Defining Libertarianism

On Hillsdale Natural Law Review, Tyler O’Neil suggests that many conservatives aren’t libertarians despite using the term. Because Kinsella posted about it being a bit sloppy, I thought I’d use it as an excuse to try and write something definitive.


“Libertarian Party” vs “Libertarian philosophy” vs “libertarian movement” vs “libertarian sentiments”

A) “Libertarian Party” : The name of a political party that makes use of Libertarian philosophy in its policy platform.

B) Uppercase “L”-Libertarian = Libertarian in the narrow sense: The self identifying name “Libertarian” has been appropriated by members of a the majority faction of the broader group of libertarians and requires total observance of the twin concepts of Property Rights and the Non Aggression Principle. This of necessity places a Libertarian as an advocate of either minimal state, private government, or anarcho-capitalist forms of creating a social order. And it specifically excludes Classical Liberals and Neo-classical Liberals for whom enforcement of norms is a necessary and beneficial defense of political shareholder property rights.

C) Lowercase “l”-libertarian: Libertarian in the broader sense: A movement consisting of multiple factions, employing a rationally articulated set of arguments, each of which include or exclude certain secondary properties in addition to the twin concepts of property rights and the non-aggression principle. Those additional properties consist of a)the scope of property, and b)the scope of the ethics of exchange, and c) the scope of institutions necessary to establish those property definitions, those normative ethics, as well as d) to provide a means for the resolution of disputes.

D) “libertarian sentiments” (Or “libertarian-like” affiliations): A general, abstract, sentimental preference in which political decisions err on the side of individual property rights, small government, and individual responsibility for making the best of one’s lot in life.
In colloquial language, ‘libertarian’ is a self-identifying synonym for anyone who uses anti-statist arguments which may include social, religious or martial conservatives. One can possess “libertarian sentiments” and not be either cognizant of, able to articulate, or self identify as an ideological “libertarian”. Classical liberals and neo-classical liberals possess ‘libertarian’ sentiments. They do not possess a fully articulated philosophical framework.

In technical terms the libertarian sentiments are used by that category of people with conservative classical liberal ideologies who have integrated libertarian commercial ideas into their conceptual framework as a means of combating encroaching statism and bureaucracy, but who have no material knowledge of libertarian philosophy, nor would they apply the libertarian constraints upon their ideology if they could articulate it.

Therefore “conservatives” possess libertarian sentiments, but do not subscribe to the social implications of “libertarian” philosophy. This is because ‘conservative classical liberals’ believe an entire suite of norms to be a form of ‘property’: an asset in which they are shareholders that is depreciated by a failure to observe and adhere to those norms. And political failure to enforce those norms constitutes an involuntary transfer of assets from them to others.


Two dominant traditions divide the “libertarian” movement roughly reflecting B and C above:

1) The Anarchic tradition specifically articulated by Rothbard in The Libertarian Manifesto, as well as the Ethics of Liberty. In contemporary parlance, “Libertarian” means unlimited adherence to Rothbard’s Manifesto’s single principle of non-aggression.

2) The Classical Liberal and “Hayekian” tradition. Hayek adopted the term “Libertarian” because the term “Liberal” had been appropriated by the left. Hayek sought to maintain and expand the classical liberal tradition under then name “Libertarian”. The classical liberals hold libertarian sentiments but are not libertarians. The current big-‘L’ Libertarian movement has so successfully dominated the political discourse that the neo classical liberals are only now beginning to form an ideology. Unfortunately, they have failed to understand Rothbard and Hoppe’s ethics well enough to articulate Neo Classical Liberalism in Propertarian terms. (A problem I am slowly trying to correct.)

In no small part, the two libertarian traditions reflect the religious and social strategies of the authors from each tradition, with the Christian authors maintaining the concept of a collective ‘corporation’ in which all citizens are shareholders, VS the Jewish diasporic religious and social strategy of creating a ‘kingdom of heaven’ independent of the norms and institutions necessary for land-holding. It is this difference between the martial landholding Christians and the diasporic capital holding Jews that gives each branch of the movement its preferences. And it is the inability of the two movements to find a compromise position that precludes current ‘libertarians’ from forming a sufficient political block with which to alter the political discourse by incorporating classical liberal, social, religious and martial conservatives who have unalterable landholding sentiments without which ‘community’ and ‘norms’ are impossible to conceive of.


