Libertarianism is a political theory that advocates the maximization of individual liberty in thought and actionand the minimization or even abolition of the state. Libertarians embrace viewpoints across a political spectrum, ranging from pro-property to anti-property and from minimal state (or minarchist) to openly anarchist.
Libertarians have been described as "left" or "right" depending on their views of property rights over natural resources. And both assert their views are predominant worldwide. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, right libertarians hold that the resources "may be appropriated by the first person who discovers them, mixes her labor with them, or merely claims them—without the consent of others, and with little or no payment to them." Left-libertarians hold "that unappropriated natural resources belong to everyone in some egalitarian manner." However, some libertarians reject being described as "left" or "right." Leonard Read rejected them as "authoritarian." Libertarian author and politician Harry Browne wrote: "We should never define Libertarian positions in terms coined by liberals or conservatives – nor as some variant of their positions." The term "libertarianism" may to refer to either socialist anarchism or a newer laissez-faire capitalist political movement, both have little to do with each other.
The term libertarian in a metaphysical or philosophical sense was first used by late-Enlightenment free-thinkers to refer to those who believed in free will, as opposed to determinism. The first recorded use was in 1789 by William Belsham in a discussion of free will and in opposition to "necessitarian" (or determinist) views.
The French anarchist communist Joseph Déjacque employed the term libertarian in a political sense in a 1857 open letter criticizing Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Déjacque said Proudhon was "libéral et non LIBERTAIRE" (liberal but not libertarian), that is, the neologism was coined specifically as a distinction from the classical liberalism that Proudhon advocated in relation to economic exchange, in contrast to the more communist approach advocated by Déjacque. From 1858 until 1861 Déjacque published in New York a journal called Le Libertaire: Journal du Mouvement Social. Since the 1890s the term "libertarianism" has often been used as a synonym for left wing anarchism or libertarian socialism, and exclusively so until the 1950s in the United States.
Enlightenment ideas of individual liberty, limited government, peace and a free market were part of 19th century liberalism. While liberalism kept that meaning in most of the world, modern liberalism in the United States began to take a more statist approach to economic regulation. While conservatism in Europe continued to mean conserving hierarchical class structures through state control of society and the economy, some conservatives in the United States began to refer to conserving traditions of liberty. This was especially true of the Old Right, who opposed the New Deal and U.S. military interventions in World War I and World War II.
Those who held to the earlier liberal views began to call themselves market liberals, classical liberals or libertarians to distinguish themselves (Some limited government advocates still use the term "libertarianism" almost interchangeably with the term classical liberalism.) Libertarian parties of the English speaking world describe libertarianism in this way.
The Austrian School of economics, influenced by Frédéric Bastiat and later by Ludwig von Mises, also had a powerful impact on both economic teaching and libertarian principles. It influenced economists and political philosophers and theorists including Henry Hazlitt, Israel Kirzner, Murray Rothbard, Walter Block and Richard M. Ebeling.
Ayn Rand's international best sellers The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) and her books about her philosophy of Objectivism influenced modern libertarianism. Two other women also published influential pro-freedom books in 1943, Rose Wilder Lane's The Discovery of Freedom and Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine.
Arizona United States Senator Barry Goldwater's libertarian-oriented challenge to authority had a major impact on the libertarian movement, through his book The Conscience of a Conservative and his run for president in 1964. Goldwater's speech writer, Karl Hess, became a leading libertarian writer and activist.
The Vietnam War split the uneasy alliance between growing numbers of self-identified libertarians, anarchist libertarians, and more traditional conservatives who believed in limiting liberty to uphold moral virtues. Libertarians opposed to the war joined the draft resistance and peace movements and organisations such as Students for a Democratic Society. They began founding their own publications, like Murray Rothbard's The Libertarian Forum and organizations like the Radical Libertarian Alliance.
The split was aggravated at the 1969 Young Americans for Freedom convention, when more than 300 libertarians organized to take control of the organization from conservatives. The burning of a draft card in protest to a conservative proposal against draft resistance sparked physical confrontations among convention attendees, a walkout by a large number of libertarians, the creation of libertarian organizations like the Society for Individual Liberty, and efforts to recruit potential libertarians from conservative organizations. The split was finalized in 1971 when conservative leader William F. Buckley, in a 1971 New York Times article, attempted to divorce libertarianism from the freedom movement. He wrote: "The ideological licentiousness that rages through America today makes anarchy attractive to the simple-minded. Even to the ingeniously simple-minded."
