Libertarians find themselves in an odd position these days, circumstantially alongside many on the Left in our opposition to those on the Right who happen to hold power. On the issues of war, civil liberties, and even fiscal solvency, the Left appears more sane, or at least less recklessly insane, than the militarist Right.
Only five years ago, many libertarians found themselves with quite different political company. On issues of economics and even civil liberties and war, the Right appeared more favorable toward restraining state power than the Left.
Has the Right gotten worse? Has the Left gotten better? Or is this all the result of who happens to run the government in post-9/11 America?
It took me a long time to find the Right — even the Republicans in power — to be more of a threat to liberty than the Left. After 9/11, I thought that Gore would have nuked the Middle East and put soldiers on every American street corner. I thought Bush’s refusal to adopt a national ID card system demonstrated a restraint on the part of Republicans that we wouldn’t see with a Democratic president.
Obviously, we don’t know what Al Gore would have done. Maybe he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Maybe he would have invaded a different country. Maybe he would have done both, bringing us to a worse situation than we find ourselves in now.
Despite the mainstream Democratic warmongers, the radical Left is fairly more reliable than the Right in opposition to the warfare state, I’ve reluctantly concluded. Unfortunately, in the case of all too many of them, the more they love peace, the more they seem to despise private property and the free market, which foster peace. The statism that many on the Left cling onto, once applied in the real world, inevitably leads to human suffering, war, and authoritarianism. So the radical Left is an asset as well as a liability to the cause of freedom.
The hard-core conservatives are more reliable on issues of private property, gun rights, and the like. Unfortunately, they have a soft spot for imperial nationalism, which, like socialism, leads to war. I tend to think that conservatives are less critical of Republicans than leftists are of Democrats, but this just may well be a reflection of today’s political climate and not an a priori axiom.
The Republican and Democratic Parties have none of the virtues of the radical Left or hard-core Right, and most of the pitfalls. They don’t seek to abolish private property like the nuts on the Left, or, at least at this moment, wage total war on the entire Middle East, like some of the nuts on the Right want to. But they incrementally deliver the worst of the fringe brands of statism, even as they give us none of the antiauthoritarian inclinations you’d find on either side.
The two major parties are nearly identical. They govern from the center, pursuing the same policies with different rhetorical and aesthetic cloaks to disguise them. The Republicans build up the warfare-police-welfare state, dressed up in a way that dishonestly appears to honor tradition, national security, the family, and capitalism. The Democrats give us a welfare-warfare-police state that dishonestly appears to appeal to the values of equality, international humanitarianism, the working class, and liberal democracy.
Much of the Left voted for John Kerry, a man who endorsed a hard-line approach to Fallujah — which we have just seen Bush implement. Much of the Right voted for George Bush, a man who has expanded the welfare state faster than you can say "Lyndon Baines Johnson." Why was America so divided over such a meaningless choice?
Left and Right are quickly, and thankfully, becoming antiquated conceptual constructs. Looking at our own history, or the history of the world, we see that oppression, war, central management of the economy, and police state tactics have been employed by both Left and Right, both socialists and fascists, both Democrats and Republicans.
Some libertarians like to argue that the "real" Right is pro-freedom, but it has been hijacked by neocons. Others argue that, in fact, the classic Left has historically been more libertarian, but it was hijacked by Marx.
The truth is that none of this "real Right" or "real Left" talk, as fascinating and important as it is, can truly explain the modern political scene. In the end, both sides have statist as well as libertarian elements. Why do most people who consider themselves American Rightists feel better living under Bushian rule than under Kerry or Clinton? Why would most folks who describe themselves as Leftists prefer any Democrat, no matter how vile, to Bush? This isn’t due to principle. The fact that both parties pursue the same policies, with only cosmetic differences, doesn’t seem to bother any of them. Or, they find ways to make excuses: Bush "caved in" by passing the Medicare expansion — even though he proactively twisted the arms of Congress to pass it. Kerry "caved in" when he voted for the Patriot Act — even though he penned some of its provisions.
