A Libertarian View: War of the Words

by Jim Ostrowski

The older I get, the more I think that politics is a battle of the dictionaries.  Whoever has the best words, wins. The political movement I have been active in for 35 years is the contemporary revival of the movement that is responsible for most of what is good about the modern world.  Alas, today we are stuck with the ungainly term “libertarian”.  Is that why we are getting our asses kicked in politics?  Don’t tell anyone, but I have a secret plan to recapture the beautiful and etymologically-correct word that our movement was known by for a hundred years or more and still is in parts of Europe: liberal.

When I was a senior at St. Joe’s, I was voted “most liberal.”  I suppose that was based mostly on my anti-Vietnam War and pro-marijuana legalization views.  Although I was in those days a McGovernite Democrat, those views, anti-war and pro-individual liberty, were quite consistent with the original, historic liberal movement that tried to free the world from the old regime of kings, tyrants, dictators, emperors, feudalism and slavery and bondage of various kinds.  The great liberals of that era bequeathed to us numerous monumental intellectual and political accomplishments for which they get zero credit today:

• The right of self-ownership.

• The right to own property, derived from the right of self-ownership.

• Natural rights.  That is, rights are inherent in the nature of things and not bestowed by government.

• The right of revolution: people have the right to revolt and overthrow governments that systematically violate natural rights.

• The theory of spontaneous order—the ability of individuals in society to coordinate their activities without dictates from a central authority.

• Freedom of religion.

• The Industrial Revolution.  It lifted mankind out of the mud, the muck, the despair and the insect, vermin and disease-ridden hovels, shacks, huts and caves of the previous eons.  It liberated us from slavery and serfdom and drudgery.

• War and Peace.  Before liberalism, war was generally assumed to be an inescapable part of the human condition.  War has even been touted for having alleged beneficial effects on the economy.  Liberals pioneered antiwar analysis.

• Abolition of slavery.

• Free trade. The early 20th Century liberal Albert Jay Nock accurately viewed tariffs as the robbery of the domestic consumer by the domestic manufacturer. Another aphorism, attributed to liberal thinker Frederic Bastiat, graphically stated another powerful reason to establish free trade: “If goods don’t cross borders, troops will.”

• Free speech and habeas corpus. 

• Equal rights for women.  It will come as a shock to those who incorrectly view libertarians as extreme right-wingers to learn that their ideological ancestors, the liberals, pioneered women’s rights. See, Herbert Spencer, Social Statics (1851)(Chapter XVI).

• Opposition to conscription.

• The right to bear arms.

• Gay rights.  Gays have the exact same natural rights as every other person, no more and no less.

• The Bill of Rights.

• Freedom of travel. 

After paving the way for the modern world, around 1900-1920, the old liberals were quickly swept aside by a movement that stole their name and promised to usher in progress even faster using the magic potion of state action (force).  The new “liberals,” better known now as progressives, had a better dictionary and dressed up their advocacy of government violence and thuggery with fancy words like “regulation” and “democracy.”  If a Martian came to earth and watched what the state does when it “regulates,” she might scientifically report that the government just mugged a guy who was minding his own business.  Alas, the progressive state lies with words to cover up its crimes.

What if we stopped lying and told the truth?

• Taxation is extortion.

• Regulation is the extortion of property and liberty.

• Eminent domain is land theft.

• Inflation is counterfeiting.

• Conscription is slavery.

• War is mass murder.

And so begins a new dictionary for these mendacious and troubled times.

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