Within the world of political spectrums, one ideology stands out for its axioms, principles, and ethics: libertarianism. It is a political philosophy based on the idea that the individual is the sole owner of oneself and therefore has the right to exercise their freedom without external interference, as long as it does not harm the freedom of others. Its fundamental principles include advocating for free markets, reducing (or completely eliminating) the state, and limiting government intervention in people’s lives.

Libertarian authors

The origins of libertarianism can be traced back to the classical liberal thinking of authors such as John Locke, Adam Smith, and Gustave de Molinari. In his Second Treatise of Government, the British philosopher John Locke defended the idea that individuals have the right to property and liberty and that the state should exist solely to protect these rights.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argued that economic freedom and competition are fundamental to society’s development. In Les Soirées de la Rue Saint-Lazare, Molinari asserted the idea of free markets as the best mechanism for efficient resource allocation and the promotion of individual liberty.

However, libertarianism as an organized political movement only took shape and gained momentum in the 20th century, influenced by liberty-minded authors such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. 

In her books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand advocated the idea that the individual is the measure of all things and that rational selfishness is the only morally justifiable ethics. 

Rothbard, through books like The Libertarian Manifesto and The Anatomy of the State, argued that the state is a coercive institution and, therefore, should be limited to minimal functions, such as protecting life, liberty, and property.

In addition to these authors, libertarianism was also highly influenced by the Austrian School of Economics, which advocates the idea that the market is capable of self-regulation without the need for government intervention. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek are two of the main exponents of this school.

Schools of thought within the liberty movement

Within the liberty movement, we can identify three main ideological branches: Objectivism by Ayn Rand, anarcho-capitalism by Murray Rothbard, and minarchism by Robert Nozick. Although they agree on many things, each has its peculiarities and different justifications for their thoughts.

Objectivism — Ayn Rand

In Objectivism, which is distinct from libertarianism but closely adjacent in many ways, the emphasis is on defending individual freedom, private property, and the free market, as in other branches of libertarianism. However, the Objectivist approach adds a specific moral and metaphysical perspective, emphasizing the importance of a philosophy of reason and self-interest.

Rand argued that reason is the only reliable means of understanding reality and that the pursuit of individual happiness is the moral and ethical purpose of life. She advocated for individuals’ inalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, and property, and saw the role of government as protecting these rights by acting solely as a neutral arbiter to resolve disputes and enforce contracts.

In Objectivist philosophy, private property is considered a fundamental right based on the individual’s ability to use their reason to create, produce, and exchange values. The free market is seen as the most compatible economic system with human nature, as it allows for voluntary exchanges and individual entrepreneurship.

Anarcho-capitalism — Murray Rothbard

At the core of Rothbard’s libertarianism is the defense of a political and economic system based on the idea of private property, free markets, and “non-aggression.” Like Rand, he argues that all human beings possess inherent and inalienable rights, and thus, any form of aggression or violence, whether by individuals or the state, is considered a violation of those rights.

Rothbard, through his logic, rejects the theory of social contract and the role of the state as a provider of services and defender of rights. He advocates for the complete abolition of the State. He argues that all functions typically associated with the state, such as security, justice, and the protection of rights, can be performed more efficiently through voluntary institutions and the free market. In this sense, Rothbard advocates for a society organized on a consensual basis without the existence of a coercive government.

In the economic field, he advocated for total market freedom, asserting that voluntary exchange is the most efficient and fair form of resource allocation. He criticized state intervention in the economy, including regulations, subsidies, and monetary policies, arguing that these measures distort market mechanisms and hinder economic development.

Minarchism — Robert Nozick

In the minarchism of philosopher Robert Nozick, there is a political and philosophical approach that advocates for the existence of a minimal government, also known as the “night-watchman state” or “guardian state.”

Nozick, like Rothbard and Rand, starts from the premise that individuals have inviolable natural rights. He argues that the only legitimate function of the state is to protect these rights and ensure the impartial enforcement of the law. According to Nozick, a minarchist government is necessary to prevent the violation of individual rights, provide security against external aggression, and resolve disputes fairly.

Nozick proposes that in a minarchist government, funding should be done through voluntary contributions rather than coercive taxes. He argues that individuals should have the right to choose whether they want to contribute financially to the maintenance of the government and that competition among different defense and protection agencies could ensure greater efficiency and quality in the provision of these services.

