A Short Essay on the Ideals of Libertarianism and the Policy of Laissez Faire

A libertarian is defined as anyone who advocates and adheres to (or at least sincerely tries to adhere to) the general rule of not initiating violence upon anyone for any reason and who advocates a constitutional republic limited in scope by a general policy of laissez faire as the ideal political government.  The social and political implications of libertarianism rest on the principles of individual self ownership (of peaceful adults) and private property rights.

Violence or "coercion" is defined in this context as an act by a human or humans against the will or without the permission of another human being with respect to that which is his own (his own person or property). It means for someone to take, use, meddle with or otherwise do something to the body or property of another human being without the permission or against the will of that other human being. This includes fraud and embezzlement and other indirect uses of force as well as direct physical violence.  Simply put, if someone does something to the body or property of someone else without their permission or against their will, that is what libertarians mean by coercion, physical force, or violence.

There are two kinds of coercion: initiatory coercion (the use of coercive force against someone who has not committed a coercive act against anyone) and retaliatory coercion (the use of coercive force in retaliation against someone who has initiated the use of coercion against someone). It is the initiation of the use of coercion that all libertarians oppose on principle since it is the violation of the self-ownership or property rights of innocent individuals (those who have not initiated the use of violence against anyone).

Libertarians favor the proper and righteous use of coercive force, according to rules of due process, against criminals, those who have been convicted of violating the rights of someone by initiatory coercion.*  At the same time libertarians oppose positive government intervention -- either to help or to hinder any business or industry -- in the economy (i.e., business or "market activities" such as production, exchange, saving, investment, contracts, the pursuit of profit and the avoidance of loss, etc.)

Market activities and business relationships are characterized as being voluntary.  A voluntary relationship is a human relationship in which the wills of all the participants coincide (agree) with respect to the terms of the relationship. A voluntary relationship does not necessarily mean one in which a person "volunteers" in the sense of performing some work for no material compensation (such as donating ones time and energies to working for a charity or on civic activities). It includes any mutually agreed-upon exchange (such as working as an employee for a company in exchange for a salary or wages.)

Libertarians oppose any coercive interference -- either by government or by criminals -- with such voluntary exchanges. This is why libertarians oppose government controls on prices, wages, rents, profits, and interest rates -- since such controls represent coercive interference with the terms of voluntary exchanges and relationships.

Libertarianism demands that a general policy of "laissez faire" be imposed upon government.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, laissez faire means "1: a doctrine opposing governmental interference in economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of peace and property rights. 2: a philosophy or practice characterized by a usually deliberate abstention from direction or interference especially with individual freedom of choice and action."

Laissez faire is the political implication of the libertarian philosophy of individual self ownership and private property.  Laissez faire is the policy of government championed by such scholars as Frederic Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and George Reisman.

Ideally, government should use its coercive powers only in defense and in retaliation against the initiation of the use of violence, force, or fraud.  Examples of the initiation of the use of violence include murder, rape, robbery, kidnaping, trespass, embezzlement, counterfeiting, shoplifting, etc.  It is the proper role of government to police this kind of activity and to deal with criminals since coercion is government's special province.  By contrast, government should avoid as much as possible interfering with the voluntary (market) relationships or personal lives of peaceful adult citizens.  Any exceptions to that general rule would have to be relatively rare and the reasons clearly defined.  (For example, in the case of a recalcitrant child who is ill, a parent may take the child against his will (i.e., by force) to see a doctor for evaluation and treatment since a minor child child, unless legally emancipated, does not have the same full rights as adults.  Or, in the case of a person who has become so ill that he or she has lost the capacity of basic judgment because of an altered mental status, he or she may be forced to accept emergency treatment or custodial care if it is clear that his or her health or life is in jeopardy.  There are other possible emergency situations which can and do arise that may be exceptions to the general rule of noninterference with peaceful adult citizens.  Proper legal safeguards should be in place to avoid abuses.)

In a proper criminal justice system there should be reasonable rules of due process, standards of evidence, safeguards to protect the criminally accused from unjust retaliation, and punishments which fit the crimes of those who are duly convicted, but the point is that criminals (or those convicted of initiatory violence) forfeit at least some of their right to be left alone by coercion.  Only peaceful adult citizens have the full right to be left alone by coercion within their private spheres of activity.  In general, the role of government in such a system is limited in scope to protecting the persons and properties of peaceful citizens from being violated by the initiation of the use of coercion by criminals.

In other words, in the laissez-faire republic, the government would (ideally) assiduously stomp down on criminals and criminal activity, but leave peaceful folks alone as much as possible.  That is the essence of laissez faire.  A consequence of such a policy is maximum individual freedom for developing one's potentialities and benefiting from others in a division-of-labor economy.

