Available Now! (click cover)

America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Leave the "Left" Behind?

In the comments section of my recent post on Kevin Carson's new book, the value of the "left" prefix in "left libertarian" was questioned. I responded that there are historical reasons that makes the prefix valid. The terms left and right come from the French National Assembly after the 1789 revolution. The right side was populated with defenders of mercantilism and aristocracy, while the left, where Bastiat and Proudhon sat, were liberals and republicans (loosely defined, of course; it was a disparate group, including state socialists). Thus radical liberals were among the original leftists.

There are also good strategic reasons for associating libertarianism with the left and not with the right. The modern movement has, despite futile protests that we are "neither left nor right," been placed on the right as sort of a hip variant of conservatism. Some of this comes from the observers' lack of perceptiveness, but much of it is the movement's own fault. A good deal of libertarian commentary sounds like corporate apologetics. Kevin Carson's term "vulgar libertarianism" -- the attitude that despite government intervention, business today is essentially what it would be in a free market -- is valuable because it identifies a serious and alarming phenomenon.

Being tagged "right-wing" has not helped the libertarian movement. It's hurt. How so? By making libertarians appear indifferent to real misery. We need not deny that general living standards have certainly increased over the decades when we acknowledge that corporatist intervention in the economy has real, not just theoretical, victims. Many people in the United States still live and work in crappy conditions -- and it's not always their fault. Government creates unemployment, abominable "schools," and unlivable inner cities. It erects barriers to self-employment and unorthodox forms of enterprise. It inflates what Charles Johnson calls the fixed costs of subsistence -- the minimum price of decent housing and food is artificially high, and various interventions (zoning and other land-use controls, artificial land scarcity, government economic development, road subsidies) make owning a car nearly indispensable. Let's not forget building codes, patents, trade restrictions, licensing, ubiquitous taxes, and the rest of the weights that government imposes on people.

In sum, the State cuts off the lower rungs of the ladder and pushes people into an oligopsonistic labor market, subjecting many to ugly conditions and arbitrary authority that likely could not endure in a truly free and competitive economy where alternative self-employment and small-scale farming would be unburdened by government.

When libertarians mimic conservatives and address this hardship by saying in effect, "Tough shit," they stifle the growth of the libertarian movement. It's as if they were saying: This is an upper-middle-class college-educated corporate-oriented white movement. No others need apply.

I want no part of that libertarian movement. I prefer the one envisioned by Richard Cobden, John Bright, Frederic Bastiat, Thomas Hodgskin, Herbert Spencer, Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, Voltairine de Cleyre, Karl Hess, Murray Rothbard (at times), and others who saw true liberalism as a movement for working people and the disfranchised as well.

Lots of people feel pushed around by big institutions, government and otherwise. They should! We need to speak to those people. What's to lose? There's so much to gain.

15 comments:

victormilan said...

I agree with not aligning libertarianism with the right, for the reasons you describe. By and large I think those who identify themselves as "left" libertarians are the ones making the most sense these days.

What I have trouble with is sucking up to the real left. It hasn't worked any better in the past than sucking up to the right. Why would it help now?

Aren't we better off, say, casting long-overdue ridicule on the notion that the left is in fact "compassionate"? The people of modern North Korea might have something to say to that, as might the 100+ million people murdered by the left in the 20th Century. If the dead could talk.

Closer to home, where's the actual compassion in being in favor of armed hirelings forcibly taking money from other people, shipping some into the pockets of bureaucrats, and the lion's share into the coffers of the favored rich - the real destinations of pretty much all government expenditures - in the name of helping the poor?

Finally: we can call ourselves leftists and call each other comrade all we want. The cool kids are still never going to accept us.

Sheldon Richman said...

"What I have trouble with is sucking up to the real left. It hasn't worked any better in the past than sucking up to the right. Why would it help now?"

I don't think we should suck up to anyone. We should express radical liberalism in all its fullness -- which includes addressing the plight of those I discuss in my post. This is bound to grab the attention of some good-faith nonliberal leftists.

If we don't do this, we should not be surprised that people on hard times look to the State for assistance.

Neverfox said...

Sheldon,

A few months ago, a Facebook friend sent me an essay after hearing that I was a left-libertarian. It was written by self-described rightist anarcho-libertarian Taylor Somers and is called "Why I Am a Rightist". Since it's not available online and because it's too long to post here, this is a link to a copy I posted at FLL. It's interesting because of how strongly he takes the opposite view, even down to disagreeing with the interpretation of the most libertarian side of the French assembly.

