Most view politics along a spectrum with liberal on the left and conservative on the right. Libertarians tend to view politics from a different angle with "statism" (governance by the "state") at one pole and "individualism" ("self-governance") at the other pole.
Both liberals and conservatives tend to be strong "statists". A "statist" is one who believes the "state" should play a significant controlling role governing the lives of individuals. (The word "state" as used here is defined as a "political organization of a country, supreme civil power, government" and in the context of this discussion will refer to any governmental entity or power over an individual.)
The main difference between liberals and conservatives is the following: Liberals believe the state should play a strong role governing the economic behavior of individuals but should not strongly interfere in their social behavior. Conservatives believe the state should play a strong role governing the social behavior of individuals but should not strongly interfere in their economic behavior. Libertarians, on the other hand, believe the state should not play a strong role governing any individual behavior, either economic or social. Libertarians believe that individuals have prime responsibility for their own behavior and should have the freedom to govern themselves ("Self-Government") to the greatest degree possible, with minimal interference by the state (i.e., "government").
Because of this different view that libertarians have of politics, they came up with a 2 dimensional diamond shaped graphic to represent the political landscape rather than the simple left and right one dimensional view of politics:
If one believes the state should play a strong role governing both the economic and the social behavior of individuals, that places one in the bottom sector of the diagram labeled "Authoritarian". Many would consider fascists to be classified into this sector.
Below is a quick political quiz you may wish to take if you are curious where you fit on the map of personal and economic freedom:
Just put your rank for each issue in the box next to the issue from 0 to 10. Putting in a 0 for a particular issue indicates that you think the government should decide on that issue for everyone. Putting in a 10 indicates that you think each individual should be able to make their own decision on that issue. If you think the right answer is somewhere between the government deciding for you, or you deciding for yourself, then put in some number between 0 and 10 that best reflects your view of the issue. When you are done, just add up the numbers in each column. The final number in the left column is your score on Personal Freedom. The final number in the right column is your score on Economic Freedom. Look at the diamond shape graphic and look where the two numbers of Personal and Economic Freedom intersect to find where you are in the libertarian political landscape.
Don't confuse liberals with Democrats or conservatives with Republicans. Democrat and Republican refer to political parties and their members, not to political belief systems. Both parties have members and party platforms that incorporate both liberal and conservative policies, though Democrats tend to lean more liberal and Republicans more conservative. What they share in common is the belief that the state ("government") can and should solve whatever problems ail society. Both believe in giving government more power and more funding to solve the problems of society. The only difference between Democrats and Republicans are over priorities, which problems the government should be more involved with and which less involved with. But both believe in continuing to grow the power and scope of government. Despite what either party might ever espouse about "limited government", neither has ever reduced the overall power and scope of government. Both parties have continued to increase the size and scope of government, even when each has had control of all 3 branches of the federal government.
Unfortunately, more government power always results in less individual freedom.
One of the main problems with having the state, or government power, involved in trying to solve anything is that the government has one and only one tool at its disposal to get individuals to comply with its policies: FORCE, often at the point of a gun.
In order to get you to comply with government policies, the state can point a gun at you and threaten your life. Or, the state can imprison or threaten to imprison you. Or the state can confiscate the fruits of your labor without your permission. That is, it can take from you anything you have produced, saved, or obtained in trade from another individual. Using FORCE is the ONLY WAY the state can ensure an individual will comply with government policies.
Also, the state is the only entity that can "legally" use FORCE to obtain what it wants. An individual can not legally use force to get what it wants from others. A business can not legally use force to get what it wants from others. A volunteer organization can not legally use force to get what it wants from others. However, it will be a point of later discussion of how sometimes individuals, businesses, and other organizations do sometimes have the government do their bidding and immorally use the state's exclusive power of legal force to do their bidding.
Using FORCE is a serious matter. Libertarians believe that FORCE should only be used when absolutely necessary and at no other time.
There are 3 segments of economic life, or 3 types of entities. First is the individual. The asset of an individual is his labor and the fruits of his labor. An individual has the option of trading some of his labor and/or the fruits of his labor with other individuals. This is a voluntary transaction. An individual can not legally use force to obtain labor or goods from another. This voluntary trading of labor and goods is known as the "market". Second is volunteer organizations, or "voluntarism". This operates similar to the individual segment described above, but in this case the individual provides his labor or the fruits of his labor with no expectation of anything in return. Again, this is a totally voluntary transaction. A volunteer organization can not legally use force to obtain labor or goods from an individual. Last, we have the "state". The "state" or "government" is the only economic segment of the 3 that can legally use force to obtain the labor or the fruits of the labor of individuals without their permission. It is the only one of the 3 that engages in transactions that are not consented to by all parties involved. It is the only one of the 3 where the transactions are not voluntary.
Are there situations where the use of force is justified?
Most libertarians would answer with a resounding "Yes!". But the number of circumstances in which the use of force would be considered justified by libertarians is extremely limited compared to where liberals and conservatives would say the use of force is justified.
Libertarians believe that each individual owns his own mind, his own body, and what that individual can produce with his own mind and body. That is, each individual not only owns himself, but also the fruits of his own labor. The main responsibility of the state is to prevent anyone from depriving an individual of his life or the fruits of his labor. Libertarians also believe that an individual may engage in any activity so long as that activity does not violate others with physical harm, or deprive them of their life, labors, or fruit of their labors without their consent. Thus another main responsibility of the state is to prevent anyone from depriving an individual of his right to free expression.
Those are pretty much the only circumstances in which libertarians believe the use of force by the state is justified.
If an individual wishes to kill you, harm you, enslave you, or steal the fruits of your labor or trade, the state is justified in using force to stop that individual. If another nation wishes to invade your nation with the possibility of the death, harm, enslavement, censorship, or confiscation of the fruits of the labor of its citizens, your nation is justified in using force to prevent or repel that invasion. The state may need to compel the services and obtain goods of individuals without the consent of such individuals in order to execute its responsibility of protecting individuals or the nation. This is the one area where force by the state is justified. But as they say, the devil is in the details. Every issue must be examined carefully to determine if individuals or the state really is at risk, if the degree and type of force is actually justified, and if the use of force by the state does not remove more freedom from the individual that the crime the state is trying to prevent.
Unfortunately, the use of force by the state is used in far more cases than what is mentioned above. In most cases, the use of force is inappropriate and not justified. Later postings will explore these concepts and examples in greater detail.