The Left-Right Spectrum Is Mostly Meaningless
The political landscape doesn’t fit on a simple map.
Here is one version of the left-right spectrum, as described in 1975 by a former Barry Goldwater speechwriter who had left the conservative movement to break bread with Black Panthers and Wobblies. The far right, Karl Hess wrote in Dear America, was the realm of "monarchy, absolute dictatorships, and other forms of absolutely authoritarian rule," be they fascist or Stalinist or anything else. The left, conversely, favored "the distribution of power into the maximum number of hands." And the "farthest left you can go, historically at any rate, is anarchism—the total opposition to any institutionalized power."
Here is an alternate spectrum, presented four years earlier by two members of the John Birch Society. "Communism is, by definition, total government," Gary Allen and Larry Abraham declared in None Dare Call It Conspiracy. "If you have total government it makes little difference whether you call it Communism, Fascism, Socialism, Caesarism or Pharaohism." And if "total government (by any of its pseudonyms) stands on the far Left, then by logic the far Right should represent anarchy, or no government." On the right side of the spectrum, but not as far right as anarchism, was their preferred system: "a Constitutional Republic with a very limited government."
As you no doubt noticed, these two maps are basically mirror images. Oh, you'll find little differences if you probe the details. When Hess discussed late Maoist China, for example, he made refinements that the Birchers might discard, distinguishing the party bureaucracy ("much more to the right") from the rambunctious countryside ("very far to the left"). But both books defined the spectrum in essentially the same terms. They just couldn't agree on that minor little matter of which way is left and which is right.
Each of those maps has its quirks. When the Bircher duo put anarchy on the far right, they didn't merely mean free market anarchists of the Murray Rothbard sort: The only anarchist their book mentioned by name was the old-school anarcho-collectivist Mikhail Bakunin, who most people would call a radical leftist. Hess, meanwhile, conceded that his configuration puts the average liberal Democrat "to the right of many conservatives." Charming as it is for Goldwater's ex-speechwriter to conclude that his old boss was to the left of Lyndon Johnson, this idea would be a hard sell to most Americans.
But then, every left-right model starts to look strange if you peer closely enough. "Why do we refer to both Milton Friedman (a Jewish, pro-capitalist pacifist) and Adolf Hitler (an anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist militarist) as 'right wing' when they had opposite policy views on every point?" ask the historian Hyrum Lewis and his political scientist brother Verlan in The Myth of Left and Right, a new book that sets dynamite charges around the very concept of the political spectrum. "We shouldn't. Placing both Hitler and Friedman on the same side of a spectrum as if they shared some fundamental essence is both misleading and destructive."
The Lewises are sometimes prone to overstatement, and one of those overstatements is in that passage: While Friedman did tend to be anti-war, he was not a pacifist. But the most notable war that he supported was World War II, otherwise known as the war against Hitler. Even if the authors got their example slightly wrong, their underlying point about Hitler and Friedman is basically right.
So is their broader point. No model of the political spectrum will ever be satisfying, the Lewis brothers argue, because "left" and "right" are not actually ideologies—they are "bundles of unrelated political positions connected by nothing other than a group." An American in 2004 who wanted low taxes, a vigorous war on terror, and a constitutional amendment against gay marriage was taking "right-wing" positions, but what linked such disparate opinions? Nothing but sociology, say the Lewises: "A conservative or liberal is not someone who has a conservative or liberal philosophy, but someone who belongs to the conservative or liberal tribe."
And those tribes' outlooks evolve over time, as their positions on the issues (and the importance they grant to different issues) gradually change. There are "sticky ideologues" who stay attached to earlier tribal visions, and they're the people who end up saying things like "I didn't leave the Democrats—the Democrats left me." But it's more common to gradually move along with the crowd. It isn't the ideology that defines the tribe, the Lewises conclude: It's the tribe that defines the ideology.
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The left-right framework dates back to the beginning of the French Revolution, when the insurgents sat on the left end of the National Assembly and the royalists on the right. The metaphor soon caught on in much of Europe, but the Lewises argue that it did not really take hold in the U.S. until the 20th century. Some of the earliest American uses they find involve people describing rival factions of socialists. (It is surprisingly common to find references to "right-wing socialists" in newspapers of this period—not because people thought socialists were right-wing, but because some socialists were more radical than others.) Over the course of the 1920s and '30s, Americans became comfortable describing the left and right wings of the Democratic and Republican parties as well.
