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Libertarianism is a political philosophy emphasizing liberty and property. A libertarian believes in minimizing or entirely eliminating government interventionism in all aspects of life; including economic, personal and in foreign policy matters. The French term of Laissez-Faire, or let us do, is a term that describes some aspects of the libertarian belief. [1]

The first systematic libertarian was Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an English political philosopher whose books such as The Man Versus the State (1884) had a major impact in Europe and America in the late 19th century.[2]

Libertarian Philosophy

Libertarianism is closely related to liberalism, if this word is interpreted according to its original meaning of classical liberalism. Libertarians in America tend to be liberal on social issues but conservative on economic issues. Libertarians generally support the legalization of drugs, prostitution, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, polygamy and abortion. They oppose restrictions on pornography. However, they also oppose universal health care, taxes and the welfare state. They are strong supporters of school choice, and oppose continuing the public school system. Some libertarians support school vouchers, while others are skeptical due to the issue of government influence over private education.

Libertarians support an expansive view of liberty as the proper basis for organizing civil society. They tend to define liberty as the freedom to do whatever one wishes up to the point that one's behavior begins to interfere with another's person or property through coercive means. At the point of interference, each party would become subject to certain principled rules for adjudicating disputes, generally accepting that one who has demonstrated a proven lack of respect for the rights of others should be subject to sanctions, including possible constraints on their freedom. They believe that liberty is the right of every individual.

Libertarians generally defend the ideal of freedom from the perspective of how little one is constrained by authority, i.e., how much one is allowed to do (also referred to as negative liberty). This ideal is distinguished from a view of freedom focused on how much one is able to do (also called positive liberty).

Libertarian Factions

Libertarians tend to use the word "libertarian" (small "l") to refer to the philosophy, and "Libertarian" (capital "L") to refer to the party. Thus, more libertarians exist than members of the Libertarian Party. Two general factions exist in the libertarian movement. The first are those libertarians who apply the principles of right to person and property to an absolute. They believe that no person, group, or government is above the right to violate these two things. They thus believe that government itself is illegitimate because it violates person and property. These libertarians subscribe to anarcho-capitalism, as first named by Murray N. Rothbard. They believe that law and security can be handled by private means in the free market. The other faction believes in a very limited government. They are often referred to as minarchists. Libertarian minarchists want the state to only enforce law and order but generally nothing else. Ayn Rand was a minarchist.

Libertarians tend to view liberalism as a philosophy advocating less government interference in private morality and more government control of business, and view conservatism as a philosophy advocating more government interference in private morality and less government control of business, while they view libertarianism as advocating less government control in all areas. However, there have been fusionist attempts to mix libertarianism and with social conservatism. This is noted in particular by paleolibertarians. They believe that social conservatism is a natural entity in a free society, but do not believe that it can be enforced by state interventionism.

Libertarian Thought in America

While there are libertarian factions within the Democratic and Republican parties, neither party is particularly well aligned with libertarian thought. While the Republican Party sometimes adopts libertarian-sounding rhetoric of small government in economic affairs, many libertarians see it as being a force that has increased government interventionism in these affairs. Libertarians generally, for example, are opposed to the USA PATRIOT Act, which they believe increases government power and removes protections on the liberty and privacy of the public. Most conservatives, on the other hand, view it as a necessary government program and believe security to be more important than personal liberty and privacy. Libertarians point out that such a view contradicts those of the founding fathers, such as Benjamin Franklin, who summarized it most eloquently, "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Libertarians are also generally opposed to the Iraq War, unlike the majority of conservatives.

While all libertarians agree in general on the principles of the desirability of maximizing individual liberty and avoiding excessive government interference with the operation of the free market, individual libertarians have opinions that differ wildly within these general principles.

The libertarian movement generally praises the United States Constitution, regarding it as the proper scope of the national government. They believe that the Democratic and Republican parties have overstepped constitutional limits. Anarcho-capitalist libertarians, on the other hand, view the implementation of the constitution as the very reason the national government is the size it is today.

Notable Libertarians

Alexis de Tocqueville

Libertarian-oriented historic figures would include Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, John Locke, George Mason, Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Carl Menger, C.S. Lewis, Ludwig von Mises, H. L. Mencken, Rose Wilder Lane, Albert Jay Nock, Frédéric Bastiat, Richard Cobden, Henry David Thoreau, and Hugo Grotius.

