views updated May 18 2018


Theory in Depth
Theory in Action
Analysis and Critical Response
Topics for Further Study
See Also


who controls government? Restricted officials

how is government put into power? Group dissatisfied with previous powers

what roles do the people have? Enjoy rights while not infringing on others

who controls production of goods? Private individuals

who controls distribution of goods? Private individuals

major figures Ayn Rand; Russell Means

historical example Austrian School of Economics

Despite the obstacles of many centuries, national boundaries, and terminology confusion, the tradition known since the 1950s as libertarianism forms a coherent legacy from its founding by fathers John Locke and Adam Smith in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through its organization as a U.S. political party in 1971 and beyond. This individualist political theory has spawned classic works, inspired revolutions, fueled activist movements, and earned Nobel Prizes. Its history has included a rise and decline, and the end of the twentieth century revealed a reemergence for this long–lived tradition. Individual rights, property, constitutionalism, and universalism form the heart of libertarianism.


It is not unusual for the term libertarianism to bring blank stares from theorists and politicians alike; one joke suggests that a libertarian is what you get when you cross a libertine with a librarian. Although the term libertarianism is rather new, the political theory it represents—at different times also called liberalism or classical liberalism, among various other things—can be traced back to classical thought. An intellectual child of the West, libertarianism gained supporters and lost momentum in its long history, only to enjoy a new popularity around the globe at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty–first. The broad principles of libertarianism allowed the tradition to grow, evolve, and adapt to new political and technological realities across the planet and centuries.

The first seeds of libertarian thought appeared in ancient Greece and Rome. For example, the Greek Sophists embraced the idea of equality among individuals; some went so far as to criticize the prevailing belief in natural slavery. The Athenian Pericles (c. 495–429 B.C.) praised the Greek polis and its system of equality under the law in his famous Funeral Oration. Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992), noted Austrian economist, Nobel Laureate, and libertarian, recognized the Roman statesman Cicero (106–43 BC) as the most influential precursor to libertarianism due to his defense of the concept of natural law. After antiquity, the influence of monotheism—the belief in one god for all—through Judaism and, later, Islam and Christianity reinforced the idea of one central law to which all people are held accountable.

The development of Christianity, in particular, brought new dimensions to proto–libertarian thought. After the Christian church split between East and West (1054), both sides offered important ideas to the young political theory. The Eastern church fathers from the Alexandrine School and beyond contemplated the perfectibility of humanity as a theological question. This added the issue of human flourishing and self–betterment to the political dialogue, which anticipated later German contributions to libertarian theory. In the West, especially in the Middle Ages, church leaders preserved the classics in general and studied economics and political science in particular. Different orders and communities developed specialties. For example, the Spanish School of Salamanca combined the study of Greek, Islamic, and Christian philosophy to develop a theory of market prices that informed later economic arguments borne of the Scottish Enlightenment. The second split of Christianity, that of the Reformation (begun in 1517), led to a similar dual influence on libertarianism. Catholic thought continued to explore natural law theory while Protestantism, with its "priesthood of the believer" doctrine, introduced a more potent individualism to the political landscape.

Political changes also added ingredients to the tradition. The rise of absolutism in Europe challenged the political, economic, and social freedom of the people. Opponents of powerful kings in England developed the myth of the ancient constitution—a notion of an ideal contract formed over time between ruler and ruled, government and governed, and solidified by the Anglo–Saxons before the Norman invasion of 1066—to justify their claims to individual rights and their conviction that monarchs were not above the law. As early as the English Civil War (1642–1651), political groups such as the Levellers wanted to take the ancient constitution concept a step further and develop a written constitution to mirror the idealized political compact between the people and their state. Perhaps the best example of proto–libertarian thought was Leveller John Overton's 1746 work An Arrow Against All Tyrants, which articulated a theory of individualism, property, and limited government in order to call for a written constitution.


1690:      John Locke's Two Treatises of Civil Government is published.

1776:      The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith is published.

1871:      Carl Menger founds the Austrian School of Economics.

1943:      Ayn Rand introduces the Objectivist Movement with the publication of The Fountainhead.

1944:      Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom is published.

1962:      Calculus of Consent by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock is published.

1971:      The U.S. Libertarian Party is organized.

John Locke

Though clear precursors to libertarianism had existed for centuries, the theory itself awaited a systematic, definitive treatment. John Locke (1632–1704) provided this careful and comprehensive discussion and therefore became known as one of the fathers of libertarianism. In groundbreaking works such as A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690), Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest, Raising the Value of Money (1692), and A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), the English Locke made three important contributions to libertarian theory.

First, he examined the nature of individual rights. He argued that individuals were not bound to obey governmental laws that ignored their rights and therefore contradicted natural law. Second, Locke articulated a positive view of human nature that challenged the prevailing view of humans as incapable of peaceful coexistence without intrusive state interference. Third, he explained the idea that governments derived legitimacy from the consent of the governed. The compact, or agreement, between the state and its citizens placed duties on both; if the government failed to meet its responsibilities and breached the contract, citizens, according to Locke, possessed the right to revolt. Last, Locke argued that liberty was dependent on private property. A state that protected private property ensured the freedom of its citizens. Locke defined property as an act of creation—mixing labor with land grew crops, which therefore were property—and thus expanded the term to include political ideas, religious beliefs, and even an individual's self. Locke's contribution to political theory in general and libertarianism in particular cannot be overstated.


John Locke

John Locke was born in 1632, the son of a Puritan country lawyer of Wrighton. He taught Greek and rhetoric at Oxford while completing his studies in medicine and science. His interests turned to moral and political theory thanks to his father's enthusiasm for the parliamentary cause during the English Civil War and the influences of his colleagues—specifically, his friendship with Lord Ashley and his relationship with Robert Boyle through the Royal Society. Locke held minor official positions until the Duke of York took the English throne in 1683, which forced Locke to flee to Holland. Locke returned to his homeland after the Glorious Revolution to widespread popularity, new positions, and favor in the eyes of William and Mary. He published numerous works of political theory and philosophy in many languages. His most influential books include A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690), Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest, Raising the Value of Money (1692), and A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).

Locke's greatest contribution to political theory was his systematic exploration of the concepts that compose libertarianism; his was the first such comprehensive treatment of the tradition. For example, he explored the ideas of natural law, private property, and toleration, and he examined the nature of the social contract, the implicit agreement binding the government to the governed. He argued that all individual rights ultimately draw justification from self–ownership, through which a person's thoughts, beliefs, possessions, and labors are his or her own. His defense of life, liberty, and property—and the right of revolution for citizens whose government fails to protect these rights—influenced revolts such as the American and French Revolutions, documents such as the American Declaration of Independence, and even activism such as the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. By illuminating the values and issues of individualism, Locke provided the framework for an ongoing dialogue and earned the title of father of libertarianism.

The Scottish Enlightenment

The first movement of libertarianism took place on the heels of Locke's foundational work, and this time it originated in Scotland. The Scottish Enlightenment (1714–1817) began with the 1714 publication of Bernard Mandeville's Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue, or The Fable of the Bees. This controversial book suggested self–interest, not morality, fueled the actions of individuals; it also marked a shift from interest in political theory to more expansive attention on economic and philosophical matters with regard to individual liberty. Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), David Hume (1711–1776), and Henry Homes, or Lord Kames, continued the movement with contributions in history, political science, philosophy, and economics. Perhaps the most noteworthy member of the Scottish Enlightenment also became known as the second father—the co–parent with John Locke—of libertarianism: Adam Smith (1723–1790). Smith did for moral philosophy and economics what Locke had done for political theory. In his most famous work, the 1776 An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith drew a portrait of societies in which people acted out of self–love, and yet the unplanned, uncoordinated market, or "invisible hand," coordinated their decisions and provided for the common good. His vision of the harmony of interests created by free trade made Smith not only the foremost economist of his era and the father of capitalism, but was also one of the lasting visionaries of libertarianism.


Adam Smith

Adam Smith's father died before his son and namesake was born in Scotland in 1723. The junior Adam Smith studied at the University of Glasgow, where he was influenced greatly by Professor Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson introduced Smith to the realm of moral philosophy, which included natural religion, morals, jurisprudence, and government. Smith longed to discover a natural law to explain human action in the same way that Isaac Newton articulated laws for the natural world. His first work, 1759's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, suggested that people are motivated by the need for approbation. Individuals, Smith argued, know what society expects of them thanks to internal "impartial spectators," mechanisms that remind people of the approval and/or disapproval of others.

This effort, at once psychological, sociological, and anthropological, was followed by the 1776 tome An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which added economics to the list of Smith's achievements. In this work, Smith identified the division of labor as the key to increased production, and therefore wealth. He defined the ingredients of price as rent, wages, and profit—an insight that became a standard fact of elementary economic understanding. Smith's most famous contribution, however, was the metaphor of the invisible hand to describe the spontaneous order of free markets and the natural harmony of interests they produce.

Smith's gift lay in synthesizing large amounts of detailed information into a useful, interdisciplinary analysis and translating his understanding to language many people could understand. He believed that liberty could focus self–interest into socially beneficial activity, and his works communicated his message successfully. His writings were translated into many languages during his lifetime and they remain classics; his scientific approach to issues of freedom complemented the theoretical views of Locke and made Smith the second father of libertarianism.

Other Western Influences

If libertarianism proper first came together as a coherent theory in England and Scotland thanks in part to the atmosphere of order, stability, and individualism provided by Whig leadership after the Glorious Revolution, then it blossomed in France, where its ideas rebelled against the more feudalistic French institutions of state and church. The first wave came in the form of the French Enlightenment (1717–1778). Key philosophers such as Voltaire, Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), and Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794) challenged the intolerance and arbitrariness of established authorities and called for rational inquiry, free speech, and greater individual liberty. The French Enlightenment, then, was essentially a libertarian affair. The products of its greatest minds became some of the foundational literature of libertarian thought. A later, second movement, the French Physiocratic movement (1759–1776), was to economics what the French Enlightenment was to philosophy. Leaders such as Françoise Quesnay (1694–1774) and Jacques Turgot (1727–1781) argued against the traditional policy of mercantilism, which included the hoarding of precious metals as well as planned industry and protectionism, in favor of free trade, open markets, and limitations to government involvement in the economy. Put in practice, many of the French philosophers' and physiocrats' ideas—pro–individual, anti–state—led directly to the French Revolution.


Frederic Bastiat

If Adam Smith learned how to reach a broader audience with his ideas about free markets, then Frederic Bastiat made an art of it. Bastiat was born in Mugron, France in 1801. Deeply opposed to the protectionism practiced on behalf of some industries by the French state, Bastiat wrote to limit government intervention in the economy. He founded the Associations for Free Trade in 1846. The organization's journal Le Libre–Change, or Free Trade, became a vehicle for Bastiat's views. His most popular work, however, formed part of the 1845 book, titled in English Sophisms of Protection. In his "Candlemakers' Petition," Bastiat effectively parodied the rationale behind protectionism by presenting a fictional petition to the state: candlemakers asked for protection against the sun, explaining that candlemaking and related industries would profit greatly if the sun were eliminated as a competitor in providing light to the world. The ridiculousness of the petition underscored Bastiat's critique of governmental interruption of markets on behalf of special interests and became a staple of economics texts for over a century thereafter.

Bastiat used metaphors to capture the imagination and opinion of his reading audience. In his essay "What is Seen and What is Not Seen," he used the image of a boy breaking a window to explain opportunity cost—money spent on one thing costs the opportunity for that money to be spent on something else—and challenged the prevailing view that war and other acts of destruction actually benefited the economy.

