Libertarians: Defined

In last week's column, I referred to myself as a libertarian, which I defined as 'nicepeoplespeak for a 'guy who doesn't like government.'' After that article published, I got a letter from a guy named Mike. Mike's worried that many of his friends are becoming self-professed libertarians without really knowing what libertarianism is. 'It seems to me that they are anti-establishment because they believe it is trendy,' he says, 'rather than because of some rational thought process.' With Mike's email in mind, I'd like to take this chance to answer the age old question, once and for all: What the heck's a libertarian? With any luck, I'll end up providing some insight.

Now, I should probably start by telling you that the exact definition of the word 'libertarian' is a point of controversy within the libertarian community. Part of the problem is that libertarians, by nature, don't really belong in communities. Otherwise, they wouldn't be libertarians. They'd just be curmudgeons. Or communists. I'm not sure I'd be highly regarded in the libertarian community anyway'even if there was one. But this is a good thing. The less fellow libertarians respect your libertarianism, the better a libertarian you are. It means you're objective. Which is how I've justified writing this article.

Anyway, there are many strains of libertarianism'and we'll get to them in a moment'but, basically, it can be boiled down into a single, four-word phrase: 'What's this 'we' stuff?' Another one that'll work is: 'To each his own.' These phrases describe the philosophy by which libertarians live.

For example, suppose you have a roommate. And suppose your roommate marks his name'let's call him Carl'on an unfinished carton of vegetable lo mein, which he puts in the fridge. Well, now let's suppose you come home one night after four hard hours of partying. Your stomach is grumbling, so you rummage through the fridge. All you find is half a head of lettuce, some ketchup and mayonnaise, and Carl's clearly marked lo mein. You opt for the latter and devour it whole. The next day, Carl comes into the kitchen and finds the empty carton near the microwave'where you left it'a dirty fork and scattered pieces of white rice by its side.

Carl comes running into your room, shouting: 'You bastard! You ate my lo mein!'

You open an eye. 'So what? I was hungry.' You try to fall back to sleep.

'It doesn't matter if you were hungry,' Carl says. 'It had my name on it. It was mine.'

Well, there you go. The lo mein was his; you had no right to eat it. That's the basic philosophy. To each his own. In fact, this idea is so integral to libertarianism that some libertarians would suggest Carl is now entitled to shoot you. And that doesn't mean he should shoot you. He probably shouldn't. I mean, it's just lo mein. But that's not the point. It's a matter of principle: As long as the threat of being shot exists, no one will ever eat anyone else's lo mein without asking. Besides, you started it.

Of course, you could always lobby your landlord to buy lo mein for every person in the building. The only problem is he'll have to raise Carl's rent to afford it. That, and he'll want to skim a little money off the top of the order. So instead of calling the expensive Chinese restaurant down the street, he'll just call the crappy take-out place around the corner. You know, the one the Board of Health closed down six times last year? So now you and Carl will both have lo mein, but you'll both end up puking your guts out. Is this what you want? And how's that fair to Carl?

Libertarians believe government is a lot like your landlord. Or: It's a lot like puking your guts out. Either way, government can provide any service you ask for, but that doesn't mean it'll do it well (and, usually, it doesn't). For this reason, libertarians believe we'd be better off if government left well enough alone. This perspective informs their opinion on every issue of the day.

Because libertarians hold steadfast to one guiding principle, it can be tough to determine where they stand politically. Some libertarians lean right, while others lean left. Many, though, manage to lean left of the Left and right of the Right at the same time'like extremists with split personalities who happen to hate each other. On issues like gun control, free trade, and taxes, for instance, libertarians resemble Republicans. On issues of war, civil liberties, and drug prohibition, however, libertarians resemble Democrats. In each case, libertarians attempt to treat humans not as means to an end but as ends unto themselves. Neither major party is likely to please them, because the parties only pay lip service to the platforms libertarians genuinely believe in (see: 'anti-war' Democrats and 'free trade' Republicans). Plus, libertarians are idealists. This means they can never be happy.

Now let's take a look at a few libertarian archetypes.

1. Big 'L' Libertarians: Basically, libertarians who join the Libertarian Party, thus earning a capital letter and membership card. While many Libertarians are also libertarians, not all libertarians are Libertarians. This is because Libertarians believe it's possible to restrain a government (and believe they're the ones to do it), while some'but not all'libertarians wouldn't agree. The other main difference is Libertarians have a website.

2. Small 'L' Libertarians: Opponents of tyranny wherever it lives'in capital letters, or on Capitol Hill. Most of them would probably prefer I call them 'small 'l' libertarians,' as opposed to 'Small 'L' Libertarians.' However, I don't like how 'small 'l' libertarians' looks in print. So I won't use it. Anyway, these are libertarians who either put their beliefs ahead of their party affiliations or don't believe in party affiliations at all. Thus, no capital letter. And thus, no official website.

3. Bad Libertarians: Libertarians who'll write in complaint of this article. This includes yours truly. I think this article stinks.

4. Losertarians: Libertarians who listen to talk radio.

5. Libertarian/Other: People who profess to be 'sort of libertarian, actually,' then turn around and support lots of dumb laws. Also called Pot-Smoking Republicans.

Of course, none of these are technical terms. But you get the idea.

Finally, I would like to close by saying that, while I've defined a 'libertarian' as a 'guy who doesn't like government,' the truth is I personally love it. Without government, who would I make fun of? So when it comes right down to it, I suppose I only went libertarian for the jokes. Yes, I'm offended by all the senseless, government-sponsored violence throughout the world. No doubt about it. But the way I figure, nonpartisanship doubled my source of material. And who doesn't like having fun at the establishment's expense?

So in answer to reader Mike's question, I guess you can say libertarianism is a lot like life: It's whatever you make of it. In other words, I have no idea what libertarianism is. And yet that's the point.

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Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column on politics and personal freedoms.  His website is