What is “left-libertarianism”? Is it really libertarian? Is it really leftist?

Starting next Monday, November 5th, you’ll find out – because that’s when the BHL / C4SS Symposium on Left-Libertarianism begins!

Drawing inspiration from the likes of Benjamin TuckerThomas Hodgskin, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, left-liberarianism purports to combine a (libertarian) support for free(d) markets with a trenchant (leftist) critique of contemporary corporate capitalism. The current wave of left-libertarian scholarship is led by the likes of Kevin Carson, Charles Johnson, Sheldon Richman, and our own Roderick Long and Gary Chartier. You can find their writings on the web at the Alliance of the Libertarian Left and at the Center for a Stateless Society. And now, thanks to the hard work of Charles and Gary, you can find a great sampling of classic and contemporary left-libertarian writings in their anthology, Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Poverty, available as a free PDF or in paperback.

Starting next Monday and continuing through Friday, November 16th, BHL and C4SS will run a series of six lead essays on various aspects of left-libertarian thought. Those lead essays will run on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, with shorter response essays and discussion in the comments thread taking place in between. As always, we welcome participation from our readers, both in the comments thread here and at your own blogs.

Here’s the lineup:

Week 1 – The Left Libertarians

Week 2 – Their Critics
  • Monday, November 12 – John Holbo, blogger at Crooked Timber and Associate Professor of Philosophy at National University of Singapore
  • Wednesday, November 14 – David Gordon, senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute
  • Friday, November 16 – Steve HorwitzBHL-blogger, Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY and an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center

Spread the word, and we’ll see you next Monday!

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  • Fritz

    What is left-libertarianism? From what I have read, it seems to rest on he false hope that disparities in power can be eliminated; that “bosses” and social pressure would not exist if the state did not enable them. Left-libertarians seem to believe (or merely hope, against all evidence to the contrary) that basic tendencies of human nature can be repealed by the state, or in the absence of one. I would like to be proved wrong, but I don’t expect to be.

    • martinbrock

      You don’t much distinguish left-libertarianism from any other libertarianism here. Libertarianism generally rests on the hope, however futile, that disparities in power can be eliminated.

      If you don’t like the incredibly inequitable and regressive formulation of the Social Security system, you hope to eliminate disparities in power between forces imposing the system on people opposing it. If you don’t like the progressive income tax or Obamacare or compulsory education and state owned educational institutions, you have similar hopes.

      But left-libertarians do not want basic tendencies of human nature repealed by any state. We want a human tendency to seek statutory rents repealed, but these tendencies are possible only within a state. The tendencies are artificial rather than natural.

      The greatest disparities in wealth (entitlement to forcible propriety) are products of the state. If one doesn’t like Social Security or Obamacare or software patents, how else does one seek their repeal except through the states enacting them or by somehow withdrawing from these states?

  • martinbrock

    I’ve started reading the anthology and immediately find assumptions inconsistent with anything I could call “anarchy”. Tucker imagines an anarchistic order in which 1) interest rates do not exceed one percent per annum and 2) the traditional family disintegrates leaving children in the exclusive care of mothers.

    Freedom from a state implies neither of these assumptions. Interest rates reflect the subjective value of using resources without holding the title for periods of time. Only a price fixing state could limit these rates to a specified annual percentage of the value of the goods.

    No state compels penguins to mate exclusively each season or compels fathers to hatch eggs laid by mothers. The idea that the traditional family is some sort of statutory imposition is nonsensical. Other arrangements might be more common in particular communities without statutory incentives for traditional marriage that Tucker presumes, and the traditional arrangement might be more common without now common, statutory disincentives, but expecting people generally to organize their families as Tucker imagines seems more totalitarian then anarchistic.

    Right-libertarians like Rothbard are every bit as presumptuous, so I’d like to see the left-libertarians address the issue of liberal neutrality. Why make any assumptions about the rules people will prefer when liberated from states? Do left-libertarians make fewer of these assumptions or do they only make different assumptions?

    • Sergio Méndez

      I think an element of analisis missing in libertarians (right, and sometimes left) is that power does not simply originate from the State (even, in foucaultian terms, the modern state is just a sympthon of power techniques that operate in a microlevel in society). I do not pretend to know what Kind of family will come to exist in a anarchistic society, but probably the dismantlement of the state will imply the dismantlement of some techniques of power and individualization that make “traditional family” (I guess you mean modern nuclear family, which by all historical accounts is anything but “traditional) possible. In that sense left libertarians are more sensible to this aspects of power (I can think of Charles Johnson analisis of spontaneous order “attacking”, and in general the feminism present in his analisis), yet I think it can be extended to many other areas (mass media, specially).

