- What is libertarian philosophy?
The libertarian political philosophy, also known as classical liberalism, has existed in some form for several centuries. Libertarians believe in individual liberty, small government and free markets. The central element of libertarian thought is that people should generally be free to do what they want with what they own, so long as they don’t interfere with other people or property without permission. Consequently, libertarians generally do not support the government getting involved to tell people how to run their lives — either in the economic sphere or in the social sphere.
Libertarians tend to prefer the voluntary interactions of the market and civil society over the government, which uses the threat of violence to force people to follow government rules.
- When did the libertarian movement start?
While the modern libertarian movement started around the 1960s and 70s with the growing popularity of Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, the ideas are much older… though they were often called different names such as “whig”, “classical liberalism” or “liberal democracy”.
Classical liberals ideas were slowly evolving during the 17th and 18th century, and in 1776 the world saw the publication of Adam Smith’s famous book “The Wealth of Nations”, as well as the libertarian-inspired American revolution.
- Who are some famous libertarians?
Have a look at our short-list of libertarian heroes, including Milton Friedman, Frederick Hayek, Ayn Rand and Adam Smith.
- Are libertarians left-wing or right-wing?
Neither and both. Libertarians are sometimes described as ‘economically right-wing’ and ‘socially left-wing’. While this isn’t a perfect explanation, it’s a helpful shortcut.
Some people are confused by what appear to be contradictory positions in libertarianism. Free trade is considered to be right-wing, but drug legalisation is left-wing. Cutting tax is right-wing, but defending civil liberties and gay rights is left-wing. However, all of these libertarian positions share the common principle of decreasing the role of government. In contrast, “left-wing” people often want to have the government control the economy, but not to control our social lives, and “right-wing” people often want to have the government control our social lives, but not the economy.
- Am I a libertarian?
I don’t know. There are several on-line tests you can take to test your political philosophy. In the Australian context there is the Australian Political Quiz (where libertarian = liberal democracy). Internationally there is the World’s Smallest Political Quiz. Then there is the Libertarian Purity Test by Prof Bryan Caplan of George Mason University
- Do libertarians generally agree with each other?
Most libertarians agree on the main points of libertarian philosophy — individual choice, private property rights, much lower taxes, free trade, liberalised industrial relations law, drug legalisation, sexual choice and the rule of law.
However, libertarians also tend to be an argumentative and individualistic bunch so they inevitably disagree on many points. One of the biggest debates within the Australian libertarian community over the last five years has been on foreign policy and the Iraq war. While most American libertarians oppose the war as bad government policy the Australian libertarian community is more divided.
- Are libertarians the same as anarchists?
Not normally. Some more radical libertarians believe that the best government is no government and they believe that the market and voluntary actions can totally replace the government entirely. More information can be found about anarcho-capitalists at Anti-state.org or at the webpage of Professor David Friedman.
However, most libertarians believe there is some role for government and are referred to as either minarchists or moderates. Minarchists believe that the government should maintain law and order, protect property rights and contracts and maintain a defence force, but nothing else. Moderates agree with minarchists on the above points but also want the government to be involved in a few more activities — perhaps providing information, offering a minimal welfare system and/or regulating some elements of life.
- What is the argument for liberty?
Libertarianism can be based on two very different philosophical starting points. Some libertarians believe that free markets and individual freedom should be preferred because they are more moral political systems. Such people argue that it is immoral to take money from people by force and it is immoral to tell people how to live their lives.
The other philosophical position often used by libertarians is utilitarianism. Utilitarian libertarians believe that a small government will lead to better outcomes than a big government. Such people argue that libertarian solutions will lead to greater wealth, less poverty, more diversity and will generally make people happier.
The first philosophical position is concerned with process, while the second is concerned with outcomes. In reality, most libertarians (and most people) care about both.
- What about “positive” freedoms, like education and health?
Some philosophers talk about “positive” freedoms, like access to education, health, shelter, food and other basic elements needed for a happy and healthy life. Libertarians agree that all of these things are good. However, it is misleading to call these things freedoms.
Freedom is about processes, not outcomes. Freedom is the ability to make your own choices free from violence/coercion under the rule of law. Libertarians generally believe that freedom will lead to the best outcomes (including health, education, shelter and food).
In some instances there may be a conflict between liberty and utility. In these cases some libertarians argue that we should sacrifice some liberty in order to get a better outcome, while other libertarians will insist that freedom should always come first.
- How can I find out more?
The International Society for Individual Liberty has produced a Philosophy of Liberty animation to provide a brief introduction to libertarian ideas. The Institute for Humane Studies offers a series of definitions of libertarianism. Or you can just join the discussion on this website or check out our links on this site.