Left, Right and Libertarianism

As a libertarian, I see the traditional left right divide as unhelpful and confusing. It is arguable if these distinctions are even relevant at all today. What is perceived as left or right has changed back and forth considerably since the terms came into usage during the French Revolution. A position that was once radical becomes conservative when it becomes public policy.

Where does a libertarian fit on the scale between far-left and far-right? If we place moderates in the middle, communists on the far-left and fascists on the far-right as in the traditional placing, I’ve nowhere to go.

The Nolan chart helps to resolve this dilemma, and I would argue, gives a much more accurate portrayl of political ideas.

As you can see, this image from Wikipedia has two axes – economic freedom and social freedom, giving rise to four general quadrants. Whilst a generalisation, typically the left supports more personal freedom, and less economic freedom, whilst the right would support more economic freedom and less personal freedom. In current politics, such divisions are highly blurred with both Labour and Conservatives (or Democrats and Republicans for US readers) crossing over these boundaries frequently.

For me, this chart helps to demonstrate the fact that libertarians oppose government intervention across the board, rather than using government coercion to impose our preferred set of ideas on everybody else. I haven’t quite resolved whether I’m a minarchist (very small government) or a full on anarchist (no government) as I change my mind each day, but I’m somewhere in the top right quadrant. Considering the march to ever greater and more intrusive government across the Western world these days, I’ll be happy with any reduction in both the size and scope of government, and await the day when we have anarchist and minarchist parties arguing across the House of Commons. Well, we can all dream can’t we?

Lastly, here’s a nice satire of the chart from XKCD:

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7 Responses to Left, Right and Libertarianism

  1. Interesting, though I wonder if you are argument crosses 2 areas; political identification and the size of government. Size of government is just one element which defines political affiliations.

    Most politicians & voters do not belong to anyone area – including many of our MPs (as seen in the latest revolts in the Commons). You are correct, politics is not a simple dicotomy. People vote differently in local, regional, national and EU elections so you’re not alone in not fitting into a single box. Do you not risk losing your political voice by not compromising?

    As to size of government; how would we operate without one? If we replaced the word with “governance” (taken here to mean the rules within which organisations & society operate), then there has to be a smallest level of support/agreement (which sounds like a ‘big society’ justification). How do you operate a judiciary without some sort of government to decide what they are enforcing? Smaller government may be good (those to the right would think so) but can small or no government really a credable alternative in a complex, multi-dimensional world like ours?

    • andyfrith2 says:

      Considering that the recent financial crisis was caused by governments (as per previous post) and excessive government is the prime cause of poverty the world over, I have every confidence we would thrive with a small government. I would argue that the majority of government interventions make problems worse rather than better, whether that’s intended or not.

      The argument for anarchy (which I flirt with occasionally) is a moral argument rather than a consequentalist one. It is based on the non-aggression principle: that the initiation of force is wrong – and since every government law and every tax is ultimately backed up by violence, indeed the the best definition of the state is that it holds a monopoly on the legal use of force with a given territory, it follows that the very existence of the state is immoral.

      I would pose the following question – which problems in society do we believe justify the use of violence to solve?

      If you don’t see the state as violent, just try not paying your council tax or if you refuse to be arrested for a trivial crime. Every law and tax is ultimately enforced at the barrel of gun and the threat of imprisonment. There is also the fundamental problem that not everybody consents to the government actions, so my money is stolen from me to fund things I disagree with.
      Democracy of course doesn’t solve this. It simply replace the tyranny of kings with the tyranny of the majority. Is ‘do not steal’ suspended if 51% vote to tax the 49% and collect the proceeds?

      • “Excessive government is the prime cause of poverty the world over”
        Is that because of governments allowing the wealthy to protect their income or the mis-appropriation of power removing the rights of the individual?

        “Every government law and every tax is ultimately backed up by violence”
        A little harsh – more often the withdrawal of rights rather than positive attacks, I feel. For me your idea cancels the theory that we have responsibilities to each other, as facilitated by the state, and rather sees us as simply having rights which are expected to be fulfilled.

        “Which problems in society do we believe justify the use of violence to solve?”
        I think the rights of the individual have to be challenged (sometimes with force) if the very life of another is endangered (i.e. acts of physical violence against another member of society cannot be tolerated).

        You deal with the size/role of government argument but not justifying my original response to your piece: does your lack of compromise leave you without a voice or power? Without those, you cannot move your beliefs onto a wider platform. In other words, is this political movement not intrinsically flawed in that it risks not being heard and thus fading into the background?

  2. andyfrith2 says:


    Apologies up front for a long reply, my comments end up being as long as my blog posts!

    Regarding excessive government and poverty – there is a very clear correlation between the lack of economic and political freedom, and poverty. Specifically, it is caused by high taxes, massive regulation, corruption, government monopolies, protectionism, central planning and the like. Just one example – it is very common in poor countries to take months to register a new business, and it costs months of the average wage. In most Western countries, this process takes days and costs a fraction of the average salary. In these conditions, economic growth barely exists. The wealthy protecting their income as nothing to do with it, since wealth is not a zero-sum game. In fact, in many poor countries, the wealthy have been treated very badly – and so they’ve moved to countries more willing to take their investments.

