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On Leftism and Rightism, Part 2

CJay Engel
October 23, 2019
August 15, 2019
On the libertarian factions and why they are so heated. Their differences lay in their social outlooks, more than their definition of libertarianism.

On Leftism and Rightism, Part 2


CJay Engel

October 23, 2019
August 15, 2019

On the libertarian factions and why they are so heated. Their differences lay in their social outlooks, more than their definition of libertarianism.

In the first part of this article, I sought to investigate the essence of what might be called the mood or demeanor of rightism and leftism, not as a rationalistic ideology, but as a tendency and guiding spirit. These moods precede politics and rationalistic investigation and therefore can help to explain the obviously stark difference between major libertarian factions. Thus, a significant section of this application portion of the essay will focus on teasing out some of these tendencies.

But beyond application to libertarianism as a “movement,” it is important as well that rightism and leftism be applied to the current overall mood of the modern intellectuals, media commentators, interest groups, politicians, and so on. It is vital that the reader understand that I am, in my distinguishing between left and right, not distinguishing between democrats and republicans; or even liberals and conservatives in their typical meaning. In this sense, to state my eventual conclusion, I believe that the entire political atmosphere and interpretive demeanor of the modern intellectual establishment is less divided than so often portrayed.

Libertarianism and Worldview

Several years ago, there was lively discussion in libertarian circles over whether libertarianism was “thick” or “thin.” This was a result of a continued refining and clarification of what it meant to be a libertarian; or stated differently, what the boundaries were of libertarianism as a discipline. Those who considered libertarianism to be a “thin” doctrine were concerned that there was a growing tendency to unite under the banner of libertarianism, certain socially leftist “commitments.” The thinnists argued that –by the strict demands of logic– one could be a social leftist and a libertarian, but the latter does not necessitate the former, therefore the definition of the latter did not include the former.

When certain thinnists began to morph their interests and themes of writing and blogging onto cultural and social issues, there was a pushback by socially progressive libertarians about hypocrisy: did not the thinnists argue that libertarianism was thin and therefore irrelevant to social and cultural interests? What the socially-left libertarians missed was that social and cultural issues are important, but that they fall outside the bounds of libertarianism as a legal theory. If one wants to call his social theory, his theory of virtue and the individual, “libertarianism,” it should at least be crystal clear that libertarianism as a legal theory is a different subject matter than libertarianism as a social commentary.

In the self-described libertarian world, much of this is confused and many (not all) of those who hold to a rigorous, strict, and precise formulation of libertarianism as a legal theory (a theory of the proper allocation of property rights and the subsequent meaning of legality and criminality) have happened to have socially rightist demeanor, as defined in the previous article. These folks are met with uproar and confusion: their rightism makes no sense to those who have a looser understanding of the “spirit of libertarianism.” This confusion exposes the fact that libertarianism as an umbrella term to describe so many in the United States who oppose statism hides two completely different mindsets ingrained within the broader “libertarian community.” That is to say, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the only thing we all have in common is a label and a claim that the state is an aggressor against private property rights– though even an elaboration of this latter point betrays the assumption of unity.

The Libertarian Split

Those who pay particular attention to the factions and divisions within the libertarian world will notice that there is a general tendency to either veer toward what we might call Mises-style libertarianism or Reason-style libertarianism. Contrary to other interpretations of this divide, I do not think that the definition of libertarianism alone accounts for this division. At the heart of the most intense disputes and factions within the libertarian world lies the fact that our extra-libertarian demeanors and commitments are more important to us than our libertarianism. It is true that there are many differences over the “libertarian” stance on things like abortion or gay marriage or open borders between the Reasonite circles and the Mises Institute circles, but at its core, these are often symptomatic of more fundamental outlooks on the world.

While not an exhaustive list and aware that there is carryover between the two groups, those who might lean toward Reasonite libertarianism might include Gary Johnson, Nick Sarwark, David Boaz, Nick Gillespe, Roderick Long, Anthony Gregory, and so on.

