In a sense, left-libertarianism is a historical revision that identifies a tradition of association between libertarianism and what can be deemed to be the “left” end of the political spectrum. The term left-libertarian does not use the term “left” in the context of mainstream politics, but in the historical context of classical liberalism and anarchism, I.E. it is a referance to the tendency of opposition to authority. It could be said that left-libertarianism is therefore a redundancy. But the usefulness of the term is as a reclaimation of political alignment in light of the distortion that has occured over the years in terms of how the political spectrum is viewed.
Particularly in America, libertarianism was largely associated with the “the left” until around the time of FDR, at which point a libertarian-conservative fusionism took place as an opposition movement to the New Deal. Ever since then, libertarians have generally assumed themselves to be in alliance with the political right or a part of it themselves. The political right has proceeded to partially co-opt libertarian rhetoric as a means for obtaining and expanding their power, and purging or ignoring the libertarians when it is most relevant. In turn, some libertarians have become more conservative in their views. Left-libertarianism represents a movement away from this tendency, a clear distinction being made between libertarianism and conservatism, with the diagnosis that conservatism is more concerned with maintaining plutocratic interests and traditionalist communitarianism than preserving or expanding individual liberty.
This is not to say that what’s considered to be the contemporary political left is something to support either, however. A left-libertarian analysis of the contemporary political left reveals their methods to be largely right-of-center in orientation, which is to say that they support authoritarian means in the pursuit of goals that may very well be laudable. Part of the point of left-libertarian reconciliation is to get the contemporary left to move away from such authoritarian tendencies and support voluntary and cooperative means towards pursueing such goals. Before the rise of state-socialism, the left was much more in line with libertarianism. Unfortunately, the old libertarian left was nearly obliterated by the conservative turn that the socialist movement took towards the end of the 19th century. Ever since then, the goals of socialism, which were originally much more inconjunction with libertarian means, have become largely associated with authoritarianism.
The split between authoritarian socialism and social anarchism is well illustrated by the disagreements that took place between Marx and both Bakunin and Proudhon, with Marx being representative of authoritarianism, and Bakunin and Proudhon being representative of anarchism and libertarian socialism. While many contemporary libertarians may be tempted to act as if socialism is synanymous with authoritarianism, the fact of the matter is that socialism was a fairly libertarian movement in its origins, or by the very least it always had both an authoritarian and libertarian wing. Furthermore, the ideas of the early socialist anarchists such as Proudhon were not in principle opposed to the idea of free markets. Hence, there is a reconcilation that can be made between certain demands or goals that may be deemed “socialistic” and the context of individual liberty.
The tradition of American individualist anarchism is also instructive in this regaurd, for here we have a group of people who extended upon the framework that Proudhon provided in an even more individualistic direction. We have figures such as Benjamin Tucker to look to as a sort of crossroads between contemporary free market libertarianism and the traditional left. One can see a clear philosophical progression take place upon reflection of the matter. Left-libertarianism is an awareness of this rich history, that libertarianism did not begin in the 1930’s and isn’t some kind of conservative-lite movement in which we put all libertarian goals aside until the communists are liquidated. Left-libertarianism is not a deviation, it is the correction of a deviation and would not be as necessary if such a deviation did not occur to begin with.
Left-libertarianism is not just a historical perspective, however. It is a synthesis between certain goals that may be associated with “the left” and libertarian ideas, it involves ways of using libertarian ideas to derive conclusions that may be considered to be “leftish”. In particular, left-libertarianism involves a tendency to use free market economics to demonstrate how state intervention negatively affects interests that may be concerns of “the left”, by demonstrating how the state harms workers, reduces living standards, causes prices to rise, enables environmental damage, concentrates private power and backs up monopolies. Left-libertarianism can be used to demonstrate how the likely outcome of a genuinely free economy is comparatively egalitarian in light of currently existing economic structures, and how it is possible for things such as voluntary unions and cooperatives to exist in a genuinely free market.