Have you ever been witness to the fury of that solid citizen, James Goodfellow, when his incorrigible son has happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at this spectacle, certainly you must also have observed that the onlookers…seem with one accord to offer the unfortunate owner the selfsame...'Everybody has to make a living. What would become of the glaziers if no one ever broke a window?'

Now, this formula of condolence contains a whole theory that it is a good idea for us to expose…in this very simple case, since it is exactly the same as that which, unfortunately, underlies most of our economic institutions.

Suppose that it will cost six francs to repair the damage. If you mean that the accident gives six francs' worth of encouragement to the aforesaid industry, I agree…The glazier will come, do his job, receive six francs, congratulate himself, and bless in his heart the careless child. This is what is seen.

But if, by way of deduction, you conclude, as happens only too often, that it is good to break windows, that it helps to circulate money, that it results in encouraging industry in general, I am obliged to cry out: That will never do! Your theory stops at what is seen. It does not take account of what is not seen.

It is not seen that, since our citizen has spent six francs for one thing, he will not be able to spend them for another. It is not seen that if he had not had a windowpane to replace, he would have replaced, for example, his worn–out shoes or added another book to his library. In brief, he would have put his six francs to some use or other for which he will not now have them….

From which, by generalizing, we arrive at this unexpected conclusion: 'Society loses the value of objects unnecessarily destroyed'…'Destruction is not profitable.'

Toward the end of his life, Bastiat opposed the rise of socialism and communism, which he saw to be inextricably linked with protectionism. His position won him seats in the Constituent Assembly and Legislative Assembly of 1849. He died shortly thereafter, hailed by the famous economic theorist Joseph Schumpeter as "the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived." Bastiat's gift for metaphor allowed him to draw persuasive and enduring illustrations of libertarian economy theory and reach a new audience with the ideas of free markets.

One of the characteristics of the rise of libertarian thought was the fact that the ideas evolved in different nations almost simultaneously, and different strains and traditions informed and influenced others. This was the case with the Democratic–Republicans (1776–1820) in the English Colonies–turned–United States; much of the theory embraced by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), father of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison (1751–1836), father of the U.S. Constitution, with regard to individual rights, natural law, and the social contract came from the British libertarian tradition. In turn, the U.S. interpretation of the right of revolution and the experience of constitution building influenced the French libertarian tradition. Writers such as Thomas Paine (1737–1809) and leaders such as the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834) divided their time between the continents to participate in both the American and French Revolutions. The anti–authoritarian individualism of the revolutionary age made it one of the high impact points of libertarianism; the theory quite literally changed the face of nations and the lives of millions.


Social Statics

If John Locke and Adam Smith represented the mainstream foundation of libertarianism, then Herbert Spencer illustrated one of its peripheries. Spencer's works revealed his search for a broad, holistic, scientific pattern to explain social phenomena; this contrasted with some other libertarian theorists' belief that human action was too complex to be categorized or planned. Nonetheless, Spencer made one contribution that did find its way to the mainstream of libertarian theory: his law of equal freedom. This law proposed that, morally, every person should be free to do as he or she wills, provided that he or she does not infringe on anyone else's freedom to do the same. In his 1850 Social Statics, Spencer's logical means of following each argument to its ultimate conclusion led him to argue that, under the law of equal freedom, individuals have the right to ignore the state:

As a corollary to the proposition that all institutions must be subordinated to the law of equal freedom, we cannot choose but admit the right of the citizen to adopt a condition of voluntary outlawry. If every man has freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the state—to relinquish its protection and to refuse paying toward its support. It is self–evident that in so behaving he in no way trenches upon the liberty of others, for his position is a passive one, and while passive he cannot become an aggressor. It is equally self–evident that he cannot be compelled to continue one of a political corporation without a breach of the moral law, seeing that citizenship involves payment of taxes; and the taking away of a man's property against his will is an infringement of his rights. Government being simply an agent employed in common by a number of individuals to secure to them certain advantages, the very nature of the connection implies that it is for each to say whether he will employ such an agent or not. If any one of them determines to ignore this mutual–safety confederation, nothing can be said except that he loses all claim to its good offices and exposes himself to the danger of maltreatment—a thing he is quite at liberty to do if he likes. He cannot be coerced into political combination without a breach of the law of equal freedom; he can withdraw from it without committing any such breach, and he has therefore a right to withdraw….

Nay, indeed, have we not seen that government is essentially immoral? Is it not the offspring of evil, bearing about it all the marks of its parentage? Does it not exist because crime exists? Is it not strong—or, as we say, despotic—when crime is great? Is there not more liberty—that is, less government—as crime diminishes? And must not government cease when crime ceases, for very lack of objects on which to perform its function? Not only does magisterial power exist because of evil, but it exists by evil. Violence is employed to maintain it, and all violence involves criminality. Soldiers, policemen, and jailers; swords, batons, and fetters are instruments for inflicting pain; and all inflection of pain is in the abstract wrong…Wherefore, legislative authority can never be ethical—must always be conventional merely.

Over the next century, different individuals pushed the Western consensus on political theory, much of which was libertarian, to further conclusions. Brits William Godwin (1756–1836) and Mary Wolstonecraft (1759–1797) introduced new ideas about self–perfectibility and feminism. Their political works also influenced art through their daughter, Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame, and the Romantic poets in her circle. Another couple, the French Germaine de Stael (1766–1817) and Benjamin Constant (1767–1830) provided libertarian critiques of the French Revolution's successes and failures. Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) produced a Germanic, Romantic notion of self–cultivation and liberty. Economists such as the French Jean Baptiste Say (1767–1832) and the English David Ricardo (1772–1823) brought new scientific tools to bear on the legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment and French Physiocrats. French theologian Felicite Robert de Lamennais (1782–1854) linked the idea of freedom of religion with the goal of state decentralization. The French Frederic Bastiat (1801–1850) took this a step further with journalistic writing in favor of the laissez–faire economics pioneered by Adam Smith.

The libertarian approach also influenced the humanities, as scholars such as the British Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) and American William Graham Sumner (1840–1910) applied the tools of science to anthropology and history in search of broad patterns of human behavior. The visibility of renowned thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) brought even further attention and validity to the tradition. American Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) articulated an activist libertarian feminism and organized the first U.S. bid for women's suffrage. The international, interdependent work of such minds proved the importance and popularity of libertarian ideas during the nineteenth century.

Others experimented with putting these ideas into practice. For example, the Manchester School (1835–1859) in England organized in support of libertarian ideas such as free trade, or laissez–faire economics, international markets, and pacifism, and in opposition to outdated rules such as the medieval Corn Laws that granted government monopolies to certain producers and protected others from competition. Led by Richard Cobden, the movement succeeded in repealing laws and propelling advocates into national office. In the United States, the Transcendentalist Movement (1835–1882) took the views of Godwin, Condorcet, and Humboldt on human perfectibility and employed them in writings, speeches, and even experimental utopian communities. The passive resistance plan of Henry David Thoreau, which influenced modern world leaders from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., was but one lasting contribution of the Transcendentalists.


Two Treatises of Civil Government

Two Treatises of Civil Government appeared in 1690. In the Second Treatise, Locke posed the question: if individuals naturally are free, why should they ever choose to cede some of their natural rights to government? The answer, Locke argued, was that the state was necessary to protect property and liberty. Where protection ended, he continued, so did the legitimate authority of government:

123. If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to nobody, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the domination and control of any other power? To which 'tis obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others. For all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very insecure. This makes him willing to quit this condition, which however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and 'tis not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others who are already united, or have a mind to unite for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.

124. The great and chief end therefore, of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. To which in the state of nature there are many things wanting….

131. But though men when they enter into society, give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of nature, into the hands of the society, to be so far disposed of by the legislative, as the good of the society shall require; yet it being only with an intention in everyone the better to preserve himself his liberty and property; (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse) the power of the society, or legislative constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend further than the common good….

After centuries of proto–libertarian Western thought, libertarianism coalesced around the figures of John Locke and Adam Smith and went on to achieve prominence in the nineteenth century. A number of historical events conspired to make the time ripe for libertarian thought. European culture allowed scholars, philosophers, authors, and activists the opportunity to travel, compare notes, test assumptions, and communicate effectively. This exchange of information ensured that economic or political authoritarianism in the form of protectionism or absolutism could no longer confine citizens, since they readily could compare their lots with those across the border. It also meant that new ideas could have ripple effects across

national boundaries; the American and French Revolutions are good examples of this interplay between countries. Older policies such as mercantilism also failed during this period, leaving a vacuum for new approaches that libertarian ideas filled. In the dual realms of ideas and action, libertarianism found success in the nineteenth century.


Ayn Rand

Many of the most prominent libertarian theorists made their marks through specialized scholarship or political office. Ayn Rand, however, chose to communicate her individualistic beliefs through works of fiction and popular philosophy. The results left her a bestselling author and a one–woman intellectual movement. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Rand emigrated to the United States after the Bolshevik Revolution, where she was haunted by her experience with communist totalitarianism in Russia and her frustration toward the West's drift toward socialism. Her first novel, We the Living, appeared in 1936, but her breakthrough work came in 1943 with The Fountainhead. She followed its tremendous success with non–fiction such as Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1946) and The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) and fiction such as Anthem (1853) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). From 1961 to 1976, she also published The Objectivist Newsletter (renamed The Ayn Rand Letter in 1971) to support her views further.

In all of her works, Rand promoted the philosophy she called objectivism, a subset of traditional libertarianism. Objectivism, according to Rand, meant that individual effort and ability served as the sole source of genuine achievement; all individuals' highest moral end was their own happiness, and any notion of a group threatened all people as individual rights–bearers. She believed that altruism and sacrifice for the so–called "common good" was a vice that rewarded non–producers and penalized creative entrepreneurs. Laissez–faire economic systems and limited states, she argued, created the best atmosphere for the exercise of talent and pursuit of happiness. Her fictional characters—creative individuals who escaped society to follow their own ends—became live through various film adaptations, and her books sold by the millions. In 1991, nine years after her death and fifteen after her newsletter ended publication, a Gallop Survey ranking the most influential literature in the United States found the fiction of Ayn Rand to be second in national influence, surpassed only by The Bible.

Decline and Return

Many of the conditions in the West that led to the rise of libertarianism in theory and practice changed at the turn of the century, however. Rapid industrialization created new economic problems; ethnic pride and nationalism destroyed international trade and the flow of information; communism and Nazism not only increased the size and scope of government within nations, but also forced other countries to expand their states to meet the challenge of world war; depression left citizens dependent on entitlements rather than jealous of their individual rights. By the dawn of the twentieth century, libertarian thinkers offered quiet critique of a mainstream that had left their ideas behind. Two economic movements, the Austrian School (1877–present) and Chicago School (1927–present), formed to oppose the trend of centralized economic planning, but their voices remained on the periphery of the Western debate about political theory.

The tide turned once again in favor of libertarianism in the middle of the twentieth century, however. The experience of world war, depression, and totalitarianism suggested that the short–term solutions of centralized planning, government intervention, and collectivism had not only failed to offer viable solutions, but also had created other problems in terms of everything from economic inefficiencies to political stalemates to human rights abuses. The simultaneous publication of four influential and contrasting works in 1943 and 1944—the Russian Ayn Rand's philosophical novel The Fountainhead, the American Rose Wilder Lane's political manifesto The Discovery of Freedom, the American Isabel Patterson's journalistic commentary God of the Machine, and the Austrian Friedrich Hayek's economic analysis The Road to Serfdom—heralded the return of libertarianism as, if not a mainstream consensus, at least a credible voice of opposition. In 1944, Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom helped to usher in the reemergence of libertarianism on the Western, and eventually world, stage; it remains the most well known work of libertarianism's most long–lived movement, the Austrian School of Economics. In this work, Hayek warned that centralized economic planning by its very nature would lead to totalitarianism in whatever nation it was practiced.

