© 2009  Karen Selick

An edited version of this article first appeared in the April 7, 2009 issue of the National Post.
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Libertarianism in a Nutshell

Perhaps the best way to explain libertarianism is to show you the graph developed in 1969 by an American named David Nolan.  Nolan observed—as perhaps many of you have—that the traditional political spectrum of “left versus right” is spectacularly un-illuminating.  There are simply too many nuances in political ideology to map the differences on a single dimension.  

So Nolan said, “Let’s add a second dimension—a vertical axis perpendicular to the traditional left-right spectrum.”  His political map looked like this L-shaped graph. 

Nolan chart
On the horizontal axis, we plot economic freedom.  The more economic liberty you support, the further along this axis you are.  If you believe in capitalism (minimal taxes and unregulated markets), you are out at the right.  The more government control you support, the closer to the origin you are.  So if you believe in socialism (high taxes, the welfare state, and extensive regulation of the marketplace), you are at the far left. 

On the vertical axis, we plot “social” freedoms.  The more social liberty you support, the further up you are.  So if you believe (for instance) that we should legalize gun ownership, marijuana ownership, raw milk, surrogate pregnancy, prostitution, pornography, gambling, polygamy, and so on, you are up at the top.  The more government control you support, the further down you are.  If you believe that the government should criminalize all those things, you are down at the bottom.

Libertarianism is the political philosophy occupying the top right-hand corner of the graph.  We believe in maximizing individual freedom in both the economic and the social spheres.  We believe in minimizing state interference in both spheres.

Down at the origin is totalitarianism or “statism”—the belief that the state should control virtually everything.  Conservatives tend to cluster in the lower right-hand quadrant, although there are so many variants of conservatism that you can’t really generalize.

Now, I want to stress that libertarianism is strictly a political philosophy.  Philosophy has five main branches:  metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and politics.  Politics is the branch that deals with the relationship between the individual and the state.  Libertarianism is a political philosophy only.  It’s not a package deal. It says nothing whatsoever about any of the other branches of philosophy.   So, for instance, there are some libertarians who are atheists, and others who are religious.  The two groups have radically different views on metaphysics and epistemology, but they agree on politics.  They agree on what the state should or shouldn’t do to its citizens and for its citizens.

I feel compelled to address the erroneous notion that conservatives often have, that libertarians are also libertines.  A moment ago, I said that as a libertarian, I would legalize drugs, prostitution and so on.  But in my own personal life, I neither engage in nor advocate that others engage in such activities.  In fact, I personally behave pretty much like a social conservative.  But I don’t do it because that’s what the state decrees.  I do it because of the branch of philosophy called ethics.  According to my ethics, self-destructive activities are evil, and people shouldn’t engage in them.  But that’s entirely different from saying, “The state should outlaw them.” 

The libertarian view is that the state exists to protect individuals from harm inflicted on them by others, but not from harm that they inflict upon themselves.  The sole justification for the state is to prevent the use of physical force or fraud by one person or group against another.  It does not exist to protect people from their own self-inflicted, voluntarily chosen, idiocy.

In fact, I would argue that when the state assumes the role of moral guardian over the social sphere, we get the same unintended consequences as when the state intervenes in the economy.  In an economic welfare state, people become lazy and incapable of providing for themselves financially.  In a “moral welfare state”, they become morally lazy and incapable of determining for themselves what actions are virtuous, or even why they should behave virtuously in the first place.

That’s libertarianism in a nutshell.


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