Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Despite the obstacles of many centuries, national boundaries, and terminology confusion, the tradition known since the 1950s as libertarianism forms a coherent legacy from its founding by fathers John Locke and Adam Smith in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through its organization as a U.S. political party in 1971 and beyond. This individualist political theory has spawned classic works, inspired revolutions, fueled activist movements, and earned Nobel Prizes. Its history has included a rise and decline, and the end of the twentieth century revealed a reemergence for this long-lived tradition. Individual rights, property, constitutionalism, and universalism form the heart of libertarianism.
It is not unusual for the term libertarianism to bring blank stares from theorists and politicians alike; one joke suggests that a libertarian is what you get when you cross a libertine with a librarian. Although the term libertarianism is rather new, the political theory it represents—at different times also called liberalism or classical liberalism, among various other things—can be traced back to classical thought. An intellectual child of the West, libertarianism gained supporters and lost momentum in its long history, only to enjoy a new popularity around the globe at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. The broad principles of libertarianism allowed the tradition to grow, evolve, and adapt to new political and technological realities across the planet and centuries.
The first seeds of libertarian thought appeared in ancient Greece and Rome. For example, the Greek Sophists embraced the idea of equality among individuals; some went so far as to criticize the prevailing belief in natural slavery. The Athenian Pericles (c. 495-429 B.C.) praised the Greek polis and its system of equality under the law in his famous Funeral Oration. Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), noted Austrian economist, Nobel Laureate, and libertarian, recognized the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BC) as the most influential precursor to libertarianism due to his defense of the concept of natural law. After antiquity, the influence of monotheism—the belief in one god for all—through Judaism and, later, Islam and Christianity reinforced the idea of one central law to which all people are held accountable.
The development of Christianity, in particular, brought new dimensions to proto-libertarian thought. After the Christian church split between East and West (1054), both sides offered important ideas to the young political theory. The Eastern church fathers from the Alexandrine School and beyond contemplated the perfectibility of humanity as a theological question. This added the issue of human flourishing and self-betterment to the political dialogue, which anticipated later German contributions to libertarian theory. In the West, especially in the Middle Ages, church leaders preserved the classics in general and studied economics and political science in particular. Different orders and communities developed specialties. For example, the Spanish School of Salamanca combined the study of Greek, Islamic, and Christian philosophy to develop a theory of market prices that informed later economic arguments borne of the Scottish Enlightenment. The second split of Christianity, that of the Reformation (begun in 1517), led to a similar dual influence on libertarianism. Catholic thought continued to explore natural law theory while Protestantism, with its “priesthood of the believer” doctrine, introduced a more potent individualism to the political landscape.
Political changes also added ingredients to the tradition. The rise of absolutism in Europe challenged the political, economic, and social freedom of the people. Opponents of powerful kings in England developed the myth of the ancient constitution—a notion of an ideal contract formed over time between ruler and ruled, government and governed, and solidified by the Anglo-Saxons before the Norman invasion of 1066—to justify their claims to individual rights and their conviction that monarchs were not above the law. As early as the English Civil War (1642-1651), political groups such as the Levellers wanted to take the ancient constitution concept a step further and develop a written constitution to mirror the idealized political compact between the people and their state. Perhaps the best example of proto-libertarian thought was Leveller John Overton’s 1746 work An Arrow Against All Tyrants, which articulated a theory of individualism, property, and limited government in order to call for a written constitution.
Though clear precursors to libertarianism had existed for centuries, the theory itself awaited a systematic, definitive treatment. John Locke (1632-1704) provided this careful and comprehensive discussion and therefore became known as one of the fathers of libertarianism. In groundbreaking works such as A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690), Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest, Raising the Value of Money (1692), and A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), the English Locke made three important contributions to libertarian theory.
First, he examined the nature of individual rights. He argued that individuals were not bound to obey governmental laws that ignored their rights and therefore contradicted natural law. Second, Locke articulated a positive view of human nature that challenged the prevailing view of humans as incapable of peaceful coexistence without intrusive state interference. Third, he explained the idea that governments derived legitimacy from the consent of the governed. The compact, or agreement, between the state and its citizens placed duties on both; if the government failed to meet its responsibilities and breached the contract, citizens, according to Locke, possessed the right to revolt. Last, Locke argued that liberty was dependent on private property. A state that protected private property ensured the freedom of its citizens. Locke defined property as an act of creation—mixing labor with land grew crops, which therefore were property—and thus expanded the term to include political ideas, religious beliefs, and even an individual’s self. Locke’s contribution to political theory in general and libertarianism in particular cannot be overstated.
