Sometimes 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.
There 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.