Libertarianism as Radical Centrism

I have used the term “radical centrism” in this series a few times. Before we wrap it up I would like to explain where I think libertarians fall on the political spectrum if we are not going to be “on the right.” The following is adapted from my entry in the upcoming book Why Liberty.

The left-right political spectrum is the standard introduction to political thought: if you believe X, you are on the left, and if you believe Y, you are on the right.  What X and Y represent varies depending on with whom you speak; its invocation encourages people to place themselves someplace on that spectrum, even if their views don’t locate them on one spot on that spectrum.  It’s made especially absurd when we’re told that “the two extremes meet, making the spectrum into a circle,” with rival forms of violent collectivism at each end.  So when you first hear of classical liberalism or libertarianism, you may ask yourself on which side of “the spectrum” the philosophy falls.

It doesn’t. Inherent in the ideas of liberty is a rejection of the standard left-right spectrum.  Libertarianism questions and challenges the use of political power. Instead of a choice between government intervention in this area or in that area, libertarianism sees politics as a struggle of liberty against power. Libertarians take very seriously the lesson of the historian Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[1] Libertarianism does not fall onto one side or another of a spectrum with advocates of one kind of coercive power or another on each side.

So which is coherent and which incoherent, libertarianism or the left-right spectrum, with Communism on one end and Fascism on the other, with tobacco prohibition on one side and marijuana prohibition on the other, and with speech codes on one side…..and speech codes on the other?  You can decide for yourself.

In a sense, if one were to insist on a linear spectrum, libertarians could be said to occupy the radical center of political discourse. Libertarians are radical in our analysis – we go to the root (Latin: <em>radix</em>) of the issues – and we believe in the principles of liberty.  One could call us centrist in the sense that from the center we project our ideas outward and inform political parties and ideologies across the spectrum. As a result, libertarian ideas pervade both the center-left and the center-right, providing them with their most appealing qualities.  Moreover, an increasing percentage of the publics in many countries should be seen as libertarian, rather than as on the “left” or the “right.”[2]

Libertarianism is a political philosophy centered on the importance of individual liberty.  A libertarian can be “socially conservative” or “socially progressive,” urban or rural, religious or not, a teetotaler or a drinker, married or single…..you get the point. What unites libertarians is a consistent adherence to the presumption of liberty in human affairs, that, in the words of the Cato Institute’s David Boaz, “it’s the exercise of power, not the exercise of freedom, that requires justification.”[3] Libertarians are consistent defenders of the principle of liberty and are able to work with a wide variety of people and groups on issues in which individual liberty, peace, and limited government are implicated.

The libertarian radical center has shaped much of the modern world. As journalist Fareed Zakaria observed:

Classical liberalism, we are told, has passed from the scene. If so, its epitaph will read as does Sir Christopher Wren’s, engraved on his monument at St. Paul’s Cathedral: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.” If you are searching for a monument, look around. Consider the world we live in – secular, scientific, democratic, middle class. Whether you like it or not, it is a world made by liberalism. Over the last two hundred years, liberalism (with its powerful ally, capitalism) has destroyed an order that had dominated human society for two millennia – that of authority, religion, custom, land, and kings. From its birthplace in Europe, liberalism spread to the United States and is now busily remaking most of Asia.[4]

Libertarianism (the contemporary name for principled classical liberalism) has already profoundly shaped the modern world. In much of the world, many battles have already been won: separation of church and state; limitation of power through constitutions; freedom of speech; debunking of mercantilism and its replacement with free trade; abolition of slavery; personal freedom and legal toleration for minorities, whether religious, ethnic, linguistic, or sexual; protection of property; the defeat of fascism, Jim Crow, apartheid, and communism.  Intellectuals and activists made those victories possible, and they are far too many to name. They made the world better – more just, more peaceful, and more free. They made the libertarian position on those and many other issues the baseline for reasonable political discourse. But we are not content to rest on our laurels. As always, old battles must often be fought again.  And, for the youth of today, as was the case for preceding generations, there remain many battles to fight and freedoms to win.

