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Last updated: Jul 11th, 2015


Yellow flag reading: don't tread on me
The Gadsen flag is frequently used in the U.S. to express Libertarian sentiment.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that is based on individual freedoms and minimal government. There are different types of libertarianism, and the views of libertarians tend to differ more than most people realize. This diversity is clouded by the fact that in the U.S., libertarianism is often dominated by a particular style or flavor of Libertarianism, which is often somewhat close to American conservatism.

Libertarianism as "How" vs. "What", as "Means" vs. "Ends"

One of the underlying principles that often guides my political and ethical beliefs is the idea that the ends do not justify the means. I think that this guideline provides a compelling reason to support a libertarian approach to a certain degree: if you are thinking of achieving a given goal, there are often numerous different ways of doing it. Increasing the complexity of laws, increasing government spending, and restricting individual freedoms are all undesirable things which have numerous downsides. At times, these may be "necessary evils", but a key conclusion here is that having a good "end" in mind does not automatically justify increasing government spending, or increasing the complexity of the legal system, or restricting freedoms.

I think the results are much better for society if we look holistically at the effect of whatever change or law is being considered. I see the failure to look holistically in this way as the largest historic flaw of liberalism in the United States, which has often tried to achieve numerous good ends through increases in size of government and complexity of laws. Most of these changes have helped in some ways, but many have also had unintended negative consequences, and in many cases the harm done outweighed the benefits and often undermined the original goals or ends. For example, the Endangered species act has had unintended consequences of promoting habitat destruction by landowners wishing to "pre-emptively" avoid the restrictions placed by the act. [Source, PERC, Source, NY Times Magazine]

On the other hand, I do not think that libertarian principles always represent the best "end" when they are pursued at all costs, and just as it is possible to go wrong by overrunning the ideals of freedom, simple laws, and small government when trying to achieve good, it is also possible to overrun other positive goals when one focuses too blindly on the goals of less regulation and less government spending. One of the historic flaws of libertarian-leaning Republicans in the U.S. in recent years has been poorly-executed deregulation, such as the financial deregulation that led to the mortgage bubble and crash. Again, I think a holistic approach is important.

I think the best way to incorporate libertarianism into a political philosophy is to embrace principles of freedom, minimal government, fiscal responsibility, and simple laws as good means to achieve ends that have been historically sought by more traditionally liberal groups, especially equality of opportunity and wealth mobility.

A dollar bill on a table, with four quarters on it, and one penny
Libertarians often question certain aspects of the U.S. currency system that are not questioned by most Democrats or Republicans.

Libertarians on Currency and Money

Most people in the U.S. who identify as libertarian advocate for a return to precious metal-backed currency, pointing to fiat currency and a debt-based monetary system as a fundamental source of numerous problems in society. Although I agree with many (not all) of the libertarian criticisms of fiat currency and debt-based currency, I tend not to agree with the recommendation to move back to precious-metal-backed currency. I would rather see a move in a new direction, involving innovation. I also support a greater separation of monetary system and government than exists in most countries, including the U.S. For example, I support local currencies and community currencies, as well as currency-free ways of organizing economic activity.

Libertarians on Private Property

In the U.S., most libertarians tend to strongly support property rights, and advocate for the enforcement of property rights as a solution to many problems in society. There is a certain irony in this, however. For example, Libertarians and conservatives may oppose the EPA and environmental regulation, claiming that civil lawsuits are the appropriate vehicle for protecting the environment--yet the same people advocating for these stances will complain about how our society is overrun by unnecessary litigation, and that lawyers wield too much power in our society. I tend to see neither property rights nor regulation as the best way to protect the environment--I think that setting up good economic incentives through a good tax system (see sustainable taxation and taxes) is a better way as it utilizes the free market to protect the environment.

I see the holding of property as something that exists in the gray area somewhere between a right and a privilege. With the ownership of property comes responsibility. I also believe that psychologically and spiritually, too heavy a focus on possession of property is not necessarily the most healthy attitude. Historically, the imposition of rules of property have been tied to imperialism, colonialism, and the forceful destruction of indigenous cultures, as cultures that did not strongly value property rights in the way western cultures define them, were forcibly overtaken by western culture with their notion of property rights. Some libertarians fall into the trap of a very culturally limited notion of property rights, claiming that property rights are a universal foundation for civilization, but ignoring the way that Western cultures have forcibly overrun the cultures with different notions of property rights.

I also believe that the enforcement of property rights without limit can be problematic to historically disenfranchised groups. Libertarians in the U.S. often claim that "no one has the right to take away their property", but they conveniently ignore the fact that most of them are living on land taken by force by European settlers, from Native Americans, and they also conveniently ignore the fact that some portion of their wealth comes from a legacy of unethical practices in the past, including slavery, which go against their libertarian ideals. I believe it is only good to enforce property rights to the extent that the distribution and ownership of property was somehow fair to begin with. Fairness is necessarily subjective, but there are numerous examples in our society of ownership of cases where people either own massive amounts of property or next to no property, with no legitimate or fair reason for the ownership. I think it is safest to assume that, unless proved otherwise, the existing distribution of wealth is not fair. This belief seems to ally me more with liberals than conservatives and libertarians.

Libertarians are often opposed to laws or tax systems that forcibly transfer wealth or arbitrary favor certain groups of people over others. I too am opposed to this sort of arbitrary favoring out of principle. However, I understand that these systems exist for reasons, as an attempt to correct wrongs that have been inflicted on whole groups of people, leaving certain subsets of the population impoverished while others enjoy great wealth. I believe that the best way of ultimately achieving libertarian goals of placing fewer restrictions on property rights is to work towards a fairer distribution of property and wealth in society. If the distribution is fairer, there will be less of a political will to enact policies that shift around wealth.

Libertarianism and Tax

I agree with some, but not all of the tendencies that libertarians have on the subject of taxes. Libertarians almost universally advocate for a simplification of the tax code, something I agree with strongly. However, many libertarians (especially in the U.S.) also often advocate for a flat tax, whereas I support progressive taxation.

One more radical point, however, on which I agree with many libertarians is on the elimination of income tax. I believe income tax sets up very bad incentives in society. However, I think Libertarians in the U.S. often focus too much on income tax and not enough on payroll taxes, which I think are ultimately much more harmful to society than income tax, because they provide a strong barrier to employment and job creation.

Some libertarian-leaning people in the U.S. support a shift to a national sales tax or value-added tax rather than an income tax. Although I do like the way in which a sales tax taxes consumption more than wealth creation (income), a value-added tax is still in a sense taxing wealth creation and is not truly taxing consumption or using up of resources, because these taxes treat a good the same whether it is disposed immediately or used for a long time. I also think that a sales-tax-only system would lead to very low wealth mobility. I prefer taxes which are more use-based (something in line with libertarian values), i.e. more directly reflective of costs incurred by government, in association with those taxes. These things include things like tolls and gas taxes to fund roads, or taxes on water that fully cover the cost of water infrastructure (rather than subsidizing it with other forms of tax).

I invite you to read more about my views on taxes, where I explain much more about these points.

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