Libertarianism is often described as a system of “rules without rulers.” While I have employed it when describing the philosophy, I think it lends itself to misinterpretation.
A more accurate, albeit less catchy, description would be a system in which all authority is derived from voluntary consent. The Declaration of Independence attempted to make the claim that all government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. But it doesn’t lay out how this consent is obtained and whether it must be obtained individually on by a collective whole, because government is defined by the use of coercion and aggression.
One of the countless misconceptions about libertarianism, even from libertarians, is that it is anti-authoritarian philosophy, which is how you get inane complaints that libertarians are just “childish.”
C.Jay Engel at Reformed Libertarian explains that this misconstrues the real issue, which is about legitimate authority.
One claim that I have read in different settings throughout the (nominally) libertarian world is that libertarians should be “anti-authority.” Authority, say these leftists, is inherently bad. This is not a libertarian position. This is a Marxist position. It is disturbing to see the loud-mouthed youth claiming that authority is to be necessarily associated with the State….This is a very real and very dangerous trend in “libertarian” circles. And it came to the surface precisely because few can adequately define libertarianism. And just as few forget that libertarianism is strictly a philosophy of the State. It is a political philosophy; a subset of, but not in itself, a holistic ethics.
Libertarianism is not against authority. Libertarianism is against improper authority; which means that libertarianism is for proper authority. After all, private property necessitates authority. If an individual is said to own property, anything whatsoever, then he has the legal authority to determine the use of that property. He is only legally restricted when his own property invades the property that some other individual has authority over…..Authority is assumed in ownership (bold emphasis mine).
What libertarianism is, is anti-totalitarian, and I wonder if the problem is that many people confuse the two terms when they use them interchangeably.