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                           The Libertarianism FAQ

There are a number of standard questions about libertarianism that have been
periodically resurfacing in the politics groups for years. This posting
attempts to answer some of them. I make no claim that the answers are
complete, nor that they reflect a (nonexistent) unanimity among
libertarians; the issues touched on here are tremendously complex. This
posting will be useful, however, if it successfully conveys the flavor of
libertarian thought and gives some indication of what most libertarians

A. Definitions, Principles and History:

A1. What is a libertarian?

The word means approximately "believer in liberty". Libertarians believe in
individual conscience and individual choice, and reject the use of force or
fraud to compel others except in response to force or fraud. (This latter is
called the "Non-Coercion Principle" and is the one thing all libertarians
agree on.)

A2. What do libertarians want to do?

Help individuals take more control over their own lives. Take the state (and
other self-appointed representatives of "society") out of private decisions.
Abolish both halves of the welfare/warfare bureaucracy (privatizing real
services) and liberate the 7/8ths of our wealth that's now soaked up by the
costs of a bloated and ineffective government, to make us all richer and
freer. Oppose tyranny everywhere, whether it's the obvious variety driven by
greed and power-lust or the subtler, well-intentioned kinds that coerce
people "for their own good" but against their wills.

A3. Where does libertarianism come from?

Modern libertarianism has multiple roots. Perhaps the oldest is the
minimal-government republicanism of the U.S.'s founding revolutionaries,
especially Thomas Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists. Adam Smith, John
Stuart Mill and the "classical liberals" of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries were another key influence. More recently, Ayn Rand's philosophy
of "ethical egoism" and the Austrian School of free-market capitalist
economics have both contributed important ideas. Libertarianism is alone
among 20th-century secular radicalisms in owing virtually nothing to

A4. How do libertarians differ from "liberals"?

Once upon a time (in the 1800s), "liberal" and "libertarian" meant the same
thing; "liberals" were individualist, distrustful of state power, pro-free-
market, and opposed to the entrenched privilege of the feudal and
mercantilist system. After 1870, the "liberals" were gradually seduced
(primarily by the Fabian socialists) into believing that the state could and
should be used to guarantee "social justice". They largely forgot about
individual freedom, especially economic freedom, and nowadays spend most of
their time justifying higher taxes, bigger government, and more regulation.
Libertarians call this socialism without the brand label and want no part of

A5. How do libertarians differ from "conservatives"?

For starters, by not being conservative. Most libertarians have no interest
in returning to an idealized past. More generally, libertarians hold no
brief for the right wing's rather overt militarist, racist, sexist, and
authoritarian tendencies and reject conservative attempts to "legislate
morality" with censorship, drug laws, and obnoxious Bible-thumping. Though
libertarians believe in free-enterprise capitalism, we also refuse to stooge
for the military-industrial complex as conservatives are wont to do.

A6. Do libertarians want to abolish the government?

Libertarians want to abolish as much government as they practically can.
About 3/4 are "minarchists" who favor stripping government of most of its
accumulated power to meddle, leaving only the police and courts for law
enforcement and a sharply reduced military for national defense (nowadays
some might also leave special powers for environmental enforcement). The
other 1/4 (including the author of this FAQ) are out-and-out anarchists who
believe that "limited government" is a delusion and the free market can
provide better law, order, and security than any goverment monopoly.

Also, current libertarian political candidates recognize that you can't
demolish a government as large as ours overnight, and that great care must
be taken in dismantling it carefully. For example, libertarians believe in
open borders, but unrestricted immigration now would attract in a huge mass
of welfare clients, so most libertarians would start by abolishing welfare
programs before opening the borders. Libertarians don't believe in
tax-funded education, but most favor the current "parental choice" laws and
voucher systems as a step in the right direction.

Progress in freedom and prosperity is made in steps. The Magna Carta, which
for the first time put limits on a monarchy, was a great step forward in
human rights. The parliamentary system was another great step. The U.S.
Constitution and Bill of Rights, which affirmed that even a
democratically-elected government couldn't take away certain inalienable
rights of individuals, was probably the single most important advance so
far. But the journey isn't over.

