Mises Wire

Progressives, Left and Right

I recently was invited to speak at the annual convention of the Texas Libertarian Party, and was struck by how libertarians cling to an outdated and counterproductive conception of the political landscape. In particular, many libertarians remain wedded to a misguided understanding of what the threat to liberty really is, where it comes from, and thus how we ought to fight against it.

That’s why we’re still saddled with clichéd 1980s phrases like “neither Left nor Right,” “low-tax liberals,” and even the cringeworthy “capitalist means, socialist ends”—all in evidence among the literature describing libertarianism on tables in the convention hall.

It is, of course, a virtue and a defining feature that liberty is neither left nor right. Libertarianism per se says nothing about outcomes, about whether a more libertarian society would be more culturally conservative or liberal, more traditional or secular, more egalitarian or stratified, or anything else. Libertarianism is anti-state and pro-private property. Nothing more, nothing less.

But we should not conflate the ideological problems with progressivism and conservatism with the actual threat posed by each. Progressivism has been the overwhelming force in western politics for the last 100 years. Political progressives—defined not by their party, but by their desire to remake man into a more obedient political animal, absolutely dominated the 20th century.

In every meaningful way, progressives control politics, government, business, and culture in America and the west. The 20th century was so irretrievably progressive that we’ve stopped paying attention to the baseline state all around us. Thanks to that progressive century—a century of war and socialism—government has become like the furniture or potted plants around us: we’re so accustomed to it we no longer even see it.


  • Progressives overwhelmingly control both major political parties in the US;
  • Progressives control the federal judiciary, along with all federal departments and agencies;
  • Progressives dominate academia, universities, and K-12 education, both government and private;
  • Progressives run the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association, and thus the traditionally “conservative” professions of medicine and law are now steered leftward;
  • Major corporations, both global and domestic, are run by progressives. Their boards are progressives. Their corporate branding and messaging is progressive;
  • Wall Street is progressive;
  • Silicon Valley and the tech industry are dominated by progressives, from Google to Apple to Microsoft;
  • Progressives overwhelmingly control traditional media, including broadcast news and print publications (virtually all journalists self-identify as progressive);
  • Progressives overwhelmingly run important social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr;
  • Progressives run Hollywood: they hold sway over the film, TV, and video industries, including the growing market for streaming content from HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and others; and
  • All major religious institutions in the west, from the Vatican to mainline Protestant churches to virtually all synagogues, are now thoroughly progressive both politically and doctrinally.

Of course progressivism virtually always means left progressivism. While there are right-wing progressives (neoconservatives) with grandiose ideas about government and human nature, most of them came from and will comfortably return to the Left when it suits them. And left-progressives largely have co-opted neoconservative foreign policy prescriptions for their own (hence, Trump running to Hillary’s left on Middle east issues).

Let’s be clear about supposed conservatives like George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, & company: they’re all progressives. Sheldon Adelson, Rupert Murdoch and Fox News are progressive. They all want government to do something rather than refrain from doing something. Their party label is irrelevant, as is their positioning of themselves slightly to the right of Obama regarding the rate at which the state grows in size and scope.

“But what of the less well-heeled GOP in southern and rural states?” you might ask. Surely the state and local parties that win electoral victories in red states represent conservatives rather than progressives? And granted, people we might term conservatives nominally control the governorships and legislature of a handful of states. But their conservatism is largely relegated to social issues, and their legal power in an era of total federal preemption is nil. Does anyone seriously think North Carolina’s new bathroom ordinance will prevail for long? Either federal courts will intervene, or outside pressure (engineered by progressives) will convince the state legislature to relent. Southern right-wing southern politicians mostly exist to provide a sneering media with evidence of a (nonexistent) retrograde threat to progressive values.

It is clear that whatever remains of the conservative moment in America is in tatters, and justifiably so. “Conservatism” was never a coherent ideology for a radical breakaway nation like America. The Old Right, with its anti-war impulses and Burkean respect for tradition and property, was entirely overcome by modern Buckleyite conservatives. Modern conservatives were never anti-state, or even judicious in their view of state power. Their infiltration by neoconservatives led the way for the Right to become enamored of policies like globalism and nation-building that can only be thought of as … you guessed it, progressive. There is no political or ideological status quo worth conserving in the US, and to the extent there ever was, conservatives have failed utterly to do so.

Every realistic, potential, or actual threat to liberty in the western world today results directly from progressive policies. The simple reality is that state power in the west, and the threat of state power, is overwhelmingly wielded by progressives rather than conservatives. Even when progressives don’t directly control a particular state apparatus, they effectively apply extra-legal means (executive or judicial) to promote their political agenda and thwart opposition.

Progressivism is a ravenous lion, conservativism is a neutered housecat. Any failure to understand this is an enormous tactical and moral mistake for anyone who advocates liberty. If libertarians truly want to fight state power, they must recognize and accept this reality first. Conservatives are not “just as bad”—not because they are necessarily more inclined to liberty, but because they have no power. So rather than chasing disaffected conservatives away by talking about social justice and egalitarianism, libertarians should be reaching out by talking about decentralization, secession, and unyoking ourselves politically from the progressive Hydra. It’s the only peaceful (i.e., nonpolitical) way forward for all of us, regardless of ideology.

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