I have been called a left-libertarian, and, depending on how the term is defined, the term has some accuracy. It can also be misleading.
The confusion comes in what is meant when one discusses left- and right-libertarianism. Just as the general concepts "left" and "right" are riddled with obfuscation and imprecision, left- and right-libertarianism can refer to any number of varying and at times mutually exclusive political orientations:
- Left-libertarians might be those concerned mostly with "personal freedoms," whereas right-libertarians are interested mainly in "economic freedoms."
- Left-libertarians can be those who have sympathy for voluntary egalitarianism, whereas right-libertarians are more favorable toward natural hierarchy.
- Left-libertarians may just be those who live culturally leftist lifestyles, rather than the conservative lifestyle of right-libertarians.
- Left-libertarians might be those who actively seek others to embrace their own leftist lifestyle, whereas right-libertarians might seek others to embrace their own conservative lifestyle.
- Left-libertarians may oppose big business, whereas right-libertarians see it as a great victim of the state.
- Left-libertarians may have a New Left opposition to empire, whereas right-libertarians favor a "strong national defense."
- Left-libertarians might think the state should actively intervene in foreign affairs to "protect liberty," whereas right-libertarians have an Old Right opposition to empire.
There are other possible ways to look at it, each adding to the potential confusion.
In terms of policy and principle, we see that right and left within libertarianism tells us very little. Many culturally conservative "libertarians" will support the war on Iraq and violations of civil liberty. Many culturally liberal ones will too. And then there are very principled libertarians who have been categorized as being on both the left and right.
The key distinction among varying kinds of libertarians should be seen as one in principle, not in esthetics. There are libertarians who champion freedom of association, decentralism, individual liberty, unfettered private property and exchange and peace, and then there are "libertarians" who want to make the government work more efficiently, who grant considerable exceptions to their anti-statism for the state to be used in a host of areas, who compromise on property rights and free association and favor government war.
The real issue is not left- or right-libertarianism, as it turns out, but rather, as in the greater political spectrum, whether a person sees the state as a major hazard or just another institution to be reformed and directed toward a political goal. In the case of pro-state libertarians, the goal might be some vague concept of freedom, but achieving this through the state poses many of the same problems as achieving anything through the state. Radical libertarians oppose the state fundamentally, including its military and police apparatuses. So-called moderates, on the other hand, see the state as an indispensable institution — and perhaps, in some sense, and especially when discussing the U.S. government with its celebrated Constitution, as the source of freedom itself — which should only be limited by internal mechanisms so as to serve humans in the best possible way.
Moderate libertarians lament that the U.S. empire has perhaps weakened its legitimacy and standing in the world by overstretching itself in unnecessary wars of choice such as Iraq. Radical libertarians see the entire U.S. empire as a grave threat to liberty and world peace, which must be completely dismantled, along with the standing army, and regard such imperial projects as the Iraq war as acts of murderous aggression consistent with what should be expected from such a military empire.
Moderate libertarians think private enterprise is more efficient than the state, and so certain social service functions would be better handled through public-private partnerships or privatization of the provision of these services. Radical libertarians see private enterprise, unlike the state, as moral and, yes, more efficient, and are thus wary of corrupting business by pairing it with state, as well as of the prospect of making the state’s priorities more efficiently managed. State services should not be improved by corporatist deals between business and government, but outright abolished, with all legitimate functions taken over completely by the free market.
Moderate libertarians think some forms of taxation are much better than others, since they are supposedly fairer and are more efficient ways of collecting revenue. Radical libertarians see taxation as the negation of property rights, to be done away with completely, and do not spend much time proposing new taxes to replace old ones.
Moderate libertarians complain that the police waste so many resources on such counterproductive programs as the war on drugs, when they should be doing more to protect our rights. Radical libertarians see government police departments as a threat to liberty in themselves; realize that the evil war on drugs is just what we should expect from socialist provision of law and order; see the prison system, courts and police as systematically criminal and corrupt and understand we’d be safer if we got rid of as much of the state’s involvement in law enforcement as humanly possible. In any event, the state should not be trusted blindly even when it’s doing something "legitimate."
Moderate libertarians think some functions are so important that the government must handle them — leading to equivocation on important matters like central banking, government road building, eminent domain, taxation, government enforcement of intellectual property, a huge prison system and a military empire. Radical libertarians trust the state least with functions that humans cannot do without.
Moderates worry that people will see them as radicals, and so emphasize that they do not hate government; they only seek to make it leaner, better and more effective at its "legitimate" functions. Radical libertarians fear not in exposing the truth behind government lies and atrocities, calling an act of murder an act of murder even when the state does it, and upholding consistently the ethic that there is nothing that politicians should be allowed to do — with or without democratic support — that others outside of government shouldn’t be allowed to do. If it’s wrong for some random organization to drop a bomb on a city block with innocent people there, in hopes of wiping out some belligerents, then it is equally wrong for the state to do so. There is no exception.
When you look at what’s really important, it is obvious that there are so-called "left-libertarians" and "right-libertarians" that populate both factions of the moderate-radical divide. Ever since 9/11 and its aftermath of state expansion, it has become even more clear that previous ways of looking at the political spectrum have become anachronistic. This has been true within the libertarian movement no less than in the broader spectrum, as previous allies who saw things in terms of left and right sided with or against the war on terror, not so much on the basis of their leftism or rightism, but rather due to their conception of liberty and the state.
The issue, as always, is power vs. liberty, the state vs. freedom. In the end, we do not need libertarians to move toward the left or right. We need only that people move toward libertarianism, and that libertarians maintain their principles and resist the state’s many temptations to adopt its agendas and inverted morality. In short, we need libertarians to be libertarians, rather than government apologists who use libertarian rhetoric to defend state aggression. Whether libertarians see themselves as more on the left or on the right is not as important as that they see libertarianism as their true ideological home, liberty as the highest political value, and the state as liberty’s eternal enemy.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.