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The 7 Most Important Schools of Libertarian Thought

Though much diversity exists in the field of libertarian thought, these seven branches are most important to understanding the ideology.

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Jack Parkos | United States

When people think of libertarians, they often tend to think “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” or “a Republican who likes weed”. However, neither of these statements are fully true. The libertarian philosophy actually goes very deep; in fact, there are several factions of different libertarian schools of thought. The libertarian ideology is far more intellectually diverse than American conservatives and liberals. Below are some of the different major schools of libertarian thought. Though many more exist, these seven best capture the wide array of beliefs.

Classical Liberalism

Classical liberalism is one of the earliest schools of libertarian thought. Originating in the philosophy of John Locke, classical liberalism holds that all men are born with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property and that the sole purpose of government is to protect those rights. The Declaration of Independence is an echo of classical liberal thought, as many of America’s Founding Father’s were classical liberals. Generally, they place emphasis on natural law, republicanism, and skepticism; many classical liberals are firm believers in the U.S. Constitution.

Key classical liberal figures include:

  • John Locke
  • Thomas Paine
  • Many of America’s Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington

Anarcho-capitalism

Anarcho-capitalists base their philosophy on the moral principle called the “Non-aggression Principle” (NAP). The basis of the NAP is that people do not have the right to initiate force against others. On the contrary, the only acceptable use of force is in self-defense. They also believe that the mere existence of the state violates the NAP, as it acquires all its income through coercive means (taxation). Thus, they believe that no government should exist. Instead, they believe that voluntary communities and private entities should fill the government’s role.

Key anarcho-capitalist figures include:

  • Murray Rothbard
  • Hans Hermann Hoppe
  • David Friedman

Minarchism

Minarchism¬†basically falls in between anarcho-capitalism and classical liberalism. It holds many similar beliefs to anarcho-capitalism but criticizes the idea of a lack of government. Minarchists believe that the free market can cover almost all government programs. However, they maintain that a minimalist government is necessary for the protection of rights. Minarchists typically believe, with some variation, that government should be limited to a “Night-watchman State” consisting of police, military, and courts. Robert Nozick, author of “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” argued that out of anarcho-capitalism, minarchism would naturally arise, as monopolized private police and courts would form a “state” of sorts.

Key minarchists include:

  • Robert Nozick
  • Friedrich Hayek
  • Ludvig Von Mises

Objectivism

Objectivism is a philosophy that author Ayn Rand outlines in her books “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead”. To begin with, objectivism is an extreme Laissez-faire capitalist belief with huge emphasis on individualism. Rand believed that man was best off serving his own self interest and should not need to help out the needy. In addition, it describes the pursuit of one’s own happiness as life’s most important goal. Accordingly, she, like many objectivists, rejected selflessness and altruism as an inefficient direction of resources.

Key figures in the Objectivist movement include:

  • Ayn Rand
  • Leonard Peikoff

Bleeding Heart Libertarianism

Bleeding Heart Libertarians can be considered more “moderate” libertarians. In some cases, they are associated with the libertarian left. The official site for bleeding heart libertarians says they believe in “free markets and social justice“. Bleeding Heart Libertarians tend to believe in social equality and egalitarianism. They often still believe in social safety nets and a welfare state, and fall on the progressive side on social issues.

Arguably, the most famous bleeding heart libertarian is Gary Johnson. Much of the moderate side of the Libertarian Party also falls under this category.

Libertarian Socialism

Libertarian socialism is a form of left libertarianism. Typically, it is a form of Marxist theory that believes in social liberties and limited to no government. However, they also support a voluntary sharing of resources in a communal way. They also tend to oppose the power of strong corporations and hierarchies. Libertarian socialists often believe capitalism to be a tyrannical force and compare the “economic” elite to the state. As a result, they believe in ending authoritarianism and bringing in systems of direct democracy (sometimes unanimous) that distribute wealth more evenly.

This mode of thought draws much criticism from most other branches of libertarianism. Conversely, many libertarian socialists firmly believe themselves to be the only true libertarians. This partly dates back to the origin of anarchism and libertarianism in 19th-century Europe as a term to describe the left.

Key libertarian socialists include:

  • Emma Goldman
  • Peter Kropotkin
  • Noam Chomsky

Paleolibertarianism

Paleolibertarians believe that while the state should be limited or abolished, society should still hold culturally conservative views. Paleolibertarians are thus very supportive of Western and American culture and are concerned about threats to it.

The paleolibertarian movement began in the 1990’s as a coalition of paleolibertarians and paleoconservatives that Rothbard (above) and paleoconservative presidential candidate Pat Buchanan formed. Basically, the goal was to stop interventionism, globalism, and social democracy.

Paleolibertarians usually oppose mass immigration and foreign wars. Many more radical paleolibertarians may consider themselves “Hoppeans”, following the anarcho-capitalist philosophy of Hans Hermann Hoppe.

Key paleolibertarians include:

  • Murray Rothbard
  • Lew Rockwell
  • Hans Hermann Hoppe
  • Ron Paul
  • Tom Woods

The movement, of course, is even more diverse than this. Countless versions of libertarian thought exist within it, and it would take ages to explain them all. Without a doubt, the area of thought is rich with diversity and variation. No two libertarians are alike, but all have one thing in common: a desire to live free.


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