Classical Natural Law and Libertarian Theory

If libertarianism wishes to give up modern political categories, it has to think about law in a different way. Murray N. Rothbard, the most important exponent of the radical libertarian school, is right when he rejects the historicism and relativism of legal realism and when—for the same reasons—he criticizes Hayek and Leoni.

But unfortunately, he does not really grasp the function of the evolution into classic natural law. Furthermore, his idea of building a libertarian code is completely inconsistent with his frequent references to the Greek and Christian legal heritage.1

In For a New Liberty, Rothbard points out that the history of a changing and evolving law can be useful in order to find just rules: “since we have a body of common law principles to draw on, however, the task of reason in correcting and amending the common law would be far easier than trying to construct a body of systematic legal principles de novo out of the thin air.”2

But the relationship between common law and natural law must be seen differently. Common law is not only an interesting tool for discovering natural law: it has its specific role. Positive law needs to interact with natural law principles, but even the latter cannot be considered as self-sufficient.

Moreover, in his defense of rationality, Rothbard does not realize that law cannot be entirely read into the praxeological framework, which is axiomatic and deductive. The division of theory and history puts some disciplines into opposition with others, but above all it makes a distinction within any single field of study.

Economics, for instance, is a theoretical science if considered as political economics, but a historical and empiric activity if it analyzes what happened in the past.3 This is also true for legal studies, because they have a theoretical part but, at the same time, include many other aspects which, on the contrary, are historical and cannot be examined using logical and a priori methods.

In his methodological writings, Rothbard distinguishes between empiricism and experience, and remarks that the refusal of the first does not imply a devaluation of the second. When he criticizes Mises for his Kantian approach, he finds in human experience exactly the main source of the axioms, the fundamental truths that are the starting point of a theory based on deductive logic.4 But before the law, Rothbard seems to minimize the contextual and nontheoretical dimension of a large part of legal controversies and especially of positive law.

Using the Thomist framework, in this essay I will emphasize the importance of the lex naturalis, at the same time highlighting a lex humana deeply rooted in the complexity of different ages and societies, related to the subjectivity and specificity of opinions which cannot be fruitfully examined by a praxeological approach. Many problems, and even some inconsistencies of Rothbardian theory, are a consequence of it.

Moreover, the way Rothbard deals with the arguments of causality and liability shows an inadequate understanding of the anthropology of the Austrian School, which moves from a study of human action (intentional and rational) and not by a simple behaviorist analysis.

In integrating Rothbardian libertarianism with positive law, an important contribution comes from Bruno Leoni, who in Freedom and the Law and other writings developed an original contribution to classical liberalism. The Italian scholar can help to improve some parts of Rothbard’s libertarian theory of law. If the author of The Ethics of Liberty is much more grounded in natural law and even less naïve before Wertfreiheit,5 Leoni can correct some limits of the Rothbardian approach and its incapacity to perceive the specificity of law: a practical and largely empirical science, historically situated and essentially oriented to finding reasonable solutions for very specific cases.

If philosophy of law has to investigate the eternal and immutable principles of justice, juridical scholarship must find the best translation of these for the specific problems of a society. For this reason, taking Leoni seriously means imagining a meeting point of natural law doctrine and the requirements of a positive law as a reality in evolution. And it implies an effort to transfer into the legal context the Misesian methodology and its radical separation of theory and history: the sphere of axiomatic and deductive studies (praxeology) and the sphere of research based on experience (history).

We have to remember that specific attention to the historical and evolving features of legal orders has been a crucial element of the Austrian School since its origins. In his Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences, Carl Menger praises the Historical School of Jurisprudence (Gustav Hugo, Friedrich Carl von Savigny, Barthold Georg Niebuhr), whose origins he dated back to Edmund Burke.

Menger also highlights the individualistic content of evolutionary law with the goal of helping the classical liberal tradition to rediscover its lost roots:

law, like language, is (at least originally) not the product in general of an activity of public authorities aimed at producing it, nor in particular is it the product of positive legislation. It is, instead, the unintended result of a higher wisdom, of the historical development of the nations.6

It is exactly in this sense that we can understand Leoni’s preference for evolutionary law (Anglo-Saxon law and Roman jus civile): a law not oriented to preserve tradition or spontaneous order per se. On the contrary, Leoni thinks that a polycentric and evolutionary order is in a better position to safeguard individual rights. Rules that emerge from the interpersonal exchange of claims are tools that can effectively protect society from the rulers.

