Is there any source in Chazal on the principles that formed the modern thought of Libertarianism?

I'm trying to gather sources of some of the key concepts of Libertarianism in Chazal, such as: (1) The Rule of Law; (2) voluntaryism; (3) peace and nonviolence; (5) freedom and voluntary order; (6) decentralization and the diffusion of power; (7) concerns for economic flourishing; (8) and the nonaggression axiom, which elsewhere has been referred to as the nonaggression principle (NAP)”.

Any leads, sources or quotations would be much appreciated. Thanks.

Related: Anti-libertarian-ism in Chazal

  • The Torah is full of all sorts of ideas. The key is the balance between various ideas and necessities, what the Rambam called the middle path. The Torah has some ideas that sound libertarian, and some that do not; the ultimate blend however is not libertarian. The prescribed method of rule is monarchy, and the Rabbinic Courts have final say in monetary matters, and can force people to give charity, for example. Laws of commerce are somewhat protectionist.
    – N.T.
    Apr 10, 2023 at 10:28
  • A major difference between American and Torah ethics is that the former, especially on the Libertarian end of the political spectrum, promotes a "live and let live" ethic. Indvidual autonomy is values. (For that matter, among progressives it may be the only ethical principal -- maximizing each person's room to self-define and self-express.) In the Torah, however, the whole concept of "individual" is limited. Kol Yisrael areivim -- all people are intermixed (or at least guarantors). We are obligated to correct others mistakes, when they are capable of accepting it (tokhachah)... Apr 18, 2023 at 12:48

1 Answer 1


Sources about the principles that formed it? I have some ideas.

With regard to the Rule of Law, in Pirkei Avos 3:2, Rabbi Chanina S'gan Hakohanim says that one ought to pray for the government's stability, because the fear of governmental punishment prevents social wrongdoing (see Tiferes Yisrael on this same Mishna for a precise description of the attitudes that are being combated by fear of punishment).

Commentaries like Bartenura and Tiferes Yisrael make it very clear that this Mishna refers to gentile governments as well as Jewish ones. With that in mind, I think it's possible to infer from this source that the chief thing one hopes for from a government - the thing one prays for - is keeping social order, which accords with the Rule of Law doctrine.

(Of course, the Jewish kingdom and Sanhedrin had other functions as well, including the enforcement of charity and religious observance, but we are speaking here in the context of gentile governments, presumably.)

In Pirkei Avos 5:10 , there are four understandings of how society ought to share its wealth.

  1. Individuals should strive to only benefit from their own work, and desire that others feel equally independent. (sounds like liberatarianism, no?)

  2. The collective should be happy to share with each other in permissive fashion, and look forward to receiving benefit from others as well. (communism?)

  3. Everyone should strive to contribute to others, but should be repulsed by the idea of receiving benefit from others.

  4. Everyone should take what they can and contribute as little as they can get away with.

Now, the Mishna identifies the first view as the purview of Sodom (i.e. also an evil view), and the rationale given in one of the commentaries is relevant to our question, so I'll bring it:

The Bartenura says that the fierce desire that others be independent by not being forced to give their work (which is an application of voluntaryism), can lead to a callousness to the need of others, so much so that one might not help someone else even when it would cost him nothing. That was a Sodomite trait, to expect everyone to take care of themselves, even when helping them would be easy for society.

To solidify this idea that we can ascribe this Mishna at least in part to explain the psychological origins of some values of societal systems like libertarianism, it's worth mentioning that regarding the second case, the Bartenura's description also seems to describe a (nonviolent variant of) the communist view. The Mishna describes one who holds the second view as "עם הארץ", which the Bartenura explains refers to someone who wants to improve the world but has no insight into the right way to do it.

(Notably, I should mention that according to Tosfos Yom Tov and Tiferes Yisrael, this Mishna does not discuss charity, but instead other types of communal benefit like helping others with work.)

(Your third source isn't exactly a value or creed, it's more of a statistical analysis of the negative correlation between libertarianism and violence. It does advance the idea that countries with more diversity of interest and diffuse power are less likely to decide on war than those with tighter control, but I personally don't know of a related source to that principle, so I'll skip to the next one.)

There are laws in place regarding doing business with thieves, whereby Jewish social obligation prevents one from deriving any benefit from their property when it is assumed to be stolen. See Rambam Hilchos Gezelah Va'avedah, 5:7-10. While this isn't exactly a description of the origin of social enforcement of contracts, it does show to what degree the Sages implemented it by tuning how much leniency they showed (to protect the free flow of goods in the market, for if they were to require you to return anything you purchased fairly that later turned out to have been stolen, you would be afraid to purchase from anyone you don't know.)

Note that they could not have truly permitted business with stolen property even if they had wanted to, because as Rambam says in the first halacha of that chapter, doing business with a thief violates a scriptural prohibition. The only thing that could be done was to determine whether you need to return the original article or whether you must pay the original owner and may then sue the thief to reimburse you.

In the Jewish system of government, there wasn't exactly what you might call decentralization in a political sense, but the concern for it can be seen here in Rambam hilchos Edus, 11:9. We see that in order to prevent the overlapping of the King's power with the court's , the king is excluded from testimony.

(Note: I'm pretty sure I've seen somewhere that a king can be subject to legal action, and that Rambam agrees, but I can't remember where. Somewhere in the laws of malkus maybe? Be aware that this last source probably could use some more context.)

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