A libertarian is committed to the principle that liberty is the most important political value. Liberty means being free to make your own choices about your own life, that what you do with your body and your property ought to be up to you. Other people must not forcibly interfere with your liberty, and you must not forcibly interfere with theirs. 

Libertarians envision a pluralist, cosmopolitan society united by commerce and travel, not divided by nationalistic antagonisms. They envision a world where people are free to experiment with different ways of living, free to try new ideas that might just be crazy enough to work. A world driven by the entrepreneurial spirit that is always asking questions like “How could this be better?” and “Can I make something entirely new?” Such a society may have a patchwork messiness about it, but it would also be vibrant and humane.

Because all people are moral equals, each possessing a wide domain of rightful autonomy, libertarians believe that claims of special authority—like those claims made by governments throughout history—require special justification. In other words, people claiming the right to infringe upon our liberty carry the burden of explaining why they’re entitled to do so.

Furthermore, libertarians tend to believe that most (if not all) of the claims to special authority made by the various governments around the world are unjustifiable. Governments assert wide‐​reaching powers to control people’s day‐​to‐​day conduct, take their belongings, and even conscript them into fighting wars. If they offer any justification for these powers, it’s only as an afterthought.

When ordinary people aren’t careful to respect their neighbors’ privacy, or presume to boss other people about or physically interfere with them, those of us concerned with justice and civility object. We might say: “Stop that. Mind your own business.” But the agents of the state act like the same rules don’t apply to them. Once they decide they want to do a thing, they generally don’t stop to consider whether doing it is any of their business in the first place, or whether they’re going about doing it in a way that disrespects the dignity or autonomy of their fellows. Legislators, bureaucrats, police, and other agents who enforce the state’s commands treat other people as pawns on a chessboard to be maneuvered into whatever configuration they deem best. Too many fail to see people as independent agents with their own desires and plans. That’s true even in relatively free societies.

Libertarians think that we ought to hold ourselves, and our governments, to a higher standard—that a freer society is possible and desirable. When people cooperate with one another peacefully, with respect for each other’s rights and liberties, we are capable of incredible things. 

The Core Principles of Libertarianism

Many cultures around the world have a tradition of liberty, shaped by each society’s particular circumstances and by the thinkers who lived there. As the world grows more interconnected, these different traditions are increasingly in dialogue. Libertarians often view themselves as the modern heirs to the tradition of liberty that developed in Europe and colonial America.

Libertarianism is rooted, historically and philosophically, in the liberalism of the Enlightenment. But although it belongs to an intellectual tradition dating back centuries, libertarianism embraces a vision of political liberty which is, even today, revolutionary. The Enlightenment liberals stood against the idea, older than human civilization, that some people ought to boss others about, setting the table for a conflict still playing out in society today. The old idea, sadly, dies hard.

Liberals like John Locke argued that because people are people, there are certain things you can’t do to them, not because they’re hereditary aristocrats or have some other kind of special status or group membership, but just because they’re people who share with you a common humanity. The things you can’t morally do to a person constitute that person’s rights. We are all born to these rights—in which sense, they are natural rights—and we do not owe them to the generosity or authority of any third party, whether individual or group, mundane or supernatural. Our rights delineate our spheres of individual autonomy. We have rights to bodily integrity and to own legitimately acquired property. Put another way, it would be immoral for someone to assault or kill us, or to seize or damage things we own.

Liberals like Adam Smith explained the mechanisms by which a free economy can change and adapt to best produce the goods and services people want without any centralized plan or planner. This idea—that economic production and consumption can be and largely are carried on in a state of spontaneous order—is one of the foundational principles of both modern economics and libertarian theory. We need no maestro directing goods where to go; people trade goods and services independently using their own judgments, and the sum of their choices produces a system that helps allocate resources to their most efficient ends, making us all richer.

