What is a libertarian?

Anarcho-Ichthus-favSometimes it makes my head hurt to think about the labels used by libertarians. I am a libertarian. By that, I mean I oppose the initiation of violence by anyone, including the government.

When it comes to achieving this objective, I agree with Jeffrey Tucker, who wrote last spring:

“I’m interested in only one thing: progressive reductions of the role of all government power in people’s lives all the way to zero if possible. Whatever brings that about, in whatever sector it happens, and whether it happens slowly by steps or all in one fell swoop, I’m for it. I really don’t care who or what makes a contribution to this end or how it comes about, so long as it is ethical and it actually achieves the aim of human liberation, the mother of all progress, order, and higher civilization.”


Of course, we can make common cause with small-government conservatives, constitutionalists or the many varieties of minarchists (meaning “minimal rule”), but ultimately, their political goals are only pit stops along the way to a free society.

Other libertarians prefer to describe themselves as “voluntaryists,” a perfectly good term used to convey the idea that people’s interactions should be voluntary and free of government force. It’s too bad most people–quite understandably–confuse voluntaryism with with volunteerism.


Other libertarians go all out and proudly embrace the “anarchist” label, ignoring all the negative, socialist and violent associations that have been attached to that name for over a century. If that was the only problem with the term “anarchism” it might be redeemed, but there are other difficulties. Old terms are often worth salvaging, but what makes anarchism particularly prickly are the many socialists, communists and other unredeemed statists that cluster like barnacles to the ship of anarchy. One can readily get a feel for this group at places like Reddit, here and here.

They seem to understand that the word anarchism must connect with the idea of a stateless society, but they have no shame in kicking the state out the front door while leaving the back gate open for it. They want to get rid of the government and its “racist prisons and war,” and its union-busting, crony capitalism, patented GMO crops and whatever else they hate about the state. [See example: here.]

On the other hand, this variety of anarchist wants the state to break up shareholder-owned businesses and then subsidize worker buy-outs; it wants state power to weigh in on the side of labor over employers, and wants the post office to subsidize “journals of opinion.”

We quickly realize that this sort of anarchist is just a statist who hopes that someday he will get to hold the whip. It seems anarchism is a slippery brand. Perhaps it can be redeemed. Gerard Casey makes a close approach in his new book “Libertarian Anarchism: Against the State.


Another group that tries to play nice with the left side of the aisle calls themselves–not inappropriately– “Left Libertarians.” They tend toward distrust of all institutions (not just government), but they vary as to their rejection of using government-like force to achieve their objectives. Some of them are really just looking to hold the whip.

Some of these left-libertarians call themselves “bleeding heart libertarians.” They favor a society that frees the market and empowers the poor by removing all state subsidies, protections and grants of monopoly power that now favor some people over others. The idea is that a level playing field (a “freed” market) will tip the equilibrium back toward the little guy, without using government force to correct the inequities. I find the idea appealing myself. Some left-libertarians of this type would be Gary Chartier and Roderick Long.

Recognizing a libertarian

When it comes to figuring out who is a libertarian, I have found the simplest course is to ask if a person wants to use the government to push me around. Will he or she leave me alone or will they force me to pay for their pet project? A person shows his libertarian chops–not when he want to legalize drugs because he is a dopehead–but when he wants to legalize drugs, even while disapproving of drug use.


peace signThere is one interesting group which libertarians can live with peacefully, despite significant differences. These are the pacifists, by which I mean people who reject all violence, even violence used in self-defense or the defense of others.

Sure, there are some people who call themselves pacifists, but what they mean by their “pacifism” is that they do not like war. Welcome to the club.

Other “pacifists” will not use force in self-defense, but will call on others for their defense. Let us set aside these half-baked pacifists and consider pacifists like Gandhi, Tolstoy, Ammon Hennacy or the Amish. These are perfectly good allies for libertarians.

While a libertarian does not believe that anyone (or any group) may initiate violence against another, the pacifist goes one step further. She not only refuses to aggress against another person, she refuses to use violence to respond to aggression upon herself or others.

For such a person, it follows that if she refuses to support her own government in fighting against an enemy, then surely the pacifist will not lend support to a government that uses–or threatens to use–violence against me, her neighbor. She is going to leave me alone and that is what I want.