In 1971, David Nolan and a few friends formed the Libertarian Party. Attracting former Democrats, Republicans and independents, it has run a presidential candidate every election year since 1972. By 2006, polls showed that 15 percent of American voters identified themselves as libertarian. Over the years, dozens of libertarian political parties have been formed worldwide. Educational organizations like the Center for Libertarian Studies and the Cato Institute were formed in the 1970s, and others have been created since then.
Philosophical libertarianism gained a significant measure of recognition in academia 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. According to libertarian essayist Roy Childs, "Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia single-handedly established the legitimacy of libertarianism as a political theory in the world of academia."
Libertarian socialists such as Noam Chomsky and Colin Ward have stated that the term libertarianism is considered throughout the world a synonym for anarchism, despite the fact that within the United States in recent decades it has become more usually associated with free market positions. Academics as well as proponents of the latter note that free market libertarianism has been successfully propagated beyond the US since the 1970s via think tanks and political parties to the extent that libertarianism is increasingly employed elsewhere to identify a free market pro-property stance.
Freedom by area
Libertarians are committed to the belief that individuals, and not states or groups of any other kind, are both ontologically and normatively primary; that individuals have rights against certain kinds of forcible interference on the part of others; that liberty, understood as non-interference, is the only thing that can be legitimately demanded of others as a matter of legal or political right; that robust property rights and the economic liberty that follows from their consistent recognition are of central importance in respecting individual liberty; that social order is not at odds with but develops out of individual liberty; that the only proper use of coercion is defensive or to rectify an error; that governments are bound by essentially the same moral principles as individuals; and that most existing and historical governments have acted improperly insofar as they have utilized coercion for plunder, aggression, redistribution, and other purposes beyond the protection of individual liberty.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states "libertarianism holds that agents initially fully own themselves and have moral powers to acquire property rights in external things under certain conditions." It notes that libertarianism is not a "right-wing" doctrine because of its opposition to laws restricting adult consensual sexual relationships and drug use, and its opposition to imposing religious views or practices and compulsory military service. However, it notes that there is a version known as "left-libertarianism" which also endorses full self-ownership, but "differs on unappropriated natural resources (land, air, water, etc.)." "Right-libertarianism" holds that such resources may be appropriated by individuals. "Left-libertarianism" holds that they belong to everyone and must be distributed in some egalitarian manner.
"Left" anti-property libertarians are opposed to state power and various forms of private property. They also oppose patriarchy and racism. These libertarians often believe in the abolition of private property and may be called non-propertarian or anti-propertarian. They do not seek state solutions, instead looking to voluntary and popularly controlled associations.
Isaiah Berlin's 1958 essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" described a difference between negative liberty which limits the power of the state to interfere and positive liberty in which a paternalistic state helps individuals achieve self-realization and self-determination. He believed these were rival and incompatible interpretations of liberty and held that demands for positive liberty lead to authoritarianism.
Libertarians contrast two ethical views: consequentialist libertarianism, which is the support for liberty because it leads to favorable consequences, such as prosperity or efficiency and deontological libertarianism (also known as "rights-theorist libertarianism," "natural rights libertarianism," or "libertarian moralism") which consider moral tenets to be the basis of libertarian philosophy. Others combine a hybrid of consequentialist and deontologist thinking. Another view, contractarian libertarianism, holds that any legitimate authority of government derives not from the consent of the governed, but from contract or mutual agreement.
Libertarians maintain that what is immoral for the individual must necessarily be immoral for all state agents and that the state should not be above the law.
Forms of libertarianism
Libertarian views vary in respect to how much state will survive in a libertarian society and how much private property should be held by individuals and groups.
Anarcho-capitalism is an individualist anarchist political philosophy that advocates the elimination of the state and the elevation of the sovereign individual in a free market. In an anarcho-capitalist society, law enforcement, courts, and all other security services are provided by voluntarily-funded competitors such as private defense agencies rather than through compulsory taxation. Because personal and economic activities are regulated by the natural laws of the market through private law rather than through politics, victimless crimes and crimes against the state would be rendered moot.
