Debates within libertarianism

Libertarianism is variously defined by sources as there is no general consensus among scholars on the definition nor on how one should use the term as a historical category. Scholars generally agree that libertarianism refers to the group of political philosophies which emphasize freedom, individual liberty and voluntary association. Libertarians generally advocate a society with little or no government power.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines libertarianism as the moral view that agents initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things.[1] Libertarian historian George Woodcock defines libertarianism as the philosophy that fundamentally doubts authority and advocates transforming society by reform or revolution.[2] Libertarian philosopher Roderick T. Long defines libertarianism as "any political position that advocates a radical redistribution of power from the coercive state to voluntary associations of free individuals", whether "voluntary association" takes the form of the free market or of communal co-operatives.[3] According to the Libertarian Party of the United States, libertarianism is the advocacy of a government that is funded voluntarily and limited to protecting individuals from coercion and violence.[4]

There are many philosophical disagreements among proponents of libertarianism concerning questions of ideology, values and strategy. Most debates within libertarianism are within right libertarianism (or libertarian capitalism) as left-libertarians were the ones to coin the term and outside the United States libertarianism is still synonymous with anarchism and socialism (social anarchism and libertarian socialism). Right-libertarianism, known in the United States simply as libertarianism, was coined as a synonym for classical liberalism in May 1955 by writer Dean Russell due liberals embracing progressivism and economic interventionism in the early 20th century after the Great Depression and with the New Deal.[5] Hence, left-libertarians claim right-libertarianism is not a genuine form of libertarianism as it is capitalistic, the main debate between the two forms of libertarianism being the legitimacy of private property. In fact, most debates are within right-libertarianism as seen below, with differents philosophies (anarcho-capitalism, libertarian conservatism, minarchism, neo-classical liberalism and paleolibertarianism). Many debates are also due the socially liberal and socially conservative right-libertarians on issues such as abortion, capital punishment, foreign affairs and immigration.


Libertarian philosophies are generally divided on three principal questions: by ethical theory – whether actions are determined to be moral consequentially or in terms of natural rights (or deontologically), the legitimacy of private property and the legitimacy of the state. Libertarian philosophy can therefore be broadly divided into eight groups based on these distinctions.


An estimated 60-70% of American libertarians believe women are entitled to abortion rights, though many who identify as pro-choice do maintain that abortion becomes homicidal at some stage during pregnancy and therefore should not remain legal beyond that point.[6] The Libertarian Party of the United States' current platform states to the contrary that government should have no role in restricting abortion, implying opposition to any and all proposed federal or state legislation which might prohibit any method of abortion at any given stage of gestation. Groups like the Association of Libertarian Feminists and Pro-Choice Libertarians support keeping government out of the issue entirely. Libertarians For Life on the other hand argues that human zygotes, embryos and fetuses possess the same natural human rights and deserve the same protections as neonates, calling for outlawing abortion as an aggressive act against a rights-bearing unborn child. Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a figurehead of American libertarianism, is a pro-life physician as is his son Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Most American libertarians, whether pro-choice or pro-life, agree the federal government should play no role in prohibiting, protecting, or facilitating abortion and thus oppose the Supreme Court conclusion in Roe v. Wade that abortion is a fundamental right if performed during the first trimester of pregnancy by virtue of an implicit Constitutional right to privacy.

Capital punishment

Libertarians are divided on capital punishment, also known as the death penalty. Those opposing it generally see it as an excessive abuse of state power which is by its very nature irreversible, possibly also in conflict with the Bill of Rights' ban on "cruel and unusual punishment". Some libertarians who believe capital punishment can be just under certain circumstances may oppose execution based on practical considerations. Those who support the death penalty do so on self-defense or retributive justice grounds.


There are broadly two different types of libertarianism which are based on ethical doctrines: "consequentialist libertarianism" and "natural-rights libertarianism" (or "deontological libertarianism"). Deontological libertarians have the view that natural rights exist and from there argue that initiation of force and fraud should never take place.[7] Natural-rights libertarianism may include both right-libertarianism and left-libertarianism.[8] Consequentialist libertarians argue that a free market and strong private property rights bring about beneficial consequences, such as wealth creation or efficiency, rather than subscribing to a theory of rights or justice.[9] There are hybrid forms of libertarianism that combine deontological and consequentialist reasoning.[9]

Contractarian libertarianism holds that any legitimate authority of government derives not from the consent of the governed, but from contract or mutual agreement, though this can be seen as reducible to consequentialism or deontologism depending on what grounds contracts are justified.[10][11][12] Some libertarian socialists reject deontological and consequential approaches and use historical materialism to justify their political beliefs.[13]

Foreign affairs

Libertarians generally are against any foreign aid to other countries and in most situations any military intervention in other countries. The only wars that most libertarians support are in situations of self-defense.[14] Some (not all) libertarians are also opposed to strategic alliances with foreign countries. Libertarians generally try to explain that they are not isolationists, but non-interventionists.[15] [16]


Libertarians generally support freedom of movement, including across national borders, but not to the extent of abolishing borders. However, some right-libertarians, particularly Hoppean anarcho-capitalists who propose the full privatization of land and natural resources, contend that a policy of open borders amounts to legalized trespassing.


