On Libertarianism: Right & Left

“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

~Albert Einstein

Libertarianism is a term that has come to be identified with the right, with limited government, ideals of freedom, free market capitalism and laissez fair economics, however, the term originally meant libertarian socialism, a libertarianism of the left. The distinction of two kinds of libertarianism, or more appropriately, a spectrum of views within what is called libertarianism, is important. Both right and left libertarianism have a deep skepticism about excessive concentrations of state power, encroachments of government power in the lives of individuals and communities, and a belief that ultimately, “That government is best which governs the least.” Beyond this agreement, there are considerable differences between libertarianism of the right and that of the left. But before the distinctions between left and right libertarianism can be discussed, we need to clarify just what is essential to a libertarian perspective, and also, to distinguish between the ideal and the immediate in terms of advocating or working towards specific goals for human society.

Thoreau expresses a very clear and lucid view of the subject, recognizing the ideal, yet also the immediate reality: ideally, and “when men are ready for it,” no government, which we shall have, and which shall be a degree of liberation not yet seen or imagined; but in the immediate sense, not “no government, but at once, a better government.” In other words, work toward and keep in mind the ideal – freedom from state power messing up and intruding on the peoples’ lives, liberty and communities, but also seek more limited victories in the short term: a better government.

I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have…..But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

– Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience

Bertrand Russell also came to the same conclusion. His cool, rational conclusion, after a very fair-minded and objective analysis, was that anarchism – from the Latin, an-archos, meaning absence of an over-arching power, not chaos – is likely the best form of human society (as well as the full and self-consistent application of libertarian values), but we are not likely ready for it; in the short term, what he called libertarian socialism is the best order for society to which we can aspire. By that he meant limited government, with all government power kept as close to the community as possible, and as close the hands of the people as possible – as Jefferson urged – but also with strong values of voluntary free association and human cooperation for mutual aid and benefit (a la Kropotkin). Ideally, and in the short term, he recommended we work toward a society where power lies primarily, not in the hands of a few bureaucrats and lobbyists in a far away capital where power is centralized, but in the hands of the people at the level of community, with federations or networks of human cooperation and solidarity, trade and communication between and among communities and individuals for their mutual benefit and protection. Jefferson would certainly agree in spirit if not in all details.

Chomsky clarifies the distinction between long-term ideals and short-term goals within a reasonable and clear-headed perspective which is skeptical of concentrated political power, or any form of social power for that matter:

“Classical anarchist thought would have been more opposed to slavery, feudalism, fascism, and so on, than it would have been to parliamentary government. There was a good reason. Classical liberal thought, and anarchism coming out of it, were opposed to any concentration of power, that is, unaccountable concentration of power. It is reasonable to make a distinction between the more accountable and less accountable. Corporations are the least accountable. So, against the corporate assault on freedom and independence, one can quickly turn to the one form of social organization that offers … public participation and … that happens to be parliamentary government. That has nothing to do with being opposed to the State. In fact, it’s a sensible support for the State.” – Noam Chomsky

This is precisely why I can admire a democratic socialist like Hugo Chavez, who was democratically elected in closely monitored free and fair elections, who has introduced and held public referenda on every major decision faced by the people of Venezuela – a thought inconceivable to the elitist politicians of Washington, Ottawa, London, Paris or Berlin – and who is presently utilizing, with great popular democratic support, the institution of constitutional parliamentary democracy to protect the people of Venezuela from the greatest threat to human freedom and well-being on the planet today: the tyranny of unaccountable private empires – the global corporate raiders. It is no contradiction to say support libertarian socialism, or left libertarianism, while admiring a social democrat like Chavez. As Chomsky put it, it’s sensible support for the state – under certain limited conditions.

Chomsky as well expresses a view of libertarian socialism. And Chomsky, as well or better than any other, clarifies the distinction of right and left libertarianism. Libertarians across the spectrum are opposed to excessive concentrations of political power, as it is viewed that such high degrees of concentrated political power in society have more often than not created more harm than good – a view that is shared among Jefferson, Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Kropotkin, Chomsky and many others.

