Liberty or Authority? A Useful Political Spectrum

Conservatism and libertarianism don’t belong together. Even in cases where conservatives are using the same rhetoric as libertarians, they too often don’t mean anything like what we mean; their “free market” is an apologetic for the economic status quo and global corporatism, their “equality before the law” is reserved only for traditionally privileged in-groups (think of the debate on same-sex marriage), their “limited government” would still retain a massive military-industrial complex and national security apparatus, their “individual rights” extend only up until you want to smoke a joint or end a pregnancy. Romantically turned backward to some imagined time of American freedom, conservatives may at times seem libertarian, but their position is essentially traditionalist. It is perceived American traditions (the good, the bad, and the ugly) that conservatives really hold dear, regardless of the values upon which those perceived traditions were based. Libertarians, in contrast, value human liberty; and while we may get to this position using a wide variety of different, often conflicting philosophical pathways, it is liberty that we value most in assessing polities and systems of political theory.

Political identifiers and terminology are often nebulous, terms like “conservative,” “liberal,” and “right wing” meaning a host of different things to different people. Without arguing that all positions now denominated “left wing” are libertarian (certainly they are not), I want to suggest that, any way we look at it, libertarianism belongs to the political left. I premise this argument on a suggested definition of “left wing” that says a left wing political position is one that challenges the existing state of things by advancing some concrete change, often focusing on class divisions (among other divides) as sources of injustice and therefore often adopting, in one way or another, a populist quality. We cannot facilely equate “left wing” with “liberal,” for the latter subsumes too many irreconcilable definitions in its own right. Neither can we claim that “left wing” is synonymous with “socialist”; that word suffers the same definitional problems as “liberal.” We can say that liberalism and socialism are aspects of and examples of historical leftism, which, in its essence, submits an attack on the injustices and deficiencies of the status quo, defined politically, economically, and socially. Certainly these attacks manifest themselves in a wide variety of different political prescriptions and programs, some willing to accept gradual reform through the proper channels of the existing system, some calling for a revolutionary overthrow of the government. Sometimes left wing movements and philosophies are libertarian (e.g., the various forms of libertarian socialism abounding); often they are authoritarian (e.g., China under Mao’s Communist Party). Similarly, right wing movements and philosophies may be more or less libertarian, though arguably right wing libertarianism is an oxymoron, a form of deviationism that misapprehends the empirical/causal relationship between freedom, as such, and prevailing power structures, cultural norms, and distributions of wealth, &c.

Indeed, several anarchist writers and historians of anarchism have noted that the word “libertarian” was originally coined and used by left wing socialists, anti-capitalists who sought to distinguish their anti-state socialisms from statist variants. As the English historian Peter Marshall writes, “In anarchist circles, it was first used by Joseph Déjacque as the title of his anarchist journal Le Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement Social,” used — as it often has been since — as a synonym of “anarchist.” No one owns the word, and if one enjoys identifying herself as a libertarian, then — in this writer’s view — that is reason enough to identify as such. We may, however, wonder whether right wing libertarians, conservatarians, and the like are aware of the word’s historical association with the utmost extremes of the political left, specifically socialism. Would it matter to them that, during the 19th century, libertarians, the people who favored the maximization of human liberty, were ardently anti-capitalist? It is paradoxical, perhaps, that the group identified by virtually all mainstream commentary as sitting on the extreme right of the political spectrum, libertarians, has embraced a favorite label of the extreme left. Then again, this apparent paradox may in fact point to a defect in the left-right political spectrum as we know it, depending on how alike we think right and left libertarians really are. That is, if we think these two groups actually are quite similar, then maybe they shouldn’t occupy opposite poles of the spectrum. If, however, left and right libertarians are as dissimilar as their positions on the spectrum suggests, then it may be that the accepted left-right structure is doing its job, offering a useful tool for positioning and understanding complex — often internally inconsistent — political stances.

I’ve long been of the mind that the political spectrum is not especially useful as a tool, that it fails to meaningfully make sense of the subtleties of available political positions, both in practical politics and in theory; its defects and the internal contradictions it seems to present do more harm than good. If, however, we must posit such a spectrum (and it’s not at all clear that we must), then I would suggest a linear, one-dimensional spectrum that places libertarianisms of all kinds in the leftmost spaces and authoritarianisms of all kinds in the rightmost spaces, liberty versus authority being the genuine divide. On this kind of spectrum, all of American politics takes place well on the right side, virtually all elected officials exhibiting a kind of moderate or “soft” authoritarianism. The libertarian-authoritarian spectrum resolves the apparent paradox presented by the left and right libertarian types. It further avoids the largely pointless debates that revolve around whether, for example, Nazism is a left or right wing phenomenon. Why can’t Nazism be both an offshoot of socialism and unambiguously right wing, meaning, authoritarian?

Its principles enacted, the philosophy of liberty would leave little of the current political and economic structure standing. Libertarianism cannot, therefore, be classed with conservatism. “How,” asked Auberon Herbert, “can the taking away from a man his intelligence, his will, his self-guidance be anything but evil?” And what indeed is “right wing” about leaving everyone free from the invasions of state violence, from all forms of aggression? Our current political spectrum and the mental processes that created it must be hopelessly muddled if simple nonviolence and individual sovereignty are treated as right wing positions. Just as there were various types of liberalism germinating during, for example, the French Revolution, broadly defined by the ideas of republicanism, representative democracy, and the natural rights of each individual, so too are there a wide variety of libertarian traditions. Despite their differences, we ought to group them together rather than as far apart as possible; to borrow Roderick Long’s phrase, in building our taxonomical categories, we ought to oppose anarchist apartheid and, similarly, libertarian apartheid. In making the libertarian-authoritarian divide the crucial distinction, the political compass (see is superior to more popular conceptions of the political spectrum. Still, its apparent treatment of market-based economies as intrinsically right wing — even if properly libertarian — is explanatorily confused, and exhibits the same problem as the spectrum that makes mainstream libertarianism the antithesis of mainstream anarchism. A one-dimensional spectrum that contrasts liberty and authority is most accurate and most helpful in explaining various political positions, placing libertarianism all the way to the left, where, as an inherently radical stance and a consistent expression of liberty and equality, it belongs.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory