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Libertarianism in the United States

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Libertarianism in the United States is a movement promoting individual liberty and minimized government. Although the word libertarian continues to be widely used to refer to socialists internationally, its meaning in the United States has deviated from its political origins. The Libertarian Party asserts the following to be core beliefs of libertarianism:


Libertarians support maximum liberty in both personal and economic matters. They advocate a much smaller government; one that is limited to protecting individuals from coercion and violence. Libertarians tend to embrace individual responsibility, oppose government bureaucracy and taxes, promote private charity, tolerate diverse lifestyles, support the free market, and defend civil liberties.

Through 20 polls on this topic spanning 13 years, Gallup found that voters who are libertarian on the political spectrum ranged from 17–23% of the US electorate. This includes members of the Republican Party (especially Libertarian Republicans), Democratic Party, Libertarian Party, and Independents.


Libertarianism, like many other concepts, predates the official coinage of that word. In the US the general movement started, philosophically, with the founding of the country itself, which was based on classical liberal ideas, which came to be known in the 20th century US as libertarianism. The ideas of John Locke, fundamental to those of the Founding Fathers, are considered a starting point for libertarian thought. Minarchists like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, influenced by Locke, advocated positions that are not only compatible with modern American libertarianism, but are also considered foundations for that movement.

In the 19th century, key libertarian thinkers, individualist anarchists and minarchists, were based in the US, most notably Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker. These political thinkers argued that government should be kept to a minimum, and that it is only legitimate to the extent that people voluntarily support it, as in Spooner's No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority. American writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson advocated for individualism and even anarchism throughout that century, leaving a significant imprint on libertarianism worldwide.

Moving into the 20th century, important American writers and scholars like H. L. Mencken and Bertrand Russell carried on the intellectual libertarian tradition. They were subsequently bolstered by a new movement who actually used the word, most noteworthy among these being Albert Jay Nock, author of Our Enemy, the State, one of the first people in the world to self-identify as "libertarian", and European immigrant Ayn Rand, strongly influenced by Nock, who helped popularize the term, as well as Science Fiction author Robert Anson Heinlein, whose writing carried libertarian underpinnings, and who identified himself by the term as well.

In 1955, writer Dean Russell, a classic liberal himself, proposed a solution:

Subsequently, a growing number of Americans with classical liberal beliefs in the United States began to describe themselves as "libertarian." Academics as well as proponents of the free market perspectives note that free-market libertarianism has spread beyond the US since the 1970s via think tanks and political parties and that libertarianism is increasingly viewed worldwide as a free market position. However, libertarian socialist intellectuals Noam Chomsky, Colin Ward, and others argue that the term "libertarianism" is considered a synonym for social anarchism by the international community and that the United States is unique in widely associating it with free market ideology.

Arizona United States Senator Barry Goldwater's libertarian-oriented challenge to authority had a major impact on the libertarian movement, through his book The Conscience of a Conservative and his run for president in 1964. Goldwater's speech writer, Karl Hess, became a leading libertarian writer and activist.

The Vietnam War split the uneasy alliance between growing numbers of self-identified libertarians, anarchist libertarians, and more traditional conservatives who believed in limiting liberty to uphold moral virtues. Libertarians opposed to the war joined the draft resistance and peace movements and organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society. They began founding their own publications, like Murray Rothbard's The Libertarian Forum and organizations like the Radical Libertarian Alliance.

The split was aggravated at the 1969 Young Americans for Freedom convention, when more than 300 libertarians organized to take control of the organization from conservatives. The burning of a draft card in protest to a conservative proposal against draft resistance sparked physical confrontations among convention attendees, a walkout by a large number of libertarians, the creation of libertarian organizations like the Society for Individual Liberty, and efforts to recruit potential libertarians from conservative organizations. The split was finalized in 1971 when conservative leader William F. Buckley, Jr., in a 1971 New York Times article, attempted to divorce libertarianism from the freedom movement. He wrote: "The ideological licentiousness that rages through America today makes anarchy attractive to the simple-minded. Even to the ingeniously simple-minded."

In 1971, David Nolan and a few friends formed the Libertarian Party. Attracting former Democrats, Republicans and independents, it has run a presidential candidate every election year since 1972. Over the years, dozens of libertarian political parties have been formed worldwide. Educational organizations like the Center for Libertarian Studies and the Cato Institute were formed in the 1970s, and others have been created since then.

Philosophical libertarianism gained a significant measure of recognition in academia with the publication of Harvard University professor Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia in 1974. The book won a National Book Award in 1975. According to libertarian essayist Roy Childs, "Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia single-handedly established the legitimacy of libertarianism as a political theory in the world of academia."