Modern day politicians on the left and right sometimes pay lip service to these ideas, but in practice they reject them. Legislation is all about imposing an order from above, rather than letting one emerge from below. And in creating their schemes, politicians all too often fail to give citizens their due as people, treating them as pawns and running roughshod over their rights to decide and plan for themselves.

The Nature and Origin of the State

A libertarian is suspicious of the claims made by the world’s various governments to legitimacy and authority. Many justifications for state authority involve some version of the “social contract” story—the idea that people in a society have agreed to be ruled so that they can achieve some aim that is only attainable collectively. But even when a written constitution uses the language of the social contract, there are still big problems with justifications of this sort.

For one thing, we know that as a matter of history the state had its origin as an institution not with the people of this or that society banding together for the common good, but rather in conquest—looting and murder. Roving warlords evolved their strategies from violent theft to extorting tribute payments, which was less risky and more remunerative in the long run. They would eventually settle down in one place instead of roaming, establishing themselves as an aristocratic class and protecting their turf from rivals. With this history in mind, the various academic justifications for the state’s legitimacy start to seem like self‐​serving “Just So” stories that gloss over the state’s bloody, exploitative historical origin.

Even if some version of the social contract story works—and the more sophisticated ones take the historical reality of the state’s origin into account—libertarians recognize that the people in a given society could only delegate to a state powers they themselves already possess. If it wouldn’t be permissible for an ordinary person or group of people to take some action, there are no emergent properties of states that would permit them to take that same action. You have a right to defend yourself against thieves and murderers, so you could delegate that power to the state. You don’t have the right to force your neighbor not to drink beer on Sundays, so the state could never legitimately be given such a power.

Today, many states are still openly run so that a ruling class can extract resources from a subject class. And even high‐​functioning democracies that purport to serve the public good share the essential features of their more brutal and openly exploitative cousins:

  • A monopoly on the use of legitimized force within a geographical area
  • The power to make and enforce rules
  • The power to seize money and other assets and to coerce the performance of labor

These features make control of the state extremely appealing to people who want to use its power for the benefit of themselves and groups they favor, at the expense of groups they disfavor or society as a whole. Some of them are just greedy for money and power. Others embrace ideologies holding that using the state to benefit a favored group is morally good. Motives aside, these features of the state have a tendency to set us against one another when we participate in politics. Politics makes us worse.

Conflict and Cooperation in Human Society

You can divide the methods humans use to acquire goods and services and accumulate wealth into two broad categories. Sociologist Franz Oppenheimer called them “the economic means” and “the political means.” The economic means encompasses production and exchange—that is, making things yourself out of what you already own or are able to harvest from nature, and trading with other people or giving and receiving gifts. The political means covers all the various ways of taking things that belong to other people by force or fraud, including the organized force of the state. It may seem odd at first to think of stealing as “political”—but keep in mind where states come from. When Oppenheimer called taking goods by force the “political means” of acquiring wealth, he had in mind the historical origins of states as extractive institutions with the purpose of enriching a conquering class at the expense of a conquered class as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

For a libertarian, a cooperative society, and moreover a moral one, is a society in which people rely on the economic means of acquiring wealth. In the market nexus, we are able to come together to find others who share our interests and cooperate with them to achieve gains we could not alone by undertaking enterprises together or engaging in trade. Sometimes, of course, our foresight isn’t perfect and we fail to achieve those gains—but because market interactions can create wealth, rather than merely move it around, they can be positive‐​sum; one party winning doesn’t entail another party losing. That encourages us to see other people as potential collaborators, and it rewards all of us for cooperating with one another. Indeed, economic science tells us that the wider the range of potential trading partners we have, the wealthier we will be.

Human life—civilization—isn’t only about wealth in the narrow sense, of course. People interact with one another and organize into all sorts of groups for a wide variety of purposes. What’s important to a libertarian is that we make our dealings with our fellows peaceful and consensual. It’s in that way that we can show the appropriate respect for each person’s autonomy and humanity.

