Libertarianism is a political philosophy, according to which the state that governs best governs least. Individuals should be free to do anything they want, so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others to do what they want. The only legitimate use of force, whether public or private, is to protect those rights. For libertarians, there are no 'positive' rights to food or shelter or health care, only 'negative rights' to not be aggressed, abused, robbed from one's legitimately acquired property.
The term 'libertarianism', in this sense, although in itself much older, was only largely used since 1955. The term was first introduced in the United States by thinkers who saw themselves as continuing the classical liberal tradition of the previous century. By that time the term liberalism had come to refer within the United States to belief in moderate government regulation of the economy and moderate government redistribution of wealth. These thinkers therefore called themselves libertarians; and from the United States the term has spread to the rest of the world.
However, there is still confusion, because the french word 'libertaire', the spanish word 'libertario', etc., usually translated into english as 'libertarian', traditionally referred to some kind of socialist anarchism or libertarian communism, whereas (modern US term) libertarians are not socialists at all, and most of them are not anarchists, but minarchists, that is advocates of some minimal state.
Libertarianism and Classical Liberalism
Libertarians see their origins in the earlier 17th to 20th century tradition of classical liberalism, and often use that term as a synonym for libertarianism, particularly outside of the USA.
Some, particularly in the USA, argue that while Libertarianism has much in common with the earlier tradition of classical liberalism, it must be distinguished for historical reasons, the term classical liberalism being restricted to apply only to thinkers from earlier periods. Others, particularly outside the US, think that just a change in name doesn't mean the tradition is different, all the more since they indifferently use the words "libertarianism" and "classical liberalism" to denote the same tradition.
In any case, whether you equate them or not, Libertarianism shares all the opinions, methods, and approaches of earlier classical liberalism.
Libertarianism in the political spectrum
In some countries (e.g. Poland) libertarianism is called "conservative-liberalism", where "conservative" means non-socialist. In the US also, some libertarians feel conservative and some conservatives feel libertarian, because both groups recognize as theirs the ideology of the founding fathers of the USA. Still, it is possible to distinguish quite neatly two different and often opposite traditions, and it is only a matter of terminology when confusion occurs. This opposition is clearly explained in Friedrich Hayek's article "Why I Am Not A Conservative".
Libertarianism has significant differences with both conservatism and liberalism (as those terms are used in the United States): see political spectrum. Libertarians consider that conservatives approve of economic freedoms but not of personal freedoms, whereas liberals approve of personal freedoms and not economic freedoms, and that they libertarians claim all these freedoms.
Libertarians prefer not to be called "right-wing". Indeed, they reject the two-dimensional left/right dichotomy (see the World's Smallest Political Quiz), and there were times when those with similar views were considered left-wing on the political space (for instance, in the seventeenth century, the Whigs were revolutionaries, and in 1848, Frederic Bastiat was seating rather on the left side of the Assembly) - indeed, the balance of political opinions has shifted a lot, while the anti-political tradition of libertarianism has not moved, only evolved and grown.
Individuality, Liberty, Responsibility, Property
The fundamental values that libertarians fight for are individual liberty, individual responsibility and individual property. Libertarians have an elaborate theory of these values that they defend, that does not always match the 'common sense' regarding liberty, and that strictly opposes collectivist views in this regard.
The classic problem in political philosophy of determining what, if ever, can legitimize a property title, is essential to libertarians. Libertarians justify individual property on one's body, the results of one's own work, what one obtains from the voluntary concession of a former legitimate owner, through trade, gift or inheritance, etc. Ownership of disputed natural resources is more problematic and libertarian solutions (homesteading, etc.) have been studied from John Locke to Murray Rothbard.
Libertarians consider that there is an extended domain of individual freedom defined by every individual's private property, and that no one, either private citizen or government, may under any circumstances, violate this property. Indeed, libertarians consider that no organization, including government, can have any right bar those that are voluntarily delegated to it by its members - which implies that these members must have had these rights to delegate them to begin with.
