No one person can say to have the entire knowledge of an ideology understood and synthesized such that he or she could definitively define what that ideology stands for. In any set of political principles there will always be debate about what those principles actually mean and even what those principles actually are. It is said that William F. Buckley Jr. did that for the Conservative Movement, and yet there are still folks like Irving Kristol, Pat Buchanan, and Pat Robertson who could be considered contributors to the definition of “Conservative.” There are certainly figure heads who seem more worthy of praise and discipleship, but this does not ultimately define anything. It is merely a resemblance of a high school popularity contest. This is true of libertarianism.
I have been told that there are all sorts of libertarian ideals, from the contradictory Left libertarians to the more expected anarcho-capitalists. There is no doubt a wide range of clowns from which to pick in an attempt to hold that clown up as the epitome of libertarian. (“What is Aleppo?” comes to mind in this regard.) And, although I am ill equipped to flush out for you, dear readers, what each strand of libertarian stands for and why one strand is superior to the others, I do feel comfortable explaining to you why the particular group of self described libertarians I respect are deserving of yours as well. I will call this group Misesian Libertarians.
First, what, or rather who, are Misesian Libertarians? Simply put they reside in the anarcho-capitalist wing of the libertarian constellation and are the ideological followers of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. Mises is probably best revered by these folks for introducing what is called praxeology to the discipline of economics. As Murray Rothbard–among whom I place in the Misesian Libertarian wing–said, “Praxeology rests on the fundamental axiom that individual human beings act, that is, on the primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals. This concept of action contrasts to purely reflexive, or knee-jerk, behavior, which is not directed toward goals.” I think an even simpler way to put this is that humans act out of each individual human’s own self interest, therefore; they are not going to act in ways that they deem against those self defined interests. There is a certain give and take when viewing society through this lens because one person’s self interest is another persons sin. Again Rothbard states, “Let us note that praxeology does not assume that a person’s choice of values or goals is wise or proper or that he has chosen the technologically correct method of reaching them. All that praxeology asserts is that the individual actor adopts goals and believes, whether erroneously or correctly, that he can arrive at them by the employment of certain means.”
The other part of Misesian Libertarianism is something called the non-aggression principle, which is simply that coercive force is not to be engaged in unless it is employed to repel the initial aggressor. If you think back to praxeology for a moment, the achievement of desires through the employment of certain ends would certainly open the door to rampant violence if not for the non-aggression principle. If my goals are to drive a fancy car and my means are to take the one sitting in your driveway, I have certainly acted in accordance with praxeology. However, my achievement will have been at the expense of your own personal desires, i.e., possessing the fancy car I stole. Therefore, my actions must be weighed against your reaction to them and this is what is said to govern society according to Misesian Libertarianism. If I am aware that my stealing your fancy car will be met with a preventive level of force from you, the owner, then I will have to consider other desires that I have against the desire to have a fancy car, mainly my life. You see, you will be free to use coercive force to stop me from stealing your property, and I will be free to decide that a fancy car is simply not worth it compared to my other desires. (I recognize that this is a philosophical depiction here and is subject to the forces of “reality,” and I will attempt to address that later.)
Second, what is the utopian vision of Misesian Libertarianism? You must recognize and be willing to admit that all ideologies are utopian, even you Conservatives are as utopian as the flakiest of flakes on the Left. However, being utopian does not by definition negate the benefits of the ideal society envisioned by adherents to the ideology as long as that utopian society is premised on liberty of the individual. There are no writers on which I can hang this defense of the utopian vision within the list of Misesian Libertarians; it is simply my own thought here. But I will build my case based on those greater minds’ defense of what you will call a utopian vision.
In my estimation, mankind is not programmed to live without some form of governing system over them. Whether the person preaching the wisdom of having a government is a Red Diapered Communist or Jesus Christ, the bottom line is that there is some form of system, some set of rules, instituted for the purposes of demanding society’s fidelity to those rules. For the Communist, the punishment for infidelity is the gulag or even a bullet in the back of the head. For Christ, the wages of sin are death. The same is true is Misesian Libertarianism. In such a society interactions between individuals are voluntary, infractions against an individual are subject to the laws of economics. In other words, the law and the enforcement mechanism for that law is value and cost. Society must have the mechanisms in place to ensure that one person’s desires are not satisfied at the expense of another person’s desires, as such, society must be able to extract a cost out of the individual who pursues his desires at the expense of the other individual. For Miseians, this can be achieved by such instruments as insurance, liability litigation (this would necessitate courts and an instrument to ensure payment if liable), good old fashioned common decency. It should not require a discussion to explain how common decency works. I understand it is wrong to steal and you understand it is wrong to steal, therefore, we do not steal from one another. The other two might need some discussion, but needless to say, Misesians have a ready made argument ready for those who think that, say, only the government can ensure protection or that only the government holds the solutions to those instances where individuals have a dispute about one another’s actions.
Now, moving out of the theoretical and into the practical, Misesian Libertarianism is without a doubt anarcho-capitalist to its core. Those adherents to this form of libertarianism do not think there is any need for any government structure in order for society to function. (Again aside from a type of court system, but even they argue that such a system could exist at the most local levels.) I do not subscribe fully to anarcho-capitalists but I do think there is much to be gained in trying to push current society in that direction. Simply put, I think anarcho-capitalism is the direction in which our system of government as ratified in 1787 was pointing us. That may not have been the explicit goal, but it certainly was the direction in which the arrow was pointing. Very specific, limited powers of the general government, affairs of the people governed at the level closest to them, are both traits that the Constitution possessed. Furthermore, the Articles of Confederation were a step closer to anarcho-capitalism in that there was zero power at the general level and the States could certainly govern themselves. The problem with anarcho-capitalism is that it fails to recognize the inherent desire in man to govern other men, hence there will always be some level of government. Some of the most die hard of “freedom lovers” on this site have no problem attempting to foist on others their own vision of society. Since government will exist, government must press up against the liberty minded and the strongest of those are the Misesian Libertarians. Achieving the goal of abolishing the State is not feasible, but at least the State will face stiff resistance if moved away from the direction in which it was pointed in 1787. So goes the theory anyway. This is the duty given to folks like Prof. Tom Woods, Prof. Robert Murphy, and all the others at the Mises Institute.
This explanation does not touch on specific issues like open borders or war or what have you, but I did not intend it to. I intended to attempt to explain what Libertarianism means to me with respect to probably the largest segment of the libertarian movement. It seems strange to me that the largest segment of the movement is the least understood by those who would seem to have a lot in common with them. We all want smaller government to some extent. We all want liberty. Hopefully this helps to inspire you to explore what is true and great in the liberty tradition.