And those who might lean toward Mises-style libertarianism (with reference to the Mises Institute) include Tom Woods, Bob Murphy, Hans Hoppe, Ron Paul, Bionic Mosquito, Lew Rockwell, etc.

Many (myself included, long ago) have tried to explain this in terms of the anarchism-minarchism split, or perhaps the utilitarian-vs-natural law debate. But this does not explain why David Friedman tends toward Reasonite circles and Ron Paul toward Mises circles. And it certainly doesn’t explain why the Mises Institute is close with paleo-conservatives like Paul Gottfried and even, before his death, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. This, while the Reasonites would despise someone like Paul Gottfried and Hans Hoppe. What explains the primary and largest libertarian factions, therefore, is an underlying tendency toward or away from leftism and rightism.

Right and Left Demeanors

Thus, in taking the five points from the previous article one can see a tendency in each of the factions to interpret things differently

7. Equality

  • Whether racial, gender, or creedal disparities are themselves a social problem that should be addressed as a goal in and of itself. Whether it is socially important that all groupings and classes in society have a socio-political voice and whether historical experiences of group-oppression are of considerable social importance.
  • Reasonites might affirm all these while Mises-style libertarians might say these things are overstated, ill-defined, propagandistic, or unworthy of considerable social attention. Of course, one of the key debates on this issue are things like reparations and whether there can possibly be a case for them; even outside the libertarian concerns such “how the state will pay for them,” there exists the broader question of whether it is even helpful or useful to address these things.

6. Historical Progress

  • Whether the development of history from the social structures of old to the social emphasis on all without social rank-referenced distinction (including democracy and the undermining of church, educational, vocational, and familial hierarchy) constitutes progress. Moreover, whether our intellectual discourse, art, scientific accomplishments, philosophy, worldview, and social harmonies are getting better (or rather, have gotten better) as we develop into the future of mankind. Is meta-decline possible or is progress the natural way of man?
  • This one is a more difficult view to deal with because the historical problems of the idea of progress in philosophical terms are rarely even considered but I would suggest that, if paid attention to, Reasonites would lean toward affirmation of Progress whereas Mises-style libertarians might take more of a Hoppean, nuanced view. To be clear, the divisions on this area are less defined than the others, especially in Rothbard and his often optimistic grand narrative. For those who have not studied the problem, I would suggest Hoppe’s new speech here (transcription), as well as the traditionalist conservative Robert Nisbet’s book.

5. Universalism

  • Whether libertarianism itself is something that can bind society together and whether the libertarian strategy should be focused on local, decentralized improvements, or whether “libertarianism for the world” is the proper mood. Whether libertarians (or anyone else) should spend time “trying to change the world” or “make the world a better place” or whether one’s community and locality are a better and more natural field for our social efforts. Moreover, whether it is preferable to view the world as one great universal society or whether more traditional roots and familial/cultural heritages still matter to people.
  • One can see a very clear distinction in the mood of Reasonite types and Mises-style libertarians in Jeff Deist’s criticism of the Reasonite approach to libertarianism in his example of the French and gun-rights. Tom Woods summarizes Jeff Deist’s point, and tacks onto it another analogy of passing around US Constitutions in Iraq in this episode starting at the timestamp 23:35. And beyond this, one can begin to understand why there is a difference in those libertarians who think we should let states/localities make their own gay marriage or abortion laws and those who believe in “liberty from the top down” such that, since the Federal government is involved in marriage anyway, we should at least recognize gay marriage nationally.
  • An excellent example on this universalist issue is debate over the fourteenth amendment. Some (Kevin Gutzman, Tom Woods, decentralists of that ilk) believe that this nationalization of “equal protection” was a huge mistake and transgressed more local (state-level) rights. Consider, alternatively, this Cato Institute blog quote: “In sum, those who argue that federal courts have no business policing state marriage laws are forgetting that the Civil War Amendments, particularly the 14th, fundamentally changed—perfected—our federalism. Since 1868, when states violate individual rights, they have to answer to federal courts.” This is known as the “Incorporation Doctrine.” See Kevin Gutzman here for the decentralist view.