And I will leave her alone. I may ask her to join me in protecting our neighborhood from an invader and she will refuse. As a libertarian, I have no right to force her to fight for me; no right to extort money from her for my cause. Each of us respects the other’s right to live in peace.

As I see it, not every libertarian is a pacifist, but every pacifist must be a libertarian.


Richman’s law: Freedom is not the problem.

Anarcho-Ichthus-favWhenever the government sees a social or economic problem–real or imagined–it wants to handle it with some new law. 

Whether the problem is drugs or alcohol, child abuse or some trouble with banking and investment, these new laws too often fall short of their promise. They create new problems without eliminating the old. The created problems then require more regulations, and so on, in a downward spiral of government regulation. It’s the “we need more of what’s-not-working-now” solution: If a fifteen-year prison sentence doesn’t end the drug trade, then let’s make it thirty years.

Sheldon Richman

During the last few months, I’ve caught several internet webinars hosted by the Future of Freedom Foundation’s Sheldon Richman. The last one was on THE MYTH OF MARKET FAILURE (worth catching here ). Mr. Richman addressed this cycle of increasing regulation in a way that really exposes the government’s thinking in such matters.

Richman said that no matter how much the government controls things, “any problem will be blamed on whatever little sliver of freedom that remains.” Lawrence Vance–a prolific Christian libertarian himself–calls this insightful formulation, “Richman’s Law.” I intend to use it as often as possible.

Which is worse: Greed or Envy?

GreeneyesLast October’s Hurricane Sandy brought was has come to be known as “price gouging” back in the news. The usual citizen cry-babies reported price increases to the state government for items like gasoline, cabs, hotel rooms, electrical generators and other necessities.

Naturally, the politician who doesn’t drool over the chance to grandstand on this issue hasn’t been born. New Jersey governor Chris Christie was no exception: “We will not hesitate to impose the strictest penalties on profiteers who, in direct violation of our consumer protection laws, seek to capitalize on the misfortune of others in the midst of a crisis and recovery period,”

Price-gouging laws make it a crime for a merchant to raise the price of needed goods or services during shortages caused by emergency conditions. Everybody seems to love these laws.

Take the example of a city paralyzed by a monster ice storm. If I can make it to the corner hardware store—hoping to buy some ice melt—I will most likely discover an empty pallet and a sign announcing “Ice Melt $4.” Sold out. I only need one bag and would gladly pay $10 for it, but that cannot happen. If it did, the store owner would be ex-posed to criminal liability for price gouging.

Anti-price gouging laws do nothing to ensure that we can buy essential goods when we need them most. On the contrary, such price controls guarantee that we will not have enough of what we need. We could re-christen these anti-price gouging statutes as “Let’s-run-out-of-everything-as-fast-as-we-can-when-we-need-it-most” laws. These laws seem to have no purpose except: 1) to soothe the feelings of angry citizens who feel that a greedy merchant has taken advantage of them; and 2) to provide a prosecutor or attor-ney general a platform from which he can pose as champion of the consumer.

If a disaster strikes, and water, gasoline and food can-not be sold for significantly higher prices, stores sales will be brisk as everyone buys more than they need. Then—as in the case of the ice melt—none will be left to buy at any price. In addition, it is unlikely anyone will rush to ship in essential supplies when the government has removed the profit incentive.

In his book The Church and the Market, Thomas Woods gives the example of a hotel manager who raises his room prices during an emergency. The high price may cause a family to rent one room instead of two, or cause two poorer families to double up. If such “price gouging” were allowed, the hotel could provide shelter for many additional people in an emergency. True enough, the hotel owner gets the payoff, but should that be a crime when it was his self-interest that put everybody under a roof?

Greed—the excessive desire for riches—is a sin, but who but the greedy man himself is harmed by it? A greedy person may become wealthy simply by serving his customers well, perhaps by having plenty of ice melt available after a storm. Unless the greedy merchant cheats or steals, however, he harms no one but himself.

Worse than a seller’s greed is the consumer envy that motivates anti-price gouging laws. While greed certainly harms the greedy, envy is worse. It is envy that does no one any good. Three of the ten commandments forbid envy. St. John Chrysostom taught that “envy arms us against one another.” The book of Wisdom declares, “through the devil’s envy death entered the world.”