The Scottish Enlightenment
The first movement of libertarianism took place on the heels of Locke’s foundational work, and this time it originated in Scotland. The Scottish Enlightenment (1714-1817) began with the 1714 publication of Bernard Mandeville’s Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue, or The Fable of the Bees. This controversial book suggested self-interest, not morality, fueled the actions of individuals; it also marked a shift from interest in political theory to more expansive attention on economic and philosophical matters with regard to individual liberty. Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), David Hume (1711-1776), and Henry Homes, or Lord Kames, continued the movement with contributions in history, political science, philosophy, and economics. Perhaps the most noteworthy member of the Scottish Enlightenment also became known as the second father—the co-parent with John Locke—of libertarianism: Adam Smith (1723-1790). Smith did for moral philosophy and economics what Locke had done for political theory. In his most famous work, the 1776 An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith drew a portrait of societies in which people acted out of self-love, and yet the unplanned, uncoordinated market, or “invisible hand,” coordinated their decisions and provided for the common good. His vision of the harmony of interests created by free trade made Smith not only the foremost economist of his era and the father of capitalism, but was also one of the lasting visionaries of libertarianism.
Other Western Influences
If libertarianism proper first came together as a coherent theory in England and Scotland thanks in part to the atmosphere of order, stability, and individualism provided by Whig leadership after the Glorious Revolution, then it blossomed in France, where its ideas rebelled against the more feudalistic French institutions of state and church. The first wave came in the form of the French Enlightenment (1717-1778). Key philosophers such as Voltaire, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), and Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) challenged the intolerance and arbitrariness of established authorities and called for rational inquiry, free speech, and greater individual liberty. The French Enlightenment, then, was essentially a libertarian affair. The products of its greatest minds became some of the foundational literature of libertarian thought. A later, second movement, the French Physiocratic movement (1759-1776), was to economics what the French Enlightenment was to philosophy. Leaders such as Françoise Quesnay (1694-1774) and Jacques Turgot (1727-1781) argued against the traditional policy of mercantilism, which included the hoarding of precious metals as well as planned industry and protectionism, in favor of free trade, open markets, and limitations to government involvement in the economy. Put in practice, many of the French philosophers’ and physiocrats’ ideas—pro-individual, anti-state—led directly to the French Revolution.
One of the characteristics of the rise of libertarian thought was the fact that the ideas evolved in different nations almost simultaneously, and different strains and traditions informed and influenced others. This was the case with the Democratic-Republicans (1776-1820) in the English Colonies-turned-United States; much of the theory embraced by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), father of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison (1751-1836), father of the U.S. Constitution, with regard to individual rights, natural law, and the social contract came from the British libertarian tradition. In turn, the U.S. interpretation of the right of revolution and the experience of constitution building influenced the French libertarian tradition. Writers such as Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and leaders such as the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) divided their time between the continents to participate in both the American and French Revolutions. The anti-authoritarian individualism of the revolutionary age made it one of the high impact points of libertarianism; the theory quite literally changed the face of nations and the lives of millions.
Over the next century, different individuals pushed the Western consensus on political theory, much of which was libertarian, to further conclusions. Brits William Godwin (1756-1836) and Mary Wolstonecraft (1759-1797) introduced new ideas about self-perfectibility and feminism. Their political works also influenced art through their daughter, Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame, and the Romantic poets in her circle. Another couple, the French Germaine de Stael (1766-1817) and Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) provided libertarian critiques of the French Revolution’s successes and failures. Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) produced a Germanic, Romantic notion of self-cultivation and liberty. Economists such as the French Jean Baptiste Say (1767-1832) and the English David Ricardo (1772-1823) brought new scientific tools to bear on the legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment and French Physiocrats. French theologian Felicite Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854) linked the idea of freedom of religion with the goal of state decentralization. The French Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) took this a step further with journalistic writing in favor of the laissez-faire economics pioneered by Adam Smith.
The libertarian approach also influenced the humanities, as scholars such as the British Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and American William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) applied the tools of science to anthropology and history in search of broad patterns of human behavior. The visibility of renowned thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) brought even further attention and validity to the tradition. American Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) articulated an activist libertarian feminism and organized the first U.S. bid for women’s suffrage. The international, interdependent work of such minds proved the importance and popularity of libertarian ideas during the nineteenth century.
Others experimented with putting these ideas into practice. For example, the Manchester School (1835-1859) in England organized in support of libertarian ideas such as free trade, or laissez-faire economics, international markets, and pacifism, and in opposition to outdated rules such as the medieval Corn Laws that granted government monopolies to certain producers and protected others from competition. Led by Richard Cobden, the movement succeeded in repealing laws and propelling advocates into national office. In the United States, the Transcendentalist Movement (1835-1882) took the views of Godwin, Condorcet, and Humboldt on human perfectibility and employed them in writings, speeches, and even experimental utopian communities. The passive resistance plan of Henry David Thoreau, which influenced modern world leaders from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., was but one lasting contribution of the Transcendentalists.
