AskDefine | Define libertarianism

Dictionary Definition

libertarianism n : an ideological belief in freedom of thought and speech

User Contributed Dictionary


Proper noun

  1. a political philosophy maintaining that all persons are the absolute owners of their own lives, and should be free to do whatever they wish with their persons or property, provided they allow others the same liberty


  • Croatian: libertarijanizam, slobodarstvo
  • German: Libertarismus

Extensive Definition

For alternative meanings of libertarianism, see: Libertarianism (disambiguation).
Libertarianism is a label used by a broad spectrum of political philosophies which prioritize individual liberty and minimize the role of the state. Libertarian is an antonym of authoritarian.


The first known use of a term that has been translated as "libertarian" in a political sense was by anarcho-communist Joseph Déjacque, who used the French term libertaire in a letter to Proudhon in 1857. The word stems from the French word libertaire (synonymous to "anarchist").
Pierre Joseph Proudhon outlined a libertarian vision that consisted of "(1) an analysis of the power relations underlying existing forms of political authority and (2) a vision of an alternative libertarian society based on cooperation, as opposed to competition and coercion, and functioning without the need for government authority."
According to anarchist historian Max Nettlau, the use of the term "libertarian communism" dates from November, 1880 when a French anarchist congress adopted it. The term was first popularized in France in the 1890s to subvert the anti-anarchist laws (Lois scélérates). French anarchist Sébastien Faure founded "Le Libertaire" ("The Libertarian") in 1895.
In the United States, libertarianism as a synonym for anarchism had taken hold. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica explains that,
"It would be impossible to represent here, in a short sketch, the penetration, on the one hand, of anarchist ideas into modern literature, and the influence, on the other hand, which the libertarian ideas of the best contemporary writers have exercised upon the development of anarchism. One ought to consult the ten big volumes of the Supplément Littéraire to the paper La Révolte and later the Temps Nouveaux, which contain reproductions from the works of hundreds of modern authors expressing anarchist ideas, in order to realize how closely anarchism is connected with all the intellectual movement of our own times."
The encyclopedia continues to explain some of the works and writers whose Libertarian views helped shape early 20th century views against Capitalism.
"J. S. Mill's Liberty, Spencer's Individual versus the State, Marc Guyau's Morality without Obligation or Sanction, and Fouillée's La Morale, I'art et la religion, the works of Multatuli (E. Douwes Dekker), Richard Wagner's Art and Revolution, the works of Nietzsche, Emerson, W. Lloyd Garrison, Thoreau, Alexander Herzen, Edward Carpenter and so on; and in the domain of fiction, the dramas of Ibsen, the poetry of Walt Whitman, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Zola's Paris and Le Travail, the latest works of Merezhkovsky, and an infinity of works of less known authors, are full of ideas which show how closely anarchism is interwoven with the work that is going on in modern thought in the same direction of enfranchisement of man from the bonds of the state as well as from those of capitalism."