A7. What's the difference between small-l libertarian and big-l Libertarian?

All Libertarians are libertarians, but not the reverse. A libertarian is a
person who believes in the Non-Coercion Principle and the libertarian
program. A Libertarian is a person who believes the existing political
system is a proper and effective means of implementing those principles;
specifically, "Libertarian" usually means a member of the Libertarian Party,
the U.S.'s largest and most successful third party. Small-ell libertarians
are those who consider the Libertarian Party tactically ineffective, or who
reject the political system generally and view democracy as "the tyranny of
the majority".

A8. How would libertarians fund vital public services?

By privatizing them. Taxation is theft -- if we must have a government, it
should live on user fees, lotteries, and endowments. A government that's too
big to function without resorting to extortion is a government that's too
big, period. Insurance companies (stripped of the state-conferred immunities
that make them arrogant) could use the free market to spread most of the
risks we now "socialize" through government, and make a profit doing so.

A9. What would a libertarian "government" do and how would it work?

Enforce contracts. Anarcho-libertarians believe the "government" in this
sense can be a loose network of rent-a-cops, insurance companies, and
for-profit arbitration boards operating under a shared legal code;
minarchists believe more centralization would be necessary and envision
something much like a Jeffersonian constitional government. All libertarians
want to live in a society based (far more than ours now is) on free trade
and mutual voluntary contract; the government's job would be strictly to
referee, and use the absolute minimum of force necessary to keep the peace.

B. Politics and Consequences:

B1. What is the libertarian position on abortion?

Most libertarians are strongly in favor of abortion rights (the Libertarian
Party often shows up at pro-rights rallies with banners that say "We're
Pro-Choice on Everything!). Many libertarians are personally opposed to
abortion, but reject governmental meddling in a decision that should be
private between a woman and her physician. Most libertarians also oppose
government funding of abortions, on the grounds that "pro-lifers" should not
have to subsidize with their money behavior they consider to be murder.

B2. What is the libertarian position on minority, gay & women's rights?

Libertarians believe that every human being is entitled to equality before
the law and fair treatment as an individual responsible for his or her own
actions. We oppose racism, sexism, and sexual-preference bigotry, whether
perpetrated by private individuals or (especially) by government. We reject
racial discrimination, whether in its ugly traditional forms or in its newer
guises as Affirmative Action quotas and "diversity" rules.

We recognize that there will always be bigotry and hatred in the world, just
as there will always be fear and stupidity; but one cannot use laws to force
understanding any more than one can use laws to force courage or
intelligence. The only fair laws are those that never mention the words
"black" or "white"; "man" or "woman"; "gay" or "straight". When people use
bigotry as an excuse to commit force or fraud, it is the act itself which is
the crime, and deserves punishment, not the motive behind it.

B3. What is the libertarian position on gun control?

Consistently opposed. The revolutionaries who kicked out King George based
their call for insurrection on the idea that Americans have not only the
right but the duty to oppose a tyrannical government with force -- and that
duty implies readiness to use force. This is why Thomas Jefferson said that
"Firearms are the American yeoman's liberty teeth" and, in common with many
of the Founding Fathers, asserted that an armed citizenry is the securest
guarantee of freedom. Libertarians assert that "gun control" is a
propagandist's lie for "people control", and even if it worked for reducing
crime and violence (which it does not; when it's a crime to own guns, only
criminals own them) it would be a fatally bad bargain.

B4. What is the libertarian position on art, pornography and censorship?

Libertarians are opposed to any government-enforced limits on free
expression whatsoever; we take an absolutist line on the First Amendment. On
the other hand, we reject the "liberal" idea that refusing to subsidize a
controversial artist is censorship. Thus, we would strike down all
anti-pornography laws as unwarranted interference with private and voluntary
acts (leaving in place laws punishing, for example, coercion of minors for
the production of pornography). We would also end all government funding of
art; the label of "artist" confers no special right to a living at public

B5. What is the libertarian position on the draft?