Peaceful, consensual interactions, whether in the market or other aspects of human life, are essentially pro‐​social. Politics, libertarians think, is fundamentally anti‐​social.

Every law—whether just or unjust, well‐​known or obscure, old or new—is ultimately a threat made at gunpoint: Don’t cross this line, or else. When it comes to laws against violating people’s rights, that way of doing things might be appropriate, but a great many laws are not of that type. Solving problems politically means a group of people using violence—or getting others to use violence on its behalf—to impose its will on others without their consent. For that reason, a libertarian tends to be wary of politics playing a large role in human affairs. The humane, peaceful way is better.

Libertarianism on the Issues

We have seen that when it comes to big questions about the nature of politics and the state, or about what makes for a good society, libertarians have a distinctive way of thinking. That distinctiveness carries over to the way libertarians think about smaller questions, too. You might have heard someone say that on public policy, libertarians are “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” That’s misleading. Even when libertarians agree with the left or the right on a given issue, they often have very different reasons for the conclusions they draw, and much of the time libertarians disagree with left and right both. When evaluating different specific policies and institutions, libertarians have a coherent set of ideas all their own. That’s not to say libertarians always agree. They don’t. And what’s more, they shouldn’t, because libertarianism properly understood is an ongoing conversation, not a dogma.

Let’s begin, however, with a topic where libertarians tend to strongly agree.

War

Across the years and around the world, no single issue unites libertarians more than war, and no other issue is more important. A libertarian despises war. In fact, one could view the whole libertarian project as opposition to war and militarism: A libertarian disapproves of using violence to induce other people to do what one wants. Furthermore, a libertarian is hostile to the state’s attempts to impose military regimentation on society as a whole, treating citizens like soldiers—organized and trained by the state to effect the state’s ends.

The indirect effects of warmaking abroad are often inimical to liberty at home. The size and power of the state, which grow during war time, rarely return to prewar levels after the fighting stops.

Because wars inevitably create widespread death and destruction of property, threaten civil liberties, and encourage nationalist thinking instead of individualism and cosmopolitanism, libertarians treat war as, at best, an absolute last resort. Libertarians like Christopher A. Preble have cogently argued that a libertarian foreign policy must be restrained, shunning wars of choice, and that the military should be of an appropriately small size for that purpose. Some libertarians, like Bryan Caplan, think there are good reasons to oppose any and all wars, and many libertarians are inspired by the ideas and deeds of pacifists like Leo Tolstoy or William Lloyd Garrison.

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Immigration and Trade

Libertarians believe in the free movement of both people and things across jurisdictional boundaries. Going from France to Spain, or from Mexico to America, should be as easy as going from Paris to Nice or from Indianapolis to Chicago. If you can ethically trade some good or service with a person of your own country, you can ethically trade that good or service with a person from a different country, and you should be allowed to do so free from bureaucratic interference or the imposition of tariffs or duties of any kind. That’s true for consumer goods and capital goods alike. If you want to hire someone or to accept an offer of employment, it shouldn’t matter where either party lives or where the work in question is to be performed.

Free trade and freedom of association are enormous social boons. All honest, voluntary exchanges are positive sum from the perspective of the parties as they head into a given exchange, leaving both the buyer and the seller better off while harming no third party. The larger the pool of potential trading partners, the richer human society can become. Removing the barriers that shrink the pool of potential trading partners could make us a lot richer—economists studying the impact of removing restrictions on labor mobility alone concluded that world GDP would double, as a median estimate. The less international trade is encumbered by tariffs, quotas, or regulations, the greater the opportunity for buyers and sellers to create wealth.

Drugs

Everyone is entitled to bodily autonomy. That entails that each of us is the final arbiter of what does and does not go into our bodies—whether food, drink, medicine, or recreational drugs. Should you decide to take drugs, no one has any rightful authority to stop you. It may or may not be a wise decision to use drugs, but that decision is yours and no one else’s, because your body is yours and no one else’s.