As a student of English legal history, Leoni shows a strong interest in the common law of nature that was at the heart of Edward Coke’s perspective. In fact, in that theory law does not express an antirationalist attitude, but, on the contrary, embodies natural reason emerging in an evolutionary way. This legal culture is improved by various contributions (practical, pragmatic, professional) of many people. In this way, law is the consequence of a human activity oriented towards bettering reality using intelligence and experience.

Criticizing modern legal systems, Leoni remarks that

there is far more legislation, there are far more group decisions, far more rigid choices, and far fewer “laws written in living tables,” far fewer individual decisions, far fewer free choices in all contemporary political systems that would be necessary in order to preserve individual freedom of choice.7

Even if he never adhered to a consistent natural law theory, Leoni tried a sort of reconciliation of natural law and legal realism (positive law rightly understood), exploring the possibility of conjugating the flexibility of ancient common law and the just principles of a universal moral theory.

Leoni had a strong interest in the exploration of the libertarian potentialities of a similar perspective. In his writings, there are many elements of a radical libertarianism refusing any coercion. When some participants of the Claremont seminar about Freedom and the Law asked him who should choose the judges in a free society, he answered: “it is rather immaterial to establish in advance who will appoint the judges, for, in a sense, everybody could do so, as happens to a certain extent when people resort to private arbiters to settle their own quarrels.”8

In his opinion, the contemporary, statist system should disappear, leaving room for a competitive order of private courts. The convergence of Leoni and Rothbard is evident on many levels, because both imagine the end of the state monopoly on justice and security, with the purpose of opening the road to an institutional competition between people in charge to avoid criminal behaviors.9

It is also for this reason that Rothbardian libertarian theory can find in Leoni and, above all, in his understanding of law the way to overcome its theoretical and practical difficulties.

From Praxeology to Thymology: The Role of Positive Law

In its daily development, law refers back to principles, but at the same time it concerns modest but not negligible disputes. Legal reasoning lives essentially in this pragmatic context and it leaves the specific topics of natural law in the background.

In Mises’s thought, there is a notion that is extremely useful in helping us grasp the relationship between theory and practice in the law. In fact, in Theory and History, he opposes praxeology to thymology, which is in close relationship with history.10 Thymology is a branch of history and “derives its knowledge from historical experience.”11 It stands for that set of empirical knowledge of psychological, sociological and even factual character that we use to find our way in relationships with other people. This “literary psychology” is the condition of a rational behavior: “for lack of any better tool, we must take recourse to thymology if we want to anticipate other people’s future attitudes and actions.”12

When Leoni returns to the legal realism tradition (to the law in action that Roscoe Pound opposes to the law in books) and remarks on a correspondence between positive law and what is foreseeable (often using the formula id quod plerumque accidit),13 the highlights that the positive law is always intelligible in a thymologic perspective. In his explicit purpose of applying Misesian methodology to law, Leoni discovers a praxeological dimension (the most theoretical part, coinciding with the analysis of the individual claims and their interaction), but also another thymological dimension (entirely depending on experience, common opinions and traditions).

His idea is that positive law has a strong relationship with customs. As practical activity, law must reduce uncertainty: it is for this reason that a creditor’s claim is legal, because generally a debtor pays back what he has received, while the thief’s claim is illegal, because generally people do not steal. The probabilistic analysis is purely empirical, but it is not unreasonable. Our behavior is led very often by the rationality of our past experiences and by our prejudices.

In this sense, Leonian theory of the individual claim is at the same time praxeological and thymological.

It is praxeological because it draws in a deductive way the theoretical conditions of the exchange and the meeting of different individual claims. When, in his writings, he opposes the point of view of the legal professionals (moving from the norms) and the perspective of the philosophers (interested in the origin of the rules), his aim is to reject the positivism prevalent in legal theory.

