Symposium on Left-Libertarianism, Libertarianism

On the Edge of Utopianism

[Editors Note: This essay is part of BHL’s Symposium on Left-Libertarianism. Click on the link to see the other essays.]

As Matt said in his post announcing this symposium, many of us who blog here are very sympathetic to the left-libertarian project, even as we have various criticisms.  I count myself as one of those highly sympathetic critics.  I have been known to refer to myself as a “libertarian of the left.”  I recently gave a talk arguing that classical liberalism should reclaim its progressive identity and start to think of itself as “of the left.”  And I especially share the left-libertarian criticism of corporatism and militarism, as well as its concern with issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation.  I see my recent work on the family as being very much in tune with what the left-libertarians have to say.  In what follows, I will expand on some points of agreement with left-libertarians, but also raise a fundamental criticism of some of their arguments (and I should note that I very much consider them to be comrades in arms in the larger libertarian project).

That criticism is that they often commit a rhetorical error that is something of the obverse of what they call “vulgar libertarianism.”  Left-libertarians often seem to argue that even just a little bit of statism so distorts markets that the results produced by the mixed economy bear little relationship to what a freed economy would produce.  Just as putting one drop of a liquid one owns into an unowned lake does not make the whole thing yours, neither does one drop of statism suddenly mean that the results of a mixed economy are vastly different from the results produced by a freed market.  Overstating the transformation that freed markets would bring can lead left-libertarianism to both a dangerous utopianism about freed markets and a reluctance to challenge bad criticisms of really existing markets for fear of engaging in vulgar libertarianism. Neither vulgar libertarianism nor the more utopian moments of left-libertarianism are sufficiently nuanced to do the job. To use a phrase I used in an earlier discussion of left-libertarianism, we must carefully untangle the corporatist knot.

Let me start with some areas of agreement with the left-libertarians.  One major point of agreement is that I would like to ditch the word “capitalism,” though I find myself somewhat unable to do so in my own work.  Aside from the fact that the word does seem to mean very different things to different people, the word itself suggests that what capitalism-understood-as-free-markets is really about is the centrality of “capital.”  If an “ism” is a belief system, then “capitalism” would seem to mean “a belief in the power of capital.”  This suggests, especially when contrasted with its claimed opposite “socialism,” that a capitalist system works toward the benefit of capital (and socialism, by contrast, works toward the benefit of “society” as a whole).  Using capitalism and socialism to describe what I think is better understood as a contrast between “free markets” and “social planning” as economic coordination processes inevitably biases the case:  who could be against benefiting society as a whole rather than just the owners of capital?

Left-libertarians rightly argue, and the historical evidence amply supports, two related claims:  1) capitalists are not the primary beneficiaries of freed markets, society as a whole is and 2) capitalists are all in favor of using the state to advance their own interests in the face of free market results they do not like.  Those who genuinely believe in freed markets could avoid a great deal of confusion by not using “capitalism,” a word that, in Alice in Wonderland fashion, seems to mean whatever the speaker wants to mean, and usually something bad.  (In this way, it is much like “fascist.”)  Instead, I think we are better off talking in terms of the degree to which economic decisions are to be coordinated using the institutions of the market or the institutions of politics.  My own view is that this distinction is best captured by the contrast between “markets” and “planning” rather than “capitalism” and “socialism,” but I could be persuaded by other terminology.  The key, however, is focusing on the processes and institutions by which decisions are coordinated, rather than terminology that builds in implicit claims about who does or does not benefit from such processes.

Similarly, I would like to see libertarians ditch the term “privatization” for two reasons.  First, government “privatization” often means handing over to the private sector things no one should be doing, whether public or private.  One need only think of what Halliburton and its successors have done.  Second, in the cases where government is doing something that could be done in the market, I would argue that the real goal should be not “privatization” but “de-monopolization.”  One of the great strengths of the left-libertarians is their consistent opposition to monopoly, which grows out of their 19th century influences.  Libertarians should first and foremost be anti-monopoly, and turning a public monopoly into a private one is therefore not a gain, and might well be worse!  We need to be consistent and vocal opponents of all forms of monopoly privilege and barriers to entry.  And I will note that this must include labor.  I am sympathetic to the left-libertarians when they remind other libertarians that labor unions can and should have an important role in freed markets, but I, in turn, must remind them that unions must be on equal footing with other voluntary organizations, and that means making sure we reject any form of privilege for capital or labor.

