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Libertarianism and Objectivism

Is the term “libertarian” an accurate description of the Objectivist politics? If we were coining an entirely new concept, “libertarian” would be ideal. However, since that word has long been in circulation, two factors determine what its actual referent is.

The first is the spread of an ideology now held by a significant number of people. It is an ideology of “non-interventionism,” an ideology which declares, in effect, “Who is the  government to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do?” While it is not an ideology of explicit anarchism—it nominally accepts the institution of government—it nonetheless opposes legitimate functions of the state, particularly in the area of military defense. It is an ideology that, with one rationale, seeks to bar government from engaging in both initiated and retaliatory force. It is a recognized, even somewhat reputable, ideology—and it needs a concept to name it. Unlike, say, the concept “selfish,” which we should try to rescue from its illegitimate use, “libertarian” has a legitimate function: it refers to something real (albeit false) that needs to be conceptualized. 

The second factor is that the term “libertarian,” as employed in general usage, now in fact refers to that ideology. For example, Ross Douthat, a New York Times op-ed columnist, writes about events abroad that “will empower the Republican Party’s hawkish establishment at the expense of the party’s libertarian/anti-interventionist wing— . . . throwing new obstacles in Rand Paul’s already difficult path to the nomination.” Libertarianism, in other words, is “non-interventionism.”

Even though the term “libertarian” once stood for free-market economics, it now refers to a perverse ideology. And it would be a serious mistake, therefore, if Objectivists adopted that label. It would be like clinging to the term “liberal”—which originally meant pro-freedom—to describe our views, even after it took on an opposite referent.

It’s important to realize that libertarianism endorses not simply a false theory—i.e., a dismissal of the philosophic roots of freedom—but a false practice. The protection of individual rights has two necessary components: a government that refuses to initiate force against its citizens, and a government that willingly uses force to repel any threats—whether domestic or foreign—against those citizens. Libertarians regularly oppose the second, thereby making freedom impossible.

It’s unfortunate that the term is no longer available for use by us, but it’s been appropriated by a cause antithetical to ours. To call yourself a libertarian with qualifiers—to say: “I’m a libertarian who doesn’t endorse a policy of ‘non-interventionism’ ”defeats the point of having a concept that stands for your viewpoint. It is like saying: “I’m a liberal, but I oppose any government involvement in the economy.” Or, more to the point, it is like describing oneself as an Objectivist but who does not believe that reason is man’s means of knowledge. Such a person is not an Objectivist—just as someone who rejects “non-interventionism” is not a libertarian.

As to identifying the Objectivist political position, there simply is no term in today’s culture that would be self-explanatory. Since you’re going to have to explain yourself anyway, call yourself a pro-capitalist. If you’re not enamored of that term, call yourself a radical for capitalism. That will certainly pique the interest of your audience, and you can then proceed to make clear what you mean.

But with respect to libertarianism, the best self-descriptive use of the term is through a negative declaration: “I am not a libertarian—I value liberty.”♦♦