The Good and Honorable Word 'Libertarian'

What's in a name? Apparently a lot, as one of the favorite dead horses beat by libertarians is what to call the freedom philosophy.

Those who share the philosophy of liberty mainly call themselves libertarians, but some favor another term such as classical liberal, Jeffersonian democrat, the Old Right or some such.

So where did the name come from? Kevin Carlin in a December 1995 message to Libernet gave this summary:

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first known usage in 1789 as Belsham's Essays, in which he appears to coin the term in opposition to necessitarian, which appears to have been a minor and now certainly long deceased school of thought.

Our definition, "one who advocates liberty," does not appear until 1878, probably long after the original use had faded, and appears to have really caught on in the first decade of the twentieth century.

The modern libertarian philosophy coalesced in the 1940s and 1950s from a rejuvenated intellectual defense of the free market. The libertarian movement of this time is perhaps best represented by the Foundation for Economic Education, still active today.

In the May 1955 issue of Ideas on Liberty, FEE senior staff member Dean Russell wrote, "Who is a Libertarian?," advocating the use of the word libertarian:

Who is a Libertarian?

by Dean Russell

Those of us who favor individual freedom with personal responsibility have been unable to agree upon a generally acceptable name for ourselves and our philosophy of liberty. This would be relatively unimportant except for the fact that the opposition will call us by some name, even though we might not desire to be identified by any name at all. Since this is so, we might better select a name with some logic instead of permitting the opposition to saddle us with an epithet.

Some of us call ourselves "individualists," but others point out that the opposition often uses that word to describe a heartless person who doesn't care about the problems and aspirations of other people.

Some of us call ourselves "conservatives," but that term describes many persons who base their approval of an institution more on its age than on its inherent worth.

Many of us call ourselves "liberals," And it is true that the word "liberal" once described persons who respected the individual and feared the use of mass compulsions. But the leftists have now corrupted that once-proud term to identify themselves and their program of more government ownership of property and more controls over persons. As a result, those of use who believe in freedom must explain that when we call ourselves liberals, we mean liberals in the uncorrupted classical sense. At best, this is awkard, subject to misunderstanding.

Here is a suggestion: Let those of us who love liberty trademark and reserve for our own use the good and honorable word "libertarian."

Webster's New International Dictionary defines a libertarian as "One who holds to the doctrine of free will; also, one who upholds the principles of liberty, esp. individual liberty of thought and action."

In popular terminology, a libertarian is the opposite of an authoritarian. Strictly speaking, a libertarian is one who rejects the idea of using violence or the threat of violence -- legal or illegal -- to impose his will or viewpoint upon any peaceful person. Generally speaking, a libertarian is one who wants to be governed far less than he is today.


The word 'libertarian' enjoyed a renaissance in 1950s science fiction as well, appearing in Robert Heinlein's 1953 Revolt in 2100 and Poul Anderson's Shield. Anderson even had a fictional Libertarian Party represented in his novel and three short stories.

By the creation of the Libertarian Party in 1971, the word had come to represent a particular political belief system.