The laissez–faire economic approaches of the Austrian and Chicago schools gained ground among scholars, and Ayn Rand's individualistic Objectivist Movement (1943–1976) appealed to a popular audience, as well. By 1971, a third political party, the Libertarian Party, had formed in the United States with a platform supporting free markets, civil liberties, non–intervention, peace, and free trade.

No single success illustrated the reemergence of libertarianism better than the Public Choice School of Economics (1969–present). Founded after the 1962 publication of The Calculus of Consent by James Buchanan (1919– ) and Gordon Tullock (1922– ), the movement analyzed public policy from a market angle. Accordingly, they viewed politics as exchange, and asserted that politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and others involved in policymaking acted with the same self–interest that motivates other actors in the private sector. This idea led to a myriad of methodological innovations in economics, political science, and public policy studies, and supported libertarian conclusions about the limitation of state power. This approach held important implications for analyzing government and policy, and by the twenty–first century had inspired everything from the New Economic History methodology to the burgeoning field of free market environmentalism, with influences felt as far and wide as the United States, India, China, and the former Soviet bloc. Buchanan cemented his legacy by cofounding (1969) and for a time directing the Center for the Study of Public Choice. His work with the libertarian–inspired public choice theory earned him a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986.

The new millennium opened with a record number of libertarian organizations and institutions worldwide devoted to political, economic, historical, and philosophical inquiry. In 2000, a Rasmussen Research poll revealed that 16 percent of U.S. citizens were ideologically libertarian; in the same year, the Libertarian Party's candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives won 11.9 percent of the vote, which set a record for votes received for any third party in the nation's history. The tradition born in antiquity and raised in the Enlightenment found new life in the Information Age.


Defining Libertarianism

A tradition as long–lived and diverse as that of libertarianism often suffers problems of definition. In fact, many who embraced or embrace libertarianism would disagree even about the name of the political theory. Until Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, began to call himself a libertarian in the 1950s, no one had applied the term to the tradition. Before that, depending on the time and place, libertarians might have self–identified as individualists, voluntaryists, whigs, radical republicans, democratic–republicans, free thinkers, or liberals; moreover, proponents of individual movements within the libertarian framework often adopted the labels of the subset—from the Levellers and the Transcendentalists to the Austrian economists and objectivists— rather than the larger title. To complicate things further, there remains a strong urge from many within the libertarian community to disassociate with the frequently misunderstood term "libertarianism" and use the name "classical liberalism" instead.

Considering the complexity of the terminology issue, it is not surprising that those who try to define the tradition do so in somewhat different ways. For example, E. K. Bramsted, co–editor of the monumental anthology Western Liberalism: A History in Documents from Locke to Croce (1978), asserted that libertarianism champions 1) the rights of individuals, with careful attention to the more endangered rights of minorities, 2) the right of property in particular, 3) the government's obligation to protect property, 4) limited constitutional government, and 5) a belief in social progress. John Gray broadened this description in Liberalism (1986) to include philosophies that demonstrate 1) individualism, 2) egalitarianism, and 3) universalism. In Liberalism Old and New (1991), J. G. Merquior argued that the theories of 1) human rights, 2) constitutionalism, and 3) classical economics—in other words, free market positions such as that taken by Adam Smith—compose libertarian thought. David Boaz noted six ingredients for libertarianism in The Libertarian Reader (1997): 1) skepticism about power, 2) the dignity of the individual, 3) individual rights, 4) spontaneous order, 5) free markets, and 6) peace.


An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

Eighty–six years after Locke explained the purpose of government, the second father of libertarianism, Adam Smith, explained the nature of markets in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). According to Smith, free markets coordinated individual self–love and, through the division of labor, allowed for a harmony of interests to exist. Thus the butcher, brewer, and baker each had products for sale to Smith:

This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such expensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another….

In civilized society [man] stands at all times in need of the co–operation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons. In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self–love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self–love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly on the benevolence of his fellow–citizens. Even a beggar does not depend upon it entirely. The charity of well–disposed people, indeed, supplies him with the whole fund of his subsistence. But though this principle ultimately provides him with all the necessaries of life which he has occasion for, it neither does nor can provide him with them as he has occasion for them. The greater part of his occasional wants are supplied in the same manner as those of other people, by treaty, by barter, and by purchase.

Although scholars have differed in the individual lists they have used to describe libertarianism, much consensus exists about the "big ideas" undergirding the tradition as a whole. First, libertarians place an ethical emphasis on individuals as rights–bearers prior to the existence of any state, community, or society. This means that people have rights by virtue of the fact that they are people; no government grants these rights, and thus no government can take them away. Second, the libertarian tradition supports the right of property, and this, taken to its economic conclusion, leads to support of a free market system. From Adam Smith's invisible hand to Friedrich Hayek's spontaneous order, libertarian economists have described how the decentralized, private mechanism of the market creates the best outcomes for self–interested individuals as well as economies. Third, libertarians over the centuries have desired a limited constitutional government to protect individuals not only from other individuals, but also from the expansion of the state itself. Last, libertarianism proposes that these values—individualism, property, limited government—work for all people in all times; they are global and ahistorical. Other, more specific policies follow from these ideas: nonviolence, in order to preserve life and maintain free trade; nonaggression, in deference to individual rights. Specific political platforms and activism campaigns springboard from these broader ideals.


Friedrich A. Hayek

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1899, Friedrich August von Hayek studied law, psychology, and economics at the University of Vienna, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1923. He studied at New York University the following year and then returned to Austria to study with the eminent economist Ludwig von Mises. Mises was the most visible member of the Austrian School of Economics, which Carl Menger founded in 1871, and which became the longest–lived movement in libertarianism. Hayek's prominence soon rose to challenge and even surpass that of Mises. From 1931 to 1950, Hayek served as the Took Professor of Economic Science and Statistics at the University of London. In 1947, he organized the Mount Pelerin Society, an ongoing international organization that met to discuss the principles and preservation of libertarianism. In 1950, Hayek became a Professor of Social and Moral Science at the University of Chicago; in 1962, he relocated to the University of Freiburg in Germany, where he taught economics until his retirement. Hayek became the first libertarian theorist to receive a Nobel Prize in 1974, when he received the honor for his work in Austrian economics.

During his long and productive career Hayek published many books and articles. He began with Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle (1929) and The Pure Theory of Capital (1941), but gained greatest attention with his 1944 The Road to Serfdom, in which he argued that socialism inevitably leads to totalitarianism. In his 1952 Counter–Revolution of Science, he asserted that human unpredictability makes it impossible to apply the methodology of physical science to social studies, and he followed with ideas about the legal frameworks needed to maintain a free society in The Constitution of Liberty (1960) and Law, Legislation and Liberty (three volumes in 1973, 1976, and 1979). His last publication, The Fatal Conceit, appeared in 1988. Throughout his career, Hayek supported the view that the spontaneous order of the market remained the most efficient information system available to humanity; state intervention in the economy, he said, only creates misleading signals that lead to misallocation. Hayek's work through publications, universities, and the Mount Pelerin Society made him the most recognizable member of the Austrian School of Economics, and one of the most celebrated representatives of libertarianism.

What It Is Not

Though the ingredients of libertarianism appear to be very general, they do exclude certain thinkers commonly linked with Enlightenment or rights–based theory. Failure to embrace all of these values, however, does point to a very fundamental difference with the minds that compose the historical libertarianism. Two diverse cases of philosophers associated with but not belonging to the tradition serve as case studies. First, the British theorist Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and his fellow utilitarians supported certain individual rights and laissez–faire economics, as long as they produced the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Libertarian ends—rights and free markets— therefore served as convenient means to these thinkers, but the eventual ends they sought betrayed an intellectual collectivism incompatible with libertarianism's individualism. "The why" in this case matters as much as "the what." On the other hand, French philosopher Jean–Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who perhaps is known best for his theory of the social contract—an idea at first blush in harmony with libertarianism's emphasis on constitutional government—believed in an almost mystic notion of "the general will." The abstract nature of this idea created a power elite to interpret and impose this will, by force if necessary. The coercion and unaccountability connected to the implementation of Rousseau's model put him and his theory outside of the libertarian framework.

Differences Within the Movement

Beyond the key ideas of libertarian mentioned above, two parallel concepts survive throughout the history of the tradition. One rests on a negative view of human nature, accepting that all people are fallen and incapable of perfection. It follows from this perspective that power must be limited because, otherwise, some corrupt individuals could do even more harm than others. The second view maintains that all people inherently are good and perfectible. It follows from this position that power must be limited in order to allow humans to explore their potentials and evolve toward a more ideal order of self–government. In addition to these two philosophical positions remain the historical and religious contexts of thinkers and their times; libertarianism's heritage includes arguments made from Protestant (John Locke), Catholic (Felicite Robert de Lamennais), and atheist (Ayn Rand) assumptions, among others.

Defining a tradition labeled with ever-changing names, derived from multiple centuries, and developed in different countries poses a challenge; indeed, if most of the luminaries of the tradition were brought back and questioned about libertarianism, they doubtless would not understand the question. Nevertheless, most would understand and adhere to the ideal of noncoercion and, in one form or another, its related facets: individualism, property, constitutionalism, and universalism. These values often lead libertarians to the same conclusions about the role of government (limited to the protection of rights, if government is needed at all), the role of the people (enjoy their rights while not infringing on others' rights), and the control of distribution and production (all privatized and directed by the free market).

Due to its close relationship with the Enlightenment—or, perhaps more properly, Enlightenments— libertarianism benefited from the era's remarkable communication and interdependence, at least in the West. Just as the fire of revolution swept Europe and America, each igniting another, often sharing leaders and literature in the process, libertarian theory gained from the dialogue of thinkers and ideas borne of a variety of homelands and backgrounds. Any single attempt to chronicle the past of libertarianism must by its very nature fall short of doing justice to the richness and complexity of the individuals and movements within it. National differences did leave their mark, however. Three distinct flavors coexist and often blend in libertarian political theory.

Historically, British, French, and German contributions to libertarianism each provided a variation on the theory's theme. The British offered a realistic tradition of law. John Locke's work built on the foundation of the ancient constitution ideal; Adam Smith's approach to markets carried a scientific thirst for patterns. Mechanisms of the social contract and the corresponding right of revolution evolved from this British sensibility. The French dialogue added a rationalistic tradition of humanism. Whereas many of the greatest British minds used scholarly works as vehicles for their messages, many of the most accomplished French philosophers used the novel or the play. English revolt remained preoccupied with the letter of the law, while French revolt also focused on symbolic speech and national pageantry as key vehicles for political statement. At the heart of the French Revolution, and libertarian thinkers, such as the Marquis de Condorcet, lay a faith in the progressive evolution of humanity. British thought often remained rooted in Protestant realism, but French intellectuals often embraced a more agnostic or atheistic sensibility with reason as a secular god.

