The United States has had a libertarian and anarchist thread since the beginning, which is certainly appropriate for a nation that espouses individual liberty and expresses distrust of the state. While there are many versions of libertarianism and these range across the political spectrum, I will focus on one key aspect of libertarianism. To be specific, I will focus on the idea that the government should impose minimal limits on individual liberty and that there should be little, if any, state regulation of business. These principles were laid out fairly clearly by the American anarchist Henry David Thoreau in his claims that the best government governs least (or not at all) and that government only advances business by getting out of its way.
I must admit that I find the libertarian-anarchist approach very appealing. Like many politically minded young folks, I experimented with a variety of political theories in college. I found Marxism unappealing—as a metaphysical dualist, I must reject materialism. Also, I was well aware of the brutally oppressive and murderous nature of the Marxists states and they were in direct opposition to both my ethics and my view of liberty. Fascism was certainly right out—the idea of the total state ran against my views of liberty. Since, like many young folks, I thought I knew everything and did not want anyone to tell me what to do, I picked anarchism as my theory of choice. Since I am morally opposed to murdering people, even for a cause, I sided with the non-murderous anarchists, such as Thoreau. I eventually outgrew anarchism, but I still have many fond memories of my halcyon days of naïve political views. As such, I do really like libertarian-anarchism and really want it to be viable. But, I know that liking something does not entail that it is viable (or a good idea).
Put in extremely general terms, a libertarian system would have a minimal state with extremely limited government impositions on personal liberty. The same minimalism would also extend to the realm of business—they would operate with little or no state control. Since such a system seems to maximize liberty and freedom, it seems to be initially very appealing. After all, freedom and liberty are good and more of a good thing is better than less. Except when it is not.
It might be wondered how more liberty and freedom is not always better than less. I find two of the stock answers both appealing and plausible. One was laid out by Thomas Hobbes. In discussing the state of nature (which is a form of anarchism—there is no state) he notes that total liberty (the right to everything) amounts to no right at all. This is because everyone is free to do anything and everyone has the right to claim (and take) anything. This leads to his infamous war of all against all, making life “nasty, brutish and short.” Like too much oxygen, too much liberty can be fatal. Hobbes solution is the social contract and the sovereign: the state.
A second one was present by J.S. Mill. In his discussion of liberty he argued that liberty requires limitations on liberty. While this might seem like a paradox or a slogan from Big Brother, Mill is actually quite right in a straightforward way. For example, your right to free expression requires that my right to silence you be limited. As another example, your right to life requires limits on my right to kill. As such, liberty does require restrictions on liberty. Mill does not limit the limiting of liberty to the state—society can impose such limits as well.
Given the plausibility of the arguments of Hobbes and Mill, it seems reasonable to accept that there must be limits on liberty in order for there to be liberty. Libertarians, who usually fall short of being true anarchists, do accept this. However, they do want the broadest possible liberties and the least possible restrictions on business.
In theory, this would appear to show that the theory provides the basis for a viable political system. After all, if libertarianism is the view that the state should impose the minimal restrictions needed to have a viable society, then it would be (by definition) a viable system. However, there is the matter of libertarianism in practice and also the question of what counts as a viable political system.
Looked at in a minimal sense, a viable political system would seem to be one that can maintain its borders and internal order. Meeting this two minimal objectives would seem to be possible for a libertarian state, at least for a while. That said, the standards for a viable state might be taken to be somewhat higher, such as the state being able to (as per Locke) protect rights and provide for the good of the people. It can (and has) been argued that such a state would need to be more robust than the libertarian state. It can also be argued that a true libertarian state would either devolve into chaos or be forced into abandoning libertarianism.
In any case, the viability of libertarian state would seem to depend on two main factors. The first is the ethics of the individuals composing the state. The second is the relative power of the individuals. This is because the state is supposed to be minimal, so that limits on behavior must be set largely by other factors.
In regards to ethics, people who are moral can be relied on to self-regulate their behavior to the degree they are moral. To the degree that the population is moral the state does not need to impose limitations on behavior, since the citizens will generally not behave in ways that require the imposition of the compulsive power of the state. As such, liberty would seem to require a degree of morality on the part of the citizens that is inversely proportional to the limitations imposed by the state. Put roughly, good people do not need to be coerced by the state into being good. As such, a libertarian state can be viable to the degree that people are morally good. While some thinkers have faith in the basic decency of people, many (such as Hobbes) regard humans as lacking in what others would call goodness. Hence, the usual arguments about how the moral failings of humans requires the existence of the coercive state.
In regards to the second factor, having liberty without an external coercive force maintaining the liberty would require that the citizens be comparable in political, social and economic power. If some people have greater power they can easily use this power to impose on their fellow citizens. While the freedom to act with few (or no) limits is certainly a great deal for those with greater power, it certainly is not very good for those who have less power. In such a system, the powerful are free to do as they will, while the weaker people are denied their liberties. While such a system might be libertarian in name, freedom and liberty would belong to the powerful and the weaker would be denied. That is, it would be a despotism or tyranny.
If people are comparable in power or can form social, political and economic groups that are comparable in power, then liberty for all would be possible—individuals and groups would be able to resist the encroachments of others. Unions, for example, could be formed to offset the power of corporations. Not surprisingly, stable societies are able to build such balances of power to avoid the slide into despotism and then to chaos. Stable societies also have governments that endeavor to protect the liberties of everyone by placing limits on how much people can inflict their liberties on other people. As noted above, people can also be restrained by their ethics. If people and groups varied in power, yet abided by the limits of ethical behavior, then things could still go well for even the weak.
Interestingly, a balance of power might actually be disastrous. Hobbes argued that it is because people are equal in power that the state of nature is a state of war. This rests on his view that people are hedonistic egoists—that is, people are basically selfish and care not about other people.
Obviously enough, in the actual world people and groups vary greatly in power. Not surprisingly, many of the main advocates of libertarianism enjoy considerable political and economic power—they would presumably do very well in a system that removed many of the limitations upon them since they would be freer to do as they wished and the weaker people and groups would be unable to stop them.
At this point, one might insist on a third factor that is beloved by the Adam Smith crowd: rational self-interest. The usual claim is that people would limit their behavior because of the consequences arising from their actions. For example, a business that served contaminated meat would soon find itself out of business because the survivors would stop buying the meat and spread the word. As another example, an employer who used his power to compel his workers to work long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay would find that no one would be willing to work for him and would be forced to improve things to retain workers. As a third example, people would not commit misdeeds because they would be condemned or punished by vigilante justice. The invisible hand would sort things out, even if people are not good and there is a great disparity in power.
The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of system generally does not work very well—as shown by history. If there is a disparity in power, that power will be used to prevent negative consequences. For example, those who have economic power can use that power to coerce people into working for low pay and can also use that power to try to keep them from organizing to create a power that can resist this economic power. This is why, obviously enough, people like the Koch brothers oppose unions.
Interestingly, most people get that rational self-interest does not suffice to keep people from acting badly in regards to crimes such as murder, theft, extortion, assault and rape. However, there is the odd view that rational self-interest will somehow work to keep people from acting badly in other areas. This, as Hobbes would say, arises from an insufficient understanding of humans. Or is a deceit on the part of people who have the power to do wrong and get away with it.
While I do like the idea of libertarianism, a viable libertarian society would seem to require people who are predominantly ethical (and thus self-regulating) or a careful balance of power. Or, alternatively, a world in which people are rational and act from self-interest in ways that would maintain social order. This is clearly not our world.