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This article deals with Libertarianism as understood in the United States. For a discussion of the meaning of the term libertarian that is traditional in (continental) Europe, see libertarian socialism.

For the use of the term "libertarianism" in the philosophy of free will see libertarianism (philosophy).

Libertarianism is a political philosophy which advocates individual rights and a limited government. Libertarians believe that individuals should be free to do anything they want, so long as they do not infringe upon what they believe to be the equal rights of others. In this respect they agree with many other modern political ideologies. The difference arises from the definition of "rights". For libertarians, there are no 'positive rights' (such as to food or shelter or health care), only 'negative rights' (such as to not be assaulted, abused, robbed or censored). They further believe that the only legitimate use of force, whether public or private, is to protect those rights. On the Nolan Chart, libertarianism rests in the upper right quadrant, or that of high economic freedom and high personal freedom.

Table of contents
1 Terminology
2 Libertarianism and classical liberalism
3 Libertarianism in the political spectrum
4 Individualism, liberty, responsibility and property
5 Anti-statist doctrine
6 Anarchists and minarchists
7 Utilitarianism, natural law, and reason
8 Controversies among libertarians
9 Modern libertarians
10 Libertarian magazines
11 See also
12 External links


The term 'libertarianism' in this sense (although in itself much older), has only been largely used since 1955 [1]. The term was first introduced in the United States by thinkers who saw themselves as continuing the classical liberal tradition of the previous century. By that time the term liberalism had come to refer within the United States to belief in moderate government regulation of the economy and moderate government redistribution of wealth. These classical liberal thinkers therefore came to call themselves libertarians; and from the United States the term has spread to the rest of the world.

However, there is still confusion because in Europe, the French word 'libertaire', the Spanish word 'libertario', etc., of which the English term 'libertarian' is the usual translation, traditionally referred to some kind of socialist anarchism, whereas (modern US term) libertarians are not socialists at all, and most of them are not anarchists, but minarchists (i.e., advocates of some minimal state).

Libertarianism and classical liberalism

Libertarians see their origins in the earlier 17th to 20th century tradition of classical liberalism, and often use that term as a synonym for libertarianism, particularly outside of the USA.

Some, particularly in the USA, argue that while libertarianism has much in common with the earlier tradition of classical liberalism, the latter term should be reserved for historical thinkers for the sake of clarity and accuracy. Others make the distinction to distance themselves from the socialist and welfare state connotations of the word "liberal" in American English. Critics of the trend toward conflation assert that there is a patterned difference between many libertarian and classical liberal thinkers as far as their beliefs about the degree to which the state should be restricted. For example, the classical liberal thinker John Stuart Mill was not opposed to the state and saw a role for the state in the delivery of education, maintenance and expansion of public utilities and even in the provision of assistance to the poor; libertarians are often hostile to the state and think its role should be severely restricted or even eliminated. Libertarians also argue that the market can be used to organize all or most aspects of society and have developed rational choice theory accordingly, while classical liberals such as Adam Smith argued there were limitations to the market's utility as a means of social organization. These critics argue that a more accurate term to describe libertarianism would be neo-classical liberalism.

In any case, whether one equates them or not, libertarianism closely models opinions, methods, and approaches of earlier classical liberalism and many libertarians see themselves as the inheritors of that tradition. It has few commonalities with modern "new" or "welfare" liberalism or socialism. Many economically-oriented libertarians use the word "socialist" nigh-interchangeably with "statist" in critiquing their opponents, even rightist opponents, out of the argument that socialism is the only consistent (family of) statist ideologies. This may perhaps be compared with Marxist use of terms such as "capitalist" and "bourgeois" in critique of other leftists (see state capitalism).

Libertarianism in the political spectrum

In the US some libertarians feel conservative and some conservatives feel libertarian, because both groups recognize as theirs the ideology of the founding fathers of the USA. Still, it is possible to distinguish quite neatly two different and often opposite traditions, and it is only a matter of terminology when confusion occurs. This opposition is clearly explained in Friedrich Hayek's article "Why I Am Not a Conservative" [1]. In fact, there have been times when those with libertarian views were considered left-wing on the political space (for instance, in the seventeenth century, the Whigs were revolutionaries, and in 1848, Frederic Bastiat was seating rather on the left side of the Assembly). In reality, the balance of political opinions has shifted a lot, while the anti-statist tradition of libertarianism has not moved, only evolved and grown.