He has the project of grasping the a priori categories—à la Reinach—subtending all legal orders. When he finds in the individual claim the starting point of a juridical relation, Leoni thinks he has understood a universal datum: his “demand and supply law.” If prices emerge from the meeting of the actions of people supplying and demanding, the norms are the effect of the interaction of different claims. This is a universal regularity and, on this ground, he also develops his theoretical (praxeological) remarks about the relationship between legislation and living law, certainty and law, and so on.

But—as in Mises—this positive evaluation of praxeology does not imply a negative opinion of history or of the competence of lawyers. On the contrary, Leoni has the ambition of describing the distinct but connected roles of every sphere.

For this reason, his theory is largely thymological when he remarks that, if it is true—as Mises says—that “thymology tells no more than that man is driven by various innate instincts, various passions, and various ideas,”14 then it is evident that norms are accepted when they satisfy the claims, the principles and the desires largely shared in a specific society; and the law professionals are exactly well-informed about this peculiar and “local” environment. When Leoni emphasizes the qualities of the jus civile and the ancient common law, he aims to highlight the role of the lawyers and of all the people engaged in the solution to specific and concrete disputes.

Positive Law and History

This is a very important point in a large part of the philosophical tradition. The main Greek and medieval thinkers were clear about the link between natural law (universal) and the contingent (historically defined and, lato sensu, subjective) dimension of situations that we can understand only in specific contexts, as result of the cross of individual preferences.

In Aristotle, for instance, it is clear that there are some universal principles judging every positive law. This passage is very outspoken in this regard:

Universal law is the law of nature. For there really is, as every one to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other. It is this that Sophocles’s Antigone clearly means when she says that the burial of Polyneices was a just act in spite of the prohibition: she says that it was just by nature.

Not of to-day or yesterday it is,

But lives eternal: none can date its birth.15

At the same time, Aristotle holds the opinion that “there are two kinds of right and wrong conduct towards others, one provided for by written ordinances, the other by unwritten.” In the second group, a class “springs from exceptional goodness or badness” and it is related to honor, gratitude, friendship, and so on. But the other “makes up for the defects of a community’s written code of law. This is what we call equity.” This Aristotelian notion of equity is very important. And, at the same time, we have to perceive the relationship between this idea of equity (“the sort of justice which goes beyond the written law”) 16 and the idea of phronesis, as prudence and practical wisdom. Equity and phronesis do not destroy the universal natural law, but they give us a way to understand how it can be possible to arrange some (difficult) situations. We can build a bridge from the natural law and the positive law of our—imperfect—relationship with the others. The perception of the human limits and the complexity of the world push us to appreciate the knowledge preserved by a complex system of legal notions, as developed through centuries of legal history.

For Aristotle, it was clear that a purely deductive method would not suffice to satisfy our exigencies.

Aquinas’s lesson moves in the same direction, as is clear in his distinguishing between Natural Law (Lex naturalis) and Human Law (Lex humana). If the moral principles of natural law are unchangeable and can be rationally investigated by moving from some solid axioms, human law is the consequence of cultural and historic contingencies. As Summa Theologiae says, “the natural law contains certain universal precepts which are everlasting, whereas human law contains certain particular precepts according to various emergencies.” At the same time, “nothing can be absolutely unchangeable in things that are subject to change. And, therefore, human law cannot be altogether unchangeable.”17

Aquinas adds that “custom has the force of law, abolishes law, and is the interpreter of law.”18 He accepts customary law because it has the approval of individuals: “because, by the very fact that they tolerate it, they seem to approve of that which is introduced by custom.”19 This law that is dissolved in custom is not natural law, because Aquinas does not believe we can accept a legal order that has historically emerged if it is against justice; but historical evolution modifies positive law and even opens room for different interpretations.20

Law and Interpretation

In positive law, there is an essential function of interpretation, because there is always a distance between the norm and the cases in point. As Giorgio Agamben explains, “in the case of law, the application of a norm is no way contained within the norm and cannot be derived from it; otherwise, there would have been the need to create the grand edifice of trial law. Just as between language and world, so between the norm and its application there is no external nexus that allows one to be derived immediately from the other.”21

What’s the meaning of this? Using general rules in concrete and specific situations always implies a decision, and (at least hypothetically) an arbitrary power. The difference between the law in the books and the law in action is largely a consequence of this.

