In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Libertarianism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Roots in Early Classical Liberalism
  • Contemporary Classical Liberalism
  • Libertarianism
  • Left-Libertarianism
  • Capitalism and Socialism
  • Property Rights
  • The Welfare State, Social Insurance, and Redistribution
  • Government Failure
  • Democracy and Citizenship
  • Anarchism and Government Authority
  • War and International Justice
  • Civil Rights
  • Environmental Issues
  • Critiques of Libertarianism

Political Science Libertarianism
Jason Brennan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0166


Libertarianism is a political philosophy, or more precisely, a family of closely related political philosophies. “Libertarianism” is sometimes used as a synonym for “classical liberalism,” but is sometimes used to refer more narrowly to more stringent contemporary outgrowth of classical liberal thought. Libertarians believe that respect for human liberty is the central requirement of justice and central goal of politics. They believe that each person has a wide sphere of rights against interference from others. Libertarians hold that there are sharp limits on what individuals may be forced to do: coercion is permissible to protect rights, but individuals generally may not be coerced to serve either the common good or their own good. Libertarians tend to advocate a society based on radical tolerance, consent and voluntarism, peace, and personal responsibility. Libertarianism is not easily fit into American Right versus Left politics. Libertarians advocate strong and expansive private property rights and free market capitalism, but they also usually advocate equal rights for homosexuals, drug decriminalization, open borders, and abortion rights, and oppose moralistic legislation and most military interventions. Libertarians describe themselves as advocating maximal individual liberty in both personal and economic matters. As a result, libertarians see the role of the state as sharply limited. Some libertarians believe that the state may provide only a modest degree of public goods, regulation, and social services, but the majority tend to advocate a “night watchman state,” or full-blown anarchism. Libertarians not only believe that a more expansive government violates individual rights; they also hold that governments tend to undermine prosperity, diminish opportunity, reduce social and economic mobility, and mire some people in poverty and dependency. Polls by Gallup and the Washington Post indicate that roughly 20–25 percent of Americans are broadly libertarian, while the PhilPapers indicates that roughly 13 percent of philosophers (and 15 percent of political philosophers) are libertarian. This bibliography primarily focuses on political philosophy and political theory, but it also includes many entries from empirical political science and economics, especially seminal pieces that contain normative analysis.

General Overviews

Brennan 2012 provides a broad yet in-depth survey of libertarian and classical thought, and is aimed at both an academic and lay audience. Vallentyne and van der Vossen 2014 provides a more focused account of contemporary debates in academic political philosophy, using a more narrow definition of “libertarianism”. Brennan 2012 provides an overview of “neoclassical liberalism,” a form of libertarianism that explicitly embraces a concern for social justice, and which is popular among philosophers in elite academic programs. Gaus and Mack 2004 traces the origins of classical liberal thought.

  • Brennan, Jason. Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Using a question-and-answer format, this highly accessible book explains libertarian and classical liberal positions on a wide range of topics, including the value of liberty, civil liberties, social justice and the poor, economics, democracy, and the role of government.

  • Gaus, Gerald, and Eric Mack. “Libertarianism and Classical Liberalism.” In A Handbook of Political Theory. Edited by Gerald F. Gaus and Chandran Kukathus, 115–129. London: Routledge, 2004.

    A comprehensive, scholarly overview of the tradition of classical liberal and libertarian thought.

  • Vallentyne, Peter, and Bas van der Vossen. “Libertarianism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.

    A survey of contemporary questions and issues in academic political philosophy, focusing on a more narrow definition of libertarianism than Gaus and Mack 2004 or Brennan 2012.

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