Is it true that libertarians can’t agree on anything? Are libertarians allowed to have varying beliefs on lifestyle, religion, etc.? How often it is suggested that a real libertarian has to have an empty head when it comes to ideas on religion, philosophy, or lifestyle that may offend others. Or, how often we hear that a libertarian must be an advocate of, neutral on, or opposed to—depending on who you are listening to—a certain lifestyle or a certain activity. Recently, while listening to a libertarian podcast, I heard an angry profanity-peppered diatribe from the host concluding that no person could be philosophically opposed to a certain lifestyle and call himself a libertarian. Others say that all libertarians, by definition, have to be atheists. Others proclaim spiritual beliefs. Many say that libertarians can’t agree on anything because they are all free thinkers. Is that true?
There are two types of beliefs or ideas. Let’s call them “A” beliefs and “B” beliefs.
The “A” beliefs are the ideas about the principles of liberty. They are about keeping all transactions voluntary and tolerating other people’s differences. They are actually all about the idea of not using force to get our way. They are the correct framework for every activity we do and every interaction we have with others. It is a framework of voluntarism. We can’t rightfully compel others to do things. It is the framework that keeps us from using personal or state coercion to make our neighbor do something we would like him to do or to stop doing something we don’t like him to do. Every self-proclaimed libertarian (and everyone who is not a thug) should agree with these beliefs.
But, are the “A” beliefs all that there are to life? Far from it. They are merely a framework for action. Although the “A” beliefs actually add up to a single idea, I will keep them plural for now because of volumes written on the “idea.” They are nothing, but a limiting construct that cherishes the idea of not interfering with other people’s chosen ways of living their lives. They involve a description of a malignancy that can occur in life and a discussion of remedies for the malady. When the malignancy (and the consequential efforts to deal with it) does not exist or is dormant, the “A” concepts are not what inspire our daily thoughts and actions. The “A” ideas are invisible when people are not coercing each other. They have no bearing on life beyond that simple idea. They don’t create anything, do anything, cause anything to happen, or endeavor to explain the bustling world around us. When people talk or write about the “A” beliefs, they are performing a public service like putting up a sign that says, “Cliff Ahead.” People can choose to avoid the hazard mentioned by the sign or they can jump off the cliff, but the sign has no bearing on whether people ponder things like leprechauns or rainbows which are unrelated to the cliff.
The “A” beliefs contain little of the myriad possible thoughts, beliefs, expressions, and experiences of life. They are not the intellectual fountain from which spring any of the millions of possible pursuits in life including such random things (listed in no particular order of importance) as entrepreneurship, scholarly activity, cigarette smoking, walking barefoot, tattooing one’s self, riding a motorcycle, shaving one’s head, singing in a choir, being a vegetarian, praying, or drinking one’s self to death.
The “B” beliefs and ideas, on the other hand, are all the philosophical meanderings and beliefs a person has that are not related to the constructs of freedom, e.g. not related to the simple idea that coercion should not be a means to an end. These are all the real things in life, not just the “A” parameters disavowing thuggery which represent a very limited, although important, necessary, and noble body of thought. The “B” beliefs and ideas result in personal preferences which may result in actions that a person may choose to implement in his life while respecting the “A” framework.
For example, the following two persons could both be philosophically compatible as libertarians and co-exist as neighbors although they would likely choose to live in different areas if that were possible.
Person number one, “Joe,” believes, cherishes, and follows the “A” beliefs regarding the framework of freedom and the desire to pursue voluntary actions and to not use force (either private or state-sponsored) against his neighbor to get his way regardless of his neighbor’s beliefs or preferences and resultant actions or lifestyle. Joe also hopes that others will avoid coercion against him and will let him live his life as he chooses.
Joe, of course, has “B” beliefs and ideas—as everyone does—with resultant actions and a resultant lifestyle. Joe has these personal attributes: He is an atheist. He is a vegetarian. He doesn’t own guns. He has a loud motorcycle. Joe is a flashy and sometimes skimpy dresser and spends a lot of money on expensive specialty clothing like studded leather motorcycle apparel. Joe has multiple body piercings and tattoos. Joe maintains his front yard meticulously and is bothered by those who do not. Joe has never had an extended relationship with a particular woman for any length of time and does not desire to do so. He has no children and thinks that children are pests and a nuisance. Joe listens to heavy metal music which can be heard by his neighbor. Joe is an adrenaline junky and enjoys racing his motorcycle at the track. He also pops wheelies and does donuts on his motorcycle in his back yard which can be seen and heard by his neighbor. He never wears a seat belt in a vehicle. He sponsors a boxing club and is proud of the fact that he is missing several teeth and has cauliflower ears from boxing events he has entered. Joe has had multiple cosmetic surgeries and also believes that going to the doctor regularly is the best way to stay in tip-top shape. Joe takes several different pharmaceutical substances that he believes improve his health, enhance his physical performance, and give him more enjoyment of life. Joe is a heavy smoker and heavy drinker. The cigarette smoke occasionally can be smelled in his neighbor’s yard. Joe uses profanity to spice up his language which can be heard at times in his neighbor’s yard. Joe occasionally has loud late-night parties at his house where he and his friends play music and talk loudly within earshot of his neighbor.