In many writings, Chaïm Perelmen remarks that legal logic is:

a very elaborated, individual case of practical reasoning, which is not a formal demonstration, but an argumentation aiming to persuade and convince those whom it addresses that such a choice, decision or attitude is preferable to concurrent choices, decisions and attitudes.

Perelman adds: “what characterizes an argumentation is its non-constraining character.”22 So, legal reasoning “is not presented as a formally valid deduction from non-temporal truths,” because “reasons considered good at one period of time or in one milieu are not in another; they are socially and culturally conditioned as are the convictions and the aspirations of the audience they must convince.”23

In spite of his disputable skepticism, Perelman is right when he points out that positive law is a “practical” activity, because it is a case-solving operation and often emerges from a transaction of different interests. To a large extent, law is not a science: it is a technique oriented to solving specific problems, because lawyers and judges do not search for the truth, but only the legal truth.

Law and Intentionality

If we analyze liability and causality in Rothbard, we have to recall the fundamental principles of the Austrian tradition.

In a recent article, Hans-Hermann Hoppe criticized his mentor and highlighted how it is contradictory to focus attention on the birth of property (with the homesteading of land) and then to exclude it, accepting a strict liability theory whose positivist and behaviorist origins are evident. Hoppe remarks that “homesteading implies intent,” a subjective element; on the contrary, Rothbard’s theory of causation and liability ignores this aspect.24Austrian School scholars emphasize the role of intentionality as a crucial element at the moment of the origin of private property and of its negation (theft, aggression, etc.).

Not all physical invasions imply liability and, to the contrary, some actions are liable even if there is no physical invasion. In economics, Rothbard was perfectly aware of this and was always very critical of economic schools with positivistic leanings. In 1985, in the preface to Theory and History by Mises, he attacks mainstream positivism, remarking that “to become truly scientific like physics and the other natural sciences, then, economics must shun such concepts as purposes, goals and learning: it must abandon man’s mind and write only of mere events.”25 But the main mistake of the American scholar is in analyzing only simple events, avoiding the problem of intentionality and subjective liability, and the consequent need to understand a specific action—made by a particular person, in that one moment and context.

Hoppe is right when he notes a contradiction in Rothbard between this theory of strict liability and the defense of homesteading, which implies another vision of ethics and a different anthropology. When Rothbard condemns as aggression the act of a man claiming and occupying a land previously “homesteaded” by other people, his arguments call for a well-defined idea of morality that it is not consistent with that oversimplified and behaviorist theory of causality and liability.

An Aristotelian-Thomist Libertarianism

For all these reasons, the Thomist distinction between natural law and human law is fundamental, especially if by lex humana we do not conceive of the state law, but our ever-imperfect translation, into norms, of our aspiration to live in a just society. As Paul Sigmund correctly remarked, “human law is the application to specific circumstances of the precepts of reason contained in the natural law.”26 This mediation is always unsatisfying, but at the same time necessary.

Rothbard and Perelman make the symmetrically opposite mistake, because neither admits the autonomy of natural law and positive law. If Perelman reduces natural law to positive law (and reason to reasonableness), Rothbard reduces positive law to natural law (and reasonableness to reason). However, we have to admit the existence of a higher and objective dimension of law (where the rational method of Rothbard is justified) and of a much more prosaic and lower level, which can obtain many advantages from the dialogical and rhetorical approach used by Perelman.

The awareness of the need to mediate between the a priori principles of natural law and a largely inductive knowledge of the legal experience is not always present in Rothbard. But that’s why the intellectual heritage of Leoni can be useful in the attempt to develop a libertarian legal theory aiming to protect the dignity and freedom of the individual.27

If, in Rothbard, there is the risk of ignoring the specificity of legal reasoning, Leoni remarks on the empirical features of the law and adopts a Misesian standpoint in putting into the right perspective human experience and the role it plays in the practical unfolding of our existence.

