Is Libertarianism a left-wing or right-wing ideology? The answer to such a question depends on whom you ask. If you were to ask a social democrat, there would probably say that Libertarians are right-wing. If you were to ask a strong cultural conservative, they would probably answer that Libertarians are left-wing. To obfuscate the question even further, they are certain camps of Libertarianism that claim themselves as explicitly left-wing, such as Roderick Long, Gary Chartier, and Kevin Carson. Conversely, there are Libertarians who claim the right-wing distinction, such as Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Ron Paul.
Libertarianism finds itself in the strange position that not only outsiders, but even its own adherents cannot come to any consensus agreement on the political position it occupies. One would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the whole matter is totally subjective, having no real answer. Nevertheless, Walter Block has offered one of the most cogent and well-reasoned solutions to this problem, stating that Libertarianism is unique, and resides on neither the left or the right. It is independent of the left-right dichotomy. It is the third leg on the political stool, as it were.
I find myself largely in agreement with Block’s thesis. However, I would argue that he does not quite go far enough in his assertion that Libertarianism is independent. I believe that the question of whether Libertarianism of the right or the left is not a coherent question at all, but a category error. As such, the entire question is non-sensical in the first place.
This debate rests largely on how one conceives of “The Right” and “The Left”. These terms first originated in the French National Assembly, with the Left side of the assembly room wishing for reform and to abolish the monarchy, the right side advocating for keeping the monarchy intact, and the center of the room being somewhere in between. For whatever reason, this ideological alignment has survived and become the colloquial way of understanding the political spectrum. The original meanings of these terms still loosely exist, with the right generally indicating conservatism and the left indicating progressivism.
In their modern form, the broad terms of “left” and “right” have many different political beliefs bundled within them. If I were to say that an individual leans right, then you would assume that this individual favors a smaller government, free markets, prohibitions on certain socially undesirable activities, has conservative cultural views, and probably has a non-alternate lifestyle. Likewise, if I were to state that my friend is left-leaning, you would surmise that they believe in a large government, restrictions on market activity, socially liberal, and may have an alternative lifestyle. The important point here is that these blanket terms of left and right contain within themselves viewpoints on many different subjects, including government, economics, culture, and more. They are general terms that associate themselves with numerous different and varied ideas.
Even through this dispute over the left-wing/right-wing nature of Libertarianism, the general tenants of Libertarianism itself are agreed upon by most of its adherents. The fundamental concept of Libertarianism is the Non-Aggression Principle, which states that no one may initiate aggression against another unless they have initiated aggression first against you. The implications of this carried over into law are that the only actions to be outlawed are those that violate the body or property of others. Rephrased in a more positive light, the Non-Aggression Principle infers that all actions among individuals that are voluntary should be legal.
Notice that this statement of the Non-Aggression Principle or its applications speak exclusively into in the subject of law. It is an ethical principle that carries implications for interpersonal relations in society. However, there are many fields the Non-Aggression Principle does not speak to whatsoever. Among these would be any kind of cultural topics, economics, politics, or statecraft. All topics that are contained within the left/right political spectrum.
This carries great importance for the left/right question of Libertarianism, as there is an entire category of topics that determine one’s placement along this spectrum, of which Libertarianism proper has nothing to say. As an ideology it exclusively concerned with law, and on everything else is silent. For one to place an ideology on the left/right spectrum, however, once must imply positions on a wide range of political issues. For us to place Libertarianism on the left or the right would be tantamount to attributing ideological stances to Libertarianism that it simply does not hold. As such, to place Libertarianism along the political spectrum at all is nonsensical. As an ideology, it does not fulfill all the requisite categories that an ideology along this spectrum must possess. Consequently, it cannot reside along this spectrum at any point.
Given that Libertarianism is inapplicable to the left/right spectrum, to ask whether Libertarianism is a left-wing or right-wing ideology is nothing more than a confused question. It is a category error to ask it. Libertarianism is not on the political spectrum, and as such, the question is nonsense. It would be similar to asking if a deck of cards is a left-wing or right-wing deck of cards. To place a deck of cards anywhere along a political axis would imply attributes about the deck of cards that are simply not true. The question does not make sense, and as such, should be intellectual discarded.
Libertarianism is not left or right. It doesn’t fall anywhere on this axis. While one might be able to describe Libertarian positions in terms of the left/right continuum, the ideology as a whole is nowhere to be found upon it. Libertarianism is not a left-wing ideology along with progressivism. Libertarianism is not a right-wing ideology along with conservatism. It is simply Libertarianism.