1) Non-Aggression Principle (A negative which is often stated in its positive form: Voluntarism, meaning all exchanges of property are voluntary).

2) The institution of Private Property initiated by “homesteading”: acting to transform something not property into property, over which one has a monopoly of control. 3) By implication: All human rights can be reduced to property rights.   No human rights can exist where they cannot be expressed as property rights. It is an impossibility due to scarcity and incalculability under complexity.

II. VARIABLE INDIVIDUAL PROPERTIES (Limited to common properties)

1) symmetrical-knowledge ethics (classical liberals and christian authors), VS asymmetrical-knowledge ethics (anarchists and jewish authors) Rothbard and Block are asymmetrical advocates. Most classical liberals lack the knowledge of Rothbardian/Hoppian ethics necessary to articulate their values in Propertarian terms. However, the classical liberals as well as the Hayekians, both advocate symmetrical-knowledge ethics whether they articulate the ideas effectively or not. “in any exchange the seller has an ethical obligation to mitigate fraud from the asymmetry of knowledge”

2) Implied Warranty (classical liberal and Christian authors), VS expressly denied warranty (Anarchist and Jewish authors). Rothbard and Block deny warranty. Classical liberals imply warranty. Implied warranty is a derivation of 1, above. “in any exchange the seller must warrant his goods and services to prevent fraud by asymmetry of information.”

3) Prohibition against all involuntary external transfers (classical liberal and Christian authors), VS prohibition only against state involuntary transfers (anarchist and Jewish authors). “No exchange, action or inaction may cause involuntary transfers from others”.

1) Shareholder Property Forms (classical liberal and Christian authors) VS Prohibition on Shareholder Property Forms (anarchists and Jewish authors). Whether intentional or not, Rothbard all but places a ban on organizations with geographic monopolies on rule making. Block expressly advocates geographic rule making, although he only expresses it in individual rather than organizational terms.

2) Norms as Arbitrary VS Norms as Shareholder Property. Since norms require restraints from action (forgone opportunities), and property itself is a norm paid for by restraints from action (forgone opportunities), then all those who adhere to norms, ‘pay’ for them. Therefore norms within a geography are a form of shareholder property, and violations of norms are involuntary transfers (thefts) from norm-holders to norm-destroyers.

3) Preferred Institution: Classical Liberal State, Minimal State, Private Government or Anarchic “Religion”.

4) “Markets Evolved” and regulation is a form of theft VS “Markets Were Made” and regulations by shareholders or their representatives are an expression of property rights. In practical terms, this is a derivation of principles 1, 2 and 3 above, since regulation is an attempt to solve the problem of involuntary transfers, fraud due to asymmetry of information, and fraud due to external involuntary transfers.

5) Artificial Property VS No Artificial Property (Intellectual Property VS no intellectual property. ) In practical terms, this is a derivation of 8 above, since if markets were made their owners have a property right to create artificial forms of property – (because different portfolios of property types are artificial norms that vary from group to group.)


Beyond the points listed above, “libertarian” becomes arbitrary and loses its distinction from “Classical Liberalism” and “neo Classical Liberalism”, since any discussion of the state, government, or shareholder returns on shareholder investments is alien to big-L Libertarianism because they believe that it violates their concept of the non-aggression principle. (I argue otherwise but that’s a longer topic.) Hayek, Popper and Parsons all failed to develop an articulated ethical language capable of expressing the logic of classical liberal sentiments in a rational ethics. Rothbard did it. Hoppe nearly finished it. No one on the conservative bench has so far seen to adopt it, and the classical liberal and conservative movements are trapped in Kirkian moralistic reasoning. Which is useless against encroaching statism. (Hence why I’ve formed the Propertarian Institute.)

The term “Conservative” describes a reaction to the status quo. As does progressive. In the USA, the status quo is what remains of American classical liberalism. So conservatives are American Classical Liberals who cannot use the term, because ‘liberal’ has been appropriated by the left. They are classical liberals, who DO have libertarian sentiments, but are not Libertarians because they disagree with the Libertarian prohibition on shareholder-community, and denial of norms as property.

That is a “propertarian” analysis of the political spectrum. The fact that propertarian reasoning allows us to differentiate by concept of property rights rather than institutional ‘beliefs’ is just one illustration of the explanatory power of propertarian ethics.

Curt Doolittle

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