Leoni perceives the importance of the positive law, also in a libertarian and antistatist perspective. The vision of what is just by nature has to be rooted in a particular time, embodied in specific institutions and recognizable in many different situations. But the Italian thinker was quite aware that this proposal was a return to the old tradition of natural law. In a very interesting passage, he criticizes Kelsen, saying that sociology of law is “the modern heir of the natural law.”28 And he specifies his idea in this way: 

contemporary sociology of law schools can be considered, in a limited sense, and without the derogatory features used by Kelsen, the “modern heirs of natural law,” exactly because they are inclined to re-evaluate in “law” the element of the “persuasions” leading the action of people, instead of the “legal order” conceived as dogmatics did.29


In spite of his positivism, Leoni can help us grasp the true nature of classical natural law, because he does not prospect for a “libertarian code” like the one envisioned by Rothbard, somewhat conceived on the model of the state legal systems. On the contrary, Freedom and the Law can be the starting-point for a more “classical” understanding of libertarian natural law actually rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. If we return to the classics, we can better understand the main problems.

In other words, in Leoni there is a wide scope for juridical research and for historical evolution, because of his belief in a living law in continuous and close interaction with reality. The legal order has some “essential” elements, but it changes through time, and for this reason it requires constant and challenging work to adjust rules and behavior.

Thomist rationalism moves from the awareness of reason’s limits. Sigmund highlights exactly this when he says that “Aquinas’s system of natural law is and must be incomplete. He could not admit the Aristotelian possibility that nature could provide fully for man’s fulfillment.”30 Rothbard himself is not far from this when he points out that a rational approach needs an understanding of the structural imperfection of our minds: “No man is omniscient or infallible—a law, by the way, of man’s nature.”31 But this observation has to have significant consequences.

Reform vs. Freedom

When new libertarians join the libertarian movement, they are inevitably hit with a fork in the road, one that all of us libertarians have confronted after discovering libertarianism. That fork is this: Should I become a libertarian reformer or should I become an advocate of liberty? 

No matter how much the reform crowd might protest, reform is not freedom. That’s because reform leave infringements on liberty intact and simply tries to modify them. 

Freedom, on the other hand, necessarily involves the dismantling of infringements on liberty, not their reform. As each infringement is dismantled, the individual experiences the exhilaration of being a bit more free and ardently desires to dismantle the next one. The process continues until all infringements on liberty have been dismantled, in which case people experience what it’s like to live the lives of free men and women.

If all that we libertarians accomplish is reform of the welfare-warfare state way of life under which we live, at best we will have improved our lives as serfs but we will not have achieved our freedom.

The analogy I like to use is slavery. Suppose we were able to use a time machine to transport today’s reform-oriented libertarians back to Alabama in 1855. They would be calling for reforming slavery by enacting laws banning lashings, requiring shorter work hours, and providing for better food, housing, and healthcare.

Those would be improvements in the plight of the slaves, and they undoubtedly would be appreciative. But it would’t be freedom. Freedom would require the dismantling, not the reform, of the structure of slavery.

The reform-oriented libertarian would respond: “We have to be practical and pragmatic. We are not going to end slavery overnight. People would never accept that. If we call for the end of slavery, people will just tune us out. Newspaper editors won’t publish our perspectives. People won’t vote for us. We will end up with few supporters and be ineffective.”

All that might be true, but the fact remains that reform of slavery would not be freedom. To attract more people to the cause of freedom, it it necessary to continue making the case for freedom, even if it appears that no one is interested.

Moreover, there is no way to know how close we might be to arriving at a critical mass of people who could bring about a paradigm shift toward liberty in America. We might be a lot closer than we think. The only way to enlarge the number of people who want freedom is by making the case for freedom.

Suppose, for example, a libertarian is addressing an audience of 100 people who have never heard of libertarianism. The reform-oriented libertarian would say, “We need to go slow here. We need to stick with reform so that we don’t scare anyone off. Let’s just make the case for school vouchers and health-savings accounts rather than the case for separating school and state and healthcare and state.” 

