The Left and Right Within Libertarianism

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WIN: Peace and Freedom through Nonviolent Action (March 1,

a bewildering and seemingly new phenomenon has burst upon the
public consciousness, “right-wing libertarianism.” While earlier
forms of the movement received brief and scornful attention by
professional “extremist”-baiting liberals, present attention is,
almost miraculously for veterans of the movement, serious and
respectful. The current implication is “maybe they’ve got something
here. What, then, have they got?”

their numerous differences, all “right-wing libertarians” agree
on the central core of their thought, briefly, that every individual
has the absolute moral right to “self-ownership,” the ownership
and control of his own body without aggressive interference by
any other person or group. Secondly, libertarians believe that
every individual has the right to claim the ownership of whatever
goods he has created or found in a natural, unused state: this
establishes an absolute property right, not only in his own person
but also in the things that he finds or creates. Thirdly, if everyone
has such an absolute right to private property, he therefore has
the right to exchange such property titles for other titles to
property: hence the right to give away such property to whomever
he chooses (provided, of course, that the recipient is willing);
hence the right of bequest – and the right of the recipient
to inherit.

The emphasis
on the rights of private property of course locates this libertarian
creed as emphatically “right-wing,” as does the right of free
contract, implying absolute adherence to freedom of enterprise
and the free-market economy. It also means, however, that the
right-libertarian stands foursquare for the “civil liberty” of
freedom of speech, press, and assembly. It means that he necessarily
favors total freedom for abortion, pornography, prostitution,
and all other forms of personal action that do not themselves
aggress against the property of others. And, above all, he regards
conscription as slavery pure and simple. All of these latter positions
are of course now regarded as “leftist,” and so the right-libertarian
is inevitably put in the position of being some form of “left-rightnik,”
someone who agrees with conservatives on some issues and with
leftists on others.

While others
therefore see him as curiously fluctuating and inconsistent, he
regards his position as virtually the only one that is truly consistent,
consistent on behalf of the liberty of every individual. For how
can the leftist be against the violence of war and conscription
and morality laws while yet favoring the violence of taxes and
government controls? And how can the rightist trumpet his devotion
to private property and free enterprise while favoring conscription
and the outlawing of activities he deems immoral?

While of
course opposing any private or group aggression against the rights
of private property, the right-libertarian unerringly zeroes in
on the central, the overriding aggressor upon such rights: the
State apparatus. While the leftist tends to regard the State as
an evil enforcer of private-property rights, the right-libertarian,
on the contrary, regards it as the prime aggressor on such rights.

In contrast
to believers in democracy or monarchy or dictatorship, the right-libertarian
steadfastly refuses to regard the State as invested with any sort
of divine or any other sanction setting it up above the general
moral law. If it is criminal for one man or a group of men to
aggress against a man’s person or property, then it is equally
criminal for an outfit calling itself the “government” or “State”
to do the same thing.

Hence the
right-libertarian regards “war” as mass murder, “conscription”
as slavery, and – for most libertarians – “taxation”
as robbery. From such past mentors as Herbert
Man vs. the State
) and Albert
Jay Nock
Enemy, the State
), the right-libertarian regards the State
as the great enemy of the peaceful and productive pursuits of

With this
as the central core of libertarian thought, we must now investigate
the numerous facets of the right-libertarian spectrum; and, despite
the numerous difficulties of such an analysis, it is still most
convenient to align the various tendencies and factions of right-libertarianism
on its own “left-right” continuum.

On the extreme-right
fringe of the movement, there are those who simply believe in
old-fashioned, 19th-century laissez-faire; the major laissez-faire
group is the Foundation for Economic
, of Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, for which many
of the middle-aged members of the right-libertarian movement have
worked at one time or another.

The laissez-fairists
believe that a central government must exist, and therefore that
taxes must exist, but that taxation should be confined to the
prime “governmental” function of defending life and property against
attack. Any pressing of government beyond this function is considered

The great
bulk of libertarians, especially among the youth, have, however,
gone beyond laissez-faire, for they have seen its basic inconsistency:
for if taxation is robbery for building dams or steel plants,
then it is also robbery when financing such supposedly “governmental”
functions as police and the courts.

