If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I advocate individual liberty, but am also clearly left-leaning in much of what I choose to write on. Recently, I stumbled upon a whole body of literature from a largely-ignored section of the political spectrum – the libertarian left. I intended to go through and provide a basic introduction, but others have beat me to the punch, and they did a good job, so I’ll just share their work here and link to their blog.
[Editors Note: This essay is part of BHL’s Symposium on Left-Libertarianism. Click on the link to see the other essays.]
- engaging in class analysis and class struggle;
- opposing corporate privilege;
- undermining structural poverty
- embracing shared responsibility for challenging economic vulnerability;
- affirming wealth redistribution;
- supporting grass-roots empowerment;
- humanizing worklife;
- protecting civil liberties;
- opposing the drug war;
- supporting the rights of sex workers;
- challenging police violence;
- promoting environmental well-being and animal welfare;
- fostering children’s liberation;
- rejecting racism, sexism, heterosexism, nativism, and national chauvinism; and
- resisting war, imperialism and colonialism.
Simultaneously, it features libertarian commitments to:
- affirming robust protections for just possessory claims;
- embracing freed markets and a social ideal of peaceful, voluntary cooperation; and
- crafting a thoroughly anti-statist politics.
A Leftist Position
A leftist position is marked, I suggest, by concern with subordination, exclusion, deprivation, and war. Left-libertarians whole-heartedly embrace these leftist concerns. But left-libertarians may differ from other leftists insofar as they:
- affirm the independent value of robust protections for just possessory claims—as, among other things, an expression of and a means of implementing the leftist opposition to subordination and leftist support for widely shared prosperity, but also as constraints on the means used to pursue some leftist goals;
- make different predictions about establishing a genuinely freed market (rejecting the view that such a market would be a corporate playground);
- offer different explanations of the origins and persistence of objectionable social phenomena (so that, for instance, state-secured privileges for elites, rather than market dynamics, account for persistent poverty and workplace subordination); and
- urge different remedies for these phenomena (characteristically, a combination of remedying state-perpetrated and state-tolerated injustice, and fostering voluntary, solidaristic action).
Left-libertarians share with other leftists the awareness that there are predictable winners and losers in society and that being sorted into the two camps isn’t primarily a matter of luck or skill. But left-libertarians emphasize that it’s not a consequence of market exchange, either: it’s a reflection of state-committed, state-threatened, and state-tolerated aggression. As long as there’s a state apparatus in place, the wealthy can capture it, using it to gain power and more wealth, while the politically powerful can use it to acquire wealth and more power. The ruling class—made up of wealthy people empowered by the state, together with high-level state functionaries—is defined by its relationship with the state, its essential enabler. Opposing this class thus means opposing the state.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists the recognition that big businesses enjoy substantial privileges that benefit them while harming the public. But they stress that the proper response to corporate privilege is to eliminate subsidies, bailouts, cartelizing regulations, and other state-driven features of the legal, political, and economic environments that prop up corporate power rather than retaining the privileges while increasing state regulatory involvement in the economy—which can be expected to create new opportunities for elite manipulation, leave corporate power intact, stifle upstart alternatives to corporate behemoths, and impoverish the public.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists both outrage at structural poverty and the recognition that the wealthy and well connected help to shape the rules of the economic and political game in ways that preserve their wealth and influence while making and keeping others poor. But left-libertarians emphasize that poverty isn’t created or perpetuated by the freed market, but rather by large-scale theft and by the privileges and constraints—from licensing requirements to intellectual property rules to land-use controls to building codes—that prevent people from using their skills and assets effectively or dramatically raise the cost of doing so. Eliminating structural poverty means eliminating state-secured privilege and reversing state-sanctioned theft.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists both compassionate concern with economic vulnerability and the recognition that vulnerable people can’t be left to fend for themselves, that shared responsibility for meeting their needs is morally and practically essential. But they stress that mutual aid arrangements have dealt successfully with economic vulnerability. They also emphasize that such arrangements could be expected to be more successful absent taxation (people can and will spend their own money on poverty relief, but they’re likely to do so much more efficiently and intelligently than state officials deploying tax revenues), poverty-producing state regulations, and limitations on choice in areas like medical care.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists the conviction that the redistribution of wealth can be appropriate or even required. But they deny that redistribution may reasonably be undertaken to bring about a particular pattern of wealth distribution, that it may be effected through aggressive interference with people’s justly acquired possessions, or that it is properly the work of the state. Rather, they suggest, redistribution ought to be effected by the legal system (as it restores to people resources unjustly taken from them or their predecessors in interest, as it makes assets stolen by the state or acquired unjustly by its cronies available for homesteading, and as it denies validity to state-secured privileges that preserve the economic positions of the well-connected while keeping others poor), through solidaristic mutual aid, and through the tendency of a market liberated from privilege to “eat the rich.”
