Silver-level articleLibertarianism

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Libertarians secretly worried that ultimately someone will figure out the whole of their political philosophy boils down to 'get off my property.' News flash: This is not really a big secret to the rest of us.
—John Scalzi[1]

Libertarianism is the antonym of "authoritarianism."[2] In modern usage, it mainly refers to a largely American political and social philosophy that advocates laissez-faire capitalism as a panacea for virtually everything. More left-leaning people consider this to be synonymous with oligarchic corporate rule after the fashion of the American Gilded Age, while the reality-based community tends to realize that one cannot just yank economic theories out of the air and magically expect them to work.

Libertarians themselves tend to believe that the axiom of motivated human action is self-evident, that is, value is subjective and created through transaction, and people subjectively pursue it in their own way. Libertarianism claims that freedom extends to all economic and social spheres and is limited only when it comes into conflict with the same rights of others. The US political party most aligned with libertarianism is the Libertarian Party, whose candidate obtained 0.32% of the popular vote in the in the 2004 Presidential elections.[3] There is also an "Objectivist Party," formed as a spin-off from the Libertarian Party by those who thought that the party's 2008 presidential candidate, Bob Barr, was too left-wing,[4] and a Boston Tea Party (no connection other than ideological to that other tea party) formed as a spin-off by those who thought the Libertarian Party had become too right-wing on foreign policy and civil liberties after the LP deleted much of its platform in 2006.[5]

As it is a philosophy rather than a set of specific issues, libertarianism holds that freedom is good in itself, and then deduces from this the opinion that it also tends to bring about optimal financial prosperity and social/political peace. Government, libertarians believe, is the biggest threat to freedom, because they think it interferes in the lives of its citizens, and do much more harm than good.

Libertarians do not believe that people—individually or through their institutions of government—have the right to interfere through coercion in the affairs of others, and that extends to other nations. This is sometimes referred to as a non-interventionist foreign policy, or isolationism, though usually not in a xenophobic sense. Most of them are not pacifists, however, and strongly promote the concepts of individual responsibility and self-defense, which may extend to the notion that national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of government. Like all people who identify with certain political groups, libertarians have varying views on certain issues, although they agree on general principles. Belief in the power of the free marketplace, however, is usually non-negotiable, as they claim that other liberties would probably not exist without it.

Examples abound in the 20th century of societies that failed badly because of the policy of top-down control exercised by their government—and of one that happens to account for over a fifth of the world's population, and has been generating close to double-digit economic growth for over a decade, ever since it gave up on such extremities of economic top-down control. The "free" world hopes that the trickle of economic freedoms afforded their people will result in some minimal political freedoms developing.[6]


Critical definition

The infamous Nolan chart

There are many critics of libertarianism on both the left and the right. Many accuse libertarians of oversimplifying political issues by relying on such maxims as "the government which governs best is the government which governs least." Some libertarians, however, don't see this as a weakness, but rather as a strength. More frequently, however, the core of libertarianism is seen by its proponents to be the "Non-Aggression Axiom". Though various phrasings exist, this fundamental libertarian philosophy is often stated along the following lines: "You may do as you wish, as long as you do not initiate the use of force." It is applied in various ways to reach policy positions.

Libertarians advocate extensive individual rights. Libertarians advocate a society where "anything that's peaceful and voluntary" would be allowed so long as it does not infringe on anyone's life, liberty, or property, or engender force or fraud. However, the exact nature of a right as "positive" or "negative" differs among libertarians. For example, one might say smoking in public is a personal liberty that affects nobody, whereas another would say it forces secondhand smoke upon those around them, interfering with their own right to not inhale smoke.

In the United States, libertarians are closely associated with opposition to gun control, government surveillance, entitlements, and prohibitory drug policy. While the United States Constitution supports extensive liberty (particularly in the Bill of Rights), libertarians are rarely elected to offices. Cynics have suggested that refusal to provide adequate pork to their district hurts their chances in legislative elections - other cynics point out that if they don't win an election in the first place, how can their "porcine provision" skills be tested or judged? The narrow usage of "libertarian" as a label is also a cause, as some who takes "moderate libertarian" positions are frequently called a "free-market liberal/Democrat" or a "pro-____ rights conservative/Republican" - or even derisive epithets like "libt kiddies."


