Essentially libertarians preach freedom in all fields, including the right
to do what one wants with one's own body insofar as one does not infringe
on the property and equal freedom of others. Accordingly, they believe
that people who want to take drugs, watch pornography, prostitute themselves
or pay for the services of a prostitute, or engage in whatever kind of
consensual sexual activity, should be able to do so without being importuned
by the law and harassed by the police.
However, as libertarians – that is, notwithstanding their own personal
preferences – they no more advocate a libertine way of life than any other,
and one should not confuse the two words. What they say is that each person
must be able to choose their own beliefs and the way of life that is appropriate
to them, be it asceticism or libertinage, religious moralism or moral relativism.
Libertarians will defend the right of the libertine to live in debauchery
as well as that of religious fundamentalist parents to educate their children
in accordance with their own very strict beliefs.
Libertarians support the formal equality of each and all before the law,
but they worry little about the inequalities between rich and poor, inequalities
which are inevitable and can be reduced only by encroaching on personal
freedom and by reducing overall prosperity. For them, the best way to fight
poverty is to guarantee a system of free enterprise and free trade and
to let private charity initiatives, which are more effective and better
justified morally than State programmes of wealth transfer, come to the
rescue of those in need.
Libertarians believe that the only way to ensure the maintenance of personal
freedom is to guarantee the inviolability of private property and to limit
as much as possible the size of the government and the scope of its interventions.
They do not trust the State – whose managers claim to act in the name of
abstract collective interests – when it comes to protecting individual
liberty. According to collectivist ideologies, a viable social and economic
order can only be imposed and maintained by the State. On the contrary,
libertarian scholars have shown that it is the decentralized actions of
individuals who pursue their own ends in a free market which makes it possible
to create and maintain this spontaneous order, to bring prosperity, and
to support the complex civilization in which we live.
This article was published in this Primer
on March 13, 2009.
Thus libertarians reject the main political development of the 20th century,
that is, the sustained growth in the size of the State and the range of
its interventions in the private lives of citizens. To take one striking
example, in 1926, public expenditures as a percentage of Canada's gross
national product amounted to only 15%; today, that figure is around 46%.
Within the North American political framework of the period after Word
War II, libertarians have allied themselves with conservatives in their
fight against communism and socialism. This is why many people tend to
confuse both philosophies and to put them on the right-hand side of the
political spectrum, following the confused model of right vs. left which
is still widely used to categorize political ideologies. But libertarians
are opposed to conservatives on several points, in particular on social
issues where conservatives often try to impose their traditional values
on all by using the coercive power of the State, for example, when they
support making drugs and prostitution illegal or when they advocate official
discrimination against homosexuals. On issues related to defense and foreign
relations, conservatives are inclined to support militarism and imperialist
interventions abroad, while libertarians advocate, when possible, isolationism
and non-involvement in foreign conflicts.
In fact, conservatives value authority in itself and do not oppose State
power in principle, doing so only when its aims are not the same as theirs.
On the contrary, libertarians reject any form of government intervention.
Many of them think they do not qualify as right-wingers and that the right/left
spectrum should be replaced by another one which would place the statists
and authoritarians of left and right on one side and the supporters of
personal freedom of the other.
Libertarians are thus opposed to collectivist ideologies of all types,
be they of the left or of the right, which stress the primacy of the group:
nation, social class, sexual or ethnic group, religious or language community,
etc. They oppose all whose purpose it is to regiment individuals in the
pursuit of collective goals. They do not deny the relevance of these collective
identities, but claim that it is up to the individuals themselves to determine
which groups they wish to belong and contribute to. It is not for the State,
or for institutions that derive their power from the State, to impose their
own objectives in a bureaucratic and coercive manner.
In the ongoing debate over Quebec's « national question
» for example, most libertarians reject the independence project
because its primary aim is to impose a Quebec State which will be stronger,
more interventionist and more repressive towards those who do not fit in
the nationalist definition of Quebecois identity. This being said, libertarians
are not enthusiastic federalist patriots either and they reject Canadian
nationalism and protectionism in the same way, as well as the interventionism
and administrative tyranny of the Federal State. They do not see why they
should choose between two States that infringe on our freedom more or less
equally. Rather, they would want to see both federal and provincial governments
reduced in size as much as possible.
heir to classical liberalism
Although it remains relatively little known and little understood today
because of the near total submission of Western intellectual life to collectivist
thinking throughout the 20th century, libertarian philosophy is not a weird
marginal philosophy, only propagated by a small group of utopians disconnected
from reality. On the contrary, it is heir to the most important Western
political and economic school of the last centuries, classical liberalism,
a philosophy elaborated by thinkers such as John Locke and Adam Smith.
Beginning in the 17th century, it is the liberals who fought for a widening
of political, economic and social freedoms, against the power of the monarchs
and the privileges of the aristocrats. Liberal principles are at the root
of the American Constitution, and one can say that the United States as
well as Great Britain and Canada were largely governed in a liberal way
throughout the 19th century and up to the beginning of the 20th.
