Through The Looking Glass

I started to write this post almost three weeks ago. At first, I was going to fisk a socialist who came here pretending to be a libertarian. Then after hearing a segment of Friday night’s Free Talk Live, I was going to explain how the socialists were infiltrating the Libertarian Party in order to neuter it.

Finally, tonight, I realized something much more insidious than even that was happening.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,” it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

So now I’m going to do something a bit different. But first, what do these words mean? If we all agree on the meanings of words, then communication is possible. If not, then we spend our time talking past each other, wasting our time at best, and at worst engaging in bloody protracted wars over a simple misunderstanding.

So I’m going to try to explain all this using very simple words for which all agree on the meanings. Find out after the jump if I succeed or fail.

First, my political philosophy, what there is of it, is simple: All freedom, all the time. Oh, crap, I just used a word on which people can’t agree on the meaning. In fact, they’ve used adjectives to describe the differences in meaning: negative liberty and positive liberty. (How they got those misleading adjectives is another post altogether.) Put simply, negative liberty is the liberty on which the foundation of this country rests: the freedom from interference in one’s personal affairs by any other person. And positive liberty is something for which not even Wikipedia can provide a coherent definition.

These are related to the concepts of negative and positive rights. The negative right is the right to be left alone, while the positive right is the so-called right to have something provided to you, even if at the expense of other people. One can easily see how an asserted positive right infringes on the negative liberty and negative rights of people who just want to be left alone.

So, back to freedom. My definition is this: Freedom consists solely of negative liberty and negative rights as (almost certainly poorly) defined above. There is no such thing as a positive right, as any such thing would involve the partial or complete control of others to provide the positive right. This concept I call slavery, for that is what it is: one person forcing another to do his bidding.

Let me be perfectly clear: He who would claim a positive right would make slaves of those on whom he makes the claim. Do you see now the misappropriation of the terms “positive” and “negative”?

You may have one pet issue for which you want to keep a government around. You may even argue that we need a government for your pet issue. It could be protection from foreign invaders or terrorists. It could be to enforce contracts. Or it could be, as in the case of the socialist under discussion, for the welfare of the poor.

This particular socialist argues that he’s a libertarian, and wants the Libertarian Party to adopt his ideas. But as it turns out, there are two classes of definitions for libertarian in wide use today. The first definition is very close to the one I have already described: the right to be left alone. Until recently, this was the definition used by the LP. It certainly was the one in mind when the LP was founded. The other definition is what puzzled me about people calling themselves libertarians in other countries. For whenever I read about so-called libertarians in Canada, Europe or elsewhere, it seemed that they were espousing socialist ideas, not libertarian ideas.

Thomas Knapp comes close to clearing up my neoconfusionism by explaining the history of the word:

  1. The word “libertarian” was apparently first used to denote the debate between advocates of free will and advocates of predestination in Christian doctrine.
  2. Following that, it was used to denote anarchist variants of communism and socialism, as opposed to statist variants (the split in the First International was between the libertarians and the Marxists).
  3. For about a century, “libertarian” was a term that almost exclusively denoted a Leftist orientation — although not a statist Leftist orientation.

And apparently throughout the rest of the world, the term libertarian is used to refer to what we might call anarcho-communism. I hope I don’t need to tell you that anarcho-communism is as workable as turning lead into gold, and attempts to bring it about will not result in anarcho-communism, but can only result in the other kind of communism. Those who say otherwise are dangling a unicorn in front of your face.

Hopefully I’ve made my words mean what I want them to mean. Words can be used to inform. They can also be used to mislead. I have tried to do the former, by showing how others have been doing the latter. This post is getting too long, so I’ll have much more to say on the dangers of socialism later, including a full explanation of exactly how anti-social it really is. And I have a cookie for whoever figures out the meaning of the picture.

  1. International libertarianism is an interesting phenomena. I wonder if part of the problem is that other countries are so statist it is almost impossible for libertarians to present a vision of full freedom. They are forced into the box of incrementalism because the future doesn’t look too promising for them.

