Consequentialist libertarians do not have a moral prohibition against "initiation of force," but believe that allowing a very large scope of political and economic liberty results in the maximum well-being or efficiency for a society - even if protecting this liberty involves some initiation of force by government. However, such governmental actions are limited in the free society consequentialists envision. This type of libertarianism is associated with Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek. Some writers who have been called libertarians have also been referred to as classical liberals, by others or themselves. Also, some use the phrase "the freedom philosophy" to refer to libertarianism, classical liberalism, or both.
Libertarians generally do not oppose force used in response to initiatory aggressions such as violence, fraud or trespassing. Libertarians favor an ethic of self-responsibility and strongly oppose conscription and the welfare state, because they believe coercing someone to provide charity and military service is ethically wrong, ultimately counter-productive, or both. Apart from some very basic principles favoring personal freedom and free markets, there is not a canon of "official" libertarian beliefs. Libertarians may disagree with other libertarians over specific issues.
Polls show that 10 to 20 percent of voting-age Americans have libertarian views.
The central tenet of libertarianism is the principle of self-ownership. To libertarians, an individual human being is sovereign over his/her body, extending to life, liberty and property. As such, 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. This is otherwise known as 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. Individualist libertarians favor no governmental constraints at all, based on the assumption that rulers and laws are unnecessary because in the absence of 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.
Many libertarians view life, liberty, and property as the ultimate rights possessed by individuals, and that compromising one necessarily endangers the rest. In democracies, they consider compromise of these individual rights by political action to be "tyranny by the majority", a term first coined by Alexis de Tocqueville, and made famous by John Stuart Mill, which emphasizes the threat of the majority to impose majority norms on minorities, and violating their rights in the process. "...There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them..."
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
Some libertarians 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.
Other libertarians such as Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek justified these rights on pragmatic or consequentialist, as well as moral, grounds. They argued 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 taxing to provide some public goods and some minimal regulation. Some libertarians such as Jan Narveson take the contractarian point of view that rights are a sort of agreement rational people would make before interacting.
Libertarians strongly oppose infringement of civil liberties such as restrictions on free expression (e.g., speech, press, or religious 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 behavior. 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 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.
Libertarians also oppose any laws restricting personal or consensual behavior, as well as laws against victimless crimes. As such, they believe that individual choices for products or services should not be limited by government licensing requirements or state-granted monopolies, or in the form of trade barriers that restrict choices for products and services from other nations. They also tend to oppose legal prohibitions on recreational drug use, gambling, and prostitution. They believe that citizens should be free to take risks, even to the point of actual harm to themselves. For example, while most libertarians may personally agree with the majority who favor the use of seatbelts, libertarians reject mandating their use as paternalistic. Similarly, many believe that the United States Food and Drug Administration (and other similar bodies in other countries like Health Canada in Canada) shouldn't ban unproven medical treatments, that any decisions on treatment be left between patient and doctor, and that government should be limited to passing non-binding judgments about efficacy or safety, if it is allowed to do anything at all.
Some libertarians believe such freedoms are a universal birthright, and they accept any material inequalities or wanton behavior, as long as it harms no one else, likely to result from such a policy of governmental non-intervention. They see economic inequality as an outcome of people's freedom to choose their own actions, which may or may not be profitable. However, many libertarians believe that extreme concentration of wealth in a few hands is a result of state intervention, and that liberty ultimately leads to a more diffuse distribution though not necessarily an equal one. A prime cause of extreme wealth disparity stems from government granting special privileges to some businesses at the expense of consumers and other businesses.
The first known use of a term that has been translated as "libertarian," in a political sense, was by anarcho-communist Joseph Déjacque. in a letter to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1857. The word stems from the French word libertaire (synonymous to "anarchist"), and was used in order to evade the French ban on anarchist publications.
Many anarchists still use the term (e.g., terms translatable as "libertarian" are used as a synonym for anarchism in many non-English languages, like French, Italian and so on), and in the English language socialist anarchism and communist anarchism are often referred to as Libertarian socialism or Libertarian communism respectively to distinguish it from authoritarian Marxist varieties of socialism and communism. In the United States, however, Libertarian refers to members of the American Libertarian party, whose politics might be described as classical liberalism. Those who support similar policies but are not members of the Libertarian party are known as libertarians in the United States and much of the English speaking world.
This form of Libertarianism, in contrast to the socialist forms, draws heavily on classical liberalism, a modern term often used interchangeably with libertarianism. This concept, originally referred to simply as "liberalism," arose from Enlightenment ideas in Europe and America, including the political philosophies of John Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu, and the moral and economic philosophy of Adam Smith. By the late 18th century, these ideas quickly spread with the Industrial Revolution throughout the Western world.