« Libertarian scholars have shown that it is the decentralized
actions of individuals who pursue their own ends in a free market which
makes it possible to create and maintain this spontaneous order, to bring
prosperity, and to support the complex civilization in which we live.
Then, why not use the word liberal instead of libertarian?
Because this term, precisely since the end of the 19th century, took on
new meanings which are not at all compatible with the defense of individual
freedom. In Great Britain, in Canada and in Quebec, supposedly liberal
parties are in fact only a little more moderate than avowed socialists
in their inclination to use State power and in their lack of respect for
Worse still, in the United States, a liberal is a left-winger who advocates
wealth redistribution and supports a big government that interferes everywhere
in people's lives. A government that tries to solve all real and imaginary
problems by taxing and spending, and creates bureaucratic programs for
each good cause. In short, today's liberalism aims at creating a tyrannical
State that does not hesitate to trample on individual freedom in the name
of an unattainable collectivist Utopia. This type of liberalism has nothing
to do with classical liberalism.
Today's libertarians are inspired by former periods of liberal progress
but, after one century during which collectivist and totalitarian ideologies
have dominated, they realize that classical liberalism was not strong or
principled enough to stem the rising tide of statism. They are more coherent
or, some may say, radical, than traditional liberals in their defense of
personal freedom and the market economy and in their opposition to State
Like all philosophical movements, libertarianism is varied, containing
several schools and sub-groups, and one will find no unanimity about its
theoretical justifications, its goals or the strategy that it should adopt
to reach them. In North America, a majority of those who call themselves
libertarians would like to see the State brought back to a few essential
functions: in particular defense, foreign relations, justice, the protection
of private property and individual rights, and some other minor responsibilities.
All remaining functions should be privatized. In the context of a very
decentralized federal State, libertarians accept however that local authorities
(constituent States, provinces, regions or municipalities) can intervene
in other fields and offer various types of social and economic arrangements,
insofar as dissatisfied citizens can easily move to other jurisdictions.
Some libertarians of the « anarcho-capitalist
» school advocate the complete disappearance of the State
and the privatization of even the basic functions mentioned above. This
goal may appear extreme or ridiculous at first sight, but it is based on
a theoretically plausible argument. It is for example easy to imagine that
one could replace State or local police forces (with the corruption, abuses
of power, the incompetence and favouritism which usually characterize them,
all done often with impunity) with private security agencies. These would
make profits only insofar as they really protect citizens and fight real
criminals. Anarcho-capitalists use the same type of arguments to support
the privatization of the army and the courts, which would leave nothing
for a State to do. Private firms would then provide all the services that
individuals might need in a pure free market.
In a context where public spending now accounts for almost half of all
that is produced, where governments continue to adopt law after law so
as to increase their control over our lives, a more realistic libertarian
goal is simply to reverse this trend and fight for any practical advancement
of freedom and any concrete reduction in State tyranny.
Libertarians are the only ones willing to enter this fight without compromising
their beliefs. The fact is that the current ideological debate remains
dominated by statists, despite the superficial political controversies
that attract media attention.
On one side, socialists and leftist supporters of unlimited growth in the
size of government make up a strong majority among lobbies feeding at the
public trough, in universities and in the media. Most of what passes for
journalism or academic research shows a complete lack of understanding
of the basic rules of a market economy. In the « centre »,
those who claim to be « realistic » admit that
the State cannot continue to increase the tax burden and grow indefinitely,
but they simply preach a slowing down of this growth. The business establishment
for its part would be satisfied with some minor cuts here and there and
few of its members question the corporatist structure of the State. As
for those on the Right who are described as radical « neo-conservatives
», their stated aim is to bring us back to where we were 20
or 30 years ago when the ratio of State expenditures to GDP was 5 or 10
percentage points smaller. A step that would be in the right direction,
but one that is hardly sufficient.
Also, one has to admit that the so-called « conservative
revolutions » of the past 20 years in Britain, Canada
and the United States have not really produced major change, although some
useful economic reforms and tax cuts were implemented. Few programmes and
laws were abolished and the State still occupies a dominant place in economic
and social life. It is even to be feared that bureaucratic programmes will
start growing again now that budget deficits have been eliminated and that
governments have surplus revenues to spend.
Libertarians are the only ones who demand and work for radical change,
a drastic reduction of the size and role of the State, they are the only
ones who value individual freedom above all else. More and more people
realize that libertarianism constitutes the only alternative. The libertarian
movement hardly existed in the 1960's and really took off in the United
States in the early 1970's. The U.S. Libertarian Party, founded in 1971,
is now third in importance after the Republicans and the Democrats. Whereas
collectivist philosophies and Keynesian economics used to dominate academic
life, recently there has been a revival of interest in classical liberalism
and free market economics in the universities. Finally, today, libertarian
philosophy can be found everywhere on the Internet and its influence is
growing in every continent.
Thus we can hope realistically that a century after the eclipse of classical
liberalism, its libertarian offspring will once again become an influential
philosophical doctrine and movement in the 21st century.