Left/Right labels in politics seem insufficient to address the differences in politics today, and adding prefixes like far-left or alt-right seems to simply exaggerate problems. I've seen more sophisticated approaches that seem an effort to address this by putting libertarian on an orthogonal axis. Is this a well accepted concept, and what would the opposite of libertarian be called?

The word authoritarian seems to be one common choice, but it seems to have a generally negative connotation, and doesn't seem to cover non-governmental controls over liberties, ranging from social pressure to terrorism. Is there a less extreme and less pejorative antonym for libertarian?

To be clear, I'm not referring to the Libertarian Party, but the libertarian philosophy. As an example, Jimmy Wales is a self-labeled libertarian, but has asserted the U.S. Libertarian Party to be "lunatics".

Further notes

Among the most thought-provoking answers below is one which suggests that political philosophies may not have opposites. The links were quite interesting, and lead me to an article on Positive and Negative Liberty in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which suggests to me that the term libertarian could be somewhat ambiguous under modern thinking.

Returning to the OED definition of libertarian it notes three variants with different synonym lists attached. Of those synonyms, tolerant and forbearing seem to most closely match my own interpretation of libertarian. Intolerant seems an obvious possible antonym.

I'm currently spending some time with the Stanford Encyclopedia's entry on Toleration.

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    Does the antonym of libertarian need to "cover non-governmental controls over liberties"?
    – H2ONaCl
    Dec 10, 2018 at 21:19
  • I think it could. Perhaps militant as a noun works. As in church militant. Dec 10, 2018 at 21:30
  • @Burt_Harris - militant may refer to merely being active and strong in opinions, not necessarily employing aggression. (caveat: I'm ESL so may be I'm getting nuances wrong)
    – user4012
    Dec 10, 2018 at 21:35
  • OED definition and etemology suggest otherwise: Favouring confrontational or violent methods in support of a political or social cause. from Late Middle English engaged in warfare and from Latin serving as a soldier.. Dec 10, 2018 at 21:38
  • @Burt_Harris - I said "may", not does. The word has multiple meanings. Either way as commented under your answer, the definition was just a minor quibble and not the main objection to using that term in political philosophy context.
    – user4012
    Dec 11, 2018 at 12:43

6 Answers 6

  • The famous Nolan Chart puts a label of "Authoritarianism" as the opposite of Libertarianism.

  • Colloquial libertarian terminology for ideology axis opposing them is "Statism" (although technically accurately Statism is the opposite of Anarchism, not Libertarianism).

  • If one dances from First Principles, the main foundational concept of Libertarianism is Non-aggression principle (NAP).

    I'm unaware of any political philosophy that is directly based on the concept of "aggression is Good" outside of European Knightly Chivalry (actual historical concept of chivalry, not the idealized version of it that was romanticized in later books).

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    Thanks for pointing to the Nolan Chart article. As he was a libertarian activist, it seems unsurprising that he chose a label with negative connotations. Dec 10, 2018 at 21:20
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    Unfortunately, many modern self-identified "libertarians" are very authoritarian, as well. It's a problem when traditional labels are co-opted by people more for branding than accuracy. Dec 10, 2018 at 21:22
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    @PoloHoleSet - I'd like an actual name of someone officially claiming to be a libertarian, and their actual authoritarian actions/opinions. I'm unaware of anyone aside from 2xPauls who claimed the former. And given your political views, I'm not sure you and I agree on whether specific views are "authoritarian" so I'd need a specific example as well. I hope you aren't using Bush and typical evangelical social conservatives; as they don't typically claim to be libertarian (and I agree that they frequently aren't on social issues).
    – user4012
    Dec 10, 2018 at 21:31
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    @PoloHoleSet - fyi, from your prior comment, you seem to be under mis-apprehention that moderacy/extremism by itself has anything to do with libertarianism/authoritarianism. They are fully orthogonal. A libertarian can be an extremist, as long as they aren't aggressive. A full on statist/authoritarian can be very moderate, in details or at the core, as far as views (poor example, but the best I can think of is Bloomberg).
    – user4012
    Dec 10, 2018 at 21:38
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    No, I'm not under any misapprehension. I'm not saying that being on an extreme makes them libertarian. I'm saying that the baggage that would come from saying "I'm an extreme, out-there conservative" makes those extreme conservatives who are not necessarily libertarian claim to be so, because the traditional libertarian definition is more palatable for general consumption. Many feel that as long as they say "I want to keep all my money, screw the government and society for wanting to take taxes" makes them libertarian, even if they have very authoritarian views on government in personal lives. Dec 10, 2018 at 21:43