There wasn't much confusion over who belonged on the left or the right in those days, the Lewises claim, because "national politics was primarily about just one issue—the size of government." By their account, the 1930s spectrum was similar to the one the Birchers imagined in the '70s, with your position determined by how big and active a state you favor. This is one of their overstatements: Fascism was regularly described as right-wing in the American press of the '30s, and not just in reference to events in Europe. In 1939, an editorialist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch even expressed wonderment that the fascist intellectual Lawrence Dennis and the socialist economist Paul Sweezy would sound so similar, finding it notable that balanced budgets were under "equal attack from Fascistic and Left-wing economists."
But it is true that many issues that seem like core left-right concerns today were not treated as such nine decades ago. If you were segregationist but pro–New Deal, you were seen as part of the liberal coalition; if you were pro–civil rights but anti–New Deal, you were called a conservative. Many of the latter insisted that they were "true liberals," but even then they were not inclined to declare themselves the "true left." In any event, as more issues attached themselves to the spectrum—desegregation, the Cold War, "family values"—the more complicated the meanings of "left" and "right" became. And then people started projecting their revised spectrums onto the past, tangling everything up further.
The same year Hess published Dear America, the historian Ronald Radosh published Prophets on the Right, a study of five "conservative critics of American globalism" whose views sometimes anticipated those of the anti-militarist New Left: the progressive historian Charles Beard, the muckraking journalist John T. Flynn, the Republican politician Robert Taft, the onetime Nation editor Oswald Garrison Villard, and the aforementioned fascist Lawrence Dennis. It is indeed interesting that these "right-wing" figures criticized U.S. foreign policy in ways that a later "left-wing" historian would find appealing. But what's even more interesting is that three of the five—Beard, Flynn, and Villard—were seen in the 1930s as men of the left. Their criticisms of Franklin Roosevelt meant they eventually started keeping right-wing company, but only Flynn substantially changed his views in the wake of those new friendships. (On one axis, the Villard of the 1940s was arguably more "left-wing" than the Villard of the 1920s, given that he had retreated from his old laissez faire liberalism and embraced parts of the New Deal.) Even Taft, the standard-bearer of the '40s and '50s right, got his start as a progressive Republican. The chief reason he first ran for office in 1920 was to make it easier for local governments to raise taxes.
Here we run into another place where The Myth of Left and Right gets its account slightly wrong in a manner that ultimately underlines rather than undermines its larger themes. When the Lewises discuss the ways people project the spectrum onto past political divisions, they declare it absurd that historians "routinely refer to Jeffersonians as 'on the left' and Hamiltonians as 'on the right'"; they go on to deride the notion that "Jacksonian Democrats share a 'left-wing' essence with today's Democrats and that the Whig Party shares a 'right-wing' essence with today's Republicans." This feels a few decades out of date. Today one is much more likely to see liberals hailing Hamilton as a hero while offering less love for Jefferson, and Jackson is now widely seen as a prototype for the Trumpian right. But this just supports the Lewis brothers' point: The meanings of "left" and "right" are so fluid that one generation can flip its fathers' image of the antebellum spectrum on its head. It's especially easy when none of the people they're discussing conceived of their politics in left-right terms.
The Lewises conclude that we're better off without talk of "left" and "right" at all. They make a compelling case that the metaphor fosters dogmatism, prejudice, confusion, confirmation bias, and a view of politics as a Manichean struggle between two (and only two) forces, among other evils. Better, they say, just to junk it.
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Whether or not you want to throw out the left-right model, you must admit that this would solve one problem: Where do you put the libertarians? The answer isn't clear unless you build your entire spectrum around the question "How much government should there be?"—and even then, Hess and the Birchers have shown us that there won't be a complete consensus on where the libertarians should go.
Within the movement, you will sometimes hear references to what sounds like a special political spectrum that's just for libertarians, with various individuals described as "left-wing" or "right-wing" libertarians. But it soon becomes clear that the speakers don't always have the same spectrum in mind. You can be a "left-libertarian" by wanting to ally yourself with the Democrats, or by wanting to ally yourself with a radical left that holds Democrats in contempt, or (in a weird twist) by subscribing to an academic philosophy that puts an egalitarian spin on the ideas of John Locke. One can be a "right-libertarian" by being socially conservative but dovish, by being socially liberal but hawkish, by being friendly to corporate interests, or, lately, by being hostile to corporate interests, provided you dress up that opposition with words like "woke capital." As the larger world's concepts of "left" and "right" shift, so do those concepts in the liberty movement.