Minarchism vs. Objectivism

The difference between Nozick’s minarchism and Rand’s Objectivism lies precisely in their views on the moral and philosophical justification of the state and the role each attributes to it.

Rand’s Objectivism, as mentioned before, is based on the philosophy of Objectivism, which emphasizes reason, individuality, and rational egoism. In Objectivism, the government is justified as a necessary institution to protect individuals’ rights and ensure social order.

On the other hand, Nozick’s minarchism is a philosophical approach based on natural rights and the theory of justice. Nozick argues that the state has a legitimate but restricted role, limited to the protection of individual rights and the enforcement of the law. He argues that any form of state coercion beyond that is unjustified and violates individuals’ rights. He emphasizes the importance of individual freedom and argues that the state should respect individuals’ autonomy.

One of the fundamental differences between the two approaches is the moral justification of the state. While Rand’s Objectivism is based on the notion of individual rights and rational egoism as a moral foundation, Nozick’s minarchism is based on natural rights and the theory of justice.

The evolution of libertarian ethics

The ethics and philosophy of libertarianism are based on the notion that the individual is the sole owner of oneself and that individual liberty is the supreme value. According to Nozick, libertarianism is based on three principles: the right to liberty, the right to property, and the obligation to respect the liberty and property of others.

The right to liberty includes unrestricted freedom of thought, expression, association, and choice. The right to property includes the right to private property, free trade, and individual initiative. The obligation to respect the liberty and property of others means that no one has the right to initiate illegitimate aggression or defraud another person.

The non-aggression principle

It is difficult to talk about libertarianism without mentioning its central axiom, the non-aggression principle (NAP). This ethical foundation states that it is morally unacceptable for any individual or group to initiate violence or the threat of violence against others, unless it is in self-defense (it should be noted that although the NAP exists, it does not mean that libertarians are necessarily pacifists). 

This applies not only to physical violence but also to economic and social violence, such as the use of the monopoly of force by the state to enforce its policies. A clear example of this is the iconic phrase “Taxation is theft,” which, being something (literally) imposed and impossible to disagree with without facing sanctions, directly alludes to this philosophy.

In summary, the non-aggression principle states that all human interactions should be based on voluntary consent and the absence of coercion, thus leading to a society based on contracts between individuals.

However, the NAP by itself can be considered a more negative ethical orientation, establishing what should not be done but not providing positive guidance on how to act. This is where argumentative ethics is developed to play that crucial role.

Argumentative ethics

Argumentative ethics in libertarianism seeks to justify and develop positive ethical principles based on the non-aggression principle. It encourages dialogue, rational debate, and the exchange of ideas as a means to arrive at a deeper understanding of libertarian principles and their applications in complex ethical issues.

Through argumentative ethics, libertarians explore issues such as property, voluntary contracts, freedom of association, individual responsibility, and the proper role of government, among other topics. They seek to establish rational and evidence-based arguments to defend their ethical and political positions, always based on the non-aggression principle as a central guide.

Argumentative ethics in libertarianism also involves respecting the autonomy and dignity of others, listening to and considering different perspectives, and seeking consensus or voluntary agreements whenever possible.

As mentioned before, libertarians value private property and freedom of contract, arguing that private property is a natural right and that freedom of contract is the best way to allow people to decide for themselves how to use their resources and cooperate with others. They believe that a free market is the best way to achieve economic efficiency and prosperity.

Critiques of libertarianism

Critics of libertarianism often argue that its emphasis on individual freedom can lead to economic and social inequality, exploitation, and the weakening of the state, as libertarianism intensifies the fight against paternalistic measures that currently exist, whether they are market-protective or welfare-oriented, which can, in a critical analysis, result in a “dangerous” and “chaotic” environment.

However, libertarians counter that these challenges can be effectively addressed through voluntary and decentralized solutions, exemplified by private charity and social entrepreneurship initiatives that are already in practice. 

By streamlining public policies and taxation, the economy could experience significant and undeniable improvements, fostering increased investment and progress for the betterment of society. This approach effectively dispels the notion that libertarianism is chaotic and anarchic, showcasing its potential to bring about positive change while maintaining order and stability.

Further reading

For more content on related topics here at Learn Liberty, be sure to check out the following articles:

Five books to understand classical liberalism

A history of free speech in America

The role of government: schools of thought in classical liberalism

Ten movies every libertarian should watch

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