As a founder of the Libertarian Party, I am often asked how to tell if someone is "really" a libertarian. My own definition is that in order to be a libertarian, an individual must adhere without compromise to five key points.
Ideally, of course, we'd all be in agreement on everything. But we're not, and probably never will be. Debate is likely to continue on such matters as abortion, foreign policy, and whether and how various government programs can be discontinued or privatized. But if someone is sound on these five points, he or she is a libertarian.
1. You own yourself
First, libertarians believe in the principle of self-ownership. You own your own body and mind; no external power has the right to force you into the service of society or mankind or any other individual or group for any purpose, however noble. Slavery is wrong, period.
Because you own yourself, you are responsible for your own well-being. Others are not obligated to feed you, clothe you, or provide you with health care. Most of us choose to help one another voluntarily, and that is as it should be -- but forced compassion is a contradiction in terms.
2. The right of self-defense
Self-ownership implies the right to self-defense. Libertarians yield to no one in their support for our right as individuals to keep and bear arms.
Anyone who thinks that government -- any government -- has the right to disarm its citizens is not a libertarian.
3. No "criminal possession" laws
In fact, libertarians believe that individuals have the right to own and use anything -- gold, guns, marijuana, sexually explicit material -- so long as they do not harm others through force or the threat of force. Laws criminalizing the simple possession of anything are tailor made for police states; it is all too easy to plant a forbidden substance in someone's home, car, or pocket. Libertarians are as tough on crime as anyone! But criminal possession laws are an affront to liberty, whatever the rhetoric used to defend them.
4. No taxes on productivity
In an ideal world there would be no taxation. All services would be paid for on an as-used basis. But in a less than ideal world, some services will be force-financed for the foreseeable future.
However, not all taxes are equally deleterious, and the worst form of taxation is a tax on productivity -- and "income" tax-- and no libertarian supports this type of taxation. What kind of taxation is least harmful? This is a topic still open for debate. But all libertarians oppose any form of income tax.
5. A sound money system
The fifth and final key test of anyone's claim to being a libertarian is their support for an honest money system; i.e. one where the currency is backed by something of true value (usually gold or silver). Fiat money -- money with no backing, for which acceptance is mandated by the state -- is simply legalized counterfeiting and is one of the keys to expanding government power.
The five points enumerated here are not a complete comprehensive prescription for freedom. But they would take us most of the way. A government which cannot conscript, confiscate, or counterfeit, which imposes no criminal penalties for the mere possession and peaceful use of anything, is one that all libertarians would support.
*This is a condensed version of an essay which originally appeared in
Liberty. Copyright 1995 by the author.