Libertarianism can only be Centrist, not Left or Right.
Everybody loves the left-right paradigm. It is peddled in our faces all day by different people. On social media, I read comments complaining about leftists and right wingers. A lot of the time it is for good reason too. The left wing wants to disrupt important political institutions that build trust and environments for people to work together. For example, the left wing doesn’t seem to have a lot of appreciation for constitutionalism and constraining the government through rule of law. For the right wing, they cling so hard to political institutions that they pass off meaningful reform as political upheaval.
However, these terms “left wing” and “right wing” seem to be incredibly muddied. People seem to think left wing means socialism and right wing means capitalism. It doesn’t. Though in the United States, being a socialist makes you left wing and being a capitalist might make you right wing, but only in the United States and only in certain contexts. This may seem confusing. In one sentence I tell you that left wing doesn’t mean socialism, but then follow it up with telling you being a socialist means you are left wing (in the United States).
A history lesson will clear up the confusion. Imagine yourself in 1780s France. Telling you that tensions are high is an understatement. A National Assembly was called in the summer of 1789 to deal with France’s financial hardships. The National Assembly consisted of three different estates (altogether called the estates-general): the nobles, the clergy, and the commoners. However, the room divided itself into three different sections apart the estates, though a lot of times these divisions had a lot to do with which estate you came from. There were those on the left wing of the chamber which were opposed to the current economic and political situation in France and they were incredibly anti-monarchy. There were those that were on the right wing of the chamber and they supported the monarchy and didn’t think significant changes in structure were needed to fix France’s financial burdens. And there were those in the middle that didn’t quite fit in either section. These were the moderates. There were also some minor distinctions with being center right and center left, but this distinction doesn’t matter much in this analysis.
With this history lesson we can put a broad definition to what it means to be left wing and what it means to be right wing, especially one that will actually be useful in discussing the real differences in ideas. Those that are left wing are anti-status quo. Those that are right wing are pro-status quo.
In the United States the way we discuss this makes it a bit more apparent, even if people don’t fully understand the differences in terminology. We call people like Bernie Sanders left wing. Bernie Sanders obviously appeals to anti-status quo sentiments. We call people like Donald Trump right wing. This is trickier. Is Donald Trump right wing? I would argue he is more of a centrist than anything else, though his most important appeals are more right wing (which may rightly classify him as more right wing). A motto like “make America great again” is clearly a pro-status quo appeal. However, when he talks about draining the swamp and taking out the political elite, this is more of a left wing appeal. I would argue that his status quo arguments, though, are what really energized his base and won him the election.
So this puts libertarians and classical liberals in an interesting spot. Are we left wing or are we right wing? With the definitions of these terms established, it is clear to see that being left or right wing depends really heavily on your context and setting. If a classical liberal lived during the French Revolution, they would be left wing, center left, or moderate: against monarchy, appealing to more personal freedoms of the people, etc. This is why Frederic Bastiat sat on the left wing of the chamber, though he probably had little in common with the Jacobins that also sat on the left side. With the definition of left and right wing, there is no reason that people in the left wing agree on political ideas, they just have to be against the one that currently exists.
If a libertarian were to be alive in the Soviet Union, they would be radically left wing. The same could be said about all socialist countries throughout history.
What about the United States, though? In the United States are classical liberals anti-status quo or pro-status quo? I would argue we are neither and we would have never been either since the beginning of the United States (though it is difficult to be technically pro- or anti-status quo when the nation never existed before). The United States, even being one of the most liberal countries if not the most liberal country, has never been perfectly libertarian. In our foundation, we allowed for slavery. Libertarians would be left wing on this issue. Our Constitution, due to the advocacy of the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, included the Elastic Clause, which created an unrestrained government. Libertarians would clearly be left wing on this issue. The second piece of legislation signed by George Washington was the Tariff Act of 1789. Libertarian would be left wing on this issue. Lastly, taxes are the ultimate status quo of the United States, and as many libertarian anarchists will tell you “taxation is theft.”
However in the United States, there are many things that libertarians take a right wing stance on. We support our government’s strong defense of private property. We support, for the most part, the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. A large portion of libertarians support the structure of federalism- having state levels and federal levels compete with one another.
There is a lot about the status quo we appreciate and a lot we really hate. With this, I think it is very clear that libertarians are inherently centrist in the United States…with one exception.
The one discrepancy is this: anarchists. Since anarchy is absolutely nowhere near the status quo of the United States, it is clear that all anarchists are left wing to me. In case this wasn’t brutally clear throughout this post, this doesn’t mean they are socialists or want big government. It means anarchists are inherently anti-status quo in politics (culture is a different conversation). Though, this does not mean that libertarians and anarchists can’t get along. There is more to politics than just being anti- or pro-status quo. We both value personal freedoms immensely. We just believe different political structures (or absence of these structures) will be the best to attain this worthy goal.