The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

REFERENCE DESK
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Libertarianism
David Boaz - 08/13/10

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that advocates individual liberty and limited, constitutional government. Advocates of libertarian views generally regard themselves as belonging to the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, the American founders, and the classical liberals. The term “libertarian” originated in postwar America as the term “liberal” came to mean an advocate of expansive government. A consciously libertarian political movement also developed in the years after World War II.

Libertarianism may be more specifically defined as the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. Libertarians defend each person’s right to life, liberty, and property—rights they believe that people have naturally, before governments are created. In the libertarian view, all human relationships should be voluntary; the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have not themselves used force—actions such as murder, rape, kidnapping, theft, and fraud. Libertarians believe this code should be applied consistently—and specifically, that it should be applied to actions by governments as well as by individuals. Governments should exist to protect rights, to protect individuals from others who might use force against them. When governments themselves use force against people who have not violated the rights of others, libertarians believe that governments are themselves rights violators. Thus, libertarians condemn such government actions as censorship, the draft, price controls, confiscation of property, and regulation of personal and economic choices.

The key concepts of libertarianism have developed over many centuries. The first inklings of them can be found in ancient China, Greece, and Israel; they began to be developed into something resembling modern libertarian philosophy in the work of such seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers as John Locke, David Hume, the French physiocrats, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine. The key concepts of libertarian philosophy include the following:

Individualism: Libertarians see the individual as the basic unit of social analysis. Even the choices and actions of groups can be traced back to the choices and actions of individuals. Libertarian thought emphasizes the dignity of each individual, which entails both rights and responsibility. Libertarians see the progressive extension of rights to more people—to women, and to people of different religions and different races—as one of the great triumphs of the Western world.

Individual rights: Because individuals are moral agents, they have a right to be secure in their life, liberty, and property. These rights are not granted by government or by “society”; they are inherent in the nature of human beings. The burden of explanation should lie with those who would take rights away.

Spontaneous order: A great degree of order in society is necessary for individuals to survive and flourish. It is often assumed that order must be imposed by a central authority. The great insight of libertarian social analysis is that order in society arises spontaneously, out of the actions of thousands or millions of individuals who coordinate their actions with those of others in order to achieve their purposes. Over human history, we have gradually opted for more freedom and yet managed to develop a complex society with intricate organization. The most important institutions in human society—language, law, money, and markets—all developed spontaneously, without central direction. Civil society—the complex network of associations and connections among people—is another example of spontaneous order; the associations within civil society are formed for a purpose, but civil society itself is not an organization and does not have a purpose of its own.

The rule of law: Libertarianism is not libertinism or hedonism. Rather, libertarianism proposes a society of liberty under law, in which individuals are free to pursue their own projects so long as they respect the equal rights of others. The rule of law means that individuals are governed by generally applicable and spontaneously developed legal rules, not by arbitrary commands, and that those rules should protect the freedom of individuals to pursue happiness in their own ways rather than aiming at any particular result or outcome.

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