Are You Really A Libertarian?

Matt Spalding says most libertarians aren’t Libertarians.

What can he possibly mean? How can you consider yourself a libertarian and not be one? You either support Ron Paul, or you don’t, right?

Dr. Matthew Spalding, author of the book We Still Hold These Truths – a title which made its way onto the subtitle of CPAC 2012 – explained that “most people who consider themselves libertarians [really just] believe in limited government.”

Yes. Isn’t that what Libertarians believe?

Spalding’s answer is no: “Libertarianism is really based on a different philosophy,” he says, a “radical individualism in which the individual creates their own sense of meaning.”

“Its roots,” he proclaims, “are very different from the roots of the American Founders.”

The Founding focused on a broader base of principles – truths which “we still hold,” such as equal rights, nature, consent, property rights, religious liberty, the rule of law, and constitutionalism. “It’s not a science,” Spalding admits, but all these principles culminate in self-government.

The Libertarian individualism, by contrast, follows the tradition of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre – the slowly developing philosophy of Existentialism.

It holds that there is no human nature – individuals are free to form themselves into whatever they choose to become. Because they are free to do this, individuals should be allowed to choose any sort of lifestyle, provided that it does not hurt other people.

Since harm to others is the only moral wrong, this Existentialist Libertarianism happens to advocate for a limited government, one of the Founders’ principles. But their assumption that individuals have moral value is arbitrary.

People could just as easily choose another moral system from this foundation. After all, they have the freedom to choose their own meaning, and from this, their own principles.

So Libertarians stop short.

Nietzsche and Hitler bring this thinking to its logical conclusion. Nietzsche’s ubermensche, or Hitler’s Aryan, proves more logical when he believes that he can dominate everyone else, so long as he is able. Why should the ubermensche or the Aryan submit to any limit on his will? This Libertarian philosophy can provide no reason why a person who is able to lord it over others should not do so.

They arbitrarily assert that the government ought to protect every individual’s rights, even if someone with the ability to become an Alexander or a Napoleon wishes to rule. They presume that this dynamo will submit to an authority which treats everyone equally, even though it reins in his potential for the sake of everyone’s liberty.

But the Founders believed that government should be limited in order to protect individual rights, which are based in human nature. Following in the Natural Law tradition of Cicero, Aquinas, and Locke, they held that men do not create themselves, but look to a providential creator, who “endowed them with certain inalienable rights.”

The people establish the government in order to protect these rights, which, unlike the rights of the Libertarian, have a firm foundation in human nature.

Libertarians who abide by the Founders’ view of liberty, though they may call themselves “Libertarians,” do not ascribe to the radical Existentialism that actually undergirds the Libertarian philosophy.

But most libertarians on the street would just say “existential–what?” In truth, they’re just disillusioned Conservatives.

-Tyler O’Neil and Ben Murrey

22 Responses to “Are You Really A Libertarian?”
  1. Sam P. says:

    I honestly don’t see why not being familiar with existentialism makes you a false conservative.

    • Tyler O'Neil says:

      Sam, it’s not being unfamiliar with existentialism. It’s the fact that you’re not an existentialist. True Libertarianism is radical Existentialism, just like Progressivism. Libertarians just arbitrarily decide to stop short at giving everyone equal rights.
      But you are not truly a Libertarian, in this sense. You support limited government, and you agree with the Founders that human beings have natural rights. Therefore, you are more of a disillusioned conservative than you are a Libertarian.

  2. MT says:

    Actually I think a lot of people at Hillsdale are far closer to libertarianism as youve defined it than you’d like to believe. Just because someone is at Hillsdale doesnt mean they secretly share your moral opinions.

    • Tyler O'Neil says:

      Yes, many of them are. But some of my “libertarian” friends do agree with the Founders’ principles, and yet still think they are Libertarians. I wrote this to explain to them what real Libertarianism is.

  3. ojay says:

    You are confusing two completely different positions in philosophy that happen to share the same name. One is to do with the metaphysical question of free will, the other is a political philosophy derived from the non-aggression principle.