    Every law is backed up by violence is not “harsh” but simple fact. Every tax and law ultimately is enforced with a prison sentence. We don’t see this often because people pay their taxes, fines and obey the law because they know fine well the consequences if they don’t. Just ask those who withheld their council tax in protest against the Iraq war. If we have responsibilities to each other, surely that means not using violence against our neighbours, which is what taxing them or imposing laws on them is doing – it is telling our neighbours to do as their told, or else. The rights I believe in are not granted to me, or require any “fulfilment” – they are restrictions on the power of the state. I have no right to a job, or to education or healthcare, since these impose duties on others (through force). Rather, I have a right to life, free speech and the ownership of my property as a result of owning my own body and the productive use I put it towards. Otherwise it amounts to other individuals or the state owning my body (or the use of my time), which amounts to slavery, as argued here – http://bethsaidafigtree.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/youre-wrong-you-idiot-a-government-mantra/.

    “I think the rights of the individual have to be challenged (sometimes with force) if the very life of another is endangered (i.e. acts of physical violence against another member of society cannot be tolerated).”
    Of course the state spends most of it times use force not for such ends, but for myriad other goals. Using violence to prevent violence, or to apprehend those guilty of violence I believe is morally valid – and as such would be morally valid if carried out by the state or by individuals. The state doing the action gives no additional moral authority. We are all under the same moral law.
    If acts of physical violence against another member of society cannot be tolerated, then the state (at least in its current form, if not entirely) cannot be tolerated either – as this is its primary means to achieve its desired ends.

    Lastly, compromise of some sort is always necessary if one is to achieve any sort of political impact. However, one – I am not running for office, two – my beliefs are distinctly anti-politics, and three – I want to express my ideas as they are in order to get people thinking, rather than making them ‘palatable’. Of course, this makes voting a tortuous task – some argue it simply legitimises the system, others argue we should respect those who gave their lives for this right, or that we should vote for the lesser of three evils, etc. Either way, with no remotely libertarian party out there, I’m stuck. Across the pond, Ron Paul has made quite a name for himself running on a very principled platform, and rarely comprising. He’s been re-elected by his Texan constituency a few times, and has a big following nationwide, but never quite enough to win the nomination for president. There’s no such ‘figurehead’ in politics over here currently.

  3. Right *intellectually roles up sleeves*

    I think withdrawing rights is not the same as violence and I think the risk of reducing certain aspects of legislation is society collapses.

    You argue that you have intrinsic “rights”; I can see the argument and it’s been around since the Enlightenment and used to justify actions (on both sides) in the French Revolution. I agree but believe – and I have fallen out with my Father over this, too – that the individual has responsabilities, too, because we are not individuals but belong to a society. For the concept of “the individual” (let alone “individual rights”) to exist then we have to believe in a society so that the person can be “separate from” or “individual” from it. Thus, we have relationships & responsabilities at the same time as we have rights.

    There’s also an similar discussion to be had on your use of the word “state”. You use the term as if it is a separate entity, distinct from society and as if, somehow, holding power over individuals; I see it as the practical & political embodiement of society whose power is given to it by individuals. What do you mean by the word state?

    • andyfrith2 says:

      I would say that withdrawing rights is only made possible through the use of violence – as it is never a voluntary decision on behalf of those whose rights are withdrawn.

      I have no problem with the rights of murderers etc being removed by them being locked in prison, but the point I am making is that this “punishment” awaits all who disagree with the state and act upon that disagreement. If you are part of the 49% who lose in an election, you’ve no choice but to accept whatever the 51% propose. You cannot withdraw your consent or funding of the system regardless of what it does. You have to put up with it and try to influence the next election – at which point you might become the 51% forcing your point of view on the 49%. Neither is right.

      I don’t quite follow how we need to believe in a society in order to believe in the concept of the individual. I agree that we have responsibilities to other individuals, but I do not believe the state should enforce this – as I don’t see that enforcing good behaviour at the point of a gun is moral or sensible.

      I refer back to my previous comment where I define the state as the organisation that holds a legal monopoly of violence within a given territory. This, I believe, is the only definition that defines the state accurately by its means – that no other organisation or individual possesses – and therefore allows us distinguish the state from other organisations that may appear to be proto-states or pseudo-states. For example, I think your definition could apply to the church (in the modern world) and yet this is a voluntary organisation. Also, it distinguishes between violent groups (terrorists etc) who may hold a monopoly of violence but not a legal monopoly. The state says “I can initiate violence against you – however, if you initiate violence against anyone, you’ll be punished”. I see the state as ruling over society, and most definitely holding power over myself, and anyone within its territory.

      Whether the state is given this power by individuals/society is a debate amongst libertarians – some would argue it’s an elite group imposing it’s will upon the nation regardless of the will of the people, others have argued that even in dictatorships there is a least a significant number who desire the state in its current form. Perhaps both views are right in some ways. It most definitely doesn’t represent me, as you’ve probably gathered 🙂

  4. Pingback: Anarchy and libertarianism | ikners.com

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