The history of the world shows that this view is the most realistic perspective on government and political power. The opposing view, that government is the saviour and redeemer of humanity, has brought about Stalinism, Nazism, fascism, Maoism, and lately, neoconservatism, among other evils. The view that is opposed to the libertarian desire to keep political power firmly in check, sees government as a kind of benign big brother, a paternal or maternal figure, a parent that treats citizens like children, who need to be coddled and scolded, controlled for their own good. It is a dangerous elitism, breeding naturally authoritarianism. It comes from a fear of freedom, as social psychologist Eric Fromm correctly pointed out, and not just megalomaniacal dreams of power.

Plato was the most famous and influential of the “government as saviour” camp. The philosopher kings, the wise few, would rule with benign despotism over the hapless and ignorant many. Sounds desirable, maybe, until you reflect that if you do not trust people to govern themselves, how can you possibly trust them to govern others? (A flaw of basic logic which was not missed by Jefferson.)

Hobbes furthered the view, presenting the anthropologically ignorant and incorrect view that life before civilization, by which he meant life before centralized government, was “evil, nasty, brutish and short.” The revolution in anthropology that occurred in the 1970’s with the discovery of new and conclusive evidence about our human history prior to the age of empires, refutes Hobbes unequivocally. Hobbes knew nothing of anthropology, of course, and the data would not be revealed for another few centuries, but he was wrong, and we know that now – or at least, we can know that now, although almost no-one is aware that such a revolution has occurred in anthropology and our knowledge of human history: we live in a pre-Copernican time with regard to the general culture’s understanding of anthropology and human history; most still believe the sun revolves `round the earth, though the evidence to refute this fallacy has been made clear.

In any case, Hobbes was engaging in a kind of rational self-deceit. Hobbes view of human beings was jaundiced and pessimistic in the extreme. He felt, as many do, that if there was no powerful over-arching force to restrain human beings, they would instantly rip each other’s throats out, and everything would descend into a war of “all against all.” Again, the anthropological data refutes this terrified view, but even if one were to accept it for sake of argument, it simply begs the question. If you do not trust people, then why would you give a few people extraordinary power? Would this not seem even more dangerous? Who did Hobbes expect to govern us, aliens? Hobbes did not trust people, so he argued that some people have an all-powerful position in order that these people protect people from people. This should strike us as immediately self-contradictory, ridiculous and absurd.

As Jefferson said, “If you do not trust people to govern themselves, how can you trust them to govern others?” It is therefore not idealistic and utopian to think that government should be kept to a minimum of centralized, concentrated power, but on the contrary, it is a healthy and prudent skepticism that informs such a view.

(When you combine Plato, Hobbes and Machiavelli, you get the neoconservatives – or their mirror image, neoliberalism. You get wildy elitist, authoritarian, ruthless, predatory, self-delusional, megalomaniacal empire fetish. That is what we are experiencing now.)

Thoreau demolishes Hobbes’ fantasy-scape with a few strokes on the pen:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. – Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

Libertarianism: Right and Left

The libertarianism of the right has a view of power that does not keep to its own self-consistency. It views political power as potentially dangerous, having the great potential to be abused, and therefore needing to be kept in close check. But it does not recognize economic power as a power in society, which is an oversight that is hard to fathom, such power being so plainly obvious. Because libertarians of the right tend not to recognize economic power as a form of power in society, they are unconcerned with its concentrations – even when concentrations of economic power become staggeringly large, as they have over the past twenty or thirty years. This is an oversight that is frankly dangerous, if not delusional.

Libertarians of the left share the skepticism of highly concentrated political power, but, naturally, recognize the potential for harm and abuse from excessive concentrations of economic power. Thus, in the present order of things, corporate power is to be addressed equally, along side state or governmental power. To do otherwise is to contradict oneself, and worse, to leave the door open to serious and extreme abuses of power, and also, to fascism, which, as Mussolini said, is rightly called corporatism, since it is the merger of business and the state (and that is exactly what is happening now, and on a global scale) due to the lack of foresight to correct and put in check all forms of great concentrations of power in society.

