The essence of liberty:
What is it that really makes one a libertarian?
By David F. Nolan
As a founder of the Libertarian Party and editor-in-chief of California
Liberty, I am often asked how to tell if someone is "really" a libertarian. This
question has arisen more often than usual in the past few months, as more and
more politicians are starting to use libertarian-sounding rhetoric-and it's a
point worth raising.
There are probably as many different definitions of the word
"libertarian" as there are people who claim the label. These range from overly
broad ("anyone who calls himself a libertarian is one") to impossibly
doctrinaire ("only those who agree with every word in the party platform are
truly anointed"). My own definition is that in order to be considered a
libertarian, at least in the political context, an individual must adhere
without compromise to five key points.
Ideally, of course, we'd all be in agreement on everything. But we're
not, and probably never will be. Debate is likely to continue indefinitely on
such matters as abortion, foreign policy, and whether, when, and how various
government programs can be discontinued or privatized. But as far as I'm
concerned, if someone is sound on these five points, he/she is de facto a
libertarian; if he fails on even one of the five, he isn't.
What, then, are the "indispensable five"-the points of no compromise?
You Own Yourself
First and foremost, libertarians believe in the principle of
self-ownership. You own your own body and mind; no external power has the right
to force you into the service of "society" or "mankind" or any other individual
or group for any purpose, however noble. Slavery is wrong, period.
Because you own yourself, you are responsible for your own well-being.
Others are not obligated to feed you, clothe you, or provide you with health
care. Most of us choose to help one another voluntarily, for a variety of
reasons-and that's as it should be-but "forced compassion" is an oxymoron, a
contradiction in terms.
The Right to Self-Defense
Self-ownership implies the right to self-defense. Libertarians yield to
no one in their support for our right as individuals to keep and bear arms. We
wish only that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution said, "The right to
self-defense being inalienable . . . " instead of that stuff about a
"well-regulated militia." Anyone who thinks that government-any government-has
the right to disarm its citizens is NOT a libertarian!
No "Criminal Possession" Laws
In fact, libertarians believe that individuals have the right to own and
use anything-gold, guns, marijuana, sexually explicit material-so long as they
do not harm others through force or the threat of force. Laws criminalizing the
simple possession of anything are tailor-made for police states; it is all too
easy to plant a forbidden substance in someone's home, car, or pocket.
Libertarians are as tough on crime-real crime-as anyone. But criminal possession
laws are an affront to liberty, whatever the rhetoric used to defend them.
No Taxes on Productivity
In an ideal world, there would be no taxation. All services would be paid
for on an as-used basis. But in a less-than-ideal world, some services will be
force-financed for the foreseeable future. However, not all taxes are equally
deleterious, and the worst form of taxation is a tax on productivity-i.e. an
"income" tax-and no libertarian supports this type of taxation.
What kind of taxation is least harmful? This is a topic still open for
debate. My own preference is for a single tax on land, with landholders doing
their own valuation; you'd state the price at which you'd be willing to sell
your land, and pay taxes on that amount. Anyone (including the tax collector)
who wanted to buy it at that price could do so. This is simple, fair, and
minimizes government snooping into our lives and business. Is this "the"
libertarian position on taxes? No. But all libertarians oppose any form of
A Sound Money System
The fifth and final key test of anyone's claim to being a libertarian is
their support for an honest money system; i.e. one where the currency is backed
by something of true value (usually gold or silver). Fiat money-money with no
backing, whose acceptance is mandated by the State-is simply legalized
counterfeiting and is one of the keys to expanding government power.
The five points enumerated here are not a complete, comprehensive
prescription for freedom . . . but they would take us most of the way. A
government which cannot conscript, confiscate, or counterfeit, and which imposes
no criminal penalties for the mere possession and peaceful use of anything, is
one that almost all libertarians would be comfortable with.
This article is scheduled to appear in the current issue of California
Liberty. For more information call 310-376-3068.