Related Content Share The key concepts of libertarianism have developed over many centuries. Libertarians see the individual as the basic unit of social analysis. Only individuals make choices and are responsible for their actions. Libertarian thought emphasizes the dignity of each individual, which entails both rights and responsibility. The progressive extension of dignity to more people — to women, to people of different religions and different races — is one of the great libertarian triumphs of the Western world. Individual Rights.
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Twitter In this excerpt from Libertarianism: A Primer, Boaz tells the history of the movement for liberty, from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu through the 20th century. In a sense there have always and ever been only two political philosophies: liberty and power.
It has gone by many names—Caesarism, Oriental despotism, theocracy, socialism, fascism, communism, monarchism, ujamaa, welfare-statism—and the arguments for each of these systems have been different enough to conceal the essential similarity. The philosophy of liberty has also gone by different names, but its defenders have always had a common thread of respect for the individual, confidence in the ability of ordinary people to make wise decisions about their own lives, and hostility to those who would use violence to get what they want.
The first known libertarian may have been the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who lived around the sixth century B. To many Americans, steeped in the assertiveness and individualism of the West, it may seem to counsel too much passivity and acceptance in the face of obstacles. Of course, Lao Tzu may have thought that such quiet acceptance was the only way to achieve a degree of personal peace and liberty in the all-encompassing totalitarianism of ancient China.
Despite the example of Lao Tzu, libertarianism really arose in the West. Does that make it a narrowly Western idea? The principles of liberty and individual rights are universal, just as the principles of science are universal, even though most of the discovery of those scientific principles took place in the West. The Pre-History of Libertarianism Both the two main lines of Western thought, the Greek and the Judeo-Christian, contributed to the development of freedom.
According to the Old Testament, the people of Israel lived without a king or any other coercive authority, governing themselves not by force but by their mutual adherence to their covenant with God. And he will take your daughters, to be cooks. And he will take your fields, and your oliveyards, and give them to his servants.
And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and of your sheep. And ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen, and the Lord will not hear you in that day.
Although the people of Israel defied this awful warning and created a monarchy, the story served as a constant reminder that the origins of the State were by no means divinely inspired. In other civilizations, the king was the law, generally because he was considered divine. Natural Law That concept of a higher law also developed in ancient Greece.
The playwright Sophocles, in the fifth century B. For his treason the tyrant Creon ordered that his body be left to rot outside the gates, unburied and unmourned. His sister Antigone defied Creon and buried her brother. The notion of a law by which even rulers could be judged grew and endured throughout European civilization.
It was developed in the Roman world by the Stoic philosophers, who argued that even if the ruler is the people, they still may do only what is just according to natural law. The enduring power of this Stoic idea in the West was partly due to a happy accident: The Stoic lawyer Cicero was regarded in later years as the greatest writer of Latin prose, so his essays were read by educated Europeans for many centuries.
In so doing he divided the world into two realms, making it clear that not all of life is under the control of the state. This radical notion took hold in Western Christianity—though not in the Eastern Church, which was totally under the control of the state, leaving no space in society where alternative sources of power might develop. Pluralism The independence of the Western Church, which came to be known as Roman Catholic, meant that throughout Europe there were two powerful institutions contending for power.
Neither State nor Church particularly liked the situation, but their divided power gave breathing space for individuals and civil society to develop. Again, this conflict between Church and State was virtually unique in the world, explaining why the principles of freedom were discovered first in the West.
In the 4th century the emperor Theodosius ordered the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, to hand over his cathedral to the empire. By no law can you violate the house of a private man. Do you think that the house of God may be taken away? It is asserted that all things are lawful to the emperor, that all things are his.
But do not burden your conscience with the thought that you have any right as emperor over sacred things. Exalt not yourself, but if you would reign the longer be subject to God. Centuries later a similar conflict took place in England. Because the struggle between Church and State prevented any absolute power from arising, there was space for autonomous institutions to develop. Because the Church lacked absolute power, dissident religious views were able to ferment.
