What Is Libertarianism?
It's obvious that definitions of libertarianism by opponents are prone to bias. By the same standard, self-serving definitions by proponents are also prone to bias. The simple solution is to present multiple viewpoints, each true to some degree, to construct a picture of the whole. The story of The Blind Men and the Elephant illustrates how ridiculous clinging to a single viewpoint can be, and how building a more realistic picture would require critical acceptance of multiple viewpoints. Viewpoints of proponents of libertarianism are well known; here are some viewpoints of opponents.
A Rhetoric Of Liberty
Libertarianism is united only by a rhetoric of liberty. "Liberty" is the central glittering generality of libertarian propaganda.
Who can reject "liberty"? That makes it a powerful rhetorical tool; as long as you don't start getting specific. Different people have different ideas of liberty, and can divide over those issues. The defense against attempts to get specific is "equal liberty", but that rhetoric also begs important questions. We all might have equal liberty to kill each other, but do we want such liberty?
"Liberty" unspecified is vague enough to justify any atrocity. We routinely see libertarians promoting Barry Goldwater's "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." In the name of liberty, John Galt plans genocides dwarfing those of Communist states in "Atlas Shrugged". In actual history, liberty to own slaves was a frequent claim. Liberty to head your own family and religious liberty excused beating wives and disobedient children, sometimes fatally.
"Liberty" is the rhetorical tool of choice that unites libertarians: it can back any claim they make, no matter how bizarre. Libertarians have no single claim in common except this rhetoric, and they can gloss over their conflicting beliefs through the persuasion of their own rhetoric of liberty.
Many libertarians paint a picture of a libertarian future that is just like today, except much richer and without government. Government in society is the equivalent of a wikipedia:keystone species in ecology. Remove government and society will change radically. Government is responsible for the creation of middle classes, infrastructure, defense, human rights, etc. Government combats the rise of coercion for private ends and brings about limits to externalities such as pollution. These are problems where significant market failures exist, and market solutions have rarely worked. A libertarian future would be different enough that the transition would be perhaps as painful as the Soviet change to capitalism, and few would be certain of their position in the new society.
A Rightwing Populist Movement In Miniature
While libertarians may profess socially left ideas such as freedom of choice, their right-conservatism becomes obvious if you ask them what parts of the right-wing economic agenda they'd be willing to sacrifice to realize their left social goals. They just won't give up their opposition to government and taxation, nor will they give up their allegiance to absolute property. No matter what social goals you propose in exchange.
A Childish Selfishness
Libertarianism is a tiny movement of people who primarily want (a) to freeload on society by not contributing their share (b) to avoid social prohibitions and (c) want to lock in their good fortune. It's really that simple: all the supposed philosophy is really just after-the-fact (post hoc) rationalization. Everything springs from the childish "I don't wanna pay", "I wanna do that anyhow" and "no, it's mine!"
An Unusual Preference for Certain Liberties
Some libertarians simply value some forms of personal liberty more than other people consider reasonable. Essentially all the rest of their argument is post hoc excuses that conceal the simple difference in prefrences. Their post hoc arguments tend to be based on (a) natural rights, (b) ridiculous formulas like "coercion is bad", (c) assertions about qualitative benefits that overlook other obvious factors or (d) denialism.
Many libertarians reject patriotism, democracy, politics, religion, charity and other traditional values and institutions in their attempt to view the whole world through economics. While many traditional values and institutions may deserve a good kicking, preferring "greed is good" economic views and ignoring the harms of dismantling major institutions is repulsive. Examples include the Friedman and Hayek attitudes towards Pinochet's Chile<ref>Third World Traveller, Milton Friedman</ref><ref>John Quiggan, Friedman and Hayek</ref> and serious defenses of Scrooge.<ref>Michael Levin, Scrooge Defended</ref>
A Catspaw For Corporations
A great deal of libertarian literature is written by corporate hirelings. Sure they can throw in the occasional socially liberal complaint about warmongering to genuflect towards the purported ideology, but they do NOT bite the corporate hand that feeds them. Otherwise they'd be pointing out that corporations are government creations of special privilege, and asking that they be abolished the way they ask that public schools be abolished. And those authors would be looking for new jobs, as we've seen so often from think-tanks. Professional libertarians tend to be reliant on the corporate right-wing welfare employment of think-tanks, lobbying and astroturf organizations.
The liberty these corporate hirelings write of is generally the liberty desired by corporations, not the liberty desired by ordinary people. Hence we see propaganda such as the "Index of Economic Freedoms".
A Long-Running Public Relations Campaign
The extent of libertarianism today is largely the result of decades-long public relations campaigns that have been working on insinuating libertarian ideas throughout our society. The time, the ambition and the resources applied over the past 60 years are extraordinary. Generations of propagandists, scholars, lobbyists, think-tanks, astroturf organizations and political parties have been financed by large corporations and billionaires.
They have attempted (quite successfully) to subvert the language, to pack propaganda into textbooks and academic publications, to subvert science (smoking, pollution and global warming) with enormous denialist campaigns, to create intellectual shock troops to disperse their propaganda, to stack the legal system with specially trained judges, to direct politicians with think-tank plans and offers of revolving-door employment, and a host of other activities.
Because "he who pays the piper calls the tunes", the result is that libertarianism has benefitted major corporations and billionaires far more than it has benefitted the middle-class pot smoker (now approaching lower class.)
There are three dominant libertarian fairytales. They are natural rights, the Nozickian night-watchman state, and Objectivism. All three are non-positivist: they are not founded on observable facts and just plain make stuff up that contradicts what's known of reality. Each has produced large, complicated apologetics that attempt to explain away their myriad failings. Like science, they create models, but unlike science their models cannot be validated because they presume the unobservable.
