Originally, the term libertarian was a theological term. A libertarian was someone who believed the theological doctrine of free will as opposed to any system of predestination (i.e. Reformed theology or Calvinism). Philosophical libertarianism implies the application of the doctrine of free will to all aspects of thought and life from epistemology to ethics. Similarly, the political libertarian holds free will or liberty to be the highest value in politics and economics (or political economy).
Someone can believe this and not belong to the Libertarian party, and that is what is often meant when someone is said to be a philosophical libertarian, but the Libertarian party is unique in that, while other political parties advocate one kind of liberty and oppose some other kind, libertarians in general and the Libertarian party in particular consistently champion freedom for all people in every kind of endeavor.
Liberty is seen not only as the highest value but also as indivisible: even though we often think in terms of political liberty as if it were separate from economic liberty, the two are actually inseparable; they are really two aspects of one thing: freedom. You canâ€™t have one without the other. Any society that gives up one sort of liberty will soon see every other sort of liberty reduced and eventually eliminated.
While libertarianism emphasizes the rights of each individual, it also agrees that people are social creatures; we need other people to get the things we cannot get for ourselves or which would be impractical or too time-consuming to obtain. There is nothing wrong with cooperating with others ”so long as that cooperation is voluntary and not coerced. One of the important rights we have is that of choosing the people with whom we wish to associate. While people have little choice about who their parents and siblings are, they can choose many other affiliations. Even as a child, one can begin to learn how to choose among friends and organized activities. After people are mature enough to enter into consensual contracts with others, libertarians believe that they ought to be able to choose where they will live, how they will earn a living, whom they work for, whom they will marry or not marry, which political party they will join or whether they will refrain from joining any.
If the right to make such choices seems obvious to you, perhaps you are a libertarian; however, there are many philosophies that hold that the individual owes allegiance to a group and must submit to the choices made by others even in matters regarding the most intimate details of one's life. Libertarians believe that once an individual agrees to abide by rules regardless of whether of a government, employer, social organization, or contract with another individual those rules should be obeyed. However, this is not meant to be a one-way street. Other individuals and groups must respect the liberty of the individual and the limits of their authority over him or her. Ideally, the individual is a willing participant in his or her society and not a slave to any person or group.
As someone has put it elsewhere, [P]eople should be able to do what they want when they want, under the condition that they do not harm anybody else in doing so. This brings us to the important issue of responsibility. To say that anyone should be able to do anything would not be libertarianism but libertinism. An old adage has it that my right to extend my arm stops where your nose begins. Similarly, I have every right to make bad choices in my life, but I have no right to make you pay for them.
Key to the libertarian view is its understanding of government power. Governments are made up of human beings who, if they are not prevented from doing so, will accumulate as much power as they can, promise to use it for the common good, but in the long run will inevitably use power to dismantle the liberties of the governed.
The Constitution of the United States is often regarded as a libertarian document because its original intent was to set up rules to govern the federal government, explicitly spelling out the powers and functions of government and, especially in the Bill of Rights, telling the government what it can and cannot do. The Framers of the Constitution realized that the government is only good at doing things that need to be handled by a single entity. While some would argue that nothing, in the final analysis, must be handled by only one entity, the Constitution establishes three branches of government each with limited powers. It recognized the government's prerogative to operate courts, legislatures, and administrative functions including, for example, national defense, but it did not recognize any government power or obligation to manage the economic relations of the people, dictate their religious practices, or protect them from controversial reading materials.
If only governments and politicians observed more closely the limitations set out in the Constitution, there would be little need for a libertarian political movement. Unfortunately, governments have a habit of usurping powers not allowed to them. Even more unfortunately, the established parties in the United States (as well as elsewhere in the world) rarely relinquish power once it has been usurped, even when another political party usurped it. At best they might pay lip service to the Constitution or liberty, but, in practice, they seek control of government precisely in order to set up new powers to exercise over the governed. And when one party is out of power, the powers they have collected to promote their programs are employed by the opposition party to promote their own.
We have come to expect politicians to seek power and to promise to use it to bring people some boon that more often than not fails to fulfill its purpose, causes more problems than it solves, and costs the governed too much not only in money but in lost opportunities. Opportunities to make wiser and better choices with their time and money than any politician could ever make for them. Libertarians believe that government should best serve the governed by respecting their ability to govern their own affairs. So it is surprising to most voters when any candidate says what John Hospers said when he ran for president in 1972. Asked the old question, If elected, what will you do for me, Hospers replied I'll leave you alone. Hospers' reply was neither cavalier nor cold; it kept to the libertarian message, which is respect for your autonomy, your right to make decisions, to make your own choices and associations, to live your life as you see fit so long as you grant others identical respect to lead their lives as they see fit.