4. Social Continuity

  • Whether revolutionary social upheavals are beneficial in the long run or whether social change should be slow, evolutionary, and with respect to social norms and habits. This does not per se relate to all intellectual radicalism (defined as the consistent application of logic to a given position), but it does relate to one’s demeanor and mood in dealing with the way things are, compared to how they ought to be.
  • A good example of this is how various libertarians react to pushes to, say, change the currency image to Tubman or tear down confederate statues or outlaw display of confederate flags or halt the reading of Little House on the Prairie. Whereas the Reasonite tends to disregard concern over whether there is social ties to the past and focuses solely on whether the symbol communicates or reminds one of racism and oppression of the past, those libertarians with a rightist bent might have concern over roughshod elimination of history. Ben Lewis, taking more of a rightist approach, recently observed: “Untethering people from the past creates not empty vessels, waiting to be filled with virtue, but rootless individuals, filled with the the innate frailties of man.” For examples of Reasonite thinking here, consider this, this, and this.

5. Freedom from Institutions

  • Whether progress is being made and society is made better off when later generations challenge the social status quo by “tearing down social taboos” and undermining traditional norms and conventions. Whether progress is occurring as the world becomes desensitized to trans movements, gay movements, efforts to challenge parental restrictions, sexual boundaries, drug and alcohol use, religion, etc. Older ways of thinking about behavior, such as in terms of propriety, chivalry, honor, religious virtue, respect toward elders and those of higher social ranks (bosses, parents, teachers, judges) are archaic, and backward.
  • Reasonite libertarians love tendencies toward “free expression” and libertinism as they see these things as the flowering expression of a truly free individual. Mises-style libertarians are either outright fed up with libertinism, concerned that it is emptying the world of civilized behavior and norms, or at least think of the loud and obscene declarations of “freedom from traditional norms” as obnoxious and narcissistic and nauseating.

Tucker vs. the Left-Libertarian Model

Of special note on this final area of freedom, one gets a glimpse at the general blurred lines on the topic by looking at David Boaz (an archtype Reasonite-Cato libertarian) and his primer on libertarianism. Whereas libertarianism is strictly a legal theory based on property rights and the logical implications of property ownership, those who have a broad definition of freedom so as to extend it to freedom from historical social norms often have a distorted understanding of libertarianism.

Back when Jeffrey Tucker traveled in Mises circles (Tucker 1.0) he reviewed this book and on the basis of Boaz’s “freedom from social restraints,” Tucker characterized Boaz as being a quintessential left-libertarian. Tucker (whom we wish would have stayed true to this version of himself!) wrote:

Some libertarian writers—let’s call them left-libertarians—prefer to concentrate on the personal liberties associated with this political doctrine, while submerging property-centered social theory and a radical critique of the State, especially of the imperial state, within a larger laundry list of other aspects of libertarian policy.
David Boaz’s primer may not be the prime example of applied left-libertarianism… but it nonetheless fits comfortably in that category. The reader is left with no doubt about where Boaz stands on lifestyle issues (drugs, sex, speech, etc.) and the policy concerns of the punditry class (how this or that program can be improved), but is left to speculate on precisely how strict Boaz’s utopia would be with regard to the protection of property rights, or how or on what level of society those rights would be enforced.

In fact, what is so interesting about this review, is that it touches on several of the above five points. I just referred to point number five.

But per point two, Tucker writes the following– and it’s astounding that what seemed like a random point about progress that I sensed, ended up being a key issue for Tucker’s analysis of left libertarianism:

Indeed, it may be true that a future of liberty awaits, and certainly there’s no harm done by an optimistic outlook. But true optimism must always be provisional. It believes something can be accomplished if people will it to be so and take the necessary steps to bring it about. Boaz’s forecast of a libertarian future is not optimism but pop-determinism of the megatrends variety, and his forecast still implicitly allows for the possibility that the “inevitable” libertarian future is not necessarily desirable or workable.
Yet, the deterministic mode of argument does accomplish several tasks in this work, each of which appears to be a high priority to the author. It allows the author to bypass any examples of past political and economic arrangements that might have something better to offer than present ones, a stance which is anathema to all self-proclaimed progressives, among which Boaz includes himself.
For Boaz, the glory of libertarianism is not rooted in either theory or history, but rather is largely eschatological, the inevitable end of history to which all present events are tending.

