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What is libertarianism?

Before commencing it is important to note that the explanation below is not about any given libertarian political party. Rather it is about libertarianism generally and about people who consider themselves to support libertarianism, whether or not they are members of a political party called The Libertarian Party.

Before reading a word about defining characteristics of libertarianism, every person be doing themselves a favour to understand that libertarianism, like the term "Christianity", is a term used by people of widely differing beliefs. One will find self-styled libertarians who believe that there must be a government and those who wish to do away with government altogether. One will find libertarians who believe in a natural and inalienable right of private property for every individual, but also libertarians who reject such a right and believe all property should be held communally. One will find libertarians who - as an aspect of their political ideology - believe in God and practice a religion, and those who are atheists. However, despite their widely varying beliefs, there are commonalities among those who call themselves libertarian. The explanation that follows focusses are the core commonalities: the things that, at the end of the day, define libertarianism. Where major disagreements or distinctions exist within libertarianism, they are noted for your further investigation.

First Defining Feature of Libertarianism: It Explicitly or Implicitly Embraces a Non-Aggression Axiom

As it is most widely understood today, libertarianism is an ideology defined most reliably by:

A commitment to a Non-Aggression Axiom.

"A" Non-Aggression Axiom because different self-styled libertarians have described this commitment and its nature in very different (sometimes mutually exclusive) ways, and the differences can be very important to an understanding of the heterogeneous nature of libertarianism. The differing definitions or interpretations of libertarianism will be discussed below but, to begin this explanation, we will start with a definition of the Non-Aggression Axiom that is arguably consistent with all other definitions of it. Specifically, and most generally, the Non-Aggression Axiom is a rule that can properly be worded as follows:

No person may initiate or threaten to initiate the use of coercive physical force.

To understand this Non-Aggression Axiom properly, it is important to read every word of it carefully. Four things, in particular, should be noted.

First, it is critical to notice that this Non-Aggression Axiom does not rule out the use of coercive physical force altogether: it prohibits only the initiation or threatened initiation of coercive physical force. Therefore, the Non-Aggression Axiom does not rule out self-defence. For example, if, without your consent, a person punches you or threatens to punch you, the Non-Aggression Axiom does not prohibit you from using coercive physical force against the attacker (e.g., for example, punching him).

The second important thing to understand is that for physical force to be coercive, it must be the case that the person upon whom it is used did not consent to the use of the force. If a person consents to being punched, the punch - the initiation of physical force - is not coercive.

Note: There is nothing about the Non-Aggression Axiom that requires consent or the absence of consent to be communicated to the person initiating the use of coercive physical force: when consent exists is a question of fact, and sometimes consent will be implied by the circumstances or by non-verbal communication. For example, it can normally be inferred accurately that a person does not want you to poke them in the eye: were you to poke someone in the eye without them expressly consenting to it (before or after the fact), you would have violated the Non-Aggression Axiom. Similarly, it can normally be inferred accurately that a parent consents to receiving a kiss from his or her child: normally, kissing ones parent without first getting permission will not constitute a violation of the Non-Aggression Axiom. Indeed, barring circumstances under which the child ought reasonably to have known that the kiss was not consented to, kissing ones parent will normally not constitute a violation of the Non-Aggression Axiom even if the parent subsequently says that he or she did not want to be kissed by the child.

The third important thing to notice, when trying to understand this Non-Aggression Axiom, is that all coercion is ultimately physical. Concepts, ideas, beliefs, messages and opinions never are. Thus, with the exception of a threat to initiate the use of coercive physical force, the mere communication to one or more people of a concept, idea, belief, message or opinion never constitutes a violation of the Non-Aggression Axiom. The Non-Aggression Axiom is not even violated by communicating something that is emotionally hurtful, disturbing, hateful, disgusting or obscene, provided that the communication does not amount to a threat to initiate the use of coercive physical force.

Fourth - and this is extremely important - amongst those who call themselves libertarians, there is disagreement about what constitutes coercion and what constitutes mere persuasion. Largely, the disagreement is based upon beliefs about property rights:

  • To the libertarian who believes that every individual has a right to his or her own property (sometimes called "right libertarians"), inaction is never coercion, such that one cannot violate the Non-Aggression Axiom even by refusing to help someone stay alive. Under this understanding of coercion, if Frank said to a starving man "I will not give you any of my food or water unless you mow my lawn", that would be persuasion, not coercion, because Frank would not use coercive physical force against the starving, thirsty man if the starving, thirsty man chose not to mow Frank's lawn. Consider that anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard described the Non-Aggression Axiom this way:
  • "The Libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the "nonaggression axiom." "Aggression" is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion." - For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, by Murray N. Rothbard

It will be noticed that Rothbard's description of the Non-Aggression Axiom uses the phrase "property of anyone else", which implies that one person can hold property to the exclusion of others (a belief shared by only some who call themselves "libertarian"). Rothbard fully intended that the title "libertarian" should apply only those who agree that every individual has a right to his or her own property.

  • To the libertarian who believes that no person should have a right to exclude others from the use of property (sometimes called "left libertarians" or "socialist libertarians"), inaction is sometimes coercion, and inaction can sometimes constitute a violation of the Non-Aggression Axiom. Under this understanding of coercion, if Frank said to the starving man "I will not give you any of my food or water unless you mow my lawn", that would be coercion, not persuasion, because - according to this view of property - the food belongs to all persons in need of it, and Frank is effectively stealing food from the starving man by not allowing him to eat it without mowing Frank's lawn. For these libertarians, Frank's actions are equivalent to taking food from the hands of the starving man by the initiation of coercive physical force.

