It is a common refrain to hear from classical liberals, libertarians and those of a limited government persuasion, that their views fall neither on the left nor the right of the traditional political spectrum. “I take ideas from both sides” is a well-used disclaimer that tends to proceed a list of those ideas. Others will attempt to characterise themselves with descriptions along the lines of “socially left wing, economically right wing”.
This need to exhaustively define what should be a simple ideological position in a way most people can understand stems from the limited two-dimensional view of politics that’s prevalent in general discourse today. “Left wing” and “right wing” are arbitrary groupings of views that often lack a common philosophical underpinning. On the left, personal liberty on lifestyle choice and an individualist attitude to rights across race, gender and background are thrown in with drastic expansion of state control in economics and the restriction of free speech. On the right, freedom of expression and economic liberty are thrown in with social conservatism and the use of law to impose one group’s moral ideas.
Breaking this false binary and instead following a philosophically consistent commitment to individual liberty tends to leave one with few friends in the political mainstream. For all of the shifting that takes place in what defines political parties and their positions on the left-right ‘spectrum’, individualists and etymologically proper ‘liberals’ always find ourselves without a home anywhere on it.
The most recent political realignment has,
in the analysis of the Institute of Economic Affairs' Stephen Davies, moved the primary distinguishing factor away from economic disparity and into the realm of identity. Where once the left was the home of the economically less fortunate set against an establishment-favouring right, now the left fights for globalism and tolerance against an increasingly nationalistic and protectionist right. The old pairing of right with economically liberal has been lost to the socially conservative populist wave, while the left’s focus on the common worker has given way to a dogmatic drive towards openness and multicultural ideals even where those sit wildly at odds with the views of those it formerly sought to represent.
This shift has left individualists with even less of a home on the political spectrum than was the case before. The old left’s drive towards protecting the rights of the working class and giving regular people the freedom to live their personal lives in their own way were easy for an individualist to get behind, even if the means of implementation ended up being quite different. Likewise the old right’s drive towards rolling back state power, freeing up economies and removing barriers to business, entrepreneurship and social mobility were just as compelling. Taking the social ideas from one and the economic policy of the other broadly approximated a laissez-faire approach to politics overall.
The new left and right, on the other hand, are both movements driven strongly by group identity. The new left isn’t interested in individual rights so much as group rights for what they’ve identified as marginalised parts of society. Coming from an individualist starting point that might not be a bad thing, but when it extends to favouring individuals by virtue of their group identity it becomes as unpalatable as its opposite number on the right. Equality quotas, privilege points and identity-driven movements turn the individual into a representative of a group, their own value lost under the weight of their oppressed status or lack thereof.
The new right, of course, cares little about oppressed minorities, but much more about national identity. The left rightly highlights the arbitrarity of judging another by their national origin, blind seemingly to the parallel between that and inversely judging one by the social history of their race, gender or sexuality. Both sides see themselves as protecting the rights and freedoms of their respective identity groups, but neither has any commitment to protecting the rights of free individuals.
To a reader not buried in recent socio-political discourse, these characterisations may seem more like extreme fringe positions than views typical of people on the political left and right. In a way that’s true; most regular people aren’t hardline identitarians, be that around nationality, race, class, gender, sexuality or anything else. If asked, most people will probably claim to judge others as individuals rather than as members of a group. However, it is these more fringe positions that are really driving the political divide in today’s discourse, and in doing so they are providing the arguments and aligning positions around which the wider culture is polarising.
What of the centre, one might reasonably ask? The old centre was an economic half-way house, part socialist, part capitalist, broadly socially liberal with a lingering appreciation for traditional values. It’s not clear yet what the new centre is. In time one should emerge, attracting those more mainstream minds turned off by the ever more drastic positions on each political wing. The problem with the old centre of course was that it wasn’t the hybrid of ideas from both sides that individualists seek, but more a compromise between the two across the board, ultimately no better than either. How a new centre between two divergent forms of tribalism can offer a home for individualists is hard to imagine.
In the past, those of us driven by individualist and classically liberal ideas have tried to find homes in left, centre and right wing parties and ideologies. This latest realignment shows that the time for that is really over. The only option for truly putting across an individualist perspective is to call out the present political discourse for being the false binary that it is. We need to stand together as a clearly separate movement from anything on the traditional spectrum, united across all issues by an unwavering and uncompromising belief in the idea that an individual’s values and choices are what define them, not their group identity.
We aren’t right wing, we aren’t left wing, and we aren’t any combination of or compromise between the two. That whole approach to framing the debate has to go before a consistently individualist policy platform can be developed and properly put forward.