Texas congressman Ron Paul's 2008 and 2012 campaigns for the Republican Party presidential nomination were largely libertarian. Paul was affiliated with the libertarian-leaning Republican Liberty Caucus and founded the Campaign for Liberty, a libertarian-leaning membership and lobbying organization. His son, US Senator Rand Paul continues the tradition, albeit more "moderately".


The 2016 Libertarian National Convention which saw Gary Johnson and Bill Weld nominated as the 2016 presidential ticket for the Libertarian Party resulted in the most successful result for a third-party presidential candidacy since 1996, and the best in the Libertarian Party's history by vote number. Johnson received 3% of the popular vote, amounting to more than 4.3 million votes. Johnson has expressed a desire to win at least 5% of the vote so that the Libertarian Party candidates could get equal ballot access and federal funding, thus subsequently ending the two-party system.

As was true historically, though, there are far more libertarians in the US than those who belong to the party touting that name. In the United States, libertarians may emphasize economic and constitutional rather than religious and personal policies, or personal and international rather than economic policies, such as the Tea Party movement, founded in 2009, which has become a major outlet for Libertarian Republican ideas especially rigorous adherence to the US Constitution, lower taxes and an opposition to a growing role for the federal government in health care. However polls show that many people who identify as Tea Party members do not hold traditional libertarian views on most social issues, and tend to poll similarly to socially conservative Republicans. Eventually during the 2016 presidential election many Tea Party members abandoned more libertarian leaning views in favor of Donald Trump and his right wing populism .

Additionally, the Tea Party was considered to be a key force in Republicans reclaiming control of the US House of Representatives in 2010.

Polls (circa 2006) find that the views and voting habits of between 10 and 20 percent (and increasing) of voting age Americans may be classified as "fiscally conservative and socially liberal, or libertarian." This is based on pollsters and researchers defining libertarian views as

  • fiscally conservative and culturally liberal (based on the common US meanings of the terms) and
  • against government intervention in economic affairs, and for expansion of personal freedoms.
  • Through 20 polls on this topic spanning 13 years, Gallup found that voters who are libertarian on the political spectrum ranged from 17–23% of the US electorate. Most of these vote for Republican and Democratic (not Libertarian) party candidates. This posits that the common single-axis paradigm of dividing people's political leanings into "conservative", "liberal" and "confused" is not valid. Libertarians make up a larger portion of the US electorate than the much-discussed "soccer moms" and "NASCAR dads", yet this is not widely recognized. One reason for this is that most pollsters, political analysts, and political pundits believe in the paradigm of the single liberal-conservative axis.


    Well-known libertarian organizations include the Center for Libertarian Studies, the Cato Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the Reason Foundation, the International Society for Individual Liberty (ISIL) and the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The Libertarian Party of the United States is the world's first such party.

    The Free State Project, an activist movement formed in 2001, is working to bring 20,000 libertarians to the state of New Hampshire to influence state policy. As of May 2015, the project website shows that 16,683 people have pledged to move once 20,000 are signed on, and 1,746 participants have already moved to New Hampshire or were already residing there when New Hampshire was chosen as the destination for the Free State Project in 2003. Less successful similar projects include the Free West Alliance and Free State Wyoming.

    Cato Institute

    The Cato Institute is a libertarian think tank headquartered in Washington, DC It was founded as the Charles Koch Foundation in 1974 by Ed Crane, Murray Rothbard, and Charles Koch, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the conglomerate Koch Industries. In July 1976, the name was changed to the Cato Institute. Cato was established to have a focus on public advocacy, media exposure and societal influence. According to the 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report (Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania), Cato is number 16 in the "Top Think Tanks Worldwide" and number 8 in the "Top Think Tanks in the United States". Cato also topped the 2014 list of the budget-adjusted ranking of international development think tanks.

    Center for Libertarian Studies

    The Center for Libertarian Studies (CLS) was a libertarian and anarcho-capitalist oriented educational organization founded in 1976 by Murray Rothbard and Burton Blumert, which grew out of the Libertarian Scholars Conferences. It published the Journal of Libertarian Studies from 1977 to 2000 (now published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute), a newsletter (In Pursuit of Liberty), several monographs, and sponsors conferences, seminars, and symposia. Originally headquartered in New York, it later moved to Burlingame, California. Until 2007, it supported, web publication of CLS vice president Lew Rockwell. It had also previously supported



    Former United States Congressman Ron Paul and former United States Senator Barry Goldwater popularized libertarian economics and anti-statist rhetoric in the United States and passed some reforms. United States President Ronald Reagan tried to appeal to them in a speech, though many libertarians are ambivalent about Reagan's legacy.


    Libertarianism in the United States Wikipedia