If drug use causes you to injure others or to fail in carrying out your obligations, you are morally and legally responsible—just like you would be if you spent your whole life sober.

Some people object to the libertarian position on drugs on the grounds that drug use is associated with a variety of social ills. Yet alcohol abuse can ruin lives and create addictions stronger than so‐​called “hard” drugs, and few would argue today that prohibition is a good solution or that it would be better for the addict. Moreover, many of the social problems associated with drug use are consequences not of drug use itself but of government policy—the calamitous “War on Drugs.” 

The criminalization of buying, selling, and using drugs makes it more difficult for addicts to receive treatment, renders the drugs they consume more potent (for ease of smuggling), and increases the chance that they will encounter a product that is dangerously tainted (because consumers in a black market have no recourse when sold goods of poor quality). Prohibition also contributes to an ongoing mass incarceration crisis that has destroyed communities and torn families asunder just like addiction can. And last but not least, prohibition has given criminal cartels and street gangs a captive market for a uniquely profitable product, creating a violent black‐​market drug trade—one that has already claimed far too many lives—which would otherwise simply not exist at any comparable scale.

Criminal Justice

A libertarian believes strongly in the need for thorough procedural protections of the rights of both the innocent and the guilty as they make their way through the criminal justice system, from arrest, to trial, to sentencing, and to the carrying out of their sentence.

In the administration of criminal justice the state exercises some of its most potentially dangerous powers—to invade people’s privacy, seize their person or property, and restrict their freedom to act. For that reason, police officers, prosecutors, and judges should be subject to the strictest scrutiny and held to the highest standards of conduct.

This is even more true when we consider the vast overcriminalization embedded in the laws of most countries. Indeed, there is a general consensus among scholars that ordinary, law‐​abiding citizens routinely commit felony offenses without even knowing it. That means that who is charged with a crime is almost completely decided at the discretion of police and prosecutors. They do not always exercise that discretion wisely.

Progress is possible if substantial reforms are undertaken. We could start by abolishing qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that insulates government officials from being held accountable for violating citizens’ rights—even in extreme and unreasonable ways—unless a nearly identical case has come before the court already. We could also break up the police unions, which make it extremely difficult to fire even those officers who have proved themselves incompetent or otherwise dangerous. To address the fact that the American prison population is extraordinarily large compared to those in other countries, we need to take a hard look at what conduct is legally forbidden and how long we imprison transgressors. At a minimum, that means that we stop sending people to prison for using drugs, which ought never to have been banned in the first place; it also means reevaluating the penalties imposed for more serious crimes, like theft, assault, or murder.

Civil Rights

Governments typically afford their citizens, and others subject to their authority, certain rights and privileges. Sometimes, these are formal protections for people’s natural rights—for example, the First Amendment protects people’s natural right to freedom of expression. Other times, civil rights are things that only make sense in the context of a given set of institutions—for example, the right to vote, the right to trial by jury, or the right to a public defender. The section on criminal justice has already started to explain what libertarians believe about civil rights, but not all civil rights involve criminal trials. 

Looking beyond issues of criminal justice, a libertarian typically favors a broad and robust set of civil rights protecting people as equally as possible, regardless of group membership or social status. That includes things like robust privacy protections against state surveillance, the rights to petition and protest, and the right to access government documents.

Health Care

Your body belongs to you. Just as you have a fundamental right to refuse medical care that might benefit you, you also have a fundamental right to try medical treatments that pose risks. 

The law should protect patients from fraud and from costs they did not consent to incur. It should also provide for proportionate, carefully circumscribed steps to stop the spread of serious or deadly contagious diseases, the transmission of which amounts to a violent assault.

