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The Essence of Liberty by David F. Nolan

Written by Richard Boddie Subject: Philosophy of Liberty

     The Essence of Liberty

                                                                       by David F. Nolan

As a founder of the Libertarian Party and editor-in-chief of California Liberty [back in the 1990s], I am often asked how to tell if someone is "really" a libertarian. There are probably as many different definitions of the word "libertarian" as there are people who claim the label. These range from overly broad ("anyone who calls himself or herself a libertarian is one") to the impossibly doctrinaire ("only those who agree with every word in the party platform are truly anointed").

My own definition is  that in order to be considered a libertarian, at least in the political context, an individual must adhere without compromise to five key points. Ideally, of course, we'd all be in agreement on everything. But we're not, and probably never will be. Debate is likely to continue indefinitely on such matters as abortion, foreign policy, and whether, when, and how various government programs can be discontinued or privatized.

But as far as I'm concerned, if someone is sound on these five points, he/she is de facto a libertarian; if he fails on even one of the five, he isn't.  What then, are  the "indispensable five"  - -  the points of no compromise?

First and foremost, libertarians believe in the principle of self-ownership. You own your own body and mind; no external power has the right to force you into the service of "society" or "mankind" or any other individual or group for any purpose, however noble. Slavery is wrong, period.

Because you own yourself, you are responsible for your own well-being. Others are not obligated to feed you, clothe you, or provide you with health care. Most of us choose to help one another voluntarily, for a variety of reasons -- and that'sas it should be -- but "forced compassion" is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

Self-ownership implies the right to self-defense. Libertarians yield to no one in their support for our right as individuals to  keep  and  bear  arms.  We  only  wish  that  the  Second Amendment  to  the  U.S. Constitution said  "The right to self-defense  being  inalienable..."   instead  of  that  stuff  about  a  "well-regulated militia". Anyone who thinks that government--any government--has the right to disarm its citizens is NOT a libertarian!

In fact, libertarians believe that individuals have the right to own and use anything - gold, guns, marijuana, sexually explicit material- so long as they do not harm others through force or the threat of force. Laws criminalizing the simplepossession of anything are tailor-made for police states; it is all too easy to plant a forbidden substance in someone'shome, car or pocket. Libertarians are as tough on crime - real crime - as anyone. But criminal possession laws are an affront to liberty, whatever the rhetoric used to defend them.

In an ideal world, there would be no taxation.  All services would be paid for on an as-used basis. But in a less-than-ideal  world,  some  services  will  be  force-financed  for the foreseeable future.   However,  not all taxes are equally deleterious, and the worst form of taxation is a tax on productivity -- i.e., an income tax -- and no libertarian supports this type of taxation.

What  kind  of  taxation  is  least  harmful?   This is a topic still open for debate.  My own preference is for a single tax on land. Is this "the" libertarian position on taxes?   No.  But all libertarians oppose any form of income tax.

The fifth and final key test of anyone's claim to being a libertarian is their support for an honest money system; i.e. one where the currency is backed by something of true value (usually gold or silver). Fiat money -- money with no backing, whose acceptance is mandated by the State -- is simply legalized counterfeiting and is one of the keys to expanding government power.

These five points enumerated here are not a complete, comprehensive prescription for freedom... but they would take us most of the way.

A government which cannot conscript, confiscate, or counterfeit, and which imposes no criminal penalties for the mere possession and peaceful use of anything, is one that almost all libertarians would be comfortable with.

David F. Nolan was a Co-Founder of the Libertarian Party  and  the  inventor  of  the Nolan Chart  ( on which the World's Smallest Political Quiz is based).  Nolan was named one of the "2,000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 20th Century" by Cambridgeshire, the U.K. based  International Biographical Centre  (IBC)  in their reference work which featured the greatest thinkers of the past 100 years. He was a graduate of M.I.T. Dave died on November 21, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona.

2 Comments in Response to

Comment by Jesse Porter
Entered on:

I don't disagree with these fife points. My only question is, Why must liberty be protected by a test? If one fails even on one point, what then? Is he simply refused admission to 'the elect'? Or is he banned from the very presense of the author? Or is he banned from humanity (murdered)?

Comment by Ed Price
Entered on:

The essence of liberty is found in the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." For those of us who don't understand this, it is found in God's command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." For those who find it hard to love, it can be done mechanically by obeying the Ten Commandments.

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