Envy harms not only the envious, but when put into action, it harms the person who is envied. Envy never housed anyone, never fed anyone, never filled a gas tank. Anti-price gouging laws seem to spring from envy and hatred. How else to explain someone who would rather have no gas at $4 a gallon, than have all the gas they want at $6?

The repeal of price gouging laws would do more than help keep essential goods available during emergencies. A free market would also decrease the severity of shortages when they did occur. If merchants knew they could raise prices during shortages, more would take risks and stock up on the ice melt and snow shovels. With no prospect of a payoff, merchants play it safe and stock just what they are sure they can sell in a typical winter. If consumers knew prices could rise greatly during emergencies, many would be better prepared, further decreasing the demand in times of shortage.

If you wish to report price gouging to the authorities, click here.

Criminal Barbering: the best bootleg haircuts ever

Catholic LibertarianA couple years ago there was a news story from Florida reporting a massive sweep of black- and Hispanic-owned barbershops. In one raid, 14 deputies stormed the Strictly Skillz barbershop during business hours on a busy Saturday, handcuffing barbers in front of their customers. As the barbers sat on the ground in handcuffs, the customers—including children—were removed from the shop, and deputies began searching workstations and checking licenses, all without warrants or explanation. Nothing illegal was discovered, and the barbers’ licenses were current. 

Things were worse at other shops where the barbers were rounded up, arrested and charged with the crime of “barbering without a license.” Nowhere did law enforcement find evidence of drug distribution, the ostensible reason for the multiple raids.

These legal assaults called to mind my own childhood experience of my brothers and me being hauled across town every month to the private home of a middle-aged lady named Mrs. McAfee. To see this kindly housewife on the street, you would never have picked her out as a career criminal, the Al Capone of bootleg haircuts in the Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois. You see, she was not a government-licensed barber–but as far as we were concerned–she was the best barber in town

HaircutWe kids loved that she had the fastest clippers in the Midwest. Our mothers loved the low cost. The haircuts were not bad either. Mrs. McAfee could knock out a crew cut, ducktail, trim around the ears or even a Mohawk (if Mom would agree) in five minutes. Summertime was often inaugurated with a close buzz cut, which–in the sixties–was called a “burr” haircut.

On one Saturday every month, the mothers in our neighborhood would pack up their sons to drive over to Mrs. McAfee’s house. Each of us was frequently warned: “Remember never to tell anyone that she cuts your hair. She can get into trouble.” We never told.

So every Saturday, Mrs. McAfee would cut 10 heads an hour, all day long, at 50 cents a head. Great money and no overhead. I doubt that any father in my neighborhood was earning $5 an hour in 1964.

Barbering without a license has long been a crime. Today it carries a jail sentence. I suspect such criminals still walk among us. I also suspect their customers are still happy for the service. For me, I want to say thanks to Mrs. McAfee for her good, fast, cheap haircuts. You were a criminal and my mother was your accomplice, but the statute of limitations has run out by now.

Read Free is Beautiful: Why Catholics should be libertarian

Minimum wage: a barrier, not a benefit.


Government regulations use force to make us do what we might not otherwise do, supposedly for our own good. The irony of the minimum wage–like most government regulation–it that it causes more harm than good; and that the harm falls on those who can least afford it.

No one will disagree that a person ought to earn a “just wage.” The trouble is that government uses force to make employers pay a wage it deems “just,” an arbitrary figure arrived at by warring political factions. In reality, the minimum wage is neither a “just” wage nor a free market wage (one agreed to by both parties), except by occasional accident.

The first thing to notice about the minimum wage is that it applies only to those at the bottom of the pay ladder, unskilled, mostly younger people limited by their abilities or lack of experience.

Jeffrey Tucker tells how the minimum wage put his friend Tad out of work:

The minimum wage is nothing more than a barrier separating unskilled workers from a job. There is no requirement that employers hire low-skilled workers. What the minimum wage laws tell employers is they cannot hire anyone whose skill or ability prevents them from producing at the level of the minimum wage. For that person, the minimum wage is not a benefit; it is a door slammed in his face.

If his abilities enable him to produce $7 an hour, how can any employer afford to hire him at $8 an hour? The result is that these low-skilled workers cannot be hired even though they would benefit from the job.

