Blogs > Liberty and Power > More on libertarianism, left or right?

Feb 29, 2004 4:52 pm

More on libertarianism, left or right?

Robert Campbell's post raises all kinds of good questions for discussion. Being somewhat sympathetic to the argument Gus DiZerega made in the comments, I'd like to add a thought or two.

My sympathy for Gus's argument is really about how I see myself: I've always thought of myself as "on the left" but believing that economic freedom was a better means to many of the left's ends than was interventionism or socialism. Perhaps this is the result of being in academia and finding that I'd largely rather hang out with my leftist colleagues than free-market conservatives of the policy world sort. I find too many conservatives less tolerant of difference than I might like them to be; too quick to demonize the left in the very same ways they object to being demonized by the left; and generally too dismissive of the world of academia, both as it is currently structured and inhabited, and as a vocation/avocation. Hayek's classic essay "Why I'm Not a Conservative" captures a few more of my complaints.

In the way that leftists describe libertarians as "conservatives without the sex and drugs hangups," I'd prefer to describe myself as a "leftist without the capitalism hang ups."

Of course none of this, I think, changes the substance of my libertarianism. Robert is quite right in describing the substantive issues, and I do agree that there are things equal to or greater than defeating George W. Bush on the libertarian priority list. (Although I will note that if I was coerced to vote and had to vote for one of the two major parties, as of right now I'd vote for Kerry. Bush is the worst of both worlds - fiscal profligacy and bad on civil liberties/rights, not to mention that whole war thing.) Still, I bristle every time someone calls me a "right-winger" or says that libertarianism is "on the right." Yes, it tries to explode the simple binary opposition of left-right (one of the few binary oppositions that sophisticated French-influenced leftist cultural theorists are not passionate about deconstructing), but if I have to choose, I'm on the left.

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Gus diZerega - 3/3/2004

I was looking at my most recent email from IHS, a libertarian think tank. One area listed jobs and internbships. One was for a "conservative media firm" and another was from National Review.

There were no positions listed for the ACLU or other or-ganizations with an obvious bias towards the civil liberties end of the spectrum and in any obvious sense coming from the "left."

So, as a matter of practice, even if not of self-definition, libertarians are associated with the right but if my arguemt above holds, are doomed always to being tolerated as useful but not taken seriously otherwise.

Gus diZerega - 3/3/2004

I want to elaborate a bot on y points about left and right. Libertarians used to be ideologically fairly closely associated with conservatives of the Goldwater stamp. But beginning with Nixon's inviting of the Southern perspective into the republican Party, with its extraordinarily anti-libertarian heritage, conservatism began a fateful alliance that has been as damaging to it in terms of its basic values as the one many liberals made with Marxists was for their values.

I was thinking a few days ago that if I had to come up with a quick description of what differentiated "left" from "right" today, it would be that leftists tend to focus on how they see others being treated, rightists tend to focus on what they see others doing. This is as neutral adescription as I can come up with. It says nothing about the accuracy of either perspective on any particular issue.

A dose of self-righteousness in either direction brings out the worst of either orientation. But, as a general perspective, I think the left orientation is more fundamentally harmonious with libertarian attitudes than the rightist one. It is intrinsically less invasive of others because it justifies its involvement on what someone is supposedly doing to someone else whereas the rightist approach siggests that whatever you do they they do not like is their legitimate business.

The old Goldwater conservatives did not really fit into this simple scheme because they were in fact a variety of liberal in the broad philosophical sense. But many of the current "cultural conservatives" are not liberal in this sense. They are fundamentally anti-liberal.

There has long been a myth that American political culture was liberal. As Theodore Lowi convincingly argued, this myth had a certaibn amount of accuracy when we focused on national politics because for much of our history liberals were active nationally and the genuine conservative/religious communitarian/ republican element dominated many state governments, where political power was often quite invasive. Only with the passing of civil rights legislation did this begin to change as the liberal values of the 14th amendment were increasingly applied to the states as wll as the national government. Ironically this was described by some as the rise of big government - but in practice it often limited the exercise of arbitrary power at the state level, leaving citizens generally better off in terms of the rule of law than before. But it also impelled the old anti-liberal elements to become active in national politics to a much greater degree than before.

I think libertarians in may cases have not yet come to terms with the fact that "conservative" in 2004 does not mean at all what it did in the'60s and '70s when the libertarian movement was trying out alliances with both left and right for size. I think in particular of Rothbard's various antics as he kept shifting sides based on his theory of the moment.