Why do you think self-identified libertarians skew so much to the right?
I’m in Australia, where political-ish people tend to grab leftover ideology from the dominant superpower and treat it like original thought (I’m probably as guilty as anyone), and where “libertarian” means, in almost all cases, far-right wing beliefs including support for massive government intervention in pursuit of traditional conservative ideals. It’s the classic case of conservatives who like pot choosing to repackage themselves as iconoclasts.
I don’t know much about libertarians in Australia, but some American libertarian history seems in order. I hope Sancho can offer more of his own experiences to help complete the conversation.
In the 1950s, fascism was all but dead, and communism was by far the biggest worldwide threat to liberty. Many in the American left either currently were or else had recently been sympathetic to foreign communist governments, including Stalin’s. The right may have made too much of it at the time, but this was a fact. Radical leftists would sympathize with communism well beyond the 1950s, often hoping that Mao would do better than Stalin. (He didn’t.)
The friend of an enemy is an enemy, of course, so the fledgling libertarian movement was unlikely to side with the left. But is the enemy of an enemy a friend? That’s more complicated.
Eisenhower mostly reconciled Republicans to the New Deal, and this was a problem, but there were a few from the so-called Old Right still around. The Old Right opposed the New Deal and remained skeptical about American involvement abroad. Eisenhower’s farewell address was a welcome nod to their views. It was also spot-on accurate, as later events would prove.
The members of the Old Right were unquestionably anti-communist, but they weren’t about to blow up the world to prove it. Many of them — people like Robert A. Taft and Rose Wilder Lane — thought that the Soviet Union, while evil, was a paper tiger militarily.
Clearly one can argue with this; if anything, the Soviets did more to beat the Nazis than we did. But in any case, an alliance was born. The name for it was “fusionism,” and there’s a very good book laying out some of the primary documents from this never-entirely-cordial alliance. (For one, Russell Kirk despised libertarians.)
It’s important to remember, too, that the libertarian movement was still barely formed. A lot of things could have gone differently (contingency again, a favorite theme of mine). The Road to Serfdom appeared in 1944. It was a very strange book for its time, and contemporary reviewers seem not to have understood it. Human Action came in 1949, and Atlas Shrugged only in 1957. Milton Friedman was a respected economist but not yet a significant public intellectual; his Newsweek column began in 1966.
It’s interesting to speculate on how the libertarian movement might have proceeded if fascism had won in Europe, and if communism were defeated instead. In that world, the American right would have looked a lot more fascist — think Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin — and the left would have looked much less communist. My intellectual ancestors might even have tried a left-fusionism, like the one that may be happening today. We were, after all, the original liberals.
What does this have to do with today? Libertarianism’s alliance with the Old Right would remain long after it was tactically useful, and long after “Old Right” ceased to have any functional meaning. In particular, I can’t understand how right-fusionism could have survived Nixon. But somehow it did, and far-right elements seeking a home have often come to libertarian groups — who are, alas, often starved for members and resources.
To this day, many far-right authoritarians still try to claim the libertarian label, which they absolutely do not deserve. Some of these recommend stoning homosexuals and heretics. Others would align libertarianism with the neo-Confederate movement. And some would even align us with monarchism and the neo-Nazis.
To put it mildly, this isn’t what I signed up for. What I believe is very well expressed in Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies. There are really two social principles acting in the world: One consists of stasis, authority, and central control; the other, of dynamism, autonomy, and letting-go. Those are the only real choices for me.
Stasis and dynamism do not map onto left and right. Stasist conservatives would return to authority structures from the past; stasist liberals would set up new ones. But whenever we can possibly do so, I believe that we should choose dynamism instead.
We’re not going to recreate the past, nor should we want to. And the centralized, technocratic futures of the left are equally misguided. The future I look forward to is free, peaceful, decentralized, market-oriented, and constantly improving. I don’t think that either left or right fully does it justice.
Libertarianism as I conceive of it is the heir to the Enlightenment and to its project of universal human freedom and betterment. The victories that we should claim as our own include the great battles for the freedom of conscience and the press, the abolition of slavery, the promotion of worldwide free trade, and the defeat of communism. And fascism.
We may not know exactly our destination; we may disagree on the particulars, even — but to the last of us, libertarians ought to say — “More of this, please.” Every single time that we have abolished some type of coercion, some type of arbitrary power of one person over another, humanity has had cause to rejoice, and never once to regret.
by Jason Kuznicki