However, when government is permitted to go beyond this basic function of protecting the rights to life, liberty, and property of peaceful citizens from crime, it necessarily becomes destructive of that proper purpose and instead violates the rights of those it is supposed to protect from violation.  If government goes beyond that proper role and instead seeks to "plan the economy" or "organize society" or run peoples' lives or regulate their businesses or bail out troubled companies or industries or otherwise interfere with market prices or confiscates the profits, interest income, or dividends earned by entrepreneurs, savers, and investors, it necessarily violates its own reason for existence by violating the rights of peaceful people.  No majority vote or claim of divine authority can magically turn what is wrong for ordinary criminals to do into something right and just for government officers to do.

Ultimately, for libertarians, the issue is not so much "big government" versus "small government" as such but rather the scope of government authority or what kind of government is the ideal to strive toward:  a republic limited constitutionally by a policy of laissez faire based on the principle of individual rights of person, liberty, and property -- or a tyrannical state of unlimited scope operated by somebody's whim (minority or majority). A government of laws or a whimarchal tyranny.

Certainly, if government goes beyond its proper constitutional role, then from a libertarian perspective it gets worse as it gets "bigger" and more intrusive in the noncoercive aspects of human life.  That being the case, libertarians naturally join with conservatives in seeking to stop the further growth of Big Government and to repeal and abolish improper functions and agencies that already exist.  But libertarians do not just want "less government" in the long run.  Libertarians want to completely eliminate all improper activities of positive interventionism being committed by government and want to strengthen its proper functions in combating criminal violence and foreign threats.

A policy of laissez faire, to the extent it is maintained or approached, tends to result in economic progress and an increasing general standard of living.  This is because, under laissez faire, there are no taxes on private savings, investment, and capital creation.  Capital -- money for tools and equipment, plant and machinery, and wages and salaries, research and development of new technologies -- grows in such an environment without political impediment, and this process ("capitalism") leads to more wealth and prosperity.  This is the source of material progress for any nation or culture that will support it.  It requires a culture and a people that recognizes, respects, and protects clearly defined private property rights of persons of all social and economic strata.

No country has ever maintained a full, consistent adherence to a policy of laissez faire.  The United States and Britain came closer than other nations to laissez-faire capitalism in the 19th and early 20th century.  Today, the countries which have the least amount of political restrictions overall on market activity (compared to other countries) include many former British colonies with Hong Kong and Singapore at the top of the list of the most free economies.

Libertarians are acutely aware that governments have, to varying extents, gone well beyond the proper role as prescribed by a policy of laissez faire.  The cause of liberty and independence requires a constant struggle against the reactionary cults of socialism, jihadism, and environmentalism which in our time threaten freedom at every turn.

End Note:  Some have tried to reinterpret the "nonaggression rule" to mean that the persons or groups retaliated against must have initiated violence against the specific parties doing the retaliation; according to this distorted view, no one has a right to use retaliatory force against a malefactor unless they themselves have been victims of the malefactor's crimes.  This has never been part of the policy of laissez faire or libertarianism.  A police officer who captures and arrests a thief does not have to be the person whom the thief stole from.  A man has a right to defend his wife who is being attacked by a mugger even though the mugger is not attacking him.  The true libertarian perspective is that only peaceful adult citizens retain the right to be left alone by coercion.  When someone initiates violence against others by committing crimes against them, then that person forfeits his right to be left alone by the coercive of others, including the proper and just retaliatory coercion of government.  A mass murderer (such as Saddam Hussein for example) forfeits his right to be free of retaliatory coercion and may rightfully be stopped by force of violence by anyone else, including those whom he has not murdered (especially since it would be very difficult for a murdered person to do any retaliating).  It is not the right of the person or government doing the retaliating that is in question or needs challenging; it is the alleged right or "sovereignty" of the mass murderer to be left alone by the coercion of others that is bogus and which should be rejected as such.

(c) 2009 Sam Wells


Since 1976, the year I worked in seven states for the MacBride for President effort, I have become increasingly disillusioned not only with the Libertarian Party as a viable vehicle for promoting liberty, but also the way in which the label "libertarian" has often been usurped and distorted by nonlibertarian (especially left wing) interests either thorugh external propaganda or through infiltration.  I personally tend to think of this as either pseudolibertarianism or superficial libertarianism (at best). Some who style themsleves libertarians strike me as just being against anything that seems to conflict with their whims, perhaps still rebelling in their minds against their parents or even against reality itself -- an attitude more akin to the subjectivist-relativist syndrome of most left "liberals." 

I have long intended to write an article criticizing various distortions and misrepresentations of the freedom philosophy including the myths and assumptions of the Nolan Diamond Chart (used as a marketing gimmick by many LP groups) and some dubious notions that seem to be widely held among "libertarians" and "Libertarians."  Unfortunately, my discretionary time is very limited because of the imperative of making a living.


Selected Essays on Liberty

Violence and the Moral Limits to Political Action by Dr. Walter Williams

Separation of Force and Whim:  The Principle of Clearly Defined Individual Human Rights in a Limited Constitutional Republic versus the Tyranny of the Unlimited Reign of Arbitrary Whim

Three Categories of Human Activity