Thus, according to libertarians, taxation is inherently evil, and government spending and regulations should be reduced in as much as they replace voluntary private spending with involuntary public spendings, and replace private morality with public coercion. To libertarians, governments should not establish schools, regulate industry, commerce or agriculture, or run social welfare programs. Nor should government restrict free speech, sexual practices, gambling, drug usage, or any other 'victimless' crimes. For libertarianism, government's main imperative should be: 'Laissez Faire' - Hands off!
Anarchists and Minarchists
The minarchists believe that a guardian state is necessary to guarantee property rights and civil liberties, and for that purpose only. For them, the proper functions of government might include the maintainance of the courts, the police, the military, and perhaps a few other vital functions.
The anarchists (called anarcho-capitalists, to differentiate them from left-anarchists), believe that even in matters of justice and protection (or particularly in such matters), action by competing private responsible individuals (alone or organized in businesses) is much better than action by monopolist governments.
Minarchists consider that they are realist while anarchists are utopian to believe that State can be done without. Anarchists consider that they are realist and that minarchists are utopian to believe that State can be contained within reasonable limits.
This division is very friendly, and not the source of any deep enmity, despite the sometimes involved arguments: libertarians feel much more strongly about their common defense of individual liberty, responsibility and property, than about their possible minarchist vs anarchist differences.
Many libertarians don't take position with regards to this division, and don't care about it. Indeed, many libertarians consider that governments exist and will exist in the foreseeable future, so that their efforts are better spent fighting, containing and avoiding the action of governments than trying to figure out what life could or couldn't be without them.
Utilitarianism and Natural Law
Libertarians tend to take either one of an axiomatic natural law point of view, or a utilitarian point of view, in justifying their beliefs. Some of them (like Frederic Bastiat), claim a natural harmony between these two points of view (that would indeed be but different points of view on a same truth), and consider it irrelevant trying to establish one as truer.
An exposition of utilitarian libertarianism appears in David Friedman's book The Machinery of Freedom, which includes a chapter describing an allegedly highly libertarian culture that existed in Iceland around 800 AD.
For natural law libertarianism, see for instance Murray Rothbard.
See also relevant paragraphs about this difference in points of view in the article about Anarcho-capitalism.
Controversies among libertarians
Libertarians do not agree on every topic. Although they share a common tradition of thinkers from centuries past to nowadays, no thinker is ever argued as a common authority whose opinions to blindly accept, only as a reference to which to compare one's opinions and arguments.
For instance, one question that divides libertarians is intellectual property.
- Most libertarians don't have a strong opinion on the topic, and prefer to let society decide and accept whatever exists.
- A few utilitarian minarchist libertarians (particularly after Ayn Rand) accept the common IP justifications, and justify it as a governmental privilege in the name of innovation.
- Some natural-law libertarians think that they are justified, and thus must have all the usual attributes of property, including the ability to be inherited till the end of times.
- Many libertarians think that they are a form of robbery, like all those fake property rights that only hold because of governmental oppression.
- Natural-law libertarians agree that whether IP rights be justified or not, it is not up to the state to decide whether and how to impose them - either they are justified in natural law, and should hold despite any governmental decision, or they are unjustified, and should be considered void despite any governmental decision.
- Anarcho-capitalists might differ as to the final answer, but agree that the optimal answer would emerge from a free market in justice and protection.
Another controversial question is immigration.
- Most libertarians consider that governments shouldn't have any authority on deciding who can go where.
- However, they also consider that individuals have the right to forbid people to trespass through their private property, and that ultimately, all land should be private property.
- The controversy is thus mostly among libertarians interested in governmental policy, assuming government exists (independently of whether it should or not): what should governments do in absence of a free market for immigration?
- Anarcho-capitalists might differ as to what they think the final outcome would be, but agree that the optimal answer would emerge from a free market in justice and protection.
- (Todo: Compare Hans Hermann Hoppe to Ken Schoolland).
- See also: capitalism; anarcho-capitalism; minarchism; anarchism; classical liberalism.
- Oppose: mercantilism; conservatism; collectivism; Fabianism; socialism; communism; Welfare state; planned economy; state interventionism; nazism; fascism.
- Related topic: Civil_Society
- Two libertarian organizations: the International Society for Individual Liberty and Libertarian International