What is a libertarian? That's a question with almost as many answers as there are libertarians. My favorite definition is that libertarianism is what your mother taught you, “Keep you hands to yourself, don't take other people's stuff, and don't hit your sister.” Or, as North Carolina libertarians Barbara Howe and Susan Hogarth put it, “Don't hit people and don't take their stuff.”
Libertarianism has also been described as simply the Golden Rule applied to politics: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and don't do to others want you don't want them to do to you.
This definition is a variation of what Dr. Mary Ruwart wrote in her libertarian best-seller Healing Our World in An Age of Aggression.
“Libertarianism is the simple morality we learned as children: don’t strike first, don’t steal or cheat, keep your promises. If you inadvertently fail to live up to these standards, make it up to the person you’ve harmed. If someone harms you, you may defend yourself as needed to stop the aggressor and obtain reparations.”
She adds, “This simple morality works group-to-group just as it works one-to-one to bring about a peaceful and prosperous world.”
Another noted libertarian author, and two-time presidential candidate, Harry Browne put it this way: “Libertarians believe in individual liberty, personal responsibility and freedom from government – on all issues at all times.”
“A libertarian is someone who thinks you should be free to live your life as you want to live it,” Browne wrote, “ … who believes you should raise your children by your values, not those of some far-off bureaucrat who’s using your child as a pawn to create some brave new world – who thinks that, because you’re the one who gets up every day and goes to work, you should be free to keep every dollar you earn, to spend it, save it, give it away as you think best.”
When asked whether a particular politician is a libertarian or not, rather than saying yes or no, I refer to to this definition by science fiction writer L. Neil Smith: “A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advocate or delegate its initiation. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim.”
In other words, you can tell whether a politician is truly a libertarian by their actions, what they vote for and against, and the policies they advocate, not merely by what the say.
As my good friend and libertarian mentor, R. Lee Wrights, has said, “Libertarianism is more than a political philosophy. It's a way of life.”
“Libertarianism is all about non-aggression,” Wrights said. “The philosophy of life which guides all libertarians and which drives some of us to plunge into the political process is the exact opposite of what motives Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.
“We leave people alone,” he adds. “They tell everyone how to live. We’re good neighbors. They’re nosy neighbors. We’re for peace. They’re for war.”
The most amusing definition was written by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service during the process of granting the Advocates for Self-Government status as a non-profit educational organization.
The IRS wrote: “Libertarianism is a philosophy. The basic premise of libertarianism is that each individual should be free to do as he or she pleases so long as he or she does not harm others. In the libertarian view, societies and governments infringe on individual liberties whenever they tax wealth, create penalties for victimless crimes, or otherwise attempt to control or regulate individual conduct which harms or benefits no one except the individual who engages in it.”
Perhaps the best introduction to libertarianism is an essay written by the late David Nolan, one of the founders of the Libertarian Party, The Essence of Liberty.
Nolan wrote that they there are five fundamental principles all libertarians agree on. The first is: you own yourself. No one has the right to force you into the service of “society” or “mankind” for any reason. Self-ownership logically implies the right to second principle, self-defense. And since individuals have the right to own or use anything – gold, guns, porn, or marijuana, so long as they do not harm others, the third principle is there should be no criminal possession laws.
Self-ownership also means you own the fruit of your labor, so the fourth principle all libertarians agree on is no taxes on productivity, in other words, no income taxes. Libertarians may disagree about which taxes, if any, are legitimate, but all libertarians agree that taxes on productivity are wrong.
Finally, the fifth principle is a sound money system, that is, a money system back by something or true value, like gold or silver.
Here's a sampling of short definitions from several North Carolina libertarians.
“My current way of explaining my libertarianism to other people is that I am far too busy trying to run my own life to have time or interest in running anybody else's.” - Sean Haugh
“You own yourself. Live and let live. People should be forced to compensate for any harm they cause but otherwise should not be interfered with.” - Ray Ubinger
“Advocating for the individual's freedom to think, speak, and act as he/she pleases, and taking responsibility for the outcomes of those acts.” - T.J. Rohr