Left-libertarians share with many other leftists—New Leftists and Greens, say—the conviction that decision-making should be decentralized, that people should be able to participate to the maximum feasible degree in shaping decisions that affect their lives. But they maintain that this means that, against a backdrop of secure pre-political rights, all association should be consensual. Top-down, forcible decision-making is likely to be marred by the fallibility of decision-makers and their tendency to pursue self-interested goals at the public’s expense. Small-scale political units are more humanizing than large-scale ones; but decentralization must finally be decentralization to the level of the particular person.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists the realization that hierarchical workplaces are disempowering and stultifying, and that supporting workplace hierarchies is thus often morally objectionable. But they stress that hierarchical workplaces are more likely given state action. Hierarchies limit the ability of workers to use their knowledge and skills to respond flexibly and efficiently to production and distribution challenges and to meet customer needs. The inefficiencies of hierarchies would make them less common aspects of worklife, and increase the odds that people would be able to choose alternatives offering more freedom and dignity (self-employment or work in partnerships or cooperatives), in the absence of privileges that lowered the costs of maintaining hierarchies and raised the costs of opting out of them (as by making self-employment more costly, and so more risky). State action also redirects wealth to those interested in seeing that they and people like them rule the workplace; and the state’s union regulations limit the ways unions can challenge workplace hierarchies.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists a commitment to civil liberties. But they stress that the state is a predictable foe of these liberties and that the most effective way to safeguard them is to protect people’s control over their bodies and justly acquired possessions.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists a conviction that the drug war is destructive, racist, and absurdly expensive. But they emphasize that the best protection against prohibitionist campaigns of all sorts is to respect people’s control over their bodies and justly acquired possessions, and that aggression-based limits on all disfavored but voluntary exchanges should be disallowed.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists a concern for the well-being of sex workers. But they note that state actors engage in violence against sex workers and that state policies, including criminalization and regulation, create or intensify the risks associated with sex work.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists a passionate opposition to police violence and corruption. But they emphasize that this is not simply a reflection of poor oversight or the presence in police agencies of “a few bad apples” but instead a reflection of the structural positions of such agencies as guarantors of state power and of the lack of accountability created both by the existence of substantial de facto differences in standards for the use of force by police officers and others and by the monopolistic status of police agencies.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists persistent concerns with environmental quality and animal welfare. But they stress that environmental harms can be prevented and remedied without state involvement, as long as robust legal protections for bodies and justly acquired possessions are in place; that state action is not required to protect non-human animals from abuse; and that state actions and policies are often directly responsible for protecting polluters, promoting environmental harms, and injuring non-human animals.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists a commitment to the well-being of children. But left-libertarians underscore the importance of respecting children’s rights to control their own bodies and possessions—rejecting both attempts to treat children as their parents’ property and paternalistic state action that interferes unreasonably with children’s freedom—and emphasize the degree to which the state is not the protector of children but is responsible in multiple ways for significant threats to their freedom and well-being, notably through compulsory schooling.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists the awareness that racism, sexism, heterosexism, nativism, and national chauvinism are morally repugnant. But they emphasize the crucial role of the state in creating, perpetuating, and capitalizing on these forms of unfairness while stressing that eliminating the props the state provides for prejudice-driven conduct can play a vital role in combating discrimination. Suspicious of the state and respectful of just possessory claims, they stress non-aggressive solidaristic action as the appropriate means of dealing with persistent discrimination. They promote marriage equality while seeking the departure of the state from the marriage business. And, while joining other leftists in opposing xenophobia, they stress that all borders should be razed to enable untrammeled migration.
Left-libertarians share with other leftists a passionate opposition to war and empire and a concern for the victims of both, including native peoples across the globe. But they emphasize the links between warfare, imperialism, and colonialism and the state’s continuing infringements on civil and economic liberties—not to mention ruling-class mischief. Interference with people’s peaceful conduct within the state’s borders is objectionable for many of the same reasons as war beyond the state’s borders. As a form of enslavement, conscription is unjust. The freedom to trade tends to reduce the probability of war. And warfare is a likely consequence of the operation of the state, which seeks predictably to expand its influence by force. Leftist opposition to war should be seen as entailing opposition to the state per se.
