How Libertarianism Works

By: Dave Roos
Then-New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson speaks about drug legalization policy on NBC's "Meet the Press" in 2001.
Then-New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson speaks about drug legalization policy on NBC's "Meet the Press" in 2001.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Election Day 2012, the decision is clear: It's Barack Obama, Mitt Romney or Gary Johnson. Gary who? Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico and the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, America's third-largest political party! You are not likely to see a lot of expensive television ads for Gary Johnson. Heck, unless you live in Alaska or Montana, you might not even see a billboard. But the candidacy of Gary Johnson, and the popularity of libertarian-leaning Republican Ron Paul, exposes a growing disillusionment with the traditional Democratic and Republican party platforms.

According to 2012 polls, 30 percent of Americans define themselves as independent, belonging to neither of the two major political parties [source: Rasmussen Reports]. But how many independents are actually closet libertarians? For example, how do you respond to the following statements?


  • The best way to save the economy is to cut government spending, reduce the burden of regulation on business and cut taxes.
  • Gay marriage is a matter of equal rights and should receive equal protection under the law.
  • The war on drugs is an expensive failure. Legalize the growing and sale of marijuana, and regulate and tax it like beer and wine.

If you agree with all three of those statements, you might be a libertarian. In reality, Libertarianism is more than a list of policy statements or even a political party. It's a complex political philosophy that has evolved over thousands of years of political thought. Libertarians argue that the Founding Fathers built the United States on libertarian ideals of limited government and the God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We'll begin our exploration of libertarianism with a look at the basic principles of the movement, starting with an unbending belief in individual freedom.

Basic Principles of Libertarianism

The foundation of libertarianism is individual freedom. The individual should be free to make his or her own choices according to his or her own desires, as long as those choices don't infringe on the rights of others. The most important and basic human rights, according to libertarianism, are life, liberty and property. Libertarians believe that these "natural rights" existed before and outside of any organized form of government [source: Boaz]. If left to themselves, libertarians argue, people will respect and protect these rights. Government doesn't need to force or coerce us.

Limited government is a critical pillar of libertarianism. While conservatives and liberals would use big government to push their individual agendas, libertarians believe that the best thing the government can do is to get out of the way [source: Miron]. The only responsibility of government, under libertarianism, is to protect the rights of its citizens. In no way should the government use its laws -- tax law, regulations on business, censorship laws -- to coerce or influence the free choices of its citizens. The only actions that should be forbidden by law are murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping and fraud [source: Boaz]. Everything else would be tolerated as a byproduct of free choice.


Tolerance is another key principle of libertarianism. Libertarians believe that individuals should be free to make their own choices and live their own lives. For that reason, libertarians oppose the criminalization of drug use. They support gay marriage and full rights for same-sex couples. They oppose severe restrictions on abortion [source: Miron]. The libertarian message is simple: if I believe in the freedom to make my own life choices, then I should tolerate the free choices of others, as long as they do me no harm.

Freedom is also central to the libertarian approach to economics. A limited government should not interfere with or attempt to influence the economy. The best economy is powered by truly free markets. The government should never provide subsidies or bailouts to artificially prop up certain industries, like agriculture, banks, or the auto industry. Instead, free choice and fair competition should reign. If businesses compete on a level playing field, and consumers are allowed to freely choose among them, then the free market will dictate fair prices and fair wages. For example, the government shouldn't hand out tax credits for buying hybrid vehicles -- that's coercion. Instead, it should cultivate the kind of free-market economy that drives carmakers to compete to build the most efficient and affordable cars possible.

Libertarians don't believe that the individual exists in a bubble. Instead, they believe that individual freedom is the foundation of a successful civil society. Civil society is composed of all of our informal and formal associations: family, community, church, school, workplace, clubs, trade associations, etc. Libertarians argue that it is within these freely formed associations that we develop and exercise true compassion, service and social welfare. They don't believe that we should let the homeless suffer the consequences of their "free choices," but they also don't believe that impersonal government welfare programs are the solution [source: Libertarian Party]. Instead, if we're free to develop healthy compassionate communities, we'll take care of our own. In other words, cooperation is better than coercion [source: Boaz].

Now that we understand the basic principles of libertarianism, let's trace the evolution of libertarian thought from ancient Rome to Ron Paul.

Early History of Libertarianism

A visitor gazes upon an original copy of the Magna Carta at New York's Morgan Library and Museum, in April 2010.
A visitor gazes upon an original copy of the Magna Carta at New York's Morgan Library and Museum, in April 2010.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

One of the central tenets of libertarianism is the belief in a "natural law" that exists independent of manmade laws. As early as the 6th century B.C., the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu argued, "Without law or compulsion, men would dwell in harmony" [source: Boaz].

In Western culture, ancient Roman and early Christian philosophers made a clear distinction between the natural law of God, or "the gods," and the law of man. When asked if his followers should pay taxes, Jesus declared, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." Libertarian author David Boaz believes that this separation of church and state is essential to the development of civil society. Since neither the church nor the state has total control of individual choices, people are free to develop their own ideas of liberty.