Beyond the realistic British tradition of law and the rational French tradition of humanism rested the organic German tradition of individualism. More than its counterparts, this strain of libertarianism came from an aesthetic viewpoint. Though the Austrian School's understanding of spontaneous order was colored by a German sensibility, the best example of this individualism remains Wilhelm von Humboldt. Humboldt's The Limits of State Action, published posthumously in 1851, proposed that the individual's highest purpose was bildung, or self-cultivation. In order to meet his or her potential, according to Humboldt, each person must possess freedom and a variety of experiences. The state, then, should act only as a "nightwatchman" by reacting to trespasses but not interfering proactively. Humboldt's belief in the cultivation of the self and the potential of human flourishing typified the Romantic German strain of libertarianism.

The three varieties of the libertarian tradition evolved in their own historical, political, and social contexts. In his 1986 work Liberalism, John Gray characterized these views as competing yet complementary definitions of liberty, with Britain representing independence, France self–rule, and Germany self–realization. All three remain inextricably woven into the fabric of the tradition, at times blending in the thought of a given movement or individual, at other times diverging into separate patterns across years and miles.


No single thinker better illustrates the intersection of British, French, and German flavors of libertarianism than John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). The son of James Mill, a utilitarian philosopher and the author of the first English textbook of economics, John Stuart Mill was heavily influenced by the "greatest happiness for the greatest number" calculus of his father's utilitarian thought. He also studied extensively on his own, reading Greek and Latin classics as well as free market economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. His intensive scholarly pursuits, added to the tensions he found between individualism and utilitarianism, led him to suffer a nervous breakdown in his early twenties. After recovering he undertook the private task of developing a more libertarian utilitarianism to resolve the problems he observed.

Mill's most celebrated writings—On Liberty (1861), Considerations on Representative Government (1861), and Utilitarianism (1863)—represented a crossroads of British, French, and German strains of thought. Mill drew upon the English libertarian tradition by warning against the tyranny of opinion that silences voices in the dialogue of ideas and calling for a kind of intellectual toleration of others' views. Mill called forth the French tradition of self–rule to propose an ethical sphere of privacy for each individual, a space that the state and the majority cannot touch. Neither toleration nor privacy sat easily with the traditional utilitarian plan to impose the system producing the most good for the most people.

Most significantly, Mill revised the standard "greatest happiness for the greatest number" equation that formed the bedrock of utilitarianism; to do this, he relied on the German tradition in general and Humboldt's aesthetic individualism in particular. With Humboldt's exhortation to pursue self–cultivation in mind, Mill altered the equation to include the quality of happiness as well as the quantity in judging utility, with those higher pleasures of self–realization ranking highest in quality. Mill's attempt to reform and repair utilitarianism led him to fuse the diverse strains of libertarian thought. Tensions remained—When could privacy be invaded? Who judged the quality of happiness?—and eventually led him to a pessimistic view of society and its options. Nonetheless, he continued to believe that individuals made the best decisions concerning themselves and the general welfare when acting alone or in voluntary associations—in other words, without governmental interference. The three forms of libertarian thought, at times competing with each other and at times complementing each other, united in Mill's work and continue to remain joined in the libertarian tradition.

After Mill, international movements such as the Austrian School and Chicago School in economics, the Objectivist movement in philosophy, and the Public Choice School in economics and public policy have put libertarian ideas into practice through their scholarship, theory, fiction, and policy analysis. All four of these movements remain active with formal institutions and continued publication in the twenty–first century.

Others, however, looked to put libertarian ideas into practice through less scholarly, more political means. In the United States, for example, some self–proclaimed libertarians sought and won office through the tradition two–party system. Perhaps the most obvious example is self–proclaimed libertarian Ron Paul (1935– ), the long–time Republican Congressman from Texas, whose voting record reflects the position of many libertarian activists on a variety of national issues.

Despite the success of some Republicans, Democrats, and Independents of libertarian persuasion who sought public office in the United States, others believed that the political theory required its own party in order to offer a separate message and alternative values to the nation's public. On December 11, 1971, a small gathering in the Colorado home of activist David Nolan became the first meeting of the Libertarian Party. The party soon made history. In 1972, the party's first national convention nominated University of Southern California Professor of Philosophy John Hospers (1918– ) for its presidential candidate. Tonie Nathan (1928– ) received the party's nomination for vice president; she then became the first woman in U.S. history to receive a vote from the Electoral College.

The party gained new political ground, it seemed, with each major election. By 1976, Libertarian presidential and vice presidential candidates Roger MacBride and David Bergland achieved ballot status in thirty–two states and received over 170,000 votes. In 1978, Ed Clark (1926– ) ran as a Libertarian party member in the race for Governor of California and received five percent of the vote; in the same year, Alaska's Dick Randolph became the first Libertarian elected to a state legislature.

The Libertarian party truly gained widespread national attention for the first time in 1979, when it earned permanent ballot status in California after over 80,000 voters registered as Libertarians. The next year, Libertarian presidential and vice presidential candidates Ed Clark and David Koch appeared on the ballot in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Guam. For the first time, national advertisements ran to introduce U.S. voters to the Libertarian Party and its platform. The Clark/Koch ticket received almost one million votes in the election.

By 1982, Libertarians had achieved political visibility at the state level. For example, Louisiana candidate for governor James Agnew earned twenty–three percent of the vote, while Alaska gubernatorial candidate Dick Randolph took fifteen percent and Arizona gubernatorial candidate Sam Steiger won five percent. Two years later, the David Bergland/Jim Lewis ticket brought the Libertarian party into third place—a Libertarian first—for the White House. Also in 1984, Alaska elected its third Libertarian state legislator. Eleven other Libertarians won local offices

across the nation. By 1986, over two hundred Libertarian candidates across the United States received a total of 2.9 million votes.

Republican U.S. Congressman Ron Paul left his party to run for president as a Libertarian in 1988. Over 430,000 million citizens voted for him and his running mate, Andre Marrou, giving the Libertarian party almost twice the votes of any other third party. Though Paul later returned to the Republican party, he never renounced his libertarian perspective. Approximately two million voters cast ballots for Libertarian candidates in 1990; that number nearly doubled in 1992, counting only state and federal races. The twenty–three Libertarian candidates for U.S. Senate won over one million votes, making the 1992 vote total the highest for a third party since 1914. Once again, the Libertarian presidential ticket remained on the ballots of all fifty states as well as those of Washington, D.C. and Guam.


Russell Means

Libertarianism has influenced not only scholarship, policy, and art, but it also has contributed to activist movements. Few public figures represent this side of the libertarian tradition as well as Russell Means. Means was born an Oglala/Lakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near the U.S. Black Hills. In the 1960s he began to work for Native American self–determination and individual rights. He became the first national director of the American Indian Movement, a group organized to promote American Indian sovereignty and protest rights abuses, and worked for over a decade with the United Nations. His concern for individual liberty and the limitation of government power led him to embrace libertarianism publicly. In 1988, Means ran for the nomination of the Libertarian Party as candidate for U.S. President.

Russell Means mastered several media in the interest of sharing his libertarian message. He starred in several commercial films including Last of the Mohicans (1991) and Pocahontas (1995), produced albums of political protest music, and penned his autobiography, Where White Men Fear To Tread (1995). He remains best known as an orator and activist who thrives on symbolic speech—he stormed Mount Rushmore, occupied Plymouth Rock, and led a seventy–one day takeover of Alcatraz to gain attention for his cause. By tapping into Native American individualism and bringing his heritage to bear on the Libertarian Party, Means underscored the fact that the libertarian tradition can apply to more than just the white mainstream.

The party broke more U.S. national records in 1996, when it became the first third party in the country's history to earn ballot status in all fifty states in two presidential elections in a row. Presidential nominee Harry Browne earned almost 500,000 votes, while nearly eight hundred state and federal Libertarian candidates won a total of 5.4 million votes. Public intellectuals and celebrities such as African–American civil rights leader Roy Innis (1934– ) and talk radio personality Art Bell (1945– ) publically embraced the party and its platform, as well, adding to the visibility of the party.

In the year 2000, Libertarian candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives alone took 1.6 million votes, yet another national record for any U.S. third party. The year 2000 was also the first time in eight decades that a third party had contested a majority of the seats in the U.S. congress. In fact, 1,430 Libertarian candidates ran in the 2000 election, a number more than twice that of all other third party candidates together. In 2001, more than three hundred Libertarians held elective office, which is more than double the number of all other third–party officials combined. The numbers reveal the Libertarian party to be the largest, most long–lived, and most successful third party in the United States.

The Libertarian party platform achieved a certain stability across the years. The party's principles echo those of the theory on which it is based: liberty, individual rights, and the ability to pursue one's goals peacefully, without governmental interference. The Libertarian party platform has applied these principles to support a limited government designed to protect individual rights, a state with little or no involvement in the social or economic spheres of individuals' lives or on the international stage beyond the establishment and protection of free trade. Many of the party's positions might sound familiar either to Republicans—lower taxation, privatization of government agencies, and school choice—or to Democrats—pro–choice regarding abortion, anti–censorship regarding the First Amendment, and equal rights for gay and lesbian couples.

Other positions seem more unusual; for example, the Libertarian party supports the legalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the right to die. Some who identify with libertarian political theory choose to remain aloof from the party because it tends to follow ideas to their consistent conclusions, even if the resulting policy seems extreme or idealistic. These libertarians prefer to work for small changes from within the major two parties, believing that incremental accomplishments will in the long run add up to more than great changes that never found implementation. Even at the party level, libertarianism remains caught in the chasm between how things are and what is feasible, and how things could be and what is ideal.

Libertarianism has found adherents across the globe, as well, particularly through movements such as the Austrian School of Economics that unify the work of economists the world over who share the same convictions. The consistent growth and accomplishment of the U.S. Libertarian party, however, despite its controversy among some libertarians, is one of the success stories of the twentieth century.


Over the centuries, and especially in its time of decline in the early twentieth century, libertarianism faced criticism from some theorists and laypersons alike; even in its reemergence in the late twentieth and early twenty–first century, the theory never commanded a majority of adherents the Western mainstream. As one would expect, some critiques of the tradition reflect more insight than others.


Libertinism A common and easily answered challenge to the tradition is the concern that libertarianism, in effect, is little more than libertinism in sophisticated trappings; in other words, the theory uses the rhetoric of philosophy to justify the worst excesses and self–indulgences of sensual license. Liberty for individual choice, these critics argue, is little more than permission to feed every appetite—be it drugs, obscenity, promiscuity, or other "vices"—without accountability to a higher law.

Libertarians respond to this concern in two ways. First, if people are free to make decisions concerning their lives, they are as free to choose not to do something as they are to do it. No one forces people to make "wrong" choices. For example, alcohol and tobacco are legal in the United States, yet many U.S. citizens choose not to drink or smoke. No one is forced to do so; moreover, in the libertarian framework, individual decision–makers would be responsible for the consequences of their actions, good or bad—this accountability is the direct opposite of libertinism's license. Second, libertarianism does not deny the call of a higher law: it simply proposes that governments should not necessarily coerce individuals to follow it. Many libertarian thinkers also published and spoke in order to practice moral persuasion, to convince individuals that their view of the good was the one to adopt. Religious, community, and other voluntary associations would be free to pursue their idea of the right way to live and try to persuade others to follow their example. They would not, however, have access to the monopolistic power of the state to enforce their conception of the virtuous life on others. In short, libertarians explain that individualism is not an excuse for vice; instead, it is a call for noncoercion.

Individualism leading to atomism A second critique with a similar appeal to morality suggests that libertarianism's focus on individualism leads to atomism. In other words, individuals lose all sense of community and instead lead isolated, empty lives driven by nothing but selfishness. Once again, the libertarian answer is twofold. First, defenders would say, individual choice means just that: individuals might choose to value empty materialism and self–involvement, but individuals might also choose to connect to other individuals in meaningful and enriching ways. No particular outcome follows just because people are not coerced into leading the same kind of lifestyle.