After centuries of proto-libertarian Western thought, libertarianism coalesced around the figures of John Locke and Adam Smith and went on to achieve prominence in the nineteenth century. A number of historical events conspired to make the time ripe for libertarian thought. European culture allowed scholars, philosophers, authors, and activists the opportunity to travel, compare notes, test assumptions, and communicate effectively. This exchange of information ensured that economic or political authoritarianism in the form of protectionism or absolutism could no longer confine citizens, since they readily could compare their lots with those across the border. It also meant that new ideas could have ripple effects across national boundaries; the American and French Revolutions are good examples of this interplay between countries. Older policies such as mercantilism also failed during this period, leaving a vacuum for new approaches that libertarian ideas filled. In the dual realms of ideas and action, libertarianism found success in the nineteenth century.
Decline and Return
Many of the conditions in the West that led to the rise of libertarianism in theory and practice changed at the turn of the century, however. Rapid industrialization created new economic problems; ethnic pride and nationalism destroyed international trade and the flow of information; communism and Nazism not only increased the size and scope of government within nations, but also forced other countries to expand their states to meet the challenge of world war; depression left citizens dependent on entitlements rather than jealous of their individual rights. By the dawn of the twentieth century, libertarian thinkers offered quiet critique of a mainstream that had left their ideas behind. Two economic movements, the Austrian School (1877-present) and Chicago School (1927-present), formed to oppose the trend of centralized economic planning, but their voices remained on the periphery of the Western debate about political theory.
The tide turned once again in favor of libertarianism in the middle of the twentieth century, however. The experience of world war, depression, and totalitarianism suggested that the short-term solutions of centralized planning, government intervention, and collectivism had not only failed to offer viable solutions, but also had created other problems in terms of everything from economic inefficiencies to political stalemates to human rights abuses. The simultaneous publication of four influential and contrasting works in 1943 and 1944—the Russian Ayn Rand’s philosophical novel The Fountainhead, the American Rose Wilder Lane’s political manifesto The Discovery of Freedom, the American Isabel Patterson’s journalistic commentary God of the Machine, and the Austrian Friedrich Hayek’s economic analysis The Road to Serfdom—heralded the return of libertarianism as, if not a mainstream consensus, at least a credible voice of opposition. In 1944, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom helped to usher in the reemergence of libertarianism on the Western, and eventually world, stage; it remains the most well known work of libertarianism’s most long-lived movement, the Austrian School of Economics. In this work, Hayek warned that centralized economic planning by its very nature would lead to totalitarianism in whatever nation it was practiced.
The laissez-faire economic approaches of the Austrian and Chicago schools gained ground among scholars, and Ayn Rand’s individualistic Objectivist Movement (1943-1976) appealed to a popular audience, as well. By 1971, a third political party, the Libertarian Party, had formed in the United States with a platform supporting free markets, civil liberties, non-intervention, peace, and free trade.
No single success illustrated the reemergence of libertarianism better than the Public Choice School of Economics (1969-present). Founded after the 1962 publication of The Calculus of Consent by James Buchanan (1919- ) and Gordon Tullock (1922- ), the movement analyzed public policy from a market angle. Accordingly, they viewed politics as exchange, and asserted that politicians, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and others involved in policymaking acted with the same self-interest that motivates other actors in the private sector. This idea led to a myriad of methodological innovations in economics, political science, and public policy studies, and supported libertarian conclusions about the limitation of state power. This approach held important implications for analyzing government and policy, and by the twenty-first century had inspired everything from the New Economic History methodology to the burgeoning field of free market environmentalism, with influences felt as far and wide as the United States, India, China, and the former Soviet bloc. Buchanan cemented his legacy by cofounding (1969) and for a time directing the Center for the Study of Public Choice. His work with the libertarian-inspired public choice theory earned him a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986.
The new millennium opened with a record number of libertarian organizations and institutions worldwide devoted to political, economic, historical, and philosophical inquiry. In 2000, a Rasmussen Research poll revealed that 16 percent of U.S. citizens were ideologically libertarian; in the same year, the Libertarian Party’s candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives won 11.9 percent of the vote, which set a record for votes received for any third party in the nation’s history. The tradition born in antiquity and raised in the Enlightenment found new life in the Information Age.
