After much thought and debate about this topic over the last 25 or so years, here is my attempt at a lean, concise, precise definition of what a libertarian is:
A libertarian is a person who believes that the invasion of the borders of (trespass against) others’ bodies or owned external scarce resources, i.e. property (with property allocations determined in accordance with Lockean homesteading rules and contractual transfer rules), is unjustified, because they (for whatever reason) prefer or value grundnorms of peace, prosperity, and cooperation and who have enough honesty, consistency, and economic literacy to recognize that the libertarian assignment of property rules is necessary to achieve these grundnorms.
Such a person, if he is consistent, also cannot help but recognize that the state, being an agency of institutionalized aggression, is inherently criminal and illegitimate.
Note what this does not say: It does not say that the libertarian necessarily believes all aggression is immoral, but rather that it is unjustified; it does not imply that rights are a “subset” of morals. It also does not say why the person values peace, prosperity and cooperation and favors it above interpersonal violent conflict. It also does not make the common mistake of interpreting the libertarian-Lockean property allocation rule as requiring one to prove title all the way back to the very first use of the resource; rather, it says that whoever has the best claim to a disputed resource has a property right in it (is its “proper” owner), and that as between any two claimants, the one having an earlier claim (use) of the property has the better claim. This does not require title to be traced back to the beginning of time but only to the earliest time needed to defeat any actual or potential claimants; though it implies that someone who can trace title back to the first appropriation has the best possible claim of all (unless title has been assigned by contract). Note also that although the libertarian rule is the Lockean rule this does not imply Locke’s reasoning in justifying his homesteading rule was correct—in particular it does not imply that Locke was right to say that labor is owned or that labor-ownership is the reason why first possession of a resource is sufficient to establish property rights in the resource.
For more, see my posts and articles below:
- “What Libertarianism Is”
- “How We Come To Own Ourselves“
- The relation between the non-aggression principle and property rights: a response to Division by Zer0
- The Division of Labor as the Source of Grundnorms and Rights
- Empathy and the Source of Rights
- Thoughts on the Latecomer and Homesteading Ideas; or, why the very idea of “ownership” implies that only libertarian principles are justifiable
- Justice and Property Rights: Rothbard on Scarcity, Property, Contracts…
- What is Aggression?
- The problem of particularistic ethics or, why everyone really has to admit the validity of the universalizability principle
- Hume on Intellectual Property and the Problematic “Labor” Metaphor”
- Locke on IP; Mises, Rothbard, and Rand on Creation, Production, and ‘Rearranging’
- Locke, Smith, Marx and the Labor Theory of Value
- “Introduction to Libertarian Legal Theory”
- “What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist”
Update: See also these related and interesting comments of Rothbard, ch. 6 of Ethics:
If Crusoe had eaten the mushrooms without learning of their poisonous effects, then his decision would have been incorrect—a possibly tragic error based on the fact that man is scarcely automatically determined to make correct decisions at all times. Hence, his lack of omniscience and his liability to error. If Crusoe, on the other hand, had known of the poison and eaten the mushrooms anyway—perhaps for “kicks” or from a very high time preference—then his decision would have been objectively immoral, an act deliberately set against his life and health. It may well be asked why life should be an objective ultimate value, why man should opt for life (in duration and quality). In reply, we may note that a proposition rises to the status of an axiom when he who denies it may be shown to be using it in the very course of the supposed refutation. Now, any person participating in any sort of discussion, including one on values, is, by virtue of so participating, alive and affirming life. For if he were really opposed to life, he would have no business in such a discussion, indeed he would have no business continuing to be alive. Hence, the supposed opponent of life is really affirming it in the very process of his discussion, and hence the preservation and furtherance of one’s life takes on the stature of an incontestable axiom.
Rothbard’s distinct contribution to the natural-rights tradition is his reconstruction of the principles of self-ownership and original appropriation as the praxeological precondition —Bedingung der Moeglichkeit — of argumentation, and his recognition that whatever must be presupposed as valid in order to make argumentation possible in the first place cannot in turn be argumentatively disputed without thereby falling into a practical self-contradiction.
As Rothbard explains in an unfortunately brief but centrally important passage of The Ethics of Liberty:
a proposition rises to the status of an axiom when he who denies it may be shown to be using it in the very course of the supposed refutation. Now, any person participating in any sort of discussion, including one on values, is, by virtue of so participating, alive and affirming life. For if he were really opposed to life, he would have no business in such a discussion, indeed he would have no business continuing to be alive. Hence, the supposed opponent of life is really affirming it in the very process of his discussion, and hence the preservation and furtherance of one’s life takes on the stature of an incontestable axiom (pp. 32–33).
(See also my Argumentation Ethics and Liberty: A Concise Guide.)
See also Rothbard in Ch. 20 of Ethics: Rothbard here conceives of the possibility that it is moral to violate someone’s rights. That implies that the obligation not to commit aggression may not be a moral obligation. It is a legally enforceable obligation. That is what in the law is the correlative of rights: duties, or obligations. Legally enforceable rights imply legally enforceable obligations, and vice-versa.
We are not herewith concerned whether it is moral or immoral for someone to lie, to be a good person, to develop his faculties, or be kind or mean to his neighbors. We are concerned, in this sort of discussion, solely with such “political ethical” questions as the proper role of violence, the sphere of rights, or the definitions of criminality and aggression. Whether or not it is moral or immoral for “Smith”—the fellow excluded by the owner from the plank or the lifeboat—to force someone else out of the lifeboat, or whether he should die heroically instead, is not our concern, and not the proper concern of a theory of political ethics.5 The crucial point is that even if the contextualist libertarian may say that, given the tragic context, Smith should throw someone else out of the lifeboat to save his own life, he is still committing, at the very least, invasion of property rights, and probably also murder of the person thrown out. So that even if one says that he should try to save his life by forcibly grabbing a seat in the lifeboat, he is still, in our view, liable to prosecution as a criminal invader of property right, and perhaps as a murderer as well. ”
“To sum up the application of our theory to extreme situations: if a man aggresses against another’s person or property to save his own life, he may or may not be acting morally in so doing. That is none of our particular concern in this work. Regardless of whether his action is moral or immoral, by any criterion, he is still a criminal aggressor against the property of another, and the victim is within his right to repel that aggression by force, and to prosecute the aggressor afterward for his crime.