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.