a political philosophy that believes in minimizing or entirely eliminating government interventionism in many aspects of life including economic, personal, and in foreign policy matters. Libertarians tend to oppose legal restrictions on social behavior that doesn’t affect anybody else. The French term of Laissez-Faire, or let us do, is a term that describes some aspects of the libertarian belief. Libertarianism tends to emphasize a form of individual liberty, and tends to support rights of private property.
The first systematic libertarian was Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an English political philosopher whose books such as The Man Versus the State (1884) had a major impact in Europe and America in the late 19th century. The chief American representative was Yale professor William Graham Sumner.
Ronald Reagan stated in 1975, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism….The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is….Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals.”
In the United States, libertarians are typically fiscally conservative and socially liberal using the common US meanings of liberal and conservative. A faction of libertarians exist in the GOP, and are typically more ardent than other members of the GOP in keeping the principle of fiscal sanity and are less willing to “sell out” those principles for political expediency. They support an isolationist foreign policy and are to the left of most Democrats on social and foreign policy issues. The foremost libertarian figure in the GOP is former long-time Congressman Ron Paul.1
A libertarian is committed to the principle that liberty is the most important political value. Liberty means being free to make your own choices about your own life, that what you do with your body and your property ought to be up to you. Other people must not forcibly interfere with your liberty, and you must not forcibly interfere with theirs.
Libertarians envision a pluralist, cosmopolitan society united by commerce and travel, not divided by nationalistic antagonisms. They envision a world where people are free to experiment with different ways of living, free to try new ideas that might just be crazy enough to work. A world driven by the entrepreneurial spirit that is always asking questions like “How could this be better?” and “Can I make something entirely new?” Such a society may have a patchwork messiness about it, but it would also be vibrant and humane.
Because all people are moral equals, each possessing a wide domain of rightful autonomy, libertarians believe that claims of special authority—like those claims made by governments throughout history—require special justification. In other words, people claiming the right to infringe upon our liberty carry the burden of explaining why they’re entitled to do so.
Furthermore, libertarians tend to believe that most (if not all) of the claims to special authority made by the various governments around the world are unjustifiable. Governments assert wide‐reaching powers to control people’s day‐to‐day conduct, take their belongings, and even conscript them into fighting wars. If they offer any justification for these powers, it’s only as an afterthought.
When ordinary people aren’t careful to respect their neighbors’ privacy, or presume to boss other people about or physically interfere with them, those of us concerned with justice and civility object. We might say: “Stop that. Mind your own business.” But the agents of the state act like the same rules don’t apply to them. Once they decide they want to do a thing, they generally don’t stop to consider whether doing it is any of their business in the first place, or whether they’re going about doing it in a way that disrespects the dignity or autonomy of their fellows. Legislators, bureaucrats, police, and other agents who enforce the state’s commands treat other people as pawns on a chessboard to be maneuvered into whatever configuration they deem best. Too many fail to see people as independent agents with their own desires and plans. That’s true even in relatively free societies.
Libertarians think that we ought to hold ourselves, and our governments, to a higher standard—that a freer society is possible and desirable. When people cooperate with one another peacefully, with respect for each other’s rights and liberties, we are capable of incredible things.
THE CORE PRINCIPLES OF LIBERTARIANISM
Many cultures around the world have a tradition of liberty, shaped by each society’s particular circumstances and by the thinkers who lived there. As the world grows more interconnected, these different traditions are increasingly in dialogue. Libertarians often view themselves as the modern heirs to the tradition of liberty that developed in Europe and colonial America.
Libertarianism is rooted, historically and philosophically, in the liberalism of the Enlightenment. But although it belongs to an intellectual tradition dating back centuries, libertarianism embraces a vision of political liberty which is, even today, revolutionary. The Enlightenment liberals stood against the idea, older than human civilization, that some people ought to boss others about, setting the table for a conflict still playing out in society today. The old idea, sadly, dies hard.
Liberals like John Locke argued that because people are people, there are certain things you can’t do to them, not because they’re hereditary aristocrats or have some other kind of special status or group membership, but just because they’re people who share with you a common humanity. The things you can’t morally do to a person constitute that person’s rights. We are all born to these rights—in which sense, they are natural rights—and we do not owe them to the generosity or authority of any third party, whether individual or group, mundane or supernatural. Our rights delineate our spheres of individual autonomy. We have rights to bodily integrity and to own legitimately acquired property. Put another way, it would be immoral for someone to assault or kill us, or to seize or damage things we own.
Liberals like Adam Smith explained the mechanisms by which a free economy can change and adapt to best produce the goods and services people want without any centralized plan or planner. This idea—that economic production and consumption can be and largely are carried on in a state of spontaneous order—is one of the foundational principles of both modern economics and libertarian theory. We need no maestro directing goods where to go; people trade goods and services independently using their own judgments, and the sum of their choices produces a system that helps allocate resources to their most efficient ends, making us all richer.
Modern day politicians on the left and right sometimes pay lip service to these ideas, but in practice they reject them. Legislation is all about imposing an order from above, rather than letting one emerge from below. And in creating their schemes, politicians all too often fail to give citizens their due as people, treating them as pawns and running roughshod over their rights to decide and plan for themselves.
THE NATURE AND ORIGIN OF THE STATE
A libertarian is suspicious of the claims made by the world’s various governments to legitimacy and authority. Many justifications for state authority involve some version of the “social contract” story—the idea that people in a society have agreed to be ruled so that they can achieve some aim that is only attainable collectively. But even when a written constitution uses the language of the social contract, there are still big problems with justifications of this sort.
For one thing, we know that as a matter of history the state had its origin as an institution not with the people of this or that society banding together for the common good, but rather in conquest—looting and murder. Roving warlords evolved their strategies from violent theft to extorting tribute payments, which was less risky and more remunerative in the long run. They would eventually settle down in one place instead of roaming, establishing themselves as an aristocratic class and protecting their turf from rivals. With this history in mind, the various academic justifications for the state’s legitimacy start to seem like self‐serving “Just So” stories that gloss over the state’s bloody, exploitative historical origin.
Even if some version of the social contract story works—and the more sophisticated ones take the historical reality of the state’s origin into account—libertarians recognize that the people in a given society could only delegate to a state powers they themselves already possess. If it wouldn’t be permissible for an ordinary person or group of people to take some action, there are no emergent properties of states that would permit them to take that same action. You have a right to defend yourself against thieves and murderers, so you could delegate that power to the state. You don’t have the right to force your neighbor not to drink beer on Sundays, so the state could never legitimately be given such a power.
Today, many states are still openly run so that a ruling class can extract resources from a subject class. And even high‐functioning democracies that purport to serve the public good share the essential features of their more brutal and openly exploitative cousins:
- A monopoly on the use of legitimized force within a geographical area
- The power to make and enforce rules
- The power to seize money and other assets and to coerce the performance of labor
These features make control of the state extremely appealing to people who want to use its power for the benefit of themselves and groups they favor, at the expense of groups they disfavor or society as a whole. Some of them are just greedy for money and power. Others embrace ideologies holding that using the state to benefit a favored group is morally good. Motives aside, these features of the state have a tendency to set us against one another when we participate in politics. Politics makes us worse.2