      • martinbrock

        “Traditional family” refers to biological parents of the same children raising the children cooperatively. The biological family is hardly a political construct. Anarchy might give us more polygamy, but I don’t know why it generates more radically separated families, segregating fathers from children, of the sort that Tucker imagines. Any number of other models, like the Children’s House of Walden Two, are conceivable, but anarchy presumably reinforces biological relationships more than it disrupts them.

        Of course, the power of parents over their children does not originate in the state. The power of parents of the same children over one another doesn’t originate in the state either. On the other hand, the idea that fathers hold all power in the nuclear family or that men somehow impose traditional marriage on women is both a political construct and laughably ahistorical.

        • Sergio Méndez

          I am not very sure that in most cultures (or even, even inside the same cultures but in different sociological strata) is the biological parents who raise kids. In some cultures it is “community” who raises the kids. In others it is the extended family (uncle, grand parents etc..) In others you have the figure of nurses. The nuclear family model, on the other side is characteristic of the capitalistic society, not precisly an anarchist or libertarian form it.

          • martinbrock

            Look closely at these communities raising kids, and you find biological parents and other biological kin. Your “extended family” takes biological kinship for granted while omitting the closest biological kin. “Extended family” commonly denotes parents, siblings and aunts/uncles, grandparents, etc. Omitting parents from the list is incredible.

            You won’t find many communities in which biological parents are anything but first in line for the custody of children, and if you find any such community, I expect you’ll find statutory force behind the alternate priority.

            Twin Oaks experimented with the sort of “communal” child rearing that Skinner imagines in Walden Two, but this actual, voluntary, intentional community largely abandoned the practice while remaining thoroughly modern, secular, accepting of gay relationships and so on.

  • martinbrock

    Hopefully, this debate will be more than a war for (or against) sacred symbols, but a meaningful debate requires a clear definition of “capitalism”.

    Chartier posits three, alternative definitions of “Capitalism”.

    “Capitalism 1″ denotes an economic system that features personal property rights and voluntary exchanges of goods and services.

    “Capitalism 2″ denotes an economic system that features a symbiotic relationship between big business and government.

    “Capitalism 3″ denotes rule – of workplaces, society, and (if there is one) the state – by capitalists(that is, by a relatively small number of people who control investable wealth and the means of production).

    Chartier’s left-libertarianism does not oppose Capitalism 1. His argument with right-libertarians seems to rest on the assumption that right-libertarians defend either Capitalism 2 or Capitalism 3, but I expect the right-libertarians simply to deny support for Capitalism 2 and Capitalism 3.

    Here’s another definition.

    “Capitalism 0″ denotes an economic system that features voluntary property rights and voluntary exchanges of goods and services.

    Property rights can be voluntary insofar as only persons within a voluntary, intentional community must respect specified rights. These persons must defend themselves and their property from persons outside of the community, but they need not impose their standards of propriety on outsiders otherwise. They may coexist peacefully with other communities respecting different standards of propriety.

    Philosophers often divide liberalism into two categories, roughly the liberals advocating “natural rights” and the “utilitarians”. For the longest time, I thought myself in the utilitarian category simply because I wasn’t comfortable in the other category, but I eventually realized that I’m not so much a utilitarian as I am an intentional communitarian. I also suspect that early “communists” were as well.

    I’m happy for Rothbardians (or whoever) to form a community respecting Rothbardian property rights. I’m happy for any number of Rothbardian communities to coexist, trade, exchange members and so on. I can’t call these rights “natural”, and I’m not happy for Rothbardians to tell everyone else what sort of property rights they must respect outside of Rothbardian communities, but if everyone on Earth ends up joining one these communities and freely remaining there, I have no fundamental problem with that.

    I’m also happy for people to join Christian monasteries and similar “communes” holding all property in common and sharing income more or less equally, and if everyone on Earth ends up joining one these communities and freely remaining there, I have no fundamental problem with that either. I doubt that everyone on Earth would ever join such a community, but that’s a separate issue. I also doubt that everyone would ever join a Rothbardian community.

    This intentional communitarianism is not collectivist. All individual rights are fundamentally contractual, and non-contractual “libertarian rights” are incoherent. Non-contractual rights are simply forcible impositions and thus fundamentally illiberal, and no such rights can ever be universal without a state enforcing them.

    I accept the most radical liberal neutrality, but I make no Rawlsian assumptions about the sort of rights that free people will or should accept. People need not and often do not choose Rawlsian “fairness”.

    I don’t reach this conclusion by any utilitarian calculation, though I once thought that I could or should.

    Does left-libertarianism assert that property rights themselves must be voluntary, that property rights are neither natural nor derived from some hedonic calculus, that in the free society, rights are simply another subjective choice?

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