Resources for Understanding Libertarian /

Classical Liberal Perspectives

The resources on this page are designed to help you explore the “moral matrix” of libertarians. Libertarians are sometimes called “classical liberals” because they trace their philosophical origins back to the Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries who argued that states, laws, and governments exist for the benefit of the people. The individual is the unit of value, and the liberty of the individual is the essential precondition for human flourishing. Adam Smith, for example, criticized the heavy-handed regulation of commerce in 18th century France and thought it preferable to allow “every man to pursue his own interest in his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.”

As the industrial revolution advanced in the 19th century, some liberals began to argue that governments needed to grow larger and more active in protecting people from the effects of capitalism, and in fostering greater equality of outcomes. This is the origin of the progressive movement; it can be seen as a split between progressives (who want a more activist government) and classical liberals (who do not).

Libertarians often cannot be placed on the traditional left-right spectrum because they favor liberty across the board. They often part company with conservatives who favor government-imposed moral restrictions (as on matters of sexuality, drugs, and the regulation of the internet), and they often part company with progressives who favor government imposed economic restrictions (including minimum wage laws that violate people’s rights to make contracts as they see fit, and many regulatory and licensing practices that make it harder for people to start businesses). This makes libertarianism particularly popular among young people, who are more likely than other age groups to self identify as leaning left on social issues without leaning left on economic issues.

Like progressivism and conservatism, libertarianism contains many strands and subtypes, although all hold liberty to be (one of) the most important political values, which they see as under constant threat from the left, the right, or both sides. Below is a selection of resources chosen to convey some of the most important ideas while giving you a feeling for how libertarians look at the world.

Our Picks

Recommended Video

  • Liberty 101: What Does Liberty Really Mean? (6:37). Professor Peter Jaworski explains that for libertarians, liberty is the primary political value. But what is liberty? While there are many ways to define it, according to libertarians, “Liberty is the freedom to pursue your own good in your own way without other people limiting your options or forcing you to fulfill their needs first.” Jaworski goes on to present the case for liberty as conceived by libertarians.

Recommended Reading

  • Key Concepts of Libertarianism” (1999) by David Boaz. In this brief essay, David Boaz describes the origins of libertarian thought as well as nine key concepts that define libertarianism. Boaz concludes by identifying the similarities and distinctions between libertarianism and general liberal principles.
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