The Meaning of Libertarian

I’ve been giving libertarianism some thought over the past few days. My natural instinct when people attack (most) libertarians and libertarianism in general is to become quite defensive. To me, libertarianism implicitly tends to mean constraining the state to various forms of one function: protecting liberty. Implicit in that is the view that states should never resort to force or violent coercion (“the non-aggression principle”). In my cosmos this manifests itself as non-interventionism (i.e. negative liberty) — unwillingness to intervene in the affairs of foreign nations, in markets, in citizens’ private lives.

We have had years of big, visible interventionist screwups — an Iraq war that left over a million Iraqis dead, economic policies like bank bailouts and quantitative easing associated with growing inequality, etc. So I tend to lean toward the idea that irrespective of the libertarian alternatives to the status quo, libertarian criticism is at the very least a noble pursuit.

One problem with libertarianism (and with all schools of thought based around “liberty”) is that no two people will necessarily agree on what liberty is. Libertarians’ cousins, the liberals tend to constellate their ideas around the goal “protecting liberty”, too. But their version of “liberty” is highly interventionist (i.e. positive liberty): they want to use the machinations of the state regulate banks, to regulate the climate, to regulate markets, to dole out money to the less-fortunate, and sometimes even to intervene in the affairs of foreign lands.

And the really complicated thing is that in the real world most people tend to want some of both; protection by the state, as well as freedom from the state. And different people want different aspects of each — some “libertarians” may want freedom from financial regulations, but may believe strongly in drug testing welfare applicants. Other “libertarians” may want gay marriage rights, but also want Glass-Steagall-style financial regulations. Some “libertarians” may want an end up to corporate campaign financing, and others may say that is an essential aspect of free speech. Some “libertarians” may believe strongly in corporate personhood, while others may say that limited liability is effectively market-rigging.

And even when libertarians agree on what they want to achieve, they often cannot agree on how to get there. Some libertarians want to abolish everything tomorrow, others want a more gradual change. Some want to end the foreign wars and nation building first, others first want to kick people off welfare.

Here’s a Twitter conversation I had yesterday:

For readers unfamiliar with so-called “libertarian” Tyler Cowen’s positions, here’s a primer:

Cowen has been described as a “libertarian bargainer” — someone of moderate libertarian ideals who can influence practical policy making. In a 2007 article entitled “The Paradox of Libertarianism,” Cowen argued that libertarians “should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.” Cowen endorsed bailouts in a March 2, 2009 column in the New York Times. He was a supporter of the Iraq War.

Cowen could be fairly described as a raging neocon wrapped up in the language and mannerisms of libertarianism.

I think what most people are missing is that ideology is very often a mask for interests. Wealthy business interests are happy to wear the clothes of libertarianism and appeal to libertarian principles (including even the principles of non-violence and voluntarism) when they want to ask for tax cuts. But they are less willing to do so when it comes to slashing subsidies, or outlawing corporate or government snooping, or preventing wars from which they might profit. They might be happy to preach the doctrine of free markets when their companies are successful, but happy to embrace bailouts when their companies fail.

And that is the problem with ideology. Too easily it can become a tool. Or worse, it becomes a weapon to enforce a party line. And that’s why I cannot in good conscience call myself a libertarian, or a classical liberal, or member of any kind of ideological mass movement. The terms are all quickly hijacked and rendered meaningless. And this isn’t solely a political point: think of musical movements like “punk” and “grunge” and “hip hop”.

So I reject ideology, and instead embrace principles. The key difference is that while ideologies are generalised blanket positions that encompass an entire range of issues, principles apply locally. I accept some “libertarian” views, and I reject others. It seems completely pointless to muddy the conversation by defining myself as a libertarian (or a liberal, or a conservative), thus associating myself with a whole blanket of ideas, some of which I agree with and others that I don’t. It is better to just talk specifically about policies and positions that I agree with, or disagree with.

I disagree passionately with handouts to big finance, with aggressive or imperialist foreign policies, with prohibitionism, with corporate personhood and with large-scale central economic planning. On the other hand, I think that a small social welfare net funded by taxation is a good idea. Does that make me a libertarian? A liberal? I don’t care.

The main problem with this anti-ideological view is that ideological labels are — for most people — a useful shorthand. Nothing will stop the cascade of labels that are thrown around. It’s quick, dirty and easy. But we should be aware that they smudge reality into digestible compartments, at the expense of detail. We should be aware that they are intellectual shortcuts.

