Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, "the first person willingly to call himself an anarchist," outlined a "libertarian society based on cooperation, as opposed to competition and coercion, and functioning without the need for government authority.
The term libertarian was first popularized in France in the 1890s in order to counter and evade the anti-anarchist laws known as the les lois scélérates. According to the anarchist historian Max Nettlau, the first use of the term libertarian communism was in November 1880, when a French anarchist congress employed it to more clearly identify its doctrines. The French anarchist journalist Sébastien Faure, later founder and editor of the four-volume Anarchist Encyclopedia, started the weekly paper Le Libertaire (The Libertarian) in 1895.
In the United States, libertarianism as a synonym for anarchism had meantime begun to take hold. The anarchist communist geographer and social theorist Peter Kropotkin wrote in his seminal 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica article Anarchism that:
Today, worldwide, anarchist communist, libertarian socialist, and other left-libertarian movements continue to describe themselves as libertarian. These styles of libertarianism are opposed to most or all forms of private property but would not use a coercive state to abolish it.
Age of Enlightenment ideas of "individual liberty, constitutionally limited government, peace, and reliance on the institutions of civil society and the free market for social order and economic prosperity" were the basis of what became know as liberalism in the 19th century. While it kept that meaning in most of the world, "modern liberalism in the United States" began to mean a more statist viewpoint. Over time those who held to the earlier liberal views began to call themselves market liberals, classical liberals or libertarians. While conservatism in Europe continued to mean conserving hierarchical class structures through state control of society and the economy, some conservatives in the United States began to refer to conserving traditions of liberty. This was especially true of the "Old Right" who opposed The New Deal and U.S. military interventions in World War I and World War II.
Later, the Austrian School of economics also had a powerful impact on both economic teaching and classical liberal and libertarian principles. It influenced economists and political philosophers and theorists including Henry Hazlitt, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Israel Kirzner, Murray Rothbard, Walter Block, Richard M. Ebeling and others. The Austrian School was in turn influenced by Frederic Bastiat.
Starting in the 1930s and continuing until today, a group of central European economists lead by Austrians Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek identified the collectivist underpinnings to the various new socialist and fascist doctrines of government power as being different brands of totalitarianism.
In the 1940s, Leonard Read began calling himself "libertarian." In 1955, Dean Russell wrote an article in the Foundation for Economic Education magazine pondering what to call those, such as himself, who subscribed to the classical liberal philosophy. He suggested: "Let those of us who love liberty trademark and reserve for our own use the good and honorable word "libertarian.
Ayn Rand's international best sellers The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) and her books about her philosophy of Objectivism inspired a new interest in ideas of liberty and influenced modern libertarianism. Brian Doherty describes her influence: "[H]er literary skills and burning moral passion, as much as her rigorous, systematic approach to the linkages between reason and liberty, will remain a powerful introduction to the idea that your life belongs to you, not to the state or the collective—and to the rich and complex series of conclusions about the proper nature and mission of government that follows from that idea. For a number of years after the publication of her books, people promoting a libertarian philosophy continued to call it "individualism. Two other women also published influential pro-freedom books in 1943, Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom and Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine.
According to libertarian publisher Robert W. Poole, Arizona United States Senator Barry Goldwater's message of "individual liberty, economic freedom, and anti-communism" also had a major impact on the libertarian movement, both with the publication of his book Conscience of a Conservative and with his run for president in 1964. He made it "acceptable to question the legitimacy of an all-powerful national government. Goldwater's speech writer, Karl Hess, would go on to become a leading libertarian writer and activist.
The Cold War mentality of military interventionism, which had supplanted "Old Right" noninterventionism, was promoted by conservatives like William F. Buckley and accepted by many libertarians, with Murray Rothbard being a notable dissenter. However, the Vietnam War split the uneasy alliance between growing numbers of self-identified libertarians, anarcho-libertarians, and more traditional conservatives who believed in limiting liberty to uphold moral virtues. Libertarians joined the draft dodger and peace movements and even 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 walk out by a large number of libertarians, the creation of new purely libertarian organizations like the Society for Individual Liberty, and efforts to recruit potential libertarians from conservative organizations. It was finalized in 1971 when conservative leader William F. Buckley in a 1971 New York Times article attempted to read libertarians out of 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, libertarians including David Nolan and a few friends formed the first libertarian political party. Attracting former Democrats, Republicans and independents, it has run a presidential candidate every election year since 1972, including Ed Clark (1980), Ron Paul (1988), Harry Browne (1996 and 2000) and Bob Barr (2008). By 2006, polls showed that 15 percent of American voters identified themselves as libertarian. Over the years, dozens of libertarian political parties have been formed worldwide. (See list). Educational organizations like the Center for Libertarian Studies and the Cato Institute were formed in the 1970s and more have been created since then.
Philosophical libertarianism gained a significant measure of recognition in the academy 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. Indeed, it is not too much to say that without Nozick's book, there might not be a vital and growing academic libertarian movement today, making its way from university to university, from discipline to discipline, from nation to nation.