If it is
legitimate for the State to coerce the taxpayer into financing
the police, then why is it not equally legitimate to coerce the
taxpayer for myriad other activities, including building steel
factories, subsidizing favored groups, etc.? If taxation is robbery,
surely then it is robbery regardless of the ends, benevolent or
malevolent, for which the State proposes to employ these stolen

Most libertarians
also reject the laissez-fairist position that it is morally imperative
to obey all laws, no matter how despotic, as well as the all-too-common
laissez-fairist patriotic devotion to the American Constitution
and the American State. They have also found current laissez-fairists
(though this was not true of the 19th-century brand) to be conspicuously
silent in mentioning the heavy responsibility of big business
for the growth of statism in 20th-century America; instead, the
blame is almost always placed on unions, politicians, and leftish

almost never is there criticism of the greatest single force accelerating
the Leviathan State in America: the military-industrial
, and the American empire fueled by that complex. For
all these reasons, the old-fashioned laissez-faire position has
lost credibility for the bulk of today’s right-libertarians.

Moving one
degree leftward, we come to the Randian and neo-Randian movements,
those who follow or have been influenced by the novelist Ayn
. From the publication of Rand’s novel Atlas
in 1958, the Randian movement developed into
what seemed to be destined as a mighty force. For the emotional
impact of Rand’s powerfully-plotted novels attracted a vast following
of young people into her “Objectivist” movement.

In addition
to the emotional drawing power of the novels, Randianism provided
the eager acolyte with an integrated philosophical system, a system
grounded on Aristotelian epistemology, and blending it with Nietszchean
egoism and hero worship, rationalist psychology, laissez-faire
economics, and a natural-rights political philosophy, a political
philosophy grounded on the libertarian axiom of never aggressing
upon the person or property of another.

Even at its
peak, however, the effectiveness of the Randian movement was severely
limited by two important factors:

  1. One
    was its extreme and fanatical sectarianism; Randians refused
    to have anything to do with any person or group, no matter
    how close in outlook, who deviated by so much as an iota from
    the entire Randian canon – a canon, by the way, that
    has a rigid “line” on every conceivable question, from aesthetics
    to tactics. (An odd exception to this sectarianism, by the
    way, is the Republican Party and the Nixon administration,
    which includes several highly placed Randians as advisors.)
    Particularly hated by the Randians is any former colleague
    who has deviated from the total line; these people are reviled
    and personally blacklisted by the faithful. Indeed, Rand’s
    monthly magazine, The Objectivist, is probably the
    only magazine in the world that consistently cancels the subscription
    of anyone on their personal blacklist, including any subscribers
    who send in what they consider to be unworshipful questions.

  2. The second,
    associated factor is the totalitarian atmosphere, the cultic
    atmosphere, of the Randian movement. While the official Randian
    creed stresses the importance of individuality, self-reliance,
    and independent judgment, the unofficial but crucial axiom
    for the faithful is that “Ayn Rand is the greatest person
    who has ever lived” and, as a practical corollary, that “everything
    Ayn Rand says is right.” With this sort of ruling mentality,
    it is no wonder that the turnover in the Randian movement
    has been exceptionally high: attracted by the credo of individualism,
    an enormous number of young people were either purged or drifted
    away in disgust.

The collapse
of the Randian movement as an organized force came in the summer
of 1968, when an unbelievable bombshell struck the movement: an
irrevocable split between Rand and her appointed heir, Nathaniel

Since then,
the Randian movement has happily become polycentric; and Branden
repaired to California to set up his own schismatic movement there.
But the latter is still a movement confined to psychological theories
and publications, and to book reviews in the occasionally appearing
Academic Associates News. As an organized movement, Randianism,
whatever variant, is a mere shadow of its former self.

But the Randian
creed still remains as a vital influence on the thinking of libertarians,
so many of whom were former adherents to the cult. Politically,
Rand is to the left of the laissez-fairists in rejecting taxation
as robbery, and therefore illegitimate. Rand saw through the illogicality,
the inconsistency, of the laissez-faire view of taxation.

Randian political
theory wishes to preserve the existing unitary state, with its
monopoly over coercion and ultimate decision-making; it wishes
to define its “government” as a utopian institution which retains
its State monopoly but gains its revenue only by voluntary contributions
from its citizens. Still worse, while Randians agree that taxation
is robbery, they stubbornly refuse to regard the government –
even the existing government, which lives off taxation –
as a band of robbers. Hence, Rand illogically infuses into the
political outlook of herself and her charges an emotional devotion
to the existing American government and to the American Constitution
that totally negates her own libertarian axioms.

