Historical Introduction to Philosophy/Libertarianism

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Libertarianism is a political philosophy that focuses on the rights of individuals. It is the core belief in libertarianism that individuals have the right to do whatever they want with their person or possessions, as long as they do not infringe upon the same rights of others. Because of this belief, libertarians feel that groups, simply made up of individuals, have no more power than an individual. Therefore, most libertarians would say that there should be as little government as is practically possible. The main goal of libertarianism is to help individuals assume control of their lives.

Many people feel that the first libertarians were the founding fathers of the United States of America, namely Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, although influences can be traced all the way back to the Epicureans, who believed that the basis of society was a social contract in which all individuals acted not according to justice, but rather in order to advance the happiness of society. John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith are considered to be extremely influential in the development of libertarianism. The most notable modern libertarians include Ayn Rand, whose philosophy of objectivism contains core libertarian beliefs, and Robert Nozick, who in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia claims that libertarianism is the “framework for utopia” and that it is “inspiring as well as right.”

Libertarianism should not be confused with liberalism. They were considered the same in the early to mid nineteenth-century, both sharing the same beliefs such as limiting state power and the benefits of a free market. But around the 1870s liberals were gradually moving toward the belief that the government was necessary in guaranteeing social justice. Liberalism developed into a philosophy which wants an increase in government power, taxes, and regulation. Libertarians feel this philosophy is very close to socialism and therefore do not agree with it. Libertarians believe that collecting taxes is another form of robbery.

These are the basics of libertarianism, now lets go in depth.

As stated above, libertarianism is often tied to liberalism. This is the true origin of libertarian thought, as then the beliefs of liberals were very much the same as today’s libertarians. The origins of libertarianism stretch back into the Renaissance with the humanist scholars of that time. Galileo and Erasmus were among the main humanists who began this type of thought about human rights. Galileo, who was tried on suspicion of heresy, was made to recant his scientific ideas which challenged Church doctrine. This whole event is seen as a crucial part in the development of human rights issues. Erasmus, in his De Libero Arbitrio Diatribe Sive Collatio -- challenges Martin Luther regarding his limited views of free will, also addressing human rights.

With the Reformation and Enlightenment came further expansion on these topics. Thomas Hobbes was one of the chief contributors to liberal thought with his book Leviathan . In the book, Hobbes illustrates that in a state of nature, man has access to everything in his world. But, because of the issue of scarcity, a man is in a state of perpetual war with other men. He believed, as the Epicureans did, that men do not wish there to be war, and therefore have created a social contract, in which they can do and have what they want as long as they do not harm others. Law to Hobbes was simply an enforcement of this contract. This sounds like what we often think of as libertarianism.

It is hard to read of Hobbes without also coming in contact with John Locke. Locke too believed in the social contract, but expanded on Hobbes’ ideas of governing such a society. He believed that in order for peoples’ rights to be assured, the government much be approved by the governed. He believed every man had a natural right to “life, liberty, and property,” and that a government should work to insure those rights. Replace property with pursuit of happiness and low and behold you have the preamble to the United States Constitution.

Locke played an integral part in the evolution of libertarianism. As shown above he greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, as well as other founding fathers of America. Jefferson, who was the main author of the Declaration of Independence, retells the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke almost verbatim, and when looking at his career one can see that he was a staunch advocate for libertarian thought. Hamilton too, although often seen as Jefferson’s nemesis, shared some of the same liberal beliefs. Madison, who is often referred to as the “father of the constitution,” along with Jefferson and Hamilton, is responsible for the inclusion of these thoughts on liberty into what are thought to be America’s guiding principles.

John Stuart Mill, who carried on the tradition of liberal (or libertarian) thought, wrote in his essay On Liberty about the struggle between authority and liberty. A crucial point he makes which may put libertarian beliefs into question is his idea of "the tyranny of the majority." If the social contract theory remains in tact, and it is the peoples' job to create the contract while it is the government's job to enforce it, what is to be said if the prevailing opinion is one which an individual feels is immoral or simply does not agree with? Mill, then, is forced to develop a list of the very basic liberties an individual has. Let us see if any of them sound familiar.