Libertarians disagree over what to do in absence of a will or contract in the event of death and over posthumous property rights. In the event of a contract, the contract is enforced according to the property owner's wishes. Typically, libertarians believe that any intestate property should go to the living relatives of the deceased and that none of the property should go to the government. Others say that if no will has been made, the property immediately enters the state of nature from which anyone (save the state) may homestead it.

Intellectual property

Libertarians hold a variety of views on intellectual property (IP) and patents. Some libertarian natural rights theorists justify property rights in ideas (and other intangibles) just as they do property rights in physical goods, saying whoever made it owns it. Other libertarian natural rights theorists, especially since Stephan Kinsella, have held that only physical material can be owned and that ownership of "intellectual property" amount to an illegitimate claim of ownership over that which enters another's mind, that which cannot be removed or controlled without violation of the non-aggression axiom. Pro-IP libertarians of the utilitarian tradition say that IP maximizes innovation while anti-IP libertarians of the selfsame persuasion say that it causes shortages of innovation. This latter view holds that IP is a euphemism for intellectual protectionism and should be abolished altogether.


Georgist libertarians (known alternatively as geolibertarians), such as Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov, argue that because land is not the product of human labor, but is inelastic in supply and essential for life and wealth creation, the market rental value of land should properly be considered commons. They interpret the Lockean proviso and the law of equal liberty to mean that exclusive land ownership beyond one's equal share of aggregate land value necessarily restricts the freedom of others to access natural space and resources. In order to promote freedom and minimize waste, they argue that individuals should surrender the rental value of the land to which they hold legal title, absent improvements, to the community as a subscription fee for the privilege to exclude others from the site. However, since geolibertarians wish to limit the influence of government, they would have this revenue fund a universal basic income, or Citizen's Dividend, which would also function as a social safety net to replace the existing welfare system. They further argue, based on David Ricardo's law of rent, that this would boost wages.

Limited government and anarchism

Libertarians differ on whether any government at all is desirable. Some favor the existence of governments and see them as civilly necessary, while others favor stateless societies and view the state as being undesirable, unnecessary and harmful, if not intrinsically evil.[17][18]

Supporters of limited libertarian government or a night watchman state argue that placing all defense and courts under private control, regulated only by market demand, is an inherent miscarriage of justice because justice would be bought and sold as a commodity, thereby conflating authentic impartial justice with economic power.[19] Market anarchists counter that having defense and courts controlled by the state is both immoral and an inefficient means of achieving both justice and security.[20][21] Libertarian socialists hold that liberty is incompatible with state action based on a class struggle analysis of the state.[22]

Natural resources

Most libertarians (such as free market environmentalists and Objectivists) believe environmental damage is more often than not a result of state ownership and mismanagement of natural resources, for example by the military-industrial complex. Right-libertarians such as anarcho-capitalists contend that private ownership of all natural resources will result in a better environment, as a private owner of property will have more incentive to ensure the longer term value of the property. Others, such as geolibertarians, believe the earth cannot legitimately be held in allodium, that usufructuary title with periodic land value capture and redistribution avoids both the tragedy of the commons and the tragedy of the anticommons while respecting equal rights to natural resources.


Propertarian libertarian philosophies define liberty as non-aggression, or the state in which no person or group aggresses against any other person or group, where aggression is defined as the violation of private property.[7] This philosophy implicitly recognizes private property as the sole source of legitimate authority. Propertarian libertarians hold that an order of private property is the only one that is both ethical and leads to the best possible outcomes.[20] They generally support the free market and are not opposed to any concentration of power (monopolies) provided it is brought about through non-coercive means.[23]

Non-propertarian libertarian philosophies hold that liberty is the absence of hierarchy and demands the leveling of systemically coercive and exploitative power structures. On this left-libertarian view a society based on freedom and equality can be achieved through abolishing authoritarian institutions that control certain means of production and subordinate the majority to an owning class or political and economic elite.[24] Implicitly, it rejects any authority of private property and thus holds that it is not legitimate for someone to claim private ownership of any production resources to the detriment of others.[25][26][27][28] Libertarian socialism is a group of political philosophies that promote a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, stateless society without private property in the means of production. The term libertarian socialism is also used to differentiate this philosophy from state socialism.[29][30][31][32] Libertarian socialists generally place their hopes in decentralized means of direct democracy such as libertarian municipalism, citizens' assemblies, trade unions and workers' councils.[33]