A Libertarian Position
A libertarian position is marked, I suggest, by support for equality of authority; for robust protections for just possessory claims; and for peaceful, voluntary cooperation, including cooperation in and through exchange. Left-libertarians share these commitments. But left-libertarians may differ from other libertarians insofar as they:
- make different predictions about the likely effects of liberating people and eliminating the institutionalized aggression that prevents them from cooperating peacefully and voluntarily (stressing the contingency of hierarchical workplaces, for instance);
- call attention to particular generally accepted consequences of building a free society (say, by emphasizing not only freedom but also solidarity, diversity, and poverty relief as among the outcomes of eliminating state-secured privilege);
- tell different historical or social-scientific stories about the causes and dynamics of social phenomena (so that the extant distribution of wealth is seen as a product of state action rather than individual virtue); and
- treat certain kinds of social phenomena (arbitrary discrimination, for instance) as morally objectionable and argue for non-aggressive but concerted responses to these phenomena.
Left-libertarians share with other libertarians a commitment to equality of authority—to the view that there is no natural right to rule and that non-consensual authority is presumptively illegitimate. This egalitarianism naturally issues in a commitment to anarchism, since state authority is non-consensual. But left-libertarians emphasize that the commitment to moral equality that underlies belief in equality of authority should entail the rejection of subordination and exclusion on the basis of nationality, gender, race, sexual orientation, workplace status, or other irrelevant characteristics. While left-libertarians agree with other libertarians that people’s decisions to avoid associating with others because of such characteristics shouldn’t be interfered with aggressively, left-libertarians emphasize that such decisions can often still be subjected to moral critique and should be opposed using non-aggressive means.
Left-libertarians share with other libertarians a commitment to robust protections for just possessory claims to physical objects. But they reject “intellectual property” and emphasize that possessory protections shouldn’t cover objects acquired with the decisive aid of the state, or otherwise through the use of violence, or to those clearly abandoned. They make clear that there are just limits to the things people can do to protect their possessions (becoming a trespasser doesn’t automatically make one liable to violence). They note that whether claims to land should be held by individuals or groups can only be determined in light of the economics of particular situations and the ways particular claims are established. And they stress that, while just possessory claims should be respected, it’s quite possible to oppose aggressive interference with someone’s use of her possessions in a given way while challenging that use non-aggressively.
Left-libertarians share with other libertarians a commitment to a model of social life rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation. But they differ with other libertarians in emphasizing that, while force may justly be used only in response to aggression, peaceful, voluntary cooperation is a moral ideal with implications that go beyond simple non-aggression. Left-libertarians urge that associations of all kinds be structured in ways that affirm the freedom, dignity, and individuality of all participants, and thus allow participants the option not only of exit but also of voice—of influencing the associations’ trajectories and exercising as much individual discretion within them as possible.
While rejecting capitalism, left-libertarians share with other libertarians an enthusiastic recognition of the value of markets. They stress that both parties to a voluntary exchange participate because they prefer it and believe it will benefit them; that prices provide excellent guides for producers and distributors (far better than anything a central planner could offer); and that people should internalize the costs as well as the benefits of their choices. But they emphasize that background injustice can distort markets and constrain traders’ options. They also note that commercial exchange does not exhaust the sphere of peaceful, voluntary cooperation and that people can and should cooperate in multiple ways—playful, solidaristic, compassionate—that need not be organized along commercial lines.
A Transformed Vision
Left-libertarianism embraces and transforms leftist and libertarian ideals.
Many leftists and libertarians already share some commitments: opposition to war, empire, and corporate privilege; support for civil liberties and grass-roots empowerment. However, many leftists and libertarians also embrace, and often share, various mistaken assumptions.
Left-libertarians challenge these assumptions while embracing the commitments leftists and libertarians share. They seek to demonstrate that it’s reasonable both to oppose structural poverty and to favor freed markets, to seek both workplace dignity and robust protections for just possessory claims, to embrace freedom of association while opposing arbitrary discrimination, to foster both peace and economic liberty, to link rejection of war and imperialism with support for peaceful, voluntary cooperation at all levels.
By endorsing leftist and libertarian concerns and challenging assumptions that make it difficult for leftists to embrace libertarianism and for libertarians to become leftists, left-libertarianism offers a provocative vision of an appealing politics and a world marked by greater freedom and fairness.
Thanks to my colleagues in the Alliance of the Libertarian Left/Center for a Stateless Society/Molinari Society, to Anthony Gregory, and to David Gordon, among others, for reviewing earlier versions of this essay. It is markedly better in virtue of the feedback I have received, though I, of course, remain responsible for its flaws.
Read more at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.
[While I don’t necessarily agree with every little detail of this post (the redistributive aspect can be slightly troubling when getting into its nuances), I think it does a good job of going through the basic elements of what I consider to be true libertarianism – one that doesn’t advocate corporatism.]