Rand opposes the war in Vietnam, for example, she does so on purely
tactical reasons as a mistake not in our “national interest”;
as a result, she is far more passionate in her hostility to the
unpatriotic protestors against the war than she is against the
war itself. She advocated the firing of Eugene Genovese from Rutgers,
on the surprisingly anti-individualist grounds that “no man may
support the victory of the enemies of his country.” And even though
Rand passionately opposes the draft as slavery, she also believes,
with Read and the laissez-fairists, that it is illegitimate to
disobey the laws of the American State, no matter how unjust –
so long as her freedom to protest the laws remains.

Ayn Rand is a conventional right-winger, as well, in her attitude
toward the “international Communist conspiracy.” While Randians
are not exactly champions of war, they are prevented by their
simplistic diabolism from absorbing the revisionist view of American
foreign policy – from realizing that the Cold War and American
interventions overseas have been caused by the expanding aggressions
of American imperialism rather than by a noble response to “communist
expansionism” by the “freest nation on earth.” Randians persist
in the right-wing myth that the antipode of individualism is communism,
whereas the real antipode to liberty in America today is far different:
the existing corporate-monopoly, welfare-warfare state.

Many neo-Randians,
devoted as they are to logical analysis, have seen the logical
clinker in Randian political theory; that if no man may aggress
upon another, then neither may an outfit calling itself “government”
presume to exert a coercive monopoly on force and on the making
of ultimate judicial decision. Hence, they saw that no government
may be coercively preserved, and they therefore took the next
crucial step; while retaining devotion to the free market and
private property, this legion of youthful neo-Randians have concluded
that all services, including police and courts, must become freely
marketable. It is morally illegitimate to set up a coercive monopoly
of such functions, and then revere it as “government.” Hence,
they have become “free-market anarchists,” or “anarchocapitalists,”
people who believe that defense, like any other service, should
only be provided on the free market and not through monopoly or
tax coercion.

is a creed new to the present age. Its closest historical links
are with the “individualist anarchism” of Benjamin R. Tucker and
Lysander Spooner of the late 19th century, and it shares with
Tucker and Spooner a devotion to private property, individualism,
and competition. Furthermore, and in contrast to Read and Rand,
it shares with Spooner and Tucker their hostility to government
officials as a criminal band of robbers and murderers. It is therefore
no longer “patriotic.” It differs from the older anarchist in
not believing that profits and interest would disappear in a fully
free market, in holding the landlord-tenant relationship to be
legitimate, and in holding that men can arrive through reason
at objective law which does not have to be at the mercy of ad
hoc juries. Lysander Spooner’s brilliantly hard-hitting No
, one of the masterpieces of antistatism and reprinted
by an anarchocapitalist press, has had considerable influence
in converting present-day youth to libertarianism.

It is safe
to say that the great bulk of right-libertarians are anarchocapitalists,
particularly among the youth. Anarchocapitalism, however, also
contains within it a large spectrum of differing ideas and attitudes.
For one thing, while they have all discarded any traits of devotion
to the State and have become anarchists, many of them have retained
the simplistic anticommunism, devotion to big business, and even
American patriotism of their former creeds.

What we may
call “anarchopatriots,” for example, take this sort of line: “Yes,
anarchy is the ideal solution. But, in the meanwhile, the American
government is the freest on earth,” etc. Much of this sort of
attitude permeated the Libertarian Caucus of the Young Americans
for Freedom, which split
off or were expelled from YAF
at the embroiled YAF convention
at St. Louis in August, 1969. This split – based on their
libertarianism and their refusal to be devoted to such unjust
laws as the draft – led to the splitting off from YAF of
almost the entire California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New
Jersey sections of that leading conservative youth organization.
These groups then formed “Libertarian Alliances” in the various

A group of
older anarchocapitalists centered in New York founded the Libertarian
as a semimonthly, in early 1969, and formed the
Radical Libertarian Alliance (RLA), which had a considerable impact
in fueling and sparking the 1969 YAF split in St. Louis. Its ideas
were propagated among the youth with particular effect by Roy
A. Childs, Jr.