Not only does the state often fail to deliver such protections, it routinely violates your rights to choose your medical providers and treatments. On top of that, it violates the right of innovators to offer new, better products. This blocks innovations that would make health care better, less expensive, and more secure—particularly for the most vulnerable. For example, it is government that created and perpetuates America’s employment‐​based health insurance system, which strips you of your coverage once you become too sick to work.

Voluntary institutions can do a better job than government of ensuring everyone gets the care they need. Competitive forces have improved quality while reducing costs in every other sector of the economy where they’ve been allowed to operate. They can do the same for health care—if government lets them. Competitive insurance markets made coverage more secure than the government‐​imposed system of job‐​based coverage. Non‐​commercial forms of risk pooling, like sharing ministries, are another way voluntary cooperation con improve access to care. While private charity can play a role, a libertarian world would leave fewer people dependent on the benevolence of the rich for access to care.

Education

The public school system serves children poorly because it isn’t designed to serve children at all. Because teachers and administrators at public schools depend on tax revenue, not tuition payments, they are incentivized to cater to the whims of politicians rather than the needs of students. That penalizes the best public school teachers for doing their job well.

The political control of education hinders the education system’s ability to meet students’ needs. It is also socially dangerous. Since its inception, the goal of government‐​run education has been to make the student not a good neighbor and a well‐​rounded person, but a good subject, which is a very different thing. Public schools reward obedience and conformity first and foremost, because those are the qualities the state wants in its subjects.

Any steps that make schools responsible to students and their parents, rather than the state, are likely to improve education. Education tax credits are one such step. But really, education does not require public funding at all, even for the poor. Public schools have utterly failed the poor in America—often being little better than nothing, and sometimes worse—and around the world, the poor are served best by cheap private education, not state schools.

As with healthcare, we can expect the best results at the lowest price and with the most innovation when the people using services are the ones paying for them.

Economic Regulation

In every honest, voluntary market exchange, both parties believe beforehand that they stand to benefit from the transaction—otherwise, they wouldn’t agree to it. A libertarian believes this fact provides a strong argument against standing in the way of such exchanges.

Libertarians understand the importance of spontaneous, emergent order in human affairs. There can be order without someone giving orders. Explaining how this is possible is one of the tasks of the economist. One of the chief mechanisms of spontaneous order is the system of prices that emerges from market participants exchanging goods and services for money. Price signals carry important information.

Regulatory compliance imposes a fixed cost on businesses, which unfairly favors large incumbent firms against small new competitors.

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Conclusion

In his 1883 book O Abolicionismo, the Brazilian abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco exhorted:

Educate your children, educate yourselves, in the love for the freedom of others, for only in this way will your own freedom not be a gratuitous gift from fate. You will be aware of its worth and will have the courage to defend it.

Almost everyone wants freedom for themselves. Valuing the liberty of other people is less common, especially other people who may be very unlike us and behave in ways we disfavor.

Our goal at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org is to help you cultivate your own love for the freedom of others. We’ve gathered many different resources here to that end, some of which have been mentioned already.

If there’s a specific topic that interests you, like socialism, individual rights, or taxation, we’ve made it easy to get started learning more about it. Our topic pages will point you in the right direction.

Sometimes it feels like liberty will never be realized. That people are too caught up in their authoritarian and tribalistic instincts to properly value human liberty. That those in power have too tight a grip and every incentive to tighten their grip further. Hopelessness, though, would be shortsighted. The status quo is only unchangeable right up until it isn’t. Progress is not inevitable and it is not linear, but plenty of real gains for human liberty, big enough to be historically significant, have occurred in living memory. Today, and every day after, we can take the next halting steps toward a free world.

About the author

Grant Babcock is Philosophy and Policy Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and a scholar of political philosophy. His interests include nonviolent action, epistemology of the social sciences, Austrian economics, libertarian anarchism, and finding libertarian‐​compatible responses to cultural problems. Grant holds an MA in Public Policy with a Concentration in Philosophy and Social Policy from George Washington University.