Libertarianism for me began at age 17 in 1980 with the presidential campaign of Ed Clark. The basic appeal to strictly restrict government in the name of individual freedom instantly made sense. That’s for me!
Yet not everyone knows or understands what libertarianism or the Libertarian Party stand for. You’re with the ‘libertine party?’ I got a lot of that 20 years ago, far less of it now. Still, I suspect most people have only have a vague idea of libertarian beliefs. So, let’s take a quick pass at nailing it down a bit.
Centrally, libertarianism is a political belief system based on property rights and individualism. Stated simply, libertarians believe that individuals have the right to do whatever they will with their own lives and property, so long as they respect the equal rights of others.
One basic core principle of libertarian thought is that groups don’t have rights. Any group -the Catholic church, the Boy Scouts or the US government- is no more nor less than the individuals who comprise the group. Groups get whatever legitimacy they have from the individual members, and thus have no rights to do anything any individual wouldn’t be allowed to do.
Thus, libertarians will tend to see minimal differences between IRS agents vs the guy robbing the 7-11 vs a mafia family collecting protection money. If you don’t have a right to come take my money at gunpoint because you decide you “need” it, it doesn’t become any more right because you got some buddies together and voted to rob me.
This all leads naturally toward believing in strictly limiting the powers of government. You might have to have a little bit of it for basic police purposes and national defense, but not much else. The less government we can get by with, the better.
The closest that we have come to this ideal in actual practice in human history was the US Constitution. In the practical application, there were serious shortcomings there, but these ideas of individual sovereignty were the basic ideals of the brain trust of our revolution, notably Thomas Jefferson. Thus, the modern Libertarian Party tends to strongly emphasize the US Constitution, not out of some superstitious devotion to our ancestors, but because they got it right the first time.
In those times, these beliefs in an open society with minimal government power were called “liberal” ideas. That would be nice, except that the first thing FDR stole as he inflicted socialism on the country in the 1930s was the word “liberal.” Jefferson or Washington would not recognize such an authoritarian as one of theirs. College professors sometimes now refer to these Jeffersonian belief systems as “classical liberalism.”
FDR stole the good name of liberalism, and those classical liberal ideas were on the wane in public debate for some years. My hero Barry Goldwater tried to inject some of those principles back into the mix, but was of course beaten by LBJ – and far worse, subverted from within by fellow Republicans.
One of the worst culprit Republican schmucks was Richard Nixon. It was specifically Nixon’s imposition of wage and price controls that set off three or four now ex-Republicans to get together and start a new political party. They managed to get a first presidential candidate on a few state ballots in 1972.
They named it the “Libertarian Party.” The word “libertarian” had existed for probably at least a century, but had only limited usage. Thus, the word mostly is an association of the American political party that uses it. They picked it to represent the central goal of the movement: liberty. Not the divine right of kings, nor the will of the majority, nor any kind of group rights, but individual liberties.
A good way to get a handle on what libertarians are about would be to read some of the authors that influence the movement. In my experience, probably a majority of Libertarian Party activists have been particularly heavily influenced by one or both of two major authors: Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein.
We’re very pluralistic and all, so you could find a good many libertarians who have never read either of these authors. Still, probably the best way to start to understand libertarian thinking would be to read Ayn Rand’s classic novel Atlas Shrugged (the most important book of the 20th century), or Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.