How have libertarians managed such influence while operating largely outside of the party structure? Sometimes we do form our own parties, as evidenced by the various (classical) liberal parties in Europe and other countries today. Sometimes we work within minor parties, as with the Libertarian Party in the United States, whose 2012 candidate Governor Gary Johnson educated millions about the harm caused by the war on drugs and other government programs.  Sometimes we work within existing party structures, exemplified by Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns as a Republican in 2008 and 2012. He was able to advance many libertarian principles by using the soap box of a political campaign to reach thousands of young people, not only in the United States, but around the world. While our political activism takes many forms depending on the country and the context, our ideas inform the political spectrum.

Consider 1960s America, regarded as the golden age of radical student activism in the United States. On the right you had the conservative Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). Their founding Sharon Statement, which was adopted in 1960, claimed, “That liberty is indivisible, and that political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom;  That the purpose of government is to protect those freedoms through the preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice; That when government ventures beyond these rightful functions, it accumulates power, which tends to diminish order and liberty;”[5] Their hero, Senator Barry Goldwater, famously stated, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. ”[6]

At the same time, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was emerging on the left as leaders of the antiwar movement. In their Port Huron Statement, which was adopted in 1962, they affirmed “We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love.  The decline of utopia and hope is in fact one of the defining features of social life today. The reasons are various: the dreams of the older left were perverted by Stalinism and never recreated … the horrors of the twentieth century, symbolized in the gas-ovens and concentration camps and atom bombs, have blasted hopefulness. To be idealistic is to be considered apocalyptic, deluded.”[7] Former SDS President Carl Ogelsby recalled in his memoir Ravens in the Storm, “Libertarianism is a stance that allows one to speak to the right as well as the left, which is what I was always trying to do…Why go to rightists on this theme when there were so many leftists to choose from? Because you made the strongest case against the war if you could show that both right and left oppose it.”[8] Moreover, “I had decided early on that it made sense to speak of ‘the radical center’ and ‘militant moderation.’ I meant that we should be radical in our analysis but centrist in reaching out to conservatives.”[9]

While they varied in their areas of emphasis, YAF on economic freedom and opposition to socialism, SDS on civil rights and peace, taken as a whole they can be regarded as pioneers of libertarian activism in the modern age. The leaders of those movements went on to become the teachers, journalists, professors, politicians, and other figures who drive the public discourse today.  They claimed allegiance to the left and the right, but their best intellectual arguments and energy came from their underlying libertarian impulses. 

The war on drugs is increasingly being acknowledged as a disaster.  Libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute have documented for decades the deadly costs of the drug war and the benefits of personal responsibility and personal liberty. Libertarian economists, notably including Milton Friedman, have explained the perverse incentives created by prohibition.[10]  Moral philosophers have argued that a society of free and responsible individuals would eliminate prohibitions on victimless crimes, an argument going back to Lysander Spooner’s 1875 pamphlet, Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty.[11]  Because libertarians blazed the trail by pointing out the harmful effects of prohibition – on morality, justice, and crime rates, on families and on social order – more and more political leaders are speaking out about the consequences of the war on drugs without fear of being smeared as “pro-drugs.”  They include presidents of Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and Brazil, countries that have suffered from the crime, violence, and corruption brought by prohibition. In the United States, these figures include governors, former secretaries of state, judges, police chiefs, and many others.[12]

This is how libertarians change the world. We are radical in that while others may hold particular pro-liberty beliefs casually or on an ad hoc basis, libertarians advocate them from principle. Libertarians are found on the leading edge of issues that are first seen as extreme but through our advocacy are later taken for granted. We are centrist in that we are neither left nor right, but instead we project our ideas outward to inform the entirety of the spectrum.