Person number two, “Bob,” believes, cherishes, and follows the “A” beliefs regarding the framework of freedom and the desire to pursue voluntary actions and to not use force (either private or state sponsored) against his neighbor to get his way regardless of his neighbor’s beliefs or preferences and resultant actions or lifestyle. Bob also hopes that others will avoid coercion against him and will let him live his life as he chooses. (Note that Bob’s “A” beliefs are exactly the same as Joe’s “A” beliefs above.)
Bob has his own “B” beliefs, ideas, and resultant actions. He is a Christian. He does not smoke or drink. He occasionally shoots off fireworks in his yard and practices with his guns in the woods behind his house within earshot of his neighbor. He is a meat eater. He rides a bicycle whenever possible for transportation. He chooses—because of his beliefs—to wear modest clothing. He thinks that doctors are lying to him so he goes to an herbalist and pursues natural remedies. He believes in marriage for life. He sings hymns and folk songs around the house. He hosts choir practice at his house and the singing can occasionally be heard by his neighbor. Bob occasionally barbecues on an open fire outside his house which can occasionally be smelled by his neighbor. He thinks yard maintenance is a waste of time and superficial so he lets the weeds grow freely in his yard, but he does occasionally burn piles of leaves and branches. The smoke sometimes wafts into his neighbor’s yard. Bob uses minimal machinery and motorized vehicles in his life because of his beliefs and preferences. He thinks that reckless activities are foolish. When Bob does ride in a friend’s vehicle, he buckles the seat belt tightly. Bob thinks that body piercings and tattoos are un-wise and against his “B” beliefs regarding how a person should treat his body. Bob has some animals that he raises for meat, eggs, and milk. The sounds and smells of these animals are occasionally noticeable to Bob’s neighbor. Bob has a lot of giggling, talkative children which represent one of the main joys in life. He believes that undesired external forces may have a negative impact on his children. Bob is guarded in his language and never uses profanity. Bob is early to bed and early to rise.
In this example, both persons disagree with some of the “B” beliefs and ideas and the resultant activities of their respective neighbor when the neighbor puts those ideas into effect in his life. However, they both believe in the construct of freedom contained in the “A” beliefs which they share. They are compatible when it comes to the important subject of libertarian beliefs. Libertarian beliefs only contain the “A” ideas. They don’t contain anything about motorcycles, drinking, or singing hymns. Those are contained in the endless variety of ideas and resultant actions on the “B” side. The recognition of the “A” beliefs by each person should also give him a strong desire to be tolerant of even somewhat intrusive actions considering that the other option—violent state or private action to oppose the activity—is likely to have negative effects and may cause unintended consequences like the initiation of a retaliatory cycle of violent events between neighbors.
Private property is of utmost importance, but the “A” beliefs should give a libertarian a spirit of tolerance to not immediately define any action he dislikes as an invasion into his private property or an attack on his person that requires force to repel or remediation to set things right. The other option, an active violent “defense” (state sponsored or private) or the use of nagging pressures (state sponsored or private) against the neighbor to repel every perceived intrusion causes an exponentially worse result than what would be experienced when some negative vibes from the neighbor are tolerated. Also, there is the quid pro quo benefit that comes when respective persons tolerate an occasional intrusion into their philosophical or physical kingdoms hoping that the favor will be returned some day as a sort of remuneration for the tolerance they demonstrated. The parents of a sick crying baby enjoy the consideration of their childless neighbor when the sound intrudes into the neighbor’s life and the neighbor tolerates it. The young man with a new sound system in his car enjoys the consideration of the family next door that doesn’t call the cops when he tries to impress his friends with the music emanating from his speakers.
The example of Joe and Bob are purposely an extreme way of describing “B” beliefs and resultant behavior by two neighbors that are almost polar opposites. They tolerated refuse burning, late night activities, devout spirituality, loud music, extreme (from their viewpoint) lifestyles, and lack of yard maintenance. I have seen these opposite “B” types live peacefully together in the same neighborhood as long as their “A” beliefs are intact. I have also seen these types calling the cops on each other and threatening each other.
