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.

  • Ankur Chawla

    You know, I would enjoy a companion post that discusses your perspectives on 5 things about left libertarians across the same lines — (1) views on individual rights, (2) the place of religious or cultural institutions, (3) ethical framework, (4) intellectual forebears, and (5) minor departures from libertarianism.

  • Alright, alright, you triggered me so I’ll engage. I think it’s a bit funny that a founder of this site asked me at a party recently, “how’s it feel to work for a fascist?” which says a lot about the accuracy with which left-libertarians represent their opponents.

    The old definition of right-libertarianism was just “libertarianism,” which includes a defense of natural privilege. Mullahs like Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner aside, the actual coalescence of a libertarian idea was around opposition to the New Deal. It was against something, not for it. You’ve got liberals like John T. Flynn, or Garet Garrett, etc. We’re not talking about some gauzy cornucopian future of endless growth and cool machines, we’re talking about people whose way of life was under assault. I’d go so far as to say this is the main thing that distinguishes today’s libertarian movement from the old one, optimism vs. pessimism.

    The new definition of right-libertarianism I’d say would involve an acceptance of natural hierarchies and the reality of power in the world. Also maybe an appreciation for certain group affinities; secession movements like the Hawaiian Kingdom, Jefferson, or California; ones that point toward an alternative to the progressive order under which most of the developed world lives. Also, if you’re a libertarian that cares about the future of humanity, as I do, your chief political engineering problem for this century is how do we create more Hong Kongs. This is incompatible with an anticolonialist worldview many left-libertarians are trying to incorporate into libertarianism. A left-libertarian should have no problem expropriating a charter city, especially one in the third world started by rich white Europeans.

    Also the protestant work ethic dig is pretty funny, given the predominantly Catholic cast of the Mises Institute.

    • Roderick T. long

      Mullahs like Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner aside

      Yes, Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner — as well as Stephen Pearl Andrews, Henry Appleton, Anselme Bellegarrigue, Steven Byington, Voltairine de Cleyre, Clara Dixon Davidson, William Lloyd Garrison, William Batchelder Greene, Moses and Lillian Harman, Angela and Ezra Heywood, Thomas Hodgskin, Sarah E. Holmes, Florence Finch Kelly, Gertrude Kelly, Joseph and Laurence Labadie, J. William Lloyd, Dyer Lum, John Henry Mackay, John Beverley Robinson, Francis Dashwood Tandy, Edwin C. Walker, Josiah Warren, Victor and Rachelle Yarros, etc., etc., etc.

      In other words, the vast left-libertarian movement of the 19th century, which was radically pro-free-market and anti-state, but also radically pro-feminist, pro-labour, anti-corporate, anti-racist, anti-hierarchy, and anti-privilege. The 19th-century movement that paved the way for 20th-century libertarianism was decidedly left-libertarian. (And the leftist roots of libertarianism run back still farther, ultimately to the Leveller movement of the 1640s.)

      The movement took a rightward lurch in the 20th century when libertarians made common cause with conservatives against the common enemy of state-socialism, and in the process libertarians absorbed a lot of conservative attitudes. But today left-libertarians are returning libertarianism to its left-wing roots. It’s right-libertarianism, not left-libertarianism, that’s the deviation.

    • A founder of this site asked me at a party recently, “how’s it feel to work for a fascist?”

      The founders of this site are myself, Elizabeth BeShears (who self-identifies as a right libertarian) and Rachel Burger. This doesn’t sound like something either of them would say (perhaps Rachel, but only as a joke), and I have not said that, so you’re gonna have to be more specific.

      None of this is meant to be a dig at all, and I’m sorry that it came across that way. And the protestant work ethic is, as I understand it, an American phenomenon at this point, not necessarily rooted in religion per se.

      The new definition of right-libertarianism I’d say would involve an acceptance of natural hierarchies and the reality of power in the world. Also maybe an appreciation for certain group affinities; secession movements like the Hawaiian Kingdom, Jefferson, or California; ones that point toward an alternative to the progressive order under which most of the developed world lives.

      I think that’s probably accurate.

      • I said it, as a joke, when goaded into it by his co-worker who was also at the party.

        • Andre Winters

          Ahh, don’t feed the trolls. (even if you part with them.) I thought It was a well written articles, and the entire thing is prefaced by how right-libertarianism is pretty vague so no one should freak out that there are similarities. For the record, working for a fascist is never bad, it when you work against them the is unpleasant 😉

  • Roderick T. long

    This is puzzling.

    1) Most left-libertarians believe in the sanctity of the individual too.

    3) Right-libertarians are constantly accusing LEFT-libertarians of trying to enforce morality (via social pressure), so (3) is a bit odd. Of course the moral content is different.

    4) I can’t see that right-libertarians are significantly more indebted to Enlightenment thinkers than left-libertarians. Of course we tend to draw on different aspects. And are less likely to be fans of the Constitution.

    • 1) Most left-libertarians believe in the sanctity of the individual too.

      Yeah. This may be poor explanation on our part, but the emphasis in this section is meant to be on from where right-libs derive their belief in the sanctity of man/human beings and from that they derive natural rights and the emphasis on them. This is not something that I have observed to be particularly important for left-libertarians outside of academics/philosophy (a field which neither Elizabeth or I are really qualified to comment on). But, on further reflection, I can see why this would be confusing. I think the attempt here was just to say that natural rights are particularly important to right-libs, and the emphasis on them seems to be greater w/ right libs.

