Explaining the difference between libertarianism and anarchy

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Sometimes it is good to go over some basic ideas especially since I have the tendency to get wrapped up in the technical aspects of libertarianism and take for granted that people understand certain things.  And sometimes it’s these simple ideas that even a lot of libertarians do not quite understand.  It often causes headaches when trying to have discussions.

What’s the difference between a libertarian and an anarchist?  Are all anarchists libertarians and are all libertarians anarchists?

This could be discussed at length and with all kinds of tangents, so let’s give some boundaries to the discussion.  Anarchy means “without rulers” (not “without rules”–there’s a huge difference!), so it is the absence of the state.  There are different flavors of anarchy, but for the sake of this discussion, anarchy will refer to anarcho-capitalism and not other forms such as anarcho-communism.

People (myself included) often use the terms anarchy and libertarianism interchangeably.  Well, perhaps it’s just the anarchists who do that.  This can be confusing to outsiders looking in and could scare some people away from libertarianism.  “I think we need to drastically shrink government, but I guess I’m not a libertarian since I don’t want to completely eliminate it.”  Hopefully that’s not the idea people get.

Libertarianism is the “big tent” movement of people who believe that you should not coerce (commit or threaten violence against) peaceful individuals.  The Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) is the idea that it is wrong to coerce peaceful individuals.  People who believe that the NAP should be the ethical standard or guideline for human interaction are called deontological libertarians.  People who believe that peaceful people should be free from violence because it produces a superior outcome to institutions of coercion are consequentialist libertarians.  The beauty of both schools is that deontological and consequentialist libertarianism mesh together seamlessly, so many libertarians identify as both.

Libertarians believe that this applies to everyone regardless if a person has a badge, wears a uniform, or works in an organization called government.

How far someone takes this idea is what distinguishes anarchists from the rest of the libertarian community.  Anarchists are libertarians who take the NAP to its logical conclusion.  They believe that government at its core is a coercive institution and/or limits human progress and is therefore unfit to exist.  Those who believe that there is a place for a small government to protect basic human rights are minarchists.  So anarchists are different from minarchists but both anarchists and minarchists are libertarians.  They agree on everything except for that last (what non-libertarians would consider) little piece.  And that makes for some great debates, but we argue because we care.

For most of us, it takes quite awhile to transform from believing the status quo to becoming a minarchist to becoming an anarchist.  There’s a great joke that goes like this: what’s the difference between a minarchist and an anarchist?  About six months!

One last distinction to make is the difference between libertarian and Libertarian.  While many use each word interchangeably, there are implications and assumptions that Libertarian refers to someone who associates with the Libertarian Party.  If you want to refer to the movement I’ve described above, then don’t capitalize the L in libertarian.  This will save you from being corrected since a lot of libertarians do not see politics as the solution and/or do not like the Libertarian Party (I fit into both of these categories).

Hopefully that clears the air and prevents misunderstandings and confusion.  Don’t take being on the same page for granted.

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