Theory in Depth
A tradition as long-lived and diverse as that of libertarianism often suffers problems of definition. In fact, many who embraced or embrace libertarianism would disagree even about the name of the political theory. Until Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, began to call himself a libertarian in the 1950s, no one had applied the term to the tradition. Before that, depending on the time and place, libertarians might have self-identified as individualists, voluntaryists, whigs, radical republicans, democratic-republicans, free thinkers, or liberals; moreover, proponents of individual movements within the libertarian framework often adopted the labels of the subset—from the Levellers and the Transcendentalists to the Austrian economists and objectivists— rather than the larger title. To complicate things further, there remains a strong urge from many within the libertarian community to disassociate with the frequently misunderstood term “libertarianism” and use the name “classical liberalism” instead.
Considering the complexity of the terminology issue, it is not surprising that those who try to define the tradition do so in somewhat different ways. For example, E. K. Bramsted, co-editor of the monumental anthology Western Liberalism: A History in Documents from Locke to Croce (1978), asserted that libertarianism champions 1) the rights of individuals, with careful attention to the more endangered rights of minorities, 2) the right of property in particular, 3) the government’s obligation to protect property, 4) limited constitutional government, and 5) a belief in social progress. John Gray broadened this description in Liberalism (1986) to include philosophies that demonstrate 1) individualism, 2) egalitarianism, and 3) universalism. In Liberalism Old and New (1991), J. G. Merquior argued that the theories of 1) human rights, 2) constitutionalism, and 3) classical economics—in other words, free market positions such as that taken by Adam Smith—compose libertarian thought. David Boaz noted six ingredients for libertarianism in The Libertarian Reader (1997): 1) skepticism about power, 2) the dignity of the individual, 3) individual rights, 4) spontaneous order, 5) free markets, and 6) peace.
Although scholars have differed in the individual lists they have used to describe libertarianism, much consensus exists about the “big ideas” undergirding the tradition as a whole. First, libertarians place an ethical emphasis on individuals as rights-bearers prior to the existence of any state, community, or society. This means that people have rights by virtue of the fact that they are people; no government grants these rights, and thus no government can take them away. Second, the libertarian tradition supports the right of property, and this, taken to its economic conclusion, leads to support of a free market system. From Adam Smith’s invisible hand to Friedrich Hayek’s spontaneous order, libertarian economists have described how the decentralized, private mechanism of the market creates the best outcomes for self-interested individuals as well as economies. Third, libertarians over the centuries have desired a limited constitutional government to protect individuals not only from other individuals, but also from the expansion of the state itself. Last, libertarianism proposes that these values—individualism, property, limited government—work for all people in all times; they are global and ahistorical. Other, more specific policies follow from these ideas: nonviolence, in order to preserve life and maintain free trade; nonaggression, in deference to individual rights. Specific political platforms and activism campaigns springboard from these broader ideals.
What It Is Not
Though the ingredients of libertarianism appear to be very general, they do exclude certain thinkers commonly linked with Enlightenment or rights-based theory. Failure to embrace all of these values, however, does point to a very fundamental difference with the minds that compose the historical libertarianism. Two diverse cases of philosophers associated with but not belonging to the tradition serve as case studies. First, the British theorist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and his fellow utilitarians supported certain individual rights and laissez-faire economics, as long as they produced the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Libertarian ends—rights and free markets— therefore served as convenient means to these thinkers, but the eventual ends they sought betrayed an intellectual collectivism incompatible with libertarianism’s individualism. “The why” in this case matters as much as “the what.” On the other hand, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who perhaps is known best for his theory of the social contract—an idea at first blush in harmony with libertarianism’s emphasis on constitutional government—believed in an almost mystic notion of “the general will.” The abstract nature of this idea created a power elite to interpret and impose this will, by force if necessary. The coercion and unaccountability connected to the implementation of Rousseau’s model put him and his theory outside of the libertarian framework.
Differences Within the Movement
Beyond the key ideas of libertarian mentioned above, two parallel concepts survive throughout the history of the tradition. One rests on a negative view of human nature, accepting that all people are fallen and incapable of perfection. It follows from this perspective that power must be limited because, otherwise, some corrupt individuals could do even more harm than others. The second view maintains that all people inherently are good and perfectible. It follows from this position that power must be limited in order to allow humans to explore their potentials and evolve toward a more ideal order of self-government. In addition to these two philosophical positions remain the historical and religious contexts of thinkers and their times; libertarianism’s heritage includes arguments made from Protestant (John Locke), Catholic (Felicite Robert de Lamennais), and atheist (Ayn Rand) assumptions, among others.
