Libertarianism is the political philosophy that champions individual freedom. But does it really love freedom as much as it claims?

Governments interfere with our lives all the time. They punish us when we say things that they (or others) consider offensive. They make us save money we can only access if we reach a certain age. They engage police that can stop us in the street. They require us to inoculate against disease – even if it is against our wishes. And they demand we give away some of our salaries and assets (in the form of taxes), to be spent on things that may neither benefit nor be agreeable to us.

These are all fairly standard government interferences, even before we consider the more extreme restrictions that we have seen imposed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most political philosophies permit state interference, with some permitting quite a lot. Social contract theories, from Hobbes in the 17th century to Rawls in the 20th century, contend that citizens have consented either implicitly or explicitly, to give up certain freedoms, in exchange for protection of their remaining freedoms. However, not all political philosophies are as sanguine.

Libertarianism, which champions individual freedom, argues government interference is not only a pesky annoyance, but a violation of our fundamental rights. Libertarians contend that government interference is unjust even if intervention benefits the person being interfered with. Extreme libertarians would even support the right of a person to sell themselves into slavery – and would object to any government that seeks to prevent this.

Libertarianism has its roots in the works of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century liberal philosophers: John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith. However, modern libertarians find much of their inspiration from Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). Nozick argues that individuals have strong self-ownership and property rights, rights that cannot be violated. Freedom, the core tenet of libertarianism, is the fundamental good to be affirmed and protected. On this view, we are all free (and equal) individuals, with the uninhibited right to make individual decisions with regard to our lives, our liberty, and the ownership of our property.

Libertarians, however are not anarchists. They do believe in the existence of the state. A libertarian state is one that performs the strictly limited roles of protecting citizens’ self-ownership and property rights and rectifying past transgressions of those rights.

Government’s role is to protect people’s freedom to choose happiness of a kind that is defined by each individual, not as dictated by others. If an individual wants to follow a particular god, that is their choice. If a person wants to buy a particular good or service on the free market, so let them. If a woman wants to marry multiple husbands, that is up to her.

For most right-libertarians, original property ownership (that is staking an ownership on unowned natural resources) is allowable, subject to the somewhat ambiguous Lockean proviso, that “enough and is good” is left for others. Nozick also asserted that when staking an ownership claim, no-one else should be made worse-off than they would otherwise be, which allows for significant variation in original property ownership. Left-libertarians, distinguished from right-libertarians by the very feature of original property ownership, claim everyone has a pro rata right to natural resources such as land, air and minerals.

Libertarianism’s absolute focus on individual freedom is attractive and makes for a consistent and simple political philosophy. It also has broad appeal, attracting strange ideological bedfellows.

Social progressives find attractive the social freedom associated with libertarianism. Governments have no right to punish an individual for taking recreational drugs; it is impermissible for the state to ban marriage between same sex couples; wrong for a country to wage a foreign war or conscript people into the army; and forbidden for government to ban, say, assisted dying.

Economic conservatives are attracted to the libertarian stance that it is wrong for government to take away assets in the form of an inheritance tax; impermissible for the state to impose an income tax for the purpose of redistribution. Indeed, the argument that government has no right to interfere in transactions between consenting adults, underpins the fundamental argument for many free market economists. Those on both the left and right are attracted to the argument that governments have no right to censor free speech.

However, if you think that libertarianism maximises freedom, then you would be wrong. One criticism of libertarianism is that it allows for scenarios which substantially limit freedom. Libertarianism prohibits anything but the very minimum level of taxation. This stance permits gross inequalities across wealth and income, and prohibits the levying of taxes required to fund the provision of state-run services.

As long as people are not interfered with, libertarianism finds it fair for children to be born into a subsistent existence, without access to education or basic healthcare. While these children may be able to do whatever they want without interference, their options and possibilities are severely limited. It is difficult to argue that these children are free in any meaningful sense.

Libertarianism also struggles to deal with negative externalities – the negative effects that individuals’ actions have on unrelated third parties. Companies (and individuals) tend to ignore costs which are imposed on other people. When this occurs, the net total cost to society of the pursuit of individual production and consumption choices, are typically negative.

Emblematic of this problem is climate change. I might enjoy all the benefits of taking a holiday to London, but I impose certain costs associated with green-house emissions that contribute to global warming, on other Australians. Adani’s shareholders and executives may enjoy the higher dividends and salaries from its pursuit of coal mining, but ignore the pollution costs they impose on future generations.

In such cases, libertarians, with their strong insistence of individual freedom, have very little constructive criticism to contribute to considerations regarding potential government intervention mechanisms. A further example concerns COVID-19 vaccination. Should citizens be free to choose whether they are vaccinated, despite the costs a failure to vaccinate imposes on other people? The libertarian position is that forcing someone to be vaccinated is unjust.

Perhaps the most incisive criticism of libertarianism though, is that paradoxically, libertarianism interferes too much.

Property acquisition typically involves a whole suite of historical injustices and the rectification of past injustice is likely to require a great deal of interference. If you are a card-carrying Silicon Valley billionaire libertarian, then you are aware (or at least you should be) that your worldly possessions are contingent upon the injustice of Europeans taking somebody else’s (native Americans’) private property.

Libertarian fairness, requires appropriate rectification. And arguing past injustices do not require rectification is arguing for something quite different to libertarian rules of justice. Most likely, that’s just arguing for self-interest.

Libertarianism has many attractive features and is likely to remain the political philosophy of choice for those who claim to love freedom. However, libertarian freedom is conditional. A world where libertarian rules of justice reign, may in fact result in a world that is not very free at all.