Libertarianism is a political philosophy. Libertarians believe respect for individual liberty is the central requirement of justice. They believe human relationships should be based on mutual consent. Libertarians advocate a free society of cooperation, tolerance, and mutual respect.
Libertarianism holds that we should each be permitted to choose how our lives will go, so long as we do not violate others’ rights. We do not have to get society’s permission to go about our lives. We are not required to answer to or justify ourselves to others. We may not be forced to serve strangers. We may not even be forced to serve ourselves – no one may force us to promote our own good. Libertarians possesses an inviolability, founded on justice, that forbids others from sacrificing us for the shake of greater so0cial stability, economic efficiency, or better culture. Over our own lives, each of us is sovereign. We are not to be treated like slaves, servants, or helpless children.
Libertarianism is not the most popular political philosophy in the United States. Yet, it derives from commonsense moral thinking. Most Americans agree, in the abstract, that we should be free to do as we please, provided we do not hurt others or violate their rights. Most agree that human relationships should be voluntary. For example, most agree that it would be wrong for me to force you to join my church or book club. Most agree that we should nor sacrifice individual people “for the greater good.” Most agree it is wrong to force another adult to do something “for her own good.”
However, most people think there are many exceptions to these commonsense principles. Libertarians do not. For instance, conservatives want the government to forbid people from exchanging sex for money. Libertarians do not. Many left-liberals want the government to forbid people from hiring undocumented immigrants as nannies. Libertarians do not. Marxists want the government to forbid individuals from owning factories. Libertarians do not.
Libertarians say that if we take seriously the idea that human relationships should be voluntary, then the role of government must be greatly constrained. Many things governments do, and that people want governments to do, cannot be done without treating our neighbors like slaves, servants, or helpless children. From the libertarian standpoint, those who hold other political ideologies, including left-liberals, conservatives, Marxists, fascist, and social democrats, all agree that we should sometimes treat our neighbors like slaves, servants, or children. They just disagree about how and when.
Libertarians tend to distrust government. In part, this is because they believe government are often incompetent. Society and market are like ecosystems, and like ecosystems, they are impossible to manage without producing unintended consequences. Governments thus end to make problems worse, not better. Libertarians also worry that the promise of power tends to attract those who want to exploit others at least as often as it attracts those who want to help.
Libertarianism is not a uniform philosophy, but rather a family of related philosophies. There is a lot of diversity inside libertarian thought, just as there is diversity inside most other political philosophies. Libertarians share a common core of principles. They sometimes disagree on how to understand these principles. They may think there are some exceptions to these principles, or they may not.