Defining a tradition labeled with ever-changing names, derived from multiple centuries, and developed in different countries poses a challenge; indeed, if most of the luminaries of the tradition were brought back and questioned about libertarianism, they doubtless would not understand the question. Nevertheless, most would understand and adhere to the ideal of noncoercion and, in one form or another, its related facets: individualism, property, constitutionalism, and universalism. These values often lead libertarians to the same conclusions about the role of government (limited to the protection of rights, if government is needed at all), the role of the people (enjoy their rights while not infringing on others’ rights), and the control of distribution and production (all privatized and directed by the free market).
Due to its close relationship with the Enlightenment—or, perhaps more properly, Enlightenments— libertarianism benefited from the era’s remarkable communication and interdependence, at least in the West. Just as the fire of revolution swept Europe and America, each igniting another, often sharing leaders and literature in the process, libertarian theory gained from the dialogue of thinkers and ideas borne of a variety of homelands and backgrounds. Any single attempt to chronicle the past of libertarianism must by its very nature fall short of doing justice to the richness and complexity of the individuals and movements within it. National differences did leave their mark, however. Three distinct flavors coexist and often blend in libertarian political theory.
Historically, British, French, and German contributions to libertarianism each provided a variation on the theory’s theme. The British offered a realistic tradition of law. John Locke’s work built on the foundation of the ancient constitution ideal; Adam Smith’s approach to markets carried a scientific thirst for patterns. Mechanisms of the social contract and the corresponding right of revolution evolved from this British sensibility. The French dialogue added a rationalistic tradition of humanism. Whereas many of the greatest British minds used scholarly works as vehicles for their messages, many of the most accomplished French philosophers used the novel or the play. English revolt remained preoccupied with the letter of the law, while French revolt also focused on symbolic speech and national pageantry as key vehicles for political statement. At the heart of the French Revolution, and libertarian thinkers, such as the Marquis de Condorcet, lay a faith in the progressive evolution of humanity. British thought often remained rooted in Protestant realism, but French intellectuals often embraced a more agnostic or atheistic sensibility with reason as a secular god.
Beyond the realistic British tradition of law and the rational French tradition of humanism rested the organic German tradition of individualism. More than its counterparts, this strain of libertarianism came from an aesthetic viewpoint. Though the Austrian School’s understanding of spontaneous order was colored by a German sensibility, the best example of this individualism remains Wilhelm von Humboldt. Humboldt’s The Limits of State Action, published posthumously in 1851, proposed that the individual’s highest purpose was bildung, or self-cultivation. In order to meet his or her potential, according to Humboldt, each person must possess freedom and a variety of experiences. The state, then, should act only as a “nightwatchman” by reacting to trespasses but not interfering proactively. Humboldt’s belief in the cultivation of the self and the potential of human flourishing typified the Romantic German strain of libertarianism.
The three varieties of the libertarian tradition evolved in their own historical, political, and social contexts. In his 1986 work Liberalism, John Gray characterized these views as competing yet complementary definitions of liberty, with Britain representing independence, France self-rule, and Germany self-realization. All three remain inextricably woven into the fabric of the tradition, at times blending in the thought of a given movement or individual, at other times diverging into separate patterns across years and miles.
Theory in Action
No single thinker better illustrates the intersection of British, French, and German flavors of libertarianism than John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). The son of James Mill, a utilitarian philosopher and the author of the first English textbook of economics, John Stuart Mill was heavily influenced by the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” calculus of his father’s utilitarian thought. He also studied extensively on his own, reading Greek and Latin classics as well as free market economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. His intensive scholarly pursuits, added to the tensions he found between individualism and utilitarianism, led him to suffer a nervous breakdown in his early twenties. After recovering he undertook the private task of developing a more libertarian utilitarianism to resolve the problems he observed.
Mill’s most celebrated writings—On Liberty (1861), Considerations on Representative Government (1861), and Utilitarianism (1863)—represented a crossroads of British, French, and German strains of thought. Mill drew upon the English libertarian tradition by warning against the tyranny of opinion that silences voices in the dialogue of ideas and calling for a kind of intellectual toleration of others’ views. Mill called forth the French tradition of self-rule to propose an ethical sphere of privacy for each individual, a space that the state and the majority cannot touch. Neither toleration nor privacy sat easily with the traditional utilitarian plan to impose the system producing the most good for the most people.
Most significantly, Mill revised the standard “greatest happiness for the greatest number” equation that formed the bedrock of utilitarianism; to do this, he relied on the German tradition in general and Humboldt’s aesthetic individualism in particular. With Humboldt’s exhortation to pursue self-cultivation in mind, Mill altered the equation to include the quality of happiness as well as the quantity in judging utility, with those higher pleasures of self-realization ranking highest in quality. Mill’s attempt to reform and repair utilitarianism led him to fuse the diverse strains of libertarian thought. Tensions remained—When could privacy be invaded? Who judged the quality of happiness?—and eventually led him to a pessimistic view of society and its options. Nonetheless, he continued to believe that individuals made the best decisions concerning themselves and the general welfare when acting alone or in voluntary associations—in other words, without governmental interference. The three forms of libertarian thought, at times competing with each other and at times complementing each other, united in Mill’s work and continue to remain joined in the libertarian tradition.