      Right-libertarians are constantly accusing LEFT-libertarians of trying to enforce morality (via social pressure), so (3) is a bit odd. Of course the moral content is different.

      That’s interesting and is not something I have observed. Could you give an example? Perhaps I am not understanding you.

      I can’t see that right-libertarians are significantly more indebted to Enlightenment thinkers than left-libertarians. Of course we tend to draw on different aspects. And are less likely to be fans of the Constitution.

      Yeah, I think the emphasis on the Constitution and the philosophers we are taught influence the Constitution is the takeaway there. That’s a bad sub-heading on my part.

      • Roderick T. long

        I think the attempt here was just to say that natural rights are particularly important to right-libs, and the emphasis on them seems to be greater w/ right libs.

        I don’t see this. There are utilitarians and natural-rightsers on both sides of the left-libertarian/right-libertarian divide, and I haven’t noticed either position being especially more dominant on the one side than on the other. So for example you have consequence-oriented thinkers like (historically) Ludwig von Mises or (presently) David Friedman and Peter Leeson on the right-libertarian side, and natural-rights-oriented thinkers like (historically) Lysander Spooner or (presently) Kevin Carson, Sheldon Richman, Charles Johnson, and Gary Chartier on the left-libertarian side. Certainly my own left-libertarianism is heavily natural-rights-oriented.

        That’s interesting and is not something I have observed.
        Could you give an example? Perhaps I am not understanding you.

        Isn’t that what the whole “brutalist” attack on left versions of thick libertarianism is about? Left-libertarians tend to favour using nonviolent social pressure to oppose nonviolent expressions of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. attitudes. For this we get accused of being PC police by right-libertarians.

        • There are utilitarians and natural-rightsers on both sides of the left-libertarian/right-libertarian divide

          That makes sense to me. I don’t derive my libertarianism from natural rights meself, so maybe this is something that Elizabeth is better suited to comment on.

          Isn’t that what the whole “brutalist” attack on left versions of thick libertarianism is about? Left-libertarians tend to favour using nonviolent social pressure to oppose nonviolent expressions of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. attitudes. For this we get accused of being PC police by right-libertarians.

          That’s what I figured you were referring to, but I didn’t want to assume. The way I have seen that particular debate is not so much that right libertarians oppose the use of social coercion, but that they disagree that such things should be a part of the libertarian project.

          I guess then the next thing would be to ask you if you feel that the right libertarian charge that left libertarians morally police behaviors via “moral coercion” (to use Mill’s term) is justified or not. In my experience, left libertarians use less shaming and/or ostracism and more calling out, explaining to others why that idea is wrong, and denouncing that idea. The difference being that the former creates bad consequences for an actor’s actions, while the second (publicly) shows them the bad quality of the idea.

          There is, of course, overlap, which is why we tried to speak of tendencies and generalities in the article, rather than trying to shuffle people to one side or the other.

    • JOR

      On 3 – you and the article are both right. Right-libs are simply hypocrites about this. In one breath they’re chortling about how they don’t need the state to make life intolerable for sex workers, drug users, gays, bums, hedonists, “losers”, etc. In the next, they’re whining about tolerance when Teh PC Police threaten to return the favor.

  • Gene Berkman

    The reason you see few articles explicating “right” libertarianism is that on a historical and statistical basis, “right libertarianism” is the default position for libertarians. Most of the early activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s came from right wing politics – Young Americans for Freedom, the Goldwater campaign, even The John Birch Society. Left libertarianism – in the current sense, distinct from traditional anarchism as promoted by Kropotkin – is a recent development, and seemingly somewhat tendentious from a classic libertarian viewpoint. The only real “rightist” element in right libertarianism is the pro-capitalist viewpoint. Other than that, most right libertarians in my experience are not religious, not in favor of enforcing morality, and quite open to smoking marijuana and extra-marital sex. The big issue between right libertarians and “left” libertarians is the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the “left” libertarians which is a corralary to some of the quaint economic notions advanced by for example the C4SS.

    • I think that @rodericktlong:disqus would probably disagree with you that left-libertarianism is a recent development.

      • Gene Berkman

        Left Libertarianism as currently manifested in ALL is a new phenomenon. It has little to do with Murray Rothbard’s attempt at an alliance with the New Left in the 1960s. Dr Rothbard was pro-capitalist in economics, with little tolerance for the anarcho-syndicalists or those among the RLA crowd who sympathized with anarcho-syndicalism. And Dr Rothbard promoted an anti-imperialist foreign policy that clearly was based on a more positive view of Soviet foreign policy than I think anyone in ALL would agree to. In 1971 Rothbard ran a frontpage editorial in Libertarian Forum title “Farewell to the Left” and in 1975 my associates and I pulled our libertarian faction out of The Peace & Freedom Party, so there is really no continuity between the libertarian outreach to the left in the 1960s and 1970s and the current ALL with its “free market anti-capitalism” Some similarities, but no continuity.

  • FranciscodAnconia

    Respectfully, there is no such thing as left/right libertarian. There is only libertarian.

    Saying you are left/right is nothing more than making exceptions to the NAP to justify a non-libertarian belief.

  • Rebecca Susmarski

    Thank you for this article. Speaking from an objectivist right-liberarian POV, I thought most of it was spot-on. Will you be writing a similar article defining left libertarians in the future? I’m interested in learning more about the “subjectivism or relativism” concept you mentioned.