May 192010

[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.

  27 Responses to “The case of left-libertarianism”

  1. You explore the moral case pretty well (what gives person X authority over person Y, etc), but, looking at this post, I could’ve replaced ‘left libertarian’ with ‘socialist’ (or any other redistributive ideology) and it’d have made just as much sense. I guess from there it could be argued that ‘left libertarianism’ neither exists nor is valid.

    • Admittedly this is from a position of relative ignorance, but in my experience actual socialists don’t give a shit about civil liberties where they conflict with the socialist’s moral imperatives. At least left-libs consider civil liberty a moral imperative in itself!

  2. Because it is based on coercion and this authority, I do not consider the motives “humane” or “righteous”, because that only applies in isolation, at the expense of another, not the inverted form of expense, the “deprived” kind, but actually taking by force that which was created.

    What BenS says – it looks very much like Socialism that wants to hijack a term and bastardise it.

    • I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on that, because I consider it entirely humane and righteous to desire an end to privation. But unlike your left-libertarian, I think the best way of effecting that is to end coercion in all forms, private and public.

      • I differentiate between “desire” / wish and something used to justify/explain/trigger action, i.e. motive.

        It is as if there is no impulse control. They MUST solve it anyhow, and the world is bent so to fit that.

  3. Good article Bella, thank you. I have posted mine on the subject.

    I am irritated by the remedial, reactionary, ill informed and stupid comments above. But not wholly surprised.


  4. I don’t think you’ve understood left-libertarianism at all. In fact, I’d be very surprised indeed if you could find anything in libertarian socialism as normally understood, to support your assertion that: “the left-libertarian position also requires an authority that is prepared to wield force against its own citizens or subjects”

    From Proudhon and Benjamin Tucker through present-day advocates like Kevin Carson (whose insights regularly hole the bombast of vulgar libertarians below the waterline), Roderick T. Long, and Rad Geek, you have not produced any evidence of a left-libertarian or libertarian socialist who thinks in the way you have described.

    Where left-libertarians disagree with right-libertarians is usually in a few areas. They can believe (and this is best expounded by Carson) that a world without governmental regulation will lead to the break-up of large companies (which they think a good thing) because capitalism as we currently experience it is only possible when a government has loaded the dice against a free market (‘free market anticapitalists’). They can believe (like Rothbard at points) that property that has been acquired through theft and pillage should not be afforded property rights (actually there’s a whole mess of ideas about homesteading, and Locke, and use – perhaps most helpful would be to look at some left libertarian responses to Rand Paul’s interview with Rachel Maddow, in the comments on this post: ). They are likely to be more favourable to the free associations of people known as unions that right libertarians. They are likely to have questions about whether or not intellectual property is actually property. They probably recognise that throughout most of history, the state has been a really useful tool for keeping poor people poor. However, they may well be gradualists who believe that the benefits system, the corrective for the poverty caused in a large part by the rest of government’s activities, should be the last part of the state to be dismantled.

    I have never heard any left-libertarian argue in favour of redistribution, other than in the sense that they assume that a free market will automatically be redistributive. They may well think that it’s worth the state’s continuing to redistribute until we’ve removed the state from a lot of other areas first.

    They are also, at least in my case, motivated by just how little time it takes in right-libertarian circles for someone to jump to Pinochet’s defense, or to justify the massacre and forced rehousing of natives who weren’t ‘using’ (and thus didn’t ‘own’) the land they lived on, or (as I recorded in this post about left vs right libertarianism: ) to defend the Chinese regime as ‘good for business’.

    And, of course, some of it is just emotional. I will never, ever be able to think of myself as right-wing (because I have a soul and a conscience). However, while my sympathies may well be hugely far from those of right-libertarians, and the stateless society I envision is probably not the one they do, in terms of what I practically think should happen, day to day, politically and socially, we probably, a lot of the time, agree.

    • “I will never, ever be able to think of myself as right-wing (because I have a soul and a conscience).”

      Erm, sorry to lower the tone of this terribly terribly clever, intelligent and chummy conversation, but what the fuck to you mean by that you superior condescending little gobshite?

      Erm, sorry and all that.

      • Oh, didn’t you get the memo? To be right-wing is to be eeeeeeevil and callous and opposed to all that is good and decent in the world. If the Left ever repudiate Stalin (ha! as if), it’ll be because they’ve somehow discovered that he was actually right-wing.

        • Bollocks, I’d forgotten about that.

          Sorry about that Nathaniel, or may I call you Natty-baby?

          • You may, of course. It would both arouse and entertain me.

            The fact that you might not spot the irony in calling someone else superior and condescending underneath the blog post above…

            And, as if you didn’t know, the Left disposed of adopting Stalin years ago, by calling the USSR ‘state capitalist’. Much in the same way that it’s now a common meme on idiotblogs to define the BNP, Hitler and Mussolini as left-wing.

            Tell you what, I’ll adopt our authoritarian cunts if you adopt yours. I’m more than happy to concede that some people who think of themselves as left-wing are authoritarian, murdering bastards; as are some who think of themselves as right-wingers.

