A Timeline of Libertarian Thought

From John Locke to Jesse Ventura, a stroll down Libertarian lane

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1690: The state “cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent,” writes John Locke. His The Second Treatise of Civil Government will inform the Declaration of Independence and the eminent-domain schemes of generations of shopping-mall developers.

1792: German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, in The Sphere and Duties of Government, argues that providing security is the only proper role of the state. Citizens must be granted freedom to live as they choose, he writes, because “the absolute and essential importance of human development [is] in its richest diversity.”

1819: “Every time collective power wishes to meddle with private speculations, it harasses the speculators,” complains Swiss-born thinker Benjamin Constant in France. “Every time governments pretend to do our business, they do it more incompetently and expensively than we would.”

148 years before the founding of Blackwater, Gustave de Molinari reasons, in his economics treatise Les Soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare, that if trade can supply cheap consumer goods, it can also supply military contractors, rendering government unnecessary.

Henry David Thoreau writes, “That government is best which governs least,” inspiring generations of don’t-tread-on-me Americans.

1859: In On Liberty, British philosopher John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle holds that each individual has the right to act as he wants, so far as his actions do not harm others. He is a firm advocate of free speech.

1885: Former British House of Commons member Auberon Herbert founds the Party of Individual Liberty and later its journal, Free Life, which describes itself as “the organ of voluntary taxation and the voluntary state.” His term “voluntaryism” is later adopted by libertarians in 1950s America.

1922: German political economist Franz Oppenheimer publishes the English version of his popular revisionist history of government power, The State, tracing its origins to blood and conquest and its survival to ruthless predation on working folk.

1935: Laura Ingalls Wilder publishes Little House on the Prairie. Libertarians claim her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a prominent libertarian author at the time, was the ghostwriter. In 2003 Reason magazine will praise the books for placing “community and commerce—rather than male adventure, escape and violence—at the heart of our national experience.”

1944: Austrian School economist F.A. Hayek publishes Road to Serfdom, equating the social democracy of the time to the collectivist tyrannies of fascists and communists. He’s ignored by New Dealers but later inspires a new generation of libertarians.

1946: Economist Milton Friedman accepts a teaching job at the University of Chicago and later establishes the Chicago School of Economics. Government adviser, best-selling author, columnist, and Nobel Prize winner, his career becomes a tour de force of free-market evangelism.

1957: Ayn Rand publishes her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, guaranteeing a solid market for “Who is John Galt?” T shirts among college objectivist societies for years to come.

1964: Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater loses his bid for the presidency, but instills the Republican Party with fierce anticommunism tempered by moderation on social issues. In later years Goldwater comes out in favor of abortion rights, gays in the military, and medical marijuana.

1966: Sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein releases The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, a libertarian retelling of the American Revolution set on the big cheese. The narrator, a polyandrous computer programmer who rebels against a meddling and incompetent Lunar Authority, appeals to the experimental, fiercely independent mentality of Silicon Valley’s emerging generation of techno-libertarian hippies.

1968: Reason is founded and grows into the mouthpiece of the modern libertarian movement. It is published under the banner “Free minds and free markets.”

1971: The Libertarian Party originates in the Westminster, Colorado living room of advertising executive David Nolan. It will eventually endorse abolishing property taxes, legalizing drugs, and selling off “all publicly owned infrastructures including dams and parks.”

1973: With help from the CIA and advice from Chicago School economists, General Augusto Pinochet seizes control of Chile and puts in place radical free-market reforms. He privatizes social programs, curtails trade unions, and begins to eliminate tariffs on imported goods. By the time he is forced out in 1990 a new moneyed class has emerged while the majority of workers earn less (adjusted for inflation) than they did when he took power. Reason will later argue that the economic recovery under the succeeding socialist government was due instead to the “long term benefit” of Pinochet’s policies.

1976: Texas obstetrician Ron Paul is elected to the U.S. Congress on a platform of eliminating most of the federal government.

1977: The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, is founded in San Francisco with funding from oil baron Charles G. Koch. The name comes from Cato’s Letters, newspaper articles written by two Englishmen using the pen name Cato the Younger, an allusion to the defender of republicanism in ancient Rome. With a yearly budget of nearly $20 million, Cato defends corporate empires.

1978: Dick Randolph is elected to the Alaska House of Representatives, becoming the first Libertarian to hold state office. He will lead a successful campaign to repeal the state income tax.

1980: Avowed libertarian John Mackey founds Whole Foods in Austin, Texas.

1981: Cato Institute founding board member Murray Rothbard, after accusing his colleagues of watering down their radical libertarian vision to woo voters and shill for corporate donors, is fired. The next year Rothbard joins the new Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, which becomes a hotbed of anarcho-capitalism. (See “Libertarian Theology.”)

Hustler publisher Larry Flynt fends off evangelist Jerry Falwell’s libel case in the Supreme Court. Libertarians cheer.

Ron Paul runs for president on the Libertarian Party ticket, earning less than one half of one percent of the vote.

1993: Founded as the voice of Silicon Valley, Wired heralds the day when technology will make government obsolete.

1994: Beatnik poet William S. Burroughs accepts a TV spot hawking sneakers for Nike.

1995: Libertarian businessman Jeff Bezos founds Amazon.com, becoming the tech boom’s John Galt.

1996: Journalist Paulina Borsook publishes “Cyberselfish” in the pages of Mother Jones (and later, as an eponymous book), blaming libertarians for creating a moral vacuum inside the tech bubble.

1997: The first episode of South Park, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe,” airs on Comedy Central. Police officer Barbrady doesn’t think it unusual that cows have been turned inside out, and Mr. Garrison, a schoolteacher, uses a puppet to tell a student: “You go to hell! You go to hell and you die!” The show’s tales of authority gone awry inspire a generation of “South Park Conservatives.”

1998: Comedian and avowed libertarian Drew Carey lights a cigarette in a bar to protest California’s anti-smoking law, inspiring a backlash against the “Nanny State.”

“I am a libertarian,” Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, elected in a third-party bid as the Reform Party candidate, tells Reason. “I’ve taken the libertarian exam [a query of views on libertarian issues] and scored perfect on it.” In later years libertarians won’t give his record such stellar marks.

Believing that the Y2K virus could cause the collapse of Western civilization and an outbreak of pandemics, Stan Jones, a perennial libertarian candidate in Montana, imbibes a solution of ionic silver to fortify his immune system. The resulting chemical reactions turn his skin blue.

In a race against Senator Conrad Burns of Montana, Jones earns 3 percent of the don’t-tread-on-me vote, which throws the election to Democrat Jon Tester and hands the U.S. Senate to the Democrats.

The war on terror gives small-government conservatives sticker shock; compared to 2004, the Republican margin among libertarians drops 24 percent.

2007: Presidential candidate Ron Paul inveighs against the Iraq War in the Republican primary debates; his November 5 “money bomb” rakes in $4 million, breaking the single-day online fundraising record for a presidential primary.


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