There is a great opportunity at hand here. Ideological battles and elections are not won on the extremes; they are won in the center. As Boaz and Kirby’s research shows, “10 to 20 percent of Americans are fiscally conservative and socially liberal—libertarian. And over the past decade, unlike loyal Democrats and Republicans, they have been swing voters.” Most of these people are with us in preferring both economic and social freedom, they just do not know that makes them a libertarian yet. If we libertarians stand up and proudly occupy the center then we will hold incredible influence in both the short and long term. We can show people that they do not have to pick a side, that the traditional spectrum is a joke, that we present a desirable alternative to the broken status quo.

Libertarianism is not a philosophy of the right or of the left.  It is the radical center, the home for those who wish to live and let live, who cherish both their own freedom and the freedom of others, who reject the stale clichés and false promises of collectivism, both “on the left” and “on the right.”   Where on the left-right spectrum does libertarianism stand?  Above it.

 

Notes

[1] John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Historical Essays and Studies, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907). Chapter: APPENDIX, Letter to Bishop Creighton http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/2201/203934

[2] For the case of American voters, see David Boaz, David Kirby, and Emily Eakins, The Libertarian Vote: Swing Voters, Tea Parties, and the Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal Center (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2012).

[3] “An Introduction to Libertarian Thought,” video at http://www.libertarianism.org/introduction.

[4] Fareed Zakaria, ‘‘The 20 Percent Philosophy,’’ Public Interest 129 (Fall 1997), pp. 96–101, http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20080709_19971299the20percentphilo….

[5] “Sharon Statement,” available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharon_Statement.

[6] Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Acceptance Speech, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/daily/may98/goldwaterspeec….

[7] Port Huron Statement, available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_Huron_Statement.

[8]Carl Oglesby, Ravens in the Storm, A Personal History of the 1960s Anti-War Movement (New York: Scribner, 2008), p. 120.

[9] Carl Oglesby, ibid, p. 173.

[10] Milton Friedman, “It’s Time to End the War on Drugs,” available at http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/7837; Jeffrey A. Miron and Jeffrey Zwiebel, “The Economic Case Against Drug Prohibition,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Fall 1995), pp. 175-192.

[11] Lysander Spooner, Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty, available at http://lysanderspooner.org/node/46.

[12] An array of law enforcement officials who are willing to speak out on the disasters of prohibition can be found at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, http://www.leap.cc.

 

 

 

 

 

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The State of the Debate by Jacqueline Otto

    Jacqueline Otto emphasizes that libertarians and conservatives share the goal of a more market-oriented economic system. That system can be ours, she argues, but only if we work together. As a result, she criticizes what she calls “the practice of keeping separate encampments.” She stresses the individualist and voluntary character of the Christian faith, which she sees as a proper complement to a market order. She warns that should we fail to emphasize the morality of capitalism, those on the religious left will be happy to dismantle it for us.

Response Essays

  • An Unequal Treaty by Jeremy Kolassa

    Jeremy Kolassa argues that fusion with traditional American conservatism has failed. The divide on social issues is simply too deep. Even in economics, conservatives have tended to be pro-business rather than pro-market. When voters see special favors for corporations being touted as free-market solutions, they lose interest in markets as a policy. That makes market advocates’ jobs so much harder. The unequal treaty needs to end, and libertarians need to assert an independent political identity.

  • The Death of Fusionism by Clark Ruper

    Clark Ruper reviews the history of fusionism, including the growth of independent libertarian institutions that don’t have to depend on the conservative movement anymore. Young people nowadays aren’t moving left, he argues. They are simply moving away from conservatism. The fusionist project is dead, and conservatives killed it.

  • Avoiding Confusionism: Liberty and Civil Society by Jordan Ballor

    Jordan Ballor argues that the libertarian exaltation of political liberty is dangerous: By privileging the power of the state, this worldview both gives the state too much importance and also undervalues the independent institutions of civil society. In reality, these institutions are bulwarks against the state. They represent the happy medium between atomistic individualism and Rousseauan collectivism. He ends with a plea for Burkean conservatism as the best way of constraining the statist/collectivist impulse.

The Conversation