Another central idea of libertarianism is a distrust of centralized power. In medieval Europe, power was held by a succession of unelected kings who owned all property, controlled all wealth, and could tax, confiscate and jail with impunity. During a momentous period from 1215 to 1222, three separate European societies imposed the world's first limits on authoritarian power [source: Boaz].

In England, the barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, giving unprecedented freedom from government interference and unfair taxation. Similar documents were signed in Germany and Hungary, each of them creating new rights for individuals and new autonomy for towns and boroughs. Perhaps most importantly, these documents cemented the idea that citizens — or at least the medieval class of noblemen — had the right to check or outright reject the actions of a tyrannical ruler.

The Renaissance furthered the cause of reason and individual rights over religious authority, and the protestant Reformation challenged the authority of a centralized Church aligned with the state. But despite these revolutionary events, much of Europe remained under the tight grip of despotic kings in France, England and elsewhere. A significant change came under the Glorious Revolution, when the throne of England was offered to William and Mary of Holland, who created the first Bill of Rights in 1689 [source: Boaz].

While this Bill of Rights has little in common with the Bill of Rights amending the United States Constitution, it opened the door for the school of political thought that would have a profound influence on the framers of the U.S. Constitution: a philosophy called "classical liberalism."

Classical Liberalism: John Locke and Adam Smith

It is within the newly liberated England of the Glorious Revolution that we meet John Locke, the father of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism is the original name for the political philosophy we now call libertarianism. The main reason for the name change is that the words "liberalism" and "liberals" invoke an entirely different meaning in modern politics. Libertarianism is a good substitute, since it holds the pursuit and protection of liberty above all else.

John Locke published his "Second Treatise of Government" in 1690. In it, he argues that the only role of government is to protect our natural rights, namely the rights to "Lives, Liberties and Estates" [source: Boaz]. Like other early libertarian thinkers, he argued that these natural rights superseded manmade rights, and that no ruler or government could seek to remove these "inalienable rights" [source: Boaz].


Locke launched a wave of libertarian thought that climaxed in the 18th century. In France, a group called the Physiocrats (literally the "rule of nature") developed the laissez-faire philosophy of economics, arguing that markets function best when free of government constraints and meddling.

Adam Smith, the second father of classical liberalism, reinforced the laissez-faire philosophy with his seminal work, "The Wealth of Nations." The Scottish philosopher wrote of the "invisible hand" guiding the course of free markets. The government should not and cannot use the force of law to bring about a particular economic outcome. Instead, if people are left free to pursue their own economic self-interest, the market will move organically in the direction of greater prosperity for a greater number of people, he wrote.

Smith saw no conflict between self-interest and the good of society [source: Concise Encyclopedia of Economics]. It is in our self-interest, for example, to earn money and provide for our families. To do that, we must offer a product or service that is desirable to other people. Since we are competing with others who offer similar products and services, it is in our self-interest to develop the best, most desirable product possible. Through free-market competition, consumers get the best products for the best prices, and we get income to support our families.

Smith's invisible hand is another term for spontaneous order, a central tenet of libertarianism. Libertarians believe that economic or social order cannot be created by a government committee or executive decree. Instead, the only successful and sustainable economic order must arise spontaneously from the seeming chaos of free market forces. When we go to the grocery store, most of us aren't conscious of how our purchases affect the course of the economy -- which companies thrive and which companies fail -- but our collective decisions form the invisible hand that steers the economy left or right, forward or backward.

Now it's time for the libertarian wave to travel to the American colonies, where it would sow the seeds of a revolution.

Classical Liberalism in America

Early libertarian and "Common Sense" author Thomas Paine.
Early libertarian and "Common Sense" author Thomas Paine.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The seeds of libertarianism found fertile ground in the American colonies. The famous pamphleteer Thomas Paine preached a brand of "radical liberalism" that lashed out against the tyranny of the English throne. Paine argued that government, far from being a helpful protector of society, is actually the enemy of society. In "Common Sense," Paine writes, "... government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one."

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, can be read as a striking proclamation of the libertarian ideology. In his opening statement, Jefferson argues that the right of the colonies to secede from England are derived from the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," a reference to the natural law of classical liberalism. He goes on to write the most famous lines in the birth of a nation:


"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government..." [source:].

Note that Jefferson's "unalienable rights" are a clear echo of John Locke's rights of life, liberty and estate (or property). In fact, Jefferson's words were borrowed from a much closer source: the Virginia Declaration of Rights written by his colleague George Mason. Mason described the foundation of government:

"That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety" [source:].

After the American Revolution was fought and won, the Founding Fathers assumed the task of writing a Constitution that would enshrine the liberal ideals of the day. The result is a document that is clear in its skepticism of power. The government is divided into three clearly delegated branches -- executive, legislative and judicial -- each with its own set of limited powers, and each acts as an effective check on the others.

