What is libertarianism?
by Martin Masse | October 28, 2000

What do libertarians believe in? In a few words, they believe that individual freedom is the fundamental value that must underlie all social relations, economic exchanges and the political system. They believe that voluntary co-operation between individuals in a free market is always preferable to coercion exerted by the state. They believe that the role of the state is not to pursue goals in the name of the community. The state is not there to redistribute wealth, "promote" culture, "support" the agricultural sector, or "help" small firms, but should limit itself to the protection of individual rights and let citizens pursue their own goals in a peaceful way.

Essentially libertarians preach freedom in all fields, including the right to do what one wants with one's own body insofar as one does not infringe on the property and equal freedom of others. Accordingly, they believe that people who want to take drugs, watch pornography, prostitute themselves or pay for the services of a prostitute, or engage in whatever kind of consensual sexual activity, should be able to do so without being importuned by the law and harassed by the police.

However, as libertarians – that is, notwithstanding their own personal preferences – they no more advocate a libertine way of life than any other, and one should not confuse the two words. What they say is that each and every person must be able to choose their own beliefs and the way of life that is appropriate to them, be it asceticism or libertinage, religious moralism or moral relativism. Libertarians will defend the right of the libertine to live in debauchery as well as that of religious fundamentalist parents to educate their children in accordance with their own very strict beliefs.

Libertarians support the formal equality of each and all before the law, but they worry little about the inequalities between rich and poor, inequalities which are inevitable and can be reduced only by encroaching on personal freedom and by reducing overall prosperity. For them, the best way to fight poverty is to guarantee a system of free enterprise and free trade and to let private charity initiatives, which are more effective and better justified morally than state programmes of wealth transfer, come to the rescue of those in need.

Libertarians believe that the only way to ensure the maintenance of personal freedom is to guarantee the inviolability of private property and to limit as much as possible the size of the government and the scope of its interventions. They do not trust the state – whose managers claim to act in the name of abstract collective interests – when it comes to protecting individual liberty. According to collectivist ideologies, a viable social and economic order can only be imposed and maintained by the state. On the contrary, libertarian scholars have shown that it is the decentralized actions of individuals who pursue their own ends in a free market which makes it possible to create and maintain this spontaneous order, to bring prosperity, and to support the complex civilization in which we live.

Thus libertarians reject the main political development of the 20th century, that is, the sustained growth in the size of the state and the range of its interventions in the private lives of citizens. To take one striking example, in 1926, public expenditures as a percentage of Canada's gross national product amounted to only 15%; today, that figure is around 46%.

Libertarians vs. conservatives

Within the North American political framework of the period after Word War II, libertarians have allied themselves with conservatives in their fight against communism and socialism. This is why many people tend to confuse both philosophies and to put them on the right-hand side of the political spectrum, following the confused model of right vs. left which is still widely used to categorize political ideologies. But libertarians are opposed to conservatives on several points, in particular on social issues where conservatives often try to impose their traditional values on all by using the coercive power of the state, for example, when they support making drugs and prostitution illegal or when they advocate official discrimination against homosexuals. On issues related to defense and foreign relations, conservatives are inclined to support militarism and imperialist interventions abroad, while libertarians advocate, when possible, isolationism and non-involvement in foreign conflicts.

In fact, conservatives value authority in itself and do not oppose state power in principle, doing so only when its aims are not the same as theirs. On the contrary, libertarians reject any form of government intervention. Many of them think they do not qualify as right-wingers and that the right/left spectrum should be replaced by another one which would place the statists and authoritarians of left and right on one side and the supporters of personal freedom of the other.

Libertarians are thus opposed to collectivist ideologies of all types, be they of the left or of the right, which stress the primacy of the group: nation, social class, sexual or ethnic group, religious or language community, etc. They oppose all whose purpose it is to regiment individuals in the pursuit of collective goals. They do not deny the relevance of these collective identities, but claim that it is up to the individuals themselves to determine which groups they wish to belong and contribute to. It is not for the state, or for institutions that derive their power from the state, to impose their own objectives in a bureaucratic and coercive manner.

In the ongoing debate over Quebec's "national question" for example, most libertarians reject the independence project because its primary aim is to impose a Quebec state which will be stronger, more interventionist and more repressive towards those who do not fit in the nationalist definition of Quebecois identity. This being said, libertarians are not enthusiastic federalist patriots either and they reject Canadian nationalism and protectionism in the same way, as well as the interventionism and administrative tyranny of the federal government. They do not see why they should choose between two states that infringe on our freedom more or less equally. Rather, they would want to see both federal and provincial governments reduced in size as much as possible.

An heir to classical liberalism

Although it remains relatively little known and little understood today because of the near total submission of Western intellectual life to collectivist thinking throughout the 20th century, libertarian philosophy is not a weird marginal philosophy, only propagated by a small group of utopians disconnected from reality. On the contrary, it is heir to the most important Western political and economic school of the last centuries, classical liberalism, a philosophy elaborated by thinkers such as John Locke and Adam Smith. Beginning in the 17th century, it is the liberals who fought for a widening of political, economic and social freedoms, against the power of the monarchs and the privileges of the aristocrats. Liberal principles are at the root of the American Constitution, and one can say that the United States as well as Great Britain and Canada were largely governed in a liberal way throughout the 19th century and up to the beginning of the 20th.

