Libertarians want to take the government out of private decisions by reducing the size of the government to the most essential function of providing for a peaceful environment in which all persons can prosper. As a utopian ideal, libertarianism is based on the notion that society exists at its most free when people work together voluntarily without government intervention.
The basic principles of modern libertarianism are attributed to the writings of Ayn Rand, especially her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957). In this work, Rand describes a U.S. society weakened by many years of welfare.
Contemporay U.S. society has made individualism and the work ethic into an evil. Instead of working for a living, the characters in the novel believe that the government owes them their livelihoods. In the novel Rand instead offers the maxim of libertarianism: individualism or selfishness is good.
The economist Murray Rothbard has built upon Rand to develop a more theoretical outline. He argues that government is inherently aggressive and exploitative. Instead of government, society should rely on the free market as the most efficient method of distributing resources.
Libertarianism became the basis for a political party that emerged in the United States in the early 1970s. The Libertarian Party ran philosophy professor John Hospers as its presidential candidate in 1972.
While the party reached the ballot in only two states, Hospers did receive one electoral vote. Roger MacBride, the Virginia elector who cast his vote for Hospers in 1972, was the party’s nominee in 1976, receiving over 200,000 votes in the November election.
The party, and the libertarian movement in the United States, grew dramatically in the late 1970s, due primarily to the financial contributions of the Koch brothers, Charles and David, owners of Koch Industries. With their assistance, libertarians were able to establish a number of publications and an active think tank, the Cato Institute.
In the election of 1980, David Koch was the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential nominee, primarily to take advantage of a loophole in federal campaign finance law allowing a candidate to spend unlimited campaign funds. Because of the financial assistance provided by the Kochs, the party’s nominees appeared on the ballot in all fifty states. The result of their influence in the movement was a battle over strategy, however.
The party was split between a group of opportunists represented by the Kochs and the “missionaries,” following Murray Rothbard. Rothbard referred to the Koch brothers’ influence as the “Kochtopus.” The Libertarian Party ticket received 900,000 votes in 1980, a disappointment considering the millions of dollars spent by David Koch.
In 1983, the Koch supporters, also known as the “Cato group,” left the party after their candidate was not nominated by the party convention. Without the Kochs’ financial support, the party did not receive as much attention for the rest of the century.
Libertarianism, and the Libertarian Party, have had a difficult time finding acceptance in the United States, in part because the philosophy does not fit neatly on the liberal-conservative continuum with which most Americans are familiar. Libertarians emphasize free markets, making them similar to many conservatives.
It is the libertarians’ belief that people should be free to choose their social activities, including, for example, the use of drugs, that puts the philosophy at odds with more cultural conservatives.
In short, libertarians believe that national defense and law enforcement are the only areas in which governments should be involved. They oppose the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) because it establishes an entangling alliance that might work to bring the United States into unnecessary conflict.
The United Nations is also opposed because it undermines national sovereignty by placing power in the hands of international bureaucrats. Libertarians oppose restrictions on trade and immigration, believing that the free market more efficiently regulates these areas.
Libertarianism has enjoyed some limited success. Many of its basic principles were voiced by the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Government services were privatized in the United States and in Europe, where a number of national airlines and railroads were sold by the government.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were hundreds of thousands of libertarians around the world. Many participate as pro-freedom activists in traditional parties while others create their own political parties. All believe that government is the problem, not the solution.