Another new book responds to the "Where do you put the libertarians?" question with an answer that is both simple and complicated: You can put them pretty much everywhere. The Individualists, written by the political philosophers Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi, is an intellectual history that sets out to show how libertarians can appear alternately as either radical or reactionary. To that end, the authors offer a tour through a kaleidoscopic assortment of libertarian variations, from the pro-border paleolibertarians to the anti-corporate mutualists to the followers of Henry George, with an eye on how different figures and factions have addressed such topics as war, poverty, and civil rights.
The result is one of the best guides you'll find to the libertarian universe. I have my inevitable disagreements with the authors, but they get two big things right.
For one, they eschew an overly restrictive definition of libertarianism. This is a guide to the things that people who call themselves libertarian believe, not a series of judgments on which of those people actually deserve to be called libertarian. There is a place for such polemics, but there is a place as well for just getting the lay of the land, and this fills that role well. Only toward the end do the authors show their hand and reveal where they are coming from themselves: They are self-described "bleeding-heart libertarians" who are willing to accept some forms of government action in the interest of social justice. But they do not turn the book into a bleeding-heart manifesto, and they generally play fair when presenting their rival schools' positions.
In place of a narrow definition, Zwolinski and Tomasi present libertarianism as a cluster of commitments: to property rights, negative liberty, individualism, free markets, spontaneous order, and a skepticism toward authority. Different libertarians may stress each commitment to a greater or lesser degree. This is a far more informative model than any one-dimensional line can be. But if you're attached to that line, it's not hard to see how leaning more strongly into one principle than another can pull one to the "left" or "right," whatever those mean this week.
So can how one defines the principle in the first place. If you hear two libertarians proclaiming their support for private property, you shouldn't assume that they mean the same thing. One might be defending the current distribution of wealth, and the other might be ready to redistribute any property he views as illegitimately acquired. (In 1969, Rothbard suggested that companies that get more than 50 percent of their profits from the government should be turned over to their workers.)
This reflects the second big thing that Zwolinski and Tomasi get right: a well-informed historical sense of how libertarian leanings can manifest themselves in different ways in different times and places. In France and the United Kingdom, they argue, 19th century libertarianism developed "largely in response to the threat of socialism," and so it often (though not always) took on a conservative cast, marked by alliances with established property owners. "For the first American libertarians," by contrast, "the greatest enemy to liberty was not socialism but slavery"; the movement's other targets included patriarchy, corporate privilege, and other foes that today would mark them as "left-wing." The idea that American libertarianism is "right-wing" didn't take hold until well after the 20th century was underway.
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Here we come to the book's biggest misjudgment. To understand what's wrong with it, you first must be familiar with a common cliché in conversations about how conservatives came to be aligned with libertarians: the idea that this was a "tactical alliance, forged under duress during the Cold War."
I took that quote from an article in the Claremont Review of Books, but the same basic idea has been expressed in countless other places. And it is plainly false. American libertarians started to ally themselves with conservatives in substantial numbers in the 1930s, well before the Cold War began. Their shared interest wasn't opposition to communism; it was opposition to the New Deal. The Cold War was, in fact, a major source of tension between conservatives and libertarians, because a great many libertarians thought the Cold War was bad. Over the course of the Soviet-American standoff, conservatives and libertarians locked horns over Vietnam, draft resistance, covert wars, arms control treaties, and more.
If you set aside those groups that simply didn't deal with foreign policy as a part of their mission, you'll find that virtually all of the major libertarian institutions that emerged from the '60s through the '80s were critics of the Cold War. The Cato Institute and the Mises Institute are often presented as polar opposites, but both were dominated by doves. So was the Libertarian Party. The one major exception was Reason, which was more hawkish in the Soviet era than today—and even so, the magazine's pages were open to anti–Cold War arguments. Conservative attacks on libertarians in that period were at least as likely to center on foreign policy as they were to center on gay rights or drugs.
Yes, you had Cold Warriors perched at National Review arguing that libertarians should join forces with conservatives (and, in some cases, offering a philosophical rationale for wedding libertarian ideas about freedom to traditionalist views of virtue). But the people who followed that advice tended to be a part of the conservative movement, not the libertarian movement. They didn't ally themselves; they subsumed themselves. Meanwhile, a vocal minority of libertarians decided to ally instead with the left—thanks, in large part, to that shared opposition to the Cold War. (Noam Chomsky has said that "the only journal I could publish in as long as it existed" was Inquiry, a magazine produced for most of its seven-year history by Cato.) If you polled the movement rank and file on whether they were left-wing or right-wing, the most common response would probably be that they were neither.