The Constitution was first written without the Bill of Rights. But George Mason and other dissenters insisted upon an explicit statement of rights that protects against government tyranny.

Notable among the 10 Amendments are numbers nine and 10, which state, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people," and, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Yes, the government has some specific and carefully enumerated powers, but the limited rights of the government must always answer to the broader, natural rights of the people [source: Boaz].

Libertarianism in America has evolved considerably since the founding of a nation. On the next page, we'll look at the modern Libertarian Party and its positions on some of the most pressing political issues of the day.

The Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, is the third largest political party in the United States [source: Libertarian Party]. Given that the U.S. is effectively a two-party system, the number of Libertarian voters, candidates, and elected officials constitute a tiny fraction of the whole. The Libertarian Party claims to have more than 250,000 registered voters [source: Libertarian Party]. To put that into perspective, there are over 200 million eligible voters in the U.S. According to 2012 polls, roughly 35 percent of voters (or 70 million people) identify themselves as Democrats and another 35 percent as Republicans [source: Rasmussen Reports]. But what about the remaining 30 percent?

According to a 2006 report prepared by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, as much as 20 percent of the American electorate is libertarian in political philosophy, even if that's not reflected in the voter registration records [source: Boaz]. The report uses poll numbers from several independent organizations to chart libertarian-leaning answers to standard poll questions. But even with this sizeable chunk of the electorate, only one Libertarian Party presidential candidate has won more than 1 percent of the popular vote: Ed Clark back in 1980 [source: Boaz].


The Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 2012 is Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003. To better understand how the Libertarian Party platform differs from its Republican and Democratic opponents, here's a list of libertarian positions on key political issues:

  • Economy and jobs – Reject all bailouts. Cut all unnecessary government spending. Cut regulations that slow business growth and protect special interests.
  • Taxes – Taxes should only be used to support the necessary roles of government, which are protecting lives, rights and property. Gary Johnson supports the Fair Tax system, which does away with the IRS and charges a flat 23 percent national sales tax on the purchase of all new goods and services [source:].
  • War and defense – Bring home all troops on foreign soil. Greatly reduce the size of the standing armed forces. Eliminate most international defense alliances and practice a "grand strategy of restraint."
  • Healthcare reform – Replace Medicare, Medicaid and other government-funded healthcare programs with Medical Savings Accounts, which are tax-free individual savings accounts for medical costs. Deregulate the healthcare industry and replace the FDA with a free-market alternative.
  • Social Security – Abolish Social Security in favor of private retirement investment accounts
  • Immigration – Reform immigration laws to allow for the legal entry of qualified workers who are willing to take low-wage jobs that most Americans no longer want.
  • Poverty and welfare – End the government-run welfare system, which has been proven ineffective at slowing the spread of poverty. Encourage giving to charitable community organizations that provide social welfare services. Offer a dollar-for-dollar tax deduction for charitable giving.
  • War on drugs – The Libertarian Party supports the legalization and taxation of marijuana. First, it will create a valuable cash crop for U.S. farmers and second, by taking the profit out of the illegal marijuana trade, it will reduce the power of violent cartels abroad and gangs at home.

For lots more information on political parties and presidential elections, explore the links on the next page.

Author's Note

Libertarians are definitely having a moment. For decades, Ron Paul was a fringe political figure, railing on and on about reining in government spending, peeling back unnecessary regulations and abolishing Medicare and Social Security. Now when you watch a Republican primary debate, it's as if all the candidates are fighting to out-Libertarian the only guy with legitimate street cred. With the economy limping along on the verge of a double-dip recession and the national debt ballooning toward infinity, Libertarian ideals of a leaner, meaner government sound attractive right about now. Still, you won't see Gary Johnson at any of the 2012 debates. Ron Paul may have flirted with mainstream fame, but the Libertarian Party is still too radical for most Americans.

Related Articles


  • Boaz, David. Cato@Liberty. "Are Libertarians Anti-Government?" April 16, 2010 (July 9, 2012)
  • Boaz, David. Cato@Liberty. "Where Are the Libertarians?" June 22, 2010 (July 9, 2012)
  • Boaz, David. Libertarianism: A Primer." Free Press, 1997 (July 9, 2012)
  • Boaz, David and Kirby, David. Policy Analysis. "The Libertarian Vote." October 18, 2006 (July 9, 2012)
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Library of Economics and Liberty. "Adam Smith (1723-1790)" (July 9, 2012)
  • Libertarian Party. "Frequently Asked Questions" (July 9, 2012)
  • Libertarian Party. "Issues: Poverty and Welfare" (July 9, 2012)
  • Miron, Jeffrey. Institute for Humane Studies. "What It Means to Be a Libertarian" (July 9, 2012)
  • Rassmussen Reports. "Partisan Trends." July 2, 2012 (July 9, 2012)