Modern Development

By the early 20th century, the Progressive movement in the United States and the socialist movement in Europe began to promote positive rights such as public education, health care, social security or a minimum standard of living. As liberalism began to mean a more pro-state viewpoint, those who held to the pro-liberty views of the Enlightenment began to call themselves "classical liberals." To make things more confusing, others began to call themselves "conservatives" to refer to conserving traditions of liberty, especially in written constitutions. Starting in the 1930s, a group of central European economists lead by Austrians Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek identified the collectivist underpinnings to the various new doctrines of government power as being different brands of totalitarianism. The Austrian school of economics had a powerful impact on both economic teaching and libertarian principles, influencing economists like Younger recruits to what became the included Henry Hazlitt, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Israel Kirzner, Murray Rothbard, Walter Block and many others.
In 1955, Dean Russell wrote an article pondering what to call those, such as himself, who subscribed to the classical liberal philosophy of individualism and self-responsibility. He said:Many of us call ourselves "liberals," And it is true that the word "liberal" once described persons who respected the individual and feared the use of mass compulsions. But the leftists have now corrupted that once-proud term to identify themselves and their program of more government ownership of property and more controls over persons. As a result, those of us who believe in freedom must explain that when we call ourselves liberals, we mean liberals in the uncorrupted classical sense. At best, this is awkward, subject to misunderstanding. Here is a suggestion: Let those of us who love liberty trademark and reserve for our own use the good and honorable word "libertarian."
Ayn Rand's international best sellers The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) and her books about her philosophy of Objectivism inspired a new interest in ideas of liberty and influenced modern libertarianism. Brian Doherty describes her influence: "[H]er literary skills and burning moral passion, as much as her rigorous, systematic approach to the linkages between reason and liberty, will remain a powerful introduction to the idea that your life belongs to you, not to the state or the collective—and to the rich and complex series of conclusions about the proper nature and mission of government that follows from that idea."
In 1958, Isaiah Berlin's famous essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" explained the difference between these two ideas in terms of positive and negative liberty. Whereas classical liberals aim for liberty in its negative sense, that is, the liberty from external constraints, the modern form of liberalism tries to achieve liberty in its positive sense, by providing opportunities and presenting alternatives.
Seminars in libertarianism were being taught in the U.S. starting in the 1960s, including a personal studies seminar at SUNY Geneseo starting in 1972. Robert LeFevre's Freedom School, later renamed Rampart College, operated during the 1960s and successfully spread libertarian ideas.
Philosophical libertarianism gained a significant measure of recognition in the academic world with the publication of Harvard University professor Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia in 1974. The book won a National Book Award in 1975. Nozick challenges John Rawls's arguments in A Theory of Justice that redistribution must benefit the least well off. He argued that a distribution of goods is just, so long as the distribution was brought about by free exchanges by consenting adults. Nozick appealed to the Kantian idea that people should be treated as ends (what he termed 'separateness of persons'), not merely as a means. For example, forced redistribution of income treated people as if they were merely sources of money. Nozick backed away from some of the views he expressed in Anarchy, State, and Utopia in one of his later books, The Examined Life, calling those views "seriously inadequate." In a 2001 interview, however, he clarified his position: "What I was really saying in The Examined Life was that I was no longer as hardcore a libertarian as I had been before. But the rumors of my deviation (or apostasy!) from libertarianism were much exaggerated."


The central tenet of libertarianism is the principle of liberty, namely individual liberty. To libertarians, an individual human being is sovereign over his/her body, extending to life, liberty and property. As such, rights-theory libertarians define liberty as being completely free in action, whilst not initiating force or fraud against the life, liberty or property of another human being. Thomas Jefferson stated, "Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others." Jefferson also said "No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him." These concepts are otherwise known as the law of equal liberty or the non-aggression principle.
Libertarians generally view constraints imposed by the state on persons or their property (if applicable), beyond the need to penalize infringement of one's rights by another, as a violation of liberty. Anarchist libertarians favor no statutory constraints at all, based on the assumption that rulers are unnecessary because in the absence of political government individuals will naturally form self-governing social bonds, rules, customs, codes, and contracts. In contrast, minarchist libertarians consider government necessary for the sole purpose of protecting the rights of the people. This includes protecting people and their property from the criminal acts of others, as well as providing for national defense.
Libertarians generally defend the ideal of freedom from the perspective of how little one is constrained by authority, that is, how much one is allowed to do, which is referred to as negative liberty. This ideal is distinguished from a view of freedom focused on how much one is able to do, which is termed positive liberty, a distinction first noted by John Stuart Mill, and later described in fuller detail by Isaiah Berlin.
But most libertarians would argue that representative majority rule democracy largely has become controlled by special interest groups who represent a minority, leading to a 'tyranny of the minority' against the real numerical majority. Libertarians are egalitarians and believe all people are created equal. People are seen by libertarians as individuals and not representatives of their particular racial, religious or political groups.
Having weak state executive control means libertarian societies are more dependent on the courts for conflict resolution. An impartial judiciary can thus be of paramount importance, for without it wealthy and collective interests might run roughshod over the private citizen.
Some libertarians favor Common Law, which they see as less arbitrary and more adaptable than statutory law. The relative benefits of common law evolving toward ever-finer definitions of property rights were articulated by thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Richard Epstein, Robert Nozick, and Randy Barnett. Some libertarian thinkers believe that this evolution can define away various "commons" such as pollution or other interactions viewed by some as externalities. "A libertarian society would not allow anyone to injure others by pollution because it insists on individual responsibility."