Many libertarians are inspired to their political philosophy through one of a small number of influential fiction books. The works of novelist Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) and Robert Heinlein (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress) are often cited. For example, many libertarians in the United States might quote Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged when they speak of government:

The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law.
Galt Speech[7], Atlas Shrugged

Other libertarians may point to such works of non-fiction as Libertarianism in One Lesson by David Bergland, which posit a clear set of axioms and then delineate how society might follow them and how it would be best for everyone.

Arguments against strict libertarianism

While a preference for maximal personal freedom is pretty much universal throughout most of the political spectrum (though less so on the fringes), libertarianism presents several difficulties:

  • Libertarian business structures greatly resemble governments hierarchies. It is contradictary to opine that citizens do not need rulers while maintaining that workers need managers.
  • Marxists see no distinction between profit and taxes, as libertarians do. Both are considered theft of wages, the former by a business owner and the latter by a government.
  • Strict libertarianism relies on the distinction between positive and negative liberties, a distinction which is not universally accepted by philosophers.[8]
  • Strict interpretations of freedom to associate offer little incentive to remedy problems created by social stratification; in particular, the principle of "personal ownership" often leads to a blame-the-victim mentality (e.g. Rand's use of the term "parasite" to describe those dependent on public services).
  • Governmental regulation often corrects problems in the market, the best examples are in health care regulations, such as enforcing credentialing for physicians so they are not some nut in a lab coat pretending, making sure pharmaceuticals have the ingredients they say they do, and work, and are relatively safe, ER's being required to treat people regardless of their ability to pay. Many Libertarians don't have an answer for what to do to correct these problems, they just shout the repeated two-word answer without explanation: "free market!"
  • To many strict Libertarians, environmental damage is just a cost of doing business.[9] Regulations to stop or correct for negative externalities caused by private companies are seen as "anti-business". Apparently, not even disastrous economic catastrophes that affected the lives of millions are reason enough to hold the corporations that caused them accountable. For example, Rand Paul (a professed ardent libertarian) criticized government regulation and enforcement to clean up the millions of gallons of oil spilled into the gulf of Mexico as an un-American boot heel on the throat of British Petroleum.[10]
  • Libertarians generally split into those who hold their views on utilitarian grounds and those who base their philosophy on natural rights. Those rights usually include Locke's "life, liberty, and property." This group might be just as accurately called propertarians. While these rights are in principle also affirmed by many non-libertarians, raising "property" to the same inviolable status as "life" causes some problems: a sweeping interpretation would denounce all taxation as illegitimate expropriation, making it impossible to finance even the most essential public services.
  • Libertarians want to push the government away from the banking and finance industries, often recently stating banks/depositors/investors should not have been bailed out by the government in the credit crunch of 2008[11]. None would however wish their own funds to evaporate completely if they had money in these accounts (or investments) and their bank acted irresponsibly. This highlights the often championed "This pain needs to happen for freedom! ...but not to me" witnessed in a good amount of Libertarian thinking.
  • You are reading this page using something originally created by the big, bad gummint.

Like many other political positions, libertarianism is also subject to fundamentalist thinking; in libertarianism this can lead to both figurative and literal arms races (libertarians in the United States are often very anti-gun control), as well as an attraction to fringe groups such as the tax protester movement, and calling for a resumption of the gold standard.

Branches and disputes within libertarianism

While libertarians all generally agree on the premise of the Non-Aggression Axiom, there are internal rifts and disagreement over what extent the Non-Aggression Axiom applies to. On the one hand, there are the Libertarian Party types (colloquially called "Minarchists") who take a position of advocating minimal government, and on the other there are the market anarchists who believe that all the services the government provides are unjust monopolies, which the free market can handle better if let go of by the State. Market anarchists can be split into two groups, "anarcho-mutualists" who believe in a free market but not in capitalism or class, and anarcho-capitalists who believe in completely unregulated capitalism.

