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Liberalism Left and Right

Liberals of the world, unite.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
November 10, 2024; ported here on January 8, 2024

Most people use the term "right" to refer alternately to religious conservatives or to advocates of free markets. Where does that leave me, a secular atheist who generally favors free markets?

Typically I have used the term "left" to refer to Progressives who favor ever-larger welfare states and intensive government controls on the economy. But that is not what the term initially meant.

In the wake of Trumpism, lots of people have been reevaluating the terms left, right, and liberal. For example, Daniel Klein recently analyzed the Smithian roots of liberalism. I figure this is a good time to summarize my current thinking on these matters.

The essence of liberalism, as I see it, is individualism—the view that each individual person matters and may not be sacrificed to the interests of others. The normal political manifestation of liberalism is rights-respecting republican democracy, the purpose of which is to protect the rights and well-being of the individuals within the society.

A major disagreement among liberals is whether government should act only to protect people's "negative liberty"—their right to be free from the initiation of force by others—or also to ensure people's material well-being via a welfare state. Libertarian liberals doubt that forced wealth transfers are consistent with the rights-protecting purpose of government; they turn to private charity.

I have been a libertarian liberal most of my life. In recent years I have grown less confident in libertarian critiques of the welfare state. At any rate, given the rise of authoritarian nationalism, of which Trumpism is our major regional manifestation, I have become far more interested in allying with liberals of all varieties in fending off authoritarian anti-liberals.

What about left and right? These terms arise from the French Revolution, where the right (initially by seating arrangement in the National Assembly) supported monarchy and the left opposed it.

Historically, European monarchy was tightly tied up with the Biblical view that God ordained Earthly powers. These days, most American religious conservatives oppose monarchy, but many favor some other sort of relatively authoritarian (and religiously oriented) government.

Insofar as leftism means opposition to authoritarian government and religious conservatism, then I am a leftist. Instead, I favor liberal, secular society and government.

American conservatism retains some remnants of its commitment to the liberalism of the American Revolution. So American conservatism is a hodge-podge of liberal and authoritarian views.

I am not a full-throated leftists because the term also often refers to neomarxist authoritarian views. Arguably, Marxism should be considered a right-wing and reactionary movement because it endorses authoritarianism, even if in the guise of "liberation." The contradiction is Marx's, not mine.

American left "liberalism" (as it is often confusingly called) is a hodge-podge of actual liberal and authoritarian views. But the American left on the whole is far more genuinely liberal than is the American right, which has largely fallen into conspiracy mongering, authoritarian nationalism, and a cult of personality.

Certainly, then, I am a liberal. I am a right-winger in the sense that I want to conserve the American tradition of liberal, Constitutionally limited, rights-respecting government, as well as free markets. I am a left-winger in the sense that I champion liberalism as opposed to religious authoritarianism. This helps explain why I find friends and enemies on "both sides" of the political aisle.

Liberals of the world, unite.

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