The Nolan Chart

Libertarians do not identify themselves as either "right-wing" or "left-wing". Indeed, many reject the one-dimensional left/right political spectrum and instead propose a two-dimensional space with personal freedom on one Cartesian axis and economic freedom on the other. This space is shown by the Nolan Chart, proposed by David Nolan, the founder of the United States Libertarian Party.[1] Though libertarians may believe the separation of personal and economic freedom is actually a false dichotomy, the Nolan Chart is frequently utilized in order to differentiate their ideology from others (e.g., conservativism and liberalism) which generally advocate greater limitations on different modes of freedom according to their respective conceptions of rights. The libertarian conception of rights serves to maximize individual liberty and autonomy, which leads libertarians to advocate the fewest possible limitations on either mode of freedom.

Individualism, liberty, responsibility and property

The fundamental values that libertarians fight for are individual liberty, individual responsibility and individual property. Libertarians have an elaborate theory of these values that they defend, that does not always match what some consider the 'common sense' regarding liberty, and that strictly opposes collectivist views in this regard. As an example, they hold that personal liberties (such as privacy and freedom of speech) are inseparable from economic liberties (such as the freedom to trade, labor, or invest). They make this point to contrast themselves with socialists who believe that economic regulation is necessary for personal freedom, and with big-business conservatives who tie free trade with a restrictive regulation of personal issues such as sexuality and speech.

Many criticisms of libertarianism revolve around the notion of "freedom" itself. For example, socialists would argue that the so-called "economic freedoms" defended by libertarians are nothing more than privileges for the wealthy elite and a violation of workers' rights.

Other criticisms revolve around the desirability and practical usefulness of certain freedoms. Conservatives, in particular, would argue that excessive personal freedoms encourage dangerous and irresponsible behaviour, or that they are too permissive on crime.

It is a chief point for many libertarians that rights vest originally in individuals and never in groups such as nations, races, religions, classes, or cultures. This conception holds it as nonsensical to say (for instance) that a wrong can be done to a class or a race in the absence of specific wrongs done to individual members of that group. It also undercuts rhetorical expressions such as, "The government has the right to ...", since under this formulation "the government" has no original rights but only those duties with which it has been lawfully entrusted under the citizens' rights. Libertarianism frequently dovetails neatly therefore with strict constructionism in the constitutional sense.

The classic problem in political philosophy of the legitimacy of property is essential to libertarians. Libertarians often justify individual property on the basis of self-ownership: one's right to own one's body; the results of one's own work; what one obtains from the voluntary concession of a former legitimate owner through trade, gift or inheritance, and so forth. Ownership of disputed natural resources is more problematic and libertarian solutions such as homesteading have been studied from John Locke to Murray Rothbard. This is particularly important since most criticisms of private property rest on the notion that no person can claim rightful ownership over natural resources, and that since the making of any object requires some amount of raw materials and natural resources, no person can claim rightful ownership over man-made objects either.

Anti-statist doctrine

Libertarians consider that there is an extended domain of individual freedom defined by every individual's person and private property, and that no one, whether private citizen or government, may under any circumstances violate this boundary. Indeed, libertarians consider that no organization, including government, can have any right except those that are voluntarily delegated to it by its members -- which implies that these members must have had these rights to delegate them to begin with.

Thus, according to libertarians, taxation and regulation are at best necessary evils, and where unnecessary are simply evil. Government spending and regulations should be reduced insofar as they replace voluntary private spending with involuntary public spending, and replace private morality with public coercion. To many libertarians, governments should not establish schools, regulate industry, commerce or agriculture, or run social welfare programs. Nor should government restrict sexual practices, gambling, drug usage, or any other 'victimless' crimes. Libertarians also believe in an extremely broad (and in some cases all-inclusive) interpretation of free speech which should not be restricted by government. For libertarians, government's main imperative should be Laissez-faire -- "Hands off!" -- except to protect individual rights.

Libertarians believe in minimizing the responsibilities of citizens towards the government, which directly results in minimizing the responsibilities of the government towards its citizens.

See Albert Jay Nock's Our Enemy the State for early modern anti-state thought and Lysander Spooner's The Constitution of No Authority for a critique of social contract theory.

