Acton that “liberty is the highest political end” – not necessarily the highest end on everyone’s personal scale of values.
Libertarians are unsuited to the thought-control business. It’s difficult enough trying to persuade people to adopt views dramatically opposed to what they have been taught throughout their lives. If we can persuade them of the nonaggression principle, we should be delighted. There is no need to complicate things by arbitrarily imposing a slate of regime-approved opinions on top of the core teaching of our philosophy.

Libertarianism is a beautiful and elegant edifice of thought and practice. It begins with and logically builds upon the principle of self-ownership. In the society it calls for, no one may initiate physical force against anyone else. What this says about the libertarian’s view of moral enormities ranging from slavery to war should be obvious, but the libertarian commitment to freedom extends well beyond the clear and obvious scourges of mankind.

Our position is not merely that the state is a moral evil, but that human liberty is a tremendous moral good. Human beings ought to interact with each other on the basis of reason – their distinguishing characteristic – rather Lew Rockwellthan with hangmen and guns. And when they do so, the results, by a welcome happenstance, are rising living standards, an explosion in creativity and technological advance, and peace. Even in the world’s partially capitalist societies, hundreds of millions if not billions of people have been liberated from the miserable, soul-crushing conditions of hand-to-mouth existence in exchange for far more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Libertarianism, in other words, in its pure and undiluted form, is intellectually rigorous, morally consistent, and altogether exciting and thrilling. It need not and should not be fused with any extraneous ideology. This can lead only to confusion, and to watering down the central moral claims, and the overall appeal, of the message of liberty.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., former editorial assistant to Ludwig von Mises and congressional chief of staff to Ron Paul, is founder and chairman of the Mises Institute, executor for the estate of Murray N. Rothbard, and editor of See his books.

Copyright © 2014 by 

The above originally appeared at


  1. There are millions of stupid parasites coming out of public school every year..."Explosive Growth" is not nearly enough to make a bit of difference for freedom. Life is going to be a living hell for libertarians in the near future when the animals in DC really get going.

    1. Yes. Unfortunately there are millions of Jerry Wolfgang's flooding out of the school system every year. I know what it is like. It's kind of a dreary existence devoid of principle, critical thinking and philosophical conviction. Easily malleable to be molded by constant bombardment of propaganda and media disinformation.

      It's a significant disadvantage for the liberty movement, but not insuperable. We need to consistently hold to principle and truth. Some seem to be deviating significantly as exemplified by the attempts to infuse egalitarianism into the core philosophy and also some of the "libertarian" reactions to the Ukrainian "crisis". They simple brusquely ignore the Washington instigated coup and then just chose to indirectly toady up to the regime by condemning Russian "aggression", while remaining ambivalent on Washington's interference in Ukrainian internal affairs.

  2. I just read this on LRC, and couldn't agree more.
    While Lew never mentions anyone by name, it should be obvious which people he is referring to.

    I don't know if he expects ill will on the part of these people, but to a certain degree i do. At least one of them was absolutely nowhere to be found before libertarianism got its rise in popularity, and suddenly this attempt at fusion of libertarianism with radical egalitarianism pops up. A coincidence? Maybe. But i don't think so.

    At the very least what could be said is that these people who are now popping up are deliberately dividing the movement. Whether it is to cast undesirables out of the movement (from their perspective), or whether they intentionally are trying to slice the movement in two and diminish its growth and strength for more devious purposes, i have no idea (though i have my suspicions).
    For one thing there is the "brutalist vs humanitarian" divide. For other there is the clear attempt at a divide between people who see libertarianism "as is" (so well worded by Lew in the article above) and those who want to make it something it is not. Now suddenly libertarians have to "worry" about privilege issues in the stupidest of places. Race issues in laws that enable people self defense. Whether or not Ludvig von Mises was a "feminist" (how interesting, by the way, that the person being concerned with this, does not even understand or care for his economic conclusions).

    These things are both utter distractions as well as deviations from real libertarian issues. The concerns of some people who consider themselves libertarians for these issues may be legitimate. But i believe there are others with a distinct agenda.

    As i mentioned before: libertarianism has reached the eyes of mainstream society: the attempts at co-option has begun.

    1. This is precisely the reason Jezebels (or people afflicted with the spirit) are cast out of church congregations: they sow deceit, cause division, and actively work to destroy from within. They use a combination of manipulation and intimidation, and generally try to get in with the more influential people in a family/church/movement/society so as to corrupt from behind the scenes. Weak men are particularly susceptible to being manipulated by this spirit, usually from an afflicted woman. Does that fit the scenario here? It's a shame so many libertarians are staunch atheists, when there's actually quite a bit of practical wisdom in Christian teachings.

