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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S036-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2012
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

Article Summary

In political philosophy ‘libertarianism’ is a name given to a range of views that take as their central value liberty or freedom. Although occasionally the term is applied to versions of anti-authoritarian Marxist theory (the ‘libertarian left’), more commonly it is associated with views that champion individual rights to ‘self-ownership’ and oppose paternalistic or moralistic legislation (for example, laws regulating sexual behaviour or the consumption of alcohol or drugs). In the contemporary literature libertarianism comes in two main forms: ‘right libertarianism’, which endorses particularly pure forms of capitalism, and ‘left libertarianism’ which combines an endorsement of self-ownership with the view that distribution of natural resources should be regulated on some sort of egalitarian basis. Right libertarians endorse the free market and unfettered free exchange. Liberty, on such a view, is identified with the absence of interference by the state or by others. The legitimate state exists purely to guard individual rights, protecting people and their property from force, theft and fraud. This is the ‘minimal state’ or ‘nightwatchman state’ of classical liberalism. The state has no authority to engage in the redistribution of property (except to rectify the effects of theft, and so on) or, in certain versions at least, to pursue policies designed to further the common good. Such activities are viewed by the right libertarian as illegitimate interferences with an individual’s right to do what they wish with their own person or property. Left libertarianism modifies this picture considerably, by arguing that extensive state intervention is needed to enforce those principles of justice that are necessary to ensure some form of egalitarian distribution of the world’s resources.

Citing this article:
Wolff, Jonathan. Libertarianism, 2012, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S036-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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