Natural rights and consequentialism

Libertarians such as Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard view the rights to life, liberty, and property as Natural Rights, i.e., worthy of protection as an end in themselves. Their view of natural rights is derived, directly or indirectly, from the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Ayn Rand, another powerful influence on libertarianism, despite rejecting the label, viewed rights as grounded in people's rational faculties.
Consequentialists such as Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and James M. Buchanan justify rights on pragmatic as well as, or even instead of, moral, grounds. They argue that individual liberty leads to economic efficiency and other benefits, and is thus the most effective means of promoting or enhancing social welfare. They accept the use of some initiation of force, such as a State that violates the non-aggression principle by imposing taxation to provide some public goods and some minimal regulation.

Libertarian policy

Libertarians strongly oppose government infringement of civil liberties such as restrictions on free expression (e.g., speech, press, or religious belief or practice), prohibitions on voluntary association, or encroachments on persons or property. Some make an exception when the infringement is a result of due process to establish or punish criminal behaviour. As such, libertarians oppose any type of censorship (i.e., claims of offensive speech), or pre-trial forfeiture of property (as is commonly seen in drug crime and computer crime proceedings). Furthermore, most libertarians reject the distinction between political and commercial speech or association, a legal distinction often used to protect one type of activity and not the other from government intervention. Most left libertarians support some form of income redistribution on the grounds of a claim by each individual to be entitled to an equal share of natural resources. Left libertarianism is defended by contemporary theorists such as Peter Vallentyne, Hillel Steiner, Michael Otsuka, and Noam Chomsky. Geolibertarians are considered left-libertarians. The term is sometimes used as a synonym for libertarian socialism.
In the early 20th century Russian N.O. Lossky published a defense of libertarianism under the concept of spontaneous order or sobornost. Lossky's position could be considered a form of libertarian socialism. Ayn Rand named Lossky as her primary philosophy teacher at the University of Petrograd or University of St. Petersburg until he was removed from his teaching post by the Soviet regime.
Some members of the U.S. libertarian movement, including Samuel Edward Konkin III and Roderick T. Long, employ a differing definition of left libertarianism. These individuals depart from other forms of libertarianism by opposing intellectual property, by advocating strong alliances with the Left on issues such as the anti-war movement, and by supporting labor unions. Some wish to revive voluntary cooperative ideas such as mutualism.
Criticisms of left-libertarianism have come from both the right and left alike. Right-libertarians like Robert Nozick hold that self-ownership and property acquisition need not meet egalitarian standards, they must merely follow the Lockean idea of not worsening the situation of others. Gerald Cohen, an Analytical Marxist philosopher, has extensively criticized left-libertarianism's emphasis on both the values of self-ownership and equality. In his Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality, Cohen claims that any system that takes equality and its enforcement seriously is not consistent with the full emphasis on self-ownership and "negative freedom" of libertarian thought. Tom G. Palmer of the Cato Institute has responded to Cohen's critique in Critical Review and has provided a guide to the literature criticizing libertarianism in his bibliographical review essay on "The Literature of Liberty" in The Libertarian Reader, ed. David Boaz.

Libertarian conservatism

Libertarian conservatives differ from some Christian-influenced conservatives in that they tend to favor the separation of church and state. They favor limitation of government involvement in any factors of life, in contrast to neo-conservatives.
The Republican Liberty Caucus represents the GOP's libertarian Republican movement. Other libertarian Republican groups include Americans for Limited Government, Americans for Tax Reform, headed by Grover Norquist, and the Club for Growth.


Libertarianism's status is in dispute among those who style themselves Objectivists (Objectivism is the name philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand gave her philosophy). Though elements of Rand's philosophy have been adopted by libertarianism, Objectivists (including Rand herself) have condemned libertarianism as a threat to freedom and capitalism. In particular, it has been claimed that libertarians use Objectivist ideas "with the teeth pulled out of them".
Conversely, some libertarians see Objectivists as dogmatic, unrealistic, and uncompromising (Objectivists do not see the latter as a negative attribute). According to Reason editor Nick Gillespie in the magazine's March 2005 issue focusing on Objectivism's influence, Rand is "one of the most important figures in the libertarian movement... Rand remains one of the best-selling and most widely influential figures in American thought and culture" in general and in libertarianism in particular. Still, he confesses that he is embarrassed by his magazine's association with her ideas. In the same issue, Cathy Young says that "Libertarianism, the movement most closely connected to Rand's ideas, is less an offspring than a rebel stepchild." Though they reject what they see as Randian dogmas, libertarians like Young still believe that "Rand's message of reason and liberty... could be a rallying point" for libertarianism.
Objectivists reject the oft-heard libertarian refrain that State and government are "necessary evils": for them, a government limited to protection of its citizens' rights is absolutely necessary and moral. Objectivists are opposed to all anarchist currents and are suspicious of libertarians' lineage with individualist anarchism.