31 thoughts on “The Meaning of Libertarian

  1. Fantastic work.

    You are giving voice to thoughts I’ve also struggled with, such as, how do I speak to people:
    1. Who are “libertarian” when it serves their interests, at the expense of society. That is not merely a matter of hypocrisy. It is a pathological, rapacious selfishness that (if unchecked) would end civilization as we know it.
    2. Who advance a political ideology that is untempered by any sort of pragmatism, sense of justice, or fairness.

    I can’t merely disengage and claim to be making a positive difference in the world. But the labels “liberal”, “conservative”, or “libertarian” are obvious over simplifications intended to either dismiss an argument that is threatening, but otherwise persuasive, or to deflect scrutiny from views that are otherwise weakly supported. So I can reject those labels without leaving the conversation altogether.

  2. Nice post! Here are two thoughts:
    1) Are labels really the problem or are labels that aren’t descriptive enough the problem? (I guess overly descriptive labels may defeat the point of the shortcut though.)
    2) One of the problems with labels is that once we start slapping labels on ourselves it becomes easy to have contradictory beliefs that we must reconcile. I think most of us don’t like this because, as you’ve illustrated, it can get messy and we get easily confused.

    • Well if you add up all my separate principles you could call it “Azizism” and if you added up all your separate principles you could call it “Linsterism”, but to fully capture the diversity of global opinion we’d have to do this millions or billions of times, creating millions or billions of labels.

        • Modesty says that my views are probably better summed up by the term “Talebism”, but Taleb and I have disagreed quite vociferously in the past, and that’s kinda the point.

  3. Aziz, though you protest I think this post proves you are a true libertarian unlike bullshit merchants like Cowen, and even old ideologues Rothbard and Nozick. Libertarianism to me is characterized by resistance to collectivism. Your ideological individualism is the true libertarianism.

  4. Thanks for your opinion, eloquently presented as usual, it’s very appreciated. The Internet is truly deserved of bright minds like your own.

      • Though, the poor woman’s face probably had a lot to do with the popularity of said article. I wonder how many of those readers really appreciated the underlying concepts, and whether some might have even gotten more shallow after presented with the article (enraged at some monstrous ugly woman with authority trying to tell them what to do – and hence the concept of global warming got even more bastardized). Rather hesitant to write this comment (but you know when looking at the world most of the time I only see what’s lacking).

        • Azziz, I had a feeling those teeth were there for a reason. Go on, you photoshopped them, didn’t you?

          My problems with libertarianism are manifold and too multitudinous to go into. In short though, libertarian ideas are a cover for the worst sort of crony capitalist, would-be robber barons who objects to paying taxes and their usual supporters on the right, along with immature males who still hold juvenile fantasies of being “strongmen” , living in a state free world of permanent chaos.

          2 ugly pschologies.

          It puts me in mind of the wild west. A great time to be a thrusting, trailblazing hard-nut, but no place for the old, or widows, or the only moderatelly strong., And a very bad place if you had a violent, powerful, well armed and protected neighbour who coveted your land.

        • Synopticist:

          Nope, I lifted the pic from the Daily Mail site, which lifted it from So unless her own college photoshopped her, it seems real.

          In short though, libertarian ideas are a cover for the worst sort of crony capitalist, would-be robber barons who objects to paying taxes and their usual supporters on the right, along with immature males who still hold juvenile fantasies of being “strongmen” , living in a state free world of permanent chaos.

          It can be that, especially if your name is Tyler Cowen or David Koch. For the vast majority of “libertarians” other than the Ayn Rand people that really isn’t the case at all.

  5. Labels are a convenient tool to degrade or marginalise. Call Libertarians kooky, to undermine the movement. This is a Communist propaganda programme.

    However two can play that game. I have concluded Liberals in the USA are the 1 % who get government gravy. They keep the poor, poor, so they can manage the Welfare system to achieve an OUTCOME. Their cushy jobs. So to call yourself a Liberal is to call yourself someone who believes in goverenment largesse, no matter your shade of Politics.

    G’Day Alister,

    Krugman and the Fed have supporters in Australia.

    They feel like the victim.

    As Juliar Gillard would say. “Working Australians appreciate an economic environment that has sound economic outcomes”

    I am sick of this word in Political speak “Outcomes” Every bureacrat wants an outcome!