In the Bob and Joe example, it is tempting to use only belief and lifestyle examples that do not impact on the neighbor and to leave any somewhat intrusive action (“negative externalities”) out of the equation assuming that it would be handled by external adjudication or arbitration bodies. I have purposely chosen some things—e.g. smoke, noise, and visible manifestations of lifestyle—which are based on “B” ideas that intrude somewhat into the respective neighbors’ physical lives besides clashing with their beliefs and preferences. I have done so to illustrate the spirit of tolerance and forbearance that should exist in compliance with the person’s “A” beliefs. A libertarian should not have the primary philosophy of looking for an external “court” or police action to compensate him and repel or punish his neighbor for every activity that impacts him somewhat. Although private courts and security services do exist and could exist in a purely private society, the intent should be to rarely use them. A great saying that illustrates this is written on a T-shirt worn by the charming youngster in this video which states, “Liberty means defending someone else’s right to do what you don’t like.”
In the examples above, it would probably be prudent for the individuals to move to geographic areas that are either more shielded from the neighbor’s clashing “B” lifestyle or closer to persons who live the same way they do. This would probably result in an improvement in each neighbor’s lifestyle and happiness. But, a person often can’t afford to buy or rent or commute to work from a secluded piece of land or can’t find the ideal residence next to like-minded neighbors. Or, the new supposedly like-minded neighbor may turn out to have a clash in some other area or a proclivity to use state-sponsored or private violence at the drop of a hat even if his “B” beliefs and lifestyle may be more similar. There may always be humans exhibiting undesirable influences in the world—from our personal viewpoint—and our way of dealing with them should not be to try to change them via coercion to make their actions compatible with our lifestyle.
One aspect of the “B” beliefs is that they are real beliefs. That is okay. They are not just shallow bland beliefs designed to be palatable to everyone—which is impossible. Real beliefs about things other than freedom aren’t taboo for a libertarian. You can’t avoid them. You would be no more interesting or productive or happy than a fencepost if you just sat there with no thoughts and no actions based on those thoughts. It is also OK to be bothered by other beliefs and lifestyles and to wish that others would change. Efforts can be made to promote one’s “B” beliefs and lifestyle as long as the “A” beliefs are not compromised in the process. We can talk to people if they agree to have a conversation.
For example, Joe could visit Bob if Bob consented. During the visit, Joe could try to convince Bob to be an atheist if Bob consented to the discussion. Joe could try to convince Bob that “chicks dig tattoos” and that Bob’s life would improve if he got some. Joe could continue these consensual visits and sessions as long as Bob agreed to them. If it became clear that Bob didn’t want to take time any more to talk about atheism and tattoos, then Joe should stop, per his “A” beliefs, so that the visits don’t have a coercive nature to them. Joe could also be concerned for the community at large and could promote his beliefs about atheism or tattoos. Joe could write books on these subjects and see if there was a market for his ideas. Or, Joe could choose to disseminate his ideas as a self-funded or private group-funded endeavor whereby he informs people of his “B” beliefs in multiple voluntary personal encounters or via advertising to the public en masse.
Neither neighbor should cross the line of voluntarism when trying to convince his respective neighbor of a lifestyle change or belief change and should avoid oppressive philosophical nagging that goes beyond a voluntary encounter and turns into more of a demand for action or inaction due to its persistence. This changes the nature of the encounter into an involuntary obligatory event that has a coercive nature to it. Persistent nagging regarding lifestyle violates the “A” belief of voluntariness of interactions. Once again, the neighbors should have a spirit of tolerance and should not conclude that their lives have been ruined if they cannot exact strict compliance from their neighbor on all areas of concern that impact their eyeballs or other senses. They should tolerate some personally-defined negativity and hope for the same tolerance from their neighbor.
The “A” and “B” names chosen for the two types of beliefs don’t indicate a primacy of one class of beliefs over the other. The “A” beliefs are not necessarily superior in quality or importance to the “B.” In one sense, it seems like they would be superior since they are an internal mechanism to control our activities, but in another sense, the “B” beliefs may be dearer to the individual while remaining in the framework of the “A” beliefs as to their implementation. It might be better to call them “X” and “Y” beliefs.
In a theoretically perfect society where no state or personal coercion existed, the “A” ideas could possibly be almost non-existent as a topic of discussion since forced outcomes wouldn’t be a big factor in people’s lives. People would concentrate on the day-to-day and long-term pursuits of their lives. The “A” ideas are not an “end all and be all” since they don’t consist of creative thought that unfolds into any actual productive action or recreational action which contains much value for anyone other than those who desire to consume philosophical content about freedom. There is a surge in interest and discussion concerning the “A” ideas when the framework becomes more warped and when many of the regular ideas and actions of life cannot be implemented without violent attempts to suppress them or modify them. “A” ideas are a big topic now because of government oppression. We may feel that we have to take time away from productive or recreational pursuits to try to get the “A” framework back so that we can get back to all the normal productive, recreational, or spiritual thoughts and actions that people can contemplate or implement. “A” ideas have always described the framework of voluntary human interaction, but a rise in state action (violence) predicates an increase in the articulation—and hoped for implementation—of this framework.
