Earlier in my life, I knew my late grandfather was a libertarian. Back then, before I got my head on straight, I thought that libertarianism was on par with anarchism — completely anti-government, not just wanting the government to leave you alone.
Now I’m sure we’ve all taken those political alignment quizzes that try to determine if you are conservative or liberal. Every time I took one, no matter where I took one, I always came out dead-center, sometimes slightly liberal or slightly left of center. Never did I come out slightly right of center or slightly conservative.
It really wasn’t until last year or two years ago that I discovered the real meaning of libertarianism. And in discovering actual libertarianism, I’ve also discovered that I’ve pretty much always been libertarian and just didn’t know it.
Thomas Jefferson can probably be called the original libertarian, though he would easily compete with Thomas Paine on that title as well. Quoting Thomas Jefferson on government:1
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
In other words, where injury or harm to others can be shown, the power of government legitimately extends to that harm. Where no legitimate harm or injury can be shown is where no legitimate power of government exists. Glenn Beck recently quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words when asked by Bill O’Reilly why Beck doesn’t cover cultural issues on his show, "I believe what Thomas Jefferson said. If it neither breaks my leg, nor picks my pocket, what difference is it to me?"
Libertarianism’s foundation is the word’s foundation: liberty. In the dictionary of the English language, 1797 edition, by Samuel Johnson, liberty is defined as2:
1. Freedom as opposed to slavery.
2. Freedom as opposed to necessity.
3. Privilege; exemption; immunity.
4. Relaxation of restraint; laxity.
5. Leave; permission.
Notice that the first two definitions refer directly to freedom, also defined in the dictionary as:
1. Liberty; exemption from servitude; independence
2. Privilege; franchises; immunities
3. Exemption from fate, necessity, or predetermination
5. The state of being without any particular inconvenience
6. Ease or facility in doing or showing any particular thing
Many of these words should be familiar to you if you are at all familiar with the Constitution of the United States. Looking at these definitions, we clearly see around what the Constitution was designed: the very concept of liberty, the idea that the reach of government extends only to protect the rights of the people. Government cannot create rights, only protect the legitimate rights of the people who are or become subject to her jurisdiction, and in case you’re wondering, this means more than just citizens of the United States, but all people who are in this country, legally or not.
Where no legitimate harm has occurred, government is to be hands off. Where legitimate harm can be shown, government is to provide for a redress of grievances, civil or criminal, even when that harm has been caused by the very government that is to be protecting the rights of the people. Beyond this, the government, acting in its role as protector of rights, must defend those subject to her jurisdiction from the harm of foreign states and foreign nationals where possible.
One thing that appears to have been lost, or conveniently overlooked, for some time, and it still occurs today, is the line that divides the government from the people. Government has become so ubiquitous in our lives, so interwoven with our daily affairs, that this line has been almost erased. Whether this is part of some grand plan by a particular political segment of our society, as some such as Glenn Beck have alleged, remains open for debate, but one thing is obvious: we are beyond the point where the people fear the government instead of the other way around.
When governments fear the people there is liberty. When the people fear the government there is tyranny.
— Attributed to Thomas Jefferson
The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government.
— Patrick Henry
Government is not there for the people or for the benefit of the people. And I’m referring not only to the Federal government, but also to State and local governments. If the government is here for the people and for their benefit, then the people can sway government to give them whatever benefit they desire — the very foundation of tyranny. This benefit can mean the suppression of rights for one class of people that gives you a tingly feeling between your legs, or exorbitant taxation that does little to boost the unfortunate and much to bring down the fortunate.
To borrow the words of Henry David Thoreau, "government is best which governs least."3 If you want to see this particular idea in action, consider the local governments for most municipalities in the United States.
Being libertarian requires understanding the legitimate role of government, but it goes further than that and also requires understanding that while you might not like certain things that occur in society, unless you can demonstrate actual and legitimate harm, you have no right to call for government intervention, including legislation. Being libertarian requires you to ask one question with regard to each action the government aims to take: is it legitimate?
And the will of the people is not legitimate by default. Finishing with Thomas Jefferson again, from a letter written in 1819 to Isaac H. Tiffany:
…rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our own will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.
That is libertarianism at its core.
- Jefferson, Thomas. (1787). Query XIV. In J.W. Randolph (1853), Notes on the State of Virginia (p 170). [↩]
- Johnson, Samuel. (1797). A dictionary of the english language. [Google Books] [↩]
- Thoreau, Henry David. (1849) "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience". Quote: "I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically." [↩]