Book Review: Left, Right, and Prospects for Liberty (1965)

Fresh look at the political spectrum
by Murray Rothbard
Review by Brian Wright

Left, Right, Prospects for LibertyFor an eternity now, the pundits and editorialists, not to mention the academics, have insisted on a misleading interpretation of political positions. As I write in Module #2 of the Sacred Nonaggression Principle:

Most of us are familiar with the terms left and right, and have some conception of the different political ideas along the left-right spectrum. The figure below shows a conventional scheme.

In this way of looking at political affiliation, the extreme left is state socialism and the extreme right is state corporatism (fascism). But where’s liberty?!

The Nolan Chart

Recognizing the limitations of such a primitive and centrist-serving classification as the traditional political spectrum, David Nolan[1], founder of the Libertarian Party, noodled out a new system. In two dimensions, with personal freedom on one axis and economic freedom on the other, Nolan distilled the essence of political liberty in the real world. (Ref. figure below.)

Although David Nolan came up with the characteristic “up and to the right” arrow, the concept of a spectrum with statism on one side and liberty on the other originates with Murray Rothbard and several of the 20th-century radical libertarian thinkers, scholars, and economists. This marvelous monograph from Dr. Rothbard provides a historical foundation for the Nolan Chart. And it’s a fascinating journey.

My copy of Left and Right is from an early Cato Institute source, and may even be valuable. It is listed as Cato Paper #1, to give you an idea how respected Murray Rothbard was in that time.[2] In the final subsection of the monograph, Rothbard discusses “the importance of optimism,” and mentions that the time may be right for a US political party and movement self-identified as libertarian:

… It is true that the United States is doing its mightiest to suppress the very revolutionary process that once brought it and Western Europe out of the shackles of the Old Order; but it is increasingly clear that even overwhelming armed might cannot suppress the desire of the masses to break through into the modern world….

…there is a burgeoning and inspiring moral ferment among the youth of America against the fetters of centralized bureaucracy, of mass education in uniformity, and of brutality and oppression exercised by the minions of the State.

Furthermore, the maintenance of substantial degree of free speech and democratic forms facilitates, at least in the short run, the possible growth of a libertarian movement. The United States is also fortunate in possessing, even if half-forgotten beneath the statist and tyrannical overlay of the last half-century, a great tradition of libertarian thought and action. The very fact that much of this heritage is still reflected in popular rhetoric, even though stripped of its significance in practice, provides a substantial ideological groundwork for a future party of liberty.

Remember this is 1965, the dawn of the youth rebellion, civil rights and antiwar movements. Rothbard sees advocates of liberty as reincarnations of a glorious liberalism—dedicated to freedom in all spheres of life and justice for all… especially for the statists—that sprang from the Enlightenment and slowly became corrupted through the 19th century, practically to disappear in the first half of the 20th century. Thus, the conservative in this analysis is nothing more than the apologist for and cleaver unto the Old Order.

A good share of the booklet discusses how our terminology became distorted and being on the Right, for some, became an indication of loyalty to the concept of individual rights. Rothbard makes it clear that liberty and liberalism are historically opposed to the Old Order (what the initial conservatives wanted to conserve), and further that most of those who ostensibly fought against the Old Order—e.g. the socialists, progressives, communists, New Dealers, etc.—were turned into de facto supporters of that Old Order. With its cartels, its central banks, its war machinery, its regimentation, its nationalism, its feudal corporate and banking hierarchies.

Left and Right is a fascinating book that will have you see Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt as woven from the same spool of thread. “From the editor of the highly respected Current History Magazine:

‘The new America [the editor had written in 1933] will not be capitalist in the old sense, nor will it be socialist. If at the moment the trend is toward fascism, it will be an American fascism, embodying the experience, the traditions, and the hopes of a great middle-class nation.'”

Rothbard also recognizes the importance of long-run optimism:

For the libertarian, the main task of the present epoch is to cast off his needless and debilitating pessimism, to set his sights on long-run victory, and to set out on the road to its attainment. To do this, he must, perhaps first of all, drastically realign his mistaken view of the ideological spectrum; he must discover who his friends and natural allies are, and above all, perhaps, who his enemies are.

Take this book with a grain of salt, for the mere fact that as alien as most modern conservatives are toward liberty—erring on the side of the warfare state—most modern SunFLOWerliberals are so confused and ignorant of true liberalism as to be more statist than the conservatives. Thus we have very few “friends and natural allies.” We are essentially beginning anew, but Rothbard’s case for optimism is no less convincing for that.


[1] David Nolan, founder of the Libertarian Party, died, I’m sad to say, November 21, 2010.

[2] What’s interesting to note and speculate about is how Rothbard connected—then later disconnected—with Ed Crane (founder of the Cato Institute and an early national Libertarian Party leader) who connected with the Charles Koch oil industry dynasty, which is a noted source of funding for (very select) libertarian causes and organizations.

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