While it is fair to say that there is fuzziness in the definition of any political label, libertarianism is certainly one of the hardest to nail down because there appears to be no widely accepted formal definition. So to be clear, the following description is my best understanding of the party, along with my usual disclaimer of being apocryphal and incomplete.
The root word of libertarian is “liberty,” of course, which is the core belief of the party. As such, an individual should have the unrestricted right live and pursue life as they choose; to manage their own property and belongings as they see fit; and to respect this right for all others equally. The moral principle is that behavior is guided by consequence and personal responsibility.
From a policy point-of-view this translates into a belief that we should aspire to the smallest possible government because this will have the greatest direct benefit to the individual and by turn, the economy and the society. Every individual should have the right to express and pursue all of their freedoms as ordained by the constitution. Civil restrictions and laws should be limited to the sole standard of protecting individual freedoms to the extent that those freedoms do not cause harm nor interfere with another individual’s same constitutionally granted freedoms.
Although libertarianism is not explicitly an economic model, the concept of laissez faire capitalism is naturally sympathetic to their core values. It is generally held that if the government were reduced in size with a corresponding reduction of taxation and spending there would be a direct benefit of a stronger economy. A free and open market is the only valid arbiter of somethings value to a society. If someone doesn’t actually have to pay for it then there is no way to index its real value. As such, government taxes hurt both the individual by reducing their personal resources and the economy simply by taking those resources out of the free-market economy and running it through a government spending program whose benefit is independent of the free market litmus test. Thus the value of that spending will always remain dubious.
Additionally, government spending (well intentioned or not) is inherently inefficient because they operate without competition and, therefor, the management practices are dictated by politicians and bureaucrats who have no risk or incentive to manage that program with economic viability.
Even programs that may be deemed to have a greater social good, ultimately will backfire. For instance, it makes no sense to subsidize solar panel manufactures because to do so artificially props up a company that would otherwise fail in a competitive market. What you are really doing is to weaken a private company (through taxes) thus damaging the broader economy in order to subsidize a weak company that the free market has already determined is not of value to that market, ergo. Worse, this subsidized competition in the market is an unfair advantage to those energy suppliers working solely within a competitive market structure.
Other government programs, though well intentioned, will similarly backfire and weaken the entire system. Unemployment benefits, for instance, is compassionate on the face of it by helping an individual through difficult times. However, not only do the aforementioned economic damages apply as a government program, there is a societal drain as well because those benefits will disincentivize the recipient to look for work that is actually productive by keeping them out of the natural market economy. Ultimately, everyone looses because this is not sustainable for long term economic growth.
The libertarian believes that the social needs will be better met by a higher participation of the private sector and local communities (by being able to keep and use more of their own money). This ability to meet those needs will be be augmented by reducing people’s social dependencies due to higher risk and and consequence of their own behavior. It is believed that without the safety-net of programs such as assistance to an unwed mothers, fewer women would risk such unplanned pregnancies.
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I’ve been intrigued by libertarianism for a couple of decades. It would surprise many to learn how often it can overlap with liberalism. There is even a small faction who have been coined as liberaltarians. None-the-less, they have never quite been able to close the deal with me. But that’s an article for a different day.
Meanwhile, comments are encouraged and I would especially like to hear from real live libertarians who would like to correct or amend my description.