What is Libertarianism?

Story highlights

  • Libertarians are hoping for a good year in 2016
  • But what is libertarianism?

(CNN)When people talk about Libertarians, two things are bound to come up: gold and marijuana.

This is not without reason. Libertarians talk a lot about auditing the Federal Reserve and returning U.S. currency to the gold standard. They rail against the war on drugs and many of them, including the party's front-runner, enjoy pot. But as the Libertarian Party maneuvers during an unprecedented year in politics, it has a chance to break out of the fringe.
A CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday showed the Libertarian nominee, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, earning 9% support nationwide, and likely Green Party nominee Jill Stein pulling 7% support among registered voters. Among those voters who say they are not settled on a candidate in the two-way race, more than one-third choose Johnson (23%) or Stein (12%) when asked the four-way match up.
    Founded in 1971, the Libertarian Party offers an ideological and political alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties, in favor of reducing government involvement in all sectors, from the economy to social issues.
    Although disagreement abounds on specific measures and the extent to which government should shrink, Libertarians almost universally advocate for slashing government benefits, reducing economic regulations and implementing radical reform -- if not the outright elimination -- of the Federal Reserve. On social matters, Libertarians generally take a liberal approach, favoring same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of most, or all, drugs. The party is deeply pro-gun rights and takes a skeptical stance on any military involvement in other countries.
    Many of these ideas are rooted in principles espoused by Ayn Rand, author of "Atlas Shrugged." Rand helped popularize the controversial Libertarian principle that "egoism" was preferable to altruism -- that one's self-interest trumped anything else so long as it did not mean hurting anyone else.
    These ideas are old, and debates over core Libertarian principles abound. Rather than dig through the weeds, CNN reached out to several contemporary Libertarians to get a better understanding of Libertarianism as it stands now.

    Gary Johnson

    Johnson, the party's 2016 (and 2012) presidential nominee, said: "The more government does, the less freedom we enjoy. The Libertarian view is in favor of smaller government and greater individual liberty."

    Bill Weld

    Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, Johnson's running mate, was a controversial pick within at the Libertarian Convention because many saw his recent move to the Libertarian Party as an inauthentic move by the former Republican. Despite the contention, he emerged on a second round of voting with a majority of Libertarian delegates. Ahead of that vote, he explained his view of Libertarianism.
    "We are the third way," Weld said. "We're socially tolerant. We're socially inclusive, and we're economically conservative. That doesn't describe either of the two major parties."

    Austin Petersen

    Austin Petersen, a hardcore party advocate and candidate who challenged Johnson for the nomination, said Libertarianism "means being fiscally conservative and socially whatever you want provided you don't force it on anyone else."
    He said people could live as they pleased. Whether that meant living by traditional values or taking hard drugs, Petersen said the government should not regulate anyone's lifestyle.
    "You can live a socially conservative lifestyle, but it doesn't mean you want to legislate other people to have a socially conservative lifestyle," Petersen said.
    Petersen has split with many socially liberal members of his party on abortion, which allows him to pitch himself social conservatives in a way other candidates cannot.
    "I believe a fetus is a human child," Petersen said. "You cannot have liberty without sanctity of life."

    John McAfee

    Meanwhile, John McAfee, a cybersecurity expert who earned international notoriety years before his recent failed run for the Libertarian nomination, described libertarianism as an economic and social lifestyle of its own. He rolled off a list of principles he said defined his understanding of the party.
    "Number one, our bodies and our minds belong to ourselves and not to the government or anyone else for that matter. Number two, we should not harm one another," McAfee recited.
    "Number three, we should not take each other's stuff. We should not steal each other's property. Number four, we should keep our agreements."

    Carla Howell

    Carla Howell, political director of the Libertarian National Committee, offered the party's own answer.
    "We advocate for minimum government and maximum freedom," Howell said.
    When it comes to policy, Howell cited party commitments to cutting taxes, ending the war on drugs and privatizing poorly performing government agencies. She took the TSA to task in particular, calling for its elimination. Howell also said the Libertarian Party advocates ending military interventions and foreign aid, which she said would promote peace and reduce spending.
    "Bottom line," Howell said, "We need to make government much smaller than it is today."