We believe the draft is slavery, pure and simple, and ought to be prohibited
as "involuntary servitude" by the 13th Amendment. Any nation that cannot
find enough volunteers to defend it among its citizenry does not deserve to

B6. What is the libertarian position on the "drug war"?

That all drugs should be legalized. Drug-related crime (which is over 85% of
all crime) is caused not by drugs but by drug laws that make the stuff
expensive and a monopoly of criminals. This stance isn't "approving" of
drugs any more than defending free speech is "approving" of Nazi propaganda;
it's just realism -- prohibition doesn't work. And the very worst hazard of
the drug war may be the expansion of police powers through confiscation
laws, "no-knock" warrants and other "anti-drug" measures. These tactics
can't stop the drug trade, but they are making a mockery of our supposed
Constitutional freedoms.

Libertarians would leave in place laws against actions which directly
endanger the physical safety of others, like driving under the influence of
drugs, or carrying a firearm under the influence.

B7. What would libertarians do about concentrations of corporate power?

First of all, stop creating them as our government does with military
contractors and government-subsidized industries. Second, create a more
fluid economic environment in which they'd break up. This happens naturally
in a free market; even in ours, with taxes and regulatory policies that
encourage gigantism, it's quite rare for a company to stay in the biggest
500 for longer than twenty years. We'd abolish the limited-liability shield
laws to make corporate officers and stockholders fully responsible for a
corporation's actions. We'd make it impossible for corporations to grow fat
on "sweetheart deals" paid for with taxpayers' money; we'd lower the cost of
capital (by cutting taxes) and regulatory compliance (by cutting regulations
that presume guilt until you prove your innocence), encouraging
entrepreneurship and letting economic conditions (rather than government
favoritism) determine the optimum size of the business unit.

C. Standard Criticisms

C1. But what about the environment? Who speaks for the trees?

Who owns the trees? The disastrous state of the environment in what was
formerly the Soviet Union illustrates the truism that a resource
theoretically "owned" by everyone is valued by no one. Ecological awareness
is a fine thing, but without strong private-property rights no one can
afford to care enough to conserve. Libertarians believe that the only
effective way to save the Earth is to give everyone economic incentives to
save their little bit of it.

C2. Don't strong property rights just favor the rich?

No. What favors the rich is the system we have now -- a fiction of strong
property rights covering a reality of property by government fiat; the
government can take away your "rights" by eminent domain, condemnation,
taxation, regulation and a thousand other means. Because the rich have more
money and time to spend on influencing and subverting government, such a
system inevitably means they gain at others' expense. A strong government
always becomes the tool of privilege. Stronger property rights and a smaller
government would weaken the power elite that inevitably seeks to seduce
government and bend it to their own self-serving purposes --- an elite far
more dangerous than any ordinary criminal class.

C3. Would libertarians just abandon the poor?

No, though abandoning the poor might be merciful compared to what government
has done to them. As the level of "anti-poverty" spending in this country
has risen, so has poverty. Government bureaucracies have no incentive to
lift people out of dependency and every incentive to keep them in it; after
all, more poverty means a bigger budget and more power for the bureaucrats.
Libertarians want to break this cycle by abolishing all income-transfer
programs and allowing people to keep what they earn instead of taxing it
away from them. The wealth freed up would go directly to the private sector,
creating jobs for the poor, decreasing the demand on private charity, and
increasing charitable giving. The results might diminish poverty or they
might leave it at today's levels -- but it's hard to see how they could be
any less effective than the present wretched system.

C4. What about national defense?

This issue makes minarchists out of a lot of would-be anarchists. One view
is that in a libertarian society everyone would be heavily armed, making
invasion or usurpation by a domestic tyrant excessively risky. This is what
the Founding Fathers clearly intended for the U.S. (the Constitution made no
provision for a standing army, entrusting defense primarily to a militia
consisting of the entirety of the armed citizenry). It works today in
Switzerland (also furnishing one of the strongest anti-gun-control
arguments). The key elements in libertarian-anarchist defense against an
invader would be: a widespread ideology (libertarianism) that encourages
resistance; ready availability of deadly weapons; and no structures of
government that an invader can take over and use to rule indirectly. Think
about the Afghans, the Viet Cong, the Minutemen -- would you want to invade
a country full of dedicated, heavily armed libertarians? :-)

Minarchist libertarians are less radical, observe that U.S. territory could
certainly be protected effectively with a military costing less than half of
the bloated U.S. military budget.