His basic argument goes like this:
1. Anarchism is about personal sovereignty.
2. The Rightists were traditionally monarchists.
3. Monarchs are sovereigns.
4. Anarchism is about personal monarchy (from 1 and 3).
5. Anarchism is rightist (from 2 and 4).

Chris Baker said...

Sheldon, many libertarians are indifferent to human suffering. How many of them know anything about the Triangle Fire in 1911, for example? I imagine that you do know about it.

However, one of the worst things about libertarians (especially the ones in think tanks and academia) is a tendency to all business owners as saints. Having spent a lot of time in the real world, I know that this is definitely not true. And a lot of this corrupt business owners do stay in business and do so for a long time. There is a reason why workers wanted to unionize--they simply wanted to be treated like human beings.

I do know people who are definitely victims of bad luck. I also know one person who truly is a welfare bum. I know another guy who didn't work and was living off a topless dancer.

There are people who create their own suffering. There are also people who have it created by others or by circumstance.

D. Saul Weiner said...

I agree that libertarians should try to raise the awareness of others of the destructiveness of state action toward the poor and average person.

It takes a fair amount of imagination and sophistication to grasp the things that you are talking about. In today's dumbed down world, this is an uphill battle, to say the least.

On another front, we should also make it very clear that enslaving the younger generations to the older ones is not only unworkable but unconscionable. This may not win too many friends on the left, but so be it.

Sheldon Richman said...

Neverfox, I have to say that is a novel argument. I'll check it out.

Chris, yes, I know about the Triangle Fire. People should read about it.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Sheldon:

"Being tagged "right-wing" has not helped the libertarian movement. It's hurt."

I agree with the latter. But that does not mean that we are left--we are not. Nor does it mean that "There are also good strategic reasons for associating libertarianism with the left and not with the right."

"Associating"? What does this mean? It is not left. It is not right. It is neither left nor right. Both left and right are statist, evil, and anti-libertarian. Let us not forget that.

"I don't think we should suck up to anyone. We should express radical liberalism in all its fullness -- which includes addressing the plight of those I discuss in my post. This is bound to grab the attention of some good-faith nonliberal leftists."

This is a strategical consideration. I do not think it is "bound" to. The leftists are as evil and unapproachable as the right. More so, in some ways. It is not "bound" to at all. In any event, this is mere strategy. It does not mean we are a leftist movement. I agree we are not of the right; and I am proud also not to be a leftist. If I have to choose between being a left- or a right-libertarian--I'll be neither, thank you.

Jeremy said...

I'm gonna take the Longian approach here that it's ok to say you're on the left, right, or neither, so long as you're clear about what you mean. I agree that most left libertarians in our movement use "left" in the original historical sense you describe. It certainly is what I tell people who ask about the label.

However, I find Keith Preston's argument about the left/right dichotomy convincing as well:

"Both Left and Right are derivatives of eighteenth century radicalism, with the Left being a descendent of the French Revolution and the Right being a descendent of the American Revolution. What separates the legacies of these two revolutions is not their radicalism or departure from throne-and-altar traditionalism, but their differing views on human nature, the nature of human society, and the nature of politics."

In the above sense, genuine libertarianism as we understand it might very well be a movement of the right. After all, in some senses anti-statism is a quite "conservative" philosophy in that it seeks to conserve civil society and its norms from statist encroachment and regulation (setting aside the oppressive nature of many social norms and traditions).

Frankly, I've no problem moving back and forth between the left and the right, since there are people of goodwill and sincerity on both sides who care about liberation. The trap, as I see it, is in the identification with a label that leads to a sort of laziness and unwillingness to communicate with people. Labels are means of communication, not identities.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Jeremy:

"I'm gonna take the Longian approach here that it's ok to say you're on the left, right, or neither, so long as you're clear about what you mean."

Sure, it's okay; and yes, there are some left-libertarians. But they are incorrect to imply that libertarianism itself is left-libertarianism. And I think they are wrong to think they are even very compatible, or that the left paradigm adds much of value (and in fact I think it leads astray, to bad economics and some unjustified social analysis). Libertarianism is not right; but it is also not left. It is superior to both.

"Frankly, I've no problem moving back and forth between the left and the right, since there are people of goodwill and sincerity on both sides who care about liberation."

I think this is overly generous. The left and right are both basically statist and evil.

Christopher said...

Stephan:

I used to be of the opinion that Left and Right was a lame dichotomy unrepresentative of libertarianism, but have evolved my thinking. I explain here (http://newkindofmind.blogspot.com/2009/10/chains-that-were-and-were-not-there.html) why I think libertarianism is "Left." I haven't gotten around to fully explaining the my "Left/Right" paradigm, but the link has a short explanation.

