Two long wars, chronic deficits, the financial crisis, the costly drug war, the campaigns of Ron Paul and Rand Paul, the growth of executive power under Presidents Bush and Obama, and the revelations about NSA abuses have pushed millions more Americans in a libertarian direction. The Libertarian Mind, by David Boaz, longtime executive vice president of the Cato Institute, is the best available guide to the history, ideas, and growth of this increasingly important political movement. 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. Libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom.
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Two long wars, chronic deficits, the financial crisis, the costly drug war, the campaigns of Ron Paul and Rand Paul, the growth of executive power under Presidents Bush and Obama, and the revelations about NSA abuses have pushed millions more Americans in a libertarian direction.
The Libertarian Mind, by David Boaz, longtime executive vice president of the Cato Institute, is the best available guide to the history, ideas, and growth of this increasingly important political movement. 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.
Libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
I am sure, sirs, that no gentleman in the late Convention would have attempted such a thing. There are many reasons. 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 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. 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. 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.
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.
Libertarians, as the name implies, believe that the most important political value is liberty, not democracy. 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. I have attempted to sketch here what it means to be a libertarian. 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 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. 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.
Libertarianism offers an alternative to coercive government that should appeal to peaceful, productive people everywhere. But unlike the theocratic visionaries, the pie-in-the-sky socialist utopians, or the starry-eyed Mr. 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.
Twitter In this excerpt from Libertarianism: A Primer, Boaz tells the history of the movement for liberty, from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu through the 20th century. In a sense there have always and ever been only two political philosophies: liberty and power. It has gone by many names—Caesarism, Oriental despotism, theocracy, socialism, fascism, communism, monarchism, ujamaa, welfare-statism—and the arguments for each of these systems have been different enough to conceal the essential similarity. The philosophy of liberty has also gone by different names, but its defenders have always had a common thread of respect for the individual, confidence in the ability of ordinary people to make wise decisions about their own lives, and hostility to those who would use violence to get what they want. The first known libertarian may have been the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who lived around the sixth century B.
A History of Libertarianism
Related Content Share The key concepts of libertarianism have developed over many centuries. Libertarians see the individual as the basic unit of social analysis. Only individuals make choices and are responsible for their actions. Libertarian thought emphasizes the dignity of each individual, which entails both rights and responsibility. The progressive extension of dignity to more people — to women, to people of different religions and different races — is one of the great libertarian triumphs of the Western world. Individual Rights.