Anarchists and minarchists

All libertarians agree that government should be limited to what is strictly necessary, no more, no less. But there is no consensus among them about how much government is necessary. Hence, libertarians are further divided between the minarchists and the anarcho-capitalists, which are discussed at length in specific articles. Both minarchists and anarcho-capitalists differ in their beliefs from the anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-socialists and libertarian socialists, who are usually considered not to be libertarians at all (the feeling is mutual; anarcho-socialists and libertarian socialists claim that capitalism is incompatible with freedom, and thus libertarian/anarcho-capitalists cannot be considered libertarians at all). The Vosem Chart places anarcho-syndicalists in a separate slot from libertarians.

The minarchists believe that a "minimal" or a "night-watchman" state is necessary to guarantee property rights and civil liberties, and is to be used for that purpose only. For them, the proper functions of government might include the maintenance of the courts, the police, the military, and perhaps a few other vital functions (e.g., roads). While they are technically statists since they support the existence of a government, they would resent the connotations usually attached to this term.

The anarcho-capitalists, believe that even in matters of justice and protection and particularly in such matters, action by competing private responsible individuals (freely organized in businesses, cooperatives, or organizations of their choice) is much better than action by governments. While they consider themselves to be anarchists, they insist in rejecting the connotations often attached to this term regarding support of a socialist ideal.

Minarchists consider that they are realists, while anarcho-capitalists are utopian to believe that governments can be wholly done without. Anarcho-capitalists consider that they are realists, and that minarchists are utopian to believe that a state monopoly of violence can be contained within any reasonable limits. Critics of both these positions generally point to the historical record of democratic governments as evidence that democracy and popular rule have succeeded not only in containing government abuse of freedom, but have in fact transformed the state from a violent master of the people into their loyal and peaceful servant.

The minarchist/anarcho-capitalist division is very friendly, and not the source of any deep enmity, despite the sometimes involved theoretic arguments. Libertarians feel much more strongly about their common defense of individual liberty, responsibility and property, than about their possible minarchist vs. anarchist differences. Since both minarchists and anarchists believe that existing governments are far, far too intrusive, the two factions seek change in almost exactly the same directions.

Many libertarians don't take a position with regard to this division, and don't care about it. Indeed, many libertarians consider that governments exist and will exist in the foreseeable future, up to the end of their lives, so that their efforts are better spent fighting, containing and avoiding the action of governments than trying to figure out what life could or couldn't be like without them. In recent years libertarianism has attracted many "fellow-travelers" (to borrow a phrase from the Communists) who care little about such theoretical issues and merely wish to reduce the size, corruption, and intrusiveness of government.

Some libertarian philosophers argue that, properly understood, minarchism and anarcho-capitalism are not in contradiction. See Revisiting Anarchism and Government by Tibor R. Machan.

Utilitarianism, natural law, and reason

Libertarians tend to take either one of an axiomatic natural law point of view, or a utilitarian point of view, in justifying their beliefs. Some of them (like Frederic Bastiat), claim a natural harmony between these two points of view (that would indeed be but different points of view on a same truth), and consider it irrelevant to try to establish one as truer.

An exposition of utilitarian libertarianism appears in David Friedman's book The Machinery of Freedom, which includes a chapter describing an allegedly highly libertarian culture that existed in Iceland around 800 AD.

For natural rights libertarianism, see for instance Robert Nozick.

See also relevant paragraphs about this difference in points of view in the article about Anarcho-capitalism.

An alternate justification for libertarian ideas (broadly speaking), predicated on the use of reason and the observance of a certain code of ethics (rather than social ends) is contained within the philosophy of Objectivism established by Ayn Rand.

Some libertarians do not attempt to justify their beliefs in any external sense; they support libertarianism because they desire the maximum degree of liberty possible within their own lives, and see libertarianism as the most effective political philosophy towards this end.

Controversies among libertarians

Libertarians do not agree on every topic. Although they share a common tradition of thinkers from centuries past to contemporary times, no thinker is considered a common authority whose opinions are to be blindly accepted. Rather, they are generally considered a reference with which to compare one's opinions and arguments.

These controversies are addressed in separate articles:

Modern libertarians

Notable theorists and authors



Libertarian magazines

See also

External links

Libertarian links

Non-libertarian links