Most libertarian authors rely on natural rights.<ref>David Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer pp.82-87</ref> Natural rights were originally invented to oppose stories such as rights of kings. They are "nonsense on stilts" that is as popular, insubstantial and unprovable as souls.
The supposedly just and non-coercive Nozickian minimal state of Anarchy, State and Utopia is notorious for its failure to justify initial acquisition of property, the basis of the entire scheme. The whole thing appeals to gut feelings as fallaciously as Steven Colbert does, starting with the first sentence: "Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights.)"
Objectivism starts with the fairytale of a priori knowledge. "A is A", for example. But that doesn't work for the real world, because the real world has time: A at time 1 is not necessarily the same as A at time 2. It's never the same water in the river, and even protons can spontaneously decay. A priori knowledge at best can build models: whether the models are accurate or inaccurate is a matter of empirical study of the real world.
A Justification of Personal Righteousness
"Which emphasizes the notion of virtue in selfishness and has as its historical genesis the exceptional American experience. As such, it appeals mostly to white American males who are moderately above-average in intelligence, economically secure, independently-minded, and prefer simplistic theoretical constructs for making political and moral decisions. It validates their own affluence/privilege not by group affiliation, but by inherent individual merit; and it likewise superficially validates the poverty and lack of privilege of others not on the basis of group affiliation, but inherent fault. In this it mimics a meritocratic view, which allows the libertarian to congratulate himself on his lack of bigotry; but, in fact, it is a facade behind which his true bigotry hides." Keith M Ellis
A Simplistic Ideology
Kevin Carson calls this "vulgar libertarianism": "Them pore ole bosses need all the help they can get." Simple rules for identifying friends and enemies, righteous and unrighteous. Private or public? Statist or freedom loving? Individualist or collectivist? Market or coercive? Ignorant or enlightened? Libertarians portray themselves as elite because of their ideological righteousness: but they are really just the bosses favorites, the house slaves. Read some Atlas Shrugged to learn that mentality.
Libertarianism is often easy to recognize by the things it will not consider. For example: market failures, public goods, benefits from government, benefits from spending tax money, deadweight costs from private sources, threats to liberty from private sources, rights other than property rights, values other than economic values, social harms from private actions (such as drug usage), climate change, anything but methodological individualism, Keynesianism, etc. "There are no market failures, only government failures" is a characteristic example of such denialist ideology.
Shunning these ideas is essential for "consistency" in the beliefs of many libertarians. If you don't admit contrary data, your theory is unfalsifiable.
A Distorting Lens
There is a major streak of spin and revisionism in libertarianism: when the facts don't back your ideology, redescribe the world so that it does match.<ref>Mike Huben, Libertarian Revisionist History</ref> When government does something undeniably good, such as freeing slaves, denounce it for other actions.<ref>Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, "Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War"</ref> Always look only at the costs of what governments do and the benefits of what markets do, never the reverse. Promote cost-benefit analysis now that you've stacked the deck against government. If you don't like the tax or gun laws, reinterpret the constitution ahistorically to suit your claims.<ref>Mark Pitcavage, Militia - History and Law FAQ</ref><ref>Dan Evans, Tax Protester FAQ </ref> Rebaptize historical figures (such as Jesus<ref>Bill Butler, The Libertarian From Nazareth?</ref>)and documents (such as the Constitution) as libertarian.
A Cargo Cult
Many libertarians expect gifts from the sky if they perform the right philosophical rituals: surrender of political rights, surrender of all government property claims, etc.
They wish us to hand over political sovereignty of the richest, most powerful nation in the world. They wish us to hand over the lands, roads, and other property held in common by the government. They wish us to hand over the biggest pot of money in the world: social security funds for the retirement of essentially the entire US population.
What do they offer the rest of us for these enormous gifts? Nothing. They do not expect us to do it as an exchange, but as a magical summoning. They summon these gifts magically by re-interpreting liberal philosophy and Constitutions.
A Millennialist Cult
Many libertarians think they can promise pie-in-the-sky in libertarian heaven. In the libertarian future we would all be amply repaid for having had the faith to bring about the fabulously free and wealthy libertopia where the privately owned streets are paved with gold, a gun in every pot field, etc. They have the unrealistic assumption that if they succeed, they will have an advantage because they learned libertarian principles first. But in reality, a class of oligarchs would quickly form as they did in Russia, leaving the majority in much worse condition. The large middle classes we enjoy are a result of government programs promoting equality. They do not occur otherwise.
Much libertarian literature relies on technology to create their fantasy world, usually by creating a new frontier. Heinlein and others relied on space travel to open a new frontier. Transhumanists look forward to recreating humans to develop new frontiers. Many libertarian authors write of a forthcoming singularity in technological development. Seasteaders look forwards to marine frontiers in international waters. Rand relied on fictional technology to conceal Galt's community.
What they all miss is that creation of a new frontier doesn't change those left behind into a libertarian society. And as the frontier matures, density and competition will bring about the same problems that led to the governance that libertarians object to, the same as happened in other frontiers in the past. Libertarianism might "work" on the edges of expansion, but creates problems that grow until a government solution is needed.
No one libertarian exemplifies all of these viewpoints, nor do any of these viewpoints match all libertarians. There might be a libertarian who doesn't match any of these viewpoints.
But it is easy to find libertarians who are well-described by any these characterizations. A large, diverse ideology such as libertarianism requires large, diverse description the same way blind men describing an elephant used a lot of analogies.
Some of these characterizations are repulsive: hurrah for the libertarian who avoids matching the repulsive ones. There aren't too many of them in print because the vast majority of libertarian authors are sponsored by corporate funding (especially the Koch brothers) or rely on philosophical fairytales. A great many libertarians are repulsed by each other for one or more of these problems.