In general, political theories don't have "opposites". However, sometimes there exist groups of theories which can be conveniently grouped. This may happen because they make interesting disjoint assumptions or because they tackle a problem in different ways.

Accordingly, the best answer to your question isn't a single theory which neatly opposes libertarianism, but to discuss the method of how political theorists compare and contrast theories.

All links here are either to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


If you accept the premise of libertarianism as being some kind of non-aggression principle, then we can examine what other theories to contrast with it. This is a large simplification, but will be useful for illustration.

I'll assume that the non-aggression principle is the basis for libertarianism. One way to articulate it would be to say:

It is morally wrong to infringe someone else's liberty, unless doing so prevents harm to another.

There are multiple contrasts we could make:

  • That it is never morally permissible to intervene in another's liberty, even if doing so prevents harm to another.
  • It is morally permissible to intervene in another's liberty, even if doing so does not prevent harm to another.
  • It may be morally necessary to intervene in another's liberty, even if doing so does not prevent harm to another.

These comparisons are typically not arbitrary. They are often based on some kind of meta-theoretical framework. In this case, I contrasted moral necessity and requirement which itself is a view that comes from another body of philosophy.

The Comparisons

The first view rejects the notion that we should even intervene in another's liberty, even if doing so would save a life. I'm not aware of anyone making this claim directly. I suspect that it is implicit in some kinds of anarchism.

The second view would us to intervene in another's liberty for reasons other than preventing harm. I can readily think of two divergent examples:

  • Max Stirner's egoism suggests that people should do whatever is in their own interest. Therefore, it is morally permissible to intervene in another's liberty so long as it is in your own interest.
  • Hobbes' social contract theory argues that people give up many liberties in exchange for security by joining a state. The state may infringe on individual liberties for any reason it wants.

The third view says that it may be morally required to violate an individual's liberty for reasons other than preserving life. That is, it would be wrong not to violate their liberty. Two examples:

  • The Socratic tradition argued that the purpose of the state was to help individuals reach their potential. The state is morally required to violate individuals' rights in order to help them do so.
  • Classical nationalism argues that it is the responsibility of each individual to ensure that their cultural group controls a fully independent, sovereign state. It is a moral good to intervene in the liberty of another to further this goal.

From here we could ask all kinds of interesting questions. For example, how do these different categories of arguments compare or contrast with each other? Can we identify patterns between certain assumptions and their outcomes? Or trends over time? Do they share certain problematic assumptions, error in reasoning, or undesirable conclusions?

Hopefully you can see at this point that a simple idea of philosophies being "opposites" is unlikely.

  • To me, this is the most interesting answer so far, it will take some time to understand. I'm open to the possibility. Thanks for sharing. Dec 12, 2018 at 16:13
  • Saying that the non-aggression principle is the premise for Libertarianism would be similar to saying that abortion rights are the premise for Liberalism or gun rights are the premise for Conservatism. The non-aggression principle is based on Natural Rights, which is a part of Libertarianism, but is also important in many aspects of other political ideologies as well.
    – Aporter
    Jan 3, 2019 at 12:09
  • I made the limitation s of that assumption more explicit. Its merely for illustrating the kind of thought process behind analyzing theory than a substantive description of libertarianism. Jan 3, 2019 at 15:54

Well, that widely depends on your definition of Liberitarianism. Generally, in political terms, Europe and US describe things differently and it's noted that the Left/Right changes in a regional setting (it originally denoted which ideological parties sat on what side of the French Parlimentary body.).

