Varieties of Libertarianism

There are four basic models of libertarianism, which I sketch in this table:

Origin of Rights

Proper Role of the State

Innate

Consensual

None

We are naturally endowed with rights, and our only assurance of retaining them is to rely solely on voluntary associations and institutions for such ends as justice and self-defense. The state is therefore illegitimate; we own ourselves and should not be accountable to the state.

Rights arise from experiential consensus about the allowable limits of human behavior consistent with general well-being. Our only assurance of retaining our rights is to rely solely on voluntary associations and institutions for such ends as justice and self-defense.

Minimal for defense of life, liberty, and property

We are naturally endowed with rights, but our best assurance of being able to exercise them is to rely on a minimal state, which is created and sustained by the consent of the people (or at least a super-majority of them), and is accountable to them. Such a state is a necessary safeguard against predators, who arise naturally, ignoring and exploiting the voluntary institutions of statelessness.

Rights arise from experiential consensus about the allowable limits of human behavior consistent with general well-being. Our best assurance of exercising our rights them is to rely on a minimal state, which is created and sustained by the consent of the people (or at least a super-majority of them), and is accountable to them. Such a state is a necessary safeguard against predators who arise naturally, ignoring and exploiting the voluntary institutions of statelessness.

You will find many assumptions and ambiguities in those sketches — just as you will find them among the the four schools of libertarianism that they represent. For example:

  • If rights are innate, how do they become innate? Do they float freely in the air, somewhat like Platonic ideals, just waiting to descend upon us?
  • What is harm (the boundary of rights), and who defines it?
  • If the state is illegitimate, why is that so? By what meta-criterion does one judge the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the state (or any particular state)?
  • If there is a consensus about rights, what drives the consensus? And what if there isn’t a consensus but a majority view?
  • Are rights valuable simply for their own sake or because their exercise produces better outcomes (happiness, income, wealth) for most if not all persons? And if not all persons, how does one decide who “loses”?
  • When does a minimal state cease being minimal? For example, can it defend its citizens from foreign invaders but not from the byproducts of domestic activity, such as pollution, some of which might be impossible to control through market mechanisms or the common law?
  • At what point does the initiation of action in self-defense become permissible — only when one sees “the whites of their eyes” (when it may be too late), or when a known enemy is planning to build a weapon that could harm us?

The answers to such questions not only demarcate the four schools but also point to divisions of opinion within each school. Libertarianism isn’t a monolithic belief system. If it were, it wouldn’t be libertarianism.

The school of libertarianism in the upper-left cell of the matrix usually is called anarcho-capitalism. It is associated mainly with Murray Rothbard.

There also are anarcho-capitalists who take a consequentialist view of rights (e.g., David Friedman). They would be described in the upper-right cell of the matrix.

The lower-left cell of the matrix more or less describes the Founders and Framers of the United States and its Constitution. More generally it describes what might be called “religious” libertarians — persons who believe in the innateness of rights (perhaps as God-given) but who believe also in the necessity of a state to ensure the exercise of those rights. The philosopher Robert Nozick was of this persuasion, although (as far as I can tell) he is murky about the mechanism by which rights devolve upon humans. (The lower-left cell also gives a fair summary of Objectivism, even though most Objectivists eschew the “libertarian” label. I am indebted to a reader for correcting me on this point. Originally, I had associated Objectivism with the upper-left quadrant.)

The lower-right cell describes most minarchists, whose exemplar is Friedrich Hayek. Minarchists of Hayek’s ilk generally see rights as man-made, and they see the state as an inevitable and necessary but nevertheless dangerous institution, to be kept closely in check.

What the four schools of libertarianism have in common is a commitment to greater individual freedom (absent the freedom to do harm) and less interference by the state in human affairs. Modern “liberalism,” by contrast, views greater individual freedom as requiring more interference by the state.

I am more or less a Hayekian minarchist (perhaps more of a minarchist than was Hayek). My views on rights and liberty are spelled out in many posts on this blog. See especially “Practical Libertarianism” (a series), “The Meaning of Liberty” (a series), and “Actionable Harm and the Role of the State” (a long post with links to many relevant posts).