Second Defining Feature of Libertarianism: Libertarianism is Committed to Being Amoral

Libertarianism does not concern itself with morality. To the contrary, libertarianism is probably best understood as being inherently non-judgmental: it intentionally rejects the making of moral judgments. Whereas a given libertarian may have a code of ethics - while he or she may have an understanding of good versus evil - libertarianism itself has no code of ethics and refuses ever to have one. This does not imply that all libertarians are amoral, though some libertarians are averse to making moral judgments. To the contrary, libertarianism is amoral primarily so as to make itself compatible with a wide variety of ethical codes and political ideologies: by refusing to align itself with any particular code of ethics, libertarianism conflicts with few.

Third Defining Feature of Libertarianism: A Belief that only a Violation of the Non-Aggression Axiom Constitutes Injustice

Rather than aligning itself with any particular moral philosophy or code of ethics, libertarianism focusses on what it conceives of as justice. The belief underlying the libertarian's attachment to the Non-Aggression Axiom is that:

No injustice is done to a person against whom the Non-Aggression Axiom has not be violated.

Even if, under some code of ethics, a certain sort of conduct is evil, that conduct is not unjust from a libertarian point of view provided that the conduct did not involve the initiation of the coercive use of physical force. Thus, for example, libertarianism is not concerned with whether prostitution or dealing marijuana is good or evil: all that matters, from the libertarian perspective, is that the prostitute and her customer freely consented to exchange money for sex; that, for example, the marijuana dealer did not physically coerce the customer to smoke marijuana.

Fourth Defining Feature of Libertarianism: A belief that the Absence of Injustice equals Liberty

Libertarianism sees the achievement and preservation of liberty as its ultimate goal. The means by which it aims to achieve its goal is by defending against injustice: by acting in self-defence when there is a violation of the Non-Aggression Axiom. Accordingly, the libertarian view equates liberty with the absence of injustice.



The essence of capitalism is a belief that an individual may hold the right to exclude others from the use of certain property (e.g., land, chattel). The title "libertarian" has been used, since the 1800s, by anarchists: people who reject government, capitalism and religion on the ground that each introduce hierarchy/authoritarianism/coercion into society. However, in the mid 1900s, there developed a deviation from anarchism: an ideology that implicitly or explicitly holds capitalism not to introduce coercion into society, but leaving intact the rejection of government and organized religion. The anarchists embracing this ideology, who refer to themselve as "anarcho-capitalists" (economist Murray Rothbard being perhaps the most noteworthy among them), like the anarchists before them, refer to themselves as libertarians. In the early 1970s, anarcho-capitalists were among those who formed the Libertarian Party in the USA: a party that is pro-capitalism. As a result partially of the founding of the Libertarian Party in the USA, many libertarians (and most Libertarian Party members) erroneously believe that all libertarians are pro-capitalism. The reality is that although many libertarians are pro-capitalism, capitalism need not be and is not a defining feature of libertarianism. Rather, capitalist libertarians and anti-capitalist libertarians simply differ in opinion about whether capitalism constitutes/leads to coercion, hence to violations of the Non-Aggression Axiom.



Virtually all libertarians agree that governments must never violate the Non-Aggression Axiom. And, to be clear, virtually all libertarians oppose the idea that governments should use coercive physical force to combat evil where there has been no violation of the Non-Aggression Axiom.

However, when it comes to the issue of how governments can be kept from violating the Non-Aggression Axiom, libertarians can be seen as being divided into two camps. One camp, the anarchists (see above), believes that the best or only way to prevent a government from violating the Non-Aggression Axiom is to get rid of government altogether. The other camp of libertarians - who might appropriately be called the "minarchists" - takes he view that there should be a government, but that the powers of government should be limited. Typically, this camp is comprised of people who believe in a well-enforced constitution that sets out a very narrow scope for the powers of government. Most frequently, this camp believes (for one reason or another) that every individual has inalienable rights of life, liberty and property, and that the only legitimate function of government is to protect those rights.



Given that anarchists and anarcho-capitalists oppose government, it should not be surprising that you will find few anarchists interested in forming a political party: the whole point of a political party is to have members win seats in a legislature and, possibly, positions in the executive branch of a government. In practice, libertarian political parties exist as (in some cases tax-credit issuing) anarcho-capitalist associations that protest virtually all instances of government activity, and/or as government-minded political parties for some minarchists. Probably owing to the fact that minarchists tend to be capitalists who are more interested in running for government than are anarchists and anarcho-capitalists, libertarian political parties are usually pro-capitalist: this has tended to disinterest anarchists other than the anarcho-capitalists. The result is that, after over thirty years of the existence of the Libertarian Party in the USA, many people erroneously believe that libertarianism is what the Libertarian Party says it is. Given:

  • the heritage of the term libertarian,
  • the continuing (if not now growing) movement of anti-capitalist anarchists who, throughout the world, refer to themselves as libertarians; and
  • the shared opposition to coercion underlying anti-capitalist anarchism, anarcho-capitalism, and minarchism

it would be a mistake to conclude that capitalism is a defining characteristic of libertarianism. We suggest that both capitalists and anti-capitalists can meet the defining characteristics of a libertarian, and that:

All anarchists, anarcho-capitalists and minarchists are libertarians, but not all libertarians are anarchists, not all are anarcho-capitalists, and not all are pro-capitalist minarchists.

" What is libertarianism?" - Copyright 2003, Paul McKeever. All Rights reserved. Neither this page, nor any of its contents, may be reproduced without express written permission from Paul McKeever. Neither this page, nor any of its contents, may be contained in a frame in another web site without written permission, but everyone is free to link to this page.

Last updated on September 6, 2004