What Is Libertarianism?

Adam Smith Center

Adam Smith Center

Members of Adam Smith Center Singapore.

Libertarianism (also called classical liberalism) is a political philosophy that emphasises the core principles of individualism, free market capitalism and limited government.

Libertarians believe that people in society should be free to live his life as he pleases so long as he does not injure the person and property of others. Voluntarism is the “gold standard” of human relationships.

Therefore, “if there is no good reason to forbid something (a good reason being that it violates the rights of others), it should be allowed. Force should be reserved for prohibiting or punishing those who themselves use force, such as murderers, robbers, rapists, kidnappers, and defrauders (who practice a kind of theft).” – Libertarianism.org

As such, libertarians in that idea that “the government that governs best, governs least”, and eventually, not at all. When government is limited, most functions in the economy and society are left to private individuals cooperating in the private sector and civil society. A limited government’s role would be mainly to provide basic law and order & public goods, protect property rights and enforce contracts.

This has some practical implications:

  • The economy should be left as free as possible from government intervention, which include taxes, regulations, subsidies, minimum wage laws and social spending. Such a laissez-faire economy is bound to generate the greatest possible living standards for the greatest number.
  • Libertarianism also translates into choice in the personal realm: government will not stop individuals from engaging in vices and adopting alternative lifestyles should they do so peacefully. The libertarian is motivated to tolerate all kinds of diversity in society, be they racial, religious, sexual orientation, gender etc.
  • A free society also has a high degree of civil liberties protected by law. Individuals will enjoy robust freedom of speech, worship & assembly. Political competition between competing parties will not be hampered and the media will not be censored.


Libertarians believe in the above system for three main reasons:

1) Justice. Libertarians believe that to achieve justice, individual rights cannot be violated. If government exceeds its core functions, it will end up using force on peaceful individuals, thereby violating the natural rights they are born with.

2) The fear of concentrated power. History has shown that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – Lord Acton. Since power has a tendency to be abused, the powers of government should be as limited as possible.

3) The inefficiency of government institutions. Contrary to popular opinion centred around notions of ‘market failure’, libertarians believe that ‘government failure’, which is almost always more pronounced, should also be taken into account. Government action into the economy and society is adversely affected by problems of, bureaucracy, imperfect knowledge and perverse incentives.

There are ten core principles that define libertarianism/classical liberalism:


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Adam Smith Center

Adam Smith Center

Members of Adam Smith Center Singapore.