In his 1965 essay “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” Murray Rothbard presents an iconoclastic political spectrum to discuss how the historical libertarian left became perverted and tempted by promises of power. His spectrum continues to elicit confusion concerning his placement of state socialism in the middle.
Harkening back to a classical approach, Rothbard identifies the left with liberty and the right with statism:
Soon there developed in Western Europe two great political ideologies, centered around this new revolutionary phenomenon: the one was Liberalism, the party of hope, of radicalism, of liberty, of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity; the other was Conservatism, the party of reaction, the party that longed to restore the hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of the old order.
More novel is where Rothbard places the state socialist movement on his spectrum:
Libertarians of the present day are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed. But this is a grave mistake, responsible for a severe ideological disorientation of libertarians in the present world. As we have seen, Conservatism was the polar opposite of liberty; and socialism, while to the “left” of conservatism, was essentially a confused, middle-of-the road movement. It was, and still is, middle-of-the road because it tries to achieve Liberal ends by the use of Conservative means.
This is all well and good but valid criticisms readily arise. Libertarians might find it strange to orient themselves closer on the spectrum to state socialists and furthest away from conservatism, which in most forms seems no worse than totalitarian communists who would presumably be in the middle. Conservatives might take offense at being described as further from libertarianism than communist rulers or even Marx, who advocated dissolution of the state but also an emergency dictatorship and the abolition of voluntary exchange. And anti-authoritarian leftists and well-meaning state socialists might also protest, as many are accustomed to seeing Stalinism as a species of the extreme right, somewhere in the proximity of Nazism, rather than a centrist position on any scale.
Indeed, one could make a strong case that the 20th century communist regimes rival the worst governments in history, that many of them easily compare to the most reactionary states in their hostility to liberty. Lenin and Stalin waged wars of extermination against dissidents and party enemies.Mao committed cultural genocide and starved tens of millions with his agricultural policies. On a per capita basis, Pol Pot was easily as murderous and totalitarian as any rightwing regime in the history of humanity. These appraisals could find agreement from libertarians and “small-government” conservatives, but also well-intentioned socialists and anarchists of all stripes.
Within the United States, it was not so much communism, but progressivism, that wedged itself between Jeffersonian liberalism and Hamiltonian conservatism to become the middle-of-the-road American ideology, dedicated to libertarian goals through rightwing means. In Wilson, FDR, and even the modern Democratic Party, we see some libertarian rhetoric persist and most of the collectivist rhetoric is about elevating the common person, the worker, the poor and middle class, against the royalist rich. Yet a radical reading of American history demonstrates that just as in the rest of the world, the middle-of-the-road ideology yielded some of the worst authoritarianism and state violence ever perpetrated by the U.S. government. Those who could plausibly be called progressive Democrats (or modern liberals) were principally responsible for U.S. entry into World War I, World War II, the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam. The American progressives and their New Deal and Great Society successors have had a dismal civil liberties record, from the Palmer Raids and Sedition Act to Japanese Internment and surveillance on the antiwar movement, from FDR banning marijuana to Obama’s kill list and indefinite detention. The corporate state was at least as much the darling of the middle-of-the-road progressives as it was the design of America’s more consistent conservative statists.
What gives? Can Rothbard’s spectrum be salvaged despite the tendency of “middle-of-the-road” state socialists to be responsible for some of the greatest crimes against liberty and human rights?
The key to understanding this paradox is to appreciate that the conservative right and libertarian left have always agreed on one thing that the middle-of-the-road socialists have attempted to deny: the true nature of the state. The state is about privilege. It is about power. It is about class stratification, redistribution of wealth from the many to the few, war, torture, tribalism writ large, prisons, police, borders, and control. The state is the negation of liberty, as Mises said. For this reason the libertarians have always opposed statism. For the same reason, the monarchists, theocrats, mercantilists, and feudal lords always favored statism.
The state socialists want the state to be something it cannot be—an engine of humanitarian equality, a bulwark of peace, a tool of worker’s liberation, a break on corporate and religious privilege, a tribute to the international brotherhood of man. Insofar as the state expands its power, liberal ends become more elusive. So the state socialist continues pushing for more interventions, more crackdowns, more taxes, more regulations, more penalties. It never works. The harder you try to turn the state into something it isn’t, the more you will see it for what it really is.
Achieving monarchism or fascism through the state is a much easier project than achieving liberation and equality with it. Propping up unearned wealth is an expensive political program, but states have managed to do it for centuries. Dismantling privilege and leveling the playing field are another matter. When the state only needs to please the elite, there is some limit to its rapaciousness. When it is allegedly geared toward supporting the masses, it must maintain all the costly and vicious apparatuses of the conservative state—taxes, armies, police, borders, and bureaucrats—but it must do even more. To trick the people into thinking it rules on their behalf it must adopt a welfare state. To put in a more earnest attempt it needs to utilize even more violent means. The more people try to turn the state into something it is not, the worse it becomes. This is not always because state socialists have abandoned their ideals and become corrupted by power, although that is a large part of the story. But even if they remain true believers, statists acting out of genuine conviction in an impossible plan can do just as much damage, refusing to give up on their fantasy and making the problem worse with every expansion of power pursued in the guise of empowering the powerless. Whereas the conservative authoritarians must only go so far to get their way, the state socialist gets further from her goal the more she sees conservatives means employed to achieve her liberal ends. This is because conservative means can only yield anti-liberal ends.
Once in a while, a persecuted group actually overthrows a regime and comes out on top. But then they become the ruling class. They can decide to rule as their predecessors did, which is bad enough, or they can try in earnest to achieve the impossible: liberation through enslavement, peace through war, or equality through the greatest institution of privilege of all time, the monopoly on violence known as the state. Thus do all leftist middle-of-the-road attempts become at best a carbon copies of conservative rule, at worst an unlimited orgy of state violence and oppression aiming for a categorical impossibility.
It is sometimes said of the conventional American left-right spectrum that all you see in the middle of the road is roadkill. This is even truer of Rothbard’s left-right spectrum. Nothing is deadlier than the pursuit of liberal ends through conservative means. While state socialists are truly in the middle of the road, they have the most naive and distorted understanding of the workings and movement of traffic. They must make their decision: liberal means through liberal ends or conservative means through conservative ends. Dancing in the center divide is bound to get someone killed.