I’m often asked what makes a left-wing libertarian. In my home state of New Hampshire, most libertarians lean right, as do high-profile politicians like Ron and Rand Paul, or Gary Johnson. Some even consider a left libertarian to be an oxymoron, given the opposing values of individual freedom (the noun) and the collective good (the adjective). See how I tested (my green plot) on the political graph. That’s where a left libertarian falls in relation to other parties.
In a sentence, left-wing libertarians want personal freedoms and free market capitalism just like the right-wing variety, but will sometimes subordinate those interests to an egalitarian vision so there can be personal freedom for everyone. Left libertarians won’t always sit back laissez faire. They will push for the fixing of social wrongs if the consequences of individual freedom are deemed too costly.
I have pointed out the intersection between libertarians and librarians on certain points below, and I’m proud to work in a field that stands for these values in a day when they are eroding under assault from all quarters, but especially from the left. It makes the “left libertarian” label more ironic (not oxymoronic) than ever.
Where the right and left agree (core freedoms)
There are the “big” issues on which right- and left-libertarians are as one. They are equally opposed to (1) any infringement on free speech and expression, (2) the criminalization of drug use, (3) invasion of privacy especially by electronic surveillance, and (4) the growing police state.
(1) Free expression is the cornerstone of liberty and non-negotiable to the right and left wings. Both maintain that a governmental agency should never decide what people cannot say, see, or hear. The common objection that “free speech does not mean the freedom to offend” misunderstands free speech at its essence, as it has always has been about the capacity to offend. Without offense there is no point to free expression, and the most reformative revolutionaries throughout history could not have achieved progress. All libertarians oppose hate speech laws, as it is impossible to determine what is hateful or apply the standard objectively or consistently. People have a poor understanding of bigotry, to the extent that human rights activists (like Aayan Hirsi Ali) and progressive religious reformers (like Maajid Nawaz) have been branded as hateful, which is the equivalent of demonizing Martin Luther King Jr. Both libertarian wings insist on the basic point to free speech grounded in our integrity as human beings: that none of us has an inalienable right to be shielded from expression that hurts or upsets us, not even genuine bigotry. When people are silenced and their speech or writings criminalized, it makes societal infants of us, which is a condescending approach to humanity and the antithesis of freedom.
(2) Both camps are opposed to criminalizing drug use because it interferes with people’s right to regulate their consciousness as they please, and ruins the lives of these nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them. This is a double-obscenity to left-wing libertarians, because the lives ruined are mostly non-whites in poverty. The right and left wings may part ways beyond the legal question. Left libertarians may advocate for government funded recovery programs to assist addicts (as in Portugal), while the right-leaning libertarians will say stop wasting taxpayer money on those who should take responsibility for themselves. (Both wings of libertarians will also support the legalization of prostitution for similar reasons.)
(3) The right and left are univocal in opposing surveillance and private data collection. It’s worth noting the significant overlap between libertarians and librarians, who believe in the sanctity of patron confidentiality. Librarians oppose ILS (computer) systems that store the borrowing history of their patrons beyond what is necessary to retrieve overdue material. In the same way, librarians are aligned with libertarians on the issue of free expression, which the American Library Association links to the issue of privacy. The ALA’s core value of intellectual freedom is defined as “the right of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely… a publicly supported library provides free, equitable, and confidential access to information for all people of its community.” Confidentiality/privacy is an integral part, as librarians see it, to intellectual freedom.
(4) As the tyranny of law gets worse, both wings speak out against executive overreach and the abuse of police power. Left-wing libertarians may single out the abuse of minorities (and join hands, for example, with the “Black Lives Matter” movement), but if that seems like disproportionate outrage, it is because the abuse of minorities is itself disproportionate. Generally speaking, the right and left wings are as one on this issue, and have taken issue with the presidential overreaches of Barack Obama, which has established a horrible precedent for Donald Trump.
Where they disagree
A classic example of where the two wings have differed is on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Right-wing libertarians opposed it for infringing on freedom of association, and to uphold states’ rights, while left-libertarians supported it for promoting racial equality — precisely so that minorities can enjoy personal freedoms as much as whites. Similarly, on the question of school busing, right libertarians opposed governmental interference, while left libertarians supported it to help minorities for the sake of their freedom.
Gun control is contested. On the one hand, the right and left wings support an individual’s right to bear arms, and thus oppose overly restrictive guns laws, for example those of New York City and California. On the other hand, left-libertarians usually support a serious measure of gun restrictions. Guns are too dangerous in the wrong hands and when access is too easy.
With the free market, left-libertarians will sometimes subordinate capitalist interests to the welfare of all impacted. They are open to reducing the power of corporations and banks (as long as the free market system can accommodate the changes), when in the cause of worker’s rights and income equality. In other words, the left-wing are willing to support legislature that makes “robber baron” capitalism more difficult, and will get behind politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whom the right libertarians believe to be threats to the capitalist way.
The abortion issue is tricky, because for some libertarians the life of the unborn takes precedence over any “freedom” cause. Ron Paul would be an example of an aggressive (right-wing) libertarian and yet a strong anti-abortionist. But many libertarians are pro-choice, though for different reasons. Right libertarians have objected to the intrusion on states’ rights to decide the legality of abortion, as well as a woman’s individual rights. For left libertarians the woman’s individual rights are most important, and also the social concern for unwanted infants who aren’t given a chance to life in a way that could be considered free.
We’re out there
This snapshot paints with a broad brush, but serves to show that a left-wing libertarian isn’t an oxymoron — even if the right-wing libertarians of my home state think I’m out to lunch! Basically, left libertarians are the heirs of classical liberalism. We cherish equality and social justice like other leftists, but not at the expense of core freedoms, and we have no use for the political correctness, obscurantism, and double-think of today’s regressive left.