As most of you are probably already aware, the terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” have their origins in the États Généraux, the old French Legislative Assembly, back in the days of the Revolution of the late 18th century. The revolutionaries, or republicans, generally of the Third Estate, sat on the left of the Chair, while the monarchists, clerics and other traditionalists were on the right. As I understand it, to prevent debate being interrupted, the more extreme one’s views, generally the further from the chair one was seated; hence centre-right, far-right, and so on.
But when you describe yourself as right-wing, or right-libertarian (a term of which, for reasons I’ve explained previously, I’m not particularly fond), you are placing yourself at the mercy of your audience’s definition of right. It means many different things to different people.
I’m thinking here particularly of a certain English journalist who has recently taken charge of the newly-formed British arm of a large American media organization, and who is in the habit of describing himself as being “right about everything”. If by right you mean correct, well that goes without saying, O God-emperor. But if you want to include the word right in a political self-description, you had better be careful to define your terms, or you’re liable to find yourself bracketed with some pretty nasty company.
Some conflate the political Right with conservatism. As I’ve explained, this is merely a function of the type of society we happen to be living in (but not for much longer, as many believe) and not a generic definition. I’m currently reading a recent book by a conservative Australian politician, which I’ll review here when I get the chance, and in which I’ll expand on the difference between conservatism and the political Right.
My own working definition of right-wing is best described by the Nolan Chart below. It speaks of a progressive state suppression of all personal freedom, and insofar as it can be compared to left-wing, it is really indistinguishable in terms of its end point: no state power that has stripped its citizens of either economic or personal freedoms is likely to stop there. Power over others is an addictive drug, and a hooked demagogue can never get enough.
Now, I happen to know James’ position on matters concerning personal freedom, such as drug laws and gay rights, and it is a world away from anything that could remotely be described as right-wing; quite the opposite, in fact.
Another of my preferred definitions includes the American Old Right, a movement which began in the United States a century ago as a broad-church opposition to America’s entry into the Great War and, fifteen years later, to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. It comprised mostly northern Republicans, most famously Ohio Senator Robert Taft, together with a smattering of southern Democrats. The policies they shared included non-interventionism, opposition to globalism, laissez-faire capitalism, social liberalism and small government. Ronald Reagan (in his older incarnation) would probably have felt very much at home among them, and as a young man quite possibly absorbed a good deal of his nascent political outlook from his experience of them. The Old Right stands in stark contrast to the neo-conservatism of the early 21st century, which is interventionist, big-government, and far closer to what I would classify as politically truly right-wing.
Certain acquaintances of mine, having discovered my scepticism of the science of CAGW, or attitudes towards citizenship, immigration, gun laws, the gold standard, among others, find it convenient to dismiss me as a denier, or even better, a far right-wing nut case. I usually respond along the following lines:
How would you characterize the politics of someone who is an environmental activist; who regularly writes to politicians expressing environmental concerns, and attends environmental rallies? How many did you attend last year? How many letters did you write? How many trees did you plant? How would you characterize someone who believes in drug law liberalization? Who opposes any legislation restricting the liberties of anyone based on their race, religion or sexual orientation? Who is largely self-sufficient in food, sources his own water from rain, uses renewable energy to heat and power his home, recycles his sewage onsite, and whose family is in fact a net carbon sequesterer? Right-wing??? (now f*** off, I don’t add.)
Of course, the terms left and right have been debased, and used basically as a catch-all to describe people whose views they don’t like. As I’ve mentioned here in the past, the left-right divide is a fiction. In describing Libertarianism for the first time to people, I’m forced to use the language of Left and Right, insofar as Libertarians adopt some views regarded as right-wing, and others regarded as left-wing. But I’d like to rotate the debate by 90°, hold up a Nolan chart and explain that both left- and right-wingers adopt some policies that are Libertarian, and others that are totalitarian; all those two are really squabbling about is which freedoms to rob you of first.
I’m going to write a lot more about this in future, but I believe the characterization Palaeo-libertarianism may be the meeting point we have been looking for with conservatives. The term was first coined in 1990 by Lew Rockwell in an essay published in Liberty magazine, which you can read here (page 34). In it, Rockwell sought to reach out to conservatives, and offered a vision of a political philosophy of shared beliefs, rooted in the American Old Right:
The Libertarian Party is probably irreformable – and irrelevant even if it weren’t. Libertarianism is neither. But unless we cleanse libertarianism of its cultural image, our movement will fail as miserably as the LP has. We will continue to be seen as a sect that “resists authority” and not just statism, that endorses the behaviors it would legalize, and that rejects the standards of Western civilization.
Arguments against the drug war, no matter how intellectually compelling, are undermined when they come from the party of the stoned. When the LP nominates a prostitute for lieutenant governor of California and she becomes a much-admired LP celebrity, how can regular Americans help but think that libertarianism is hostile to social norms, or that legalization of such acts as prostitution means moral approval? there could be no more politically suicidal or morally fallacious connection, but the LP has forged it.
With their counter-cultural beliefs, many libertarians have avoided issues of increasing importance to middle-class Americans, such as civil rights, crime, and environmentalism.
The only way to sever libertarianism’s link with libertinism is with a cleansing debate. I want to start that debate, and on the proper grounds. As G.K. Chesterton said, “We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each others eyes out.”
If you regard yourself as a conservative, you might be very pleasantly surprised by the content of this essay, particularly if you have till now (and quite understandably IMHO) associated Libertarianism such ideas as anarchy, militant atheism and rejection of all conventional social structures. Not that long, and definitely worth a read. And if you read in it some echo of this site’s writings over the years, well it is probably no coincidence.
That’ll do for today. I’m going to be rather busy elsewhere for a few weeks, but I will try and drop by at least once a day to respond to any comments. Juke box is free.