An even more compelling response, however, is that critics use a primitive and two–dimensional understanding of community when they seek centralized planning and forced membership, or believe some ideal form of community somehow existed before the individuals who composed it. Life and its relationships, the argument continues, are too complex to be built by coercion. Individuals who enjoy the liberty to be creative and innovative in the ways they relate to one another create true communities spontaneously. Individualism is not the death of community, libertarians explain—in fact, it is often the recipe for more unexpected, diverse, and fulfilling communities than those previously imagined.

Liberty vs. stability Critics also claim that libertarianism overestimates the value people place on liberty as opposed to other options such as stability, equality, or virtue. Is it better to be free, or secure? Or equal? Or good? The libertarian response is rather simple: in the framework of individual rights, people could choose to value any measure of the good they wish. They are not forced to be free. If, for example, they wish to follow a certain code of virtue, form communities with those of like minds, and try to encourage others to do the same, they may. The only limitation is that they may not harness the authority of the state to enforce their value on everyone else. Of course, one might argue that this response still maintains liberty as the primary value.

Market failure Beyond moral concerns rest economic ones. A trio of economic critiques of libertarianism draws responses of variable usefulness. First, some opponents believe that libertarianism's emphasis on free markets ignores the so–called "market failure" problem of externalities, or spillover effects, which occur when people uninvolved in an exchange are harmed or benefited by that exchange. These effects might be desirable or unwanted. For example, universal education produces a positive externality; even if an individual does not have a child to be educated, he or she reaps the benefit of living in a society where laws and elections are determined by an educated citizenry. In an extreme libertarian framework, public education might not exist. Pollution exemplifies a negative externality with dispersed effect. Everyone might be hurt a small amount by air pollution, but costs are too high for any one individual, for instance, to sue every industry in the nation for damages. The result is that everyone suffers a very small amount from pollution, but no one does anything about it.

Libertarians admit that the problem of externalities exists in a completely free market situation. They respond that these small effects—if there were large, concentrated effects on any one person, damages could be sought through legal means—are a price of living in a free society, in the same way that the cost of free speech is that we must tolerate some indecent speech in the process. Furthermore, the argument continues, the cost of eliminating externalities by government means would exceed the cost of living with the externalities due to the government failures of efficiency. Some libertarians admit that there might be a role for government in correcting the externality problem, however. These theorists stress that solutions must strive to mirror the market through choice and competition as much as possible. School vouchers, allowing parents choice and allowing schools to compete, or housing vouchers, allowing low–income families to seek their best options for homes, for example, would be a preferable initiative than public schools or government housing projects.

Stratification of wealth A second problem with markets, critics claim, is that they promote stratification of wealth—or, to use a catchphrase, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." The libertarian response contains two parts. First, the argument goes, the stratification of a pure market system would not be as extreme as it is in mixed systems like that in the United States that include government regulation and interference in the economy; stratification is more the product of rent-seeking, or using power and influence to lobby for government protectionism and favoritism, than of profit-seeking. Even so, the libertarian reasoning continues, it would be better for some people to live in relative poverty created by stratification than for everyone to live in absolute poverty due to the inherent miscalculations of planned economies as seen, for example, in the former Soviet Union. As with the issue of externalities, the libertarian position seems in part to be one of taking the lesser of two evils.

Role of corporations A third economic criticism of libertarianism is that the tradition's focus on free markets is naïve, for it overlooks the fact that other institutions besides the government—such as, for example, corporations—also represent centralized power over individuals. Some libertarians counter that corporations have reached their current strength in part due to the state. Governments are lobbied by corporations and in turn give them legal and financial special treatment; moreover, the regulatory boards set up by governments to oversee corporate behavior often are co–opted by insiders who lobby for positions of power—in effect, the watchers are watching themselves. Other libertarians counter that the tradition's support of decentralization would lead not to undoing markets to solve this problem, but rather to redoing the corporate structure that has evolved over the last century. The classic retort to this critique, however, is that corporations, though powerful, cannot do what governments do. Only states hold the monopoly on coercion.

Enforcement The most successful argument against libertarianism is the question of enforcement. Who makes everyone play by the rules in the absence of coercion? Peace and free trade might work well as long as all nations agree to be peaceful traders, but what happens when one nation attacks another? How can the rogue nation be made to "play fair," except by coercion, perhaps even violence? Libertarians differ on their response to this question. Though many support a noninterventionist foreign policy, they also maintain the right of a nation to defend itself. The question remains, however, at what point does self–defense begin? May a country strike preemptively at a potential threat, or must it wait until it suffers harm? This question also applies to internal matters within communities.

At day's end, the value of libertarianism remains tied to our understanding of the human condition. Are individuals capable of the demands of a libertarian world?

Criticisms aside, the libertarian tradition has much to recommend it: a long and varied past, a tradition of toleration and diversity, and broad principles that leave it open to adaptation and innovation. As a political movement, the theory has consistency on its side. In the United States, for example, the Democratic Party calls for freedom in the social sphere but government regulation in the economic one, and the Republican Party calls for freedom in the economic sphere but government regulation in the social one. The Libertarian Party continues to add members thanks to its consistent view of governmental noninterference in either sphere of life. As a theory, libertarianism has reaped impressive fruits, including multiple, productive movements and methodologies, and more than one Nobel Prize. Perhaps most importantly, the by–products of the libertarian theory speak for themselves. For example, the tradition's emphasis on individual rights helped to create a number of movements—abolitionism, feminism, and civil rights among them—that offer the theory impressive character references. One thing is certain: with centuries under its belt and a reemergence to welcome the new millennium, libertarianism remains a living and relevant political theory.


  • Consider the issue of an involuntary military draft. In what different ways might a libertarian criticize this policy?
  • Read the political platforms of the two major political parties in the United States. Which of the two might be more likely to integrate libertarian ideas into its policy agendas? Why?
  • If a libertarian were able to create his or her ideal libertarian society, what would it look like? Could it function effectively? Why or why not?



Barry, Norman. On Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Bergland, David. Libertarianism in One Lesson. 6th Edition. Costa Mesa, CA: Orpheus Publications, 1993.

Boaz, David, ed. The Libertarian Reader. New York: The Free Press, 1997.

Boaz, David. Libertarianism: A Primer. New York: The Free Press, 1997.

Bramstead, E. K. and K, J. Melhuish, ed. Western Liberalism: A History in Documents from Locke to Croce. London: Longman, 1978.

Buchanan, James and Gordon Tullock. The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1962.

Gray, John. Liberalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

The Libertarian Party. Available at

Merquior, J. G. Liberalism Old and New. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Narveson, Jan. The Libertarian Idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Rand, Ayn. For The New Intellectual. New York: Signet, 1961.

Sturgis, Amy H. "The Rise, Decline, and Reemergence of Classical Liberalism." Great Thinkers in Classical Liberalism: The LockeSmith Review, Volume I. Amy H. Sturgis, Nathan D. Griffith, Melissa English, Joshua B. Johnson, and Kevin D. Weimer, eds. Nashville: The LockeSmith Institute, 1994: 20–56.

Further Readings

Anderson, Terry L. and Donald R. Leal. Free Market Environmentalism. Revised Edition. New York: St. Martin's, 2001. This book explores one of the most timely issues considered by the Public Choice School.

Friedman, Milton and Rose. Free to Choose. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. This is an introductory work by two of the more popular modern libertarian writers.

Hazlitt, Henry. Economics in One Lesson. 2nd Edition. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House: 1985. This work serves as an introduction to libertarian economic theory.

Humane Studies Review. This is the site for a decades–old international, interdisciplinary journal of libertarian studies.

Libertarian Party. This is the official site of the Libertarian Party in the United States.

Machan, Tibor, and Douglas B. Rasmussen. Liberty for the 21st Century. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 1995. This is a helpful compilation of modern libertarian works.


Capitalism, Conservatism, Liberalism


views updated May 09 2018



From the customs of liberal society and the writings of John Locke (16321704), David Hume (17111776), Adam Smith (17231790), and myriad others, there emerged an ideological sensibility dubious of government activism, leery of collectivist urges, and resistant of nationalistic sentiments. It learned to accept commercial society and cosmopolitanism, and even celebrate them. It maintains a presumption of individual liberty. The name of this sensibility has varied in time and place, but in the United States since the 1970s the name has been libertarianism.

The signal feature of libertarianism is the distinction between voluntary and coercive action. Coercion is the aggressive invasion (including the threat of invasion) of ones property or freedom of consent (or contract). Libertarians maintain a logic of ownership whereby owners have a claim to the control and use of their property, a claim good against the world. The logic is exhibited throughout centuries of liberal society in the normal, legitimate goings-on of private parties. It emerges as intuitive and natural. Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations (1776) that the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord (bk. 4, chap. 9). As for the determination of who owns what, there are universal norms, beginning with ownership in ones own person, and extending to property acquired within the family and in voluntary interaction with others (such as trade, production, and gift relations). Libertarians admit the holes and gray areas, but argue that the distinctions nonetheless hold much water, and that rival ideologies are also plagued by holes and gray areas, even more so.

Libertarians reject any social contract device as a way to bring political relations into consent. They reject the idea that, whether by virtue of democracy or simply by maintaining residence within the polity, one voluntarily agrees to the government laws one lives under. Government is recognized as a special kind of organization, and might be said to enjoy a special kind of legitimacy, but it does not get a special dispensation on coercion. In the eyes of the libertarian, everything the government does that would be deemed coercive and criminal if done by any other party in society is still coercive. For example, imagine that a neighbor decided to impose a minimum-wage law on you. Since most government action, including taxation, is of that nature, libertarians see government as a unique kind of organization engaged in wholesale coercion, and coercion is the treading on liberty. This semantic, libertarians say, was central in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century custom and social thought, for example in Adam Smiths treatment of natural liberty and through the American founders, the abolitionists, John Stuart Mill (18061873), Herbert Spencer (18201903), and William Graham Sumner (18401910). (Indeed, libertarians will argue that the vocabulary of modern liberalism is in many respects a systematic undermining of the older vocabulary.)

To just about anyone, coercion has a negative connotation. And, indeed, libertarians generally oppose government action. That disposition holds not only against economic intervention, but extends to coercive egalitarianism (the welfare state), restrictions on personal lifestyle (such as drug prohibition), and extensive government ownership of resources. Libertarians also tend to oppose military action abroad, though some libertarians may favor it when they believe that it bids fair to reduce coercion on the whole (that is, across the globe).

Within libertarian thought, there has been much debate over whether the principle of liberty is absolute (that is, 100 percent), or, as Adam Smith held, simply a presumption (say, 90 percent). Most classical liberals regarded it as a presumption, as have the transitional figures Ludwig von Mises (18811973) and Friedrich Hayek (18991992), both originally from Austria, and the famous American economist Milton Friedman. In judging where coercive government policy should be accepted or even deemed desirable, the maxim libertarians appeal to broad sensibilities about consequences, including moral and cultural consequences, of alternative policy arrangements. They do not attempt to set out any complete or definitive characterization of such sensibilities, any algorithm of desirability, and they declare that it is unreasonable to demand that they do so, especially since the same demand is not made of rival ideologies.

In justifying the presumption of liberty, most libertarians, especially economists, emphasize the practical argumentsliberty works better than government interventionbut others have maintained that liberty has an ethical authority established quite separately from any consideration of practical results.

