Who is a libertarian?

by Stephan Kinsella on February 26, 2013

in Libertarianism

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:

Also: Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty, chs. 4-5, 15; Hoppe, A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, chs. 1, 2, and 7.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul February 26, 2013 at 2:21 pm

I tend to go with the more concise “a libertarian is someone who believes in the primacy of liberty.” If I feel like fleshing it out, I add a definition of liberty – either the Jeffersonian or Spencerian wording.

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Alan Chapman February 26, 2013 at 4:02 pm

I think that a meaningful definition would have to include something more than just a belief in the primacy of liberty. People who ascribe to a property rights theory based upon “occupation and use” would argue that you’re depriving them of liberty by refusing to let them squat in the unused, spare bedroom in your home.

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Paul February 26, 2013 at 4:37 pm

“I think that a meaningful definition would have to include something more than just a belief in the primacy of liberty.”

I would say it’s not just a meaningful definition, it’s pretty close to a tautology.

“People who ascribe to a property rights theory based upon “occupation and use” would argue that you’re depriving them of liberty by refusing to let them squat in the unused, spare bedroom in your home.”

Maybe they would, but it’s an argument which wouldn’t stand up in the face of the definition.

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Stephan Kinsella February 27, 2013 at 11:02 am

I didn’t talk about belief in liberty. I talked about a preference for peace, prosperity, and cooperation, and thus a preference for libertarian property rules as the way to achieve this.

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Alan Chapman February 26, 2013 at 4:58 pm

As far as I know, everybody believes in liberty. I interpreted Stephan’s exercise as an attempt to hone and refine the definition of libertarianism.

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Paul February 27, 2013 at 1:29 am

I’m not sure if everybody believes in liberty, but I know that not everybody believes in the primacy of liberty, which was what I said in my definition.

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Vanmind February 27, 2013 at 8:35 pm

How about this for a tongue-in-cheek definition…

libertarian (n) – someone who suffers slightly less from eleutherophobia than other etatists.

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