After Mill, international movements such as the Austrian School and Chicago School in economics, the Objectivist movement in philosophy, and the Public Choice School in economics and public policy have put libertarian ideas into practice through their scholarship, theory, fiction, and policy analysis. All four of these movements remain active with formal institutions and continued publication in the twenty-first century.
Others, however, looked to put libertarian ideas into practice through less scholarly, more political means. In the United States, for example, some self-proclaimed libertarians sought and won office through the tradition two-party system. Perhaps the most obvious example is self-proclaimed libertarian Ron Paul (1935- ), the long-time Republican Congressman from Texas, whose voting record reflects the position of many libertarian activists on a variety of national issues.
Despite the success of some Republicans, Democrats, and Independents of libertarian persuasion who sought public office in the United States, others believed that the political theory required its own party in order to offer a separate message and alternative values to the nation’s public. On December 11, 1971, a small gathering in the Colorado home of activist David Nolan became the first meeting of the Libertarian Party. The party soon made history. In 1972, the party’s first national convention nominated University of Southern California Professor of Philosophy John Hospers (1918- ) for its presidential candidate. Tonie Nathan (1928- ) received the party’s nomination for vice president; she then became the first woman in U.S. history to receive a vote from the Electoral College.
The party gained new political ground, it seemed, with each major election. By 1976, Libertarian presidential and vice presidential candidates Roger MacBride and David Bergland achieved ballot status in thirty-two states and received over 170,000 votes. In 1978, Ed Clark (1926- ) ran as a Libertarian party member in the race for Governor of California and received five percent of the vote; in the same year, Alaska’s Dick Randolph became the first Libertarian elected to a state legislature.
The Libertarian party truly gained widespread national attention for the first time in 1979, when it earned permanent ballot status in California after over 80,000 voters registered as Libertarians. The next year, Libertarian presidential and vice presidential candidates Ed Clark and David Koch appeared on the ballot in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Guam. For the first time, national advertisements ran to introduce U.S. voters to the Libertarian Party and its platform. The Clark/Koch ticket received almost one million votes in the election.
By 1982, Libertarians had achieved political visibility at the state level. For example, Louisiana candidate for governor James Agnew earned twenty-three percent of the vote, while Alaska gubernatorial candidate Dick Randolph took fifteen percent and Arizona gubernatorial candidate Sam Steiger won five percent. Two years later, the David Bergland/Jim Lewis ticket brought the Libertarian party into third place—a Libertarian first—for the White House. Also in 1984, Alaska elected its third Libertarian state legislator. Eleven other Libertarians won local offices across the nation. By 1986, over two hundred Libertarian candidates across the United States received a total of 2.9 million votes.
Republican U.S. Congressman Ron Paul left his party to run for president as a Libertarian in 1988. Over 430,000 million citizens voted for him and his running mate, Andre Marrou, giving the Libertarian party almost twice the votes of any other third party. Though Paul later returned to the Republican party, he never renounced his libertarian perspective. Approximately two million voters cast ballots for Libertarian candidates in 1990; that number nearly doubled in 1992, counting only state and federal races. The twenty-three Libertarian candidates for U.S. Senate won over one million votes, making the 1992 vote total the highest for a third party since 1914. Once again, the Libertarian presidential ticket remained on the ballots of all fifty states as well as those of Washington, D.C. and Guam.
The party broke more U.S. national records in 1996, when it became the first third party in the country’s history to earn ballot status in all fifty states in two presidential elections in a row. Presidential nominee Harry Browne earned almost 500,000 votes, while nearly eight hundred state and federal Libertarian candidates won a total of 5.4 million votes. Public intellectuals and celebrities such as African-American civil rights leader Roy Innis (1934- ) and talk radio personality Art Bell (1945- ) publically embraced the party and its platform, as well, adding to the visibility of the party.
In the year 2000, Libertarian candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives alone took 1.6 million votes, yet another national record for any U.S. third party. The year 2000 was also the first time in eight decades that a third party had contested a majority of the seats in the U.S. congress. In fact, 1,430 Libertarian candidates ran in the 2000 election, a number more than twice that of all other third party candidates together. In 2001, more than three hundred Libertarians held elective office, which is more than double the number of all other third-party officials combined. The numbers reveal the Libertarian party to be the largest, most long-lived, and most successful third party in the United States.
