I just got done reading an excellent article by Kerry Howley in Reason, a libertarian magazine. I think the article raises some very thought-provoking questions concerning libertarianism.

What exactly is libertarianism, and what does it entail? Is it, as the article asks, the opposition to coercion and authority only by the state? Or does it entail opposition to other forms of coercion and authority outside of the state, such as that coming from cultural norms, societal practices, traditions, or other institutionalized structures and conventions? If libertarianism is concerned with liberty, particularly individual liberty, do we define it only as liberty from the state? Are there other ways individual liberty is restrained that libertarians ought to care about? Are there practices and norms all people calling themselves libertarians ought to fight against, “even if no one has bothered to codify the rules in an Important Book and call them ‘laws'”?

A central question for left-libertarians or leftist anarchists is whether private power is just as bad (or even worse) than state power. To them, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” This is why, for example, they oppose capitalistic economic orders that act to propagate “unaccountable private tyrannies” (corporations) and private property. Traditionally, libertarianism was associated with these leftists. Today, and most notably in the United States, “libertarianism” is associated with rightist libertarians—those who advocate free markets and the protection of private poverty. American libertarianism, most closely associated with the Libertarian Party, is very much a part of the Lockean imagination. To quote Ayn Rand:

The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.

These are profound remarks. According to Rand, “Those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism are the only advocates of man’s rights.” Similarly, as Murray Rothbard states, “Capitalism is the fullest expression of anarchism, and anarchism is the fullest expression of capitalism.” As Howley explains, however, free markets and anti-statism are only one part of the story. “It’s possible to be an anti-government zealot with no interest whatsoever in individual liberty,” she writes.

According to Howley, “libertarians for whom individualism is important cannot avoid discussions of culture, conformism, and social structure. Not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun. . . . when a libertarian claims that his philosophy has no cultural content—has nothing to say, for instance, about society’s acceptance of gays and lesbians—he is engaging in a kind of cultural politics that welcomes the paternalism of the mob while balking at that of the state.” As I said, I think this raises many interesting questions. Particularly, if we see a social injustice that we perceive to be limiting the individual liberty of certain people, is it our moral obligation to attempt to change that? If a particular society’s mores dictate that women should be restricted to the confines of the home, is it the libertarian’s job to fight against it? Importantly, would that not entail forcing our cultural preferences and ideals on others whom we might consider “backward”? As the response by Todd Seavey to Howley’s article strongly proclaims, “Freedom’s Just Another Word for Kerry Howley’s Preferences.”

Truly, all libertarians should be concerned with the exercise of authority, in any context. As the left-anarchist Noam Chomsky posits, “The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.” To wit, it is not enough to simply confront political and economic orders that restrict individual liberty; rather, it is required of us to oppose even the social and cultural orders that act similarly, working under the basis that power is illegitimate by assumption. Writes Howley, “In turning so definitively from the left, libertarians denied themselves a powerful vocabulary with which to engage discussions of individualism.” Even those libertarians concerned with free markets and other rightist agendas ought to concern themselves with other institutionalized forms of coercion and authority. The answer to the question “Are Property Rights Enough?”, I believe, is “No.”

Your own thoughts about the nature of libertarianism are invited.