Left-libertarianism observes that far too often what is celebrated as “capitalism” (even by some libertarians) is more like a plutocracy or a neo-mercantile society, and that many private elites crucially rely on state power to sustain their own power. Left-libertarianism reflects a tendency to be critical of both state and corporate power, and a keen awareness of the degree to which the two are synergetic. The function of liberty is not to privatize power but to uphold a consistant rejection of arbitrary authority, and while the state is certainly the most fundamental institution of arbitary authority, it is not necessarily the only one. Hence, additional concerns about power relations between various groups within society aren’t necessarily irrelevant, it’s just that one must understand the role the state plays in such power relations and the way in which such power relations truly work in general. In either case, left-libertarianism is “thick” in this sense, as there is more to it than anti-statism.
Favor for more participatory decision-making or direct action as a method for bringing about one’s goals is also an aspect of left-libertarianism, best reflected by the theory of agorism. A central point is that organization must be from the bottom up and that activism is a matter of directly making a change on a personal level or on a small scale rather then participating in the illusory and bankrupt system of representative democracy or remaining in a state of dependancy on currently dominant structures. This can be seen as involving a principle of personal responsibility and an awareness of the need for competitive mechanisms in order to counter current power structures. Hence, the general tendency is towards a rejection of reformism and party politics.
Left-libertarianism also functions as an alliance or umbrella in which a multitude of various libertarian-oriented schools of thought co-exist, and therefore can be seen as a manifestation of anarchism without adjectives. In particular, mutualists and left-rothbardians (those who draw influence from Rothbard’s more “leftish” years) represent a nice middle ground that can unite people associated with both free market libertarianism and social anarchism. There is no rational reason for there to be an absolute wall between the two worlds, and as semantic differences are weeded out a degree of compatability becomes evident.
While much more could be said, I think this summarizes left-libertarianism well enough.
I’ll try to breakdown what the specific things that can be found within leftlibertaria that I find problematic…:
1. Implicit reliance on idealistic assumptions about market dynamics, akin to an equilibruim model, and a tendency toward economic reductionism in which anything that can be reasonably called a sociology goes out the window. I find this in Carson as well as the general mantra that does nothing more than equate anti-capitalism to a conclusion of anti-statism while predicting that the market will produce egalitarian outcomes, but not necessarily adopting an egalitarian social norm.
2. Clinging to neo-lockean or Rothbardian notions about property while attaching egalitarian intentions to them, while failing to realize or address problems with this view for the prospect of any meaningfully “equal liberty”. This particularly applies to the “left-rothbardians” and many of the agorists, who view themselves as immenitizing Rothbard’s eschaton.
3. The dubious re-reading of classical anarchist thinkers in more contemporary free-market-libertarian terms and cherry picking from tradition (always American and individualist thinkers) to suite one’s purposes. You see this in how some people talk about thinkers like Proudhon (by neutering him and ignoring him as a philosopher), and how opposition to capitalism is framed in mainly Tuckerite terms. Then there’s dubiously contrueing people like Molinari and the “voluntaryists” as anarchists.
4. Naive pluralism toward the market anarchist mainstream or a kind of localist conventionalism in which an anarcho-capitalist or anarcho-nationalist tribe is seen as harmless. There was a huge conflict here and elsewhere with Jeremy Weiland and some others on the nationalism issue. And I see quite a few people elsewhere effectively neuter themselves for capitalist libertarians.
I consider myself a left-libertarian. To avoid any confusion over what this may imply, I fully support private property, voluntary exchange, money, rent, employment, and so on (or more strictly speaking, I don’t advocate their abolition). And I completely oppose the state. I advocate a free market in everything, from clothing and shelter to defense and arbitration. I have a dislike for people like Noam Chomsky, who I feel is largely economically illiterate and confused. I’m not a marxist or a communist or a syndicalist. Some may therefore be thinking, “so what’s so ‘left’ about it? what differentiates you from ‘right’ libertarians? you sound like any other anarcho-capitalist to me!”. I’d like to explain myself in order to make it clear that there is a very real distinction to be made.