The libertarian movement

The Libertarian Program is an international project to define and document key current and potential voluntary replacements of government programs.
Some, such as David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian U.S. think tank, the Cato Institute, argue that the term classical liberalism should be reserved for early liberal thinkers for the sake of clarity and accuracy, and because of differences between many libertarian and classical liberal thinkers. Nevertheless, the Cato Institute's official stance is that classical liberalism and libertarianism are synonymous; they prefer the term liberal to describe themselves, but choose not to use it because of its confusing connotation in some English-speaking countries (where most self-described liberals prefer a mixed economy rather than a free-market economy). The Cato Institute dislikes adding classical because, in their view, "the word classical connotes a backward-looking philosophy". Thus, they finally settle on libertarian, as it avoids backward implications and confused definitions.
Libertarians and their allies are not a homogeneous group, but have collaborated to form think tanks, political parties, and other projects. For example, Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard co-founded the John Randolph Club, the Center for Libertarian Studies, and the Cato Institute to support an independent libertarian movement, and joined David Nolan in founding the Libertarian Party of the United States in 1971. (Rothbard ceased activity with the Libertarian Party in 1989, and some of his followers like Lew Rockwell are hostile to the group.) In the U.S. today, some libertarians support the Libertarian Party, some support no party, and some attempt to work within more powerful parties despite their differences. The Republican Liberty Caucus (a wing of the Republican Party) promotes libertarian views.
Costa Rica's Movimiento Libertario (Libertarian Movement) is a prominent, non-U.S. libertarian party which holds roughly 10% of the seats in Costa Rica's national assembly (legislature). The Movimiento Libertario is considered the first libertarian organization to achieve substantial electoral success at the national level, though not without controversy. For example, Rigoberto Stewart, co-founder of the party and founder of the Limón REAL Project for autonomy in a province in Costa Rica, and director of INLAP, a libertarian think tank, lost his influence within Movimiento Libertario and support for the Limón REAL Project. As perhaps explained by Public Choice Theory, while accepting money from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a German liberal foundation, the party compromised on their libertarian principles in return for more power, turning to anti-libertarian positions.
There are other Libertarian parties that have had various amounts of success throughout the world. Libertarianism is emerging in France with the inception of Liberté chérie (Cherished Liberty), a think tank and activist association that has 2,000 members. Liberté chérie gained significant publicity when it managed to draw 80,000 Parisians into the streets to demonstrate against government employees who were striking.
In the United Kingdom, the Libertarian Alliance was founded in 1977 as a non-partisan libertarian group and free market think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute have espoused libertarian principles. The United Kingdom Independence Party is currently the largest Libertarian party in the United Kingdom.
In Germany a Libertäre Plattform in der FDP (Liberty Caucus within the Free Democratic Party) was founded in 2005.
In 2001, the Free State Project was founded by Jason Sorens, a political scientist and libertarian activist who argued that 20,000 libertarians should migrate to a single U.S. state in order to concentrate their activism. In August 2003, the membership of the Free State Project chose New Hampshire because of its friendliness to libertarian causes (note the state motto: Live Free or Die), limited government, citizen legislature (paid only $100 per year) and history of political activism. Despite the lower than expected rate of growth, the Free State Project has seen moderate success. They saw their first member elected to the New Hampshire legislature in 2006 and successfully completed the "First 1000" pledge in 2005, which signed up 1,033 people to move to New Hampshire by 2008. Some of the original Free Staters (about 1,000) were discontented with the choice of New Hampshire. Some have started rival projects, including the Free West Alliance, Free State Wyoming and North to the Future, a project for a Free Alaskan Nation, to concentrate activism in a different state or region. There is also a European Free State Project.

