In the 1965 essay titled "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty," Murray Rothbard explains that the origins of these two dominant political ideologies had their beginnings in Western Europe nearly 200 years ago. Liberalism (remember we are talking 19th century definition of the term) was the party “of hope, of radicalism, of liberty, of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity.”
The opposition to 18th and 19th century liberalism was embodied by the Tories; the party of “...hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of the Old Order.” The Tories were conservatives in the original sense of the word. They were the party of reaction whose goal was to preserve the traditional order of society. Roderick Long summarizes that the Tories “…had traditionally been the advocates of hierarchy and compulsion, while the Liberals had traditionally championed voluntary association and free exchange.”
Liberals on the “left” originally advocated for free markets, voluntary exchange, freedom of association, and tolerance. Roderick Long points out that these free-market radicals embraced and promoted “many of the causes we now think of as paradigmatically left-wing - feminism, antiracism, antimilitarism, the defense of laborers and consumers against big business” while the Tories, or traditional conservatives, on the “right” advocated the hierarchy and compulsion of the Old Order.
During the end of the 18th and well into the 19th century, these two ideologies started to shift and change. We saw rapid economic and social progress due to increasing adoption of the radically liberal idea of individual human rights. The American colonies asserted their independence from the established order claiming the right to life, liberty, and property. It can be argued that America was the first nation in the history of the world founded on genuine liberal principles and within a few short decades, the world witnessed the end of chattel slavery, increased rights for women, and an economic revolution.
Unfortunately, the idea of liberalism began to transform in the later part of the 19th century. During this time we saw a rise of nationalism in Prussia – the model for the central, powerful modern nation-state. Both the Left and the Right were tempted to use the apparatus of government to achieve their ends. Roderick Long, drawing from a 1884 essay by Herbert Spencer titled The New Toryism, explains that, “…liberals came to conceptualize liberalism in terms of its easily identifiable effects (benefits for the masses) rather than in terms of its essential nature (laissez-faire), and so began to think that any measure aimed at the end of benefits for the masses must count as liberal, whether pursued by the traditional liberal means of laissez-faire or by its opposite, the traditional Tory means of governmental compulsion.”
Furthermore, on the heels of great scientific advancement, intellectuals came to believe they could order and plan society to reach the liberal goals of human flourishing faster than the incremental gains achieved through the voluntary market process. Instead of continuing to be the radical champions of freedom, which had led to steady improvements, the liberals presumed they could eliminate all the ills of society and create utopia if only they could use the existing power of the State to engineer and force their design for the benefit of humanity. In short, the liberals thought they could use the Tory means to achieve their liberal ends. Remember, the Tories on the Right traditionally instituted big-government solutions to address what they considered to be the problems in society.
Instead of focusing on the freedom of the individual to pursue happiness, the liberals believed they could arrange society in such a way that man could be free from want – that government could engineer happiness and prosperity. Because the liberals thought their end goal to be a noble one, they had great intellectual backing and what we identify as today’s version of liberalism grew rapidly. We saw the rise of socialism and Marxism across much of the globe and by 1884, Spencer observed that "[m]ost of those who now pass as Liberals, are Tories of a new type."
Remember that at the time of Spencer’s writing in 1884, the concentration of political and economic power was considered a cornerstone of the Tory ideology. In fact, historically speaking, most people in most times have considered a concentration of power as being a right-wing ideology. Spencer went on to issue a warning that turned out to be all too true. In 1884 he said, “So that if the present drift of things continues, it may by and by really happen that the Tories will be defenders of liberties which the Liberals, in pursuit of what they think popular welfare, trample under foot.”
Murray Rothbard offers further detail about this impact on the ideological transformation of the Left and the Right. The Liberals on the Left “with an orientation toward activism were led to abandon the old libertarian form of liberalism for the more energetic and proactive state-socialist version, while those liberals who resisted the slide toward state-socialism found themselves drifting toward the pessimistic and reactionary outlook of traditionalist conservatism.”
As a response to these new radical developments, the reactionary wing of the Left (weary of growing collectivism) and the traditional Tories on the Right (concerned with preserving the Old Order) evolved into what we would today recognize as the conservative movement. Their mission became to slow the rapid growth of the new socialist and progressive governments. However, the focus of these conservatives, still deeply rooted in maintaining the old traditional order and traditional values, was not principally concerned with the defense of individual rights and laissez-faire, as that was the original position of the radical liberals!
So what does this mean for us today?
Now, with an understanding of the history of the American liberal and conservative ideologies, it should not be difficult to identify and explain the origins of their present internal contradictions.
The folks that would today be considered libertarians and the present-day liberals had common origins, but they went their separate ways in the 19th century. While the libertarians are characterized as fighting oppression in all forms, the modern-day liberals rail against non-governmental forms of tyranny (like the big bad corporations) while simultaneously championing institutionalized oppression in the form of government. Liberals today seem especially concerned about the concentration of power by the wealthy businessmen but ignore the concentration of power by the political elite. They pay lip service to civil liberties while systematically destroying economic liberties. They have long since forgotten the lessons of their laissez-faire roots and now believe the economy can be ordered by wise central planners. They look at government as the great equalizer instead of recognizing the fact that government is quite instrumental in ensuring in the oppressive Old Order of the Tories.
As for the conservatives, their policies become intelligible if we remember that the conservative movement has its roots in the Tory ideology of maintaining traditional order by force. Ironically, after the perversion of classical liberalism into socialism, conservatism evolved as a reaction to the progressive, socialist agenda. The original advocate of centralized power is now our only safeguard against ever expanding government? At times, conservatives have successfully retarded the agenda of the modern-day liberal, but haven’t been able to offer any real alternative. Conservatives today accept the idea of progressive government solutions and only offer us with the alternative of implementing them more efficiently or at less cost than the liberal. The conservative message of liberty is impotent. Conservatism has never stood for laissez-faire or the principled respect for individual human rights. Furthermore, arguments for economic freedom from the conservatives carry little weight when they advocate using the blunt force of big government to secure their vision of traditional social values. The conservative pays lip service to economic liberty while destroying our personal liberty.
We have good reason to be frustrated with both of the major political parties. In American politics today, liberalism and conservatism are not fundamentally different. They merely fight over the application of government power. Both have origins rooted in authoritarian power structures designed to centrally order society according to their respective visions.
If you stand for liberty, human rights, and freed markets….you are not a conservative or a liberal in today’s terms. You are a libertarian. If you still consider yourself a conservative or a liberal after having full disclosure of what these terms mean, then you are a bully.