Right libertarianism questions, challenges, and repudiates high levels of concentration of political power in society – and rightfully so, I believe – yet it is, or at least has been until recently, unwilling to question the role and nature of high levels of concentrations of economic power.

This is, once again, frankly, a gross oversight, and one that makes right libertarianism a contradiction in terms: you cannot advocate limitations on powers that unduly constrict human freedom and pose threats of tyranny in a self-consistent, coherent, or even rational manner, if you are only willing to look at one form of power in society, and remain blind to others. Economic power is every bit as real as political power – some would say more so.

The 500 biggest corporations on earth now have combined revenues that total three times the GDP of the world’s biggest national economy – that of the United States. If this does not constitute power in society, I’m not sure what would.

OK, well, corporations have immense power, but that does not mean it translates into political power – does it? They are competing with one another. Yes, they are competing with one another, and they also share common interests: drive labour costs and wages down, eliminate or circumvent labour and environmental standards, find the cheapest source of labour and resources and move there, then dominate them, open borders to free flow of capital, but not to labour…..The commonalities are pretty clear.

And do they meet, discuss common interests, work together cooperatively? Of course. Wouldn’t you if you were in their position?

Do teachers join together to pursue common interests, such as decent pay, pension plans, etc.? Do janitors get together to pursue common goals of better pay and working conditions?

It is obvious, or should be, that there are common group interests – or, heaven forbid we use the term, class interests – that bring otherwise competing parties together to pursue common goals. The corporate elite are no different. This is not a conspiracy, but simply common sense.

The world’s corporate elite gather, among other places, at Davos Switzerland, every year for the World Economic Forum, and there seek to push governments to their will, to advance common interests among the elite global investment class, the billionaire class, or the class of ruling oligarchs, to every extent that they are able to do so – and that is a considerable length.

The billionaires, and the large corporations they control, do not control the world – but they certainly dominate it, and they dominate virtually every nation and government on earth, as well as dominating the global economy, the financial system and most of the media. This is, by any sane or reasonable definition, hegemonic power: corporations and the billionaires who control them, now effectively rule the world. The only way to properly define such a system or order of things, is not democracy, certainly, but oligarchy – or plutocracy, or neo-feudalism, or most starkly, and what we are fast approaching in its full, ugly form: global, neo-feudal, corporate fascism.

It is impossible to deny the very real power of corporations in society without digressing into ideological fundamentalism and willful blindness. Refusing to challenge economic concentrations of power while espousing a libertarian philosophy is self-contradictory: right libertarianism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

Would a laissez-fair, free-market capitalist, who supports only limited government – a libertarian as it is known on the right – be considered an oxymoron or a self-contradiction if he was also a slave owner? Of course. But it is not very different if a libertarian advocates checks and balances on political power, yet does not question the giant corporate monopolies and oligopolies that now wield more power than democratically elected governments.

Right libertarianism is truly a contradiction in terms, unless by that you mean a conservative libertarian, who also questions and challenges excessive concentrations of corporate, economic and financial power, and not only state or governmental power. U.S. Congressman and 2008 Presidential candidate Ron Paul, for example, I would describe as a conservative libertarian in this sense. He has his head on his shoulders when it comes to corporate powers, as far as I can tell. He is not stuck in ideological dogmatisms.

The left is equated – wrongly – with heavy-handed, bureaucratic, if not totalitarian government – or at least this is the view of the left that we get from the right wing; however, there are, broadly speaking, two wings or schools of thought within what has been called the left, and only one of the two fits the above description.

In the socialist movement of the 1800’s there was a definite rift, and a fierce debate, between the two very different currents of thought within what is loosely described as the political left. Marx led the wing we are most familiar with, Bakunin the other. Bakunin and the libertarian socialists were ousted, lost the battle, and were to some considerable degree eclipsed from history – at least until very recently. Bakunin warned that Marxist ideas would lead to a new form of tyranny – and of course he was right. The Soviet Union was the prime example, and Bakunin predicted the tyranny long in advance.