Libertarianism in the United States

Libertarians may differ over particular issues, such as abortion and the United States' ongoing presence in Iraq. The fact that libertarians are often diametrically opposed on so many issues lead to frequent condemnation of the philosophy by many, including those who hold similar thoughts.
In the United States, libertarianism is claimed to be the philosophy advocated by Thomas Jefferson and several of the Founding Fathers. Libertarianism is often being bundled with American conservatism, due to many conservatives wishing to retain the ideas of the Founders of the United States. On the other hand, many conservatives are uncomfortable with libertarianism, while a few conservative Republicans, such as United States congressman Ron Paul, maintain viewpoints sympathetic to libertarian philosophy. Furthermore, the fortieth President of the United States, Ronald Reagan who said he believed that "the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism." The term "libertarian" is used to describe adherents to libertarian principles, and not necessarily to members of Libertarian political parties, who are distinguished with a capital "L". As in all political parties, not all libertarians agree with the platform of any given Libertarian party. Libertarians who support limited government use the term "classical liberalism" almost interchangeably with the term "libertarianism."
Polls, in 2007, indicate that 10 to 20 percent of voting-age Americans have libertarian views, with "libertarian" being understood as agreeing with conservatives on economic issues and with liberals on personal freedom.

Libertarian politics

The main organized expression of libertarian politics in the United States has been the Libertarian Party since its founding. However, some libertarians have decided it is more effective to disseminate their ideas through think tanks like the Cato Institute.
In the United Kingdom, a similar Libertarian Party was founded on January 1st, 2008. Prior to this, the primary British expression of libertarian politics was through the Libertarian Alliance and think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute.
Libertarianism is often portrayed as right-wing by non-libertarians in the United States. Under the concept of fusionism, it was proposed that American libertarians ally themselves with traditional conservatives, with whom they have historically had more in common than they do with American liberals, particularly with regard to economic and gun control policies. Such an alliance can be seen in uniting of libertarian and conservative lawyers in the Federalist Society. Others however, call for an alliance between libertarians and civil libertarians in the Democratic party. Many describe libertarians as being "conservative" on economic issues and "liberal" on social issues, so they can find allies in both of the two main parties while remaining distinct from both, especially on the use of state power to solve perceived problems, and constitutional compliance.
A historical example of libertarian politics would be discrimination in the workplace. Libertarians could be expected to oppose any laws on this matter because these would infringe on the property rights or freedoms of either the business owner or the just-hired employee. In other words, one should be free to discriminate against others in their personal or business dealings (within the constraints of principal–agency agreements); one should be free to choose where they accept work, or to start one's own business in accordance with their personal beliefs and prejudices; and one should be free to lead a boycott or publicity campaign against businesses with whose policies they disagree.



  • Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality
  • Brian Doherty Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (2007)
  • Franzen, Don. Los Angeles Times Book Review Desk, review of "Neither Left Nor Right". January 19, 1997. Franzen states that "Murray and Boaz share the political philosophy of libertarianism, which upholds individual liberty--both economic and personal--and advocates a government limited, with few exceptions, to protecting individual rights and restraining the use of force and fraud." (Review on MSN Encartas entry on Libertarianism defines it as a "political philosophy" (Both references retrieved June 24, 2005). The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Libertarianism as "Political philosophy that stresses personal liberty." (link, accessed June 29, 2005)
  • The Bill of Rights: What It Is, What It Means, and How It's Been Misused
  • Friedman & Szasz on Liberty and Drugs
  • Business as Ethical and Business as Usual
  • Why I am not a Conservative ">}}
  • Libertarianism
  • Business as Ethical and Business as Usual
  • Business as Ethical and Business as Usual
  • Escape from Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy Reconciled
  • On Liberty
  • Business as Ethical and Business as Usual
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  • Environmental Philosophy
  • Rand, Ayn. "Ayn Rand’s Q&A on Libertarians", from a 1971 interview.

External links

libertarianism in Afrikaans: Libertynisme
libertarianism in Bulgarian: Либертарианство
libertarianism in Czech: Libertarianismus
libertarianism in Danish: Nyliberalisme
libertarianism in German: Libertarismus
libertarianism in Spanish: Libertarianismo
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libertarianism in Simple English: Libertarianism
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