There are many ways to look at the left-right divide. The most common one is that the right accepts or encourages hierarchies, while the left opposes them. An increasingly common one is to make the divide solely economic, with left-right being measurable pretty much only using average tax rates. Another way to look at it, however, is through their view of morality – people on the left see morality either as relative, non-existent, or grounded in values like equality or tolerance, while the right has traditionally seen morality as objective, grounded in God, tradition, duty, or similar. It is, as such, unsurprising that the right is often viewed as authoritarian; if there are objective morals, there are morals to enforce. And yet, libertarians, classical liberals, and even many anarchists are more often than not viewed as right-wing. How can it be?
Liberty throughout history
Liberty in right-wing tradition can be traced back thousands of years. Although the right-left divide originates in late 18th century Revolutionary France, there are certain ideologies in which right-wing thought is grounded that go back much before that, one of them being classical philosophy. Aristotle all the way back in the 4th century BC advocated people having the liberty to do what they want, instead judging them according to their character (as opposed to individual actions), and yet he was an aristocrat whose ethics clearly favoured richer people rather than poorer. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century theologian whose work is the basis for modern Christian opposition to gay marriage, was one of the first and most influential advocates of individual autonomy. It is hard to ignore liberty if following in the footsteps of those thinkers.
That’s not to say being right-wing can’t be authoritarian. Thinkers like Evola and political figures like Mussolini or Pinochet have most certainly been authoritarian and right-wing at the same time, however, the pinnacle of right-wing authoritarianism – fascism – has very unconservative roots. Much of fascist thought comes from the works of Nietzsche, whom Hitler called “A Great Fighter” and whose sister was an active Nazi, who viciously attacked democracy and egalitarianism, and who put an emphasis on the importance of not only the ‘death of God’, but also ‘the will to power’ (sounds familiar?). He was profoundly unconservative, in his rejection of the established social order, rejection of God, and a call for unrestrained individual fulfilment in the shape of the Übermensch, a man become his own god; he stands against all forms of morality and objective truths. That’s nearly the polar opposite of the conservative figures in traditionally right-wing thought, who have (as follows from their conservatism) been devout Christians: Aquinas, Hobbes, Burke, Macintyre…
So what’s so right-wing about liberty? Well, if one believes in objective morality, it is only rational that they believe in the importance of intention in moral decision-making. Not only does Aquinas make a distinction between interior and exterior good (whereby the former is more important than the latter), with interior good being a good intention and exterior good being good consequences, even without grounding in Christian thought intention is hugely important. Kant’s ethics places importance solely on the intention, putting no importance to actions’ consequences. Both Aquinas and Kant put forward very sound ethical theories, perhaps since they reject atheism, unlike later left-wing philosophers on the likes of Kropotkin or Sartre.
If one believes in the importance of intention, it is imperative that one has the right intention. However, if one bans something – if one takes away the liberty to do something – they deprive them of the ability to have a good intention. I am not a good person if I don’t steal something because it is illegal – I am only a good person if I do not steal something because I know it is the moral thing to do. The because, the intention, matters. One can only be truly good if they have the option to do the evil. It is fundamental for right-wing morality to make people free to make bad choices.
Despite this, especially on political compasses, people often confuse conservatism (which is really the more liberal branch of the right-wing, as opposed to futurism) with authoritarianism. This is naturally to be expected in a political establishment where modernism is known as liberalism and capitalism as conservatism, but the fact it is to be expected does not mean it is at all justifiable. No wonder modern politics is full of misinformation if the simplest of labels are applied incorrectly.
Liberty is a beautiful value, and constantly under attack, both from the right and from the left. There is a good case for appreciating liberty, however – especially, in my opinion, for a conservative. There is nothing more conservative than living morally and according to the teachings of the Lord, but many of my Brothers and Sisters in Christ seem to forget about the words of St Paul and, in their politics, are eager to take away their neighbour’s freedom.
‘For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.’