Libertarianism: A Philosophical Introduction

Much political and moral philosophy over the centuries has concerned itself with human liberty (and some even with non-human liberty, as in “animal liberation”). The philosophical outlook on politics known as libertarianism, however, takes this idea to its extreme, proposing to make liberty the only interest that a state may properly have with respect to its citizens. The question even arises whether this interest is incompatible with the existence of the state. In any case, it has serious implications for the philosophy of law as well as for moral and political philosophy more generally.

1.1. Two Versions

At the outset, we must distinguish these two views:

(1) that liberty is the sole value to be promoted by governments and individuals (sometimes called the “teleological” version of libertarianism) and

(2) that liberty is our sole right (sometimes called “deontological” libertarianism; this is the view that the word “libertarianism”, unqualified, is generally taken to stand for nowadays.)

It is not clear whether the first entails the second, but quite clear that the second does not entail the first. The point of making liberty a general right is to prevent governments from forcing people to do things. On that view, helping to set other people free is something we may not be forced to do. By contrast, if the theorist merely makes liberty a value to be pursued, by whatever means, then governments and individuals could feel free to impose on some people in order to promote freedom for others.

We can align these two versions with a distinction proposed by various recent theorists, between “left” libertarianism and “right” libertarianism, the two splitting over the issue of the reach of private property. The “left” libertarian holds that the right of private property for individuals is either nonexistent or very much less than absolute, and that society needs to bring about a measure of equality in the distribution of certain things, usually natural resources, perhaps providing, to that end, a social minimum. Left-Libertarianism, then, gives rise, fairly readily, to support for the welfare state. Some communalists and socialists, especially in the late 19th C., claimed to be “Libertarians”. [Example, Kropotkin (1842-1921)]; a new anthology will be of immense value for pursuing these views [see Steiner and Vallentyne].

“Right-libertarianism” takes the right of private property to be absolute, or at least very strong (see below for the exceptions). According to that view, then, the welfare state is in principle wrong, along with a great deal else that is familiar in contemporary states. It has become the standard form of Libertarianism in recent times, at least in America; it was rocketed into prominence by the publication of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, which caused the view to be taken seriously in the Anglo-American academic world. According to it, our sole fundamental right is the right to liberty; all other rights are subordinate to that — they are either special cases of that one, or derived from it, directly or indirectly. Proponents of this version tend to argue that it is the only one that makes sense. Some account of the issues between them will be made below, but we will mainly concentrate on this second type, which can claim to be the more radical and perhaps more interesting for that reason. It is also the idea that is now standardly associated with the term. In the remainder of this entry, “libertarianism” refers to “Right-Libertarianism” unless specifically otherwise indicated.

1.2 Three Questions: Definition, Grounding, and Application

The area to be sketched in this essay can be divided into three general parts.

First, considerable attention needs to be paid to defining the view, which is widely misunderstood. Just what is the libertarian idea or principle? What would a principle of liberty look like? Can we formulate one that is clear and coherent (without looking crazy)?

Second, some attention is devoted to the foundations of the view: why should we be libertarians? How important is liberty, really, and in what contexts? Why, if at all, should we seek it? Are there any good arguments on its behalf?

Third, what are the real-world, institutionalizable, implications of the liberty principle — how does it apply in practice? What would a society enshrining liberty as its fundamental political value look like? Would it, for example, have a government at all? If so, what kind? If not, how would things now familiarly done by government get done? Or would they?

The three questions cannot, of course, be sharply and definitively distinguished, but dividing the questions in this way should help to clarify the issues. We’ll pay some attention to all three questions here, but especially the first, and also, sketchily, to the history of the subject.

2. Defining the View

2.1 Rights

What is a right? That there is a close connection between liberty and rights becomes clear when we consider the general notion of a right. The by-now generally accepted analysis is that rights are duty-imposers: to say that person A has a right to do some act or set of acts, x, in relation to some other person or group of persons, B, is to say that there is something about A such that B has a duty, is required, to act in certain ways — at the least, non-adversely — in relation to A’s attempting to do x. The something that grounds these duties would have to be identified and clarified by the theorist, and precisely which duties the right entails in this case would likewise have to be clarified somehow; as would just who is in the B-position.

A very important aspect of the idea is that B’s duty is of such a kind that B may legitimately be compelled, by force if need be, to do or refrain from the things that A’s right imposes on B. This last notion, which is especially appropriate for political contexts, makes particularly clear the connection of right and liberty: one person’s right reduces, that is, it provides justification for limiting, another’s liberty. The libertarian insists on minimizing this curtailment of liberty: only the need to respect other people’s liberty, according to the libertarian, provides the needed justification for limiting anyone’s liberty.