This, of course, is all nonsense. It is a shame that so many Americans fall for it. Even some libertarians do.
The reality is this: the confused secular blue state socialist types are just as capable of right-wing warfare, when they’re in power, as the confused religious red state conservative folks, who are in turn just as capable of welfarism when they’re the ones in power. The problem is the power. I would argue that, right now, the Right is in fact more dangerous because they’re in power. Even the good Rightists become less of a check on government when the bad Rightists run the state.
But does it really mean anything to be on the Left or Right? Culturally, it might mean something, even a great deal. It might say something about one’s attitude toward homosexuality, immigration, abortion, gun ownership, prayer in schools, hunting, rock concerts, or diet. Politically, this often translates into bitter division over manufactured controversies, trivialities, and issues that shouldn’t be issues at all. Once the state gets involved, the two sides yell and scream at each other about whether the government should license homosexual marriages or teach Creationism in schools. From a purely principled point of view, most of these stakes, as artificially high as they have been raised by the political process, shouldn’t be cause for such resentment between people. If there were no government schools or government marriage licenses, the political issues surrounding them would disappear in an instant.
The politicos love these "cultural" issues, because regardless of how much the government moves in one direction or another in policy — and it usually moves only slightly, straddling the middle as much as possible — the political establishment and the state become further sanctified, further enriched, further empowered, and further entrenched in our lives.
The two political parties don’t even have to be different in substance, even on the somewhat peripheral issues. Bush can say, "I think marriage must be treated with dignity, that it is between a man and a woman; but I endorse civil unions." Kerry can say, "I believe that homosexuals must be treated with dignity, therefore I endorse civil unions; but I do think marriage is between a man and a woman." All that matters is which catch phrases they choose to emphasize.
Meanwhile, the wars, spending, and Bill of Rights destruction all continue.
The Right and Left have their limited uses in the modern struggle for liberty. When one is in charge, the other provides opposition, much of which is valuable or even indispensable. There are definitely conservatives who are more pro-capitalism than pro-war, and liberals who are more pro-peace than pro-socialism. On the other hand, there are those on the Right who don’t mind the welfare state, so long as it accompanies empire; and there are those on the Left who don’t mind bombing a few countries and trashing the Fourth Amendment as long as the government also provides a free lunch. The first kind of leftists and rightists should be working together to oppose the second kind, who always manage to be the ones in control of the state and its two parties.
Sadly, instead of the more libertarian folks on the two sides seeing their common ground and uniting in solidarity where they can agree, they become divided by the ridiculous Left-Right dichotomy. Instead of recognizing the similarities between Left statism and Right statism, many of the good folks on the Left and Right end up choosing the statism that appears aesthetically less offensive to their senses. So we see adamant opponents of war cling onto warmongering Democrats and violent opponents of the welfare state defend the likes of Bush. The worst is when libertarian-leaning minds on one side start thinking of ways to punish the other side with the state, once they gain power.
Inevitably, many good people on both sides either become suckered into defending, or become willingly enthralled by, the enormous state apparatus. Too often, they lose sight of or get used to the dictatorship that is slowly but surely emerging — something that most people on both sides do not actually want — and tragically focus on the differences between Bush and Kerry (or Hillary) in their attitudes toward gay marriage and the Pledge of Allegiance. By election time, since the two parties have nearly identical agendas, the major controversy boils down to the ways the candidates walk and talk, and whether they seem like they would fit in at your local bar, be it a saloon in Texas or a pub in San Francisco.
And that’s the real difference, politically, between Left and Right these days. It’s become a stupid fight between tofu and rib eye, between rock music and country-western.
For those of us who like rib eye and rock music — or who prefer to have all these choices available — we have nowhere to go, at least in the established political spectrum. Let us work toward abolishing this preposterous Left/Right nonsense, and show the good people on both sides that they’re allying with their own enemies in a false battle, when instead they should be working with us to get the government to leave us alone so we can all pick our own meals, choose our own music, and pursue our own happiness in what precious little time we have in this world.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.