Libertarian Party NEWS

March 1995 


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 income tax.

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.