The most influential libertarian of thre 20th century was Milton Friedman (1912-2006), a leader of the Chicago School of Economics.

  • Ron Paul, 1988 Libertarian Party and 2008 Republican Party presidential candidate. Ron Paul is considered to be of the Constitutionalist and paleolibertarian schools of libertarian thought.
  • The psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, opponent of the therapeutic state and compulsory mental institutionalization.
  • Nobel Laureate economists Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Ronald Coase, Gary Becker, James Buchanan, George Stigler, and Vernon Smith.
  • The novelist Ayn Rand advocated a philosophy of Objectivism, embodying some libertarian thought, although differing from libertarianism in many ways. Some of her novels, such as Atlas Shrugged, have become icons of some people in the libertarian movement, while others find her materialism and atheism incompatible with moral ethics and natural rights and law.
  • Robert LeFevre, significant in promoting libertarian philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s before it was a well-defined movement, with his "Freedom School" seminars on political and economic philosophy.
  • Karl Hess, speechwriter for Barry Goldwater credited with penning Goldwater's famous 1964 statement "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice". Hess later became a major figure in the Libertarian Party.
  • Murray N. Rothbard was nicknamed "Mr. Libertarian." He brought to life the anarcho-capitalist movement. Rothbard was an economist of the Austrian School.
  • Samuel Edward Konkin III, a significant figure in 1970s libertarianism, whose influence waned considerably after the rise of the Libertarian Party as he opposed political parties and voting as being against libertarian principles. He proposed instead a purely marketplace-based route to a free society, such as tax resistance and doing business "off the books".
  • Robert A. Heinlein, science fiction author, whose 1966 novel The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress was an influence on the movement.
  • L. Neil Smith, J. Neil Schulman, and Brad Linaweaver, science fiction writers.
  • Several popular financial writers including Harry Browne and Howard J. Ruff. Browne would later run for President, twice, on the Libertarian Party ticket. Ruff declared his political philosophy as libertarian but as a socially conservative Mormon made an exception on issues like abortion and prostitution, where he disagreed with the libertarian view.
  • Penn and Teller, stage magicians turned libertarian evangelicals preaching atheism and promoting libertarian philosophies, including controversial positions such as legalization of prostitution and drugs in their Showtime series, which sports a name that cannot for reasons of good taste be expressed here.
  • The Canadian rock band Rush, which has been together since 1968, often explores libertarian themes in their lyrics.
  • Humorist Dave Barry, actor/comedian Drew Carey, actor Denis Leary, former MTV VJ Lisa "Kennedy" Montgomery, actor Kurt Russell, investigative reporter John Stossel, and the late rocker Frank Zappa have all referred to themselves as being aligned with or openly supporting the Libertarian Party.
  • Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, proclaimed that they are libertarians. While South Park often offend conservative positions like religion, are vulgar, and support evolution they also make fun of liberals positions such as political correctness and environmentalism. [3]. The phrases "South Park Conservative" (the name of a book) and "South Park Republican" are used to describe the followers of these beliefs.
  • Ed Clark, the Libertarian Party's 1980 nominee for President. Clark obtained the highest popular vote percentage to date for a Libertarian candidate.

External links

See also

Further reading

  • Boaz, David. The Libertarian Reader: Classic and Contemporary Writings from Lao Tzu to Milton Friedman (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Doherty, Brian. Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (2008)
  • Murray, Charles. What It Means to Be a Libertarian (1997) excerpt and text search
  • Tilman, Rick. Ideology and Utopia in the Social Philosophy of the Libertarian Economists (2001) excerpt and text search


  1. "Libertarians are neither. Unlike liberals or conservatives, Libertarians advocate a high degree of both personal and economic liberty. For example, Libertarians advocate freedom in economic matters, so we're in favor of lowering taxes, slashing bureaucratic regulation of business, and charitable -- rather than government -- welfare. But Libertarians are also socially tolerant. We won't demand laws or restrictions on other people who we may not agree because of personal actions or lifestyles. Think of us as a group of people with a "live and let live" mentality and a balanced checkbook." [1]
  2. Chris Matthew Sciabarra, "The First Libertarian," Liberty (Aug 1999) online
  3. [2] Parker and Stone, Reason Magazine