Gary Chartier said...

It seems to me that there are at least three reasons someone might want to self-identify as a left-libertarian (or, to put the point even more sharply, why a libertarian might also wish to self-identify as someone on the left):

1. Since the earlier radical liberals were evidently the first to be described as on the political left, modern libertarians, their lineal descendants, can rightly claim to give expression to a position rooted in one that is paradigmatically leftist.

2. Libertarians can reasonably claim that markets unfettered by privilege can deliver the widely shared prosperity and freedom from manipulation by the powerful that others on today’s left say they want—without the threat of tyranny, inefficiency, and conformism posed by their preferred statist means to these goals. In this sense, because the adoption of full-blown libertarian principles would lead to the achievement of recognizably leftist goals, there is an essentially leftist quality to libertarianism; and so, to some extent, left-libertarianism just is libertarianism with this leftist quality acknowledged and emphasized.

3. Libertarians can also pursue acknowledged objectives of the left within the market (broadly defined). In this sense, left-libertarianism might be thought of as simply a species of a broader libertarian movement. The left-libertarian will want to maintain, though, that the pursuit of these goals is non-arbitrary, not a mere expression of preference. At minimum, it may be rooted in moral principles that are consistent with libertarianism--though it may also reflect support for underlying assumptions required to defend libertarianism; support for the social preconditions needed to ensure the stability of a libertarian society; or an attempt to mirror libertarian political values. (See Charles Johnson on all of this, of course.)

jeremy said...

Well, Stephan, I have a hard time saying what "libertarianism" as an abstraction is and isn't, since its pressed into the service of a wide variety of agendas. I can only say that the kind of libertarianism *I* am interested in is firmly on the left side of status quo. Others' milage will almost certainly vary.

"The left and right are both basically statist and evil."

That's a mindset I just can't get on board with. I usually tend towards the mindset that there's something I can learn from people who sincerely disagree with me.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Jeremy: hard to "learn" from them while they tax, conscript, jail, murder you.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Gary: Your contention is eloquently argued and a lot of what you say makes sense--re there being "at least three reasons someone might want to self-identify as a left-libertarian (or, to put the point even more sharply, why a libertarian might also wish to self-identify as someone on the left)."

But whatever the possible connections between the original leftism and libertarian principles and libertarianism's origins, you are speaking of some now-extinct left. The modern left has left this "good" left behind--as suggested by Rothbard in his classic and monumental Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty. Maybe we should take Roderick Long's brilliant advice in his recent comments where he distinguished between capitalism-1, capitalism-2, and capitalism-3, to explain the confusion among both left- and right-libertarians on the "capitalism" question--and indeed, where he suggests that the same is true of the left, or at least of socialism: "'socialism,' as the theoretical antithesis of 'capitalism,' is subject to precisely the same ambiguities."

Leftism today means collectivist, statist, thuggish, murderous, economically ignorant, mired in tired classist conceptions, inhuman, inhumane, evil, and bellicose ideas, policies, and practices. Sure, talk about our historical links to the Old Left, if you want, and where they went off the rails, but we are not left, IMHO.

Stephan Kinsella said...

I agree with Victor Milan's first comment above, except I would hesitate to say left-libertarians are making the most sense nowadays. I would agree that libertarians still mired in conservativism and not hostile enough to the state and war are being outshined by the anti-war left-libertarians and even those left-libertarians who criticize the "vulgar" libertarians. But I do not think one needs to join the left-bandwagon to be anti-war, anti-IP, anti-corporatism/fascism, or to be very concerned for the plight of the downtrodden and other classes stultified and oppressed by the fascist state-business alliance. One only needs to be a libertarian.

Sheldon: "I don't think we should suck up to anyone. We should express radical liberalism in all its fullness -- which includes addressing the plight of those I discuss in my post. This is bound to grab the attention of some good-faith nonliberal leftists."

I'm not sure if we are "bound" to. I think Milan is right: "It hasn't worked any better in the past than sucking up to the right. Why would it help now?" But sure, why not. It doesn't hurt.

Sheldon writes: "If we don't do this, we should not be surprised that people on hard times look to the State for assistance."

Whether we make overtures to the left or not, people are going to look to the State for assistance--and we should not be surprised of this, either. But if your comment is meant to imply it's our fault if this happens--I reject this entirely. It's not our fault that other people are evil; it's not our fault if we are unable to persuade them. We should never be blamed for not being successful at persuading others not to be evil.