In the past I’ve often described someone’s views as “right-wing” only to have the person disagree vehemently. Invariably, they claim to be libertarian, and hasten to point out the differences between their views and (how they view) conservatives’. This article is an attempt to reconcile my view of them as right-wing with their view of themselves as libertarian. It’s a very US-centric discussion because that’s the context in which most of my own political debate occurs, but I hope it will be at least slightly interesting to those outside the US as well.

The classical distinction in US politics is between “liberal” and “conservative”. Both terms have, of course, drifted far from their original or intuitive meanings, but here’s my attempt to summarize:

  • Liberals believe that the government can and should act to improve the lot of individual citizens. There’s an implicit assumption that the individual citizen needs such action to overcome factors or forces – either impersonal “market forces” or plutocratic conspiracy – that would otherwise hold back and oppress them. Associated with this belief set are aspects of (mostly economic) equalization and tolerance for a larger government that liberals’ ideological opponents often mischaracterize as socialist.
  • Conservatives reject the belief that such external factors or forces play a significant role in individual success. According to them, everyone is rich or poor due only to personal merit (or lack thereof) and no intervention on their behalf by the government is called for. Conservatives therefore oppose most government spending on “entitlements” and other liberalist measures, although they’re not above replacing that spending with other spending on what they see as the legitimate functions of government – e.g. the military, or law enforcement, or improving public morality.

It’s really much more complicated than that, but in a nutshell the main point of division seems to be whether or not the government has a legitimate role helping individuals.

This brings us to the libertarians, who believe that the liberal/conservative debate misses the real point, which is individual liberty. Most people seem to think that libertarians are a third distinct group, forming an ideological triangle with liberals and conservatives. However, I think that libertarian beliefs represent a whole second axis, dividing the ideological space into not three but four segments. Libertarians believe that personal liberty must be protected against inevitable attack, but they are divided with regard to where they believe the threat lies:

  • Left-wing libertarians mostly subscribe to the liberal belief set, and think that the greatest threat to liberty comes from “special interests” (e.g. corporations or organized religion) or government acting as proxy for those special interests. Privacy issues tend to be the major focus for this group.
  • Right-wing libertarians mostly subscribe to the conservative belief set, and think that the greatest threat to liberty comes from the government’s attempts to provide for equality and other elements of the liberal agenda. Free speech, taxation, and gun control tend to be the hot buttons for this group.

There are, of course, areas where the two types of libertarians agree – e.g. copyright law. Far from indicating that libertarians are in fact a monolithic group, this is just an example of some data points in a two-axis graph lying on one of the axes.

It’s this “lying along an axis” that brings me back to my original point. The people I mention in my first paragraph are what I would call right-wing libertarians. I call them right-wing because on many issues (most notably foreign and economic policies, and hatred of Bill Clinton) they are way over on the conservative end of the liberal/conservative axis. They deny that they’re right-wing because they’re still thinking of an ideological triangle and they think right-wing only applies to the classic conservatives. In particular they seek to distance themselves from the “theocrat” form of classic conservative, much as many left-wing liberals take pains to distance themselves from the “socialist” classic liberals. All of this denial is simply the result of being stuck with the “triangle” model mentioned above. IMO the “two-axis” model does a much better job of highlighting the true philosophical differences between what really are four distinct groups plus a few individuals scattered in between.