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Neither left nor right

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, August 24, 2005

So what exactly do libertarians believe?I’ve heard this question too many times. I’m going to ignore the inanity of it, in deference to the truly curious, and attempt to answer it briefly because there is no other way – that is, short of writing several volumes of political philosophy, which is something I am not planning on doing.Maybe you have heard of libertarianism, or maybe you have not. It is a political philosophy that is not new, and has its roots in the earliest forms of capitalism. The Libertarian Party was only founded within the last 35 years, but boasts more members elected to public office than any other third party.So … what exactly do libertarians believe?The core principle of libertarianism is simple, and if one wishes to join the Libertarian Party one must sign a pledge to uphold it: the principle of non-aggression. Therein lies the most striking difference between libertarianism and the other political philosophies currently wrestling for power in the United States.Non-aggression simply states that your freedom to engage in violence ends where another human being begins, except in cases of self-defense. Thus, your inherent authority extends only to your own borders – the property you own, or your own body – and nowhere else. Authority is an artificial construct that is morally valid if and only if the consent of the subordinated is clearly established. This rule applies to all individuals, corporations and yes – even governments.It is from this foundation that all libertarian positions derive. The government, at any level, is an exercise in authority that is not necessarily intrinsic to its existence. As Murray Rothbard, one of the greatest political thinkers you’ve never heard of, said, “If you wish to know how libertarians regard the State and any of its acts, simply think of the State as a criminal band, and all of the libertarian attitudes will logically fall into place.”Unlike Rothbard, however, most libertarians are not anarchists. Most are disillusioned Republicans or Democrats who have seen the national debt grow, who have watched civil liberties be curtailed, who have seen the machinery of state aggression, who have recognized that the root of oppression is the usurpation of authority and who have had enough.Libertarians reject authority that does not rest on the explicit consent of the governed. We believe that neither you nor any politician has a right to our money. We believe that no one has the right to interfere in our private lives. We believe that self-defense is inalienable but that all forms of aggression are immoral. We believe that drug laws, just like immigration laws, have been enacted to create criminals out of peaceful citizens. The government’s role is not to enforce charity and morality, and we believe that the best way to a better society is not through more laws, but through fewer. As Tacitus once wrote, “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.” It is true.Hence the difficulty in classifying libertarians on the left-/right-wing scale. Like the left, we believe that the state has no right to interfere in the personal lives of people. Like the right, we believe that the state has no right to steal from its citizens. Libertarians are thus both simultaneously left and right, and most will say they are neither.The bumper sticker on the back of my car states it clearly enough: libertarians are “pro-choice on everything.” Translated into a contemporary media buzzword, libertarianism is, basically, “tolerance.”Unfortunately, the left has commandeered the word “tolerance” and now throws it around carelessly. Tolerance is not about acceptance. It is, simply, tolerance. You may not like my opinions. You may not like the Vagina Monologues; you may complain and whine and ignore all of these things, but you’re going to tolerate all of them because you have no right to do anything otherwise. You are not freer to decide what is best than anyone else is.That is libertarianism. It is based entirely on negative rights, in that people are free from coercion. In opposition are today’s big-government socialists and neoconservatives who believe in positive rights: that is, you have the right to a government-funded retirement, the right to a pornography-free society, or any other “right to” that can be invented. Libertarianism is not about what you have a “right to.” It is about what you have the right to be “free from.” Fundamentally, you do not have the right to coerce anyone, just as you have the right to be free from coercion. If ye harm none, do as ye will.Hopefully this column will serve as a forum in which I can detail out some libertarian solutions to government-created problems. If you find that the idea of fewer laws, smaller government and freedom of speech, religion and the press appeals to you, keep reading and investigate the matter further. It’s going to be an interesting year.

Scott Wagner is a senior biological sciences and German major. He is also president of the brand new College Libertarians club. He can be contacted at swagner1@nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.