Libertarianism is a social and political philosophy in the Western Liberal tradition founded on personal liberty. Although the term “libertarianism” did not appear in political discourse until the 1950s, its conceptual framework was firmly established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by philosophers in the “classical liberal tradition;” most notably, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It is distinguished from egalitarianism and communitarianism by its views on property rights and the use of force.
Libertarians in the tradition of John Locke justify the liberty principle on a natural rights argument, while Libertarians in the tradition of John Stuart Mill justify liberty based it on utilitarian arguments. Despite marginal theoretical disagreement, libertarians agree that the principles of self-ownership and non-aggression are foundational.
According to John Locke, legal and moral rights and duties are based on the a priori principle of self-ownership; that is, the self-evident idea that we own ourselves in the same sense that we own property (natural resources and/or artifacts). Self-ownership sets legal and moral limits what others can do to us and/or our property without our consent.
Entitlement to property is based on historical principles; or how that property was originally acquired. Initial ownership is based on individuals (and groups) mixing their own labor with previously unowned resources. Once natural resources come under initial ownership, entitlement to those natural resources and/or the artifacts created out of those resources may be transferred to others, if and only if the contract is informed and consensual. Governmental redistribution of property is limited to returning property to rightful owners, in cases of fraud or theft. Most libertarians reject all governmental policies that coercively redistribute property based on any patterned, or preferred, end state such as: merit, need, equality, or utility.
The institution of slavery, for example, is universally morally wrong because it violates the principle of self-ownership and involuntarily deprives individuals (and groups) of their natural right to own and transfer property.
Libertarians argue that the non-aggression principle is the basic principle of both legality and morality. Unprovoked physical aggression is a violation of property rights via self-ownership. Libertarians follow John Stuart Mill and distinguish between other-regarding acts, 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 non-aggression axiom.
Deontological libertarians distinguish between legal and moral duties (and rights) and between positive and negative duties (and rights). Negative rights impose negative duties upon others; duties to not harm persons or deprive them of their rightfully acquired property. Hence, the non-aggression axiom imposes a negative right to life, which imposes a negative duty not to kill others, deprive them of their liberty, or their property. However, there can be no positive legal rights that obligate individuals to assist others; and therefore there is no “positive legal right to life.” If individuals acknowledge a “positive moral right to life,” that right would be more efficiently fulfilled by individual charity and non-governmental organizations than by governmental, tax-supported redistributive welfare.
Libertarians disagree over the implications of the non-aggression axiom for the nature and scope of statism and the justifiability of raising revenue via taxation, or raising a defensive army via involuntary conscription. Most libertarians today are “minarchists” and therefore, support limited government, where the state may be empowered to protect its citizens from external threats posed by aggressive states (via an all-volunteer army); and from internal threats posed by criminals (murderers, frauds, and thieves) via a criminal justice system.
Some deontological libertarians are “anarchists,” or “anarcho-capitalists” who argue that statism, by definition, violates the nonaggression axiom; and that small governments have a natural propensity to become larger, more aggressive and/or dominated by powerful cronies. Utilitarian anarchists argue that even military and criminal justice can be more efficiently provided by competing private individuals, and voluntary non-governmental associations. .
Libertarianism, Social Issues, and Global Affairs
Libertarians are social liberals and economic conservatives. They argue that most social problems are caused by coercive government; and therefore, seek to empower individuals and groups to make their own decisions and solve their own problems via voluntary cooperation.
Libertarians resist any attempt by political regimes to coercively impose any self-regarding moral or religious view as a legal obligation. They oppose governmental policies that regulate self-regarding acts such as: marriage, birth control, pornography, and recreational drugs. Libertarian views on abortion, stem cell research, and cloning are contingent upon individual beliefs: whether zygotes, fetuses, and/or clones are “persons” or “property.”
Economically, most libertarians embrace free market capitalism and are opposed to governmental regulations intended to serve the public good, such as: urban planning, social welfare, socialized medicine, affirmative action, minimum wage laws, or public schools. Statist market intervention, they argue, invariably advances the interests of the family and friends of governmental officials, or “cronies.”
In global affairs, libertarians embrace free market economic policies and laissez faire government, which seeks to limit or eliminate the role of governmental regimes (national and international) to protecting consumers against theft, and fraud. Most libertarians are opposed to governmentally-enforced monetary policy, national banks, protective tariffs, and/or anti-sweat shop legislation. Most argue that foreign aid, when appropriate, is more effective when provided by individuals and non-governmental organizations directly to individuals who need it and to governments.
In terms of human warfare, libertarians hold firm to the non-aggression axiom and therefore declare war only in self-defense; or perhaps in defense of allied regimes. Preemptive warfare is, therefore, problematic.
On the contemporary political landscape, the primary critics of libertarians are statists, communitarians, and egalitarians.
Ronald F. White
See also liberalism; egalitarianism; self-ownership; shareholder model of corporate governance; anarchism; statism; Hayek, Friedrich A.; Nozick, Robert; Friedman, Milton
Further Readings and References
Boaz, David. (1997). Libertarianism: A Primer. New York: Free Press.
Friedman, Milton, (1962). Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hayek, F.A., (1944). The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Narveson, Jan. (1988). The Libertarian Idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Narveson, Jan, (2008). You and the State: A Short Introduction to Political Philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Nozick, Robert. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Rothbard, Murray. (1982). The Ethics of Liberty. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press.
Smith, George H. (2013). The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism. Cambridge University Press.