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A political philosophy that advocates free will, individual rights, and voluntary cooperation.

The core doctrine of libertarianism begins with the recognition that people have certain natural rights and that deprivation of these rights is immoral. Among these natural rights are the right to personal autonomy and property rights, and the right to the utilization of previously unused resources. These two basic assumptions form the foundation of all libertarian ideals.

Libertarianism can be traced back to ancient China, where philosopher Lao-tzu advocated the recognition of individual liberties. The modern libertarian theory emerged in the sixteenth century through the writings of Etienne de La Boetie (1530–1563), an eminent French theorist. In the seventeenth century, John Locke and a group of British reformers known as the Levellers fashioned the classical basis for libertarianism with well-received philosophies on human nature and economics. Since the days of Locke, libertarianism has attracted pacifists, utopianists, utilitarianists, anarchists, and fascists. This wide array of support demonstrates the accessibility and elasticity of the libertarian promotion of natural rights.

Essential to the notion of natural rights is respect for the natural rights of others. Without a dignified population, voluntary cooperation is impossible. According to the libertarian, the means to achieving a dignified population and voluntary cooperation is inextricably tied to the promotion of natural rights.

Libertarianism holds that people lose their dignity as government gains control of their body and their life. The Abdication of natural rights to government prevents people from living in their own way and working and producing at their own pace. The result is a decrease in self-reliance and independence, which results in a decrease in personal dignity, which in turn depresses society and necessitates more government interference.

Thus, the libertarian views government as both the cause and the effect of societal ills. Government is the cause of crime and prejudice because it robs people of their independence and frustrates initiative and creativity. Then, having created the sources of crime and prejudice by depriving individuals of their natural rights, government attempts to exorcise the evils with more controls over natural rights.

Libertarians believe that government should be limited to the defense of its citizens. Actions such as murder, rape, Robbery, theft, Embezzlement, Fraud, Arson, Kidnapping, Battery, Trespass, and Pollution violate the rights of others, so government control of these actions is legitimate. Libertarians acknowledge human imperfection and the resulting need for some government deterrence and punishment of violence, Nuisance, and harassment. However, government control of human activity should be limited to these functions.

Further readings

Boaz, David. 1997. Libertarianism: A Primer. New York: Free Press.

Otsuka, Michael. 2003. Libertarianism Without Inequality. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


Anarchism; Independent Parties; Natural Law; Utilitarianism.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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