by Tibor Machan

Libertarianism is the political position according to which every adult human individual is sovereign, self-governing, not a subject of government or king or society or even God unless he or she has freely chosen such a status. The idea arose slowly in human history and was first known as classical liberalism, with such associated ideas as individualism, capitalism, limited government, individual rights to life, liberty and property, etc. The American founders sketched an early but very influential version in the Declaration of Independence. Libertarianism is the contemporary, purified version of their political stance.

Why would one think that this idea is sound, that government should have minimal powers mostly to “secure” our rights and not to do various other tasks in society? Because adult human beings are responsible to live their lives morally and for this they must be free, un-coerced. In societies, however, other people could pose as adversaries, obstacles to this task, as well as companions, associates, even friends. To reduce the risk of criminal interference in our lives, government administers the legal system guided by a basic constitution of rights-like the Bill of Rights-that spells out its limited powers. It is a bit like referees making sure competitive games are played by the rules while staying out of the game themselves.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this position is that no one may be coercively forced to serve other people, even the most needy. Only voluntary associations are proper, none that involve any subjugation of some people by others, even by the majority, let alone some monarch (king, tsar, etc.) or dictator. No one has a right to other people’s services no matter how much such services are needed-that would amount to involuntary servitude. People do not belong to others, even in dire circumstances, unless they have freely joined them in families, fraternities, corporations, partnerships, teams, and other associations.

Another very controversial aspect of libertarianism is the right to private property. Instead of wealth or resources being owned by the government or “the people” collectively, it is individuals who come to own and allocate it in societies. Wealth comes about by way of some luck and much effort. A beautiful woman may be wealthy because others enjoy her beauty and pay her to be in movies or on covers of magazines, but nonetheless the resulting wealth belongs to her, not others. Or someone could invent something people really want or sell the invention to an enterprising third party who will bring it to market and earn much wealth from it. In all such cases it is those who freely embark on the enterprise, not the government, not their neighbors, not “society,” that owns the wealth that arises.

The administrators of the law are elected or selected to be impartial protectors of individual rights, as well as, when need be, adjudicators of disputes; and sometimes to work to develop the basic legal system to meet the challenges of new circumstances. But they are not dictators of what goals people in societies must pursue. In a libertarian society goals are set by individuals and their voluntary associations, not by government-again akin to how in sports referees don’t set the aims of the game but make sure those playing do not violate those rules.

Because human individuals are basically creative, innovative, cooperative agents-they have these basic capacities they must exercise to live flourishing lives-the basic laws must focus on protecting their rights domestically and from abroad. Apart from this, they are free to go about their innumerable highly varied tasks so long as these are pursued peacefully. This, of course, creates the risk that they will not always do the right thing, but empowering government to dictate their aims creates far greater risks, since, as the famous classical liberal Lord Acton noted, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Libertarianism presents what its champions argue are the basics of the optimal human political order and as with all best alternatives, its chances are small. Yet, as with other best alternatives-say, in their professions, marriages, etc.-it is the responsibility of human beings to make a sustained effort to realize it.

Tibor Machan is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University, Holder of the R. C. Hoiles Chair at Chapman University in Orange County, California and co-founder of Reason magazine.