    Were are working for the Australian Public for an achieavable outcome. Like overprice nepotistic supported over price school building program OUTCOMES. Or a National Broadband infrastructure rollout costing billions more OUTCOME!

    For a foreign readers, do your Politicians use this word OUTCOME to the point of bemusement?

    • “Labels are a convenient tool to degrade or marginalise. Call Libertarians kooky, to undermine the movement. This is a Communist propaganda programme.”

      Is it common for “individualists” to blame others for their problems? I’m sorry, but Libertarianism deserves some of these labels considering the more prominent people sent to voice the ideas of Libertarianism. Ron Paul, anyone? I think he is a good person and we definitely need someone advocating non-intervention, but he also thought that the civil rights act was unconstitutional and wants to “abolish the fed” …. Yeah, good luck with that. Then you have the libertarians who dog just about everything the govt does and yet strangely want the same govt to protect their rights and property! Incredible. Its not hard to understand how Libertarianism could be seen as a selfish ideology when you listen to some libertarians’ rhetoric on the “free” market. There are folks out there – though as Aziz points out, may just use Libertarianism for their own goals – that think regulation is on a par with communism, or some other perceived “evil” in the world. Point being: you can’t necessarily blame anyone for the confusion except the “libertarians” preaching about it. Very few people, like Aziz, who appears extremely knowledgeable in economics and other backgrounds, are mainstream. Sometimes I feel like Libertarianism is nothing more than fear-mongering and paranoia wrapped in a pretty bow; sometimes I find sites like Azizonomics or Zero hedge that really get me thinking and proud to espouse certain Libertarian principles. One things for sure, Aziz was exactly right to say reject ideology and embrace principles!

      • I grew up in the roughest suburb of Australia. I had to fund my own education. My father still wakes up at 4 every morning and works a slaughter chain. I should be as Liberal as Obama and Pelosi. But I am not. Because I realise that these Parasites rely on the votes of people who I could have been if I decided to suck off the Government teat.

        Liberals are vampires preying on the souls of zombies.

        Would they ever invite their host’s home for a dinner party? No. They ate hypocrites. They only keep them alive for the votes they provide. I see the Liberal types sipping their lattes and promoting the rights of the poor as they drive past a broken down car, hoping someone else will deal with the person down on their luck. A Libertarian would probably stop to help.

        Ron Paul reminds me of my Grandfather. A man of sound principles. Someone who puts the next generation ahead of himself.

        But enough with labels. John is right. We need a return to principles not labels we can look back on when our lives are over and have a guilt free conscious.

        • ” I see the Liberal types sipping their lattes and promoting the rights of the poor as they drive past a broken down car, hoping someone else will deal with the person down on their luck”

          I wouldn’t go as far to say that all liberals do this, but those latte sipping ones that do are fucking annoying. As are those republicans, er, libertarians, erm, pseudo-libertarians that proclaim non-aggression and non-violence, as their failed economic polices ravage communities and prey disproportionately on the poor. Milton Friedman, anyone?

        • No I am notbeing harsh. I never saw a well intentioned Liberal come to my school to try and improve the schools facilities. I saw how Canberra our national capital (Washinton D.C.) is far more resourced than my Liberal voting heartland I grew up in. A train line promised at my birth to the poorest suburb, still is being debated whether it should be built. This in a safe secure seat in politics. Our Labour/Liberal MP lives in the most affluent part of this seat.

          Unions who support Liberals never came to my school and said make sure you learn a trade because we’ll support you and your career.. No I was steered into University, a poor cousin tour best Universities and paid the wages of incompetant Liberal leaning Economist and Accounting teachers.

          They are all incompetant and all ill principled. I came from the poorest of the poor, so I know what they did for me.

          Communists in Stalinist Russia destroyed my family. They are Parasites. People who havre Communist sympathies (Liberals) Are despised.

          Watch the new Movie/Documentary “Holodomor” for a real life lesson in Liberal beginnings..

    • No issues Jon. I am just calling the Communist Liberal Unionists for what they are: hypocrites.

      They seem to chant rant and rave about Libertarians, Anarchists, Capitalists being this and that but can’t handle a confrontation from the “poor and down trodden” who don’t need their help and see through their lies. If someone like me does not join their cause they use demeaning methodoligies.

      This is the ammunition of the intellectually defeated.

  6. Pingback: Lao Tzu on Liberty « azizonomics

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