Recently, I was engaged in one of my favorite ways to relax in the evening: playing video games with my friends. As we were quite new to the game, one of my friends invited someone he knew who was more experienced. This character initially piqued my interest, as he started talking about his love of libertarianism, his hatred of taxation, and his excitement about how crypto will change society. But then the red flags started showing…
Suddenly, he rather aggressively enquired as to whether I was a Muslim, and dismissed me as someone who “didn’t know anything about economics” because I was skeptical about using solely Austrian economics to analyze the world. Therefore, to him, I “wasn’t a real libertarian” (whatever that means).
He spent an inordinate amount of time playing down the “Stop Asian Hate” campaign in light of the 2021 Atlanta shootings, and bemoaned a lack of action on anti-white racism.
Once he got going, he dropped all pretense and started making explicitly racist comments directed at black people, and joked about the notorious meme of Pinochet throwing political opponents out of helicopters.
This is an almost textbook example of a worrying trend among those who self-identify as libertarians. Many have rejected the current public discourse and have joined more radical far-right movements, often in response to perceived left-wing cultural encroachment. This is something many libertarians have noticed, but yet we find it puzzling how ostensibly opposing ideologies could be so closely linked.
Some libertarians are liberals, some simply don’t like the idea of encroachment
The problem is that, like most political groups, libertarianism contains a wide variety of people who form their politics from different principles, and different stressors can cause them to break off into other camps, including the far-right.
The first major group are fundamentally liberals, or neoliberals, whose right-leaning credentials are that they believe government overreach leaves people worse off. They base their thought around concepts such as the harm principle, technical analysis of institutions, choice, and the role of the state in relation to the individual.
These people tend to side with “the liberal order,” are pragmatic, hyper-rational, and most importantly, universalist when they think of people.
The second major way of thinking among those who identify as libertarians is what could loosely be termed “anti-intruderism.” This is fundamentally a conservative feeling of opposition to anything that may threaten your own space.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that many of these people wander into libertarianism, with its assertions that the government needs to get out of your wallet and stop concerning itself with what you get up to in your own home. They may even find the nature of libertarianism appealing, as it goes against the popular politics of collective change.
More radical libertarians can be tipped over the edge when push comes to shove
But this generalized, right-wing instinct doesn’t have discrete, cohesive rules: being right-wing simply means to react to whatever threatens the established order, and once the parameters for what constitutes a “threat” change, former right-libertarians can easily turn on out-groups, in addition to their skepticism of state authority.
The “degeneration” of modern media into constant progressive political point scoring in cinema and video games, and corporate virtue signaling in previously apolitical spaces is enough to annoy even moderates, but for those on the right it can be a fundamentally left-wing invasion into personal space.
Many people who have a general libertarian resentment of elite politics, power, and corporate hegemony can quite easily find themselves led down a rabbit hole of far-right, anti-semitic conspiracy theories, and their assessment of demographic and cultural change from immigration can lead them further towards out-and-out white supremacy.
Or take the related (and never ending) debate on the issue of welfare. For those on the right, welfare should be a scant necessity, minimizing dependence on government money. The responsibility of the state should be closely tied to those it interacts with, that being taxpayers and national citizens, not compulsory charity for the whole world.
Whilst there’s nothing inherently wrong or un-libertarian about being concerned with some of the challenges described above, there comes a point where someone’s core principles are unveiled: do you fundamentally value human liberty and liberal institutions, or do you simply hate leftist politics so much that you will become a borderline fascist in an attempt to destroy it?
Political orders have fractured in most countries, and libertarians need to adapt
We can see why the right has switched its focus at the macro level. Dr. Stephen Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs has noted the notion of “the great realignment.” This is a period where the defining point of political camps changes. In the mid-twentieth century, the great debate was socialism and capitalism; which mode of economic organization was superior?
But now, the left and right fight about culture and identity in the wake of the problems that have come with the liberal legacy. The libertarian alliance with the conservative right along economic lines has become increasingly tattered, as “conservative” parties seem all the more willing to spend money on a level that would have made center-left parties of the 1970s blush.
It’s incredibly easy to be a libertarian if you’re right-wing when the main hot issue is macroeconomic policy, but when it’s culture, you may find more common ground with the contrarian, big state, high spending politics of the modern right, or even the far-right, if the alternative is free-market wokeism.
Take for example the politics of the UK Independence Party in my native country. Ten years ago, it could be argued that UKIP had elements of unabashed “common sense right-libertarianism,” supporting policies like drug legalization, a flatter income tax, and getting bureaucratic nonsense out of the lives of the everyman.
Fast-forward to 2016 and the Brexit vote, and UKIP’s figurehead Nigel Farage had changed his rhetoric towards the empowerment of the domestic; he predominantly stressed wage depression from immigration, British culture, and the renewal of national industry. Not exactly unabated fascism, but concerning nonetheless from a libertarian perspective.
Some radicalization is simply due to elite incompetence
Fundamentally, this is a failure of the liberal social order. While liberal principles are very good, they do produce some losers, and the tired trope of “liberal elite culture” has indeed become far too complacent and lazy, resting on its laurels of global dominance.
This is something that has become prominent in more radical and niche libertarian spaces that adopt the anti-intruderist position, which have rejected democracy and see those with opposing values (see: immigrants, social democrats) as being fundamentally incompatible with their idea of a libertarian community, and thus support a form of political separatism.
It’s easy to denigrate anti-intruderists as closet, bubbling fascists, but in them there is definitely a large chunk of reasonable people being “pushed” into far-right radicalism by perennially incompetent policy and failure to deal with creeping leftist threats by successive “liberal” governments.
The only outlet these anti-intruderists see to “globalist” policy is radical anti-leftist action, whether it be a cult-like following of right-wing figureheads or outright organized far-right violence and confrontations.
This issue is one for which I don’t see there being any easy answers. Those of us who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal have become more politically homeless than ever. There has been a resurgence of “common sense right-liberalism” in the last few years, particularly in the podcast space, but the modern center-right has found itself caught between radical leftists and collectivist conservatives, and far too late at that.
Many political trends caused by bad government policy are out of our control, but we have to be absolutely crystal clear about what our principles are, and continually make the case for them if we are to stop losing prospective supporters to nefarious far-right ideologies.
To learn more about liberty, philosophy, and economics, be sure to check out our free Liberty 101 e-book by clicking on the button below.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, send your piece to [email protected], and mention SFL Blog in the email subject line for your chance to be published and be seen!