Markets and associations, oath-bound relationships, guilds, universities, and chartered cities all contributed to the development of pluralism and civil society. Religious Toleration Libertarianism is often seen as primarily a philosophy of economic freedom, but its real historical roots lie more in the struggle for religious toleration. Early Christians began to develop theories of toleration to counter their persecution by the Roman state.
It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion, to which free will and not force should lead us. Already the case for freedom is being made in terms of fundamental, or natural, rights. The growth of trade, of varying religious interpretations, and of civil society meant that there were more sources of influence within each community, and that pluralism led to demands for formal limitations on government.
In one remarkable decade there were major steps toward limited, representative government in three widely dispersed parts of Europe. The most famous, at least in the United States, took place in England in , when the barons confronted King John at Runnymede and forced him to sign Magna Carta, or the Great Charter. Magna Carta guaranteed every free man security from illegal interference in his person or property and justice to everyone.
Meanwhile, around the German town of Magdeburg developed a set of town laws that emphasized freedom and self-government. Magdeburg Law was so widely respected that it was adopted by hundreds of the newly forming towns all over central Europe, and legal cases in some central-eastern European towns were referred to Magdeburg judges. Finally, in the lesser nobles and gentry of Hungary—then very much a part of the European mainstream—forced King Andrew II to sign the Golden Bull, which exempted the gentry and the clergy from taxation, granted them freedom to dispose of their domains as they saw fit, guaranteed them against arbitrary imprisonment and confiscation, assured them an annual assembly to present grievances, and even gave them the Jus Resistendi, the right to resist the king if he attacked the liberties and privileges of the Golden Bull.
The principles found in these documents were far from libertarianism; they still excluded many people from their guarantees of liberties, and both Magna Carta and the Golden Bull explicitly discriminated against Jews.
Still, they are milestones in a continuing advance toward liberty, limited government, and the expansion of the concept of personhood to include all persons. They demonstrated that people all over Europe were thinking about concepts of freedom, and they created classes of people jealous to defend their liberties. Later in the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian of all time, and other philosophers developed the theological argument for limits on royal power.
Aquinas wrote, A king who is unfaithful to his duty forfeits his claim to obedience. It is not rebellion to depose him, for he is himself a rebel whom the nation has a right to put down.
But it is better to abridge his power, that he may be unable to abuse it. Thus was theological authority put behind the idea that tyrants could be deposed. The 16th-century scholar Francisco de Vitoria led the Spanish Scholastic thinkers, sometimes known as the school of Salamanca, whose explorations of theology, natural law, and economics built on the work of Aquinas and anticipated many of the themes later found in the works of Adam Smith and the Austrian School.
Inasmuch as he is a person, every Indian has free will and, consequently, is the master of his actions…. Every man has the right to his own life and to physical and mental integrity. The pre-history of libertarianism culminates in the period of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. The rediscovery of classical learning and the humanism that marked the Renaissance are usually regarded as the emergence of the modern world after the Middle Ages.
One great Renaissance contribution to the liberal attitude toward power, though, was the work of Machiavelli, the Italian statesman and political scientist, who told the truth about politics: that politics is about power, that politicians talk about justice as a gambit to maintain their power.
This healthy cynicism about political power is a theme through much of Italian political thought, down to such late 19th-century scholars as Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto. The Reformation contributed more to the development of liberal ideas. But by breaking the monopoly of the Catholic church they inadvertently encouraged a proliferation of Protestant sects, some of which—such as the Quakers and Baptists—did nurture liberal thought. After the Wars of Religion people began to question the notion that a community had to have only one religion.
It had been thought that without a single religious and moral authority a community would witness an endless proliferation of moral commitments and literally fall to pieces.
