BY GUEST COLUMNIST GREGORY V. DIEHL
Does the concept of the political “left” and “right” have any consistent meaning or definition anymore? Perhaps these once useful labels are no longer valid concepts for categorizing an individual’s philosophy on the political structure of a society. Perhaps they are only crude references to vaguely defined packages of ideas, reinforced by the two major political parties that control of the system and benefit from their prominence.
There are, at any time, only a limited number of parties able to compete for leadership in any given democratic system. Have two broad, all-encompassing categories to place them in makes it easier for the average voter to pick a team to root for. It makes it easier to adopt the group mentality as part of one’s identity because all nuance and detailed examination are stripped away.
Sure, there may be layers of disagreement within a party, but almost never enough to cause a severe break in the system, to split one large collective into many smaller ones.
In the same way, there are only a handful of major religious groups within most nations. Minor denominations may be endless, but they almost all fit under broad umbrella religions like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. No one ever loses sight of what team they are really on in the end, and therefore neither do they ever lose sight of the “other” they are opposing.
If you ask people to tie the libertarian philosophy to a particular “side” of the specious political spectrum, many say that it falls squarely on the right. Right? After all, the right is supposed to lean toward individualism and the left toward collectivism. The philosophy of liberty is one that empowers to the individual to free themselves from the will of the collective.
But maybe the division isn’t quite as clear cut as that.
Individualism and Collectivism on the Left
How should we categorize people who support the individual right to bodily autonomy? It is typically considered the leftist position, for example, to support safe medical abortions and the freedom to put whatever substances one wants into their own body.
But how, then, could the left be considered collectivist?
The collectivist approach is to use the force of the law to limit what others can do with their own bodies. It is the leftists, in these cases, who operate in an individualist capacity, with respect for personal sovereignty.
Where the political left shows its collectivism is in matters related to the social services they feel entitled to receive at the expense of the collective. Healthcare, education, and various other examples of what they see as “basic human rights” requiring the extortion of funds are a significant part of what defines the left’s political identity.
Individualism and Collectivism on the Right
The right is considered more concerned with the good of the individual, even at the expense of society. This is certainly true when it comes to many fiscal matters where their money is at risk of being forcefully redistributed for purposes they don’t support.
However, the right’s collectivist side emerges when they create laws that restrict how people’s private lives. This is often with the justification of preventing degeneracy or defending against perceived attacks upon sacred traditions. Whether it’s immigrants coming to their country and “stealing” their jobs or homosexuals entering into matrimony, the right may fight with the full force of the law to preserve their hallowed way of life.
Essentially, the fatal collectivist flaw of right-wing philosophy is to treat another person’s life as if it were your responsibility to manage without their consent. From that twisted perception, we accept that the things someone else does to themselves are actually being done to us. We believe our intervention in their life is a form of innocent and necessary self-defense against their perceived moral failings.
Collectivism on Both Sides of the Bird
On an intuitive level, it’s easy to understand the appeal of both varieties of collectivist ideals. Believing that services like education and healthcare are a fundamental human right necessary to the function of society makes it easy to argue that they should be provided to all people, no matter how. It’s a very tribal approach to handling the interdependence of people living together for mutual benefit (i.e., “You help take care of me when I need it, and I’ll act in kind.”).
Where this intuitively appealing thought process falls apart is at scales far beyond the natural agreements individuals are capable of making with one another. Spanning far beyond the limits of Dunbar’s number is a vast world of endlessly variated peoples. People you will never have a close, personal relationship with most of them, you could never come to form intuitive agreements that ensure you will all willingly watch out for each other.
Collectivism aims to forcefully manufacture these tribal bonds on a scale that can never work for limited human psyches, and the mechanism for doing so is state-sponsored violence.
We can, similarly, view the right’s need to assume power over their neighbors’ bodies through a tribal lens. From the point of view, they can be said to be trying to mitigate behaviors they consider harmful to the health of the tribe. It may be no personal concern of yours if your tribe mate chooses to inject potentially dangerous or addictive substances into themselves or participate in non-traditional forms of sex. Still, what will become of the culture of the tribe you depend on to survive if such habits and beliefs begin to proliferate?
Will there be any room left for you and your incongruent way of life at the end?
So, in a certain way, mutual agreements with one’s close connections about a particular way of life can be seen as mutually assured self-defense.
Individualism as a Total Concept
Though it shares qualities with both sides, where the libertarian philosophy truly stands out is that it excepts the intuitive collectivism of neither. It, through rational analysis and uncompromising dedication to first principles, knows that a society cannot be optimally healthy without the actual agreement of all its participants to uphold the ideals it lives on. It is not enough to assume you know what is best for the collective and use your might to make it so.
By empowering the individual to make these kinds of decisions over their own life and property, the libertarian philosophy as an absolute does the most possible to protect each and every person from well-intention meddling in their private affairs. It is the only sensible way forward for a species that long ago evolved out of the basic tribal unit and into the planetary scale of a globally connected society.
We both have more opportunities for socialization with other people and more considerable discretion over how and why we choose to socialize (or not). By abandoning the false dichotomy of what style of collectivism we prefer, we will be able to build previously unimaginable types of prosperous and free societies.