Let’s assume that 25 people in the audience respond enthusiastically to the talk and become reform proponents. What difference does it make with respect to freedom? None! Because the public-schooling system and the public-healthcare system, which are both severe infringements on liberty, would still be left intact. Achieving freedom requires a separation of school and state and a separation of healthcare and state, the same way our ancestors separated church and state. That necessarily means making the case for ending all governmental involvement in education and healthcare, just as our ancestors did with religion.

Let’s assume that only 2 people in that audience are intrigued by the idea, decide to explore it, and become libertarians.That means we are that much closer to arriving at the critical mass of people needed to bring a societal paradigm shift to freedom.

In fact, imagine if our ancestors had not separated church and state. Today, we would be living in a religious mess that would be comparable to the mess we have in education and healthcare. And there would be libertarian reformers advocating reform of the public-church system. But those reforms would not be freedom. Freedom would entail ending all governmental involvement in religion.

Obviously, making the case for liberty is much more difficult than making the case for reform. Reform makes a person feel okay because his basic paradigm is not being shaken. Making the case for liberty makes a person think at a higher, more profound level, one that entails a dismantling of what he is accustomed to.

But there is no other way. To achieve freedom, we need to attract more people to our cause who understand freedom and who want it. To accomplish that entails exposing people to the case for freedom. If all that we do is make the case for reform, all we will do is attract reformers to our cause. That might make our serfdom more palatable. But it’s not freedom.

Jacob G. Hornberger, FFF

Libertarianism Defined

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that holds that a person should be free to do whatever he wants in life, as long as his conduct is peaceful. Thus, as long a person doesn’t murder, rape, burglarize, defraud, trespass, steal, or inflict any other act of violence against another person’s life, liberty, or property, libertarians hold that the government should leave him alone. In fact, libertarians believe that a primary purpose of government is to prosecute and punish anti-social individuals who initiate force against others.

What are some policy ramifications of what has become known as the libertarian “non-aggression principle”?

People should be free to engage in any economic enterprise without permission or interference from the state. Thus libertarians oppose all occupational licensure laws and all economic regulations of business activity. Libertarians also believe that people have the right to keep whatever they earn and decide for themselves what to do with their own money–spend it, invest it, save it, hoard it, or donate it.

This then means, necessarily, that libertarians are ardent advocates of the free market, which is simply a process by which people are interacting peacefully with each other for mutual gain.

What are some specific applications of libertarian principles to real-world problems?

Education: libertarians call for the complete separation of school and state, which means the repeal of school compulsory-attendance laws and school taxes–that is, the complete end of all governmental involvement in education. This would mean a completely free market in education, in which consumers decide the best educational vehicles for their children and entrepreneurs (both for-profit and charitable) are meeting the demands of the consumers.

Social Security: an immediate repeal of Social Security, which is simply a coercive transfer program in which older people are able to steal from young people. Again, people have a right to their own earnings. If a person fails to provide for his retirement, he must rely on the charity and good will of his family, his friends, his church groups, or people in his community. Libertarians believe that it is morally wrong for a person to use the state to take what doesn’t belong to him.

Welfare: immediate repeal of all welfare primarily on moral grounds but also on the terribly destructive aspects of government welfare programs. People have a right to their own earnings and no one has the right to take someone else’s money against his will. Moreover, no one is made a better person because the state is taking money from one person in order to give it to another person. Finally, government welfare creates a sense of hopeless dependency on the welfare recipient.

Drug laws: the decades-long war on drugs is immoral and has proven to be highly destructive. People have a right to engage in peaceful, self-destructive behavior as long as their conduct is peaceful. Drug addiction should be treated as a social, medical, psychological problem, not a criminal one. Legalizing drugs would immediately put an end to drug lords and drug gangs and the violence associated with the drug war–that is, the burglaries, robberies, thefts, etc. associated with the exorbitant black-market prices that drug users must pay to finance their habits.

The IRS and income tax: repeal them and leave people free to keep the fruits of their earnings and decide for themselves how to dispose of their wealth.

Gun Control: People have a right to resist the tyranny of their own government and to protect themselves from the violent acts of private criminals.

