What is Libertarianism? - Definition, History & Criticism

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn how to define Libertarianism, gain an understanding of Libertarian beliefs, and gain insight into where it fits in a political system.

Who Are Libertarians and What Do They Believe?

In the United States political system, a strong emphasis is often placed on the importance of having a two-party system. But while it is true that political elections most often come down to a campaign between two parties, American democracy is not exclusively a two-party system. In most cases, groups like Democrats, Republicans, or Independents are fairly well known and easy to understand; but what about the less-familiar groups, like Libertarians: how do they fit into the political system?

Libertarianism is a political philosophy which believes that a person's individual freedoms and liberty are more important than anything else in our political or civic culture. Because they believe so strongly that this should be the foundation of free society, Libertarians also advocate for as little governmental control as is possible.

On the spectrum of American political beliefs, Libertarians tend to be incredibly liberal on social issues, and profoundly conservative on fiscal issues. For example, many Libertarians advocate for substantial changes to U.S. drug policies, because they believe that it's a governmental imposition on their right to do what they want with their own bodies. Meanwhile, Libertarians might also suggest getting rid of the Department of Education or the Food and Drug Administration, because they believe that the government should not be spending money on or be involved in these areas of public life.

The unrestricted right to make your own decisions is the foundation of Libertarianism

Though they often advocate for a very limited government, Libertarians don't believe that there is no role for government in the nation. Having said that, most Libertarians agree that the government should be limited to issues of peacekeeping and public safety, and stay out of social regulation.

Libertarians and Business

Because of their strong beliefs about personal freedoms, Libertarian platforms tend to focus heavily on business and free trade. For example, in the United States, business and economic trade is heavily monitored and regulated by the government to ensure that it's fair and safe. Libertarians might claim that this governmental involvement restricts a person's right to make a living however they choose and would advocate for no governmental restrictions.

Rather than support the government's role in economic trade and commerce, Libertarians tend to encourage an open and unregulated system in which people are free to conduct their business as they see fit. This type of economic system is what is known as laissez-faire capitalism.

Where Did Libertarianism Come From?

Unlike other political belief systems, like Republican and Democratic, it can be difficult to pinpoint where Libertarianism started and how it evolved. This is because Libertarianism isn't really a political affiliation; it's more of a personal philosophy that strongly influences a person's political views.

For example, Libertarian thought can be traced back to 18th century Europe, during a time in which many people began to advocate for smaller governments and increased personal freedoms. These 'free thinkers,' as they're known, placed considerable importance on personal autonomy, which emphasized an individual's right to make decisions for themselves and act on their own behalf.

In the United States, Libertarianism grew out of the Neoliberal movement during the 1970s. Like Libertarians, Neoliberals wanted a more open and unrestricted form of commerce and society that was free from governmental interference.

Libertarianism strongly opposes foreign intervention and war

The Libertarians became an official U.S. political party in 1971, in an effort to challenge American policies on issues like the Vietnam War and economic depression. For more than 40 years, the Libertarian party has run in elections on a platform that opposes foreign intervention, advocates free trade, and encourages limiting governmental powers.

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