The concept of libertarianism truly explains itself in the name: liberty. But that does not encompass the entire spectrum of views that fall under the libertarian umbrella. Much like the title liberal, which referred to everything from anarchism to communism when the competing conservative force was monarchism, it holds several brands below it. Anarchists, minarchists, and classical liberals all call the libertarian party home. One might think that such similar beliefs would form a cohesive movement through which a competing major party would be formed, but the exact opposite has been the truth. In recent years, there have been many divides in the party following the repeated nominations of Gary Johnson, who relies more on a platform that involves the state, to the presidential election. Anarchists clearly do not like his state-centered platform, while classical liberals and minarchists often scoff and criticize his beliefs on discrimination and the free market. That just goes to show how divided the libertarian umbrella truly is, with few centripetal forces keeping the movement together other than the concept of absolute or near absolute liberty and freedom in society.
There are many questions that surround what being a libertarian means. What are the views of libertarians on the size and scope of government? How did anarchists and minarchists come to be associated with the same movement? Why has the libertarian movement not caught on in the mainstream? Why are there not very many registered or self-identifying libertarians? Each of these questions will be answered in due time.
Size and Scope of Government
Fortunately for the Libertarian Party this past election, in which it garnered nearly three million votes, the views of the party on the size of government are very similar to the vast majority of moderates on both the right and left, moreso with moderate Republicans than Democrats. The size and scope of government has been debated over several years, and has led to many shifts in policies as the federal government falls under the control of either left leaning or right leaning parties.
For example, upon founding of the United States, there were very few departments authorized by the Constitution and by the courts, which were followed as though God himself had commanded it on Mount Zion. The Departments of Commerce, War, State, among very few others were included and kept under very stringent and strict guidelines and reviews. This kept government small, and left more powers to states and the local municipalities and counties. This hesitation to expand into a larger scope of government was due to the recently broken authority of the British Crown, which had controlled most aspects of American life prior to the American Revolution in 1776. The initial government created in 1783 under the Articles of Confederation was doomed the moment it was signed as it created nearly no powers that could be exercised by the federal government to defend the nations from foreign threats, or to otherwise provide for the common defense.
As time has gone on, however, the demand for the expansion of government had grown beyond the point of being ignored any longer. Especially during the Progressive Era, which ranged from the late 19th Century to the 1920s, the demand for the expansion of government had grown substantially as more individuals became activists while fighting for certain causes. One such cause was implemented in 1920, the Prohibition of Alcohol as introduced by the 18th Amendment, and led to a substantial increase in the involvement of government in the day to day lives of Americans. With several thousand Speak-Easies being created and an equal amount of smuggling rings springing up at about the same time, there had to be some function of government to serve for the enforcement of Constitutional legislation. This is just one example of how government was seen to be expanding at a necessary rate, which was pushed along by socialists and other left leaning groups. Such groups saw government as a positive good in society, which should serve as a mechanism by which all individuals should be cared for at the expense of those in an upper class than the ones struggling. Such a belief was highly contradicted in later economic theories, primarily of top economist Milton Friedman who was a top advocate for Libertarian free market and laissez-faire economic policies.
Libertarians believe in limited government, which is most commonly viewed as needing to serve only three functions: domestic defense, defense from foreign threats, and serving domestic judicial functions. This is quite literally the definition of minarchism. There is much disagreement, however, as to whether libertarians should adopt a less radical platform. Such a platform would manifest itself as a more constitutionalist approach, which is becoming more in line with filling constitutional constraints on government rather than being smaller than the constitutional restrictions.