Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff
WE LIBERTARIANS HAVE always preferred to use esoteric arguments, specialized language, and other secret handshakes usually invoking the furthest reaches of Austrian praxeology. Like exclusive membership in any tribe, this can all be great fun. But it can also be politically debilitating in an era where one tweet from the president is capable of changing the course of international relations.
With all due respect to Adam Smith and Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises, why not make it simple? Don't hurt people and don't take their stuff--that's libertarianism in a nutshell. It's even short enough to work on old 140-character Twitter, before founder Jack Dorsey ruined it. If this sounds like what your mom taught you when she caught you whaling on your little brother, that's because I stole it from her. But she stole it from her mom, as have many generations of moms before. Everyone seems to agree on these rules, save homicidal psychos and politicians.
It's particularly important that we make this commonsense case for libertarianism today, because so much of our public debate has devolved into tribal identitarianism--conservative vs. liberal, red vs. blue, us vs. them. But these tribes, mostly motivated by what they don't like about the other side's personal choices, are getting smaller and smaller. The rest of the population is left feeling alienated by the fighting. Can't we all just get along? Most folks want to be left alone to live their lives, raise their families, make a living, maybe take a few risks or practice their faith, and simply pursue happiness as they see fit. They are good people, meaning that they'll do good by you, as long as you don't hurt them or take their stuff.
The nice thing about libertarianism is that you don't really need permission from someone else's cultural or political tribe to adopt it. Of course, the mutual respect, or at least tolerance, that comes with not hurting people and not taking their stuff is the basis for all sorts of prosocial behavior. Binding institutions, accepted rules of conduct, peaceful cooperation, mutually beneficial economic transactions, and yes, helping a neighbor in trouble are all the unplanned results of our time-tested, mom-approved rules.
At lightning speed, technology has allowed us to abandon many of the top-down institutions that used to tell us what to think and know and do. We crowdsource all of these answers for our own selves now. The result is mostly beautiful chaos. But political powerbrokers are doing what they have always done in order to cling to power: They gain by dividing us by our class, or color, or income, or sexual identity, or religion, or which side of the border our parents were born on. It may feel like it's working, but I think this is just a passing phase, a transition to something more democratized and wonderful.
If we libertarians could reach that massive searching middle with a simple story--a prospect that gets ever easier in the new world of democratized storytelling--the good folks who just want to get on with their lives might just join up with us. We can help rebuild an awesomely messy community of people, the crazy quilt we call America. As long as we don't hurt people or take their stuff.
MATT KIBBE is president and chief community organizer at the nonprofit Free the People.
Libertarianism: Defined by Ends, Not Means
A LIBERTARIAN IS someone who has concluded, for whatever reason, that he prefers a society with a high level of individual freedom and little interference with individual rights. That leaves open the question of what those rights are. Simply put, we believe in negative rights, not positive rights; the right not to be killed, not the right to live; the right of each person to control his own life, but not at the expense of unwilling others.
"Libertarian" is not a binary variable--there is no bright line separating those just libertarian enough to qualify from those not quite libertarian enough. A socialist who believes in government control of heavy industry but private markets for everything else or one who supports a Yugoslavian-style system where workers' co-ops interact with each other through the market may not be very libertarian, but he is more libertarian than a socialist who believes in running everything from the center. Someone who wants to replace the public-school system with education vouchers is probably more libertarian than the vast majority of the...