The emergence of libertarianism, as such, comes about from the retreat of classical liberalism (particularly after 1900) and, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States, the concurrent change of the popular meaning of liberalism, such that those who kept up cosmopolitan, laissez-faire, antistatist views no longer had a name.

Mises, Hayek, and Friedman clung to the old term liberalism. The term libertarian was used occasionally, but was really seized by the critical figure of modern libertarianism, Murray N. Rothbard (19261995). Beginning in the 1960s, Rothbard reasserted the old definition of liberty and infused libertarianism with a paradigmatic content holding that institutionalized coercion is always wrong and government action always damaging to social utility. Libertarianism implied anarchism. A prodigious polymath and challenging, charismatic personality, Rothbard erected an integrated doctrine for ethics, politics, and economics.

Anarcho hyphenates (such as anarcho-capitalism ) were discussed also by other libertarian theoreticians, notably favorably by David Friedman and critically by Robert Nozick (19382002). Rothbard, David Friedman, and others built on the notion that private ownership and voluntary exchange are intuitive and focal, and hence lend themselves to a kind of spontaneous adoption by decentralized social institutions. They speculated on how there could be a free market in the enforcement of property rights, like private security companies today. Later research on voluntary reputational practices and institutions, exemplified, for example, by credit reporting agencies, would lend support to the view that, in a world where practically all property is privately owned, government police would not be necessary to resolving disputes and maintaining internal order. As for defense from external aggression, Rothbard tended to argue that no foreign government would have plausible cause or the practical means to conquer an anarcho-libertarian society, while David Friedman admitted uncertainties. The anarcho speculations, as well as Rothbards extreme claims for liberty, arguably diverted libertarians from the task of developing a persuasive, relevant ideology, and hindered the penetration of libertarian thinking into mainstream discourse.

Many of the same people in the United States who were fashioning modern libertarianism were also busy fashioning the so-called Austrian school of economics, named for the influence of the Austrians Mises and Hayek (who in 1974 was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics). Austrian economics is solidly pro-laissez-faire, but there has always been a tension between two types of thought. One, exemplified by Mises and Rothbard, champions human reason as an engine of discovery of scientific truth and purports to deduce a priori the superiority of voluntary arrangements. The other, inspired by Smith and exemplified by Hayek, criticizes the pretense of knowledge. It views economic processes as a skein of local practices and peculiarities, with their own dialectics of change and correction, and hence largely unknowable to regulators or even the most assiduous intellectuals. Followers of Mises and Rothbard claim a scientific foundation for laissez-faire economics; followers of Smith and Hayek criticize the scientific claims of interventionist economics. All Austrian economists are at least broadly libertarian in their policy views, but many libertarians are mainstream in economic method; Milton Friedman and David Friedman, for example, though admiring of Hayek, would be sharply critical of Austrian economics, particularly the Mises-Rothbard version. In fact, Hayek surely had grave misgivings about that as well, and never favored the fashioning of a separate Austrian school of economics.

Another important figure in the resurgence of antistatist ideas was the novelist and pop-philosopher Ayn Rand (19051982). Like Rothbard a messianic personality, though with much less learning and scholarship, Rand too set forth a highly integrated belief system, objectivism. However, Rand strongly favored governments function as the keeper of the peace, and, in sharp contrast to Rothbard, an anticommunist foreign policy. She detested libertarianism, and Rothbard attacked her movement as a cult.

Rothbards paradigm was so clear and consistent that even the libertarians who soundly rejected his extreme claims for liberty nonetheless found themselves working out their ideas in relation to principles like those he propounded. Nowadays, there remain loyal Rothbardians, but most libertarians think more in the fashion of Smith, Hayek, and Friedman. They insist that government intervention, including taxation, is coercive, but they take the anticoercion principle to be, not a natural axiom, but a natural maxim. They see government as having at least one important and necessary functionthe undoing of other governmental functions. (In contrast, Rothbards vision of libertarian social transformation held that after long years of ideological stirrings, there would come the inevitable internal political crisis, yielding to a widespread awakening and some kind of spontaneous, bottom-up institutional house-cleaning.)

Libertarianism joins the mainstream conversation as a political persuasion anchored in the status quo, not some ideal libertarian society, and yet opposed to the status quo, favoring freer arrangements pretty much across the board. It is perhaps best represented by public-policy institutes, such as the Cato Institute and the Independent Institute, that develop policy argumentation on an issue-by-issue basis. As for the academic world, the most notable libertarian strongholds are the economics department and law school at George Mason University.

Libertarianism is now a broad tent, rooted in policy issues and insistent on the Locke-Smith-Spencer-Rothbard definition of liberty. Within the tent, only a small portion would defend anarchism, but all remain radical in the sense that they insist that government intervention is coercive, and on most issues they entertain and quite likely favor abolishing the government agency or interventions in question.

There has also existed since the 1970s in the United States a Libertarian Party. However, libertarians are usually not much interested in it, chiefly because they feel that within the American system third parties are impossible or even damaging to their own cause.

SEE ALSO Freedom; Friedman, Milton; Hayek, Friedrich August; Mises, Ludwig Edler von; Philosophy, Political


Boaz, David. 1997. Libertarianism: A Primer. New York: Free Press.

Hayek, Friedrich. 1960. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Klein, Daniel B. 2004. Mere Libertarianism: Blending Hayek and Rothbard. Reason Papers: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Normative Studies 27: 743.

Rothbard, Murray. 1978. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. Rev. ed. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Smith, Adam. [1776] 1904. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 5th ed. Ed. Edwin Cannan. London: Methuen.

Daniel B. Klein


views updated May 09 2018


Libertarianism is the belief that one has the right to dominion over one's own person, including the fruits of one's labor. Adults are entitled to make their own decisions and agreements. Coercion, particularly by the government, is wrong.

In contemporary American politics libertarians side with the far left in favoring personal freedom and side with the far right in favoring economic freedom. Thus, libertarians argue for the decriminalization of recreational drug use on the grounds that adults should have the right to make choices about their bodies. Libertarians oppose a national health care system as coercive and inevitably interfering with the rights of individuals to make their own choices about health care.

Libertarians view other ideologies as overly paternalistic. Politicians routinely begin a sentence with "We must," as in " We must reduce our dependence on foreign oil" or "We must spend more on education." A libertarian asks, "Who is this 'we'?" Libertarians argue that individuals can decide for themselves how much to spend on their own education. Moreover, people who want to see others obtain more education are free to donate funds for that cause. To libertarians "We must spend more on education" translates into "The government is going to coerce individuals into paying for their own or others' education."

For many people economic freedom is justified on utilitarian grounds. Those individuals endorse free markets because markets deliver economic growth and a high average standard of living. For libertarians economic freedom is justified on first principles. Even when government regulation is intended to make people better off, libertarians oppose such regulation as coercive. Thus, libertarians would not endorse most regulation carried out in the name of protecting consumers, preferring instead that consumers be expected to protect themselves.

Libertarianism faces a number of challenges. First, libertarians must establish the boundaries between freedom and coercion. In theory, one person's freedom can negate another's. The libertarian solution to this problem is to focus on property rights. If a person's property is clearly defined, no one may take that property without that person's consent. The libertarian's ideal role for government is to enforce property rights and nothing else.

Second, libertarianism is criticized for taking social institutions and cultural norms for granted. That is, libertarians speak as if society could function with only markets as institutions. However, markets operate in a context of cultural values and government protections, and chaos would result if those protections were taken away.

On the left critics of libertarianism argue that without social welfare programs the poor might turn to crime or armed insurrection. Without public education people might not acquire the basic tools needed to function in and maintain their society. On the right critics of libertarianism argue that individual morality is too fragile to prevail in the noncoercive environment favored by libertarians. Without the restraints imposed by religion, social opprobrium, and legal sanction people's behavior would degenerate, ultimately reaching the point where they no longer were capable of respecting themselves or one another.

Third, libertarianism is criticized as an ideology that ignores inequality and scorns the disadvantaged. This line of criticism is embedded in lines such as "The rich man and the poor man have equal freedom to sleep in the gutter" and "Freedom of the press exists only if you own one" (the second quote is attributed to the journalist A. J. Liebling).

These critics argue that property rights are not sufficient to make everyone free. They suggest that those born without sufficient endowments of land, capital, and aptitude are at the mercy of the powerful even in the absence of coercion. In response libertarians argue that government programs enacted for the benefit of the disadvantaged often are counterproductive, circumscribing freedom without aiding the intended beneficiaries.

History of Libertarianism

Libertarianism has its roots in Enlightenment philosophy, particularly the writings of the philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). Locke argued that dominion over one's own body and one's own property is a natural right. Locke viewed government as legitimate only if it has the consent of the governed. In Chapter 8 of the Second Treatise on Government Locke wrote, "The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it." Locke was a major influence on the founders of the United States, who embodied the contractual theory of government in the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Bill of Rights also reinforced libertarian ideas of natural rights.

Another major libertarian work is On Liberty by the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). Mill argued that social condemnation could be as oppressive as government coercion.

In the twentieth century one of the most important libertarian thinkers was Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992), who argued against the dominant view that a modern economy requires central planning and a welfare state. Hayek believed that the price system, fed by local information in markets, is more efficient than any central planner. For him the coercion required to implement the welfare state would undermine freedom and thus was The Road to Serfdom (1944).

The Internet and Libertarianism

In 1996, John Perry Barlow, a writer and activist in the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), composed "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," which argued that government should adopt a hands-off approach with respect to the Internet. Barlow's declaration exemplifies the symbiotic relationship between the Internet and libertarian thinking. Barlow's words contain echoes from Locke ("We are forming our own Social Contract."), Mill ("We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity."), and Hayek ("our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions") (quoted in Barlow 1996, Internet site).

The Internet is, like the U.S. Constitution, designed as an agreement among consenting individuals. It is a set of communication protocols that allow data to be transmitted from one computer to another. Any communication that uses Internet Protocols (IP) can be sent over the Internet. The protocols impose only minimal constraints on the information that can be transmitted. Video, telephony, text, and data all can be sent via IP.

The Internet is also decentralized. No single computer acts as a hub or main distribution point. Instead, like Hayek's spontaneous order, the Internet relies on local information, contained in routing tables, to pass data from any computer on the network to another. Also, the Internet is configured to facilitate anonymity. This tends to shift the balance of power away from government officials and toward individuals. As a result it has proved all but impossible to regulate pornography and junk mail on the Internet.

The Internet was designed to have multiple routes between endpoints, which makes it more difficult both to attack militarily and to regulate. John Gilmore, a libertarian Internet activist, famously said, "The Internet interprets censorship and damage, and routes around it."

Personal computers and the Internet have changed the relationship between individuals and large organizations. One does not need to own a printing press to publish ideas that can reach the masses. One does not need to lease stores to sell goods to people all over the world. One does not need a mainframe computer costing millions of dollars to write a piece of software.

Because individuals are now better able to bypass large organizations, the rationale for government intervention as a check against corporate power has lost its appeal to many people who make a living using computers and the Internet. In Cyberselfish, a critical survey of libertarianism in the technology community, the journalist Paulina Borsook wrote that "with geeks, the attitude, mind-set, and philosophy is libertarianism" and "libertarians are the most vocal political thinkers and talkers in high tech" (Borsook 2000, pp. 3 and 7).

Intellectual Property

The low cost of distributing and copying content on the Internet has opened a schism within the libertarian community concerning the issue of intellectual property. Some libertarians argue that intellectual property rights are legitimate, based on Locke's principle that one has a natural right to property created by one's labor. According to this view, if one composes a song or another creative work, one has a property right that should be protected.