There is usually little room in between these two, but even then, there are still different branches within these umbrella terms. On the Minarchist side of the libertarian ideology, there are the Paleo-Libertarians, who advocate a strong return to the Constitution and are somewhat conservative in their arguments to preserve moral law, much like the Old Right Paleo-Conservatives. Ron Paul, who is often viewed as a Libertarian, would more fit the Paleo-Conservative/Libertarian framework, and not actual libertarianism. Additionally, there exist the Geo-Libertarians (who advocate simply a tax on fallow and unused land), Neo-Libertarians (often regarded not in any sense as libertarians, as their political views conflict with the very principles of the Non-Aggression Axiom), and other branches with their own nuances. On the Anarchist side of the spectrum, things tend to be more homogeneous, with the major disagreements usually only amounting to how to achieve a libertarian society and solutions to ethical dilemmas.

This ideological division occurs not only externally in political theory, but philosophically as well. On the one side, there are the deontological natural rights theorists (Murray Rothbard being the most prominent advocate), and on the other are the utilitarian libertarians (David D. Friedman is often the most associated with this view). A few minority nihilists and radical subjectivists exist within these circles, but these views are often seen to be in conflict with the general premises laid out by the Non-Aggression Axiom.


The word 'libertarianism' was used before the current usage came about to refer to anarchists, who are against hierarchies brought about by stratified classes and a state controlled by the wealthy elites, and thus oppose capitalism. Many call themselves 'libertarian socialists', a philosophy championed by Noam Chomsky. The use of "libertarianism" to describe anarchy dates back to the late 1850s, with Le Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement Social being the name of a journal published by anarchist Joseph Dejacque. The term 'libertarian communism' originated in the 1880s, when the French anarchist congress adopted it. As late as 1954, a largely anarcho-syndicalist movement named The Libertarian League was set up in the US. The current Libertarian Party in the US only came into being in early 1970s, well over a 100 years after anarchists had begun using the term to describe themselves. In the US, to quote Murray Bookchin, the "term 'libertarian' itself, to be sure, raises a problem, notably, the specious identification of an anti-authoritarian ideology with a straggling movement for 'pure capitalism' and 'free trade.' This movement never created the word: it appropriated it from the anarchist movement of the [nineteenth] century. And it should be recovered by those anti-authoritarians...who try to speak for dominated people as a whole, not for personal egotists who identify freedom with entrepreneurship and profit." This ideology is now called "libertarian socialism". Many left-libertarians of this school favor equality as much as liberty and argue for fraternal health societies, civil disobedience through the black market, non-capitalist free trade and competitive worker co-ops.

Brief attempt at (right-)libertarian taxonomy in the US

There is a good deal of overlap between these groups, but the hardliners tend to lavish hate on each other.

