Text Prepared by Joseph E. Knight
Libertarian Field Organizer
(HTML version by BCLP).

Understanding the Libertarian Philosophy

"Government is not reason, it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."

- George Washington

What is the proper role of government in a free society?

To answer this question, we must first understand what is meant by "government".

Government is the use of force.

To govern means to control. The use of force is implicit in the definition of control. Otherwise, it would be "influence" rather than control. Even the good things that governments do involve the use of force somewhere, somehow. Sometimes government uses force directly to control behavior. Other times, government uses money taken by force to fund activities which would otherwise not involve the use of force.

Understanding that government is the use of force, the question then becomes:

"What is the proper use of force in a free society?"

To answer this question, we first look at different types of force:
  1. INITIAL FORCE.

    In any group of people, from 2 to 20 billion, there is no use of force until someone uses it first. Initial force is aggression or coercion.
  2. DEFENSIVE FORCE.

    Defensive force is the use of force to defend your safety, rights, or property. You have the right to defend yourself, and the right to authorize others, such as those in government, to use defensive force in your behalf. Defensive force is survival.
  3. RETALIATORY FORCE.

    Retaliatory Force is punishment of someone who has initiated force. If someone assaults you, you have the right to authorize government to punish those responsible in your behalf. Retaliatory force is justice.

Some people have suggested a fourth category of preemptive force but most examples of preemptive force, upon analysis, can be placed in one of the other three categories.

Libertarians are, by definition, those who oppose the initiation of force.

SOME libertarians are also pacifists and decline the use of any force. Libertarianism is broad enough to encompass pacifists. All oppose the initiation of force.

SOME libertarians are militant and have no qualms about defensive and/or retaliatory force. Libertarianism is broad enough to encompass militants. The common factor is opposition to the initiation of force.

Opposition to the initiation of force (the Non-Coercion Principle) is the essence of libertarian philosophy. Freedom is the absence of the initiation of force.

A robber cannot be "free" to steal your property nor can a bully be "free" to strike you. The robber and the bully have initiated force and the condition of freedom doesn't exist unless there is an absence of the initiation of force. Consequently, a "right" cannot be something which must be had at the expense of others. You have the right to free speech, but not to compel others to provide your forum. You have the right to earn a living, but not to compel others to provide your living.

Libertarians apply the non-coercion principle to all human behavior.

It doesn't matter if the initiators of force are in or out of government. Government doesn't confer some mystical right on some to violate the rights of others. If it is wrong for a person to commit a rape as an individual, it must be equally wrong for a person to commit a rape as an agent of government. If somebody takes your property without your permission, it is theft (an initiation of force). It's theft regardless of whether the loot is used to buy drugs or to feed the poor. It is theft regardless of whether there is 1 thief or 20 million thieves. It is theft regardless of whether the gang calls itself the "Sons of Satan" or the "Internal Revenue Service".

Where government exists in a free society, its role should be limited to defending and/or retaliating against those who initiate force. Government in a free society should not be the initiator of force.

Some laws, such as those prohibiting murder, rape, robbery, and fraud, are laws against the initiation of force. Enforcement of such laws is the application of defensive and/or retaliatory force. Government in a free society should not be the initiator of force.

Other laws constitute an initiation of force. Government should not initiate force to seize the property of individuals. Government should not initiate force to compel service to the state. Government should not initiate force to impose lifestyles or moral codes.

Government should not initiate force even when "it's for your own good."

In a free society you have property rights.

You can use honestly acquired property in any way that does not constitute initiation of force or fraud, trespass on the property of others, or violate agreements you have voluntarily entered into. You decide which charities to support, and don't have to sacrifice your property against your will for purposes that others decide on rather than you.

In a free society, you have personal rights.

You can live however you want so long as you don't initiate force or fraud against others or their property. You decide what risks to take, what to believe in, and how to entertain yourself.

Property rights and personal rights are really the same. Personal rights are based on property rights because you own your life, your body, and your mind.

Ownership and the use of honestly acquired property is not, in and of itself, an initiation of force and therefore does not violate the rights of others.

If someone owns an AK-47 and uses it to murder school children, it is the murder that is the initiation of force, not the ownership of the AK-47. Murder should be prohibited and punished regardless of the weapon used. Most people who own AK-47's do not murder school children or anybody else.

If you own or rent a sexually explicit video and commit a sexual assault after viewing it, it is the sexual assault that is the initiation of force, not the viewing of the video. Rape should be prohibited whether "obscenity" is involved or not. Most people who view sexually explicit films do not commit sexual assaults.

If someone owns and uses drugs, and steals to buy more drugs, it is the theft that is the initiation of force. Theft should be prohibited regardless of what the loot is spent on. The use of drugs is not an initiation of force.

In the old days people sometimes had to answer to the church for their crimes. Some thought they could lessen the gravity of their offenses by claiming possession. "Your Holiness, the devil made me do it." What we often hear today is "Your Honor, the drugs made me do it" or "Your Honor, the pornography made me do it" or "Your Honor, my unhappy childhood made me do it."

With freedom comes responsibility.

If you initiate force, you should be held fully accountable. No cop- outs, no devils, no shifting the blame to others or to inanimate objects. If you do not initiate force or fraud (a subtle form of force), you should be left alone and force should not be initiated against you by government or anybody else. It's that simple.

More Information:

"The Law", by Frederic Bastiat. [~112k] Published over a century ago in France, this book still provides a good introduction to many of the ideas libertarians hold today.