Libertarians maintain that every person has sovereign ownership of his or her body and is free in his or her pursuit of life, liberty, and property, as long as they do not interfere with the pursuit of life, liberty, and property of others. This sounds like commonsense to the American ear. In fact our republic, born of the Enlightenment, was based on these principles. The problem, however, comes in when theory is translated into practice. In order to secure those rights and freedoms government intervention is required. Libertarians believe government intervention should be minimal (minarchists), others believe there should be none at all (anarchists).
Brian Doherty, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, has written a very long and informative history of the libertarian movement. He focuses, in the first part of his book, on five key thinkers who kept the movement alive during the era of big government - an era which we are still in. Those five were Ludwig von Mises and Freidrich Hayek of the Austrian school of economics, novelist and philospher Ayn Rand, philosopher Murry Rothbard, and economist Milton Friedman.
Libertarianism was actually synonymous with classical liberalism of the 19th century, both advocating minimal government and free market capitalism. In the 20th century, liberalism became identified with the Progressive movement in the US and socialism in Europe. As people began to agitate for "more rights," more government meddling was welcomed. In Europe, coming out of a depression, this led to Nazism in Germany and Communism in the Soviet Union.
The Austrian school was a backlash against these two collectivist movements, which von Mises and Hayek saw as the greatest threat to human liberty. Ayn Rand, who was born in Russia, also witnessed some of the worst excesses of collectivism. Upon coming to US, she became a strident advocate of capitlism; in fact, "radicals for capitalism" was originally her slogan. Likewise the writings of Murry Rothbard and Milton Friedman, though both born in America, were a response to the dangers of big goverment and its threat to freedom and economic development.
Libertarianism sounds like such a sensible philosophy that one wonders why the movement never became politically popular. As Doherty shows in some of his research of the movement's eccentric characters, they were extremely individualistic, and, as such, very dogmatic and uncompromising. One of the libertarian's favorite pastimes, according to Rose Wilder Lane, was showing how other libertarians were not ideologically pure and excommunicating them. It has been said that libertarianism would have worked better if people were different than they are. They made the assumption that human beings are essentially benevolent; however, the behavior of some of its leaders proves otherwise. Doherty seems to relish all the infighting amongst the members, he has endless anecdotes of groups splintering into different factions.
Many libertarians rail against the intrusiveness of the state, yet they remain silent when the state protects their interests. Therein lies the central paradox. The power of the state is necessary to moderate the freedoms of all so that all can be free. The growth of government may be the logical outcome of the libertarianism on which this republic was founded. Doherty has done a wonderful job of showing how this paradox has played out within the movement and how it has contributed greatly to slowing down the growth of government and keeping it humble.