It's also important to note that there are left-Liberitarians and Right-Liberitarians and generally, in Europe, Liberitarianism means the former, while in the US, the latter is the assumed meaning for the term. Like many political ideologies, there are many schools.

As a general rule, no matter where you are, Liberitarianism has a skepticism of the state and authority, but not an out and out rejection of them. On both sides of the pond, Liberitarianism is tied with individualism, through different means. The term originated in France in the 1890s as the title of the news paper Le Liberitaire, which was printed in response to France's "Villainous Laws" which banned anarchist publishings and works. Since then, Liberitarianism in Europe is often synonomous with Anarchism and in fact, much of Left-Liberitarianism advocates for anarchist systems of economics (Anarchro-Communism, Anarchro-Syndicism, and mutualism).

In the United States, Libertarianism was first used by Dean Russell to describe an adherent of Classical Liberalism in opposition to what he believed was the appropriation of the word "Liberal" by contemperory politics that had corrupted the meaning of the word in it's most traditional sense. U.S. Liberitarianism typically favors fiscal Conservatism and Social Liberalism (as understood in the United States... remember the United States doesn't use the European Terms correctly). They typically do not have a problem with the U.S. government under the Constitution (rules as written, in esseance) and actually, but take issue with the permissive abuses of authority that they feel have been taken by the government. They tend to favor a decentralized model of government with the most local form of government having the most authority that an ordinary citizen would encounter, with the states playing a more ref role to the local governments and the federal government playing a similar role to the state. They also tend to reject interventionist foreign policy. The character of Ron Swanson from the television show Parks and Rec tends to be an exaggerated version of Right-Liberitarianism in American society.

In a too long didn't read fashion: Liberitarianism means different things to different responses, but share a core belief in Individualism over Collectivism, and Decentralized Government models to Centralized Governments. They both are economically opposed to mixed Economic Models, but which part of that mixture does not belong is hotly contested: Left Wing models favor Marxist models while Right Wing Models favor Capitalist models.

  • As an American, I use the term in that context. Tying it to classic liberal rather than neo-liberal helps I think, but doesn't answer the question (which may not have a good answer.) Dec 11, 2018 at 17:53
  • I am not as familiar with left-Libertarianism but I was not under impression they are too Marxist economically.
    – user4012
    Dec 12, 2018 at 2:41
  • @user4012: I'll be honest, I'm not all that familiar with it myself and much of it was pulled off of wikipedia. They do tend towards a "means of production owned by the workers" bent to their economics, and they're not in favor of private property ownership (though they tend to differentiate personal property from private property).
    – hszmv
    Dec 12, 2018 at 14:40

Before we get started I just want to throw in a disclaimer & note that I am going to use the current US based Libertarian ideology as my example. There's European forms of the term libertarian, that predate it's use in the USA and I know they are quite different. As a self proclaimed American libertarian I am comfortable answering this question in the realm of politics in my own country. I don't wish to pretend that I am well versed enough in any international use of the term to answer for countries outside the US.

Libertarianism is likely the most misunderstood of political ideologies in the USA today. To fully understand it, to a certain degree we have to understand the origins and the evolution curve of the 2 major US political ideologies as well as the Founding principles in a general sense.

The most dominant principles involved in the construction of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were based on 'Classical Liberalism' & Libertarianism has been(at least up until the last decade or so) the political theory most closely related to Classical Liberalism. Classical liberalism is built on the ideas of Adam Smith, John Locke (The Father of Liberalism)and to a lesser degree Thomas Hobbes, and later on the ideas of Frederic Bastiat, Lysander Spooner and even Henry David Thoreau. With Locke's being perhaps the most influential, his arguments concerning liberty, natural law and the social contract later influenced the written works of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers of the United States. Thomas Jefferson the primary author of the Declaration of Independence even quoted Locke's "consent of the governed" in the document.

The principles of 'classical liberalism' live to this day in Libertarianism, the terms are virtually synonymous, with added emphasis on laissez-faire free enterprise economics and a strong belief in private property rights. Assuming that this is true why was Ronald Reagans quote "libertarianism is the heart of conservatism" inaccurate?

