What is libertarianism? Well, it is a social and political philosophy committed to the advancement of personal liberty. It is usually contrasted with various forms of collectivism based on its distinctive views on property rights and the use of force. Although the term “libertarianism” first appeared in political discourse in the 1950s, its conceptual framework was firmly established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by political economists and philosophers in the “classical liberal” tradition, most notably John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Despite the fact that there is a lot variation among its proponents, most libertarians agree that the principles of self-ownership and non-aggression are foundational.
Many libertarians argue that all rights can be reduced to property rights. John Locke’s “principle of self ownership,” argues that we own ourselves in the same sense that we may own property (natural resources and/or artifacts). Entitlement to property is based on how it was originally acquired. For example, Lockeans argue that initial ownership of unowned natural resources become owned property after a person mixes their labor with that unowned resource. Based on the principle of self-ownership, we own our selves, then we have a right to the “fruits of our labor.” The institution of involuntary slavery, for example, is universally morally wrong because it violates the principle of self-ownership by depriving individuals of their natural right to their bodies and what they produce with their bodies. Self-ownership, therefore, sets limits what we can do to each other and our property without our consent.
Once unowned natural resources come under initial ownership, entitlement to those natural resources and/or the subsequently created artifacts may be transferred to others, if and only if the resulting contract is informed and consensual. Once legitimate ownership is established, neither other individuals nor government can coercively seize that property. Hence, most libertarians reject any governmental agenda that coercively redistributes privately owned property based on a preestablished "pattern" or preferred, end state such as: merit, need, equality, or utility.
Libertarians argue that non-aggression provides the foundation for both morality and legality. Unprovoked acts of physical aggression and/or threats of physical aggression obviously violate the principle of self-ownership. Most of us follow John Stuart Mill and distinguish between other-regarding acts (which violate property the rights of others) and self-regarding acts (which do not). The inviolable bounds of personal liberty lie within the sphere of self-regarding actions. Self-defense is the only justification for violation of the non-aggression axiom.
According to libertarianism, the non-aggression axiom imposes a negative right to life, which posits a duty not to kill others, or deprive them of their liberty or their property without their consent. There are no positive rights (rights to have something) that obligate us to assist others and therefore there is no positive right to life. Even if we could justify such a right, most libertarians would agree that that it would be more efficiently secured by charitable acts by individuals and non-governmental organizations than by tax-supported welfare programs.
The non-aggression axiom applies to both individuals and governments. Libertarians disagree over the implications of non-aggression axiom. Most of us agree that it limits government’s ability to raise revenue via coercive taxation, or raise an army via involuntary conscription. Most libertarians favor limited government that protects citizens from external threats posed by aggressive nations(via an all volunteer army); and from internal threats posed by aggressive individuals (via a criminal justice system). Some radical libertarians are anarchists who argue that all governments violate the nonaggression axiom and/or that all governmental functions can be more efficiently served by private individuals, voluntary, non-governmental associations, and the free market. I am a "minarchist," and therefore I advocate limited small government.
Libertarians hold that most (if not all) social problems are caused by intrusive government. Therefore, we prefer to empower individuals to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. If you need help, ask your friends and relatives or work out a reciprocal agreement with strangers. Most of us are also free market capitalists that stand opposed to any government redistributive programs intended to serve the public good, including governmentally supported programs such as social welfare, urban planning, socialized medicine, affirmative action, minimum wage laws, or public schools. We resist any attempt by individuals or governmental central planners to coercively impose any one moral or religious view upon everyone. I am especially wary of planners that prescribe governmental policies that seek to control: marriage, birth control, pornography, and recreational drugs. Admittedly, libertarian views on abortion, stem cell research, and cloning are contingent upon whether one believes that self-ownership can be rationally extended to zygotes, fetuses, tissue, and clones.
In terms of foreign policy, libertarians must hold firm to the non-aggression axiom and therefore declare war only in self-defense. Pre-emptive wars are deeply problematic. In global economic affairs, libertarians embrace free market economic policies and laissez faire government. I limit the role of government (national and international) to protecting buyers and sellers from theft, and fraud. Most of us stand against governmentally enforced monetary policy, protective tariffs, anti-sweat shop legislation. We all agree that if foreign aid is ever necessary (which is not very often) it is best provided by individuals and private non-governmental organizations.
On the contemporary political landscape, libertarians are classified as social liberals and economic conservatives.