Locke developed a version of the social contract as rule with "the consent of the governed" derived from Natural Rights. The role of the legislature was to protect natural rights in the legal form of civil rights. Locke built on the idea of Natural Rights to propose a labor theory of property; each individual in the state of nature "owns" himself and, by virtue of his labor, owns the fruits of his efforts. From this conception of Natural Rights, an economy emerges based on private property and trade, with money as the medium of exchange.
At around the same period, the French philosopher Montesquieu developed a distinction between sovereign and administrative powers, and proposed a separation of powers among the latter as a counterweight to the natural tendency of administrative power to grow at the expense of individual rights. He believed this separation of powers could work just as well in a Republic as for a limited monarchy, though he personally preferred the latter. Nevertheless, his ideas influenced America's Founding Fathers, and would become the basis upon which political power would be exercised by most governments, both constitutional monarchies and republics, beginning with the United States.
Adam Smith's moral philosophy stressed government non-intervention so that individuals could achieve whatever their "God-given talents" would allow without interference from arbitrary forces. His economic analysis suggested that anything interfering with the ability of individuals to contribute their best talents to any enterprise--a reference to mercantilist policies and monopolistic guilds--would lead to an inefficient division of labor, and hamstring progress generally. Smith stated that "a voluntary, informed transaction always benefits both parties," such that "voluntary" and "informed" meant the absence of force or fraud. He was also against "joint stock companies", what we would call corporations.
During the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers of the United States substantially enshrined the protection of liberty as the primary purpose of government. Thomas Jefferson said that "rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others."
The Marquis de La Fayette imported American ideas of liberty, although some might say re-imported, in drafting the French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, which states:
- Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.
John Stuart Mill, in a reformulation of Jeremy Bentham's notion of utilitarianism, stated that, "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." Mill contrasts this with what he calls the "tyranny of the majority," declaring that utilitarianism requires that political arrangements satisfy the "liberty principle", whereby each person would be guaranteed the greatest possible liberty that would not interfere with the liberty of others, so that each person may maximize his or her happiness. This ideal would be echoed later by English philosopher Herbert Spencer when he espoused the "law of equal liberty," stating that "every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man."
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon advocated an anarchist version of social contract which was not between individuals and the State, but rather "an agreement of man with man; an agreement from which must result what we call society."One of his famous statements is that "anarchy is order." In his formulation of mutualism, he asserted that labor is the only legitimate form of property, stating "property is freedom", rejecting both private and collective ownership of property "property is theft!."However, he later abandoned his rejection of property, and endorsed private property "as a counterweight to the power of the State, and by so doing to insure the liberty of the individual."
By the early 20th century, mainstream thought in many parts of the world began to diverge from an almost exclusive focus on negative liberty and free markets to a more positive assertion of rights promoted by the Progressive movement in the United States and the socialist movement in Europe. Rather than government existing merely to "secure the rights" of free people, many began to agitate for the use of government power to promote positive rights. This change is exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, two of which are negative, namely restricting governments from infringing "freedom of speech" and "freedom of worship," and two of which were positive, declaring a "freedom from want", i.e., government delivery of domestic and foreign aid, and a "freedom from fear", i.e., an internationalist policy for imposing peace between nations.
As "liberal" came to be identified with Progressive policies in several English-speaking countries during the 1920s and 1930s, many of those who espoused the original, minimal-state philosophy began to distinguish their doctrine by calling themselves "classical liberals."
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."
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.
There is also a camp of libertarians in American political philosophy who hold egalitarian principles with the ideas of individual freedom and property rights. They call themselves "left-libertarians."Left-libertarians believe that the initial distribution of property is naturally egalitarian in nature, such that either persons cannot legally appropriate property privately and exclusively or they must obtain permission of all within the political community to do so. Some left-libertarians use the Lockean proviso in such a way as to promote redistributive types of justice in ways compatible with libertarian rights of self-ownership. Some left-libertarians in modern times include Peter Vallentyne, Hillel Steiner, Noam Chomsky, Philippe Van Parijs, and Michael Otsuka, whose book Libertarianism Without Inequality is one of the most egalitarian leaning libertarian texts currently in publication.
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 virtues 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 robust freedom and full self-ownership 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 conservatives differ from many Christian-influenced conservatives in that they tend to favor the separation of church and state. They are usually advocates of gun rights and other personal freedoms. They favor limited government involvement in all factors of life..
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.