Both modern American conservatism and social liberalism split completely from Classical Liberalism in the early 20th century and to lesser degrees as early as the American Civil War. The void created by the left turn taken by Liberal & the right turn taken by Conservative politics opened up the need for a new term which Libertarian served to fill.

Conservatives continued the beliefs in protecting economic civil liberties, liberals continued the belief in defending social civil liberties. While Libertarianism continues to defend both.

So in terms of 'social issues' you could say, that Republicans went 'statist' and are the opposite of Libertarians, & Democrats went 'statist' and are the opposite in the economic realm.

To determine the closest in terms of a complete opposite we would have to find ideologies that believe in collectivist economics, & that are/were oppressive in the realm of social issues. A few come to mind: Hitler's National Socialist Party & Stalin's Communist reign, both regimes killed or jailed homosexuals, disarmed their country's populations, all citizens surrendered all property & individual rights to the rights of the collective & to the small group of elites, and there was no real economic freedom for the average citizen. Basically any collectivist, statist and/or totalitarian ideology or political theory in reality would be, to at least some degree, the opposite of Libertarian. Again as compared to the ideology of American Libertarians

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    Thanks for your answer @Aporter, and welcome as a new contributor. While it is a bit late to the party, it seems well informed. While I'm not done reading, I'll make a bit of constructive criticism with hope that you may edit and improve it: be sure to highlight the actual "answer" in amongst all the history and explanation, perhaps by making it bold or something. Bold is here done by putting words between two asterics, e.g. **the answer is bolderdash** comes out the answer is bolderdash. Of course I'm not saying your answer is bolderdash, it's just a cool word. :-) Jan 5, 2019 at 1:58
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    @Burt_Harris thanks and I wasn't really paying attention to dates, was just looking for topics that I felt I could contribute to.
    – Aporter
    Jan 5, 2019 at 3:13
  • That's perfectly OK. in fact there are badges like revival for answering old questions anew . Jan 5, 2019 at 3:26

Militant might be a better word than authoritarian. Based on some earlier comments, it seems some people think this means being active and having strong opinions, which might be a valid connotation.

But the Oxford English Dictionary defines militant as meaning Favouring confrontational or violent methods in support of a political or social cause and traces the etymology back through Late Middle English engaged in warfare to the Latin serving as a soldier.

Noam Chomsky, a world-renowned linguist chose to describe Hillary Clinton as like Obama, only 'more militant'. While generally considered a liberal, Chomsky seems a critic of neoliberalism, and discusses the deviation from principles of the Magna Carta in the interview. Clearly he's not referring to soldierly behavior, but instead to use of technologies such as attack drones and misuse of intelligence gathering apparatus to achieve political goals.

But militant groups seem to go beyond that, including both the Antifa and the White Nationalists they clash with in sometime violent ways, but neither is authoritarian. Responsible authorities tend to try to isolate the groups through permitting protests in different areas. After a violent class Charlottesville, VA, Chomsky drew criticism from the left for an interview where he said:

As for Antifa, it's a minuscule fringe of the Left, just as its predecessors were. It's a major gift to the Right, including the militant Right, who are exuberant."

As surprising as that position might be for a liberal to take, it seems like direct action just a euphemism for militants on both left and right acting in opposition of the libertarian principals.

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    My main objection - which I was too lazy to write in a tangential comment - isn't so much the fact that militant may have a meaning that is NOT opposed to libertarianism (because, obviously, that's only one, and not the most frequently used meaning). My main objection is that "militant" is an adjective - even when it masquerades as a noun - describing a tactic or a mindset, NOT a coherent political philosophy. Unless you're a soccer hooligan or, more seriously, a medieval knight because actual historical chivalry code was basically "violence" at its core and yet a coherent philosophy.
    – user4012
    Dec 11, 2018 at 12:44
  • Thanks. The acceptability of noun-noun modification in English makes the syntax difference obscure (consider soccer hooligan.) The argument it's not an opposite seems more interesting. Dec 11, 2018 at 18:11
  • Actual military bodies suggest better (or more notorious) examples of subordination, coercion, and violence than relatively feeble fringe groups.
    – agc
    Dec 13, 2018 at 6:07
  • Chomsky is a self identifying anarcho-syndicalist, which derives from the so called left-libertarian tradition. So he is not a "liberal" at least not in the modern American sense of the word. Feb 15, 2019 at 19:27


At the core of libertarianism lies idea of "screw you I've got mine". Behind all libertarian talk about "non aggression principles" hides desire to disavow any responsibility for how one's actions impact other people.

