A Simple Explanation of Libertarian Philosophy

April 11, 2010 at 6:22 pm Leave a comment

I was recently listening to someone trying to explain his libertarian political philosophy, and I noticed something: libertarians don’t always do a good job of explaining their political philosophy.  Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that libertarians tend to be extremely well-read, and forget that their listeners have very likely never heard the term.  To make sure that I’m not making the same mistake, I’ll try to lay out why I believe what I believe.

The underlying assumption is that government (correctly understood) obtains its authority from the consent of those living under that government.  In other words, the only legitimate governmental powers are those that have been granted to it by the people.  Now, that seems simple enough.  I think most Americans could agree with that statement.

The next step is to begin peeling back the layers of that assumption to see what it implies.  Imagine that I told you that I was going to rob my neighbor’s house.  You would obviously object that I don’t have the right/authority to do so.  Again, this is something we can all agree with.  But what if I told you that I was going to rob my neighbor’s house so that I could give his clothes to the homeless man down the street?  I may have good intentions, but I’m sure you would still tell me (correctly) that I have no right to do so.  I have every right to give away my own clothes to help the homeless man, but robbing my neighbor is a no-no.

Now, what if I told you that since I don’t have the authority to steal my neighbor’s property to give it away, I would just give you permission to do so?  You’d look at me like I was crazy.  I obviously can’t give you permission to do something if I don’t have the authority to do it in the first place.

So we’ve established that government obtains its rightful powers only from the consent of the governed, that individuals don’t have the right to steal (even if it’s for a good reason), and that individuals don’t have the right to give others permission to steal.  The fun part comes in when we start weaving these three together.

One of government’s favorite activities is to tax the public in order to fund politically popular causes.  This is something we’ve all become very used to, and many Americans support the idea of allowing the government to collect taxes for noble causes.  But let’s take a step back and use the ideas above to answer a few questions.

Q:  What is taxation?
A:  Taxation is the coerced seizure (by government) of money belonging to the people.

Q:  Where does government (theoretically) get the authority to use force to take money from the people?
A:  From the consent of the people.

Q:  Can the people give consent for government to take money from others, even for a good cause?
A:  No, because the people themselves do not have the authority to take money from others, even for a good cause.

Q:  So what you’re saying is that since individuals don’t have the right to steal, they can’t authorize someone else (government) to steal on their behalf, and therefore the only proper means for a government to collect revenue is through voluntary donation?
A:  Exactly.

What it comes down to is that the only legitimate powers of government are those that are granted to it by the people, and which the people themselves have the right to grant. Individuals have the right to defend themselves against violence and fraud, and the government then would have every right to carry out those tasks on behalf of those freely choosing to live under that government. Beyond that, there’s no excuse for government to ever use force to compel someone to do something against his will.

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