As a libertarian, I have long objected to being characterized on a left-right political spectrum (as with studies of political affiliations that group libertarians with republicans or conservatives on the right). In response to inquiries about where I fit in that framework, over the years, I have taken to saying that my views were orthogonal (meaning at right angles or perpendicular) to the framework. Since almost no one knows what that word means, those I say it to are puzzled, and ask for clarification, which allows me to explain why I fit in neither category.
I had done that for years when I came across Leonard Reads Neither Left nor Right, in the January, 1956, issue of The Freeman. Long before I came to believe what I do, Read was way ahead of me, including a more complete view of the relevant history of left versus right and a more developed explanation than I had used. As a consequence, I think his views there merit remembering.
Why, you are neither left nor right!
This observation, following a speech of mine, showed rare discernment. It was rare because I have seldom heard it made. It was discerning because it was accurate.... [L]ibertarians ... are neither left nor right in the accepted parlance of our day.
Read then explains that there is no directional relationship between left, right, and libertarian along a two-dimensional line, but that there is one in three dimensions. Libertarians want less authoritarianism of all sorts, not more of one brand and less of another. They believe that if liberty versus authoritarianism is viewed as the third dimension, with liberty up and authoritarianism down (reflecting their relationship to individuals abilities to grow into wiser, more ethical people), libertarianism lies above the standard left-right framework.
Left and right are each descriptive of authoritarian positions. Liberty has no horizontal relationship to authoritarianism. Libertarianisms relationship to authoritarianism is vertical; it is up from the muck of men enslaving man.
A more complete history of the evolution of left versus right than I have read elsewhere follows.
There was a time when left and right were appropriate and not inaccurate designations of ideological differences. The first Leftists were a group of newly elected representatives to the National Constituent Assembly at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. They were labeled Leftists merely because they happened to sit on the left side in the French Assembly.
Read then quotes Dean Russell, a fellow libertarian traveler, in The First Leftist:
The Rightists or reactionaries stood for a highly centralized national government, special laws and privileges for unions and various other groups and classes, government economic monopolies in various necessities of life, and a continuation of government controls over prices, production, and distribution.
While Read did not quote Russell further in this article, his understanding is worth incorporating here, as he puts it so well:
The original leftists wanted to abolish government controls over industry, trade, and the professions. They wanted wages, prices, and profits to be determined by competition in a free market, and not by government decree. They were pledged to free their economy from government planning, and to remove the government-guaranteed special privileges of guilds, unions, and associations whose members were banded together to use the law to set the price of their labor or capital or product above what it would be in a free market....
The ideals of the Party of the Left were based largely on the spirit and principles of our own American Constitution. Those first French Leftists stood for individual freedom of choice and personal responsibility for ones own welfare. Their goal was a peaceful and legal limitation of the powers of the central government, a restoration of local self-government, an independent judiciary, and the abolition of special privileges.
As Read notes,
The leftists were, for all practical purposes, ideologically similar to those of us who call ourselves libertarians. The rightists were ideological opposites: statists, interventionists, in short, authoritarians. Left and right in France, during 178990, had a semantic handiness and a high degree of accuracy.
But leftist was soon expropriated by the authoritarian Jacobins and came to have an opposite meaning. Leftist became descriptive of egalitarians and was associated with Marxian socialism: communism, socialism, Fabianism. What, then, of rightist? Where did it fit in this semantic reversal of leftist? The staff of the Moscow apparatus has taken care of that for us.... Anything not communist or socialist they decreed and propagandized as fascist ... any ideology that is not communist (left) is now popularly established as fascist (right)....
What, actually, is the difference between communism and fascism? Both are forms of statism, authoritarianism. The only difference between Stalins communism and Mussolinis fascism is an insignificant detail in organizational structure. But one is left and the other is right!
Where does this leave the libertarian in a world of Moscow word-making? The libertarian is, in reality, the opposite of the communist. Yet, if the libertarian employs the terms left and right, he is falling into the semantic trap of being a rightist (fascist) by virtue of not being a leftist (communist). This is a semantic graveyard for libertarians, a word device that excludes their existence.
Read then lays out a particularly important reason why the left-right spectrum is something libertarians should avoid.
One important disadvantage of a libertarians use of the left-right terminology is the wide-open opportunity for applying the golden-mean theory. For some twenty centuries Western man has come to accept the Aristotelian theory that the sensible position is between any two extremes.... Now, if libertarians use the terms left and right, they announce themselves to be extreme right by virtue of being extremely distant in their beliefs from communism. But right has been successfully identified with fascism. Therefore, more and more persons are led to believe that the sound position is somewhere between communism and fascism, both spelling authoritarianism.
The golden-mean theory ... is sound enough when deciding between no food at all on the one hand or gluttony on the other hand. But it is patently unsound when deciding between stealing nothing or stealing $1,000. The golden mean would commend stealing $500. Thus, the golden mean has no more soundness when applied to communism and fascism (two names for the same thing) than it does to two amounts in theft. The libertarian can have no truck with left or right because he regrets any form of authoritarianismthe use of police force to control the creative life of man.
So where do libertarians fit relative to the left-right political spectrum that is so commonly used?
Libertarians reject this principle and in so doing are not to the right or left of authoritarians. They, as the human spirit they would free, ascendare abovethis degradation. Their position, if directional analogies are to be used, is upin the sense that vapor from a muckheap rises to a wholesome atmosphere. If the idea of extremity is to be applied to a libertarian, let it be based on how extremely well he has shed himself of authoritarian beliefs.
Establish this concept of emerging, of freeingwhich is the meaning of libertarianismand the golden mean or middle-of-the-road theory becomes inapplicable.
Given that the term libertarian has important limitations (e.g., in addition to forcing it into a left-right spectrum, its ability to be equated to libertine in many peoples minds, both frequently promoted by libertys enemies), it appears there is no single ideal word for what libertarians stand for. But that is in large part because we have to undo a commonly shared, but misleading, framework, making our task more complicated, and because those same enemies of liberty also attack every other word usage that might be used, from individualism to voluntarism. So our task requires more of a conversation rather than a mere shorthand term.
What simplified term should libertarians employ to distinguish themselves from the Moscow brand of leftists and rightists? I have not invented one but until I do I shall content myself by saying, I am a libertarian, standing ready to explain the definition to anyone who seeks meaning instead of trademarks.