The Libertarian party platform achieved a certain stability across the years. The party’s principles echo those of the theory on which it is based: liberty, individual rights, and the ability to pursue one’s goals peacefully, without governmental interference. The Libertarian party platform has applied these principles to support a limited government designed to protect individual rights, a state with little or no involvement in the social or economic spheres of individuals’ lives or on the international stage beyond the establishment and protection of free trade. Many of the party’s positions might sound familiar either to Republicans—lower taxation, privatization of government agencies, and school choice—or to Democrats—pro-choice regarding abortion, anti-censorship regarding the First Amendment, and equal rights for gay and lesbian couples.
Other positions seem more unusual; for example, the Libertarian party supports the legalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the right to die. Some who identify with libertarian political theory choose to remain aloof from the party because it tends to follow ideas to their consistent conclusions, even if the resulting policy seems extreme or idealistic. These libertarians prefer to work for small changes from within the major two parties, believing that incremental accomplishments will in the long run add up to more than great changes that never found implementation. Even at the party level, libertarianism remains caught in the chasm between how things are and what is feasible, and how things could be and what is ideal.
Libertarianism has found adherents across the globe, as well, particularly through movements such as the Austrian School of Economics that unify the work of economists the world over who share the same convictions. The consistent growth and accomplishment of the U.S. Libertarian party, however, despite its controversy among some libertarians, is one of the success stories of the twentieth century.
Analysis and Critical Response
Over the centuries, and especially in its time of decline in the early twentieth century, libertarianism faced criticism from some theorists and laypersons alike; even in its reemergence in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the theory never commanded a majority of adherents the Western mainstream. As one would expect, some critiques of the tradition reflect more insight than others.
Libertinism A common and easily answered challenge to the tradition is the concern that libertarianism, in effect, is little more than libertinism in sophisticated trappings; in other words, the theory uses the rhetoric of philosophy to justify the worst excesses and self-indulgences of sensual license. Liberty for individual choice, these critics argue, is little more than permission to feed every appetite—be it drugs, obscenity, promiscuity, or other “vices”—without accountability to a higher law.
Libertarians respond to this concern in two ways. First, if people are free to make decisions concerning their lives, they are as free to choose not to do something as they are to do it. No one forces people to make “wrong” choices. For example, alcohol and tobacco are legal in the United States, yet many U.S. citizens choose not to drink or smoke. No one is forced to do so; moreover, in the libertarian framework, individual decision-makers would be responsible for the consequences of their actions, good or bad—this accountability is the direct opposite of libertinism’s license. Second, libertarianism does not deny the call of a higher law: it simply proposes that governments should not necessarily coerce individuals to follow it. Many libertarian thinkers also published and spoke in order to practice moral persuasion, to convince individuals that their view of the good was the one to adopt. Religious, community, and other voluntary associations would be free to pursue their idea of the right way to live and try to persuade others to follow their example. They would not, however, have access to the monopolistic power of the state to enforce their conception of the virtuous life on others. In short, libertarians explain that individualism is not an excuse for vice; instead, it is a call for noncoercion.
Individualism leading to atomism A second critique with a similar appeal to morality suggests that libertarianism’s focus on individualism leads to atomism. In other words, individuals lose all sense of community and instead lead isolated, empty lives driven by nothing but selfishness. Once again, the libertarian answer is twofold. First, defenders would say, individual choice means just that: individuals might choose to value empty materialism and self-involvement, but individuals might also choose to connect to other individuals in meaningful and enriching ways. No particular outcome follows just because people are not coerced into leading the same kind of lifestyle.
An even more compelling response, however, is that critics use a primitive and two-dimensional understanding of community when they seek centralized planning and forced membership, or believe some ideal form of community somehow existed before the individuals who composed it. Life and its relationships, the argument continues, are too complex to be built by coercion. Individuals who enjoy the liberty to be creative and innovative in the ways they relate to one another create true communities spontaneously. Individualism is not the death of community, libertarians explain—in fact, it is often the recipe for more unexpected, diverse, and fulfilling communities than those previously imagined.
Liberty vs. stability Critics also claim that libertarianism overestimates the value people place on liberty as opposed to other options such as stability, equality, or virtue. Is it better to be free, or secure? Or equal? Or good? The libertarian response is rather simple: in the framework of individual rights, people could choose to value any measure of the good they wish. They are not forced to be free. If, for example, they wish to follow a certain code of virtue, form communities with those of like minds, and try to encourage others to do the same, they may. The only limitation is that they may not harness the authority of the state to enforce their value on everyone else. Of course, one might argue that this response still maintains liberty as the primary value.
