Live After Quit

The Problem with “Left vs. Right”

As a libertarian, I have long objected to being characterized on a left-right political spectrum (as with studies of political affiliations that group libertarians with republicans or conservatives on the right). In response to inquiries about where I fit in that framework, over the years, I have taken to saying that my views were orthogonal (meaning at right angles or perpendicular) to the framework. Since almost no one knows what that word means, those I say it to are puzzled, and ask for clarification, which allows me to explain why I fit in neither category.

I had done that for years when I came across Leonard Read’s “Neither Left Nor Right,” in the January, 1956, issue of The Freeman. Long before I came to believe what I do, Read was way ahead of me, including a more complete view of the relevant history of left versus right and a more developed explanation than I had used. As a consequence, I think his views there merit remembering.

“Why, you are neither left nor right!” This observation, following a speech of mine, showed rare discernment. It was rare because I have seldom heard it made. It was discerning because it was accurate.

Libertarians…are neither left nor right in the accepted parlance of our day.

Read then explains that there is no directional relationship between left, right and libertarian along a two-dimensional line, but that there is one in three dimensions. Libertarians want less authoritarianism of all sorts, not more of one “brand” and less of another. They believe that if liberty versus authoritarianism is viewed as the third dimension, with liberty up and authoritarianism down (reflecting their relationship to individuals’ abilities to grow into wiser, more ethical, people), libertarianism lies above the standard left-right framework.

“Left” and “right” are each descriptive of authoritarian positions. Liberty has no horizontal relationship to authoritarianism. Libertarianism’s relationship to authoritarianism is vertical; it is up from the muck of men enslaving man.

A more complete history of the evolution of left versus right than I have read elsewhere follows.

There was a time when “left” and “right” were appropriate and not inaccurate designations of ideological differences. The first Leftists were a group of newly elected representatives to the National Constituent Assembly at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. They were labeled ‘Leftists’ merely because they happened to sit on the left side in the French Assembly.

Read then quotes Dean Russell, a fellow libertarian traveler, in “The First Leftist”:

“The Rightists or “reactionaries” stood for a highly centralized national government, special laws and privileges for unions and various other groups and classes, government economic monopolies in various necessities of life, and a continuation of government controls over prices, production, and distribution.”

While Read did not quote Russell further in this article, his understanding is worth incorporating here, as he puts it so well:

The original leftists wanted to abolish government controls over industry, trade, and the professions. They wanted wages, prices, and profits to be determined by competition in a free market, and not by government decree. They were pledged to free their economy from government planning, and to remove the government-guaranteed special privileges of guilds, unions, and associations whose members were banded together to use the law to set the price of their labor or capital or product above what it would be in a free market.

The ideals of the Party of the Left were based largely on the spirit and principles of our own American Constitution. Those first French Leftists stood for individual freedom of choice and personal responsibility for one’s own welfare. Their goal was a peaceful and legal limitation of the powers of the central government, a restoration of local self-government, an independent judiciary, and the abolition of special privileges.

The leftists were, for all practical purposes, ideologically similar to those of us who call ourselves “libertarians.” The rightists were ideological opposites: statists, interventionists, in short, authoritarians. “Left” and “right” in France, during 1789–90, had a semantic handiness and a high degree of accuracy.

But “leftist” was soon expropriated by the authoritarian Jacobins and came to have an opposite meaning. “Leftist” became descriptive of egalitarians and was associated with Marxian socialism: communism, socialism, Fabianism. What, then, of “rightist”? Where did it fit in this semantic reversal of “leftist”? The staff of the Moscow apparatus has taken care of that for us… Anything not communist or socialist they decreed and propagandized as “fascist”…any ideology that is not communist (left) is now popularly established as fascist (right).

What, actually, is the difference between communism and fascism? Both are forms of statism, authoritarianism. The only difference between Stalin’s communism and Mussolini’s fascism is an insignificant detail in organizational structure. But one is “left” and the other is “right”! Where does this leave the libertarian in a world of Moscow word-making? The libertarian is, in reality, the opposite of the communist. Yet, if the libertarian employs the terms “left” and “right,” he is falling into the semantic trap of being a “rightist” (fascist) by virtue of not being a “leftist” (communist). This is a semantic graveyard for libertarians, a word device that excludes their existence.

Read then lays out a particularly important reason why the left-right spectrum is something “libertarians should avoid.”

One important disadvantage of a libertarian’s use of the left-right terminology is the wide-open opportunity for applying the golden-mean theory. For some twenty centuries Western man has come to accept the Aristotelian theory that the sensible position is between any two extremes…Now, if libertarians use the terms “left” and “right,” they announce themselves to be extreme right by virtue of being extremely distant in their beliefs from communism. But “right” has been successfully identified with fascism. Therefore, more and more persons are led to believe that the sound position is somewhere between communism and fascism, both spelling authoritarianism.

The golden-mean theory…is sound enough when deciding between no food at all on the one hand or gluttony on the other hand. But it is patently unsound when deciding between stealing nothing or stealing $1,000. The golden mean would commend stealing $500. Thus, the golden mean has no more soundness when applied to communism and fascism (two names for the same thing) than it does to two amounts in theft. The libertarian can have no truck with “left” or “right” because he regrets any form of authoritarianism–the use of police force to control the creative life of man.

So where do libertarians fit relative to the left-right political spectrum that is so commonly used?

Libertarians reject this principle and in so doing are not to the right or left of authoritarians. They, as the human spirit they would free, ascend–are above–this degradation. Their position, if directional analogies are to be used, is up–in the sense that vapor from a muckheap rises to a wholesome atmosphere. If the idea of extremity is to be applied to a libertarian, let it be based on how extremely well he has shed himself of authoritarian beliefs.

Establish this concept of emerging, of freeing–which is the meaning of libertarianism–and the golden mean or “middle-of-the-road” theory becomes inapplicable. 

Given that the term libertarian has important limitations (e.g., in addition to forcing it into a left-right spectrum, its ability to also be equated to libertine in many people’s minds, both frequently promoted by liberty’s enemies), it appears there is no single ideal word for what libertarians stand for. But that is in large part because we have to undo a commonly shared, but misleading, framework, making our task more complicated, and because those same enemies of liberty also attack every other word usage that might be used, from individualism to voluntarism. So our task requires more of a conversation rather than a mere shorthand term.

What simplified term should libertarians employ to distinguish themselves from the Moscow brand of “leftists” and “rightists”? I have not invented one but until I do I shall content myself by saying, “I am a libertarian,” standing ready to explain the definition to anyone who seeks meaning instead of trademarks.