US military operations in Iraq have highlighted the tensions between Objectivism and the views of many libertarians. Objectivists have often disagreed with the non-interventionism (often misleadingly and in a pejorative smear word called "isolationism") of many libertarians. They have argued that it is right for the State to take pre-emptive military action when the evidence suggests a genuine risk that another State will initiate coercive use of physical force. Many also would like to see the State more aggressively protect the rights of US individuals and corporations abroad - by means including military action in response to nationalization.
Objectivists reject the oft-heard libertarian refrain that State and government are "necessary evils": for Objectivists, 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.
Libertarianism is often viewed as right-wing by non-libertarians in the United States. Under the concept of fusionism, American libertarians tend to have more in common with traditional conservatives than American liberals, especially with regard to economic and gun control policies. In recent years however, fusionists have begun to call for an alliance between libertarians and liberals in the Democratic party. However, many describe libertarians as being "conservative" on economic issues and "liberal" on social issues. (For example, most libertarians view Texas congressman and former Libertarian U.S. Presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-14) to be a philosophical libertarian, even though he is technically affiliated with the Republican Party.)
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.
While the traditional political spectrum is a line, the Nolan chart turns it to a plane to situate libertarianism in a wider gamut of political thought. In a more current example, conservatives are likely to support a ban on same-sex marriage in the interests of preserving traditional order, while liberals are likely to favor allowing same-sex marriage in the interest of guaranteeing equality under the law. Libertarians are likely to disagree with the notion of government-sanctioned marriage itself. Specifically, they would deny that the government deserves any role in marriage other than enforcing whatever legal contract people choose to enter, and to oppose the various additional rights currently granted to married people.
Instead of a "left-right" spectrum, some libertarians use a two-dimensional space, with "personal freedom" on one axis and "economic freedom" on the other, which is called the Nolan chart. Named after David Nolan, who designed the chart and also founded the United States Libertarian Party, the chart is similar to a socio-political test used to place individuals by the Advocates for Self Government. A first approximation of libertarian politics (derived from these charts) is that they agree with liberals on social issues and with conservatives on economic issues. Thus, the traditional linear scale of governmental philosophy could be represented inside the chart stretching from the upper left corner to the lower right, while the degree of state control is represented linearly from the lower left to the upper right.
Criticism of libertarianism
Critics from the left tend to focus on the economic consequences, claiming that perfectly free markets, or laissez-faire capitalism, undermines individual freedom for many people by creating social inequality, poverty, and lack of accountability on the part of the most powerful.
Criticism of libertarianism from the right tends to focus on issues of tradition and personal morality, claiming that the extensive personal freedoms promoted by libertarians encourage unhealthy and immoral behavior and undermine religion. Libertarians mindful of such criticisms claim that personal responsibility, private charity, and the voluntary exchange of goods and ideas are all consistent manifestations of an individualistic approach to liberty, and provide both a more effective and more ethical way to prosperity and peaceful coexistence. They often argue that in a truly capitalistic society, even the poorest would end up better off as a result of faster overall economic growth - which they believe likely to occur with lower taxes and less regulation. Critics from the right tend to focus on the social consequences, claiming that near unlimited personal freedom in a modern society is too harmful to allow. Libertarians mindful of such criticism claim that personal responsibility is the best defense from harmful activities.
In the 2010 election cycle, the Libertarian Party is fielding 269 candidates for State House across the nation. Libertarians have State House Candidates qualified on the ballot in 31 states. For State Senates, the Libertarian Party is fielding 42 candidates nationwide. Libertarians have State Senate candidates qualified on the ballot in 17 states. Libertarians remain the third largest political party in the nation accounting for 2.4% of State House candidates and 1.5% of State Senate candidates.
- See also: Gubernatorial elections, 2010
- "The Philosophy of Liberty" at the International Society for Individual Liberty
- "What is Libertarian?" by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University
- Libertarianism entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Libertarianism.com by the "Advocates for Self-Government"
- Libertarian FAQ from USENET, last modified May 11, 1998.
- "Comprehensive Listing of Notable Libertarians"
- Political parties and organizations
- Libertarian National Committee / Libertarian Party (U.S.)
- Democratic Freedom Caucus (U.S.)
- Republican Liberty Caucus (U.S.)
- Critical appraisals and opposition
- "Why Corporations Are Not People, And The Unsavory Consequences of Pretending That They Are, A Challenge to 'Libertarians'"
- "Critiques Of Libertarianism" (includes subsections presenting antilibertarian arguments from opposing political standpoints)
- "Libertarianism Makes You Stupid"
- "Why is libertarianism wrong?"
- The Libertarian Vote, by David Boaz and David Kirby. Cato Institute policy analysis paper 580, October 18, 2006
||This article or section needs to be updated.
Note: the factual accuracy of this article may be compromised due to out-of-date information.
Please update the article to reflect recent events, and remove this template when finished.