Consider a small businessman who can buy a machine that can accomplish a task at a cost of $7 an hour or hire someone to do the job at a minimum wage of $8 an hour. If the machine and the worker can both do the job for $7, the employer may prefer to give the job to the worker, but he cannot because the government makes that a crime. He could pay the worker $8, but that would last only as long as it takes his competitor (who does buy the machine) to bankrupt him with lower prices.

The minimum wage is the reason some unskilled people will never find work. Just as clearly, if both employer and employee were free to agree on a wage, almost anyone could be employed, no matter how inexperienced, or how mentally or physically handicapped. Government, however, would rather give disability payments to the poor than see them working below whatever the minimum wage happens to be.

Some fear that the unskilled could be exploited without a minimum wage, but the harm in creating a permanent welfare class is far more damaging. John Paul II, in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, encouraged the fuller “participation” of needy people in the economy, “to acquire expertise, to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop their skills in order to make the best use of their capacities and resources.” For those on the lowest economic rung, the minimum wage prevents such participation.

It is curious that much of the pressure on politicians to increase the minimum wage comes not from the poor, but from the unions, whose members have no interest in working for minimum wage. They do have an interest, however, in preventing competition from workers further down the ladder.  Larger corporations may also favor the minimum wage as a barrier against competition. Companies that are either better situated to absorb a minimum wage increase or that already pay their lowest-skilled workers more than the minimum wage are thus given an advantage over their smaller competitors.

Mandatory minimum wages are ineffective because they are price controls by another name. While the real beneficiaries of the minimum wage laws are people with skills and experience, many people are genuinely concerned that without a minimum wage, employers will be able to pay wages that are even below a free market wage.
Such an outcome could never exist for a significant time in a free market.

Simple math dictates that no merchant can pay employees more (or less) than those employees produce. Competition from similar businesses will quickly force the over-paying merchant to lower his wages or he will: a) lose his customers due to the higher prices he must charge; or b) lose his profits if he does not raise prices.

What will happen if the merchant is stingy and somehow manages to hire employees at $6 an hour when the market rate for unskilled labor is around $8 for similar work? Such a variance will quickly be resolved when the $6 employees learn they can earn more with a competitor across the street; or when the merchant across the street learns he can hire away as many employees as he needs from the stingy merchant at $6.50, or $7 or $8.

The stingy merchant will be able to hang on to his employees only if he pays $8 (the market wage). If he pays $6.50, the merchant further up the street will hire them away at $7, but only until the next merchant hires them away at $7.50, and so it goes. The market itself will correct inequities in pay rates—and unlike government—will do so without causing unemployment of the least productive and vocationally handicapped workers.

[excerpted from Chapter 6 of Free is Beautiful: Why Catholics should be libertarian]

Catholic libertarian



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Tom Woods, Catholic libertarian, scholar & street fighter

The liberty movement grows everyday drawing in people who are discovering that government is not their friend. Some are limited government constitutionalists, some minarchist libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, voluntarists and agorists. Some are polite, cultured intellectuals. Other are vulgar, over-the-top podcast shock-jocks.

One man who commands the respect of liberty lovers across this whole spectrum is Tom Woods, Jr. Tom is a bestselling author with a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his master’s, M.Phil., and Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Tom Woods is also a Catholic family man who lives in Topeka, Kansas, with his wife and four daughters. He is former editor of The Latin Mass Magazine and has written numerous books on history and economics including, The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy and How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.

Tom is a treasure in the liberty movement, a scholar who makes the case for liberty at a popular level and doesn’t mind getting getting dirty in the trenches. Read Tom’s Why I am a Catholic Libertarian.

Visit Tom’s blog at www.tomwoods.com.

I also recommend Tom Woods’s Liberty Classroom if you are interested in getting a better grasp on history and economics from a liberty-oriented perspective. Video & audio courses on Austrian Economics, World and U.S. History and Introduction to Logic will push your debating skills into the red. The price is cheap for these university level offerings. $99 bucks–all you can eat for a year.

Price Gouging is a Public Service

Price gouging is back in the news thanks to Hurricane Sandra. Citizen cry-babies have been reporting price increases for gasoline, cabs, hotel rooms, electrical generators and other necessities to the state governments which in turn have mobilized to enforce anti-price gouging laws.

Politicians are falling over one another to grandstand on the issue.  Continue reading