The volume of books, articles, and spoken words on the topic of freedom would make a person think that it is a huge convoluted subject with all kinds of philosophical ramifications and restrictions. The quantity of writing and speaking on the subject (e.g. my copy of Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market contains 1,441 pages) only represents the importance of the cherished idea and the level of pain felt by the oppressed when the idea is ignored. All the words do not add much or anything to the basic premise that coercion is harmful to the thriving of humans. One could be fooled by the amount of words generated on this subject and start to think that the “A” beliefs broadly encompass additional philosophical or religious concepts like the origin of life, the wisdom of using drugs, or the type of food we eat. Once we broaden the “A” beliefs like this, we could go farther astray and fall into the trap of thinking that the “A” beliefs could pertain to whether a state-issued “license” should be validly forthcoming or denied based on a philosophical or religious distinction made regarding a certain type of activity between humans.
Whether you describe yourself as an agnostic, an atheist, or a person that believes in spiritual things, you wouldn’t want a forced system to prevail with state or group coercion for or against spirituality, atheism, or other beliefs and ideas. Coerced atheism and coerced religion have been an evil plank in the platform of state power. States have officially pressured people to be atheists, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc. to fit with the platform of a regime. Even outside the equation of the state, groups can pressure members to take a stance for or against something against the individual’s will. Allowing all the “B” beliefs to exist via the limited construct of libertarian ideology is the only way to ensure that all religious, anti-religious, or other beliefs are real and voluntary and not feigned to attain benefits or bandwagon prestige from the other adherents to the philosophy—including adherents to the philosophy of liberty.
It would be a huge mistake to create a philosophical aura around the concept of liberty that would require freedom advocates to take a stance for or against specific “B” beliefs—like religion—in order to fit in. This would have the effect of creating a philosophical bloc representing “the cool team” and another one with the outcasts or boobs. People are motivated and affected by image and may wear a facade of beliefs that are championed by a cause in order to be associated with that cause. The small “A” concept of liberty should not expand to champion or shun any other ideas. The “A” concept should stay restricted to the simple idea of disavowing coercion.
Advocates of ideas or beliefs can never know if their teachings are actually believed or just mimicked to attain state or group acceptance if there is an environment of official or social coercion for or against the idea. The acceptance being sought from other proponents of liberty would be of doubtful value if it materialized after one “B” idea or another was officially lambasted or elevated by a certain “strain” of high-pressure libertarians. An environment of freedom is essential for true acceptance of any idea. Even a religious person should dislike the idea of false converts that only come on board for appearances to avoid peer pressure promoting a mandated philosophy within the group. An apparent acceptance of a belief is more likely to be legitimate if there is the physical, philosophical, and social freedom to adopt it or reject it. Professing atheists, agnostics, or religious persons should never be driven away from the simple idea of liberty because someone wants to broaden the definition of liberty to be an all-inclusive theory that addresses all aspects of life and thinking.
We wouldn’t want to be coerced to be the same in every aspect of our thoughts and actions. The ability to investigate a variety of thoughts and beliefs can potentially benefit everybody. Just as a variety of market choices allows better things to prevail, a variety of thoughts and beliefs allows humans to achieve fulfillment and happiness when they can review the choices in life based on actual merit—rather than basing decisions on false promises or other forms of social or physical coercion. Championing the freedom to pursue “B” beliefs instead of harboring false “libertarian” philosophical restrictions also allows people to find, assess, and disseminate truths that may exist and convey those truths to others who are free to believe them, work to disprove them, or ignore them. All the eternal truths don’t exist on the “A” side. Only one of them does. And, since the “A” beliefs are not actually a belief system with any significant quantity of productive, philosophical, or spiritual content, this leaves the individual free to live his life and to try to convince others—in a voluntary manner—of all the things he holds as true which are outside the limited realm of the “A” beliefs.
To conclude, libertarians can all share a belief in the framework of liberty in which all interactions should exist; which is what defines a libertarian—nothing else. The subject of freedom covers none of the other thoughts and resultant non-coercive actions in life. All of these other thoughts—the “spice of life”—should be tolerated by those who likely also understand the advantages of a free competitive division of labor and logically, also, a division of thought processes in every avenue of life.
So, is it really true that libertarians can’t get along and lack any philosophical cohesion? No, not at all. We can all agree to not coerce each other. The end. Then, we can get back to all the other philosophical meanderings and beliefs we choose to entertain as individuals.