Childs had
particular effect in converting Jarret
from Randianism to anarchocapitalism and then to
a realistic view of the American State. Wollstein, an energetic
young Marylander, had been ejected from the Randian movement,
and had formed his own Society for Rational Individualism, publishing
the monthly National Individualist. Finally, at the end
of 1969, Wollstein’s SRI merged with the bulk of the old Libertarian
Alliance members of YAF to form the Society
of Individual Liberty
, which has become by far the leading
organization of libertarians in this country. SIL has thousands
of members, and numerous campus chapters throughout the country,
and is loosely affiliated with the California Libertarian Alliance,
consisting largely of the ex-YAFers and which itself has over
a thousand members within the state.

as the SIL and the old Libertarian Alliance have flourished by
moving from right to center within the spectrum, the New York–centered
Radical Libertarian Alliance has fallen upon evil days. Murray
Rothbard and Leonard Liggio had founded the journal Left
and Right
in early 1965 as a means of splitting finally
from a conservative movement with which they had been allied but
which had become a crusade against communism and a celebrant of
the American consensus. In contrast, they saw in the New Left
of those days many of the libertarian elements which they had,
in earlier days, found on the Right: opposition to centralized
bureaucracy and statism, hostility to the public-school system,
opposition to conscription, and a renaissance of the old “isolationist”
hostility to war and American imperialism. Hence, they called
upon the libertarians to find their allies on the New Left rather
than on the Right.

Leonard Liggio
has been particularly energetic in working with the Left, having
lectured on “American Imperialism” at the original Free University
of New York, edited the magazine Leviathan, and having
been associated with the American branch of the Bertrand Russell
Peace Foundation and its War Crimes Tribunal on Vietnam.

Under the
inspiration of this search for the New Left, Becky Glaser led
the transformation of the YAF chapter at the University of Kansas
into an SDS
chapter, and such youth leaders as Alan Milchman, then head of
YAF at Brooklyn College, and Wilson Clark, Jr., head of the Conservative
Club at the University of North Carolina, abandoned these organizations
to plunge into radical-left activity.

Rapid growth
in the New York movement in 1968–69 led Rothbard and his
associates to found the Libertarian Forum, as well as an
ever-growing series of dinners, culminating in a conference attracting
several hundred libertarians from the East Coast and Midwest,
held in New York City on Columbus Day, 1969. Increasingly, however,
a split grew within the Radical Libertarian Alliance, which had
branches in Washington, DC, Connecticut, and Boston.

The factional
differences centered on the problems of revolution, relations
with the Left, and communalism vs. individualism. For as the RLA
youth took the concept of alliance with the New Left to heart,
they increasingly and to varying degrees became “leftists,” thus
setting up an extreme-left tendency within the anarchocapitalist
movement. Leading this tendency was former Goldwater speechwriter
Karl Hess,
who had been one of the most spectacular converts to right-libertarianism
during 1968. Going through a Randian phase – reflected in
his famous Playboy article “Death
of Politics”
in mid-1969 – Hess had passed through the
center and on to lead the extreme left by mid-1969.

to the call for alliance with the New Left, the Left tendency
began to oppose any criticisms of their newfound allies, leading
to an uncritical adulation of the Black Panthers and other groups
on the Left, including the anarchocommunists headed by Murray
Bookchin. As in the history of many ideological movements, tactics
began to merge into principle, so that many of the extreme left
began to become anarchosyndicalists or anarchocommunists, or,
failing that, to see little or no difference between the various
branches of anarchism.

On revolution,
in contrast to the Right, which opposes revolution on principle,
and the Center, which holds revolution to be morally defensible
as armed self-defense against State aggression but tactically
and strategically absurd for present-day America, the RLA-Left
began to favor any and all revolutionary tactics, including street
fighting, “trashing,” etc. This strategy has become increasingly
unviable with the general collapse of the New Left and its drift
back to Stalinism.

The final
split between these various factions occurred after the Columbus
Day, 1969, conference held by RLA in New York City, which degenerated
into a screaming match between Left, Center, and Right factions,
and featured a Left exodus from the Conference to join a march
on Fort Dix. Shortly afterward, the over-30 group severed all
connections with RLA, and soon New York saw two separate right-libertarian
organizations, each wary if not hostile to the other: RLA; and
the New York Libertarian Alliance, which was headed by Long Island
lawyer Gary Greenberg, and which became affiliated with SIL. Since
then, RLA has fragmented into various splintered affinity groupings,
the only viable remnants being Ralph Fucetola’s New Jersey Libertarian
Alliance, which publishes The Abolitionist, and a group
led by Charles Hamilton, which publishes the newly established
quarterly Libertarian Analysis.