Now, with the Marxist-Leninist school of thought being in full disgrace within the left, as well as within the broader community of humanity world-wide, and with global neoliberal corporate capitalism experiencing a deep and profound, and rapidly growing crisis of legitimacy world-wide, with rapidly rising popular discontent, people are beginning to look for alternatives – and the alternative is becoming clear to many. That is, in the short term: a freedom-loving and anti-authoritarian, democratic socialism in the short term; and libertarian socialism in the longer term. I would say they deserve our thoughtful attention, and merit respectful consideration, at the very least, and to put it most mildly.

The War on Democracy: Unchecked Power Out of Control

Under what we should more honestly call monopoly capitalism, the era of the small shop owner being the primary economic player having long ago vanished, corporate power has become so concentrated – that is, economic power has become so enormously concentrated – that it now threatens to engulf and eviscerate all remaining democratic power of societies world wide. We should be concerned. Jefferson warned of this 200 years ago. We did not listen. We are now facing the results of our lack of foresight.

Those on the right and the left with a libertarian perspective would do well to communicate. There is a natural alliance here, if we can learn to speak in ways that are mutually understandable. There is no time for bickering or ideological warfare. We need to get together to protect the basics: decent, although flawed, human, imperfect limited government, within the framework of constitutional democracy and basic human rights and freedom.

If we do not come together, and not just right and left libertarians, but more traditional liberals, conservatives, social democrats, greens and progressives, and all who oppose the, by now undeniable, drift into oligarchy and corporate fascism, and stand together for constitutional democracy, civil liberties, human rights and freedom, all other considerations will become merely abstract, and we will find ourselves living in a brave new world, in a very dark age.

  1. Todd Ring

April 15, 2007

Further reading:

Writings of J. Todd Ring

Amazon.com: Civil Disobedience and Other Essays (Dover Thrift Editions): Books: Henry David Thoreau

Amazon.com: Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism & Syndication: Books: Bertrand Russell

Amazon.com: The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future: Books: Riane Eisler

Amazon.com: The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy: Books: Murray Bookchin

Amazon.com: Escape from Freedom: Books: Erich Fromm

Amazon.com: The Power Elite: Books: C. Wright Mills,Alan Wolfe

Amazon.com: The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power: Books: Joel Bakan

Economist’s View: You’ll Miss Us When We’re Gone

Economist’s View: Can Democrats and Libertarians Find Common Ground?

“Their Libertarianism and Ours” – from:

Amazon.com: Don’t Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial: Books: Ellen Willis

7 Responses to “On Libertarianism: Right & Left”

  1. eugene plawiuk Says:

    Great Post

  2. eugene plawiuk Says:

    P.S. send me your email address so I can invite you to join our Carnival of Anarchy Blog

  3. Great post. Might I also point you to the various flavours of market anarchism that desire a stateless society but also support free markets and refusing to accept non-consensual authority.

    Check out Kevin Carson and Brad Spangler as two examples of this. The right libertarians you describe here are called “vulgar libertarians” by those of us on the left, market anarchist side of things.

  4. Great post. Might I also point you to the various flavours of market anarchism that desire a stateless society but also support free markets and refusing to accept non-consensual authority.

    Check out Kevin Carson and Brad Spangler as two examples of this. The right libertarians you describe here are called “vulgar libertarians” by those of us on the left, market anarchist side of things.

  5. J. Todd Ring Says:

    Market anarchism is not a term or political philosophy I’m familiar with. Would that entail a reigning in of corporate power, for example, in order for such “free markets” to be anything of the sort?

    An oligopoly of the economic sphere is not a free market; neither does it allow for freedom in social or political terms, as economic dominance by the few over the many always translates readily into social and political dominance of the few over the many.

  6. J. Todd Ring Says:

    Market anarchism is not a term or political philosophy I’m familiar with. Would that entail a reigning in of corporate power, for example, in order for such “free markets” to be anything of the sort?

    An oligopoly of the economic sphere is not a free market; neither does it allow for freedom in social or political terms, as economic dominance by the few over the many always translates readily into social and political dominance of the few over the many.

  7. eugene plawiuk Says:

    Great Post

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