Then, why not use the word liberal instead of libertarian? Because this term, precisely since the end of the 19th century, took on new meanings which are not at all compatible with the defense of individual freedom. In Great Britain, in Canada and in Quebec, supposedly liberal parties are in fact only a little more moderate than avowed socialists in their inclination to use state power and in their lack of respect for individual rights.

Worse still, in the United States, a liberal is a left-winger who advocates wealth redistribution and supports a big government that interferes everywhere in people's lives. A government that tries to solve all real and imaginary problems by taxing and spending, and creates bureaucratic programs for each good cause. In short, today's liberalism aims at creating a tyrannical state that does not hesitate to trample on individual freedom in the name of an unattainable collectivist Utopia. This type of liberalism has nothing to do with classical liberalism.

Today's libertarians are inspired by former periods of liberal progress but, after one century during which collectivist and totalitarian ideologies have dominated, they realize that classical liberalism was not strong or principled enough to stem the rising tide of statism. They are more coherent or, some may say, radical, than traditional liberals in their defense of personal freedom and the market economy and in their opposition to state power.

A pluralistic movement

Like all philosophical movements, libertarianism is varied, containing several schools and sub-groups, and one will find no unanimity about its theoretical justifications, its goals or the strategy that it should adopt to reach them. In North America, a majority of those who call themselves libertarians would like to see the state brought back to a few essential functions: in particular defense, foreign relations, justice, the protection of private property and individual rights, and some other minor responsibilities. All remaining functions should be privatized. In the context of a very decentralized federal state, libertarians accept however that local authorities (constituent States, provinces, regions or municipalities) can intervene in other fields and offer various types of social and economic arrangements, insofar as dissatisfied citizens can easily move to other jurisdictions.

Some libertarians of the "anarcho-capitalist" school advocate the complete disappearance of the state and the privatization of even the basic functions mentioned above. This goal may appear extreme or ridiculous at first sight, but it is based on a theoretically plausible argument. It is for example easy to imagine that one could replace provincial, State or municipal police forces (with the corruption, abuses of power, the incompetence and favouritism which usually characterize them, all done often with impunity) with private security agencies. These would make profits only insofar as they really protect citizens and fight real criminals. Anarcho-capitalists use the same type of arguments to support the privatization of the army and the courts, which would leave nothing for a state to do. Private firms would then provide all the services that individuals might need in a pure free market.

In a context where public spending now accounts for almost half of all that is produced, where governments continue to adopt law after law so as to increase their control over our lives, a more realistic libertarian goal is simply to reverse this trend and fight for any practical advancement of freedom and any concrete reduction in state tyranny.

Libertarians are the only ones willing to enter this fight without compromising their beliefs. The fact is that the current ideological debate remains dominated by statists, despite the superficial political controversies that attract media attention.

On one side, socialists and leftist supporters of unlimited growth in the size of government make up a strong majority among lobbies feeding at the public trough, in universities and in the media. Most of what passes for journalism or academic research shows a complete lack of understanding of the basic rules of a market economy. In the "centre", those who claim to be "realistic" admit that the state cannot continue to increase the tax burden and grow indefinitely, but they simply preach a slowing down of this growth. The business establishment for its part would be satisfied with some minor cuts here and there and few of its members question the corporatist structure of the state. As for those on the Right who are described as radical "neo-conservatives", their stated aim is to bring us back to where we were 20 or 30 years ago when the ratio of state expenditures to GDP was 5 or 10 percentage points smaller. A step that would be in the right direction, but one that is hardly sufficient.

Also, one has to admit that the so-called "conservative revolutions" of the past 20 years in Britain, Canada and the United States have not really produced major change, although some useful economic reforms and tax cuts were implemented. Few programmes and laws were abolished and the state still occupies a dominant place in economic and social life. It is even to be feared that bureaucratic programmes will start growing again now that budget deficits have been eliminated and that governments have surplus revenues to spend.

Libertarians are the only ones who demand and work for radical change, a drastic reduction of the size and role of the state, they are the only ones who value individual freedom above all else. More and more people realize that libertarianism constitutes the only alternative. The libertarian movement hardly existed in the 1960's and really took off in the United States in the early 1970's. The U.S. Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, is now third in importance after the Republicans and the Democrats. Whereas collectivist philosophies and Keynesian economics used to dominate academic life, recently there has been a revival of interest in classical liberalism and free market economics in the universities. Finally, today, libertarian philosophy can be found everywhere on the Internet and its influence is growing in every continent.  

Thus we can hope realistically that a century after the eclipse of classical liberalism, its libertarian offspring will once again become an influential philosophical doctrine and movement in the 21st century.

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Première représentation écrite du mot « liberté » en Mésopotamie, environ 2300 av. J.-C.

First written appearance of the word 'liberty,' circa 2300 B.C.


Le Québécois Libre
En faveur de la liberté individuelle, de l'économie de marché et de la coopération volontaire depuis 1998.

Le Québécois Libre Promoting individual liberty, free markets and voluntary cooperation since 1998.


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