Five Isms That Are Not Libertarianism

1. Libertarianism is not constitutionalism.
the constitution is not libertarian

This is not a libertarian document.

To relegate libertarianism to the constitution of any state is to limit it. Despite what may appear to be a libertarian influence, no constitution that exists today is a libertarian document. To link libertarianism with any constitution is to link libertarianism with the political ideology of the state that produced it. We can not point to any country in the world and say, “That is a libertarian state.” We should therefore be able to say of constitutions; “That is not a libertarian document.”

In fact, libertarianism has no forward relationship to constitutions at all. It is because no constitution is libertarian that we can not arrive at a more libertarian environment by relying upon one. If we can not attain additional liberty by relying upon a constitution we are already in a condition of maximum liberty – a premise most would rightly reject – or the constitution stands in our way. The abolition of constitutions, then, is a necessary step in the attainment of additional liberty.

We should also avoid a glamorization of historical constitutions. Many wish a return to an imagined past with alternative constitutional interpretations. Yet, at no point in the past have constitutional societies been libertarian. Not even in the wildest revision of their histories. We can not attain additional liberty by regressing to the 18th or 19th century.

And no libertarian discussion of constitutions is complete without a tip to Lysander Spooner:

“The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation. It has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so much as even purport to be a contract between persons now existing. It purports, at most, to be only a contract between persons living eighty years ago. And it can be supposed to have been a contract then only between persons who had already come to years of discretion, so as to be competent to make reasonable and obligatory contracts. Furthermore, we know, historically, that only a small portion even of the people then existing were consulted on the subject, or asked, or permitted to express either their consent or dissent in any formal manner. Those persons, if any, who did give their consent formally, are all dead now. Most of them have been dead forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years. And the constitution, so far as it was their contract, died with them.”

2. Libertarianism is not authoritarianism.

Libertarianism is, in fact, the polar opposite of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is an antonym of libertarianism. It is important to understand, then, that individual liberty or libertarianism can be measured by its opposition to authoritarianism. The more a position drifts toward authority the further it drifts from liberty.

A rejection of authoritarianism should not be confused with a rejection of authority:

“Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.”

3. Libertarianism is not conservatism.

Conservatism is little more than a dedication to the existing status quo or the status quo of the recent past. Unless the current state of affairs or the recent past were libertarian then there is no relationship between libertarianism and conservatism.

While many libertarians call themselves socially liberal and economically conservative this is imprecise. The economic state of affairs in its current form, full of taxation and market restriction, is not libertarian. Nor has it been any different in the past of any person alive today. We can not point to a past state of affairs and say, “That was a truly free market.” Instead, a free market is a future ideal. It is the goal of a new, free market, not the conservation of a past market, that is the epitome of the libertarian economic ideal.

4. Libertarianism is not legalism.
The opinion of the person in the robe is not libertarianism.

The opinion of the person in the robe is not libertarianism.

Libertarianism does not use legislation as an ethical standard. The status of an act is morally independent of its status as a law. Any given law is only valid insofar as it respects individual rights and maximizes individual liberty. The law is subordinated to the good.

A law that does not respect individual rights, or a law that does not maximize individual liberty, can not be said to be libertarian. In fact we can not accept such a law in the first place. A law of this character can not be said to have any authority at all.

This is not to say a law can not be enforced upon us. Laws can be coercively enforced, but enforcement is not a characteristic of justice or libertarian ethics. All bad laws have been enforced, from slavery to the modern drug war. But the authority by which they are enforced is the might of the state, the rule of a brute, not a legitimate authority derived from consent, nature or the individual.

This gives the libertarian ethical license to avoid or even break bad laws. It also puts ethical responsibility upon the libertarian: following a law is not an excuse for committing evil acts. The libertarian categorically rejects variations of “following orders” or “doing my job.” The individual is held to account for the orders he or she follows, the job he or she does, be it legal or illegal.

5. Libertarianism is not nationalism.
These are not the borders of libertarianism.

These are not the borders of libertarianism.

Nationalism would confine libertarianism to the borders of a state. Like constitutionalism, nationalism reduces libertarianism to the status quo of an already-existing political body. This places the loyalty of the individual not to him or herself, not to his or her fellow individual, but to the political illusion of the nation-state. Devotion to the nation-state usurps a devotion to liberty.

The love of a country, the love of a state, is not a libertarian characteristic. Unless the state can be said to maximize human liberty rather than impede it – and unless it is impossible to conceive of a superior state or social order – the love of a state has no place in a libertarian world view. The state is good only insofar as it maximizes liberty. It is evil as far as it infringes upon liberty. And the latter case, the state as evil, is more common than the former.

This is not a call to anarchism, but it could be. It is a statement on the political and social reality of existing states. The libertarian could hypothetically support a nation-state. But the libertarian could not support any of the non-libertarian nation-states that exist today.

The question to ask of the nationalist: would you destroy your own country if it maximized human liberty? The libertarian does not hesitate. The state would become the sacrificial lamb. The nationalist falters because they love the state in and of itself irrespective of the state’s relationship to liberty.