The political spectrum is a perilous realm. There are so many traps, so many places to get stuck, so many slippery slopes to slide down — so much room for misadventure. And the maps we use to guide us rarely pan out.

One helpful set of guides comes from political libertarianism. Robert Nozick, in his first book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, admitted that the point of view provided by an understanding of freedom helps one do more than gain some purchase on government, it helps us “see through the political realm.”

Yet even libertarians can fall prey to some characteristic errors, even the same ones that people who accept the terms of standard political debate get caught up in.

The chief of these errors is the allegedly helpful directional concept of “left and right.”


The first error of the left-right paradigm is that it is deemed precise

It is not.

The second error is that it is seen as exhaustive

It is not.

The third is that the left-right alignments have a tendency to permanence over time, or even within a human soul. 

This is obviously untrue, if for no other reason than that people radically transform their ideologies, at least practically speaking, when they go from powerlessness to positions of power. Or vice versa.

And the fourth is that the dual set of ideological options is not itself a trap.

And this last one is what I want to discuss, briefly, here.

Libertarianism is a toolset to help solve social problems. But too often libertarians do not see that the problem to be solved is the left-right alignment itself.

This is the result of concentrating too much on the solution in the context that it presents itself to rebellious, early-adopter mindsets. Libertarians often see the basic antagonism of politics as between the Individual and the Group, or, more often, the Individual and the State. In effect, the title of Herbert Spencer’s The Man versus the State limns the basic perspective. A still-popular variant of the idea sees it in terms of Ayn Rand: egoism versus altruism.

I think this is probably wrong.

Indeed, I know that the Randian paradigm is wrong. And even the more general “man versus the men” perspective misleads us. For what is important in the plan of focusing on the individual is not that it defines a problem, but that it defines a solution.

The basic problem is group versus group.

Or, in-group versus out-group; insider versus outsider.

In postmodern parlance now ubiquitous, inclusion versus exclusion.

Individualism, by which I here define as a philosophy of focusing on individuals to define a division of responsibility, and mete out justice, is how we adjudicate inevitable in-group/out-group antagonisms. 

Man is a social animal. And being social, this peculiar creature that we are tends to define the social world in group terms. But this leads to all sorts of problems, not the least being warfare. By focusing on liberty as the freedom all people can possess by following a basic principle — non-interference or non-initiation of force — we correct for the perennial errors and perversities of our species.

What does this have to do with left and right?

Well, though it is possible to understand the directional paradigm in terms of equality versus hierarchy, and progress versus tradition, a better way to look at it is in terms of inclusion and exclusion, as leftists are today wont to do. 

But we mustn’t do it like leftists do.

The “right,” as I define the tendency, is the perspective that concentrates on the defense of the in-group against dangerous outsiders: it is us versus them. The “left,” according to my definition, is the perspective that concentrates on the defense of outsiders and out-groups against in-groups: it is an attempt to portray oneself either as an outsider demanding inclusion, or identification with outsiders in need of inclusion, making it them versus us, often.

Since all cooperative groups tend to hierarchy, the “equality” notion makes sense better within this context. Leftists see the hierarchies of the societies they inhabit as unjust oppressors of “marginalized” people, of out-groups. Because those outside of any successful hierarchy are unequal in power to those within it, when one seeks to defend them, “equality” is a handy, go-to notion. The rightwing idea, on the other hand, seeks to defend some hierarchy or other, and tends to promote “loyalty” and not equality.

The antagonisms between groups, then, often take on their peculiar flavors along these left-right lines, at least they have in modern society. A characteristic perversity of both perspectives is to determine what any person deserves in terms of group membership rather than in terms of what that person actually does.

And it is often easier to comprehend the antagonism of left versus right in terms of the excesses of each: the right, in its vicious form, defends and promotes the in-group (whatever that is) at the expense of the outsiders; the left, in its vicious form, defends and promotes outsiders (whoever they are) at the expense of the relevant (targeted) in-group, especially the high end of the hierarchy of the in-group. Right-wingers tend to leap to foreign wars and wars of conquest, and are very concerned about keeping the unwashed masses out of their community or country; left-wingers tend to leap to revolution and the desire to “radically transform” the society they inhabit, attacking hierarchies that defend the society by means of hierarchy rather than advancing the cause of the lowest in society and those outside the society.

The Solution and Its Competition

By focusing on the individual, libertarians break down the loopholes in traditional notions of justice. Libertarians are not “against groups” but are, instead, against doing justice in group terms. In-groups and out-groups are inevitable. Hierarchies are inevitable. But how may in-groups behave to out-groups, and vice versa? How may one set of hierarchies deal with those outside the pecking order, and with other hierarchies? The individualist response is: On publicly understood principles of human action that forbid the vicious ends of left and right, which seem always to come down to exploitation and violation. Individualists of all political variants (utilitarians, classical liberals, libertarians, some anarchists) seek to promote principles that define criminality and other forms of anti-social action in terms of publicly understood interactions, with the prohibited actions being centered on the use of force. The point of the individualist form of solution to group antagonisms is to fix on transactional clarity, not “idenfitications” and continual references to group membership, whether of insider or outsider nature.

But where libertarians go wrong is to succumb to the itch of either the left or right.

Left and right are tendencies of mind and sentiment. People differ at birth, it seems, and tend to adopt one point of view or the other. The itch to align for or against the hierarchy that defends and advances the society one finds oneself in can be powerful. And both tendencies take on their own cultural flavors. There are even sexual styles associated with each.

Since the point of liberty is to de-focus from these styles enough to let both propensities of interaction and the human heart live in peace, we must resist the left-itch and the right-itch. Liberty is the balm that we apply that allows us to avoid scratching these itches to the point of inflamation.

Alas, the itch to style oneself as “of the left” and “of the right” is not the worst of it. The worst of it is to be possessed by the perspectives of these social forces, and to have the memes of the two points of view take over one’s thinking entirely. It’s one thing to scratch a left-itch or a right-itch, now and then. It is quite another to be one side’s or the other’s bitch.

I mean, of course, wheel-in-the-head mind-slave; a memetic thrall; a . . . the n-word would be most apt, but we had best avoid this racist term. So I adopt the slightly less offensives and possibly sexist term, bitch.

Too many libertarians I know are Left Bitches and Right Bitches. They cannot think their way out of the culture of the left or the right.

This has plagued libertarianism for a long time — I’ve noticed it for the four decades of my immersion in this social movement. The eternal squabble over whether libertarianism is more “rightwing” or more “leftwing” has been interminable.

The trap, of course, is that one must defend in-groups from criminal outsiders and predatory out-groups — so the rightward lean is understandable; but we must also defend outsiders and innocent out-groups from criminality and predation and worse from the hierarchies of one’s own group.

I guess the trick is just to never forget that both tendencies are valid, but that the cultures associated with unbalanced focus on either side must be avoided, simply to avoid ideological, memetic capture.

This is a big problem especially now, in the Age of Trump. The “rightward” tendency has shifted ideological focus, and is heavily offending the “leftward” leaners. Meanwhile, the left has embraced the worst “tropes” of the traditional left — the label “socialism,” for one — so as to offend rightist sympathies to the max. The two sides can hardly bear each others’ presences.

In this great and weird cultural divide, libertarians should be able to present a calming influence, for we offer are the tools to settle such squabbles.

Hasn’t happened, yet. For libertarians sure seem dominated by Left Bitches and Right Bitches, and not the philosophical moderates we really are.