    If you look at the pattern of the classical liberal parties in Europe, you see that in countries with a right-wing party that is economically conservative (Britain), the classical liberal party is more oriented to left-wing issues like foreign policy and civil liberties. When both parties seem to be big government (Germany), the classical liberal party stands alone in favor of small government. If the US LP gives up small government, what makes them different from the Democrats and Republicans? Nothing.

  2. Michael,

    The problem with saying “X is as workable as turning lead into gold, and attempts to bring it about will not result in X, but can only result in [a bad variant of part of X]” is that that argument can be made versus just about any not-fully-tested-in-reality term — “limited government,” “anarcho-capitalism,” what have you — with equal validity.

    Furthermore, if you’re saying what you seem to be saying (that “anarcho-communism is not libertarianism because it wouldn’t work”) then your argument is faulty. The criterion of what something is is what it is, not whether or not it “works.” There are all kinds of Republican and Democrat ideas that don’t work, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t Republican or Democrat ideas, it just means they’re bad ideas.

    There is no “socialist infiltration” of the LP “in order to neuter it.” There were left-libertarians long before the LP even existed, and there’s always been a left-libertarian presence in the LP.

  3. There is a difference between small government and no government. A person who does not believe in zero-government can still be a Libertarian.

  4. No government is anarchy. That is not even an option. It is unworkable. My belief is being a libertarian means striving and implementing the least government possible to maintain some order in securing our safety from outside invaders and providing certain services that are a necessity for our common survival and pursuit of individual liberty.

  5. Americans do believe in a amount of positive liberty. They agreed to it in teh Constitution, that government would do certain things and provide certain institutions.

    The Federal Govt has 4 purposes, which of course it has overstepped for years. Your state govt. can have others not addressed by the Feds, or more likely these days, ruled over by the Feds. Local government has still other mandates of it’s own, usually decided by votes or referendums.

    I find a rather large majority of libertarians dont even know how the governing process works, and they dont want to know. I want to know how you can come up with politically possible plans to reduce it when you dont even know how it works.

    The problem is not that positive rights exist. The problem is that without a strong self government by the people, and followed by elected leaders that do not succumb to temptation ( and voters tht punish them when they do) positive liberty runs amok and does indeed become slavery after a time.

  6. And how do you intend to get a strong self government by the people, elected leaders that do not succumb to temptation, and voters that punish them when they do?

  7. It really doesn’t matter what “version” of anarchy is advocated. Without the ability to use force, no anarchist can stop the free market… or voluntary socialism for that matter.

  8. Tim — what 4 purposes do you see for the federal goverment? I see only two (for any level of government) reasonable arguments/purposes for the minarchist side: To protect people from having their natural rights have been violated and to to settle conflicts between parties when both (or more) assert that the other has violated such rights.

  9. There is an article written by F. A. Hayek in 1960 titled “Why I Am Not A Conservative” that I often like to suggest to liberals and conservatives who enter the realm of libertarianism and become confused or angry when libertarians reject their cherished views. Hayek discusses conservatives, socialists and liberals in Europe which corresponds to current American conservatives, liberals and libertarians, respectively.


    Confusion also arises from the free market fallacy. Liberals often claim a failure of the free market when a situation arises which they deem unfair. Conservatives often defend egregious corporate excesses as fair under our free market system. Both groups don’t seem to realize that America’s economic system can hardly be described as a free market system. A better description would be corporatist or fascist.


    I see the same 2 purposes for govt as Stephen

  10. Odd that a definition of “libertarianism” doesn’t start with the common: “advocate of liberty”. Of course, the distinction among libertarians is liberty *from what*?
    Again, the common definition of liberty is “freedom from oppressive or tyrannical rule”, but anarchists favor total freedom from all rule and socialists favor freedom from any form of “oppressive” inequality.
    It all boils down to a simple division: if you favor freedom from reality, you’re an anarchist or socialist; if you favor freedom from coercion (whether individual and collective), you’re a libertarian.