Introduction to Libertarianism

Whether you’re just encountering libertarian ideas for the first time, or want to explore the tradition further but aren’t sure where to start, this Guide should help you get your footing. We’ll touch on topics in philosophy, economics, history, and political science. Below, you’ll find a short introductory essay and a series of lectures. Though they make the most sense in sequence, feel free to read and watch them in whatever order most interests you; each should stand on its own just fine. This Guide’s featured book, The Libertarian Mind, serves as a companion text to the course. It will enrich your experience with the Guide, but it’s not a prerequisite for any of the content you’ll find here.

What Is Libertarianism?

Libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom.

It’s not easy to define freedom. The author Leonard Read said, “Freedom is the absence of man-concocted restraints against the release of creative energy.” The Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek referred to “a state in which each can use his knowledge for his purpose” and also to “the possibility of a person’s acting according to his own decisions and plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not to act in specific ways.” Perhaps it’s best to understand freedom as the absence of physical force or the threat of physical force. John Locke offered this definition of freedom under the rule of law:

[T]he end of Law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge Freedom: For in all the states of created beings capable of Laws, where there is no Law, there is no Freedom. For Liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others which cannot be, where there is no Law: But Freedom is not, as we are told, A Liberty for every Man to do what he lists: (For who could be free, when every other Man’s Humour might domineer over him?) But a Liberty to dispose, and order, as he lists, his Persons, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own.

That is, a free person is not “subject to the arbitrary will of another” and is free to do as he chooses with his own person and property. But you can only have those freedoms when the law protects your freedom and everyone else’s.

However we define freedom, we can certainly recognize aspects of it. Freedom means respecting the moral autonomy of each person, seeing each person as the owner of his or her own life, and each free to make the important decisions about his life.

Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. Libertarians defend each person’s right to life, liberty, and property—rights that people possess naturally, before governments are instituted. In the libertarian view, all human relationships should be voluntary; the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have not themselves used force—actions such as murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud.

Libertarians believe in the presumption of liberty. That is, libertarians believe people ought to be free to live as they choose unless advocates of coercion can make a compelling case. It’s the exercise of power, not the exercise of freedom, that requires justification. The burden of proof ought to be on those who want to limit our freedom.

The presumption of liberty should be as strong as the presumption of innocence in a criminal trial, for the same reason. Just as you can’t prove your innocence of all possible charges against you, you cannot justify all of the ways in which you should be allowed to act. James Wilson, a signer of the Constitution, said in response to a proposal that a Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution: “Enumerate all the rights of man! I am sure, sirs, that no gentleman in the late Convention would have attempted such a thing.”

Why do libertarians value freedom? There are many reasons.

Freedom allows each of us to define the meaning of life, to define what’s important to us. Each of us should be free to think, to speak, to write, to paint, to create, to marry, to eat and drink and smoke, to start and run a business, to associate with others as we choose. When we are free, we can construct our lives as we see fit. Freedom is part of what’s needed to lead a full human life.

Freedom leads to social harmony. We have less conflict when we have fewer specific commands and prohibitions about how we should live—in terms of class or caste, religion, dress, lifestyle, or schools.

Economic freedom means that people are free to produce and to exchange with others. Freely negotiated and agreed-upon prices carry information throughout the economy about what people want and what can be done more efficiently. For an economic order to function, prices must be free to tell the truth. A free economy gives people incentives to invent, innovate, and produce more goods and services for the whole society. That means more satisfaction of more wants, more economic growth, and a higher standard of living for everyone.

A political system of liberty gives us the opportunity to use our talents and to cooperate with others to create and produce, with the help of a few simple institutions that protect our rights. And those simple institutions—property rights, the rule of law, a prohibition on the initiation of force—make possible invention, innovation, and progress in commerce, technology, and styles of living.

In barely 250 years of having widespread economic freedom, we’ve escaped from the back-breaking labor and short life expectancy that were the natural lot of mankind since time immemorial to the abundance we see around us today in more and more parts of the world—though not yet enough of the world.

What does valuing freedom mean for the libertarian view of government?

For libertarians, the basic political issue is the relationship of the individual to the state. What rights do individuals have (if any)? What form of government (if any) will best protect those rights? What powers should government have? What demands may individuals make on one another through the mechanism of government?

We try to discover the rules that govern the world, and rules that will enable us all to live together and realize those wonderful rights in the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The worst governments are tyrannical predators; the best embody attempts at providing the framework of rules we need to live together.

We know who and what government is. It isn’t some Platonic ideal. Government is people, specifically people using force against other people. We need some method to constrain and punish the violent, the thieves and fraudsters, and other dangers to our freedom, our rights, and our security. But that shouldn’t eliminate our skepticism about empowering some people to use force against others. The power that government holds is wielded by real people, not ideal people, and real people are imperfect. Some are corrupt, some are even evil. Some of the worst are actually attracted to state power. But even the well-intentioned, the honest, and the wise are still just people exercising power over other people.