    • Tyler O'Neil says:

      I wish that were the case. The problem is that ideas have consequences and Existentialism has led many to have Libertarian principles. The non-aggression principle is not the only thing going on in Libertarian thought. Those who call themselves libertarians all agree to it, and it may be that what Spalding suggested us to consider true Libertarianism is but an Existentialist reading of the non-aggression principle, which defines libertarianism.
      Even assuming that this the case, the non-aggression libertarianism embraces a wide camp of philosophies- so wide that I do not think all should be called libertarian. Christian morality and limited government lead some of my friends, like Sam Pauken, to this libertarianism. Existentialist morality also leads to this libertarianism. It is too broad to be a distinction.

      • ojay says:

        My personal libertarianism has nothing to do with existentialism, and I’m sure a great majority of libertarians would say the same. Perhaps one could be encouraged into libertarianism via questions of free will but I don’t think this has any particular significance versus any of the infinity of other paths. Once again, you are confusing two unrelated positions in philosophy that share the same name (this actually happens all the time in philosophy). One is a claim in metaphysics about the way things are, the other is a political philosophy that claims how things should be. One is a positive claim, the other normative.

        Much can be said about language and how we use it, but I think all that really needs to be said here is that the word ‘libertarianism’ is generally held to refer to the political philosophy founded variously on the non aggression principle, Lockean natural law, Kantian deontology, etc. etc. So when people call themselves libertarians, they are generally correct in doing so.

        As to the origins of their libertarianism, I’m sure a lot of interesting things can be said, a lot of interesting ideas explored and no doubt they would fill a book, but I think too much is being made here of an accident of naming.

  4. The meanings of words are not static. The vast majority of self-described libertarians define the term in exclusively political terms, and if you say “libertarian” to anyone in politics, they will think of it as an exclusively political term. Therefore, it can refer exclusively to political beliefs.

  5. Karl says:

    This is incredibly misguided and just plain wrong:
    “This Libertarian philosophy can provide no reason why a person who is able to lord it over others should not do so.”

    Its called the Non Aggression Principle and its the central tenet of libertarian thought.

    • Tyler O'Neil says:

      I understand the non-aggression principle, and the point of my article is to look at the reasons behind it. I claim that Existentialist Libertarian philosophy cannot provide a good reason for the non-aggression principle. Since the non-aggression principle is therefore arbitrary, it makes more sense for them to uphold a will to power, like Nietzsche.

      • heller says:

        The same can be said about ANY moral statement. All moral statements are either “foundational” (i.e. arbitrary) or based on an unprovable statement (God gave us this moral value). Since anyone can say God told them to do whatever (and there is no way to logically determine who is right), conservative moral values are just as arbitrary as a foundational morality like the kind of libertarianism that you describe. It seems you are somewhat familiar with Nietzsche, so you should already know this. All idealisms are ultimately arbitrary beliefs, and the only logical value for anyone (according to Nietzsche) is the will to power.

        As to the rest of your article, you are too narrowly defining libertarians. Libertarianism describes a conclusion (the only important moral value is freedom), not a certain philosophical origin of that conclusion. Murray Rothbard stated this well in “The Ethics of Liberty,”

        “As a political theory, libertarianism is a coalition of adherents from all manner of philosophic (or nonphilosophic) positions, including emotivism, hedonism, Kantian a priorism, and many others. My own position grounds Libertarianism on a natural rights theory embedded in a wider system of Aristotelian-Lockean natural law and a realist ontology and metaphysics. But although those of us taking this position believe that only it provides a satisfactory groundwork and basis for individual liberty, this is an argument within the Libertarian camp about the proper basis and grounding of Libertarianism rather
        than about the doctrine itself.”

        You are arguing about the methodology, not the definition of libertarianism.

      • Tyler O'Neil says:

        Thanks for your comment. Yes, of you accept Nietzsche’s Nihilism, you must assert your own values. That’s my point. If you buy his argument, there’s no real morality, so Hitler is justified.
        Most people don’t buy his argument – he did die in an asylum for a reason. Most people believe either that there is right and wrong or that it is expedient to act as though morality is objective. But Existentialist Libertarians, and some Progressives, buy Nietzsche’s argument, and then arbirtrarily claim that the government ought to be limited to the protection of their “rights!”
        You, whom I assume are also familiar with Nietzsche, must admit such rights to be groundless unless other people agree to them.

