Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 January 2010
In this essay, I identify the reasons that libertarian principles have failed to capture the popular imagination as an acceptable form of civil society. By the term “libertarian” I mean a belief in and commitment to a set of methods and policies that have as their common aim greater freedom under law for individuals. The term “freedom” in this context means not only a commitment to civil liberties, such as freedom of expression, but also to economic liberties, including a commitment to a laissez-faire policy of free enterprise and free trade between countries. Libertarians, therefore, are committed to the absolute minimum state intervention in the economy as well as in people's private lives. In a world constrained by these libertarian principles, people should be permitted to do as they please, constrained only by rules that prevent them from encroaching on the liberty of others.
The goal of this essay is to explain why libertarian ideas do not exert a greater hold on the popular imagination. Early libertarian (or “classical liberal”) thought was identified not only with a set of ideas and theoretical concepts, but also with particular political parties and specific social programs. Today, while political parties that bear the name “liberal” (which, in this context, is typically used to connote left-wing political theory) are still to be found, “in contemporary usage the term ‘liberalism’ refers to a system of thought and practice that is less specific than a philosophical doctrine and more inclusive than party principle.”