  • Anarcho-capitalists/Rothbardians: Deontological anarchists in the vein of Rothbard. Walter Block of the LvMI is one. (Most anarcho-capitalists fall into the Rothbardian camp, though a few like David D. Friedman take the more utilitarian approach, and a few like the Voluntaryists follow the pure pacifism of Robert LeFevre.)
  • "Beltway libertarians": The more utilitarian of the bunch and usually associated more with the Chicago school than the Austrian school. The term "Beltway" is used as a pejorative by the hardline anarchists and deontological types to paint them as sell-outs because they've gotten some traction in DC. Prominent Beltway types include the late Milton Friedman and Nick Gillespie.
  • Crank magnets: Usually conspiracy nuts, survivalists, Sovereign citizen types, or gold bugs who think the gummint is out to get them. There are racists, white supremacists and dominionists who want to bring back "states' rights" to resurrect segregation or official state religions or both. Also includes fans of the seasteading, micronation, and vonu movements, "life extension", Galambosianism, Liberty Dollars, and pretty much anything from the Loompanics book catalog. Finally, there are those who take up the mantle of libertarianism because it opposes some federal law they don't like. This usually includes prostitutes, potheads, polygamists, woo-meisters, and peddlers of some form of illegal quackery. May suffer from an excess of colloidal silver in the bloodstream. Alex Jones is the epitome of the crank magnet libertarian.
  • "Paleo-libertarians": A term coined by Lew Rockwell. Their policies are mostly the same as the "Taft Republicans" of the Old Right. They are advocates of the Austrian school, originalism, states' rights, and generally socially conservative despite opposing the drug war and "bedroom laws." Ron Paul falls into this camp.
  • Deontological minarchists: Largely the venerable predecessors of the modern libertarian movement, who were an influence on Rothbard but rejected anarchism, influenced Rand but rejected orthodox Objectivism, etc. The Foundation for Economic Education and Ludwig von Mises go here.
  • Randroids: Usually generic deontological minarchist libertarians, the only difference being that they strictly follow the tenets of Objectivism. Rand herself hated the Libertarian Party and denounced them as poseurs. Alan Greenspan is probably the most famous Randroid.
  • "Techno-libertarians": Generally Silicon Valley inhabitants who attempt to apply hacker culture to politics. Lots of overlap with techno-utopian movements like transhumanism and Singularitarianism. Also overlaps with the seasteading, life extension, and digital-currency crank magnets. The most likely of any of these groups to oppose intellectual property rights, traditionally supported by other types of libertarians. See also Eric S. Raymond and Bitcoin.
  • Vulgar libertarians: Their true ideological motivations are unknown, but they use the language of the "free market" to shill for corporations that don't want to deal with regulations or taxes. They can usually be found at some DC think tank cranking out bogus research while being bankrolled by Koch Industries or Exxon. Steve Milloy is a prime example.
  • South Park Republicans: People who say they are libertarians, but dutifully pull the lever for most anyone with an "R" after their name (not, however, for Ron Paul) every election. In between elections they shill for military interventionism, and attack liberals, but never conservatives, for being enemies of liberty. Their idea of a "libertarian Republican" is Rudy Giuliani. Their only real claim to being libertarians is their irreverent attitude, but this really just boils down to being a jerk for the sake of being a jerk. Glenn Reynolds and Matt Drudge have made a lucrative career pushing their buttons.
  • Civil libertarians: Those whose main attraction to libertarianism is civil liberties of the ACLU sort, anti-war issues, gay rights, marijuana, privacy, police abuses, womens lib, conscription, and so forth. They may view liberals as unreliable on these issues, or they may hold conservative economic views, but in either case they are wary of progressives and liberals, and prefer to align with libertarians. The Cato Institute used to emphasize outreach to them in its early years via Inquiry magazine and The Libertarian Review. Today, Radley Balko might be a prominent example.
  • Partyarchs: Those for whom the Libertarian Party and the libertarian movement are one and the same thing. Ideologically suspect to the more hard-core, they differ from Beltway libertarians primarily in that they prefer to throw all their effort into building the Libertarian Party. They typically want to trim and gut the party platform to attract more people, and/or disseminate an oversimplified version of the libertarian message in the name of "effective communication". Fond of using the World's Smallest Political Quiz and other materials from the Advocates for Self-Government. Examples: Michael Cloud, Wayne Allyn Root.

Quotes on libertarianism

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that engenders much passionate feeling in both support and opposition. (Though with less than one percent of the popular vote, this passionate feeling is presumably limited to a rather small group.) This section relates a few of the pithier quotes on both sides of the debate, usually in reference to capitalist libertarianism.