  3. Very timely remarks given the recent attempts by leftists to re-brand Libertarianism.
    I particularly admire Lew's style of writing, very clear and laconic.

    1. I think it was bound to happen sooner or later. Republicans like to demonize libertarians for taking away votes from them (a vote for the Libertarian is a vote for the Democrat), but in reality, Libertarians have been taking away from Democrats as much as they have Republicans, thanks to Obama basically carrying out GW Bush's 3rd and 4th term.

  4. Tucker better hope Lew doesn't open all the gun ports.

    1. I think Lew should. He'd better if he doesn't want these perversions to fester and spread like cancer.

  5. Of interest is the Rothbard/Rockwell Report of the early 1990s where they discuss their departure form the Libertarian Party. Especially the early issues.

    I still have the liberty magazine article where Rockwell blasts "modal" libertarians.

    1. Here's Rothbard blasting "modal"s too:

      "He is apt to buttonhole you at the first opportunity and go on at great length about his own particular "great discovery" about his mighty manuscript which is crying out for publication if only it hadn't been suppressed by The Powers That Be...But above all, the ML is a moocher, a bunco artist, and often an outright crook. His basic attitude toward other libertarians is "Your house is my house." short, whether they articulate this "philosophy" or not, [MLs] are libertarian-communists: anyone with property is automatically expected to "share" it with the other members of his extended libertarian "family."

      Not only does this sound like someone over at FEE, but it also reminds me of anti-IP people.

    2. I am stunned to report that "urban dictionary" has a great description & defintion of "modal libertarians" by "Tex in Tex" back in 08':

      When urban dictionary has a Rothbard reference you know his influence is growing.

  6. This thoughtful article shreds the sanctimonious B.S. peddled by pseudo libertarians like Jeffery Tucker. It really is all about self ownership, non-aggression and individual liberty. Everything about libertarianism flows from these basic principles. Currently fashionable opinions about race or gender equity have nothing to do with libertarian values and are directly contrary to it when imposed by the State.

    There is if course a great deal of work to be done convincing people that the Conservative or Progressive ideas are dangerous, tyrannical and dysfunctional. I had an argument with a neighbor recently about why the National Security Police State is so dangerous, and she just couldn't imagine how having all of her public movements tracked and recorded by government could be a problem at all. But she was outraged that the local police broke up her daughters 16 birthday and threatened to arrest her for disturbing the peace. See the disconnect there? The same people who threatened to arrest her for a nuisance violation can be trusted to spy on her 24/7. Just getting people to think rationally is a big challenge.

  7. Lew once said this battle goes on until the Parousia.

  8. Perusing through the articles of this website:

    It is becoming more and more clear to me that C. Reisenwitz is libertarianism's own Rebecca Watson (whom hijacked the atheist movement for her own "social justice" agenda in order to get more fame and money), and just like Watson intentionally created a rift between atheists and "atheists +" (after being criticized and mocked by Richard Dawkins), is creating one in libertarianism between brutalists and humanitarians in order to create a niche around herself to exploit.
    In that sense, Jeffrey Tucker has become to Reisenwitz as PZ Myers is to Rebecca Watson.

    Is there really a coincidence that both these movements, centered around a fairly simple idea, were not considered to be "feminist" enough? And that a rift ensued?

    And is Tucker's supposed to be the libertarian equivalent to freethoughtblogs (the cult-like environment where the politically correct, left-wing version of atheism rule the day)?

    An article (not particularly fond of libertarianism, it seems) also notices the similarity between Reisenwitz and Watson.

    1. I'm convinced, er, is Tucker's vision of redemption by technology that wasted a lot of LvMI's money, e.g., audio/visual equipment for his "Interviews," the "Community and Blogs," an complicated and non-intuitive Forum/message board, acquisition, digitizing, and free distribution of scores of books that no one wanted to read, etc. a few years ago.

  9. When I read this article by Lew it definitely seemed that there were daggers in it aimed at Tucker and Reisen-sh*tz. The latter needs to be home (and stay there) baking cookies and making teas and having babies. Come to think of it, so should Tucker, except the having babies part.

  10. More and more people are objecting to libertarianism based on these divisive symbolic issues. I had a conservative type tell me the other day that he couldn't support libertarianism because libertarians support gay marriage and open borders.

    Sadly it is the modal libertarians that seem to be garnering the media attention and that is damaging the movement.

    My take on gay marriage is that the government shouldn't involve itself in marriage at all, and the government stepping back from marriage will take the heat out of the issue. Also libertarian support for open borders is highly conditional. Open borders + welfare state = aggression and can't be supported by a libertarian in my opinion.