        In any case, the main argument focuses on the “libertarians” who actually hold to the foundational principles of the Declaration and the Constitution. Therefore, they are not ideological libertarians, if they are libertarians at all.

      • heller says:

        First a little nitpicking. Hitler’s actions aren’t justified by nihlism. Nihilism does’t justify anything, since nihilists hold that the act of justification itself is always arbitrary. And Nietzsche died in an asylum because he went mad at the end of his life, writing gibberish to his friends. Conflating his madness with his sane writings is disingenuous.

        Second, I am not sure that many, if any, Nietzschean libertarians exist. If one understands Nietszche, then one probably understands that nihlism contradicts libertarian philosophy. To first state that only Neitzschean libertarians count as libertarians, and then point out the brazenly obvious contradiction in being a Neitzschean libertarian is frankly a crappy argument that will not be taken seriously by anyone who understands what you’re trying to say. The simple fact that libertarians adhere to a certain morality proves they are not nihlists. Libertarians don’t have to use a Neitzschean methodology to justify their libertarianism, and they don’t need to reject the principles of the constitution simply because they clash with that methodology.

        If you are saying that that libertarianism depends on individualism, and individualism depends on Neitzschean existentialism, well you are using alot of bad conflations to make your point. The fact is that none of these ideas necessarily depend on each other. One can be an individualist without being Neitzschean. One can be a libertarian without being a nihilist.

        If you held any belief system to the standard you are trying to hold libertarianism to, you will find that none hold up. Again, this is an argument about methodology, not definition. What is the logical foundation of Christian morality? What is the logical foundation for the Founders’ morality? There are none. In the end, all these systems (including libertarianism) are founded on belief, not fact.

  6. Bill says:

    The core assumption made in this piece seems to be that libertarians accept the same core understanding of human nature. That’s not true. Libtertarianism is a broad enough ideology that it can encompass all kinds of philosophies. Murray Rothbard, one of the founders of the libertarian movement had this to say on the subject in one of the most important books ever written about libertarian philosophy, “The Ethics of Liberty.”

    “As a political theory, libertarianism is a coalition of adherents from all manner of philosophic (or nonphilosophic) positions, including emotivism, hedonism, Kantian a priorism, and many others. My own position grounds Libertarianism on a natural rights theory embedded in a wider system of Aristotelian-Lockean natural law and a realist ontology and metaphysics. But although those of us taking this position believe that only it provides a satisfactory groundwork and basis for individual liberty, this is an argument within the Libertarian camp about the proper basis and grounding of Libertarianism rather than about the doctrine itself.”

    Oh, wow, so one of the founders of libertarian thought wrote that libertarians have all different bases for their positions. Were you aware of that?

  7. Vladamir Putin says:

    Here’s some Rothbard for you guys to brood over for a bit.

    “Any written limits that leave it to government to determine its own powers are bound to be interpreted as sanctions for expanding and not binding those powers. In a profound sense, the idea of binding down power with the chains of a written down constitution has proved to be a noble experiment that failed. The idea of a strictly limited government has proved to be utopian.”

  8. Greetings, Mr. O’Neil.

    I must say that libertarian individualists ought to be evaluated with regard to the philosophies and thinkers they actually claim to admire, not the ones that those who disagree with libertarianism would attribute to them. This is only basic intellectual fairness: one does not put words in others’ mouths, and one takes them at their word – unless deliberate deceit on their part is evident.

    With that as an introduction, I – an atheist, transhumanist, libertarian individualist who does not have a religious or Kirkean conservative bone in his body – will say that the characterization of libertarian individualism as somehow associated with existentialism and with the thinkers your article mentioned (Rousseau, Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre) is largely false.

    * Rousseau advocated for a collectivistic “social contract” whereby the individual’s liberties were sacrificed for a greater collective good. He also decried technological and cultural progress and longed for the ideal of the “noble savage” – not at all libertarian.