            Oh no, that’s right, because in this rewriting of history, the entirety of anti-state thought from the Diggers through Proudhon, from Benjamin Tucker through Murray Rothbards is now, whatever they might have thought of themselves, or how others might have defined them, all ‘right-wing’. I forgot that we were allowed to ignore the ‘meaning’ of the terms we use when we don’t like them…

            (I don’t think right-wingers are evil; just bizarre, physically grotesque, and possibly deficient in one of the important vitamins)

            (In case it needs re-emphasising, if you follow the link before the ‘soulless’ comment, you’ll see the context. Otherwise feel free to take offence at this, too…)

          • Nathaniel, I don’t think it really matters what the context of your remark was, because the meme is always the same: people on the right, no matter what they actually say or believe, don’t care, have no heart, no soul, no conscience – in fact they are monsters and would enslave everyone down the salt mines etc.

            Pointing out what I see as a logical inconsistency in another political position (mislabelled though it be) is nothing like as rude or condescending as coming round a right-wing person’s blog and cheerfully declaring that the reason you would never be same is that you have a soul and a conscience – thus implying that I have neither. Should I be considerate to you after that? And yet I was, for a time. More perhaps than you deserved after that piece of nastiness.

          • But the context should be obvious from the sentence. Having just suggested that the differences between the two positions were less divisive than you made out, the implicit irony was then to use a piece of typical left-right hyperbole of the most cliched kind to undercut the thrust of what I’d said. An attempt to use humour to show the implicit flaws in your post by replicating them in mine; to highlight my own unthinking prejudice by stating it implicitly so that you might examine yours.

            Using an unfair caricature to highlight the unfair caricature you were using. Your ‘logical inconsistency’ was based on your idea that anyone who considers themselves ‘on the left’ must automatically be authoritarian, even if they don’t realise it. Their ideas must necessarily require state enforcement. A position that simply isn’t true.

            If you truly see it as nastiness, then I unreservedly apologise.

            As I have repeatedly said, I think the ‘differences’ between left- and right-libertarianism are an unhelpful distraction that comes from our emotional attachment to inappropriate terms. There are differences (some of which I outlines above), and debates which need to be had, but the more important distinctions are between people of an anarchist, or mutualist, or libertarian impulse, and those whose instinct is to use state force.

            I do regret that an attempt to not take ourselves too seriously has been misread as an attack. I thought the obvious hyperbole of the statement, and its caricature of a position that undercut the rest of what I was saying would be enough to be mark it out as making fun of myself. Once again, for that I apologise.

            And if a ham-handed attempt at a humorous aside derails an attempt to actually understand what left- and right-libertarianism are then I regret that even further. To state clearly, I assume you have both a soul and a conscience (and thought that that assumption should have been taken as given enough to show that the aside was humorous in intent); I appreciate that you noted in your post that the impulses of left-wing people may be good.

            However, I maintain that your post is a caricature of a position that doesn’t exist. An effective demolition of that caricature, but it remains non-existent. And that your caricature is based on a prejudice about people who consider themselves left-wing. Because we all love Stalin.

            And I’ll keep arguing that libertarianism (of any stripe) is implicitly, by its nature, a strand of left-wing thought. Partly to annoy people, and partly because it’s true…

            Once again, if you think I seriously meant that you, or everyone who considers themselves to be ‘right wing’ is actually without a soul or conscience, then I unreservedly apologise.

          • Somewhat lengthy, but point made, Natty-baby-fluffy-bunny-wunnykins.

          • Careful. I have a wife. If I get too amused and aroused, questions will be asked…

  5. Apologies, I hadn’t realised you were writing under a time-limit, and without really knowing the territory and who the major thinkers currently are (and historically were). I unhesitatingly retract the implicit rudeness of my first couple of paragraphs. The rest of the rudeness I leave to stand…

    I do think, however, that your definition is, simply, incorrect, as is Obnoxio’s. There are, on occasion, better sources of information than Wikipedia…

    • No doubt there are. But I didn’t use Wikipedia, at least on this occasion. Nor was I defining left-libertarianism; I was critiquing it based on what I see as implicit contradictions in the left-libertarian position on property. Which, despite your very helpful comment above (I will have to look into those authors you mention), I still see. There are few ways to deal with the uneven allocation of property and wealth, and almost all of them require the use of force.

      More to the point, I was writing based on what people who call themselves left-libertarians have told me about their political philosophy. These left-libertarians whom I have come to know (if not love) wholeheartedly support civil liberties but do not regard economic behaviour has deserving of the same freedom. I personally would not call such people any kind of libertarian at all, but that is how they self-define, so that is what I have hitherto understood left-libertarianism to be.

      • That’s entirely fair, I don’t know the left-libertarians you know, and cannot speak for them. But left-libertarianism as a grouping that covers mutualism, market anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism and a number of other -isms, and as a term that covers those and similar philosophies does not resemble your definition or assumption that in a stateless society forcible re-allocation of property would be necessary or desirable.

        There are real and necessary debates between right- and left-libertarians about what constitutes property, and how to address the problem of property that has been acquired through forcible means (even if historically). Some of these are nicely summarised in the lengthy comments on Sean Gabb’s review of Kevin Carson’s last book at Libertarian Alliance:

        However, I think you’ve here erected a straw man, a non-existent left-libertarian who bears very little resemblance to actual ones.

