Sunday, July 16, 2006

Why Left-Libertarian?

I have a hunch that not everyone is clear on what "left-libertarian" means. There are several ways to approach a description, but here's mine: The Left has always phrased its program in terms of its concern for the most vulnerable elements of society. For some leftists this no doubt is a cynical pose designed to gain power. But that can't be true for all. Many leftists are motivated by a sincere wish to see the people with the fewest options get a better deal. These include people with the least education and resources, and those who have little choice but to make their living by working for -- and taking orders from -- others.

The problem is that most leftists have a muddled analysis of the problem. They get part of it right, but also part of it wrong. They grasp that the government-business partnership -- corporatism or mercantilism, what they call (with justification) capitalism -- is at fault, but they go wrong in thinking that the solution lies in government not in partnership with business but with the vulnerable. For the Left the only problem is business and the things they identify with it: property rights, free exchange, the pursuit of profit, and the laws of economics. So while they have a pretty good grasp of the evils of corporatism, they don't grasp the essence of the state, which is legal plunder, violence, and exploitation. The vulnerable haven't done very well under regimes that claimed to champion them. Nor do most leftists see that fundamentally benign things -- property, free exchange, the pursuit of profit, and the laws of economics -- are turned against regular people the moment the state gets involved with them.

The Right historically has identified with the powerful, the comfortable, and the well-connected, and has belittled the plight of the vulnerable. In a commercial society this has meant support for big business. In the Right's defense of property, it has been a matter of indifference that many fortunes were amassed through the political means. (When has a rightist supported land reform in an undeveloped country?) This has given a bad name to legitimate property rights. Rightists may formally oppose subsidies to business, but they spend far more time opposing welfare for low-income people than corporate welfare. The disparity is striking -- and revealing. They defend major corporations as though they were market actors, forgetting that the business regulations and taxes they complain about function as privileges for big business against small firms and self-proprietorships.

Left-libertarians share the leftists' concern for the vulnerable and wish not to be mistaken for rightists, but go one better by correctly identifying the source of the vulnerability -- corporatism -- and the solution: an unfettered competitive market void of any sort of privilege.


Anthony Gregory said...


Sheldon Richman said...

Thanks, Anthony. And congratulations on your appointment as interim vice chair of the Boston Tea Party.

coturnix said...

Your description of left-libertarianism is exactly what modenr liberalism is, i.e., your description of liberalism is something that has not existed for the past 40 years or so.

Check the links within this post for more ideas as why liberalism is really pro-free-market.

Sheldon Richman said...

Here's the litmus-test, Coturnix: Do you believe that initiating physical force (or the threat of it) against those who have not used force (or fraud) is wrong? If so, then you are a libertarian, a voluntarist, a radical liberal. If not, then you are a (modern) "liberal," a conservative, or some other variant of statist. It's that simple. It's silly to say, as that website says, "You don't like taxes? Then build your own roads and post office." To see how silly, change some words: You don't like taxes? Then build your own computer and MP3 player. Silly, see?

Sheldon Richman said...

More: Conservatives, especially Libertarians, always campaign on the "less government" platform. What do they really mean by that? Smaller military? No. Reduction of bureaucracy and improvement of efficiency? No.

Where does this come from? Libertarians don't want a smaller military? Most do (I question how libertarian the others are), and the anarchos want no state military at all. Do some research!

Preciously few Americans understand that they are a part of Government. Government is not just a bunch of suits in Washington DC. Every American is, by definition, and should be, a part of Government.

Ha! That's realistic, I'll tell ya. Wake up and smell the collateral damage.

Kevin Carson said...


Goo-goo defenses of government as "all of us," straight out of a '50s civics class, are one of the elite's most effective techniques for leading us around by the nose.

The idea that a popular majority can really control the government machinery in a continent-sized empire is laughable. Once you get beyond direct democracy based on direct contact with one's selectmen or elected enterprise manager, all the formal mechanisms in the world won't give you real democracy. The real power will be held by those who control the day-to-day machinery, regardless of whose interests they claim to act in.

The forms of hierarchy and authoritarianism you identify with the military are endemic to all aspects of the centralized state. The regulatory state could not function without the whip of administrative law (including powers of civil forfeiture and arrests, without any of the procedural protections of the ordinary common law). The methods of civil law were first introduced in this country through the taxing authorities, but quickly spread to the entire regulatory state. The entire regulatory state is able to function only because it possesses the same arbitrary powers exercised by the IRS. If government agencies were unable to seize persons or property without first obtaining a jury verdict, the regulatory state would collapse.

The only way to have genuine democracy or self-government is by dismantling centralized machinery above the level of the town meeting or workers' cooperative. If the machinery exists, you can be sure it will be controlled by somebody other than the people.

Anonymous said...

@Kevin Carson

As I understand your post, you seem to indicate that the federal government should be dismanteled through political action. However, don't you think a new form of central government would spontaneously emerge? If you look at most of human history, we seem to have a deeply ingrained tendency towards empire-building. Also, most of the time, the central governments formed after revolutions tend to be nastier than the ones preceeding them (eg. the jacobins and napoleon after the French revolution).

Glen Allport said...

What a great post! I found this page with a DuckDuckGo search on left-libertarian, and you have (no surprise) hit the nail on the head. Actually, there's one thing that I believe should be added to the libertarian / anarchist / abolitionist view -- certainly, if we ever want to be widely successful -- and that's an explicit, outspoken emphasis on love, compassion, and on the proper (gentle, affectionate, respectful) treatement of the young, and especially of the very young. Socialist and leftist movements generally are large (huge, in fact) because people WANT compassion to be a formal part of their world-view, and they are right to want that. Abolitionists know that not only is the State unnecessary for compassion -- the State is the most horrific destroyer of compassion that exists. Love and freedom go together, and until that becomes widely understood, the freedom movement will remain too small to accomplish much.