Libertarianism is a collection of political philosophies possessing the common themes of individual liberty. Libertarianism's ideals, although often varied in detail, typically center on policies in favor of extensive personal liberties, rejecting socialism and communism in favor of individual ownership and control, emphasizing equality before the law rather than equality of outcome, promoting personal responsibility and private charity and opposing welfare statism, and advocating either limiting or entirely eliminating the power and scope of the state in order to maximize individual liberty.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of libertarians: rights theorists and consequentialists. Rights theorists, which include noted deontologists, assert that all persons are the absolute owners of their lives, and should be free to do whatever they wish with their own bodies or property, provided they do not infringe on the rights of another to engage in that same freedom. They maintain that the initiation of force, defined by physical violence against another or non-physical acts such as fraud or threat, is a violation of that central principle; however, they hold that protective violence, such as self defense, does not constitute an initiation of force, since they hold that such actions necessarily reflect an individual's reaction to a danger initially started by another individual. Many philosophers proclaiming this theory, such as Ayn Rand in her collection The Virtue of Selfishness, recognize the necessity of a limited role of government to protect individuals from any violation of their rights, and to prosecute those who initiate force against others. Some other rights theorists claim to oppose the existence of government altogether, perceiving taxation, among some other usual basic government actions, to be initiation of force (these include anarcho-capitalists).
Consequentialist libertarians, on the other hand, do not speak against "initiation of force," but instead highlight the notion of a society that allows individuals to enjoy political and economic liberty. They believe these cornerstones set the foundation for human happiness and prosperity. Therefore, instead of adhering to the Right Theorist viewpoint, Consequentialists rather focus primarily on the belief that limited government is conducive to good consequences rather than examining whether any particular governmental action they advocate involves initiation of force. This particular branch is associated with Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and James M. Buchanan.
Libertarians may differ over particular issues, such as abortion and the United States' ongoing presence in Iraq. The fact that libertarians are often diametrically opposed on so many issues lead to frequent condemnation of the philosophy by many, including those who hold similar thoughts.
In the United States, libertarianism is claimed to be the philosophy advocated by Thomas Jefferson and several of the Founding Fathers. Libertarianism is often being bundled with American conservatism, due to many conservatives wishing to retain the ideas of the Founders of the United States; however, many conservatives are uncomfortable with libertarianism. However, a few conservative Republicans, such as United States congressman Ron Paul, maintain viewpoints sympathetic to libertarian philosophy, as did Ronald Reagan who said he believed that "the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism." The term "libertarian" is used to describe adherents to libertarian principles, and not necessarily to members of Libertarian political parties, who are distinguished with a capital "L" – not all libertarians agree with the platform of any given Libertarian party. Libertarians who support limited government use the term "classical liberalism" almost interchangeably with the term "libertarianism."
Polls indicate that 10 to 20 percent of voting-age Americans have libertarian views, with "libertarian" being understood as agreeing with conservatives on economic issues and with liberals on personal freedom.
Many libertarians view life, liberty, and property as the ultimate rights possessed by individuals, and that compromising one necessarily endangers the rest. In democracies, they consider compromise of these individual rights by political action to be tyranny of the majority, a term first coined by Alexis de Tocqueville, and made famous by John Stuart Mill, which emphasizes the threat of the majority to impose majority norms on minorities, and violating their rights in the process. "…There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them…"
But most libertarians would argue that democracy that has become controlled by a minority who benefits (not a racial minority, but a real minority, or a minority in numbers) offers a 'tyranny of the minority' against the real numerical majority. Libertarians are egalitarians and believe all people are created equal. People are seen by libertarians as individuals and not representatives of a race or racial 'minority'. After all what race is a minority depends on where you are, and where you draw the boundaries of where you are.
Having weak state executive control means libertarian societies are more dependent on the courts for conflict resolution. An impartial judiciary can thus be of paramount importance, for without it wealthy and collective interests might run roughshod over the private citizen.
Libertarians strongly oppose government infringement of civil liberties such as restrictions on free expression (e.g., speech, press, or religious belief or practice), prohibitions on voluntary association, or encroachments on persons or property. Some make an exception when the infringement is a result of due process to establish or punish criminal behaviour. As such, libertarians oppose any type of censorship (i.e., claims of offensive speech), or pre-trial forfeiture of property (as is commonly seen in drug crime and computer crime proceedings). Furthermore, most libertarians reject the distinction between political and commercial speech or association, a legal distinction often used to protect one type of activity and not the other from government intervention.
Libertarians also oppose any laws restricting personal or consensual behaviour, as well as laws against victimless crimes. As such, they believe that individual choices for products or services should not be limited by government licensing requirements or state-granted monopolies, or in the form of trade barriers that restrict choices for products and services from other nations (see Free trade). They also tend to oppose legal prohibitions on recreational drug use, gambling, and prostitution. They believe that citizens should be free to take risks, even to the point of actual harm to themselves. For example, while most libertarians may personally agree with the majority who favour the use of seatbelts, libertarians reject mandating their use as paternalistic. Similarly, many believe that the United States Food and Drug Administration (and other similar bodies in other countries like Health Canada in Canada) shouldn't ban unproven medical treatments, that any decisions on treatment be left to patient and doctor only, and that government should be limited to passing non-binding judgments about efficacy or safety, if it is allowed to do anything at all.
Some libertarians believe such freedoms are a universal birthright, and they accept any material inequalities or wanton behaviour, as long as it harms no one else, likely to result from such a policy of governmental non-intervention. They see economic inequality as an outcome of people's freedom to choose their own actions, which may or may not be profitable. However, many libertarians believe that extreme concentration of wealth in a few hands is a result of state intervention, and that liberty ultimately leads to a more diffuse distribution though not necessarily an equal one. A prime cause of extreme wealth disparity stems from government granting special privileges to some businesses at the expense of consumers and other businesses. Many libertarians, including Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard, consider that the most fundamental government grant of special privilege involves the legitimization and protection of fractional reserve banking through the Federal Reserve and the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. They therefore call for the abolition of the Federal Reserve System.