Libertarianism: History and Philosophy

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  • 0:01 Libertarianism Defined
  • 1:19 History
  • 1:43 Types
  • 4:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
If you hold liberty above all other values, you might just be a libertarian. In this lesson, you'll learn about libertarianism, including what it is, its general principles and its history. A short quiz follows.

Libertarianism Defined

Larry is a libertarian. Libertarianism is a political philosophy that places the political and social value of personal liberty over all other political values, even those like equality. Liberty is a political concept that means to be free from undue or oppressive restraints on a person's actions, thoughts or beliefs imposed by the State. A person with liberty possesses certain social, political and economic rights protected from improper private and public interference.

Keep in mind that from the standpoint of political thought, liberty is different from freedom. Freedom is, in its purist form, unrestrained action. Liberty is more restrained. For example, while Larry has the liberty of movement, he does not have the liberty to move his fist into someone's face.

Basically, you can think of libertarianism as valuing personal autonomy above all else - to be left alone, free from the coercion of other people, and especially the State. Consequently, Larry and other libertarians are pretty much hostile to all but the bare minimum of government, whose role is simply to prevent coercion and acts of fraud.


While the roots of libertarianism can be traced back to the 18th and 19th centuries and the writings of philosophers such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, the modern formulation started in the 1950s. Some contemporary leaders of libertarian political thought include Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek.


Larry has been pretty politically active as a libertarian and decided to go to a libertarian convention. While at the convention, he was quite surprised to find out that not all libertarians think like he does. In fact, there are different types of libertarian philosophies. Let's take a quick look.

Larry's form of libertarianism is grounded upon natural rights, based in large part on the writings of the English philosopher John Locke. Locke believed that all people had certain rights pursuant to 'natural law,' which are universal principles that govern all human action.

Under natural rights libertarianism, the sole role of the State should be to protect the individual rights of its citizens. In other words, the government's role should be restricted to providing for the personal security of citizens against crime, preventing citizens from being coerced into doing something against their will and ensuring that personal property rights are protected.

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