Mises Wire

Why There’s a Left-Right Divide among Libertarians

Amid the sociocultural convulsions and boutique displays of urban anarcho-tyranny that have taken place in America in recent months, there has been renewed discussion within certain circles of the liberty movement about how appropriate it is for libertarians and their intellectual brethren to self-identify as “right-wing” or “left-wing.” While libertarianism itself, which merely requires adherence to the nonaggression principle (NAP) and a desire to minimize or abolish state power, need not be considered a “right-wing” or “left-wing” political philosophy, I contend (from a decidedly right-wing perspective) that individual libertarians are almost certainly on the right or on the left.

All too often, libertarian infighting and internecine squabbles come across as mere navel gazing, with many mainstream libertarians—especially Libertarian Inc.—insisting that they have heroically transcended the old left-right spectrum. (Strangely enough, some libertarians seem to believe that this spectrum primarily pertains to red/blue politics.) Nevertheless, in recent months there have been some important conversations touching upon rights, human nature, the left-right spectrum, and what being a libertarian actually means. These conversations have taken place on podcasts such as Dave Smith’s Part of the Problem, Free Man Beyond the Wall, and The Tom Woods Show, among others.

I believe that these conversations are quite useful, as they might help convince some libertarians to abandon the hackneyed idiocy of defining and summing up the movement as “economically conservative but socially liberal.” It is a cheap cop-out, and individual libertarians should not shy away from accepting a “right-wing” or “left-wing” label; in fact, attempting to do so is an exercise in futility.

Stripped down to its very core, being right-wing entails a defense of natural hierarchies and a recognition that human beings are not all the same. This is consonant with thinkers from Aristotle all the way through the “revolutionary” leaders of the American War for Independence. Thomas Jefferson—admittedly not typically cited as a right-winger—voiced this sentiment in a letter to John Adams:

I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents….The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.

Many on the right augment their worldview by noting that there is an objective moral order in the universe—and that it is knowable to us. Imperfect human beings are capable of great evil but also incredible acts of love, mercy, courage, and creativity. The embrace of an objective moral order (i.e., natural law) can be traced back to Catholic scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas and, later on, the Jesuit thinkers of the School of Salamanca (whom Murray Rothbard considered to be proto-Austrians in their approach to economics).

The very understanding that we are born with inherent natural rights is a sine qua non for civil society that is embraced by most anarcho-capitalists, propertarians, “paleolibertarian” minarchists, Ron Paul supporters, and true conservatives on the right. They recognize that the sacrosanct rights to private property and free association do not come from any government or collective entity.

Critics of the Right toss around (what they believe to be) slurs such as “reactionary” and “counterrevolutionary.” Yet, as Jeff Deist and others have argued, when considering the twentieth century’s long and disastrous litany of egalitarian and statist experiments here in the United States (e.g., the institution of the federal income tax, the Federal Reserve, the popular/democratic election of US senators, the New Deal, the Great Society), it is almost impossible for a libertarian NOT to take up a reactionary stance against these statist usurpations. After all, right-wingers contend that not all changes to civil society are desirable and that not all novelty serves the good. There might even be a modicum of wisdom from past generations that should be retained and imparted to future generations.

The Left, on the other hand, is defined by a devotion to egalitarianism, fighting for what they define as “oppressed” groups, and working for what they see as social and economic justice. They typically promote radical social change and keeping the ancien regime in a state of upheaval, believing that “inclusion” and tolerance are more appropriate for a progressive polity than reactionary morality and societal mores.

It is a leftist view that human beings are not born with intrinsic natural or God-given rights; rather, they are granted and assured those rights by the state or the collective. Any differences that might exist between human beings—whether disparities in wealth, innate abilities, health, intelligence, or even biological sex—could be unjustly exploited, so it follows that there might be a much bigger role for the state.

There are a variety of different economic views among left libertarians. Some adhere to anarcho-socialism and mutualism as described by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Others on the left practice countereconomics and agorism as promulgated by Samuel Konkin. All left libertarians are against economic and military imperialism; many of them recognize the labor theory of value, along with the rejection of private ownership of natural resources and the means of production, as fundamental economic principles.

In many instances, the line between left libertarians and right libertarians roughly approximates the delineation between “thick” and “thin” libertarianism. Thin libertarians merely believe in the NAP, the inviolability of private property, and the illegitimacy of state violence. Under subsidiarity principles, any government that is allowed to exist has its relatively small, distinct sphere of influence, and it must not intrude upon local communities—and especially not the family. Thick libertarians usually go much further, though. As Lew Rockwell has argued:

Proponents of a “thick” libertarianism suggest that libertarians are bound to defend something more than the nonaggression principle, and that libertarianism involves commitments beyond just this. One such proponent recently said, “I continue to have trouble believing that the libertarian philosophy is concerned only with the proper and improper uses of force.”

So while thin libertarians are primarily concerned with limiting state power and protecting private property, it is thick libertarians who often seek to infuse their political philosophy with leftist social justice exhortations and calls to fight injustice and racism everywhere, even if the state must eventually be invoked as an intervening power (e.g., Gary Johnson’s “bake the cake” fiasco, or Jo Jorgensen’s recent Tweet). As Rockwell has noted, this has happened before, with what he sees as the degradation of classical liberalism into today’s American “liberalism.”

Certainly, it is possible for left libertarians and those with “thick” tendencies to avoid the siren song of authoritarian power and live according to the NAP, but it could very well represent a constant internal ideological struggle. After all, who would enforce the far left’s desired ban on privately held land and factories? Who would step in and prevent workers from being exploited? What entity will outlaw discrimination, curtail racism, and punish rogue bakers?

The differences in economics, ethics, and worldview among libertarians are plainly evident. When libertarians approach political and societal questions—and when they define the scope of their own libertarianism—they clearly do so from the left or from the right.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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