Race and sex

Libertarians are against laws that favor or harm any race or either sex. These include Jim Crow laws, state segregation, interracial marriage bans and laws that discriminate on the basis of sex—they likewise oppose state-enforced affirmative action, hate crime laws and anti-discrimination laws. They would not use the state to prevent voluntary affirmative action or voluntary discrimination.[34][35][36] Most believe that the drive for profit in the marketplace will diminish or eliminate the effects of racism, which they tend to consider to be inherently collectivist. This causes a degree of dissonance among libertarians in federal systems such as in the United States, where there is debate among libertarians about whether the federal government has the right to coerce states to change their democratically created laws.


Some libertarians believe that consistent adherence to libertarian doctrines such as the non-aggression principle demands unqualified moral opposition to any form of taxation, a sentiment encapsulated in the phrase, "Taxation is theft!"[37] They would fund all services through gratuitous contributions, private law and defense user fees, as well as lotteries. Some libertarians support low taxes of various kinds, arguing that a society with no taxation would have difficulty providing public goods such as crime prevention and a consistent, unified legal system to punish rights violators. Geolibertarians in particular argue that only a single tax on the rental value of land, typically in conjunction with Pigovian pollution and severance fees to internalize negative externalities and curb natural resource depletion, are non-aggressive, non-distortionary, and politically sustainable.

Voluntary slavery

Some libertarians believe "voluntary slavery" is a contradiction in terms.[38] Others dispute the Lockean claim that some rights are inalienable and maintain that even permanent voluntary slavery is possible and contractually binding.[39]



Some libertarian anarchists, such as agorists, employ non-voting as a tactic, considering voting as immoral or impractical. Other, more moderate libertarians, abstain from voting to voice their feeling that the current system is broken or out of touch.

Political alliances

Until fairly recently, American libertarians have allied politically with modern conservatives over economic issues and gun laws while they are more prone to ally with liberals on other civil liberties issues and non-interventionism. As conservatives increasingly favor protectionism over free and open trade, and progressives censorship over free speech, the popular characterization of libertarian policy as economically conservative and socially liberal has been rendered less meaningful. Libertarians may choose to vote for candidates of other parties depending on the individual and the issues they promote. Paleolibertarians have a long-standing affinity with paleoconservatives in opposing United States interventions and promoting decentralization and cultural conservatism.


Libertarians generally agree on the desirability of rapid and fundamental changes in power dynamics and institutional structures, but may disagree on the means by which such changes might be achieved. In general, libertarians strongly oppose violent revolution as unethical and counterproductive, although others, especially market anarchists of a left-wing persuasion such as agorists, advocate various forms of nonviolent resistance, tax resistance or evasion, public acts of civic disloyalty and disobedience, counter-economics and subversive black markets.

