Libertarianism, writes David Boaz, “is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others.”
Libertarians defend each person’s right to life, liberty, and property—rights that people possess naturally, before governments are created. In the libertarian view, all human relationships should be voluntary; the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have not themselves used force—actions like murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud.1
Given such a description of libertarianism, I’m often asked: What’s not to like? How could any liberty-loving person oppose this?
Those are good questions. In answering them, let us proceed in the spirit of Frédéric Bastiat and take into account not only what is seen, but also what is not seen.
What is not seen here?
Crucial unseen elements include the libertarian positions on where rights come from, how we know it, and whether objective, demonstrably true answers to such questions are necessary or even possible in defense of liberty. What are the libertarian positions on such matters?
On examination of libertarian literature, we find that libertarians generally hold that rights are “self-evident,” or “God-given,” or somehow (yet inexplicably) “natural.”2 Many libertarians hold that rights are corollaries of “self-ownership” or of the idea that the individual’s life belongs to him, which they take to be an “axiom,” a self-evident truth, or an irreducible primary.3 And many hold that the evil or impermissibility of initiatory force is an axiom, the so-called “nonaggression axiom.”4
The essential unifying idea in this core of libertarian ideology is that the existence of rights . . .
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1 David Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer (New York: The Free Press, 1997), p. 2.
2 For example, see Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer, pp. 62, 74; and Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1982), pp. 21–24.
3 For example, see Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer, p. 64; Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty, p. 59.
4 For example, see Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer, p. 74; and Murray N. Rothbard, “War, Peace, and the State,” in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays, 2nd ed. (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2000), p. 116.
5 For example, see John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979), pp. 7, 11.
6 Quoted in Sidney Hook, The Paradoxes of Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), p. 8.
7 Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion, translated by Richard Congreve (London: John Chapman, 1852), pp. 309, 313, 332–33 (emphasis removed).
8 John Rawls, Justice as Fairness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001) pp. 42–43. See also, John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 266.
9 Rawls, Theory of Justice, p. 89.
10 Rawls, Theory of Justice, p. 54; Justice as Fairness, pp. 104, 111.
11 Rawls, Theory of Justice, p. 54.
12 And if people were persuaded by such unsupported assertions, how effective would they then be as intellectual defenders of liberty?
13 The following streamlined presentation of the conceptual hierarchy underlying the principle of rights is for the purpose of indicating the nature of the hierarchy. It should not be mistaken for anything more than an indication.
14 Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964); Craig Biddle, “Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundations of a Free Society,” in The Objective Standard, Fall 2011.
15 Susan Lee, “Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2003, http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB1045015523448247263,00.html.
16 Alexander McCobin, “The Political Principle of Liberty,” in Why Liberty, edited by Tom G. Palmer (Ottawa, IL: Jameson, 2013), pp. 47–48.
17 Tom G. Palmer, “The Literature of Liberty,” in The Libertarian Reader, edited by David Boaz (New York: The Free Press, 1997), p. 422.
18 From an interview with Harry Brown in National Review, September 16, 1996, conducted by Karina Rollins.
19 Rothbard, “War, Peace, and the State,” p. 116.
20 Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty, p. 100.
21 Bryan Caplan, “Pacifism in 4 Easy Steps,” EconLog, February 17, 2013, http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2013/02/pacifism_in_4_e.html.
22 Bryan Caplan, “Pacifism Defended,” EconLog, April 25, 2011, http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/04/pacifism_defend.html.
23 Bryan Caplan, “Why Libertarians Should Be Pacifists, Not Isolationists,” EconLog, March 22, 2010, http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/03/why_libertarian.html.
24 For example, see Murray N. Rothbard, “Defense Services on the Free Market,” in Power and Market (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006), pp. 1–10; and David Friedman, “Police, Courts, and Laws—on the Market,” in The Machinery of Freedom, 2nd ed. (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1989), pp. 114–120.
25 Auberon Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State, and Other Essays, ed. Eric Mack (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1978), pp. 383–84 (paragraphing added).
26 Ayn Rand, Letters of Ayn Rand, edited by Michael S. Berliner (New York: Dutton, 1995), pp. 257–58.
27 Rand called herself a “radical for capitalism.” The phrase “radical capitalism” is somewhat
redundant, but it is a helpful redundancy as it emphasizes the need to defend freedom by reference to philosophic fundamentals. Other helpful redundancies include “rational egoism,” “individual rights,” and “laissez-faire capitalism.”
28 Unsurprisingly, this fallacy was first identified by Ayn Rand. See Rand, “Philosophical Detection,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), p. 22, footnote.
29 This fallacy, too, was first identified by Ayn Rand. See Rand, “How to Read (and Not to Write),” in The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. 1, no. 26, September 25, 1972.
30 Prior to Ayn Rand’s discovery and explication of the objective moral and philosophic foundations of liberty, advocates of liberty couldn’t ignore or deny those foundations—because the foundations were not known. Today, however, they are known (at least to some extent) by anyone who has read Rand’s or my works on the subject.