History/Culture, Politics/Economics

Libertarianism – Left or Right?

It is fashionable nowadays for libertarians to employ centrist rhetoric in describing the essence of libertarianism. Slogans such as “neither left nor right,” “fiscally conservative, socially liberal,” “right on money, left on sex,” along with various others are commonplace among libertarian activists. Such an approach is understandable given the desire to attract people to libertarianism without scaring them away with our actual principles, which sound quite a bit more extreme when stated bluntly than what these catchy soundbytes convey. And in a polarized political climate, playing the “moderate hero” might seem like a sound strategy.

But before diving into a proper discussion on the appropriateness of describing libertarianism in centrist terms, it is first necessary to define the core principles of libertarianism. As a libertarian of the Rothbardian-Hoppean tradition myself, I will define libertarianism here as the affirmation of absolute private property rights and the consistent application of the non-aggression principle. Libertarians support the self-ownership of one’s body and the private ownership of property in general (e.g. land, resources, the means of production, goods, etc.) and believe that the only just ways to acquire property are through original appropriation or voluntary transfer. And in the words of Rothbard himself, the non-aggression principle can be summarized as the belief that “[n]o one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor.” Taken to their logical conclusions, these principles require an economic system far more radical than what your run-of-the-mill Republican Congressman touts as “fiscal conservatism,” and they also take “social” (or more accurately, cultural) issues completely out of the equation, as neither private property norms nor the non-aggression principle prescribe any particular cultural alignment. Libertarianism, defined in the way outlined above, takes a fundamentally different approach to politics in general compared to the less philosophically rigorous, issue-by-issue approach taken by many non-libertarians. It also encompasses a much narrower scope than do other political philosophies, having nothing specific to say about the sociological/cultural conditions which are most optimal for a flourishing society. Thus, it should be clear that centrism defined with respect to the modern left and right, and especially moderatism, does not do justice to the radical, unorthodox nature of the libertarian philosophy in the least.

On the other hand, one might also point out the fact that libertarianism cannot be clearly defined at all based on the common left-right political spectrum, which of course is true. That does not mean, however, that libertarian principles do not align more closely with one side than the other, or that libertarians have to oppose both the left and the right with equal vigor. In other words, libertarianism may have a place on the left/right spectrum which is not necessarily the center, contrary to what is often implied by many libertarians in the slogans, graphics, and memes they employ to communicate their message. Such a mindset, in fact, risks compromising libertarian principles to the relativism inherent in the left-right spectrum, which, as we saw in the 2016 election season, is constantly being reoriented by shifting popular opinion. To be consistent, therefore, libertarians cannot adopt a centrist posture as a rule, but must stand firm on philosophy and principle regardless of where the political spectrum happens to locate the ideas of liberty within a particular context. What’s more, however, is that we libertarians must take into consideration the place of our philosophy in relation to the left and the right if we are to have a clear idea of who our best potential audience is. The answer to this question I believe was severely misjudged by the Johnson/Weld campaign, who as many other libertarians noted, adopted the dubious strategy of targeting disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters rather than the (arguably) much larger demographic of “Never Trump” conservatives who were desperately looking for an alternative candidate. But strategic campaign considerations of 2016 aside, where does libertarianism stand on the left-right spectrum? Let’s take a look at a few perspectives.

There are a number of different ways one can define “left” and “right,” including the two-dimensional “social/economic” political compass, but here, I will propose three different metrics. In evaluating where libertarianism stands on these different scales, I will use the definition of libertarianism laid out earlier in this essay, based on private property rights and the non-aggression principle.

  1. Capitalism (right) vs. Socialism (left) – Libertarianism is on the right. No question. Sorry, “libertarian” socialists.
  2. Hierarchical society (right) vs. Egalitarian society (left) – Given that freedom of association is logically connected to the non-aggression principle, one could say that libertarianism is in the center on this one. And based purely on philosophical principles, that would be true. Any and all voluntary associations which do not violate private property rights, whether hierarchical or egalitarian, would be welcome in a libertarian society.

    But practically speaking though, would a libertarian society feature more hierarchy, or more equality in terms of social structures? This is certainly debatable. However, from simple observation of how humans tend to organize themselves without forceful State interference, what do we see more of? Families, churches, workplaces, businesses, and countless other non-State institutions all have their own natural leadership structures (i.e. hierarchies) which take root spontaneously and through voluntary association (or perhaps semi-voluntarily, in the case of the family). And indeed, one finds that it tends to be very difficult to run any sort of organization of humans without some sort of hierarchical or quasi-hierarchical role assignment (as a certain group of Marxist restauranteers found out the hard way).

    Furthermore, while one can argue that much of the wealth inequality bemoaned by leftists is the result of unjust State interference in the marketplace through regulations, corporate subsidies, and inflationary Federal Reserve policies, it is inevitable that a free society will feature some degree of socio-economic inequality. Some will achieve more than others, whether in the form of economic wealth, social prestige, or both. That, in addition to other inevitable inequities such as differences in age or experience, will result in some people being placed in positions of authority over others. Not violent or coercive authority, of course, but the natural, earned authority which worthy individuals would attain in a free society where hard work, resourcefulness, creativity, and skill would be rewarded.

    So, right or left? Strictly speaking, the center, but more plausibly and realistically to the right.
  3. Traditional Western/Christian culture (right) vs. Multiculturalism/Counterculturalism (left) – This will perhaps be my most contentious point here, so I will preface by reiterating what I stated earlier – that libertarianism does not require one to embrace a particular cultural alignment. All that is required is the affirmation of private property rights and the non-aggression principle.

    What this means, however, is that we must reject the popular perception of libertarianism as necessarily being “socially liberal” on the basis of issues like same-sex marriage and the legalization of recreational drugs. Opposing State involvement in marriage does not require one to have a positive view of the LGBT activist lobby as a cultural force. In the same way, believing that the State has no business in regulating what substances people can put into their own bodies does not require one to actively support the widespread use of recreational drugs.

    But what about the ideas which are necessary to libertarianism? Again, we must go beyond philosophy and make realistic observations of human behavior. Historically, where was the classical liberal tradition – from which we libertarians trace our intellectual heritage – originally developed? In which part of the world and in which culture have the concepts of individual rights, private property, and the rule of law been (generally speaking) most respected throughout history? And what kinds of cultural trends in the Western world have coincided with the massive growth of Western governments in the past century?

    Without getting too deep into the debate over culture and liberty (which would require a separate article to address fully), I believe a strong case can be made that cultural traditionalism is at the very least slightly more compatible with the ideas of liberty than the multicultural/countercultural impulse to overturn the very values and norms which created the cultural environment in which these ideas were developed in the first place. Again, by definition, one need not actively embrace cultural traditionalism to adhere to libertarian principles, but I do believe that the tendency of some culturally progressive libertarians to deride and shun those with conservative cultural values is both unwarranted and counterproductive.

So with all that said, where does libertarianism fall overall? In all three categories discussed, I have made the case that libertarianism is either slightly or significantly more compatible with the right than with the left. One can, of course, disagree with some of these categories or with my assessment of the libertarian position with respect to one or more of them. But I hope at the very least that libertarians would consider these issues seriously rather than defaulting to intellectually-shallow centrist slogans to describe their political alignment. This does not mean that one must actively identify with the right in order to be a libertarian or that a libertarian cannot have left-leaning sympathies on some of these matters, but I do believe the things discussed in this article have some implications regarding where we ought to focus our outreach efforts, how we ought to frame our message, and perhaps for some of us, how we ought to understand the libertarian philosophy in general.

6 thoughts on “Libertarianism – Left or Right?”

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