Misconceptions of Left vs. Right (Part 8): Libertarianism


This analysis of the left vs. right political dichotomy first began with the origin of the concept, and has since covered the Authoritarian vs. Libertarian, Liberal vs. Conservative, Order vs. Chaos, Equality vs. Hierarchy, Nature vs. Nurture, Constrained vs. Unconstrained, Individualism vs. Collectivism, and Empathy for The Rich vs. Sympathy for The Poor dichotomies, as well as the Chesterton’s Fence analogy and Academic Agent’s Fourteen Point Political Compass.

With seven articles thus far devoted to different interpretations of the political spectrum, what conclusions can be derived, especially in regards to libertarianism?

To narrow down all of ideology into a simple dichotomy is nearly impossible. Although views on most issues can be placed along a two-point political spectrum, a view on one issue does not always align with a view on another issue. Most issues can be (and have been) mixed and matched with other views to form a unique ideology. This is not to suggest that they are all valid or equally correct, but rather to point out the incredible variety of ideologies that exist.

Scope also plays a role. Some ideologies, like Objectivism, are more expansive, while others are more limited. And even then, there is disagreement within some ideologies of their proper scope.

Libertarianism unites its advocates only by political ideology. Libertarianism opposes the initiation of force, but not much beyond that. It is one end of the political spectrum, opposing authoritarianism. And as explained earlier, the Authoritarian vs. Libertarian spectrum does not fit too well as part of the standard left vs. right framework.

Regarding all other issues outside of the use of force, libertarians are highly divided. When some say libertarians are “neither left nor right,” they have a point. Some libertarians are on the right, while others are on the left, depending on where they line up on other issues. Social issues and culture are certainly factors in the left vs. right spectrum, and these are outside the scope of an ideology concerning the use of force.

Some libertarians, like many of those at Reason and the Libertarian Party, put forth the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” mantra, and tend to be more libertine and left-wing on cultural issues. Not only do they want things like recreational drug use to be legalized, they also want society to be more socially tolerant towards this.

Other libertarians, like those at the Mises Institute and Bastion, tend to the more traditionalist and right-wing on cultural issues. They take the libertarian position in opposition to banning recreational drug use, but would maintain that a society’s culture should not tolerate it, much less celebrate it.

If we continue with the “thin” definition, then libertarianism does not fit neatly on the ideological spectrum, because it is so limited in scope.

Academic Agent’s Political Compass appears to be a far superior approach to defining ideology. Instead of trying to cram every ideology into a single political spectrum, we can separate different issues with little correlation to one another into separate spectrums. Within his framework, libertarianism fits neatly as one end of the “Economic” axis, which mimics the Authoritarian vs. Libertarian spectrum.

Libertarians will find themselves agreeing with one another as to which side of this axis is best, but will find barely any common ground on the other six.

In reality, each individual has different values, and different priorities for each value. One individual might be a libertarian traditionalist, and place their traditionalist cultural values as more important than their libertarian political values. Another individual may be a socially left libertarian, but view their libertarian political values as more important than their cultural values.

And, as many have pointed out, there are some people that hold libertarian political values but no other values beyond this. This is not to defend or justify any particular set of views, nor is it to declare that all of them are equally right or accurate. Instead, this is just to acknowledge the existence of each of these sets of views, and for the purpose of fitting these into a framework, it seems to be far more preferable to define them in a manner similar to the methodology of the Academic Agent rather than fitting them along a single left vs. right spectrum.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]