Take externalities as an example. Factory operating own boilers releases dust particulates into air, which have detrimental effect to health of everyone else, not just factory owner (assumption: owner actually lives anywhere near). Externalities are a market failure, that need to be corrected by government, in case of dust particulates by enforcing environmental regulations. Within framework of economic theory, correcting market failures is seen as adjusting prices to real cost: when part of the cost of manufacturing is being borne by someone other than factory owner, overproduction arises (because production costs do not reflect actual costs), which can be corrected by taxation or regulations. From social viewpoint, behaviour causing such externalities can be seen as incurring huge social costs and infringing on basic rights of everyone else. Socialists, leftists or collectivists will argue that this needs to be regulated. Economic liberals meanwhile usually claim that such regulation infringes on economic freedom of factory owner, completely disavowing fact that factory owner infringes on much more basic rights of everyone else (life, health, freedom from oppression: depending on size of nearby population, it could easily be that life-years lost due to health loss would be equivalent to life-years lost due to murder).

On the flip side, positive externalities also exist, linked article gives example of beekeeper keeping (obviously) bees, which through assistance in pollination increase yield of nearby crops. Again, economic liberals argue that nearby farmers who benefit from the bees owe nothing to the beekeeper and at best, can offer to pay him if they feel like it. Through opposite framework, correct solution would be to subsidize beekeeping, making beekeeping more economically attractive, thus increasing frequency of beekeeping through use of those market mechanisms that do work.

Lack of minimum wage, through abuse of balance of powers between owners of means of production and workers, often leads to wages below survival threshold, especially in low expertise occupations. Wages so low, make workers in such field even more susceptible to private oppression: threat of losing their already barely paying job only increases power imbalance and leads to many types of abuse including psychological, physical and, obviously, economic. Libertarians disavow responsibility for any of that, and in fact, consider leveraging imbalance for the purpose of economic abuse as right.

Therefore, since Libertarianism is a stance which declines responsibility for how one's actions impact other people or society at large, the opposite is stance which emphasizes (and enforces) responsibility for state of society and well-being of other people.

As a further note, I'd like to point out that, despite possible stereotypical connotations, collectivism is not limited to the left side. Left-collectivism will usually take form similar to class consciousness (goal of helping/liberating all workers, no matter their race, nationality or ethnicity) or similar, while right-collectivism usually takes form of nationalism.

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    Can you back-up this answer with a link to an expert source (or include your expertise, if you yourself are an expert in this field) ? Dec 11, 2018 at 22:30
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    While collectivism might be a reasonable answer, this "answer" reads more like a rant than reason. Dec 12, 2018 at 16:09
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    Downvote: abusive misrepresentation of libertarianism.
    – user2565
    Dec 13, 2018 at 18:55
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    @user4012 I have yet to see libertarian take on externalities that does not amount to plugging up your ears and signing "na na na I can't hear you". Libertarian take on pollution, unsafe working environment, unsafe chemicals and so always devolves to "duh, just sue them after you are already dead". Looking back at those arguments, all I can ever see are mental gymnastics to weasel out of responsibility for how your actions impact others.
    – M i ech
    Dec 16, 2018 at 20:12
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    @Miech - that's fine. Are you willing to assume that it's your personal fault that I don't get to spend enough time with my family? (since the "externallity" of you demanding that I pay 30-50% of my income in taxes to support your pet social causes causes me to work 30-50% more hours than I would have had to otherwise). If not, let's not discuss how externalities are something only libertarians ignore
    – user4012
    Dec 16, 2018 at 23:38

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