Anarcho-capitalists argue for a society based in voluntary trade of private property (including money, consumer goods, land, and capital goods) and services in order to maximize individual liberty and prosperity, but also recognize charity and communal arrangements as part of the same voluntary ethic. Though anarcho-capitalists are known for asserting a right to private (individualized or joint non-public) property, some propose that non-state public/community property can also exist in an anarcho-capitalist society. For them, what is important is that it is acquired and transferred without help or hindrance from the compulsory state. Market anarchists believe that the only just, and/or most economically-beneficial, way to acquire property is through voluntary trade, gift, or labor-based original appropriation, rather than through aggression or fraud.
Beyond their agreeing that security should be privately provided by market-based entities, proponents of free-market anarchism differ in other details and aspects of their philosophies, particularly justification, tactics and property rights.
Murray Rothbard and other natural rights theorists hold strongly to the central non-aggression axiom, while other free-market anarchists such as David D. Friedman utilize consequentialist theories such as utilitarianism. Agorists, anarcho-capitalists of the Rothbardian tradition, and voluntaryists are propertarian market anarchists who consider property rights to be natural rights deriving from the primary right of self-ownership.
Anarcho-capitalists have varying views on how to go about eliminating the state. Rothbard advocates the use of any non-immoral tactic available to bring about liberty. Agorists – followers of the philosophy of Samuel Edward Konkin III – propose to eliminate the state by practising tax resistance and by the use of illegal black market strategies called counter-economics until the security functions of the state can be replaced by free market competitors.
Geolibertarianism is a political movement that strives to reconcile libertarianism and Georgism (or "geoism"). The term was coined by Fred Foldvary. Geolibertarians are advocates of geoism, which is the position that all land is a common asset to which all individuals have an equal right to access, and therefore if individuals claim the land as their property they must pay rent to the community for doing so. Rent need not be paid for the mere use of land, but only for the right to exclude others from that land, and for the protection of one's title by government. They simultaneously agree with the libertarian position that each individual has an exclusive right to the fruits of his or her labor as their private property, as opposed to this product being owned collectively by society or the community, and that "one's labor, wages, and the products of labor" should not be taxed. In agreement with traditional libertarians they advocate "full civil liberties, with no crimes unless there are victims who have been invaded." In the voluntary geolibertarianism described by Foldvary, rent would be collected by private associations with the opportunity to secede from a geocommunity if desired.
Left-libertarianism is usually regarded as doctrine that has an egalitarian view concerning natural resources, believing that it is not legitimate for someone to claim private ownership of such resources to the detriment of others. 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 and Michael Otsuka. The term is also sometimes used as a synonym for libertarian socialism.
Left libertarians believe that corporations, capitalism and private ownership are as oppressive as the state. Therefore, the left-libertarians believe resources should be controlled by the public in as democratic a manner as possible.
Some members of the U.S. libertarian movement, including the late Samuel Edward Konkin III, and such members of the Alliance of the Libertarian Left as Roderick T. Long, and Gary Chartier support property rights and identify themselves with the political Left for a variety of reasons. They tend to oppose intellectual property, war and state policies that make and keep people poor, and to support labor unions and non-violent challenges to exclusion, subordination, impoverishment, and workplace oppression. They support voluntary cooperation.
Libertarian conservatism, also known as conservative libertarianism (and sometimes called right-libertarianism), describes certain political ideologies which attempt to meld libertarian and conservative ideas, often called "fusionism". Anthony Gregory writes that right, or conservative, "libertarianism can refer to any number of varying and at times mutually exclusive political orientations" such as being "interested mainly in 'economic freedoms'"; following the "conservative lifestyle of right-libertarians"; seeking "others to embrace their own conservative lifestyle"; considering big business "as a great victim of the state"; favoring a "strong national defense"; and having "an Old Right opposition to empire."
Conservatives hold that shared values, morals, standards, and traditions are necessary for social order while libertarians consider individual liberty as the highest value. Laurence M. Vance writes: "Some libertarians consider libertarianism to be a lifestyle rather than a political philosophy... They apparently don't know the difference between libertarianism and libertinism."