  • "A Libertarian is just a Republican who takes drugs." - essayist Bob Black. [12]
  • "He always pictured himself a libertarian, which to my way of thinking means 'I want the liberty to grow rich and you can have the liberty to starve.' It's easy to believe that no one should depend on society for help when you yourself happen not to need such help." - Isaac Asimov on Robert A. Heinlein and libertarian ethics [13]
  • "That's libertarians for you — anarchists who want police protection from their slaves." - Kim Stanley Robinson
  • "A libertarian is just a Republican who wants to smoke dope and get laid" - Thom Hartmann [14]
  • "I’d rather vote for Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, or Jerry Lewis. I don’t think they’re as funny as Professor Hospers and the Libertarian Party." - Ayn Rand[15]
  • "One of the more pretentious political self-descriptions is “Libertarian.” People think it puts them above the fray. It sounds fashionable, and to the uninitiated, faintly dangerous. Actually, it’s just one more bullshit political philosophy." - George Carlin[16]


  • "If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?" - Frederic Bastiat[17]
  • "Legalize Freedom: Vote Libertarian!" - Slogan of the US Libertarian Party (this is a lie).[18]
  • "This country is a one-party country. Half of it is called Republican and half is called Democrat. It doesn't make any difference. All the really good ideas belong to the Libertarians." - Hugh Downs, on the 20/20 TV show in 1997[19]
  • "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." - Grover Norquist.[20]
  • "You speak as if you were fighting for some sort of principle, Mr. Rearden, but what you're actually fighting for is only your property, isn't it?" — "Yes, of course. I am fighting for my property. Do you know the kind of principle that represents?" - Ayn Rand.[21]
  • "The existence of the state is inseparable from the existence of slavery." - Karl Marx.
  • "However, it is important to remember that the true purpose of regulation is to limit competition, not protect the public." - "Health freedom" supporter DayOwl[22]


Systems that attempt to boil themselves down to "a few simple rules" seldom are actually simple; for example, ancient Judaism's Deuteronomic reforms started out as just about half of the modern book of Deuteronomy, but eventually grew to encompass the whole Torah, large swaths of the rest of the Jewish Bible, [23] and ultimately to the vast body of commentary known as the Talmud. Esperanto, though defined in only sixteen grammatical rules, is actually quite a complex language, since its rules are defined in direct relation to established rules in Indo-European linguistics. Even some sports -- particularly golf -- have a strong element of common law in their rule systems.

There is essentially no guarantee that a society built on a libertarian legal structure would remain that way without redeveloping some sort of common law structure, or even a statutory structure that codifies all precedents. Given that most societies governed by rule of law already have this, it's hard to see what would be accomplished other than a massive reinvention of the wheel. [24]

The United States, for instance, is almost a truly libertarian country, even today, since the only laws it has are to "adjudicate between free men". Starting with a base, at least at the federal level (after the collapse of the Articles of Confederation) of a fairly simple Constitution, and some Roman and English common law, the country's government has evolved as a balance between virtually total liberty, and adjudicating the inevitable conflicts that arise between free men (or, in the case of drug laws, sodomy laws, etc., between the government and one somewhat unfree man). This adjudication has taken the form both of legislation to deal with issues that arose, and judicial analysis of the application of such legislation. Of course, 240 years offers a lot of opportunity for "free men" to need adjudication, so now, to self-styled "libertarians", the results look needlessly complicated. Such is life in the real world.


