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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

So what is a libertarian?

Part 1 in a series of thoughts on the nature of liberty and libertarians.

I have often pondered what principles are shared by all real libertarians, and have periodically tried to produce a set of ‘distilled axioms’ that we all share. This has always proved harder than one might think. Minarchism, Objectivism, Anarcho-Capitalism, Agorism, Dynamism, capital ‘L’ Political Party Libertarianism, Hoppeism, cultural conservative libertarianism, classical liberalism, Whigs, etc. etc. all more or less fall within the nebulous taxonomy of ‘libertarians’ whilst at the same time often vilifying each other’s ‘-isms’.

I eventually came to the conclusion that it was not the ‘non-initiation of force principle’ which is frequently offered up as the core axiom that characterises us all (I regard that as emergent default behaviour, which is to say a consequence, not an underlying axiom). What I offer up is:

You are not a libertarian unless you accept as axiomatic that, at its core, society must allow individuals to make their own choices in the pursuit of self-defined ends.

Now the reason I think this is the case is that whilst we objectively derive our rights as individuals, we nevertheless exist within a social setting. We are not isolated atomic entities living in fortified towers, we are social individuals. Misrepresenting this self-evident fact results in people thinking that ‘libertarians’ are in fact nihilists and therefore treating libertarian theories on ‘anarchy’ (the rule of no-one) as synonym for ‘disorder’. Now part of the reason for this is that libertarian revulsion for the statist force based collective in all its modern forms (socialism, the overt end of the collectivist continuum… and statist conservatism, the covert end of the continuum), makes them condemn any function of the modern state because that what is being done is currently being carried out by the state, rather than because the function is inherently antithetical to liberty: the military immediately springs to mind.

This has blinded many to the fact collectivist and collective are not the same thing at all. We can come together to create wealth (for example, getting a job and working for someone else) or band together to deal with an emergency when one or all of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse come calling, i.e. act collectively without without becoming collectivists, because a collectivist does not accept that you, an individual, actually owns anything… and so how can you voluntarily elect for collective action what is not yours to loan or dispose of. To them is was never your land, your capital, your labour to begin with because several property does not exist.

And therein also lies the difference between the covert form of collectivism, statist conservativism, and actual libertarians. A conservative will accept the concept of several property, but only sort of. This also has misleading echoes of the difference between the libertarian propertarian/anarcho-capitalist view of absolute personal sovereignty over several property and the libertarian minarchist views to which folks like me subscribe to, which sees property rights as contextual: within the context of a forest fire or war, your property rights are subordinated to the reality of non-civil society, without being alienated once civil society is restored. Conservatives on the other hand will sing paeans to private property whilst supporting compulsory purchase (US: eminent domain) for ‘important’ yet non-emergency reasons, such as roads, parks, urban redevelopments or whatever seems ‘sensible’ for the ‘common good’. Yes, you can own property but not if Donald Trump really wants to build on it.

Statist conservatives generally see societies as having separate ‘rights’ too, as it they were somehow more than shorthand for an aggregated expression of individual decisions, blurring the boundary between society and state in the process and masking the reality that they really agree with the socialists that the collective trumps the individual when push comes to shove. Socialists take that a giant step further, seeing state and society as one just as Jean-Jacques Rousseau always argued, the individual as no more independent from the society-as-state than a blood cell from a human body. So a libertarian is someone who thinks rights are something only individuals have but opinions vary greatly how we actually interact socially within the context of our objectively (or naturally or divinely or even subjectively…pick one depending on your -ism) derived rights.

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