Extent of Individual Liberty

Individualists vary in their views on the role of the State and the extent of individual liberty that they feel is appropriate

There is a range of opinions on how far the principle of individual freedom can be implemented:

●  The foundation stones of individualism are individual liberty, limits on the power of government, and property rights – as articulated by John Locke.  His writing strongly influenced the American political system, as described in the next sub-section (

●  A more extreme, libertarian, position is that tax is morally wrong because it is an exercise of government power over the individual – as  argued by Milton Friedman for example.  He was a powerful advocate of neoliberalism ( and strongly influenced Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.  In the interview entitled Living Within Our Means, cited earlier in this book (, he summarised the libertarian view on tax as an infringement of personal liberty:

“If I want to do good with other people’s money I’d first have to take it away from them.  That means that the welfare state philosophy of doing good with other people’s money, at its very bottom, is a philosophy of violence and coercion.  It’s against freedom, because I have to use force to get the money.  In the second place, very few people spend other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.”

●  The most extreme expression of libertarianism is the complete elimination of the State’s political authority, as advocated by Murray Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty for example:

“All of the services commonly thought to require the State – from the coining of money to police protection to the development of law in defense of the rights of person and property – can be and have been supplied far more efficiently and certainly more morally by private persons.  The State is in no sense required by the nature of man; quite the contrary.” (Part III, Section 24)

Rothbard provided a self-consistent logical defence for the maximum extent of individual liberty that is consistent with maintaining order.  He did not argue for complete anarchy, which is a term used in this book to describe an absence of any agreed rules or governance structures.

●  Some activist anarchists have charted a path of destruction in an attempt to bring down the State.  In doing so, they have attempted to impose their own will upon others – which is ironic, given that they reject all forms of authority.

●  Robert Nozick, in chapter 5 of his book Anarchy, State and Utopia, argued for what is perhaps the most widely accepted form of libertarianism: the “minimal state”, which is solely a “protection agency” to protect persons and property.  In the introduction to chapter 7, he writes:

“The minimal state is the most extensive state that can be justified.  Any state more extensive violates people’s rights.”

These writers all want to limit the power of the State, but they vary in what they consider to be the maximum achievable extent of individual liberty.  All, except the anarchists, also emphasise the need to defend property rights.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6221a.htm.