Libertarianism is a social and political philosophy in the Western liberal tradition committed to the advancement of personal liberty. It is distinguished from egalitarianism by its views on property rights and the use of force. Although the term libertarianism first appeared in political discourse in the 1950s, its conceptual framework was firmly established in the 18th and 19th centuries by political economists and philosophers in the “classical liberal” tradition, most notably John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Despite marginal theoretical disagreement, most libertarians agree that the principles of self- ownership and nonaggression are foundational.
The most influential 20th-century libertarian theorists are in the Lockean deontological (rights-based) moral tradition. Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard defend liberty via rights, independent of utilitarian considerations. Other recent scholars are in the teleological (consequentialist) moral tradition of John Stuart Mill. Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek argue that increased personal liberty and small, decentralized government also produces greater individual happiness and social utility than highly centralized government. In the 20th century, libertarian theory was also shaped by outside influences such as Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy.
For Lockean libertarians, all rights are property rights rooted in John Locke’s principle of self-ownership, or the idea that we own ourselves in the same sense that we may own property (natural resources and/or artifacts). Self-ownership limits sets objective limits on what others can do to bodies and our property without our consent. Entitlement to property is based on historical principles or how that property was originally acquired and voluntarily passed on to subsequent owners. Initial historical ownership of undeveloped natural resources resulted from a human person mixing his or her self-owned labor with that previously unowned resource. So, if we own ourselves, then we have a right to the fruits of our labor. The institution of involuntary slavery, for example, is universally morally wrong because it violates the principle of self-ownership and involuntarily deprives individuals of their natural right to what they produce.
Once natural resources come under initial ownership, entitlement to those natural resources and the subsequently human-created artifacts may be transferred to others, if and only if the contract is informed and consensual. Once legitimate ownership is established, neither other individuals nor the government may coercively seize that property. Most libertarians reject all governmental policies that coercively redistribute property based on some patterned, or preferred, end state such as merit, need, equality, or utility.
Recent debate concerning the original status of natural resources has spawned a form of libertarianism known as “left libertarianism,” which, in contrast to “right libertarianism,” argues that natural resources are not initially unowned, but owned collectively by society in some egalitarian manner as public property. Therefore, those who want to acquire unowned natural resources must secure consent or reimburse society for their use. If “social-ownership” is interpreted as “public-ownership,” then and libertarianism’s commitment to “private-ownership” is may be eroded over the long-run, especially if political leaders dole out those natural resources to reward to political cronies and punish political enemies.
Libertarians argue that the non-aggression axiom serves as the universal foundation for both morality and legality. Unprovoked physical aggression is as a violation of property rights via self-ownership. Libertarians follow John Stuart Mill and distinguish between other-regarding acts (harms), which violate the rights of others without their consent, and self-regarding acts, which do not. The inviolable bounds of personal liberty lie within the sphere of self-regarding actions. Self-defense is the only justification for violation of the nonaggression axiom. However voluntary, mutual defense contracts between individuals and groups are possible, but problematic.
Rights impose duties not to kill others or to deprive them of their liberty or property. According to libertarianism, the nonaggression axiom imposes a negative right to life, which posits a duty not to kill others or deprive them of their liberty or their property. There are no positive rights that obligate us to assist others and therefore, there is no “positive right to life.” However, most libertarians are willing to forge mutually-beneficial, voluntary contracts with individuals and voluntary groups that support a positive right to life. All libertarians agree that positive rights might emerge on the basis of contractual mutual benefit, and that a right to life would be more efficiently secured by individual charity and cooperative, nongovernmental organizations than by tax-supported redistributive welfare.
The nonaggression axiom applies to both individuals and governments. Libertarians disagree over the implications of the nonaggression axiom for the nature and scope of the state as it limits government’s ability to raise revenue via coercive taxation or raise an army via involuntary conscription. Most libertarians today are “minarchists,” who support limited government that protects citizens (via an all-volunteer army) from external threats posed by aggressive nations and from internal threats (via a criminal justice system) posed by murderers and thieves. Some radical libertarians are “anarchists” or “anarcho- capitalists,” who argue that all governments (by their very nature) violate the nonaggression axiom or that all governmental functions can be more efficiently served by private individuals, voluntary, nongovernmental associations, and the free market.
Libertarianism, Social Issues, and Global Affairs
Libertarians hold that most social problems are worsened, if not caused by government and therefore seek to empower individuals to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. Most libertarians are free market capitalists who opposed to any government redistribution programs intended to serve the greater good, such as: social welfare, socialized medicine, affirmative action, minimum wage laws, public schools, or urban planning.
Libertarians resist any attempt by powerful individuals or governmental central planners to coercively impose any one moral or religious view as a legal obligation. Therefore, they stand opposed to governmental regulation of marriage, birth control, pornography, and recreational drugs. Libertarian views on abortion, stem cell research, and cloning are contingent on internal arguments over whether self-ownership applies to zygotes, fetuses, and/or clones.
In terms of foreign policy, libertarians hold firm to the nonaggression axiom and therefore declare war only in self-defense or perhaps the defense of non-state allies. In global economic affairs, libertarians embrace free market economic policies and laissez-faire government. Minarchists limit the role of government (national and international) to protecting consumers against theft and fraud, while both minarchists and anarchists oppose governmentally enforced monetary policy, protective tariffs, and anti-sweatshop legislation. Both argue that foreign aid, when appropriate, is best provided by private individuals and nongovernmental organizations (but not governments) to benefit private individuals and groups (but not governments).
On the contemporary political landscape, libertarians are classified as “social liberals” and “economic conservatives.” They are united in their opposition to any individual or group that is willing to violate the non-aggression axiom for the “greater good” (communitarians, egalitarians, and utilitarians). Libertarians, however, disagree among themselves as to whether it is possible for minarchists to maintain small government over the long-run, without expanding into totalitarian statism; and, whether it is possible for anarchists to rely on private, police, judiciaries, and armies for self-defense.
—Ronald F. White
See also Anarchism; Egalitarianism; Friedman, Milton; Hayek, Friedrich A.; Liberalism; Nozick, Robert; Self-Ownership; Shareholder Model of Corporate Governance; Statism
Boaz, D. (1997). Libertarianism: A primer. New York: Free Press.
Friedman, M. (1962). Capitalism and freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hayek, F. A. (1944). The road to serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Narveson, J. (1988). The libertarian idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Narveson J. (2008) You and the state: A short introduction to political philosophy. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield
Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Rothbard, M. (1982). The ethics of liberty. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
Smith, George H. (2013) The system of liberty: Themes in the history of classical liberalism. New York: Cambridge University Press