The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism


A group of people is said to be subject to “government” if there is among them a subset of people, acting in concert, who are purportedly authorized to impose requirements on the whole group using force if necessary. We must distinguish governments from (a) voluntary associations such as clubs and businesses, and (b) larger communities that share common traditions and values. Subjection to political authority stems solely from being born in a specific area; only occasionally are the subjects of a particular government immigrants. Nor need the subjects share common goals and interests. Those who exercise political power rule by force if necessary; the will of the rulers is expressed mainly in laws—general directives to all, more or less effectively enforced by the rulers.

This definition already suggests what libertarian concerns about government are likely to be. What, if anything, would justify government? What, if anything, could it legitimately be empowered to do? What are the best workable methods for selecting those individuals who are to wield governmental power? Historically, governments have typically had their origins in an imposition by force, which is just what libertarians object to. Even if governmental power were originally acquired peaceably, libertarians have raised questions about its legitimacy.

For present purposes, we may distinguish three general theories of government.

The first, cynical, view holds that governments act in their own interests, and the rulers tend to use their powers to line their own pockets and maximize their power over others. The other two views agree in opposing this description and hold that those who hold government positions must devote themselves to the well-being of the subjects, not themselves. However, they diverge in a crucial way.

The second view, which might be described as the conservative or Platonist version, holds that rulers should promote what is really good for people, and that this good can be known to government officials. Government, in short, should make people virtuous (Aristotle), should “fulfill their potential” (a host of thinkers, notably Marx), or perhaps “make people equal” (contemporary liberals in the now-familiar nonlibertarian sense of the term).

Finally, the third, liberal, view holds that people should be permitted to define their own good, and that the function of government is to enable each of us to pursue our own good in our own way.

Can political philosophy choose among these? Philosophy ideally should provide us with the answer to why government is or would be good for us. This view virtually rules out the first two. Rational people act on their own values, not anybody else’s. If the Platonist thinks his view of government is correct, he must convince others that it is; if successful, then his also will be their view, and liberalism will embrace it. But if he fails, it would be irrational to hold that people will act on it. We do not act rationally on premises we think to be false.

Because people have their own interests and, for the most part, run their own lives, if government is to be justified, it must be shown that people are likely to confront insurmountable obstacles to their choices unless they surrender some of the freedom of action. In the case of voluntary associations, it is easy to show this is the case: We join such groups because we share a common interest, and we can best promote that interest by accepting some direction from others. But government is not a voluntary association, and there is no common purpose whose promotion requires that we must sacrifice our freedom. If government is to have a rational basis, it appears that only universal consent could provide it. However, there are problems in assuming the existence of universal consent. Theorists such as Locke, who appeal to implicit consent, have been attacked by critics such as Lysander Spooner, who argued that no contract can exist between two parties, one of whom is effectively compelled to consent to the agreement.

The alternative argument to universal consent is to predicate government on what is now known as public goods theory in order to demonstrate that the individual might be better off, even on his own terms, by submitting his judgment to that of a central body with respect to certain problems. When the effort by A to pursue his goods spills over onto B and C, and this situation is difficult to avoid, it appears as if some supraindividual authority may be needed to render A’s efforts compatible with those of B and C. The public goods approach—made famous, if not in those words, by Thomas Hobbes and his successors—looks, at least at first sight, promising, but has been trenchantly criticized by authors  such as Anthony de Jasay. It is clear that government can impose solutions, but it is not clear that government is needed to solve such problems as criminality, property distribution, public utilities management, or, the thorniest of these problems, defense against foreign invasion.

The most popular form of government among political theorists has been democracy for a variety of reasons. In democracies, all participants are consulted, and all act on their own view of what is good for them. However, democracy, as Mill has astutely noted, is not self-government, the government of each over himself. Instead, it is government of each by the rest, indeed by only a majority of others. Not only does democracy not solve this fundamental problem, but it generates serious problems of its own, including the possibility of an enormous expansion of government powers at the expense of individuals.

Given the libertarian ideal that only the prevention of force and fraud constitute legitimate uses of force against others, what then can government do to justify itself? The one obvious answer is that it would function only to keep people, in their pursuit of their own interests, from using violence or fraud. This view has been labeled minimalist (or minarchist). The panoply of contemporary regulations and agencies would be pared down to the bare minimum necessary to keep the peace—that is, to defend people and their property by suitable court procedures and policing.

That maintaining peace is the fundamental aim of government has been accepted by a host of classic political philosophers, among them Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, and Kant. It is expressed in such formulations as John Locke’s “Law of Nature,” which calls on all “not to harm others in their life, health, liberty, or property.” This notion constitutes the principal libertarian directive: All people are allowed to do as they please insofar as they do not aggress against others. In other words, governments may not use force against anybody for the purpose of supposedly promoting that person’s own good, nor may they use it against any person to promote anybody else’s good. This viewpoint sharply differentiates the libertarian view from modern welfarist views, according to which governments may tax people to provide education, health, welfare, or equal opportunity to all.

Even the least intrusive modern governments do far more than would be allowed were libertarians to have their way. Indeed, most libertarians would claim that governments as they are do not even perform their minimally legitimate functions very well. In contemporary Western societies, the criminal’s chances of escaping from punishment for murder, rape, or robbery are excellent, and the peaceful citizen’s chances of being left alone by government approach zero. If the libertarian view about the proper functions of government is correct, these likelihoods are major condemnations of modern government, and perhaps of any government.


Further Readings

Aristotle. Politics. H. Rackham, trans. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1932.

Calhoun, John C., and C. Gordon Post. A Disquisition on Government: And Selections from the Discourse. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953.

Hayek, F. A. von. Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Richard Tuck, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Locke, John. Two Treatises on Government. Peter Laslett, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Marx, Karl. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Marx: Later Political Writings. Terrell Carver, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London: J. W. Parker and Son, 1859.

Paine, Thomas. “Common Sense.” Paine: Political Writings. Bruce Kuklik, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Plato. The Republic. Allan Bloom, trans. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Rand, Ayn. “The Nature of Government.” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet, 1986.

Spooner, Lysander. No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority. Boston: L. Spooner, 1867.

Tullock, Gordon. Autocracy. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1987.

Originally published .