Explaining Libertarianism to My Professor

A professor of mine actually mentioned libertarianism in this week’s lecture. While discussion of libertarianism should be invited, the subject must be properly understood. Below is my essay in response to what my professor had to say about this vital political philosophy.

It’s wonderful that Professor X mentioned libertarianism in his lecture this week. This is a philosophy that I believe holds the best promise for human peace and flourishing. However, after listening to Professor X’s talk, I’d like to clarify some parts of libertarianism. This way, students may gain a more comprehensive view of this illustrious political philosophy; perhaps some of you will even adopt it as your own by the time this class has concluded.

First, Professor X describes libertarianism as an “extreme form of capitalism.” I contest that this assertion implies an error, since capitalism and libertarianism are of different epistemological categories. Capitalism describes a system of interpersonal relations characterized by voluntarism. That is, a system in which individuals interact with each other voluntarily may be described as capitalist. On the other hand, libertarianism is a political philosophy. It focuses on the ethical concept of right and wrong. In the libertarian conception, ‘right’ means respect for property rights, whereas ‘wrong’ is synonymous with a property rights violation. Therefore, it may be more apt to refer to a libertarian interpretation of the constitution, i.e. one which focuses on respect for private property, instead of a capitalist one, since capitalism has nothing to do with political organization, and all to do with the mode of interpersonal exchange. In short, capitalism describes an economic system, not a political one.

Second, Professor X claims that libertarians “accept reasonable government oversight.” I’ve made the claim on my website that any support for government action is support for a violation of libertarianism, properly defined. Some libertarians I know do not find any acceptable role for government. Others I know find some proper role for it. However, the latter group–that which finds a proper role for the government–faces a particular challenge. This group must provide an answer to the accusation that the following statement implies an internal contradiction: “a property-expropriating property-protector is a contradiction in terms.” Thoroughgoing libertarians like Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard would argue that there is no solution to unraveling this internal contradiction. In short, consistent libertarianism suggests that there is no legitimate role for government.

Third, it must be understood that libertarians only advocate “fewer rules and less punishment in particular” for a reason. For example, libertarians would argue that victims of the Drug War–non-violent users, possessors, and sellers of drugs–should not be punished, and the rules that would otherwise call for their punishment should be stricken in the libertarian analysis. However, it is not the case that libertarians support an all-out rejection of the rule of law and order. Rather, libertarians would promote the right for every individual to protect him or herself from aggressive violence. For example, the libertarian would unequivocally support the homeowner who shoots down a late-night burglar. The libertarian would support all victims of excessive force in cases of police brutality in the name of the right to self-defense. Therefore, it may be overly simplistic to claim that libertarians support “fewer rules and less punishment.” In fact, libertarians support strict rules and severe punishment for violations of property rights.

Lastly, it is true, as Professor X states, that libertarians are against all prohibitions on moral grounds. But we should define our terms. The libertarian rejects prohibitions defined as governmental–or coercive–initiations of force, or the threat thereof, against an individual who is acting peacefully, but who is engaged in the use of particular substances. Any actions undertaken to prevent non-violent individuals from acting as they wish may be considered prohibitions, and the libertarian would reject these root and branch.

In light of the above clarifications of libertarianism, we may address the practice of “stop and frisk” by the New York Police Department (NYPD). Whereas the legal interpretation of stop-and-frisk tends to leave the morality of the program up in the air, the libertarian fervently rejects it. Why? As a political philosophy, libertarianism permits the analyst to declare moral judgement on any situation where there is a clear use of aggressive violence, or the threat thereof. Since stop-and-frisk involves the temporary kidnapping of an individual (kidnapping defined as the seizure of another’s body), it is a violation of what the libertarian would define as proper ethical conduct. In the libertarian analysis, no individual is justified in kidnapping another individual in order to inspect his possessions. Only when an individual has chosen to occupy space legitimately owned by another, may he be legitimately subject to investigation in the libertarian analysis.

Thus, if we adopt libertarianism in order to interpret and analyze government action, we must staunchly reject proposals to implement stop-and-frisk.


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