Libertarianism is a political ideology that attempts to maximize individual liberty and personal autonomy by advocating for extremely limited government.
It is an offshoot of liberalism, which also advocates for individual freedom. However, whereas liberalism tends to embrace democratic institutions for achieving enhanced freedoms, libertarianism tends to mistrust government as a vehicle for maximizing liberty.
As Scott (2014) writes, libertarianism “takes the principles of liberalism to their logical extreme.”
Consistent with its sketpicism of government, libertarianism also tends to be skeptical of expansionism, militarism, and foreign intervention.
Libertarianism tends to be socially liberal and economically conservative, meaning it has been associated with both left- and right-wing politics.
Long (2008) defines it as:
“…radical redistribution of power from the coercive state to voluntary associations of free individuals.”
- Deregulation: Libertarians argue for the reduction or elimination of governments, including restriction of its economic and judicial powers. For instance, a libertarian may advocate for deregulation of business, allowing the free market to operate with minimal government interference. While this maximizes the freedom of businesses, it may lead to situations (especially in economic monopolies) where consumers are exploited and power is centralized by the wealthy (Dourado & Brito, 2014), or in the extreme, anarchic societies.
- Private Property Rights: With a history in Enlightenment liberal philosophy, libertarianism continues to advocate for the importance of private property rights. In other words, they believe that individuals should have the right to acquire, use, and dispose of property as they see fit. For example, we have the right to own our own business, houses, and shares on the stock exchange. Ideally, a libertarian would argue that taxation of property is undue state influence on liberty. Libertarians tend also to embrace intellectual property rights (Palmer, 2016).
- Rule of law: While libertarians tend to embrace minimal government intervention, they do see a place for courts of law to enforce legal contracts between individuals, and to uphold protection of individual liberties. For example, violation of bodily autonomy (e.g. assault) would likely still be policied in a libertarian utopia. Furthermore, libertarians insist that even the government cannot be above the law. An example would be Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance practices, with libertarians arguing that the government, in this case, violated the rule of law by infringing on individuals’ privacy rights (Bamford, 2013).
- Pluralism and Freedom of Religion: In line with their deep respect for individual liberties, libertarians support pluralism, meaning they respect people’s rights to live by their own chosen values, religion, morals, and so on. They do not want any central authority imposing a single dominant view of religion, etc. on the masses. Hence, freedom of religion and freedom of cultural expression are very important to libertarians (Schmidtz, 2018).
- Cosmopolitanism: Further to the concept of pluralism, libertarians endorse cosmopolitanism, which is an idea that all human beings regardless of nation, race, or culture are of equal moral value. As a result, many left-libertarians oppose restrictive immigration laws, trade barriers, and even nationalism, which they see as artificially valuing some people over others. An example of libertarian cosmopolitanism might be the work of Pia Mancini, who advocates for a borderless world in which everyone has a say (Mancini, 2014).
- Cooperation: The introduction to this article contained a quote from Long (2008), which in part endorsed “voluntary associations of free individuals.” Here, we see libertarians embracing cooperation on an individual or corporate basis. Societies, they think, is cooperation between individuals, without undue influence from the state. They believe that when people are free to act according to their own interests, they naturally work together to create mutual benefits. For instance, the sharing economy (e.g. Uber, Upwork, and Airbnb) represents a relatively libertarian marketplace where individuals make agreements with one another in voluntary cooperation (Cohen & Sundararajan, 2015). Of course, some could critique this as possibly leading of coercion when powerful people force less powerful people into employment contracts below the minimum wage, etc.
- Civil Rights: Libertarians ardently champion civil rights. They argue for maximum individual freedom in personal and social activities. They typically oppose any form of government action that infringes on these rights. For example, libertarians were among the earliest advocates for marriage equality, viewing the freedom to marry as a fundamental civil right that should not be restricted by the state (Boaz, 2015).
- Political Rights: Political rights, such as the right to vote, to freedom of speech, and to associate politically, are seen by libertarians as cornerstones of a free society. They argue that individuals should be able to participate in the political process without undue interference or restriction by the government. An example would be the Citizens United case, where libertarians argued for the freedom of corporations and unions to express political speech by funding independent political broadcasts (Smith, 2010) – and we can see where that took our society – it led to big corporate money in politics at an unprecedented level!
- Bodily Autonomy: A pure libertarian viewpoint would hold that all individuals have the right to control their own bodies, and no one has the inherent right to interefere. This can encompass a range of issues, from reproductive rights to euthenasia. For example, libertarians generally oppose prohibition laws on the grounds that they infringe on an individual’s right to choose what to put in their own bodies (Flanigan, 2014). They also oppose mandates for vaccines.
- Freedom of Association: Libertarians strongly advocate for the freedom of association, which is the right of individuals to come together and collectively express, promote, pursue, and defend their ideas. They argue against governmental and institutional interference that would limit or control choice of association. This relates not only to unionism and political association, but also religious association as well (Heckelman, 2017). This generally pro-union stance of the libertarian left can help them to demonstrate how social equality can be part of the libertarian viewpoint.