Firstly, it is worth exploring how one views power in general. All libertarians, particularly market anarchists, oppose the power of the state. A lot of emphasis is placed on the power of the state and how it effects society. However, in my understanding, while the left-libertarian joins their comrades in opposing the state, they oppose the concentration of power and centralization in general. This includes the concentration or centralization of so-called “private power”. While cookie-cutter anarcho-capitalists make brilliant arguments against state power, they tend to specialize so much in doing so that they may neglect the problems with the concentration of “private” power. Their libertarianism is “thin” in the sense that it is restricted to anti-statism.
The cookie-cutter anarcho-capitalist often seems to act as if whatever is “private” is legitimate in all respects. It’s almost as if the principles somehow magically don’t apply when we are dealing with non-state organizations. But to use a simple example, a gang or mafia may be “private” but it certainly is not legitimate. The left-libertarian views matters more broadly, that is, they apply libertarian principles not only to delegitimize the state but also to any other group of “private” people who violate rights. The left-libertarian’s libertarianism is “thick” in the sense that it is more than just a matter of anti-statism, it is more broadly a matter of anti-authoritarianism and anti-centralization. The left-libertarian may additionally oppose corporations, extremely large buisinesses and possibly even organized religion. The left-libertarian sees no good reason why buisinesses should be centralized.
Karl Hess once described “the right” as supporting the concentration of power into the fewest hands possible, while in contrast “the left” stands for spreading it about as much as possible in an equilibrium. “The left” implies “equality of authority” in which everyone’s freedom is limited by the like freedom of everyone else – a mere restatement of the non-aggression principle. Using this analysis, right-libertarians are to “the left” to the extent that they oppose the concentration of power in the hands of the state, but they nonetheless are still to “the right” to the extent that they still support private concentrations of power. While the right-libertarian may be consistantly anti-state, they are not consistantly opposed to the concentration of power. They may even fully endorse “private” concentrations of power and portray such organizations as victims of the state.
In short, the right-libertarian or cookie-cutter anarcho-capitalist, while they are likely fully aware and informed of the fact that we don’t currently live in a free market or free society, functions as a “vulgar libertarian”. What this means is that they function as apologists for big buisiness, corporations and currently existing conditions or property titles. They use free market theories or analysis to legitimize conditions and organizations that came about in a non-free market. They tend to cling to a worldview in which “big buisiness is America’s most persecuted minority”, as Ayn Rand once stated. They still tend to think of state intervention as somehow being inherently anti-buisiness, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The right-libertarian is essentially pro-buisiness more or less across the board without proper consideration for context. The left-libertarian calls them out on this.
Another difference between the left-libertarian and the right-libertarian is over what they think society will be like in the absence of the state. Cookie-cutter anarcho-capitalists essentially envision a society more or less identifical to currently existing society but without the state. But the left-libertarian sees much more broad implications that would seem to radically alter the organizational structure of a society. The left-libertarian does not think that the results of a free market would mirror current economic conditions by any stretch of the imagination. Left-libertarians may tend to think that free competition would function as a check on the general size of economic organizations, and therefore draconian large buisinesses simply couldn’t survive or exist. They may also be tolerant of or more open to possible “socialistic” experiments within a free market, or advocate a signficant increase in self-employment over standard wage-employment.
The difference between the two sides can also be thought of in terms of how one’s position relates to the traditions of the anti-authoritarian left, or how one views their own position in relation to it. It’s partially a matter of historical context and the political spectrum. Right-libertarians buy into the cliche that socialism is inherently a statist/political system, while left-libertarians aknowledge the existance and possibility of voluntary or anarchistic socialism (in short, all they’re really doing is taking an anarchist without adjectives approach). To the right-libertarian, all socialist forms of organization are inherently violent or political systems – all socialism is state-socialism. To the left-libertarian, there is a distinction to be made between state-socialism and genuinely libertarian socialism. The left-libertarian has a much greater degree of tolerance for “socialistic” forms of organization so long as they are voluntary, while the right-libertarian considers all “socialistic” forms of organization to be inherently involuntary.
