Over at the Hillsdale Natural Law Review, Tyler O’Neil has a post, “Are You Really A Libertarian?”, examining the views of one Matthew Spalding, author of the book We Still Hold These Truths, who apparently “says most libertarians aren’t Libertarians.” It’s a very confusing post, or, at least, a post about the views of a confused author. My reply, which is still being held up for moderation, is below.
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, I 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. (See my 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.
Update: See also Curt Doolittle’s “propertarian” reply to the Hillsdale post: Big “L” Versus Little “l” Libertarianism Defined: An post-analytical take on libertarianism for Hillsdale.