  • Bob Barr, 2008 Libertarian Party candidate for President. A former Republican and congressman, Barr left the Republican party in 2004, endorsing the Libertarian candidate. Within the libertarian community, respect for Barr shifts constantly. Most consider him, even after his conversion, at best a moderate libertarian. One of the founders of the Libertarian Party has asked people to stop donating money to him, because he is a poor representative of the Libertarian Party and the Libertarian Party's principles, but to still vote for him as a vote for the party.
  • Milton Friedman, an American Nobel Laureate. Although often regarded as a libertarian, he departs from the laissez faire principles in his support of the Chicago School's economic ideology of Monetarism instead of the free market ideology of Austrian economics. His book, "Free to Choose", probably the one most widely read, is an excellent treatment of the free marketplace. Friedman controversially advised the Pinochet regime in Chile to follow a course suggested by his economic theories, his reasoning being that a return to democracy without an economic recovery would be impossible. Pinochet peacefully stepped down from power in 1990,[25] but the long-term effects of Friedman's role are still hotly debated.
  • Ron Paul, a Christian libertarian, was a candidate for president on the Republican side in 2008, and managed, for the first time, to be included in televised debates. He was able to get much more TV airtime than any previous libertarian. Some libertarians consider him a paleoconservative. Many differ from his views on immigration and religious faith, and think that his federalism (not to mention his refusal to address allegations of racist connections) is a cop out.
  • John Stossel, of ABC NEWS fame, produces hour-long special programs that contrast the Libertarian approach to issues against a statist approach. One of them, "Sick in America", attempts to rebut Michaels Moore's "Sicko" film, and can still be seen on YouTube. His book, "Give Me a Break", tackles libertarian principles by presenting simple examples. Stossel's critics, however, believe he relies far too much on scoffing and not enough on hard evidence.
  • John Locke, whose philosophy and essays had a profound effect on Thomas Jefferson (ref: U.S. Declaration of Independence), and laid the basis of modern libertarianism. His theory of value and property was especially significant.
  • Ayn Rand, who preached Objectivism and denounced libertarianism, is nevertheless the author of several works that were influential in setting many a reader onto a libertarian path. She objected to those libertarians who supported removing age of consent laws.
  • Neil Boortz, talk radio host and self-described libertarian
  • Mikhail Bakunin, an influential libertarian socialist, and strong rival with Marx, though it is suspected that this rivalry could be more personal than ideological.
  • Robert Heinlein, who postulated libertarian societies in many of his science fiction novels.

Associated organizations

The following institutions and groups are closely or loosely associated with modern libertarianism:

Not to be confused with

  • Librarianism, also a philosophy, but more about cataloging books and helping people find them, no matter what the book is about. Librarians also hate totalitarian regimes, as they tend to be real jerks when it comes to stocking unpopular or controversial books. Just don't talk in their libraries.

See also

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Libertarianism.

External links



  1. [1]
  2. According to, e.g., the Political Compass.
  3. Libertarian Party gets 0.32% of popular vote
  6. Hint: They hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, and made most of the things you bought last year.
  7. The Galt Speech is available at this hilariously named website
  8. Positive and Negative Liberty, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  9. Why Libertarians Must Deny Climate Change, George Monbiot
  10. Rand Paul: Obama Sounds 'Un-American' For Criticizing BP Over Gulf Oil Spill (VIDEO)
  11. Business Insider: Bear Stearns Should have Gone Bankrupt
  12. third sentence.
  13. I. Asimov: A Memoir, 1994. Page number depends on edition, in the 1995 Bantam paperback edition it is on page 311
  14. This is a tougher quote to "prove": He says it on his radio show once every two or three weeks, but may not have committed himself to print.
  16. Napalm and Silly Putty by George Carlin
  17. Frederic Bastiat: The Law. See the Wikipedia article on Frederic Bastiat.
  18. According to the internet, but the party website doesn't mention it. Their current slogan appears to be "Smaller Government * Lower Taxes * More Freedom".
  19. He had a point though
  20. "Conservative Advocate." Morning Edition (NPR): May 25, 2001.
  21. Atlas Shrugged: the Trial of Hank Rearden.
  22. Commenting on the medical science blog Respectful Insolence
  23. Or at least the parts such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the bulk of Job, etc. that aren't prophecy, simple narrative, or worship music.
  24. And this, to a non-libertarian at least, is a best-case scenario. Libertarian theorists haven't successfully convinced their critics that an unregulated market won't lead to corporate oligarchy or even neo-feudalism, a scenario that already exists in some industrial areas and was famously lamented by Tennessee Ernie Ford in his hit protest song "Sixteen Tons".
  25. After a 17 year reign in which 3,197 people were murdered, about 29,000 people were tortured, and he personally pocketed US$28M.
  26. BBC News on Stan Jones
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