Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

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12 Key Concepts of Liberty

12 Key Concepts of Liberty

The following is a list of 12 key concepts of liberty which have been developed over several hundred years by many authors in the classical liberal, free market and conservative traditions. There is probably no single thinker who who would agree with every aspect of these key concepts. Rather, they are an amalgam taken from the various streams of thinking about individual liberty which have emerged in Western Europe and North America since the early modern period. It is designed to summarize visually a complex way of thinking about humans and the kind of societies they have created. Links will take you to more detailed reading lists where you can explore these ideas further.

Visit this page for a broad sample of classic books about liberty.

1. natural law and natural rights
  • the world is governed by natural laws which are discoverable by human reason
  • Tom Paine's "imprescriptible rights": the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness
  • rights are not created by government but exist anterior to it
2. individual liberty
  • an individual, private sphere which is protected from outside interference
  • the dignity of the individual, individual autonomy, sanctity of life
  • right of voluntary association among individuals
  • civil society
3. private property
  • the right of self-propriety or self-ownership
  • the right to exchange property titles with others
  • private contracts
4. free markets and free trade
  • complete freedom of movement of people and goods (laissez-faire, laissez-passer)
  • domestic free markets
  • international free trade
  • low taxes
5. limited government
  • governmental power limited by means of a constitution and/or bill of rights
  • elections to periodically remove bad governments
  • checks and balances between the branches of government
  • federalism and decentralization of power
6. rule of law
  • rule of laws not of men
  • law applies equally to all (including agents of the state)
  • independent courts
  • trial by jury
  • right to habeas corpus
7. freedom of speech
  • freedom of the press
  • the right of assembly and right to engage in peaceful protest
8. religious freedom
  • no state-enforced religion
  • right to practice the religion of one's choice
  • toleration of all unorthodox thought and (non injurious) behaviour

9. progress

  • through hard work and initiative both individuals and society can be improved indefinitely
  • wealth creation is a product of the free market and trade
10. peace and harmony
  • non-interference in the affairs of other nations
  • international arbitration to solve disputes
  • free trade beween all nations
11. freedom of movement
  • right to emmigrate/immigrate
  • right to resist tyranny and to remove an unjust government
  • the right of "exit"
12. idea of spontaneous order
  • institutions emerge spontaneously and evolve over time
  • by pursuing their own selfish interests in a voluntary manner they are led as if by an "invisible hand" (Adam Smith) to promote the welfare of others

Last modified April 13, 2016