Also consider the following observation with reference to point three:

Another very serious oversight in his narrative is the issue of what level of government should be responsible for the enforcement of libertarian rights. He often cites the U.S. Constitution, but neither condemns nor upholds federalism and states’ rights (in fact, his only discussion of decentralization is in the context of Europe). But in the course of American history, most defenders of property and liberty have been states’ rights advocates in the first instance, from the misnamed anti-federalists, to the Southern Republicans and secessionists, to the opponents of civil rights laws in the 1960s, to the gun rights advocates today.
Though he never mentions these resistance movements, it’s clear where Boaz’s sympathies lie: in his brief discussion of the War Between the States, he celebrates Northern abolitionism while failing to even mention the invasion of the South by the North that made the present consolidated state possible. Even today, the essential battleground over the role of the central government revolves around questions of states’ rights. The reason is obvious: in American history, the structure of the Constitution, and American political theory, states’ rights and American liberty, as Lord Acton noted, are inseparable. But if your priority is the abstract right to engage in morally deviant behaviors, as versus the real rights of property holders and settled communities to make decisions without the interference of the central government, states’ rights and political decentralization just do not figure into the equation.

And finally, the following with reference to point one:

Sometimes, Boaz’s progressivism runs headlong into libertarian doctrine itself. He argues that the “progressive extension of dignity” to “women, to people of different religions and different races” is “one of the great libertarian triumphs of the Western world” (p. 16), and he quotes proto-socialist Martin Luther King on civil rights (p. 229). Yet, as anyone who has tangled with the enforcement arm of the government’s anti-discrimination police knows, this “dignity” has come at the expense of two fundamental rights: that of private property and that of association, the very two rights Michael Oakshott said are the most basic to freedom.
Far from being a victory for liberty, the extension of civil rights (that is, the right to trespass) has been a complete disaster and a major source of tyranny of our times. Aside from a vague criticism of quotas, the right of property owners to discriminate doesn’t figure into Boaz’s libertarian calculus. Moreover, since when has the purpose of libertarianism—a political theory delineating the boundaries of property rights—been to progressively extend “dignity” to whole groups? This is indeed an innovation in libertarian theorizing.

Why Does All This Matter?

Libertarianism itself is strictly a legal theory. It has relevance and application to the state, therefore it also speaks to political theory. From here, some libertarians argue that libertarianism is “neither right nor left.” It’s possible this is true, though a more extensive analysis of right and left might add more nuance. But what is not true is that libertarianism alone can service as a social theory; society is not built on propositional agreement alone. The proof of this is so very obvious: do not socially left-oriented libertarians get along with general left-oriented people better than socially right-oriented libertarians? Doesn’t Tom Woods (affirms he is a libertarian) get along with Paul Gottfried (declines the label libertarian) more than Nick Sarwark (affirms he is a libertarian)? This is not merely a technical disagreement as to the right definition of libertarianism by Sarwark and Woods. This is a matter of the way different people approach the world.

Libertarians are not socially united by their libertarianism alone (though they may be somewhat in coalition on political matters– though even this is breaking down). And in the coming years, as the cultural revolution continues to develop, libertarians are going to find themselves even more at odds with each other. It’s important to recognize where our friends are and not let the politicization of society guide your friendships and social activities. We are not bound by political theory, but by interests, commitments, personalities, religious convictions, and so much more. We must not betray the natural ties with those around us for the artificial ties that only exist as an illusion in our politicized world.

About the author

C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.

from the editor's blog