Other libertarians, including Barlow, believe that ideas should not to be regarded as property. One person can use an idea without infringing on another person's ability to use that idea. Barlow argues in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me" (Quoted in Barlow 1996, Internet site).

A potential libertarian approach to the issue of copyright is Digital Rights Management (DRM). The idea behind DRM is that the composer of a creative work would embed in its digital representation a digital "lock" that could be opened only by a consumer who agreed to purchase and use the work within the limitations intended by the author.

However, there are those who doubt that DRM can be effective. Those critics say that the ability of individuals to circumvent DRM will make it impossible to rely on the private sector alone to protect intellectual property. Instead, DRM will require government involvement in the design and enforcement of restrictions on the specifications of equipment. For example, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) criminalized the production of technology that could be used to circumvent copyright restrictions. Many libertarians were troubled by the DMCA.


The libertarian position on biotechnology, nanotechnology, and other potentially revolutionary scientific developments is one of laissez-faire. The libertarian view is that individuals are capable of addressing the ethical issues raised by new technologies without government interference.

Libertarians tend to dismiss concerns such as those raised by the President's Commission on Bioethics. In Beyond Therapy (President's Council of Bioethics 2004) the commission argues that biotechnology poses ethical problems by potentially enhancing human capabilities, eliminating death, and giving parents control over the characteristics of their children. Libertarians believe that individuals are capable of dealing with these issues as they arise. Moreover, libertarians argue that the sort of regulatory regime that would be needed to enforce controls over such technologies would be draconian.


Libertarians are mindful of the effect of technology on privacy. Some technologies, such as miniature cameras, radio identification tags, and powerful storage and processing for large databases, seem to threaten privacy. Other technologies, such as the decentralized Internet and cryptography, seem to enhance privacy.

David D. Friedman has painted one scenario for the way these technologies could play out. In Chapter 1 of his draft Future Imperfect he writes, "Put all of these technologies together and we may end up with a world where your realspace identity is entirely public, with everything about you known and readily accessible, while your cyberspace activities, and information about them, are entirely private—with you in control of the link between your cyberspace persona and your realspace identity."

The last point—that the individual will control the link between electronic identity and physical identity—is crucial. If the opposite scenario were to emerge, in which the government always would have the ability to trace electronic communications to an individual person, the potential for totalitarian control would appear to be high.

In The Transparent Society (1998) David Brin has suggested that the inevitable improvement in surveillance technology is going to cause privacy to be replaced by transparency. Cameras are certain to become smaller, digital radio tracking devices will become more powerful, and all forms of surveillance will become cheaper. In light of this outlook Brin argues that freedom and autonomy can best be preserved by ensuring that individuals have as much access to information about government and large corporations as those organizations have access to information about individuals.

The Future of Libertarianism

In the late industrial age libertarianism went into eclipse. For most of the twentieth century it appeared that the future belonged to powerful manufacturing enterprises and the large government that was thought necessary to regulate and plan the industrial economy. In the Internet age many people are seeing the potential for unplanned order emerging from the decisions of individuals. This has revived libertarianism as an important philosophy.

Libertarianism may have reawakened, but it is far from triumphant. Libertarian approaches to government policy on recreational drugs, education, and health care remain far from the mainstream, where paternalism remains entrenched. Moreover, technology poses problems for which libertarianism, typically absolutist and unabashed, lacks clear answers. Intellectual property poses a conflict between the natural right to own the product of one's labor and the right to engage in free expression and activities that do not infringe directly on another person. New technologies also provide surveillance potential in ways that require libertarians to reconsider the fundamental basis for privacy.


SEE ALSO Communitarianism;Democracy;Human Rights;Locke, John;Market Theory;Natural Law;Skepticism;Smith, Adam.


Boaz, David. (1994). Libertarianism: A Primer. New York. Free Press.

Borsook, Paula. (2000). Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech. New York: PublicAffairs.

Brin, David. (1998). The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom? Reading, MA: Perseus. A remarkably prescient book on the challenges that surveillance technology will pose for privacy and liberty.

Caldwell, Bruce. (2004). Hayek's Challenge: An Intellectual Biography of F.A. Hayek. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1944). The Road to Serfdom. London: Routledge.

Lessig, Lawrence. (1999). Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books.

Postrel, Virginia. (1998). The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. New York: Free Press.

President's Council on Bioethics. (2004). Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. Washington, DC: President's Council on Bioethics.

Stock, Gregory. (2003). Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Genes, Changing Our Future. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Thierer, Adam, and Clyde Wayne Crews, Jr., eds. (2002). Copy Fights: The Future of Intellectual Property in the Information Age. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. Exemplifies the differences among libertarians on intellectual property issues.


Barlow, John Perry. (1996). A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Available at http//

Friedman, David D. (2003). Future Imperfect. Available at http//

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chapter 8. Available at

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Available at


views updated May 17 2018


Libertarians like to think of themselves as defenders of liberty. For example, Friedrich A. von Hayek sees his work as restating an ideal of liberty for "We are concerned with that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as possible in society" (1960, p. 11). Similarly, John Hospers believes that libertarianism is "a philosophy of personal libertythe liberty of each person to live according to his own choices, provided that he does not attempt to coerce others and thus prevent them from living according to their choices" (1971, p.5). And Robert Nozick (1974) claims that, if a conception of justice goes beyond libertarian "side-constraints," it cannot avoid the prospect of continually interfering with people's lives.

Libertarians have interpreted their ideal of liberty in two basically different ways. Some, following Herbert Spencer (18201903), have taken a right to liberty as basic and have derived all other rights from this right to liberty. Others, following John Locke, have taken a set of rights, including typically a right to life and a right to property, as basic and have defined liberty as the absence of constraints in the exercise of these rights. Both groups of libertarians regard liberty as the ultimate political ideal, but they do so for different reasons. For Spencerian libertarians liberty is the ultimate political ideal because all other rights are derived from a right to liberty. For Lockean libertarians liberty is the ultimate political ideal because liberty is just the absence of constraints in the exercise of people's fundamental rights.

Spencerian and Lockean Libertarians

Consider the view of Spencerian libertarians, who take a right to liberty to be basic and define all other rights in terms of this right to liberty. According to this view liberty is usually interpreted as being unconstrained by other persons from doing what one wants or is able to do. Interpreting liberty this way, libertarians like to limit constraints to positive acts (i.e., acts of commission) that prevent people from doing what they otherwise want or are able to do. In contrast, welfare liberals and socialists interpret constraints to include, in addition, negative acts (acts of omission) that prevent people from doing what they otherwise want or are able to do. In fact, this is one way to understand the debate between defenders of negative liberty and defenders of positive liberty. This is because defenders of negative liberty interpret constraints to include only positive acts of others that prevent people from doing what they otherwise want or are able to do, while defenders of positive liberty interpret constraints to include both positive and negative acts of others that prevent people from doing what they otherwise want or are able to do.

Suppose then we interpret constraints in the manner favored by libertarians to include only positive acts by others that prevent people from doing what they otherwise want or are able to do. Libertarians go on to characterize their political ideal as requiring that each person should have the greatest amount of liberty commensurate with the same liberty for all. From this ideal they claim that a number of more specific requirements, in particular a right to life, a right to freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and a right to property, can be derived.

Here, it is important to observe that the libertarian's right to life is not a right to receive from others the goods and resources necessary for preserving one's life. It is not a right to welfare: It is simply a right not to be killed unjustly. Correspondingly, the libertarian's right to property is not a right to receive from others the goods and resources necessary to meet one's basic needs, but a right to acquire goods and resources either by initial acquisitions or by voluntary agreements.

Of course, libertarians would allow that it would be nice of the rich to share their surplus goods and resources with the poor. Nevertheless, they deny that government has a duty to provide for such needs. Libertarians claim that some good things, such as providing welfare to the needy, are requirements of charity rather than justice. Accordingly, failure to make such provisions is neither blameworthy nor punishable. As a consequence, libertarians contend that such acts of charity should not be coercively required. For this reason they are opposed to any coercively supported welfare program.

For a similar reason libertarians are opposed to coercively supported opportunity programs. This is because the basic opportunities one has under a libertarian conception of justice are primarily a function of the property one controls, and since unequal property distributions are taken to be justified under a libertarian conception of justice, unequal basic opportunities are also regarded as justified.

The same opposition to coercively supported welfare and equal opportunity programs characterizes Lockean libertarians, who take a set of rights, typically including a right to life and a right to property, as basic and then interpret liberty as being unconstrained by other persons from doing what one has a right to do. According to this view a right to life is simply a right not to be killed unjustly; it is not a right to receive welfare. Correspondingly, a right to property is a right to acquire property either by initial acquisitions or by voluntary transactions; it is not a right to receive from others whatever goods and resources one needs to maintain oneself. Understanding a right to life and a right to property in this way, libertarians reject both coercively supported welfare programs and equal opportunity programs as violations of liberty.

A Partial Defense

In support of their view libertarians advance examples of the following sort. The first two are adapted from Milton Friedman (1962), and the last one is from Robert Nozick (1974).

In the first example you are to suppose that you and three friends are walking along the street and you happen to notice and retrieve a $100 bill lying on the pavement. Suppose a rich fellow had passed by earlier throwing away $100 bills, and you have been lucky enough to find one of them. Now, according to Friedman, it would be nice of you to share your good fortune with your friends. Nevertheless, they have no right to demand that you do so, and hence, they would not be justified in forcing you to share the $100 bill with them. Similarly, Friedman would have us believe that it would be nice of us to provide welfare to the less fortunate members of our society. Nevertheless, the less fortunate members have no right to welfare, and hence they would not be justified in forcing us to provide such.

The second example, which Friedman regards as analogous to the first, involves supposing that there are four Robinson Crusoes, each marooned on four uninhabited islands in the same neighborhood. One of these Crusoes happens to land on a large and fruitful island, which enables him to live easily and well. The others happen to land on tiny and rather barren islands from which they can barely scratch a living. Suppose one day they discover the existence of each other. Now, according to Friedman, it would be nice of the fortunate Crusoe to share the resources of his island with the other three Crusoes, but the other three Crusoes have no right to demand that he share those resources, and it would be wrong for them to force him to do so. Correspondingly, Friedman thinks it would be nice of us to provide the less fortunate in our society with welfare, but the less fortunate have no right to demand that we do so, and it would be wrong for them to force us to do so.

In the third example Nozick asks us to imagine that we are in a society that has just distributed income according to some ideal pattern, possibly a pattern of equality. We are further to imagine that in such a society someone with the talents of Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan offers to play basketball for us provided that he receives one dollar from every home game ticket that is sold. Suppose we agree to these terms, and two million people attend the home games to see this new Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan play, thereby securing for him an income of $2 million. Since such an income would surely upset the initial pattern of income distribution whatever that happened to be, Nozick contends that this illustrates how an ideal of liberty upsets the patterns required by other conceptions of justice and calls for the rejection of these conceptions of justice.

The Minimal or Night-Watchman State

Libertarians think that only a minimal or night-watchman state can be justified in terms of their ideal of liberty. The libertarian argument for the minimal or night-watchman state begins with the acceptable premise that voluntary agreements represent an ultimate ideal for social interaction. This ideal, libertarians contend, finds its fullest expression in a market economy where buyers and sellers, employers and employees, voluntarily agree to exchange the goods they possess. Thus, it is assumed that the requirements for voluntary agreements between persons with unequal resources are easily satisfied in a market economy. As long as alternative contractual arrangements make it possible for buyers and sellers, employers and employees, to take their business elsewhere, libertarians believe that agreements reached in market transactions are completely voluntary. On these grounds libertarians claim that the only significant role left for the state is to prevent and rectify departures from a market economy resulting from fraud, theft, or the use of force. Any more extensive role for the state, they contend, would restrict people's liberty; that is to say, it would restrict liberty understood negatively as the absence of interference by other persons. Accordingly, libertarians conclude that only a night-watchman state can be justified in terms of an ideal of negative liberty.