1. The freedom to think as one wishes, and to feel as one does. This includes the freedom to opinion, and includes the freedom to publish opinions known as the freedom of speech.
2. The freedom to pursue tastes and pursuits, even if they are deemed "immoral," as long as they do not cause harm.
3. The "freedom to unite" or meet with others, often known as the freedom of assembly.

These were the basic human rights, and to explain how the only way these liberties could be questioned, he is quoted as saying, "That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

Around the time Mill published his essay, the divide between what we think of as liberals and libertarians began. Those now considered to lean more towards the liberal side began showing an interest in more government power, most notably in the realm of economics.

The twentieth-century saw the further development of libertarian thought. It was being taught in various schools in the United States during the 60's and was greatly elaborated upon by Robert Nozick, a Harvard philosopher who many consider to be the greatest contributor to libertarian philosophy in recent times. In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick describes in detail the core libertarian beliefs and the problems in attaining a libertarian society, and the framework for such a "utopia." This is perhaps the most eclectic handbook on the principles of libertarianism out there. In it, he outlines the beliefs of John Locke and in essence, those of John Stuart Mill. Among the issues Nozick delves into in depth is that of the unique individual. In a libertarian society, or a "utopia" as he puts it, everyone has different interests ranging from their spiritual or intellectual drives to where they wish to live. Therefore, there is no society which will be completely "ideal" for everyone living in it. In Part III or the "Utopia" section of his book, however, he gives a list of "filters" and other ways to get around this. Obviously, there will be problems which arise when looking over his explanation of this "Utopia." But, it is apparent that criticism of libertarian thought is not a new thing.

Libertarianism is still a recognized political philosophy which maintains a place in our current system. Research after the 2004 Presidential election showed that 2% of American voters actually claimed themselves libertarians, while 16% said they hold libertarian views. This implies then, that people with libertarian views are increasingly becoming the swing votes in elections. Current libertarians who are active and have plans to run in future elections include T. Lee Horne, III who will be running for governor of Louisiana in 2007, and both Steve Kubby and George Phillies will be running for President in 2008 on libertarian tickets.


Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. USA: Basic Books, 1974.

Kolak, Daniel, and Garrett Thomson. The Longman Standard History of Philosophy. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006.

Raymond, Eric. "The Libertarianism FAQ." Eric's Homepage. 17 November 2005. 30 November 2006 <http://catb.org/esr/faqs/libertarianism.html>.

Libertarianism.com. Advocates for Self-Government. 11 Dec 2006 <>. http://www.libertarianism.com/>.

Wikipedia Contributors, "History of Libertarianism." Wikipedia. 2006. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 11 Dec 2006 <[[w:History_of_Libertarianism%3E.|http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Libertarianism>.]]

Study Questions

1. Go to the website listed above entitled "libertarianism.com." Compare and contrast the ideas put forth by the Advocates for Self-Government with the historical figures of libertarianism. Have they changed or remained the same?

2. Click on the link to Robert Nozick's page on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Explain Nosick's views on the state and what powers they should be able to exercise.

3. Explain Nozick's view on self-ownership and who or what may have led to the development of his ideas. How does this relate to his notion of slavery which is further explained in his book?

4. First click on the "objectivism link," read the explanation of this philosophy. Then click on "Ayn Rand" and read. With your knowledge of libertarianism, why might Ayn Rand feel the way she does about libertarians and the philosophy in general?

5. Click on the link to the "United States Constitution." Reading through the introductory paragraphs, does it seem that the United States has tried to secure the individual rights it declared it would in the beginning? How have the libertarian visions of the "founding fathers" of the United States changed ?

6. Go again to "libertarianism.com." Scroll down to the heading "Libertarian Positions on the Issues" and click. Pick one of the issues and explain how it directly relates to libertarian views and how it contributes to the libertarian cause.

7. Click on the links to both Steve Kubby and George Phillies' websites. Explain some of the issues both candidates are concerned about. What are these men doing in their presidential campaigns to further libertarian ideals and ensure a larger libertarian vote in the next election?

Give a brief history of the development of libertariansim, paying close attention to the core beliefs of libertarians and the similarities and differences among the contributors to this philosophy. If the society these thinkers wished for were to one day become reality, given your knowledge of libertarianism, what challenges might such a society face and how might those challenges be overcome?

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