Some Observations from the Centre
This is a post I’ve been intending to publish for several weeks, but finally got motivated to finish editing this morning, after some recent commentary on the Workers Solidarity Movement. It originally got started when one of my counterparts at the Cedar Lounge Revolution kindly linked to us, abbreviating the output here as “right libertarianism”, and I got thinking about about what sort of label I’d be most happy with.
Not speaking for Dermot or for others who will be writing here in due course, I wanted to commend “right libertarianism” as being very close to the mark. If people prefer to use that description for my views, it wouldn’t actually bother me too much. But, being who I am, I can’t just leave it at that! I have some observations which I feel should be made.
Firstly, it should be noted that the classic liberal tradition which inspires modern libertarianism includes among its most important figures the French economist Frédéric Bastiat, whose placement in the French assembly is rather illuminative:
The terms [left and right] were apparently first used in the French Legislative Assembly after the revolution of 1789. In that context those who sat on the right side of the assembly were steadfast supporters of the dethroned monarchy and aristocracy — the ancien régime — (and hence were conservatives) while those who sat on the left opposed its reinstatement (and hence were radicals). It should follow from this that libertarians, or classical liberals, would sit on the left.
Indeed, that is where they sat. Frédéric Bastiat, the radical laissez-faire writer and activist, was a member of the assembly (1848–1850) and sat on the left side along with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the “mutualist” whose adage “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order” graced the masthead of Liberty, the newspaper of the American libertarian and individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker.
This is important. If it is true, as I would argue, that nearly all government actions are in the aid of entrenched and already powerful interests, and if libertarians (depending on how radical they are) oppose at least a large chunk of government actions, then it appears to follow that libertarianism really should be seen as left-wing in the original meaning of the term.
That said, as someone who doesn’t vote and who has come to look on the politial process with disdain, (indeed, as mentioned to Stephie, I now view politicians as useful mostly for entertainment value), I would prefer not to be associated with parliamentary geography in general. But my point holds: if I was forced to choose a wing (and most people will probably put you in one whether you would like to be or not) I can say with a clean conscience that I would sooner take my historically accurate position with the left.
In truth, there is barely more justification for me to sit with the right in the context of the 21st century then in that of the 18th. The modern right establishment is just notoriously poor when it comes to protecting freedom.
For example, despite the conversion of some modern libertarians to the ideals of nation-building in the form of neoconservatism – and my own willingness to share a stage with them for the sake of our similarities on other issues – the modern Right in the US as epitomised by George W. Bush’s leviathan welfare-warfare state is something that would hardly have received support from many influential thinkers who helped to develop the classic liberal tradition. The US government of 2008 is the most powerful government in the history of human civilisation, and in many ways a shocking monument to the failure of libertarians to spread their message.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, the perceived right-of-centre parties have always been irredeemably conservative and statist, with the sole exception of the Progressive Democrats, whose influence, despite whatever it may have done for the Irish economy, has waned dramatically along with their radicalism. And while it is true that the Conservatives in Britain maintained at least some of their classic liberal credentials for a time, David Cameron surely heralds the final nail in that coffin.
For all of these reasons “right libertarianism”, if it means that I must be associated with the right, is in many ways an uncomfortable description. I am sure that left and right-wing labels made sense in the past, perhaps in battles between republicans and monarchists, or socialists and fascists, but those are not struggles which interest me, and in any case the debate has moved on, particularly on the internet.
The obvious example here is the unprecedented internet and youth-driven campaign by Ron Paul, the US constitutionalist. His grip on the internet failed to convert the mainstream media or the majority of Republican primary voters, but there is some clear potential now for the defining struggle in coming years to be not between left and right, but between libertarians and interventionists.
And, if the older paradigm is on it’s on the way out, I certainly don’t want to stand in its way. What I’m advocating is a philosophy of peace and freedom. Can we just leave it at libertarianism or (classical) liberalism?