What is libertarianism all about?
OCTOBER 08, 2014 by MAX BORDERS
When an idea becomes popular, those who fear it will try to redefine it. These redefinitions can be cruel or simply wrong — often by design.
Those for whom the ends justify the means are not interested in being charitable about your position or in trying to pass any “ideological Turing test.” So it’s incumbent upon libertarians to set the record straight at every turn. In doing so, it’s important not to misfire the elevator pitch. If you’ve only got a minute or two, how do you talk about what it means to be a libertarian?
I can think of no better way to sum up a worldview than Leonard Read did with the title of his 1964 book Anything That’s Peaceful. We at FEE have taken to saying “Anything Peaceful” for greater concision, but the idea is simple: “Let anyone do anything he pleases,” Read said, “so long as it is peaceful."
For most libertarians, ethics, law, and economic thinking more or less originate in this single imperative. Academic philosophers might have a field day with this formulation. Let them go about their critiques, counting angels on pinheads while the rest of us widen and deepen our movement. We might have walked many different paths to get here, but for any number of reasons, we have made this our prime value. And for my money it’s the easiest and best way to talk about our philosophy between the lobby and the 10th floor.
Now, if you’re new to libertarianism, you might be curious about why we are so focused on Anything Peaceful. Here’s a tidy top 10 list that sums up in more detail how libertarians think about things:
- Free, peaceful people are seeking out and striving for their particular form of happiness.
- Free, peaceful people tend to flourish in a condition of peace and freedom.
- Free, peaceful people will pursue a billion experiments, any of which could improve human well-being.
- Free, peaceful people come together voluntarily to build communities.
- Free, peaceful people are enormously creative — and gravitate to excellence.
- Free, peaceful people do not harm others, take others’ property, or pollute the environment.
- Free, peaceful people share and help others without coercion.
- Free, peaceful people reasonably question authority.
- Free, peaceful people don’t use others as ends to engineer society, redistribute wealth, or build utopias
- Free, peaceful people tend to be more tolerant, respectful, and even loving.
Elsewhere I’ve discussed the idea of different moral languages that get us to the goal of peace and freedom.
Anything Peaceful unpacks an idea in another phrase, the so-called “nonaggression axiom.” (I’ll pass over pointless quibbles about using any less verbose form.) Despite the conceptual similarity among these terms, I’d suggest libertarians drop negative formulations in favor of Read’s.
You see, even if we’re looking at the same picture, any gestalt can highlight negative and positive aspects. We libertarians who care about expanding our movement and making it more influential should urge others to adopt the positive form. Anything Peaceful is beautiful and ennobling. It captures what’s aspirational about freedom while celebrating the conditions that give rise to flourishing.
Is the Anything Peaceful philosophy for you? That’s between you and your conscience. But one might ask: Are the other values you hold dear competing or complementary? If you embrace the ideas of peace and cooperation, you might be ready to call yourself a libertarian. Anything Peaceful may appear to be just a slogan. But it is much deeper. It is an outlook.
As libertarians, we know that in a condition of freedom, virtually anything is possible. Despite accepting the truth that society is not ours to design or control, we take inspiration from appreciating that wonderful things sprout, align, and accrete like the multicolored flora and fauna of a coral reef. The unpredictability of free people working together to make life better is not, for us, something to be feared, but rather celebrated.
Those who embrace the Anything Peaceful philosophy will betray a mien of limitless potential. You can see it in our eyes, because we have left the acrimony of politics and power behind in favor of solving problems, forming communities, and creating experiences for others.
And while we occasionally rail against the State — with its monopoly on the initiation of force — that railing does not define us. The desire for Anything Peaceful does. Because where there’s freedom, there’s a sacred fire, vaguely Promethean, which impels us to create, to improve, and to leave for future generations traces of a human community that realized its potential. At least for a while.