Libertarians are committed to the belief that individuals, and not states or groups of any other kind, are both ontologically and normatively primary; that individuals have rights against certain kinds of forcible interference on the part of others; that liberty, understood as non-interference, is the only thing that can be legitimately demanded of others as a matter of legal or political right; that robust property rights and the economic liberty that follows from their consistent recognition are of central importance in respecting individual liberty; that social order is not at odds with but develops out of individual liberty; that the only proper use of coercion is defensive or to rectify an error; that governments are bound by essentially the same moral principles as individuals; and that most existing and historical governments have acted improperly insofar as they have utilized coercion for plunder, aggression, redistribution, and other purposes beyond the protection of individual liberty.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states "libertarianism holds that agents initially fully own themselves and have moral powers to acquire property rights in external things under certain conditions." It notes that libertarianism is not a “right-wing” doctrine because of its opposition to laws restricting adult consensual sexual relationships and drug use, and its opposition to imposing religious views or practices and compulsory military service. However, it notes that there is a version known as “left-libertarianism” which also endorses full self-ownership, but "differs on unappropriated natural resources (land, air, water, etc.)." "Right-libertarianism" holds that such resources may be appropriated by individuals. "Left-libertarianism" holds that they belong to everyone and must be distributed in some egalitarian manner.
Like many libertarians, Leonard Read rejected the concepts of "left" and "right" libertarianism, calling them "authoritarian. Libertarian author and politician Harry Browne wrote: "We should never define Libertarian positions in terms coined by liberals or conservatives nor as some variant of their positions. We are not fiscally conservative and socially liberal. We are Libertarians, who believe in individual liberty and personal responsibility on all issues at all times. You can depend on us to treat government as the problem, not the solution.
Isaiah Berlin's 1958 essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" described a difference between negative liberty which limits the power of the state to interfere and positive liberty in which a paternalistic state helps individuals achieve self-realization and self-determination. He believed these were rival and incompatible interpretations of liberty and held that demands for positive liberty lead to authoritarianism. This view has been adopted by many libertarians including Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard.
Libertarians contrast two ethical views: consequentialist libertarianism, which is the support for liberty because it leads to favorable consequences, such as prosperity or efficiency and deontological libertarianism (also known as "rights-theorist libertarianism," "natural rights libertarianism," or "libertarian moralism") which consider moral tenets to be the basis of libertarian philosophy. Others combine a hybrid of consequentialist and deontologist thinking.
Another view, contractarian libertarianism, holds that any legitimate authority of government derives not from the consent of the governed, but from contract or mutual agreement. Robert Nozick holds a variation on this view, as does Jan Narveson as outlined in his 1988 work The Libertarian Idea and his 2002 work Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice. Other advocates of contractarian libertarianism include the Nobel Laureate and founder of the public choice school of economics James M. Buchanan, Canadian philosopher David Gauthier and Hungarian-French philosopher Anthony de Jasay.
Some members of the U.S. libertarian movement, including the late Samuel Edward Konkin III and Roderick T. Long, employ a differing definition of left libertarianism. These individuals depart from other forms of libertarianism by opposing intellectual property, by advocating strong alliances with the Left on issues such as the anti-war movement, and by supporting labor unions. Some wish to revive voluntary cooperative ideas such as mutualism.
Conservatives hold that shared values, morals, standards, and traditions are necessary for social order while libertarians consider individual liberty as the highest value. Laurence M. Vance writes: "Some libertarians consider libertarianism to be a lifestyle rather than a political philosophy... They apparently don’t know the difference between libertarianism and libertinism. However, Edward Feser emphasizes that libertarianism does not require individuals to reject traditional conservative values.
Some libertarian conservatives in the United States (known as libertarian constitutionalists) believe that the way to limit government is to enforce the United States Constitution.
Conversely, some libertarians see Objectivists as dogmatic, unrealistic, and uncompromising (Objectivists do not see the last as a negative attribute). According to Reason editor Nick Gillespie in the magazine's March 2005 issue focusing on Objectivism's influence, Rand is "one of the most important figures in the libertarian movement... Rand remains one of the best-selling and most widely influential figures in American thought and culture" in general and in libertarianism in particular. Still, he confesses that he is embarrassed by his magazine's association with her ideas. In the same issue, Cathy Young says that "Libertarianism, the movement most closely connected to Rand's ideas, is less an offspring than a rebel stepchild." Though they reject what they see as Randian dogmas, libertarians like Young still believe that "Rand's message of reason and liberty... could be a rallying point" for libertarianism.
Objectivists reject the oft-heard libertarian refrain that State and government are "necessary evils": for them, a government limited to protection of its citizens' rights is absolutely necessary and moral. Objectivists are opposed to all anarchist currents and are suspicious of libertarians' lineage with individualist anarchism.
In Germany, a "Libertäre Plattform in der FDP" ("Liberty Caucus within the Free Democratic Party") was founded in 2005.
The Russian Libertarian Movement (Rossiyskoye Libertarianskoye Dvizhenie, RLD; 2003-2006) was a short-lived political party in the Russian Federation, formed by members of the Institute of Natiology (Moscow), a libertarian think-tank. After electoral failure and government failure, it disbanded.
The activist Free State Project, formed in 2001, works to bring 20,000 libertarians to the state of New Hampshire to influence state policy. They had signed up 1,033 people by 2008. Similar, but less successful, projects include include the Free West Alliance and Free State Wyoming. (There is also a European Free State Project)