In many ways,
California, with the largest right-libertarian population, differs
from the movement in the rest of the country. The movement there
is led by the California Libertarian Alliance (CLA), of over a
thousand members. Led by youthful former YAFers, the CLA is rightist
and neo-Randian in tendency, although over the last year and a
half it too has moved leftward and abandoned many of its Randian

CLA has held
several highly successful conferences based on the idea of a Left-Right
libertarian dialogue. The last conference, held on the campus
of the University of Southern California last November and attracting
over 700 attendees, featured Paul Goodman as well as more orthodox
right-libertarian speakers. It also featured the libertarian psychoanalyst
Dr. Thomas Szasz,
who, influenced by such laissez-faire libertarians as Ludwig von
Mises and F.A. Hayek, has also become a favorite of the New Left
for his crusade against the coercion involved in the “mental-health”

At the center
of the flourishing movement in southern California is Robert
, head of the anarchopacifist tendency within the movement.
LeFevre had founded and run for many years the Freedom School
near Colorado Springs, a school that ran two-week summer seminars
and was very successful in converting students and members of
the public throughout the country. After transforming the school
into Rampart College, LeFevre moved the operation to the Los Angeles
area, where it has formed the nucleus for the libertarian movement

LeFevre believes
in absolute pacifism, holding it immoral not only to aggress against
the person or property of anyone else but also to defend that
person or property by means of violence. Since he opposes all
use of violence anywhere, he is far more consistent than socialist-pacifists
in his opposition to force, and ranks as a kind of right-wing
Tolstoyan. He himself rejects the label “anarchist” and prefers
to call his pacifist libertarianism “autarchism.”

Another split
within the libertarian movement centers on “youth culture”: drugs,
rock, dress, etc. Almost exclusively, the split is generational,
with the over-30s (with the exception of Hess) lined up against
the youth culture, and the under-30s (with the exception of dyed-in-the
wool Randians) strongly in favor. However, the California youth
lead their generation in pushing youth culture as a supposedly
mandatory part of the libertarian struggle; a similar but less
important split centers on "Women’s Liberation" and
"Gay Liberation," both of which are pushed strongly
by the CLA youth. California is also the home of such bizarre
variants as “retreatism” – the dream of small groups for
eluding the State by buying (or
even making!
) their own island, or even moving into caves

little known in the rest of the country, but probably with relatively
the greatest influence within its own, is the right-libertarian
movement in Hawaii. Led by Bill Danks, a graduate student in American
history at the University of Hawaii, the movement there managed
to gain control of a major radio station, KTRG. For two years,
KTRG beamed libertarian programs at their many thousands of listeners
for many hours each night.

the FCC, in a flagrant-though-unknown example of political repression,
has cracked down and taken away the license of the station, and
Danks as well as the heads of KTRG have been indicted for violation
of the 1970 census! These are the only indictments so far for
the high crime of refusing to answer questions on the census.
Danks, affiliated with SIL, was head of SIL’s Census Resistance
’70 in the state of Hawaii.

Another emerging
activity in the movement is the National Taxpayers’ Union, headquartered
in Washington, DC. Headed by James Davidson, publisher of SIL’s
The Individualist, and Wainwright Dawson, Jr., a former
conservative who has merged his United Republicans of America
into the NTU, the organization includes among its officers and
advisors Murray Rothbard, A. Ernest Fitzgerald, and the distinguished
socialist-anarchist Noam Chomsky.

As “left”
and “right” categories dissolve and become increasingly meaningless
on the American ideological scene, as young people, with the collapse
of both the SDS-Left and the liberal “consensus,” grope toward
a new philosophy and a new orientation, the emerging phenomenon
of right-libertarianism may be destined for an important role
in American life. If that happens, left-pacifists should not be
very distressed, for this would mean an important thrust toward
the dismantling of the war machine, the imperial expansion, and
the domestic Leviathan of the giant American State.


N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic vice
president of the Mises Institute.
He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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