- Free Trade: Libertarians are proponents of free trade between individuals and corporations, including across state and national boundaries. The infringement of this is an unjust infringement of individual liberty, from a libertarian point of view. This is because this trade represents a voluntary exchange between entities acting out of their own free will. Generally, then, libertarians are against trade barriers, such as tariffs and quotas, that impede the flow of goods and services. Furthermore, a libertarian economist will likely contend that unimpeded free trade will generally increase prosperity as it increases competition, which in turn leads to efficiency in the marketplace (Klein, 2012).
- Freedom of Expression: This is a cornerstone of libertarian philosophy. Libertarians believe in the unrestricted ability of individuals to express their thoughts and ideas without fear of censorship or punishment by the state. Libertarians will likely be “free speech absolutists”, meaning there is nothing off limits for you to say. Nevertheless, some libertarians may also support the freedom to sue someone for libel if someone else’s speech caused damage to your business or reputation (Gillespie, 2018).
- Freedom of Choice: Libertarians place great importance on the freedom of choice. This tends to be particularly associated with school choice, where libertarians think parents should have the choice to send their children to a school of their own choosing, or even choose to homeschool their children. Interesting, schooling is one sticky area for libertarians, because if we didn’t have public schooling offered by the government and paid for by taxes (things libertarians are not fond of!), we would have a substantial section of society who are uneducated (DeAngelis & Makridis, 2020). Freedom of choice may also extend to choice of who to marry and what to do for a profession.
- Freedom of Movement: Libertarians uphold the freedom of movement as a basic human right. People’s physical liberty to move about their country or even the world unimpeded is fundamental to their personal autonomy. This stance often leads libertarians to oppose strict immigration laws and also advocate for liberal bail reforms (Bennett, 2013).
- Individualism: Individualism is at the very core of a libertatian philosophy. It refers to the belief in the primacy and rights of the individual above anything else. In other words, it advocates that no one can compel you to do anything you don’t want to do. Individuals should be allowed to do whatever they so choose, so long as these pursuits do not infringe upon the rights of others. For instance, the libertarian advocacy for laissez-faire capitalism is a manifestation of this individualist philosophy, as it allows individuals to control their own economic activities without state intervention (Gillespie, 2012).
- Skepticism of State Power: A core tenet of libertarianism is skepticism towards state power. This is one core difference between libertarians and liberals. Whereas liberals think that the state can be a tool for maximizing liberty, libertarians believe that the state will inevitably limit liberties. They are wary of state intervention in various aspects of life, including the economy, education, healthcare, and personal choices. This skepticism leads libertarians to advocate for minimal government and maximal individual freedom (McGrew, 2017).
- Skepticism of Authority: Libertarians typically maintain a critical view of authority, whether it originates from the state, religious institutions, or other societal structures. They assert that individuals should be free to question and challenge authority, and should not be obligated to comply with authoritative dictates that infringe upon their freedoms. For example, libertarians have been critical of the extensive power given to law enforcement, arguing for reforms to protect individuals from potential abuses of this power (Balko, 2013).
- Non-interventionism: Libertarians generally advocate for non-interventionism, particularly in foreign policy. They argue that a country should avoid entanglements in other nations’ affairs and should not engage in wars except in self-defense. They maintain that such interventions often result in negative outcomes, such as loss of life, economic disruption, and infringement on civil liberties. An example of this is the libertarian opposition to the U.S.’s involvement in the Iraq War (Carpenter, 2010).
- Right to Privacy: Libertarians believe you have the right to privacy, meaning the police should not be allowed to burst into your house, others should not be allowed to read your phone, and you should generally be left alone to life your life in peace.
Read Next: The Types of Freedom
Balko, R. (2013). Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. PublicAffairs.
Bamford, J. (2013). The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say). Wired.
Bennett, D. (2013). The Right to Migrate: A Human Rights Response. Georgetown Immigration Law Journal, 27, 2, 245-266.
Boaz, D. (2015). The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom. Simon & Schuster.
Carpenter, T. G. (2010). Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes. Cato Institute.
Cohen, M., & Sundararajan, A. (2015). Self-Regulation and Innovation in the Peer-to-Peer Sharing Economy. University of Chicago Law Review Dialogue, 82, 116-133.
Cordato, R. E. (2010). Labor Unions and the Economic Liberties of Employees. Capitalism and Society, 5(2).
DeAngelis, C. A., & Makridis, C. A. (2020). School choice enhances student achievement by harnessing competitive incentives. Journal of School Choice, 14(3), 438-463.
Flanigan, J. (2014). Three arguments against prescription requirements. Journal of Medical Ethics, 40(8), 579-586.
Gillespie, N. (2012). The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America. PublicAffairs.
Gillespie, N. (2018). Freedom of Expression Under Fire. Reason, 50(2), 18-23.
Heckelman, J. C. (2017). Economic Freedom and Labor Union Rights. Economic Inquiry, 55(2), 778-793.
Klein, D. B. (2012). Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation. Oxford University Press.
Long, R. T. (1998). Towards a Libertarian Theory of Class. Social Philosophy and Policy. 15(2): 303–349. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017%2FS0265052500002028
Mancini, P. (2014). How to Upgrade Democracy for the Internet Era. TEDGlobal.
McGrew, S. (2017). The grassroots of a green revolution: polling America on the environment. Routledge.
Schmidtz, D. (2018). Libertarianism. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
Scott, J. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Zerzan, J. (2002). Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization. London: Feral House.
Smith, B. (2010). Citizens United and the Illusion of Coherence. Michigan Law Review, 109, 581-603.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]