    * Nietzsche was the most sympathetic of the four thinkers – though I dare say he got it wrong when he was inclined to oppose rationalism and express the primacy of emotion over reason. By the way, the popular association of Nietzsche with Hitler is completely false. Hitler, although he professed to admire Nietzsche’s works, never really read him and only claimed to admire very select aspects of his thinking. Nietzsche died in 1900, long before fascism or national socialism began anywhere – and he would have been shot in any fascist or national-socialist regime.

    * Sartre was an extreme Marxist and advocated bloody revolutions in the Third World – not at all libertarian.

    * Camus actually explicitly repudiated the “existentialist” label and rather called himself an “absurdist”. He did oppose totalitarianism and defend individual freedom to an extent (especially in opposition to Sartre’s thirst for blood), but I know of no libertarian who would claim Camus as a major intellectual influence. I think Camus’s work embraced too much the concept of rebellion for its own sake, without an underlying principled justification (which would require seeing some non-absurdity in the word). Libertarianism is a principled moral system that embraces the absolute value of non-aggression; it is not possible in an entirely absurd world.

    In short, I think this article has the facts entirely wrong. It (and, by implication, Matthew Spalding) has set up a convenient straw man for Kirkean conservatives to assail while thinking that they have scored points against libertarian individualism. If you wish to challenge libertarian individualism, then I would like to see you try pointing out the errors you believe were made by Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and the many other thinkers who are *explicitly* held up to be influences by many individualist libertarians. And believe me, each of these thinkers has made some errors even in my judgment, but libertarianism is an ongoing conversation and not a blind embrace of any person’s creed.

    To have a meaningful conversation about what libertarians truly stand for, it is important to represent the facts about libertarianism accurately. After all, you would not want me to start claiming that your kind of conservative derives his intellectual foundations from the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, Jerry Falwell, and Tomas de Torquemada – now would you?

    Gennady Stolyarov II

  9. Spalding’s views, as presented here, seem to me to be a very confused and incoherent. The argument switches back and forth between libertarian and Libertarian, sometimes using them as the same thing and sometimes not, and making strange definitions about creating one’s own sense of meaning, whatever that means. Perhaps the author is trying to bring in the philosophical doctrine of “libertarianism” which is more about free will ( but which really has nothing to do with the political philosophy of libertarianism. The “free will” use of “libertarian” is implied in passages such as this: “there is no human nature – individuals are free to form themselves into whatever they choose to become.”

    In my article What Libertarianism Is,, provide an overview of the libertarian perspectives. First, we should recognize that capital-L Libertarian usually denotes someone who is a member of the Libertarian Party. Small-l libertarian means a person who accepts the main tenets of the political philosophy of libertarianism. These two sets are overlapping–some libertarians are Libertarians but not all (for example I am not a Libertarian and never have been a member of the LP); and some Libertarians are not libertarians because they are too mainstream in their acceptance of the role of the state.

    Libertarianism is simply the view that aggression is unjustified, and that aggression is the invasion of property borders, where property borders are determined in accordance with (a) self-ownership, in the case of the body, and (b) Lockean homesteading, in the case of external scarce resources. The most consistent application of this view implies opposition to the state, since the state is simply institutionalized aggression. (What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist). That is, the consistent libertarian is an anarcho-capitalist, or what I usually refer to as anarcho-libertarian. Others who do not go quite that far are what we call minarchists.

    In this sense libertarian has nothing to do with belonging to the LP (Libertarian), or with some volitional notion that “there is no human nature – individuals are free to form themselves into whatever they choose to become.” It also has little to do with the Founding Fathers who at most were types of classical liberal; and as I have argued elsewhere, thinking that the Constitution and early American government was proto-libertarian is a mistake, except in the sense that the state back then was smaller simply because it was just starting to grow. The Constitution is not libertarian and in fact is just an ambiguous, inconsistent statute drafted by special interest groups and bureaucrats with conflicting goals and ambitions, meant to establish and justify and give cover to a new and dangerous central state. A quasi-libertarian Bill of Rights was thrown in as a concession, but it just ends up giving the state even more cover for its crimes.