That profoundly conservative idea has a long history. The Response to Absolutism By the end of the 16th century the church, weakened by its own corruption and by the Reformation, needed the support of the state more than the state needed the church. Monarchs began to set up their own bureaucracies, impose new taxes, establish standing armies, and make increasing claims for their own power. He banned Protestantism and tried to make himself head of the Catholic Church in France.
In his reign of almost 70 years, he never called a session of the representative assembly, the estates-general. His finance minister Colbert implemented a policy of mercantilism, under which the state would supervise, guide, plan, design, and monitor the economy, as necessary subsidizing, prohibiting, granting monopolies, nationalizing, setting wages and prices, and ensuring quality.
In England the Stuart kings also tried to institute absolute rule. Meanwhile, as absolutism took root in France and Spain, the Netherlands became a beacon of religious toleration, commercial freedom, and limited central government.
After the Dutch gained their independence from Spain in the early 17th century, they created a loose confederation of cities and provinces. Books and pamphlets by dissident Englishmen and Frenchmen were often published in the Dutch cities. One of those refugees, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose Jewish parents had fled Catholic persecution in Portugal, described the happy interplay of religious toleration and prosperity in 17th-century Amsterdam: The city of Amsterdam reaps the fruit of freedom in its own great prosperity and in the admiration of all other people.
For in this most flourishing state, and most splendid city, men of every nation and religion live together in the greatest harmony, and ask no questions before trusting their goods to a fellow-citizen. The English Revolution English opposition to royal absolutism created a great deal of intellectual ferment, and the first stirrings of clearly proto-liberal ideas can be seen in 17th-century England.
Again, liberal ideas developed out of the defense of religious toleration. The great poet John Milton published Areopagitica in , a powerful argument for freedom of religion and against official licensing of the press. A group known as the Levellers began enunciating the full set of ideas that would come to be known as liberalism.
They placed the defense of religious liberty and the ancient rights of Englishmen in a context of self-ownership and natural rights. Charles promised to respect liberty of conscience and the rights of landowners, but he and his brother James II again tried to extend royal power.
We can date the birth of liberalism to the Glorious Revolution. John Locke is rightly seen as the first real liberal and as the father of modern political philosophy. Locke asked, what is the point of government? Why do we have it? He answered, people have rights prior to the existence of government—thus we call them natural rights, because they exist in nature.
People form a government to protect their rights. They could do that without government, but a government is an efficient system for protecting rights. And if government exceeds that role, people are justified in revolting.
Introduction to Libertarianism
Twitter In this excerpt from Libertarianism: A Primer, Boaz tells the history of the movement for liberty, from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu through the 20th century. In a sense there have always and ever been only two political philosophies: liberty and power. It has gone by many names—Caesarism, Oriental despotism, theocracy, socialism, fascism, communism, monarchism, ujamaa, welfare-statism—and the arguments for each of these systems have been different enough to conceal the essential similarity. The philosophy of liberty has also gone by different names, but its defenders have always had a common thread of respect for the individual, confidence in the ability of ordinary people to make wise decisions about their own lives, and hostility to those who would use violence to get what they want. The first known libertarian may have been the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who lived around the sixth century B. To many Americans, steeped in the assertiveness and individualism of the West, it may seem to counsel too much passivity and acceptance in the face of obstacles. Of course, Lao Tzu may have thought that such quiet acceptance was the only way to achieve a degree of personal peace and liberty in the all-encompassing totalitarianism of ancient China.
A History of Libertarianism
See Article History Libertarianism, political philosophy that takes individual liberty to be the primary political value. It may be understood as a form of liberalism , the political philosophy associated with the English philosophers John Locke and John Stuart Mill , the Scottish economist Adam Smith , and the American statesman Thomas Jefferson. Liberalism seeks to define and justify the legitimate powers of government in terms of certain natural or God-given individual rights. The purpose of government, according to liberals, is to protect these and other individual rights, and in general liberals have contended that government power should be limited to that which is necessary to accomplish this task. Libertarians are classical liberals who strongly emphasize the individual right to liberty.
Key Concepts of Libertarianism