2.2 Negative and Positive Rights — a Basic Distinction

Libertarian theory, as will be evident from our next several discussions, makes major use of a distinction between two sorts of rights, distinguished by the kinds of duties they entail: negative and positive, respectively.

(a) Negative Rights: A has a “negative” right against B if what B must do in order to respect it is to refrain from various possible acts, namely ones that would hinder, or interfere with, A’s attempts to do x, or (if this is different) damage A’s person, or, more generally, worsen A’s situation in whatever respect is in question in the context in which the right under discussion obtains or would obtain. The proponent of the right could further specify which sorts of interfering actions were forbidden – perhaps not all. For instance, B may not do what would make it outrightly impossible for A to do x, no matter how hard A tries, but perhaps B may do certain acts that would make it slightly more difficult for A to do x.

(b) Positive Rights: A has the “Positive” right to do x if B must not only refrain from hindering A, but also do things which would positively assist A to do x if A is otherwise unable to do x unaided. A further important clause would also except the case where A is assisted by the purely voluntary actions of others. A has the positive right to do or to have x only if that right requires certain people, B, at least in certain possible circumstances, to assist A in doing x, or to supply A with x, whether B acts willingly or not. Obviously, the question of how much B would have to help A, that is, how great a cost B would have to bear before his obligation ceased, is a very important question and would need to be somehow specified by the propounder.

The difference between the two can be materially tiny in some cases, but can be, and usually is, very great. Take the general right to life: in its negative version it says only that others must not kill (take the life of) the rightholder; but in its positive version, it would also require that others do something to help save the rightholder’s life if it is possible for them to do so. (How much? That becomes a crucial question.) The distinction cuts across various others that have been confused with it. For instance, “action” rights and “welfare” rights are both susceptible of negative and positive forms. We could have a positive right to perform certain actions, entailing that others are required to help us — say, by supplying us with canes; as well as negative rights which merely forbade others from getting in our way. Similarly, I could have a merely negative right to welfare forbidding others to lower my existing level of welfare, whatever it was, but not obligating them to raise it if it got too low. By contrast, a positive welfare right — what people usually mean by ‘welfare rights’ – obligates others to do what is necessary to keep the rightholders’ welfare from slipping below, or to raise it up to, some threshold, which again would have to be specified. The importance of this distinction is that the libertarian holds that people have no basic positive rights — that all positive obligations have to be in some way assumed or undertaken by the obligated individual, e.g. by promising that he will perform the indicated actions.

Some writers [e.g., Shue] claim that the negative/positive distinction is ill-formed or fake, on the ground that negative rights require police and courts for their enforcement, and yet those things are positive acts that somebody would be required to do. This is mistaken, however. The question of what the right is a right to do, and who if anybody will enforce it, are separate. If our rights are purely negative, it will also mean that no one has the duty to enforce them, as such, although everyone has the right to use whatever means he can avail himself, with the cooperation of others who also have no duty to do so, to secure his rights. The distinction between negative and positive is quite robust.

It must be noted that libertarianism is ordinarily understood to be exclusively a theory about enforceable rights. It may ely enough be held that there are other moral categories in which we may assert that people have positive duties of a weaker kind. For example, the libertarian may hold that charity is a non-enforceable, but nevertheless real, duty. We should feel badly if we do nothing for the sick and exploitred if we could easily do so, for example. And of course there is no objection to holding that it would be a good thing if various ends were brought about, and to hold that it is morally commendable to try to bring those things about, and even that those who do nothing about those things are bad persons. Ttheory’s central focus, in short, is on the morally legitimate use of force.

2.3 Liberty

The short answer to the question, What is liberty?, is that people are at liberty to do some particular thing when nothing prevents them from doing it if they want to. They are at complete liberty if nothing prevents them from doing anything they want to do. But this is clearly too general for our purposes, because political and moral philosophy are about what people ought and ought not to do, and some things that keep us from doing as we’d like are simply natural — diseases, hurricanes, the size and strength of our muscles, and so on. So we must add that for social and moral purposes, what we are interested in is the absence of impositions by other people, specifically those impositions that are caused by their intentional actions. If A ties B to a tree, then, prima facie, A has imposed on B – acted on B in such a way as to prevent B from moving, and thus from doing a great many things B might like to do. But if A hits B, yet leaves B able to continue moving, say, it is less obvious that A thereby curtails B’s liberty. Yet we can point out that A has brought it about that B is unable to continue his preferred course of experience, which he enjoyed prior to being hit, and in particular that A has upset B’s intended course of action regarding B’s own head.

It is obvious enough that, very often, events other than the actions of other humans impose on us in various ways, as when lightning strikes us dead. It might be thought that libertarians should favor the removal of these nonhuman obstacles, where this is possible, with a view to promoting people’s liberty. For discussion on this, see below, 2.4.