For an anarchist like Noam Chomsky, libertarianism as it’s understood in the U.S. is a corruption of the term. Throughout their political history, Chomsky argues, “real” Libertarians have been anti-Capitalist—and he includes under this heading such classical liberals as Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, as well as modern anarcho-socialists like himself. Modern U.S. Libertarians like Ron and Rand Paul, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick have all meant something very different by the term, and certainly haven’t agreed on what that is. So what exactly is Libertarianism?
Given popular misconceptions—and some less than stellar public relations moments—one perhaps gets a clearest idea of what American Libertarianism is by reading about what it isn’t, as in this essay from one of its most contrarian theorists, Murray Rothbard. Or we can spend a few minutes with that voluble comedic magician Penn Jillette, a well-known face of Libertarian and atheist thought for many years. Jillette’s thesis in his eighteen-minute Big Think video above comes down to this: “we think you should take as little from other people by force as possible and you should be able to do whatever you think is right.” Libertarianism, Jillette elaborates, “is the strongest sense of ‘please, do what you want, try not to hurt me.”
The concept he refers to is one Isaiah Berlin wrote of as “negative liberty,” or the principle of noninterference, a staple of all Libertarian thought. The heavy stress on individual rights has come in for critique as naïve, but as Rothbard notes, “no individualist denies that people are influencing each other all the time.” Libertarian thinkers have wrestled with the conflict (if not contradiction) between maximal individual freedom and freedom from harm. Robert Nozick, for example, extended his discussion beyond our responsibilities to each other to a moral case study of our duties toward animals. Responsibility stands as a key term in Jillette’s articulation of Libertarianism—a sine qua non of a Libertarian society.
But is there such a thing as a functioning Libertarian society? Or does Jillette describe an unrealizable utopia that depends not only on most people acting responsibly, but also on most people acting rationally? As he himself says, “Libertarianism is taking a right on money, your first left on sex, and looking for utopia straight ahead.” This language aside, he doesn’t seem to operate under the illusion that people always make the best choices for themselves or their families. As part of his argument, however, he admits he isn’t qualified or desirous to make those choices for other people when he can often barely discern the right course of action for himself. As it generally does, this course of reasoning brings us to the problem of taxation in Libertarian thought.
Jillette’s appeal seems commonsensical and pragmatic, and after his general pitch, he launches into a critique of corporate capitalism that could come right out of a Chomsky talk—in some small part, that is. Jillette believes that, absent most government interference, we would have such a thing as a “true free market” in which everyone could compete fairly and without coercion. This is a position even Nozick softened on many years after his classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia, calling it “seriously inadequate” and admitting that many democratic institutions Libertarians want to abolish preserve “our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction.”
Whatever we make of Jillette’s laissez faire ideology, his critiques of government speak to Libertarians on either side of the economics divide. He makes an incisive case against Clinton, then tears into Trump’s willingness to “give easy answers.” Holding up career politicians Bernie Sanders and Gary Johnson as “paragons” may seem a bit much, given Jillette’s forceful argument for a healthy and thoroughgoing mistrust of government. As he says in the earlier Big Think interview above, “part of the joy and the wonder and the brilliance of the ideas of the United States of America that whoever’s in power is questioned and beat up.”
He does not, of course, mean that last part in any literal sense. While Libertarianism has perhaps been tarred by association with an increasingly violent right, it would be a mistake to lump Jillette in with certain political opportunists who at one time or another have used the term to describe themselves. His commitment to anti-war and drug legalization policies is unwavering, and he makes a strong, well-reasoned case for his politics. It’s one worth hearing out whether you agree or not in the end.