It was actually the end of the Cold War that made space for oddities like the "paleo" alliance of the 1990s, precisely because libertarians like Murray Rothbard and conservatives like Pat Buchanan no longer had the question of combating communism to divide them.
Zwolinski and Tomasi know this history. They recognize that the right-libertarian alliance began in the 1930s, not the '40s or '50s, and they highlight some of the left-libertarian cooperation of the Cold War era. Yet they christen this period "Cold War libertarianism," because it was a time when "the struggle against socialism came to dominate the libertarian worldview." They mean the struggle against socialistic economic policies, yet the name they picked highlights a conflict with a foreign power. It's an ill-chosen label that inadvertently reinforces a false historical narrative.
That frame also leaves Zwolinski and Tomasi handicapped when describing the world that came after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having divided the rest of American libertarian history into the anti-authoritarian radicalism of the 19th century and the conservative alliance of the 20th, they describe the period since 1989 as a "third wave" marked by "active contestation"—that is, as a period in which neither radicals nor reactionaries dominate. But is that really so different from the 1970s, when some libertarians happily joined forces with the Reaganites while others celebrated the counterculture, feminism, and humanist psychology? If you subscribed to the Laissez Faire Books catalog in 1975, you could have ordered either Dear America or None Dare Call It Conspiracy. It was a big tent.
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Despite that misstep, The Individualists is an excellent sketch of the libertarian landscape. One of the most impressive things about it is that it manages to show the "left-wing" and "right-wing" sides of libertarianism without lapsing very frequently into the language of "left" and "right." This is not a book that tries to compress politics into a one-dimensional spectrum. It charts a rich, multidimensional space.
But as you may have noticed, I couldn't help slipping into that language myself a few times while I discussed the book. The Lewis brothers are right about the left-right spectrum: It's a misleading metaphor, and we'd be better off if we had never been saddled with it. Yet even if "left" and "right" denote social tribes rather than consistent ideologies, those tribes themselves are real, and this is the language they use to describe themselves.
And I have to confess something: I kind of like all these ridiculous left-right schematics. If you can accept the fact that there is no perfect model of political opinion, just partial and impermanent maps of a vast and constantly shifting territory, then they can be useful snapshots of the terrain. I don't think either Hess or the Birchers had the one, true diagram of the political world, but each of their approaches is, in its way, an interesting window into 1970s America. If you can comprehend both—and their many rivals too—you can gradually create a cubist portrait of the period that shows more than any single angle would reveal.
In that spirit, let me mention one last take on the left-right spectrum. It was created by the market anarchist Samuel Edward Konkin III, and it appeared in the March 1980 issue of New Libertarian magazine. Like the Hess spectrum and the Bircher spectrum, this one was built around how statist you are. More precisely: Konkin put anarchism on the left and put Actually Existing States on the right, he placed people according to how much he felt they conceded to the latter, and then he collapsed the results into a single Flatland line.
The results resemble that Saul Steinberg cartoon of how the world looks to a New Yorker, where two blocks of the city loom larger than anything on the other side of the Hudson. The left end of the chart is an exhaustive accounting of the libertarian movement as it appeared to Konkin in 1980. (My favorite absurdly specific detail: Reason is to the left of the Libertarian Supper Club of San Diego but to the right of the Libertarian Supper Club of Orange County.) The right end of the chart, on the other hand, feels like a 40-car crash: People with virtually nothing in common politically sit cheek by jowl, to the point where the Palestine Liberation Organization is adjacent to National Review.
And in the center of the Konkin spectrum? There you have the "far-left statists"—that is, people who accepted too much government for the chart maker to consider them libertarians but who came closest to making it into the tent. The furthest left of the far-left statists is our friend Hess, whose tolerance for ultra-local levels of government prompted Konkin to call his views "neighborhood statism." And four steps to Hess' right, but still in the far-left-statist zone, there's the John Birch Society.
As a guide to the politics of 1980, this won't get you far. But as a glimpse at an eccentric worldview, it's sublime. Objectively speaking, "left" and "right" are nonsense concepts, for all the reasons Hyrum and Verlan Lewis tell us. Subjectively speaking, people nonetheless use them to make sense of the world. Let there be two, three, many spectrums, each making its own kind of crazy sense.