History Lesson

Contrary to popular postmodern belief, words have specific meanings. Some words are more vague than others, of course, and some words’ meanings change over time. It has come to my attention that there is some confusion regarding the meaning of the term “libertarian” – confusion that this test is not helping to clear up.

The term “libertarian” is not vague, nor has there been time for it’s meaning to evolve. It refers, as it has since it came into popularity in the 1960s and ’70s, to those with socially liberal and economically laissez-faire outlook. It became popular at that time among those who adhered to the ideals promoted by writers such as F. A. Hayek and Ayn Rand – people who believed in, as the libertarian magazine Reason puts it, “Free minds and free markets”. It was coined as a result of the fact that the term “liberal”, as used by Locke, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, had been co-opted by those with a socially liberal but economically Marxist philosophy. Other terms for libertarianism include “market liberalism” and “classical liberalism”.

So: if you believe in “redistributive justice”, progressive taxation, or socialized medicine, you are by definition not a libertarian. If you believe corporations are inherently evil and should be stopped, you are not a libertarian. If you believe the good of the people (or of the state) outweighs the good of the individual, you are not a libertarian. There are lots of good terms for what you are, like “liberal”, “progressive”, or “egalitarian”. But you are not a libertarian. If you don’t believe me, I recommend to you this collection of definitions from the Institute for Humane Studies, or to this excerpt from “Libertarianism: A Primer”, by David Boaz, for a good concise history of the term.

The term “libertarian” came into use specifically to differentiate the socialist liberals from the free-market liberals. There’s nothing to be gained from muddying the word’s definition.

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One Comment

  1. And so say all of us

    Yes, indeed, quite and other words of agreement.

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