There’s a major difference in terms of where one finds their roots. To the right-libertarian, their philosophy derives from and grew out of the “old right” and the founding fathers of America. To the left-libertarian, their philosophy derives from and grew out of the old libertarian left (the mutualists, the individualist anarchists, the voluntaryists, etc.) and wouldn’t exist without them. The left-libertarian sees market anarchism as having grown out of old non-state socialist traditions and is likely to see ideas such as mutualism as not really being that far off from their own position in the grand scheme of things. In contrast, the right-libertarian is largely out of touch with such roots and probably considers mutualists and other more voluntaristic socialists to be enemies. They see little to no connection between these ideas and contemporary market anarchism, where the left-libertarian does.
Another major difference is over strategy and where one thinks their true alliances lie. The left-libertarian is much more likely to be opposed to the political process and consequentially they may not vote, argue against running for office and regularly denounce the libertarian party and reformism. The left-libertarian is a radical and a revolutionary. In contrast, the right-libertarian essentially functions as a minarchist in practise as they regularly participate in the political process, encourage people to participate in it, run for office themselves and advocate reformist strategies. Comparatively, the right-libertarian is a gradualist and even counter-revolutionary. The right-libertarian more or less takes the exact same strategy that a minarchist would, and consequentially falls prey to political oppurtunism and get-liberty-quick schemes.
The difference over where one thinks their alliances are is also significant. Right-libertarians regularly ally with conservatives, particularly paleoconservatives. To the right-libertarian, conservatism is the closest thing to libertarianism on the political spectrum and conservatives inherently are less statist then “the left”. They may even views themselves as an extension of the conservative movement. The left-libertarian, in contrast, wants nothing to do with conservatism and sees no reason why it should be regaurded as somehow less statist than “the left”. The left-libertarian sees conservatives as hijacking the libertarian movement and employing quasi-libertarian rhetoric to get people to associate their own positions with liberty and free markets. To the left-libertarian, conservatism in the original sense of the term is the polar opposite of liberty, as it stands for the status quo, the romantisization of the past and an endless sea of authoritarian tendencies.
From the perspective of the left-libertarian, sometimes the right-libertarian takes positions on current issues that in fact are conservative rather than libertarian. One of the most common cases of this is over the issue of immigration, in which right-libertarians essentially support restricting people from crossing political borders. To the left-libertarian, this merely grants legitimacy to the state and treats it as if it were a legitimate private property owner. The same is true of many so-called “privatization” schemes in which the state sells “its” property off to a single economic organization, essentially transfering from a state held monopoly to a private monopoly. The left-libertarian is much more skeptical of so-called “free market” reforms than the right-libertarian is, being much more likely to consider them manifestations of mercantalism or corporatism.
Another difference between the two may simply be a matter of cultural traits or preferances. Right-libertarians may often be strict “cultural conservatives” and therefore have traits such as opposition to multiculturalism, feminism and secularism. They may openly praise “the family”, “the church” and “the nation”. In contrast, the left-libertarian is much more likely to see these things such as multiculturalism and secularism as being good and support voluntaryist versions of them. The left-libertarian may add things such as anti-racism and anti-patriarchy to their agenda, and such things need not be imposed by the state but a result of voluntary efforts. And while many right-libertarians may tend to praise “the family”, the left-libertarian may very well be skeptical about the organizational structure of many families and view them as abusive. And perhaps most importantly, the left-libertarian is not a nationalist.
It should be clear at this point what the left-libertarian is not: they are not vulgar libertarians, conservatives, in bed with conservatives, anti-immigrationists, reformists, extreme gradualists, and so on. It is likely (although not necessarily mandatory) that they are not racists, organized religion supporters, nationalists, chauvenists, and so on. The left-libertarian is not an apologist for “private” concentrations of power and corporations. The left-libertarian may very well oppose corporations. In short, the left-libertarian has distanced themselves from conservative traits as much as possible and view themselves as supporting liberty in a much more broad sense than your cookie-cutter anarcho-capitalist does. It is in the context of this much more broad perspective that they are to “the left” of their comrades.