That’s why Americans have always feared the concentration of power. It’s why I often say that Smokey the Bear’s rules for fire safety apply to government: Keep it small, keep it in a confined area, and keep an eye on it.

Libertarians, as the name implies, believe that the most important political value is liberty, not democracy. Many modern readers may wonder, what’s the difference? Aren’t liberty and democracy the same thing?

They’re not. Much of the confusion stems from two different senses of the word “liberty,” a distinction notably explored by the nineteenth-century French libertarian Benjamin Constant in an essay titled “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns.” Constant noted that to the ancient Greek writers the idea of liberty meant the right to participate in public life, in making decisions for the entire community. Thus Athens was a free polity because all the citizens—that is, all the free, adult, Athenian men—could go to the public square and participate in the decision-making process. Socrates, indeed, was free because he could participate in the collective decision to execute him for his heretical opinions. The modern concept of liberty, however, emphasizes the right of individuals to live as they choose, to speak and worship freely, to own property, to engage in commerce, to be free from arbitrary arrest or detention—in Constant’s words, “to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives and undertakings.” A government based on the participation of the governed is a valuable safeguard for individual rights, but liberty itself is the right to make choices and to pursue projects of one’s own choosing.

I have attempted to sketch here what it means to be a libertarian. There are many kinds of “libertarians,” of course. Some are people who might describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” or say they want the government “out of my pocketbook and out of my bedroom.” Some believe in the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and want the government to remain within the limits of the Constitution. Some just have an instinctive belief in freedom or an instinctive aversion to being told what to do. Some are admirers of Dr. Ron Paul and his son, Senator Rand Paul, and their campaigns against war, government spending, the surveillance state, and the Federal Reserve. Some like the writings of Thomas Jefferson or John Stuart Mill. Some have studied economics. Some have learned from history that governments always seek to expand their size, scope, and power, and must be constrained to preserve freedom. Some have noticed that war, prohibition, cronyism, racial and religious discrimination, protectionism, central planning, welfare, taxes, and government spending have deleterious effects. Some are so radical they think all goods and services could be provided without a state. In this Guide, I welcome all those people to the libertarian cause. When I talk about libertarian ideas, I mean to include the ideas of thinkers from John Locke and Adam Smith to F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, and Richard Epstein.

The old ideologies have been tried and found wanting. All around us—from the postcommunist world to the military dictatorships of Africa to the insolvent welfare states of Europe and the Americas—we see the failed legacy of coercion and statism. At the same time we see moves toward libertarian solutions— constitutional government in Eastern Europe and South Africa, privatization in Britain and Latin America, democracy and the rule of law in South Korea and Taiwan, the spread of women’s rights and gay rights, and economic liberalization in China, India, and even some countries in Africa. Challenges to freedom remain, of course, including the continuing lack of Enlightenment values in much of the world, the unsustainable welfare states in the rich countries and the interests that fight reform, the recurring desire for centralized and top-down political institutions such as the Eurozone, Islamist theocracy, and the spread of “populist,” antilibertarian responses to social change and economic crisis. Libertarianism offers an alternative to coercive government that should appeal to peaceful, productive people everywhere.

No, a libertarian world won’t be a perfect one. There will still be inequality, poverty, crime, corruption, man’s inhumanity to man. But unlike the theocratic visionaries, the pie-in-the-sky socialist utopians, or the starry-eyed Mr. Fixits of the New Deal and Great Society, libertarians don’t promise you a rose garden. Karl Popper once said that attempts to create heaven on earth invariably produce hell. Libertarianism holds out the goal not of a perfect society but of a better and freer one. It promises a world in which more of the decisions will be made in the right way by the right person: you. The result will be not an end to crime and poverty and inequality but less—often much less—of most of those things most of the time.


In this series of short lectures, Boaz introduces the foundational ideas of libertarianism.

About the Lecturer

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute and has played a key role in both the Institute’s development and the growth of the American libertarian movement at large. Prior to joining Cato in 1981, he served as editor of New Guard magazine and executive director of the Council for a Competitive Economy. Boaz often appears in the media to discuss such issues as education choice, the growth of government, the ownership society, drug legalization, and the rise of libertarianism. He is author of The Libertarian Mind and editor of The Libertarian Reader.

Further Reading

In The Libertarian Reader, David Boaz has collected some of the finest libertarian writings ever penned. This is the first comprehensive anthology of libertarian thought—from the Bible and Lao-Tzu to Milton Friedman and Richard Epstein—to be published in one volume.

The 68 selections from great libertarian writers are an intellectual feast. The editor’s introductory essays on key libertarian themes such as skepticism about power, individual rights, spontaneous order, free markets, and peace are important essays in themselves.