How I Profess My Libertarianism to My Students

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I am a professor (I teach economics at Loyola University New Orleans). In my view, this means I should profess something. I would be bland and uninteresting to my students if all I did was offer them all sides of every controversial issue in an even-handed way, so that none of them even had a clue as to where I stood on any topic. Of course, I would be derelict in my duty if I only offered my own viewpoint. As John Stuart Mill says in his “On Liberty” (paraphrase) “if you only know your own side of an argument, you don’t even know that, since all views are contrasted with all others.” I thus feel obligated to acquaint my students with a plethora of viewpoints. So, what do I profess? Austrian economics and libertarian political economy. I offer to my students all sides of an issue, but within five minutes of my first lecture they can readily discern precisely where I stand.

What then is libertarianism? It is predicated on the non-aggression principle: everyone may do exactly as they wish, provided they do not initiate violence against others or their legitimately owned property. A normative theory of law, this philosophy seeks to ask and answer one and only one question: when is violence justified? Its answer? Only in response to, in defense against, or in retaliation of, a prior use of force, or the threat thereof. And what justifies property rights? Initial homesteading of virgin territory, a la John Locke, and legitimate title transfer, based on Robert Nozick’s notion of legitimate title transfer: anything voluntary, such as trade, barter, lending, buying, selling, gifting, gambling, inheritance.

Every political economic philosophy must weigh in on three separate domains: economics, personal liberties, and foreign policy. Libertarianism is sometimes characterized as socially liberal, and economically conservative. Insofar as this goes, it is not a bad first approximation. But libertarianism (small “l” indicates the general position, upper case “L” support for the Libertarian Party; I support both, but speak only in the former role) is wider and deeper and much more radical than that. Take the “socially liberal” part first. We libertarians are pretty rabid about this (ok, ok, we are pretty rabid about most things): we favor the total legalization of any and interaction between consenting adults, whether they concern sex, drugs, gambling, sadomasochism, etc. We do not necessarily favor any such acts; we contend, only, that they should not be prohibited by law. It is the rare liberal who goes that far.

Similarly, on economics, for the most part libertarians favor complete laissez faire capitalism; the only licit government intervention, if any (many libertarians are anarchists), would be to prevent the initiation of force or fraud. This means no tariffs, no minimum wages, no rent control, no occupational licensure, the elimination of the FDA, the Fed, anti-trust laws, etc. As far as foreign relations are concerned, the libertarian position, at least as I see it (the joke is that if you ask 10 libertarians a question, you’ll get 11 different answers), is along the lines of George Washington, who warned of entangling alliances, and John Quincy Adams who stated: “(America) goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Mild isolationism ain’t in it, as far as militarism and imperialism are concerned. But libertarians are globalists regarding free trade.

So, are supporters of this philosophy of the left or the right? Neither. We reject the entire left right spectrum.

Walter E. Block, Ph.D is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University, New Orleans. 

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