By

CJay Engel

October 23, 2019

Libertarianism's Relation to Right and Left

There was a heavy thread going on in Tom Woods supporter's Facebook group about whether libertarians should use words like right and left in their description of their own views. It's getting somewhat hilarious that this is so hard for people and since I have written in more detail in the topic elsewhere, including an overview of the differences between right and left, here was my response to the thread:

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I understand the statement that libertarianism itself is neither right nor left—it being merely a formal doctrine of property rights. But to say that libertarians should never claim to themselves be right or left seems a bit presumptuous. 

If I, along with people like Nisbet, reject equality as either some ideal or even healthy sentiment, if I reject the notion that history is developed social progress, if I am hesitant about social change and prefer continuity over rapid upheaval, if I consider the traditional nuclear family as the bulwark of civilization and its loss as a major blow to stability, if I follow Burke instead of Paine in preferring established norms over universal abstractions hoisted onto society unnaturally to their culture, if I also follow Burke over Pain in recoiling at the French Revolution’s mindless terrors, if I believe that liberty as defined in the sense of “freedom from the past and from habit and custom” is completely unattractive and destabilizing, if I distrust the masses and despise both mass culture and mass politics, if I put emphasis on mediating social institutions such as church/family/local community over universal and international community, if I find significance in remembering and passing on the traditions of the past rather than mocking it as irrelevant, if I emphasize the vitality and primacy of religion in social life, if I put stock in Kirk’s “sense of place” and give prominence to the role of identifying with one’s ancestors and living for one’s posterity, if I believe that laws from tradition and custom are more stable that traditions and customs that come from laws….

If I adhere to all these how am I personally not on the right?

The lesson is this: you don’t have to be right to be a libertarian. But libertarians can indeed have rightist biases and inclinations. libertarianism is thin; human beings must not be!

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As to that very last bit, there was another commenter who wrote: "Real libertarians don’t give a f*** about left-right stuff. We just want to live in peace." This is libertarian nihilism. My response is this: it's okay to care about other stuff. You are not less libertarian in thinking about other things outside property rights and government encroachment. There's more to life than libertarianism.

Now, interestingly, I don't think many libertarians realize they are actually on the left with regard to social outlook. They don't see a culture war because they are winning it. I think all the above is a minority position in libertarian circles; which is why I mostly identify with traditionalists, despite my own Rothbardian libertarian convictions on the very specific issue of the state— although, I am beginning to understand just how limited government many traditionalists are. In any case, the idea that I should reject those who hold my socio-religious-cultural inclinations so that I can team up with the libertarians as my sole identifying ideology is not something I'm interested in.

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.

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