The libertarian argument for the night-watchman state also seeks to show that other social ideas cannot justify a more extensive state. Libertarians either maintain that other social ideals purporting to justify a more extensive state are themselves without justification, or they claim that these social ideals have lower priority when compared with the ideal of negative liberty. But there are not always agreements as to which critical approach is appropriate. Thus with respect to an ideal of equality, Nozick (1974) and Hayek (1960) adopt different approaches: Nozick maintains that an ideal of equality has not been effectively justified, while Hayek maintains that the ideal has some validity but that negative liberty is the superior ideal. Allowing for such disagreements, both critical approaches could also be used by libertarians against various conceptions of positive liberty.

Nozick even goes so far as to claims that taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor. Still, libertarians are not similarly sensitive to the loss of liberty that occurs in the marketplace. For example, when an employer decides to lay someone off, Hospers (1971) claims that the employer is simply deciding against continuing a voluntary exchange and is not restricting the person's liberty. Likewise, Hayek (1960) claims that as long as workers who are laid off can find alternative employment their liberty is not being restricted. But how can requiring a person to pay $500 into a social security program under threat of greater financial loss infringe on the person's liberty when requiring a person to take a job paying $500 less under threat of greater financial loss does not infringe on the person's liberty? Surely it would seem that if one requirement restricts a person's liberty, the other will also.

To distinguish these cases, some libertarians claim that only intentional interference by others restricts a person's liberty. Requiring a person to pay $500 into a social security program under threat of greater financial loss, they contend, is intentional interference by others and hence restricts the person's liberty, while requiring a person to take a job paying $500 less under a similar threat is but the unintended result of individuals trying to better themselves in a market economy and hence does not restrict the person's liberty. But whether interference with a person's life is intentional or not is relevant only when determining the extent to which others are responsible for that interference. Although people are clearly more responsible for actions done intentionally they can still be responsible for actions done unintentionally, especially if they were morally negligent and should have foreseen the consequences of their actions. Since moral responsibility can extend to both intentional and unintentional interference with a person's life, there seems to be no reason for not considering both types of interference to be restrictions of a person's liberty. What is crucial to liberty as a social ideal is whether people are morally responsible for interfering with a person's life irrespective of whether that interference is intentional or not.

A Basic Difficulty

A basic difficulty with the libertarian's conception of justice is the claim that rights to life and property, as the libertarian understands these rights, derive from an ideal of liberty. Why should we think that an ideal of liberty requires a right to life and a right to property that excludes a right to welfare? Surely it would seem that a right to property (as the libertarian understands it) might well justify a rich person's depriving a poor person of the liberty to acquire the goods and resources necessary for meeting his or her basic nutritional needs. How then could we appeal to an ideal of liberty to justify such a deprivation of liberty? Surely we couldn't claim that such a deprivation is justified for the sake of preserving a rich person's freedom to use the goods and resources he or she possesses to meet luxury needs. By any neutral assessment it would seem that the liberty of the deserving poor not to be interfered with when taking from the surplus possessions of the rich what they require to meet their basic needs would have priority over the liberty of the rich not to be interfered with when using their surplus possessions to meet their luxury needs. But if this is the case, then a right to welfare, and possibly a right to equal opportunity as well, would be grounded in the libertarian's own ideal of liberty.

See also Justice; Liberty; Locke, John; Nozick, Robert; Philosophy of Economics; Responsibility, Moral and Legal; Rights; Social and Political Philosophy; Socialism.


Boas, David. Libertarianism: A Primer. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Friedman, Milton, with Rose D. Friedman. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Hayek, Friedrich A. von. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Hospers, John. Libertarianism. Los Angeles: Nash, 1971.

Machan, Tibor. The Passion for Liberty. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Sterba, James P. Justice for Here and Now. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

James Sterba (2005)

Libertarian Party

views updated May 17 2018


The Libertarian party was founded in Colorado in 1971 and held its first convention in Denver in 1972. In 1972 it fielded John Hospers for president and Theodora Nathan for vice president in the U.S. general election. It appeared on two state ballots, receiving a total of 2,648 votes in Colorado and Washington. In the 1976 elections, the party's 176 candidates garnered 1.2 million votes across the United States.

The Libertarian party believes that people have certain natural, individual rights and that deprivation of those rights is unjust. Two basic rights—the right to personal autonomy and the right to utilize previously unused resources—form the foundation of the party's ideals.

The Libertarian party views government as both the cause and the effect of societal ills. Government causes crime and prejudice because excessive laws divide society, rob people of their independence, and frustrate initiative and creativity. It then attempts to eradicate crime and prejudice by exercising more control over individual rights.

The Libertarian party promotes the abolition of compulsory military service, government control of television and other media, laws regarding sexual activity between consenting adults, laws against the use of mood-altering substances, and government control of migration and immigration. Under its leadership farming quotas and subsidies would be eliminated, there would be no mandatory schooling and no minimum wage, and defense spending would be drastically reduced. According to the party, the form of government it promotes would be less expensive than the current system of federal, state, and local governance.

The Libertarian party has achieved a small measure of electoral success. In 1980 Ed Clark received over 1 million votes in his bid for the presidency. Having failed to win the popular vote in any state, however, Clark received no electoral votes. Andre Marrou garnered slightly less support as the party's presidential candidate in 1984, 1988, and 1992. In 1992 Marrou and his running mate Nancy Lord received approximately 291,000 votes. Although the party has yet to be a factor in national politics, it has had some success locally. In 1994 it had state representatives in New Hampshire and Alaska, mayors in California, and over 30 city council members in cities across the country.

In 1996 the party held its national convention in Washington, D.C., over the Fourth of July holiday. At the convention it nominated economist and author Harry Browne as its presidential candidate. In his acceptance speech, Browne presented a number of controversial ideas, including making a sizable reduction in the federal government, abolishing the federal income tax, abolishing federal drug and seizure laws, and increasing recognition of individual rights. Browne and running mate Jo Jorgensen appeared on the election ballot in all 50 states, along with approximately 1,000 Libertarian party candidates for various public offices. Browne and Jorgensen won 485,759 votes, 0.5 percent of the national vote.

Browne ran again for president in 2000, this time with Art Oliver as a running mate. Although the Libertarian party was on the ballot in all 50 states, the Browne ticket received only 382,982 votes, over 100,000 fewer than in the 1996 election. During the 2000 elections the party also entered candidates for more than half of the seats in Congress up for election. In the elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, Libertarian party candidates received a total of 1.7 million votes, the first time in history a third party received more than a million votes for the House.

further readings

Bergland, David. 2000. Libertarianism in One Lesson. Huntington Beach, Calif.: Orpheus Publications.

Herrnson, Paul S., and John C. Green, eds. 1997. Multiparty Politics in America. Lanham, N.C.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Libertarian National Committee. Libertarian party promotional flyers. Washington, D.C.: Libertarian National Committee.

Libertarian Party. Available online at <> (accessed July 28, 2003).


Independent Parties.


views updated May 14 2018


A political philosophy that advocates free will, individual rights, and voluntary cooperation.

The core doctrine of libertarianism begins with the recognition that people have certain natural rights and that deprivation of these rights is immoral. Among these natural rights are the right to personal autonomy and property rights, and the right to the utilization of previously unused resources. These two basic assumptions form the foundation of all libertarian ideals.

Libertarianism can be traced back to ancient China, where philosopher Lao-tzu advocated the recognition of individual liberties. The modern libertarian theory emerged in the sixteenth century through the writings of Etienne de La Boetie (1530–1563), an eminent French theorist. In the seventeenth century, john locke and a group of British reformers known as the Levellers fashioned the classical basis for libertarianism with well-received philosophies on human nature and economics. Since the days of Locke, libertarianism has attracted pacifists, utopianists, utilitarianists, anarchists, and fascists. This wide array of support demonstrates the accessibility and elasticity of the libertarian promotion of natural rights.

Essential to the notion of natural rights is respect for the natural rights of others. Without a dignified population, voluntary cooperation is impossible. According to the libertarian, the means to achieving a dignified population and voluntary cooperation is inextricably tied to the promotion of natural rights.

Libertarianism holds that people lose their dignity as government gains control of their body and their life. The abdication of natural rights to government prevents people from living in their own way and working and producing at their own pace. The result is a decrease in self-reliance and independence, which results in a decrease in personal dignity, which in turn depresses society and necessitates more government interference.

Thus, the libertarian views government as both the cause and the effect of societal ills. Government is the cause of crime and prejudice because it robs people of their independence and frustrates initiative and creativity. Then, having created the sources of crime and prejudice by depriving individuals of their natural rights, government attempts to exorcise the evils with more controls over natural rights.

Libertarians believe that government should be limited to the defense of its citizens. Actions such as murder, rape, robbery, theft, embezzlement, fraud, arson, kidnapping, battery, trespass, and pollution violate the rights of others, so government control of these actions is legitimate. Libertarians acknowledge human imperfection and the resulting need for some government deterrence and punishment of violence, nuisance, and harassment. However, government control of human activity should be limited to these functions.

further readings

Boaz, David. 1997. Libertarianism: A Primer. New York: Free Press.

Otsuka, Michael. 2003. Libertarianism Without Inequality. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


Anarchism; Independent Parties; Natural Law; Utilitarianism.


views updated May 17 2018

libertarianism An anti-state ideology which takes the principles of liberalism to their logical extreme. Libertarianism is rooted in the writings of the seventeenth-century English political philosopher John Locke, who insisted upon the priority of individual rights to life, liberty, and property, and ‘the elimination of coercive intervention by the state, the foremost violator of liberty’. However, the valuing of individual liberty above all else is also an identifiable strand of conservative thought, and libertarians form part of the conservative radical right in both the United States and Britain. Modern libertarians include the American philosopher Robert Nozick (Anarchy, State and Utopia, 1974)
, who would reduce the role of the state to that of a mere ‘protection agency’, and the economist Friedrich Hayek. The latter maintains that the ideal economy and polity is a ‘catallaxy’–a spontaneous organization resembling the free market–within which interpersonal relationships are modelled on market exchanges; government is reduced to the minimal tasks of maintaining order and providing those public services which cannot spontaneously emerge because of huge initial capital outlays. This allegedly results in a plurality of personal and social values (see for example his ‘Principles of a Liberal Social Order’ in A. Crespigny and and J. Cronin ( eds.) , Ideologies of Politics, 1975)

Libertarians advocate the maximization of individual rights, the minimization of government, and a free-market economy. These ideas have found strongest support in the United States, where they mix uneasily with conservatism and neo-liberalism. In his first term (1980–4) President Ronald Reagan stood for a policy that had many libertarian elements, although these were not fully carried out by his administration.

In philosophy, libertarianism describes a theory of human actions opposed to determinism, insisting that conscious human actions are not explicable in simple causal terms. See also JUSTICE, SOCIAL.


views updated Jun 27 2018

lib·er·tar·i·an / ˌlibərˈte(ə)rēən/ • n. 1. an adherent of libertarianism: [as adj.] libertarian philosophy. ∎  a person who advocates civil liberty.2. Philos. a person who believes in the doctrine of free will.