C5. Don't you believe in cooperating? Shouldn't people help each other?

Voluntary cooperation is a wonderful thing, and we encourage it whenever we
can. Despite the tired old tag line about "dog-eat-dog competition" and the
presence of government intervention, the relatively free market of today's
capitalism is the most spectacular argument for voluntary cooperation in
history; millions, even billions of people coordinating with each other
every day to satisfy each others' needs and create untold wealth.

What we oppose is the mockeries politicians and other criminals call
cooperation but impose by force; there is no "cooperation" in taxation or
the draft or censorship any more than you and I are "cooperating" if I put a
gun to your head and steal your wallet.

D. Prospects

D1. How can I get involved?

Think about freedom, and act on your thoughts. Spend your dollars wisely.
Oppose the expansion of state power. Promote "bottom-up" solutions to public
problems, solutions that empower individuals rather than demanding
intervention by force of government. Give to private charity. Join a
libertarian organization; the Libertarian Party, or the Advocates for
Self-Government, or the Reason Foundation. Start your own business; create
wealth and celebrate others who create wealth. Support voluntary

D2. Is libertarianism likely to get a practical test in my lifetime?

No one knows. Your author thinks libertarianism is about where
constitutional republicanism was in 1750 -- a solution waiting for its
moment, a toy of political theorists and a few visionaries waiting for the
people and leaders who can actualize it. The collapse of Communism and the
triumph of capitalist economics will certainly help, by throwing central
planning and the "nanny state" into a disrepute that may be permanent. Some
libertarians believe we are headed for technological and economic changes so
shattering that no statist ideology can possibly survive them (in
particular, most of the nanotechnology "underground" is hard-core
libertarian). Only time will tell.

E. Resources

E1. Online

There's an excellent FAQ on anarchist theory and history at with links to many other Web

Peter McWilliams's wise and funny book Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do is
worth a read.

E2. Books

Friedman, Milton and Friedman, Rose, Free to Choose: A Personal Statement
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980).

Hayek, Friedrich A. The Constitution of Liberty (Henry Regnery Company,

Hayek, Friedrich A. The Road to Serfdom (University of Chicago Press, 1944).

Lomasky, Loren, Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community (Oxford University
Press, 1987).

Machan, Tibor, Individuals and Their Rights (Open Court, 1989).

Murray, Charles A. In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government (Simon and
Schuster, 1988).

Rasmussen, Douglas B. and Den Uyl, Douglas J., Liberty and Nature (Open
Court, 1991).

Rothbard, Murray N. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, 2nd ed
(Macmillan, 1978).

E3. Magazines:

Reason. Editorial contact: 3415 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 400, Los Angeles,
CA 90034. Subscriptions: PO Box 526, Mt. Morris, IL 61054

Liberty. PO Box 1167, Port Townsend, WA 98368.

E4. Libertarian political and service organizations

Libertarian Party
     2600 Virginia Avenue, N.W., Suite 100, Washington, DC 20037
     202-333-0008 (Voice); 202-333-0072 (Fax); 1-800-682-1776 (Information)

          For a hard-copy information packet, telephone 800-682-1776;
          for an e-mail information packet, send your request to
 There's a web page at

Advocates for Self-Government
     1202 N. Tenn. St., Suite 202 Cartersville, GA 30120

Reason Foundation
     3415 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 400, Los Angeles, CA 90034

Cato Institute
     1000 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20001-5403

Laissez-Faire Books
     938 Howard St. San Francisco, Suite 202, CA 94103

          Customer Service: (415) 541-9780
          Orders: (800) 326-0996


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Eric S. Raymond