Market failure Beyond moral concerns rest economic ones. A trio of economic critiques of libertarianism draws responses of variable usefulness. First, some opponents believe that libertarianism’s emphasis on free markets ignores the so-called “market failure” problem of externalities, or spillover effects, which occur when people uninvolved in an exchange are harmed or benefited by that exchange. These effects might be desirable or unwanted. For example, universal education produces a positive externality; even if an individual does not have a child to be educated, he or she reaps the benefit of living in a society where laws and elections are determined by an educated citizenry. In an extreme libertarian framework, public education might not exist. Pollution exemplifies a negative externality with dispersed effect. Everyone might be hurt a small amount by air pollution, but costs are too high for any one individual, for instance, to sue every industry in the nation for damages. The result is that everyone suffers a very small amount from pollution, but no one does anything about it.
Libertarians admit that the problem of externalities exists in a completely free market situation. They respond that these small effects—if there were large, concentrated effects on any one person, damages could be sought through legal means—are a price of living in a free society, in the same way that the cost of free speech is that we must tolerate some indecent speech in the process. Furthermore, the argument continues, the cost of eliminating externalities by government means would exceed the cost of living with the externalities due to the government failures of efficiency. Some libertarians admit that there might be a role for government in correcting the externality problem, however. These theorists stress that solutions must strive to mirror the market through choice and competition as much as possible. School vouchers, allowing parents choice and allowing schools to compete, or housing vouchers, allowing low-income families to seek their best options for homes, for example, would be a preferable initiative than public schools or government housing projects.
Stratification of wealth A second problem with markets, critics claim, is that they promote stratification of wealth—or, to use a catchphrase, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The libertarian response contains two parts. First, the argument goes, the stratification of a pure market system would not be as extreme as it is in mixed systems like that in the United States that include government regulation and interference in the economy; stratification is more the product of rent-seeking, or using power and influence to lobby for government protectionism and favoritism, than of profit-seeking. Even so, the libertarian reasoning continues, it would be better for some people to live in relative poverty created by stratification than for everyone to live in absolute poverty due to the inherent miscalculations of planned economies as seen, for example, in the former Soviet Union. As with the issue of externalities, the libertarian position seems in part to be one of taking the lesser of two evils.
Role of corporations A third economic criticism of libertarianism is that the tradition’s focus on free markets is naïve, for it overlooks the fact that other institutions besides the government—such as, for example, corporations—also represent centralized power over individuals. Some libertarians counter that corporations have reached their current strength in part due to the state. Governments are lobbied by corporations and in turn give them legal and financial special treatment; moreover, the regulatory boards set up by governments to oversee corporate behavior often are co-opted by insiders who lobby for positions of power—in effect, the watchers are watching themselves. Other libertarians counter that the tradition’s support of decentralization would lead not to undoing markets to solve this problem, but rather to redoing the corporate structure that has evolved over the last century. The classic retort to this critique, however, is that corporations, though powerful, cannot do what governments do. Only states hold the monopoly on coercion.
Enforcement The most successful argument against libertarianism is the question of enforcement. Who makes everyone play by the rules in the absence of coercion? Peace and free trade might work well as long as all nations agree to be peaceful traders, but what happens when one nation attacks another? How can the rogue nation be made to “play fair,” except by coercion, perhaps even violence? Libertarians differ on their response to this question. Though many support a noninterventionist foreign policy, they also maintain the right of a nation to defend itself. The question remains, however, at what point does self-defense begin? May a country strike preemptively at a potential threat, or must it wait until it suffers harm? This question also applies to internal matters within communities.
At day’s end, the value of libertarianism remains tied to our understanding of the human condition. Are individuals capable of the demands of a libertarian world?
Criticisms aside, the libertarian tradition has much to recommend it: a long and varied past, a tradition of toleration and diversity, and broad principles that leave it open to adaptation and innovation. As a political movement, the theory has consistency on its side. In the United States, for example, the Democratic Party calls for freedom in the social sphere but government regulation in the economic one, and the Republican Party calls for freedom in the economic sphere but government regulation in the social one. The Libertarian Party continues to add members thanks to its consistent view of governmental noninterference in either sphere of life. As a theory, libertarianism has reaped impressive fruits, including multiple, productive movements and methodologies, and more than one Nobel Prize. Perhaps most importantly, the by-products of the libertarian theory speak for themselves. For example, the tradition’s emphasis on individual rights helped to create a number of movements—abolitionism, feminism, and civil rights among them—that offer the theory impressive character references. One thing is certain: with centuries under its belt and a reemergence to welcome the new millennium, libertarianism remains a living and relevant political theory.