See also


  1. Peter Vallentyne. "Libertarianism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University. Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  2. George Woodcock. Anarchism: A History of Llibertarian Ideas and Movements. Petersborough, Ontario. Broadview Press. pp. 11–31, especially p. 18. ISBN 1-55111-629-4.
  3. Roderick T. Long (1998). "Towards a Libertarian Theory of Class" (PDF). Social Philosophy and Policy. 15 (2): 303–349, at p. 304. doi:10.1017/S0265052500002028.
  4. Duncan Watts (2002). Understanding American Government and Politics: A Guide for A2 Politics Students. Manchester, England. Manchester University Press. p. 246.
  5. "Where Does the Term "Libertarian" Come From Anyway?". "Many of us call ourselves 'liberals.' And it is true that the word 'liberal' once described persons who respected the individual and feared the use of mass compulsions. But the leftists have now corrupted that once-proud term to identify themselves and their program of more government ownership of property and more controls over persons. As a result, those of us who believe in freedom must explain that when we call ourselves liberals, we mean liberals in the uncorrupted classical sense. At best, this is awkward and subject to misunderstanding. Here is a suggestion: Let those of us who love liberty trade-mark and reserve for our own use the good and honorable word 'libertarian'".
  6. "Ask Dr. Ruwart". Advocates for Self-Government. Archived December 12, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  7. 1 2 Murray Rothbard (1989). For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. New York City, New York: Collier Books. ISBN 0-02-074690-3.
  8. Mark Bevir (2010). Encyclopedia of Political Theory. SAGE Publications. p. 811.
  9. 1 2 Jonathan Wolff. "Libertarianism, Utility, and Economic Competition" (PDF). Virginia Law Review. Archived from the original (PDF) on January 12, 2013.
  10. "Contractarianism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, California. April 4, 2007.
  11. Anthony de Jasay (1996). "Hayek: Some Missing Pieces" (PDF). The Review of Austrian Economics. 9 (1): 107–118. doi:10.1007/bf01101884. ISSN 0889-3047.
  12. Hardy Bouillon, Harmut Kliemt (2007). "Foreword". In Hardy Bouillon, Hartmut Kliemt. Ordered Anarchy: Jasay and his surroundings. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing. p. xiii. ISBN 0-7546-6113-X.
  13. B. Franks (2003). "Direct action ethic" (PDF). Anarchist Studies. 11 (1): 13–41, especially pp. 24–25.
  14. "2016 Platform".
  15. "Libertarian Gary Johnson Clarifies Foreign Policy Stances".
  16. "Time for a Rethink?: Libertarians and Foreign Policy".
  17. Errico Malatesta. "Towards Anarchism". MAN!. Los Angeles, California: International Group of San Francisco. OCLC 3930443. "Anarchism". The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. p. 14. Anarchism is the view that a society without the state, or government, is both possible and desirable. The following sources cite anarchism as a political philosophy: Paul Mclaughlin (2007). Anarchism and Authority. Aldershot: Ashgate. p. 59. ISBN 0-7546-6196-2. R. Johnston (2000). The Dictionary of Human Geography. Cambridge, England: Blackwell Publishers. p. 24. ISBN 0-631-20561-6.
  18. Carl Slevin (2003). "Anarchism". The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Ed. Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan. Oxford University Press.
  19. Randal G. Holcombe. "Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable" (PDF). The Independent Review. 8 (3): 325–342 at pp. 326–328 (armed forces); 330–331 (market failure in protective services); 332–333 (police).
  20. 1 2 Murray Rothbard (1998). The Ethics of Liberty. New York City, New York: New York University Press. ISBN 978-0814775066.
  21. David Friedman (1989). The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0812690699.
  22. Lewis Call (2002). Postmodern anarchism. Lanham, Maryland. Lexington Books. pp. 66–68.
  23. Ludwig von Mises (2007). Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund. ISBN 978-0865976313.
  24. Manuel da Silva Mendes (2011). Socialismo libertario ou Anarchismo. Historia e doutrina (in Portuguese). Adegi Graphics LLC. ASIN B004IKWRH2.
  25. Peter Vallentyne (September 5, 2002). "Libertarianism". In Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 ed.). Stanford, California: Stanford University. Retrieved March 5, 2010.
  26. Will Kymlicka (1995). "libertarianism, left-". In Ted Honderich. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866132-0.
  27. Peter Vallentyne, Hillel Steiner, ed. (2000). Left-libertarianism and its critics: the contemporary debate. New York City, New York: Palgrave (St. Martin's Press). p. 393. ISBN 0-312-23699-9.
  28. Eric Mack, Gerald F Gaus (2004). "Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism: The Liberty Tradition". In Gerald F. Gaus, Chandran Kukathas. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications. pp. 115–131, at p. 128. ISBN 978-0-7619-6787-3.
  29. Paul Zarembka (2007). Transitions in Latin America and in Poland and Syria. Emerald Group Publishing. p. 25
  30. Daniel Guerin (2011) [1970]. Anarchism: From Theory to Practice [originally published as French: Anarchisme, de la doctrine à l'action] reprinted online: [first published in English: New York: Monthly Review Press]. §1 sub-§"A Matter of Words". "At the end of the century in France, Sebastien Faure took up a word originated in 1858 by one Joseph Dejacque to make it the title of a journal, Le Libertaire. Today the terms "anarchist" and "libertarian" have become interchangeable. Some contemporary anarchists have tried to clear up the misunderstanding by adopting a more explicit term: they align themselves with libertarian socialism or communism or as a synonym for anarchism".
  31. Geoffrey Ostergaard (1991). "Anarchism". Limited A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Blackwell Publishing. p. 21.
  32. Noam Chomsky, Carlos Peregrín Otero (2004). Language and Politics. AK Press. p. 739.
  33. Rudolf Rocker (2004). Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. Oakland, California: AK Press. p. 65. ISBN 978-1-902593-92-0.
  34. Murray Rothbard (November 1994). "Big Government Libertarians".
  35. Charles Murray (1997). "What it means to be a Libertarian". Cato Institute Journal.
  36. "2008 Platform".
  37. Walter Block (Summer 2005). "Governmental Inevitability: Reply to Holcombe, Journal of Libertarian Studies". Volume 19. No. 3. pp. 71–93. "The libertarian, if he is to be logically consistent, must urge zero crime, not a small amount of it. Any crime is anathema for the libertarian. Any government, no matter how 'nice,' must therefore also be rejected by the libertarian".
  38. Murray Rothbard, A Crusoe Social Philosophy
  39. "Toward a Libertarian Theory of Inalienability: A Critique of Rothbard, Barnett, Smith, Kinsella, Gordon, and Epstein".

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