  10. The fact that you cannot articulate your argument with adequate definitions that can be expressed as human actions which in turn are open to critical analysis is the reason you fail to make your case. Here is something to work with:

    “Libertarian” vs “libertarian” :

    A) In colloquial language, ‘libertarian’ is a self-identifying synonym for anyone who is an anti-statist and who is not a social, religious or martial conservative. In technical terms this refers to people with classical liberal sentiments who have integrated libertarian commercial sentiments into their conceptual framework, but who have no material knowledge of libertarian philosophy.

    B) Lowercase “l”-libertarian = a general, abstract, sentimental preference in which political decisions err on the side of individual property rights, and small government and individual responsibility for making the best of one’s life. One can possess “libertarian” political sentiments and not be either cognizant of, able to articulate, or self identify as an ideological “Libertarian”. Classical Liberals and neo-classical liberals possess ‘libertarian’ sentiments. They do not possess a fully articulated philosophical framework.

    C) Uppercase “L”-Libertarian = a rationally articulated set of properties defining a movement consisting of multiple factions each of which include or exclude certain properties. Those properties consist of the scope of property, and the scope of the ethics of exchange, and the scope of institutions necessary to establish those property definitions, those normative ethics, as well as to provide a means for the resolution of disputes.

    Two dominant traditions divide the “libertarian” movement roughly reflecting C and B above:
    1) The Anarchic tradition specifically articulated by Rothbard in The Libertarian Manifesto, as well as the Ethics of Liberty. In contemporary parlance, “Libertarian” means unlimited adherence to Rothbard’s Manifesto’s single principle of non-aggression.

    2) The Classical Liberal and “Hayekian” tradition. Hayek adopted the term “Libertarian” because the term “Liberal” had been appropriated by the left. Hayek sought to maintain and expand the classical liberal tradition under then name “Libertarian”. The classical liberals are small-’L’ ‘libertarians’. The current big-’L’ Libertarian movement has so successfully dominated the political discourse that the neo classical liberals are only now beginning to form an ideology. Unfortunately, they have failed to understand Rothbard and Hoppe’s ethics well enough to articulate Neo Classical Liberalism (small-”L” libertarianism) in Propertarian terms. (A problem I am slowly trying to correct.)

    In no small part, the two libertarian traditions reflect the religious and social strategies of the authors from each tradition, with the Christian authors maintaining the concept of a collective ‘corporation’ in which all citizens are shareholders VS the Jewish diasporic religious and social strategy of creating a ‘kingdom of heaven’ independent of the norms and institutions necessary for land-holding. It is this difference between the martial landholding Christians and the diasporic capital holding Jews that gives each branch of the movement its preferences. And it is the inability of the two movements to find a compromise position that precludes current ‘libertarians’ from forming a sufficient political block with which to alter the political discourse by incorporating social, religious and martial conservatives who have unalterable landholding sentiments without which ‘community’ and ‘norms’ are impossible to conceive of.

    1) Non-Aggression Principle (A negative which is often stated in its positive form: Voluntarism, meaning all exchanges of property are voluntary). 2) The institution of Private Property initiated by “homesteading”: acting to transform something not property into property, over which one has a monopoly of control. 3) By implication: All human rights can be reduced to property rights. Period. No human rights can exist where they cannot be expressed as property rights. It is an impossibility due to scarcity and incalculability under complexity.

    II. VARIABLE INDIVIDUAL PROPERTIES (Limited to common properties)
    1) symmetrical-knowledge ethics (classical liberals and christian authors), VS asymmetrical-knowledge ethics (anarchists and jewish authors) Rothbard and Block are asymmetrical advocates. Most classical liberals lack the knowledge of Rothbardian/Hoppian ethics necessary to articulate their values in Propertarian terms. However, the classical liberals as well as the Hayekians, both advocate symmetrical-knowledge ethics whether they articulate the ideas effectively or not. “in any exchange the seller has an ethical obligation to mitigate fraud from the asymmetry of knowledge”

    2) Implied Warranty (classical liberal and Christian authors), VS expressly denied warranty (Anarchist and Jewish authors). Rothbard and Block deny warranty. Classical liberals imply warranty. Implied warranty is a derivation of 1, above. “in any exchange the seller must warrant his goods and services to prevent fraud by asymmetry of information.”

