Understanding the Libertarian Philosophy
by Joseph Knight
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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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. They decline the use of
any force. Libertarianism is broad enough to encompass
pacifists. All oppose the initiation of force.
- Some Libertarians are militant. They 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 THE LIBERTARIAN PHILOSOPHY.
Freedom is the absence of the initiation of force.
A robber cannot be "free" to steal your property nor can the 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.
- You have the right to believe in whatever religion you
choose, but if your god requires the sacrifice of virgins,
you must find a virgin willing to be sacrificed without the
initiation of force.
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
- It is theft regardless of whether the gang calls itself the
"Sons of Satan" or the "Internal Revenue Service."
THE PROPER ROLE OF GOVERNMENT (FORCE) IN A FREE SOCIETY THEN, IS TO DEFEND
AND/OR RETALIATE 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, and is appropriate for government in a free
Other laws constitute an initiation of force.
- Government should not initiate force to seize the property of
- Government should not initiate force to compel service to the
- Government should not initiate force to impose lifestyles or
- Government should not even initiate force when "it's for your
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.