Environment: Governments are the great destroyers of the environment. In fact, most environmental problems can be traced to public, not private, ownership of resources. The solution is to privatize public property to the maximum extent possible.

Health Care: the crisis in health care, especially with respect to ever-rising prices, is due to heavy government involvement in health care–Medicare, Medicaid, and licensure laws. These laws and programs should be repealed in favor of a totally free market in health care.

Immigration: Libertarians oppose any controls on the free movements of goods and people, both domestically and internationally. People have the right to move and to improve their lives.

Foreign Policy: Libertarians oppose involvement in foreign wars as well as all foreign aid. The U.S. government should be limited to protecting the nation from invasion but should stay out of the affairs of other nations.

Civil Liberties: Libertarians are firm advocates of the First Amendment and the procedural aspects of due process of law, such as the rights to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures, and in criminal cases the right to an attorney, notice and hearing, and trial by jury.

With the tragic exception of slavery and several minor exceptions, the philosophy on which the United States was founded was, by and large, founded on libertarianism, especially with the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the limitation on powers in the Constitution.

In 1890 America, for example, the following government programs were virtually nonexistent: income taxation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, economic regulation, occupational licensure, a Federal Reserve System, conscription, immigration controls, and gun control.

In the 20th century, the American people abandoned libertarianism in favor of the socialistic welfare state and the controlled or regulated society.

Thus, the intellectual and moral battle for the third century of our nation’s existence is between those who favor liberty — libertarians — versus those who favor state control of peaceful activity — “statists.”

This post was written by:

The Future of Freedom Foundation was founded in 1989 by FFF president Jacob Hornberger with the aim of establishing an educational foundation that would advance an uncompromising case for libertarianism in the context of both foreign and domestic policy. The mission of The Future of Freedom Foundation is to advance freedom by providing an uncompromising moral and economic case for individual liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government.

A Higher Principle for Libertarianism

Libertarians tend to have two special character traits. 
First, we’re a bit contrarian. We stand alone, if we must. 
Second, we’re logically consistent. We cannot stand hypocrisy. 
In our quest for intellectual consistency, we seek principles. In human action, we seek moral consistency. In other words, we seek to live by those principles. 
Our principles guide us. They help us sort out tough situations before all the data arrives. Here are some of the more common principles libertarians live by… 

The Self-Ownership Principle: Each person owns themselves. If someone else owns you, you’re a slave. 

Zero Aggression Principle: It is always wrong to initiate force to achieve a social or political goal. 

Law of Equal Liberty: Each person is free to do what he or she wills, so long as they don’t infringe on the equal freedom of another.

Natural Law: The Creator endows each person with rights, at birth, so we must all respect those rights in others (see: The Declaration of Independence)  

Maybe your preferred principle is not listed here. But chances are, that principle, as well as the ones listed above, are… 
Personally chosen statements of behavior. 
In other words, these principles represent your values. You selected them as an expression of your ethics. Since you chose them, you also enforce them. But we all slip sometimes. Hopefully, you’re forgiving of yourself in those moments where you don’t live up to values.  
Likewise, when others around you do not embrace and abide by them, those principles are non-binding.
But there is a “higher principle” for society. It’s higher because it can be repeatedly observed in nature. It’s the Principle of Human Respect… 
Human happiness, harmony, and prosperity diminish when a person experiences violence, theft, or fraud.
This principle, unlike the others, has an “If X, then Y” relationship.
In other words, when violence is used to achieve a personal, social, or political goal, the socially desirable benefits of human happiness, social peace, and/or wealth decline. You can test that proposition. 
Let’s be clear, each of the principles listed above is wonderful. But the Principle of Human Respect identifies a “cause and effect” relationship that is as consistent and observable as gravity. 
Nearly all political philosophies resort to coercive force to achieve their Utopias. Libertarians uniquely recognize that it’s wrong, on both an individual and a political level, to use threats backed by violence to pursue your (conservative or progressive) goals. Only the Principle of Human Respect explains why we’d be happier and more at peace if everyone lived by any of the libertarian “principles.” 
Jim Babka is the Editor-at-Large for Advocates for Self-Government and the co-creator of the Zero Aggression Project