        • I guess that’s true, although it wasn’t my intention! I will have to find out what is the more proper term for the philosophy I’ve critiqued here. Mind you, Obo seems to have committed the same error I did, so there are clearly a few people like this who call themselves left-libertarians. Hmm.

          • There certainly may be people who think of themselves at ‘left-libertarians’ when they aren’t. I can certainly think of examples of people who think of themselves as ‘libertarians’ when they are actually Randroid crypto-corporatists who certainly don’t desire liberty for most of the people in the world.

            I think I remember a Michael Foot article from the early 1980s where he calls himself a ‘libertarian socialist’, and that would certainly chime more with the definition you gave. I think, however, that that is more a reflection on the changing nature of the word ‘libertarian’, which has crystallised over the last thirty years. Maybe Foot was thinking of Proudhon or Saint-Simon, but I think he was probably defining himself in opposition to a caricature of the Bennite wing of his party as authoritarian and doctrinaire.

            I think the people you know are quite valuable, if they think of themselves as socialists with libertarian impulses. If you could convince them that libertarian means are the best way to achieve socialist ends, can point them to the radical history of nineteenth-century libertarians, and can find a way of not sneering at them for being ‘lefties’ (this is not so much aimed at you as some others), you might find they’re actually on your side…

          • There might be more of a problem from the self-styled “Geo”-Libertarians.

  6. You do explore this very well, so far anyone who seems to be left (or very far right for that matter) of centre cannot ever be libertarian, moving from centre involves degrees of authoritarian ideals, considerably more so to the left and becomes wholly incompatible with the precious ideals of liberty. Those espousing “left libertarian” are aiming to defraud you of freedom the biggest one seems to be president Hussain Obama.
    Lots of people seem to confuse modern day “liberal”with genuine libertarian principles (typing that makes me ponder, does any Liberal party have any principles?)

    • Perry, I certainly prefer your/Hain’s use of “socialist libertarian” to describe the idea that Bella and Obo at least have in mind (though some of the comments on your piece are just plain a-historically wrong).

      The point is that libertarianism is, or was at least “of the left” in the sense that it was the anti-state radicals versus the statist monarchists. That libertarian left remains to this day. Though it suffered much, almost to destruction, in a two way “squeeze” between the Austrians on the one hand and the syndicalist types on the other toward the end of the nineteenth century.

      And for a reason – it was felt by those who felt that actual existing capitalism, bloated to its maximum, was by then too big merely to lose its privilege if the state was demolished – so those more concerned about that private coercion became more collectivist and those less concerned about private coercion and more about state coercion made common cause with the Austrians and anarcho-capitalists.

      If we switch, instead, to phrases such as Spencer, Nock and Oppenheimer used, like the “political means” and “economic means” or the “regime of status” and the “regime of contract” we can see how people with concerns that are usually seen as both left-wing and right-wing can appear in both camps. In Spencer’s time, the regime of status people were what we would call right-wing and the regime of contract left-wing.

      I am proud to be a left-libertarian, in the tradition of the Individualist Anarchists and Mutualists, and nothing in that suggests a “statist socialism” or “coercive collectivism” for one minute – cf Benj Tucker’s “Anarchism and State Socialism”.

      But most important is that whatever we call ourselves, and whatever our “concerns” about what a post-state society might look like, all of us libertarians and anarchists surely want first and foremost to achieve that “post-state society”. If we are no-staters we need to make common cause until such a time as our different ideas can compete on a level playing field in a freed market and the best ones will win out and tend to dominate, not create largely false, or at least “second order” divisions between us while the common enemy is the state and the statists, who love to see us squabble, especially when in doing so we emulate their crazy and decrepit political positions!

  7. I think the modern zeal for freedom (justified as it is) has caused many to think that sorrow or hardship in any form is somehow the result of a lack of freedom. I do not think that struggling for sustenance, however tragic, constitutes a lack of material “freedom.”

    Striving for freedom is a political aim and naturally involves decisions on governance and legitimate uses of force, but striving to eliminate the difficulties of life itself has very little to do with politics. Hardship, hunger, disease, and death are facts of existence and turning to politics (which is an implicit reliance on force) to solve these sorrows and improve the condition of humanity is childish. It’s as a spoiled child stamping his feet to get his way. We cannot overcome the difficulties of the universe by robbing one another or attacking one another. Even acknowledging that as an option, claiming that suffering is a lack of freedom, is reprehensible. We should never seek to meet evil with evil.

    Not all the evils in the world are the result of human action. Oppression is the sole opposite to freedom. Hardship and suffering may result from oppression, in which case the reasonable prognosis is to obtain freedom, but these do not always stem from oppression. It is upon us as human beings to solve these issues through charity, fellowship, invention, economic progress, and research.

    Let us leave to politics what is political and address all other earthly problems like civilized human beings, laying aside force. This is why I reject socialism and left-libertarianism. It’s an issue of first principles, is it not?

  8. Gandhi was a left libertarian but he wasn’t like that….

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