[NB: This post was inspired by a Twitter discussion with @obotheclown and @John_Demetriou. There was a time-limit involved, so please excuse any errors.]
There is a stream of thought out there in the political troposphere that goes by the name of left-libertarianism. This flavour is usually summarised as supporting civil liberties while advocating economic redistribution in some form or manner so as to even out the material unfairnesses in society.
For the time being, let us dispense with the nomenclature and consider first principles. (I’ve been reading Mencius Moldbug lately as you all know, so I’m very much in the mood for thought experiment and first principles.)
Political thought can be summed up as the set of philosophies, opinions, and practices devoted to the question of how people should be governed or should govern themselves. By discussing politics at all, we are addressing the needs and concerns of society or other large and similarly defined groups of humans. We are automatically moving outside of the realm of the individual, which is problematic for the libertarian, of course, but as the population of the earth is not one libertarian, this is simply a pragmatic attitude.
Also, generally speaking, political thought revolves around two central questions: (I) what is good for people both as individuals and as groups? and (II) once we’ve identified the good, what methods or mechanisms do we employ to achieve it?
Despite seeming insurmountable, answering question (I) is generally pretty easy. Almost all humans, when asked, will conclude: (a) I wish to go about my business in the absence of violence or coercion, and (b) I wish to fulfil my material needs in the absence of same, preferably without damaging myself, and preferably without sacrificing (a). Of course, you find that the extent at which people define ‘needs’ and ‘damaging’ and ‘business’ differs from person to person, but this is where the maligned inequality thesis comes in. As long as people feel their effort does not exceed their compensation, and that other people’s business does not impede their own, they tend to be satisfied.
Of course you will always find people who disagree with our answer to (I) for some spurious Calvinist reason, typically either that wanting to go about one’s business is selfish and therefore evidence of evil, or that privation is a moral virtue. I discard them, because they are clearly insane.
Now we are left with question (II), namely, how do we achieve personal freedom from coercion and violence, as well as personal freedom from making ourselves miserable in the pursuit of sustenance? (All the ‘civil’ freedom in the world does not compensate for the mental and physical drain struggling for sustenance, contrary to Patrick Henry etc., but in fact true civil freedom has never been achieved anywhere, so this is more or less a moot point.)
Pace Rothbard, but I think it would be very difficult to achieve either of these things without some kind of overarching authority. Thus I am a minarchist rather than an anarchist. However. As a right-libertarian, I suppose, I see the role of the authority as defending the territory from external aggressors, and enforcing a set of laws that prohibits internal aggression and contract-breaking. These roles, in my view, are sufficient to maintain my civil freedom. I doubt your average left-libertarian would disagree with me on this.
So in the left-right libertarian struggle, we can actually agree on what we might call (II).1.
But what about (II).2, i.e. material freedom?
Your reasonable left-libertarian (thought I don’t presume to speak for such people, obviously) takes the position that just as the authority must enforce the conditions that preserve civil freedom, it must enforce the conditions that preserve material freedom.
(Again, keep in mind that neither of these has ever actually been achieved.)
As it happens, I agree with him on (II).2 as well.
Here’s where it breaks down. In my political schematic, all parts of question (2) are achieved by the same measures: that is to say, defending the territory and enforcing laws and contracts. You will note that my view does not require any particular type of authority–simply some entity with the authority to defend and enforce. It could be a parliament. It could be a dictator. As long as defending and enforcing are what the authority does, it could be the Slime Beast of Vega for all I care. And while I would like for everyone to be materially free, I recognise that the great variety of skills, talents, and needs may preclude this. Thus, for me, it is sufficient that everyone has the opportunity to be materially free, and no one is prevented from seeking material freedom (except with regard to everyone’s civil freedoms), and no one is assisted by the authority in achieving material freedom. In this way, the pursuit of material freedom is at least fair, if not equal in result.
This attitude is not shared by left-libertarians. For them, the authority has a role in ensuring that people achieve and maintain material freedom. Those whose talents and skills are accorded value on the market insufficient to providing material freedom must receive some support from the more talented and more skilled. Some of this support will be voluntary, of course, as there are still people who retain a conscience about this sort of thing. But history and demographics have shown us that the number of skilled people who possess a conscience is always smaller than the number of unskilled and low-skilled people, so the left-libertarian will refuse to rely solely on the voluntary action of people with conscience. He will insist on endowing all of the skilled with a faux conscience, and deploy the authority’s monopoly on force to make sure enough people are endowed with faux conscience to provide for the full support of all of the unskilled and low-skilled.
The left-libertarian will see no conflict in this, as almost by definition he does not believe that property ownership beyond body and mind is an aspect of civil freedom.
And frankly, if material freedom operated on the same basis as civil freedom, this would be entirely sensible.
Unfortunately, although he is consistent in his aims, this is where the left-libertarian becomes inconsistent in his methods: for while civil freedom consists of individuals refraining, a left-libertarian’s material freedom consists of individuals acting. Refraining requires only personal self-discipline and sensibility; acting requires deliberate intention if it is voluntary and deliberate force if it is involuntary. Moreover, civil freedom consists of everyone refraining from aggression, while the left-libertarian’s material freedom consists of some people acting or being forced to act, and is thus inherently unfair and unequal. To achieve civil freedom, everyone has the same personal responsibility; but to achieve the left-libertarian’s material freedom, only a certain portion of the population has a personal responsibility.
And in fact the left-libertarian position imposes a double responsibility, for not only must those with skills provide for others’ material needs, they must provide for their own as well. To the left-libertarian, this is only just, for anything else would condemn the unskilled to starve in the streets and the low-skilled to suffer a life of toil that greatly exceeds its rewards–damaging both body and mind.
The left-libertarian position, just like mine, demands no particular type of authority, nor is it inherently redistributive.
But in practice, his method of pursuing economic freedom requires redistribution. For unlike civil freedom, which depends upon individual acts of reason and will, material freedom is contingent upon the supply of goods and services, the demand for goods and services, the supply of labour, the demand for labour, and people’s willingness to enter into mutually voluntary transactions. It is also contingent upon the identification of some minimum level of material comfort below which is unfreedom and above which is freedom. And as material comfort is relative to both immediate neighbours and prevailing conditions, this is not an absolute and can only be determined by the subjective judgment of those with the power to enforce it.
Because of this, the left-libertarian position also requires an authority that is prepared to wield force against its own citizens or subjects, and there is a name for authorities like that.
So while I might find left-libertarian goals both humane and righteous, and in agreement with my own, I find left-libertarian methods to be internally inconsistent with regard to freedom as a concept and incompatible with reality.
But then, non-libertarians say that about all libertarian philosophy, left or right. And given that neither left-libertarianism nor right-libertarianism has ever been implemented, let alone successfully implemented, they may have a point.
Obnoxio the Clown’s case of left-libertarianism can be found here.
Jock Coats, a self-labelled left-libertarian, weighs in here.
And you can find John Demetriou’s assessment here.