    3) Prohibition against all involuntary external transfers (classical liberal and Christian authors), VS prohibition only against state involuntary transfers (anarchist and Jewish authors). “No exchange, action or inaction may cause involuntary transfers from others”.

    1) Shareholder Property Forms (classical liberal and Christian authors) VS Prohibition on Shareholder Property Forms (anarchists and Jewish authors). Whether intentional or not, Rothbard all but places a ban on organizations with geographic monopolies on rule making. Block expressly advocates geographic rule making, although he only expresses it in individual rather than organizational terms.

    2) Norms as Arbitrary VS Norms as Shareholder Property. Since norms require restraints from action (forgone opportunities), and property itself is a norm paid for by restraints from action (forgone opportunities), then all those who adhere to norms, ‘pay’ for them. Therefore norms within a geography are a form of shareholder property, and violations of norms are involuntary transfers (thefts) from norm-holders to norm-destroyers.

    3) Preferred Institution: Classical Liberal State, Minimal State, Private Government or Anarchic “Religion”.

    4) Free Markets: “Markets Evolved” and regulation is a form of theft VS “Markets Were Made” and regulations by shareholders or their representatives are an expression of property rights. In practical terms, this is a derivation of principles 1, 2 and 3 above, since regulation is an attempt to solve the problem of involuntary transfers, fraud due to asymmetry of information, and fraud due to external involuntary transfers.

    5) Artificial Property VS No Artificial Property (Intellectual Property VS no intellectual property. ) In practical terms, this is a derivation of 8 above, since if markets were made their owners have a property right to create artificial forms of property – (because different portfolios of property types are artificial norms that vary from group to group.)

    Beyond the points listed above, “libertarian” becomes arbitrary and loses its distinction from “Classical Liberalism” and “neo Classical Liberalism”, since any discussion of the state, government, or shareholder returns on shareholder investments is alien to big-L Libertarianism because it violates the non-aggression principle. Hayek, Popper and Parsons all failed to develop an articulated ethical language capable of expressing the logic of classical liberal language in a rational ethics. Rothbard did it. Hoppe nearly finished it.

    Obviously, more could be added to this list, but it’s already too long for this post already.

    Curt Doolittle

  11. BTW:

    RE: “But most libertarians on the street would just say “existential–what?” In truth, they’re just disillusioned Conservatives.”

    “Conservative” is a reaction to the status quo. As is progressive. It has no other meaning. The status quo is what remains of American classical liberalism. So conservatives are American Classical Liberals who cannot use the term, because ‘liberal’ has been appropriated by the left. They are classical liberals, who DO have libertarian sentiments, but are not Libertarians because they disagree with the Libertarian prohibition on shareholder-community, and denial of norms as property.

  12. Tim C. says:

    I find it extremely interesting that at no time does the author mention Ayn Rand’s profound and extensive influence on the libertarian position. In his book Libertarianism: A political Philosophy for Tomorrow , only a single example among many, John Hospers states explicitly his reliance on her writings. The Objectivist influence on libertarianism clearly undercuts the author’s position, and to be honest should embarrass any rational author meaning to be taken seriously.

    • Tyler O'Neil says:

      Thanks for commenting. Rand does not undercut my position – rather, she strengthens it. At the end of her Atlas Shrugged, she posits that there may be a free market utopia, with men and women working almost for the sheer joy of working. This messes with human nature just as the Liberal utopians do, and a Progressive may easily agree with a Libertarian that men could be educated to work for its own sake.

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  1. [...] Hillsdale Natural Law Review, Tyler O’Neil suggests that many conservatives aren’t libertarians despite using the term. Because Kinsella posted about it being a bit sloppy, I thought I’d use it as an excuse to [...]

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