Libertarianism: A Branch of the Left?

Murray Rothbard

Rothbard’s “Left”

I’m fond of saying that libertarianism is a branch of the left. My argument is very simply Murray Rothbard’s argument in “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty“. I don’t think I’d change or qualify a word of that essay. If you haven’t read it, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.

Roughly, Rothbard’s argument goes as follows: traditionally, the left has always been the movement positioned against the ruling class. The right was the monarchs and aristocrats, and their goal was maintaining and enriching their own power. The left fought against them. And things could really be as simple as that. But the advent of socialism created a complication: socialists have leftist goals (distributing welfare among the people), but propose to achieve them through rightist means (state power).

Rothbard thus sees socialism as a “middle of the road” movement: left aims, right means. Libertarianism, on the other hand, opposes both the goal of consolidated welfare for a privileged class, and the means of state power. Thus libertarianism should rightly be seen as the modern iteration of the anti-unjust-power tradition of the left.

This is all well and good. I still buy this. This is how I personally think of “libertarianism” and “the left”.

The contemporary “Left”

But I have a confession to make. I know full well that that’s not how most people interpret these words. “Libertarianism” –  although it’s burdened by unfortunate associations with racism, corporate privilege, constitutionalism, and other unsavory dispositions (how fair/accurate those associations are is a subject for another post) – I think people more or less see as I do. Opposition to state power. That’s clear enough.

Not so much “the left”. For most, “the left” doesn’t denote this long tradition of opposition to power and privilege. Unfortunately, in the minds of too many, “the left” simply brings to mind the contemporary progressive and social justice movements.

Libertarianism is most definitely not a branch of that left. It is, to some extent, associated with that left. But then, it’s also, to some extent, associated with the contemporary right. The point is that it’s very much distinct from both.

To what extent it should be associated with either is a much more complex question than the simple Rothbardian analysis would suggest.

So what then?

This all points to a problem that’s deeper than it first appears: how important is a label? Should we go on calling libertarianism a “branch of the left”? Well, if the idea is to reclaim “left”, maybe. If the idea is to be historically accurate, maybe. But if the idea is to be clear in our communication with others, then probably not.

The reason this problem is deeper than it seems is that it’s recurring: our labels are always getting flipped on us (see “liberal”, “capitalist”, among many others). We could take the attitude that words don’t matter, it’s the ideas they represent that are important, and so why not give up these labels in the interest of clarity? But, if this happens often, we lose a great deal of rhetorical power. Indeed, our rhetorical passivity can be hijacked and exploited by ideological enemies.

I don’t have any easy answers to offer here. But I’ll at least cop to this: when I say “libertarianism is a branch of the left”, I’m either being strategic or pedantic. I’m not trying to simply communicate with you. Sorry about that.

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