When moving into the deep pool that is libertarianism, right about the time when the water hits your chest, you start to hear the term “right libertarian” come up. To those just moving into the waters, this can make the diving experience a little disorienting. After all, Googling the term “right libertarian” yields some interesting results, including a Wikipedia page which may, to some, sound like it’s describing plain ole, run-of-the-mill, libertarianism. After all, most libertarians agree with the non-aggression principle, that the state is evil (whether necessary or not), and that property rights, generally, are a good thing.
To make matters more confusing, there seem to be few self-identifying right libertarian pieces out there from the horses’ mouths. While left libertarians seem to be almost obsessed with defining themselves (and I mean that in the best possible way), most right libertarians dig in their heels and refuse further classifying themselves, preferring to think of themselves as “just libertarians” (or, perhaps Constitutional republicans, classical liberals, or some other also-broad label).
There are so many conflicting definitions of right libertarianism that it proves difficult to determine whether it should be classified as its own label or not. But within the movement itself, right libertarianism seems to have, if not a particular meaning, than a general one. TOL also asked around a little bit to see what we could glean, and while we got some helpful tidbits, one thing is clear: It is more useful to talk about tendencies and commonalities among right libertarians than to try and wrangle this enigmatic group into a hard definition.
With that said, here are a few things that you should know about the vague and mysterious creature known as the right libertarian.
1. They often believe in the sanctity of the individual
Right libertarians believe in the inherent value of being human. For many right libertarians, these rights and special status of being human come from a creator of some sort (see below on religion). For atheist right libertarians, that status is derived from our ability to reason. This means that they tend to think of rights inherent to people as an aspect of his or her existence (as opposed to something constructed by society or something that exists because it yields greater utility).
Natural rights, in other words. For right libertarians, the basic natural rights are: life, liberty, and property. Generally speaking, right libertarians take these rights as those from which all others derive—particularly negative rights. Right libertarians believe that most people have the right to be free from interference by something (negative rights) and almost uniformly reject the notion that a group or person has a right to be granted something (positive rights).
2. They tend to be more religious (or more conservative in lifestyle)
We have no data to support this, but in our experience, right libertarians tend to be more religious than their lefty counterparts. Whether their belief in natural rights (above) is derived from their religion or they are religious because of their perspective on natural rights, there’s no way to tell.
That being said, one can be an atheist and be a right libertarian. Objectivists, those that follow Ayn Rand’s ideology, are often right libertarians, and their beliefs derived from reason and the uniqueness of man’s ability to do so.
Whether because their creator asks it of them or because reason does, right libertarians tend to reject hedonism and libertinism. Many right libertarians are proponents of the protestant work ethic and self-reliance. Phrases such as “mind your own business,” and “keep my nose to the grindstone” pop-up frequently. They generally tend to think that this way of life is morally correct (contrast with a kind of subjectivism or relativism often found among left libertarians).
3. They believe society should enforce morality
Because of their likelihood of being religious (the “right”) coupled with a belief in keeping the government out of the private lives of individuals (the “libertarian”), many right libertarians are more likely to view social shaming and ostracism as acceptable methods of making a moral society.
To be clear: this does not make the right libertarian necessarily intolerant. It simply means that right libertarians feel they are entitled to their rights of association—to not converse with people whose actions they do not approve of—and free speech—to criticize those actions or people—as long as they are not impeding the negative rights of others.
To a right libertarian, you are free to be a promiscuous, drug-using hippy—and the right libertarian has the right to criticize you for it. She believes that is her right, possibly even her duty, to call out bad behaviors. She sees social pressure as a societally regulating mechanism. But she isn’t going to use the state against you or demand that a law is passed. Or, as one person put it, “Being a right libertarian is all about holding moral standards but knowing that you have zero right whatsoever to enforce them. Two neighbors cannot vote the alcohol out of the hands of a third neighbor.”
4. They derive much from Enlightenment thinkers
Many right libertarians (in the US, at least) feel a strong kinship with the founding fathers and a marked affection for the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Right libertarians see many inherent truths in the founding documents of the US and are more likely to subscribe to an original intent view of them. Similarly, right libertarians tend to hold many of the same tenets of the classical liberals such as John Locke and Adam Smith in addition to the founders. They acknowledge the flaws in these works (like the justification of slavery that was present through much of them) yet realize that there is much worth to them evenso.
Former Congressman Ron Paul is a great example of this aspect of right libertarianism. Though he ran and was elected as a Republican for decades, he was constantly at odds with the GOP, choosing to be anti-war, anti-big-spending, and pro-original intent.
5. They aren’t quite so different from other libertarians
Though there are many offshoots of libertarianism that do have some stark differences, right libertarians almost always share a common vision for society with other libertarians. They want a peaceful and moral world with a strong economy and empowered individuals, and they want as little government interference as practically possible. They often disagree on how this is best achieved, but that seems like small potatoes when one considers the disastrous fiscal and economic policies, failed wars, and rampant personal intrusion from the government that we all face. If we ever get to a point in the world where the differences between right- and left-libertarianism are major policy concerns, we will have already won.
But we aren’t there yet. Labels aside, working together to hammer out how our growing movement can be most effective in bringing liberty to the masses is of the utmost importance. As always, civility should reign, and cooler heads prevail.
TOL Editor-in-Chief Gina Luttrell contributed significantly to this post.