The problem I often see in left-libertarian writing is the sense that the world of freed markets would look dramatically different from what we have.  For example, would large corporations like Walmart exist in a freed market?  Left-libertarians are quick to argue no, pointing to the various ways in which the state explicitly and implicitly subsidizes them (e.g., eminent domain, tax breaks, an interstate highway system, and others).  They are correct in pointing to those subsidies, and I certainly agree with them that the state should not be favoring particular firms or types of firms.  However, to use that as evidence that the overall size of firms in a freed market would be smaller seems to be quite a leap.  There are still substantial economies of scale in play here and even if firms had to bear the full costs of, say, finding a new location or transporting goods, I am skeptical that it would significantly dent those advantages.  It often feels that desire to make common cause with leftist criticisms of large corporations, leads left-libertarians to say “oh yes, freed markets are the path to eliminating those guys.”  Again, I am not so sure.  The gains from operating at that scale, especially with consumer basics, are quite real, as are the benefits to consumers.

Even as I agree with them that we should end the subsidies, I wish left-libertarians would more often acknowledge that firms like Walmart and others have improved the lives of poor Americans in significant ways and lifted hundreds of thousands out of poverty in some of the poorest parts of the world.  Those accomplishments seem very much in tune with the left-libertarian project. To argue with such confidence that firms in a freed market would be unable to take advantage of these economies of scale might be cold comfort to the very folks who left-libertarians are rightly concerned about.

Another example of this problem is in left-libertarian discussions of labor markets.  The prediction that a truly freed market, especially one in which corporate privilege was absent, would lead to more labor-managed firms and a less hierarchical workplace suggests that the dominant reason these forms don’t exist is because of the state.  Granted, state intervention can alter the incentive structure within firms, but there are also very good reasons why workers might strongly prefer employment arrangements in which they don’t have to take on additional responsibilities or spend time engaging in collective decision making processes.  To argue that freed markets would significantly transform the workplace seems to put a desire to appeal to leftists ahead of the economics of the situation.

Eliminating every last grain of statism does not magically transform everything we might not like about really existing markets into a form that will match the goals of the traditional left.  One grain of statism doesn’t mean that the really existing world won’t essentially look like it does when markets are freed.  My own conviction is that the underlying market processes carry more weight than the distorting effects of the state along more margins than the left-libertarians believe.  I might well be wrong, but I worry that the promise of more transformation than a left-libertarian world can deliver repeats the very same utopianism that has plagued the left historically.

Finally, half a cheer for a form of vulgar libertarianism.  Often times libertarians find ourselves “playing defense.”  When critics of markets argue that firms like Walmart are bad, they are usually not arguing for an end to state privilege, but objecting to the market itself, including a freed market.  Whatever the imperfections of the status quo, we still do live in an economy in which the invisible hand operates, if with something of a palsy.  One reason I leap to the defense of the Walmarts of the world is because they have done a great deal of good for the least well-off among us precisely due to the underlying market forces that critics would like to remove.  In “playing defense” this way, I might look like a vulgar libertarian, but the larger strategic goal is to defend not the existing imperfect market processes but rather the freed market processes against those who would eliminate both.

Another example of “playing defense” in this way is the literature arguing that the conventional view that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer is wrong to one degree or another.  Faced with the claim that “capitalism” has generated massive inequalities, libertarians can adopt two kinds of strategies. One is to argue like the left-libertarians that state intervention is responsible for the inequalities and then argue that a freed market would, perhaps, produce less inequality.  Another is to show that the data being trotted out are misleading about the real degree of inequality or income mobility and to argue that even with a palsied invisible hand, the underlying market forces are not producing massive inequality, the further impoverishment of the poor, or restricting mobility.  One could make a similar argument about the very real increase in consumption possibilities available to poor Americans. Although I think the first strategy has some truth to it, I also think this second is both rhetorically effective and correct.

This isn’t vulgar libertarianism. If much of the claimed growth in inequality is the statistical artifact of the way in which people move through the life-cycle of income earnings and/or changes in the demographic characteristics of households, rather than a genuine increase in inequality or loss of mobility, there seems no necessary reason to reject that as being “vulgar libertarianism” and portray it as a defense of the statist status quo.  To the degree that proposals to move us away from freed markets are based on a misreading of these data, defending the market forces at work in a mixed economy is not vulgar libertarianism, but an attempt to save us from even further statism and corporatism.

I happen to think the successes of firms such as Wal-Mart really do reflect market realities that would exist even in a freed market, even as I recognize the large role played by state intervention in such processes.  I also worry that the left-libertarian charge of “vulgar libertarianism” might cause libertarians to stop engaging in the “playing defense” project I describe above. Instead, we should more carefully examine what parts of the status quo are driven by the underlying market forces and which by the state.  Charges of vulgar libertarianism against legitimate arguments for the robustness of markets will do more harm than good.

  • Sean II

    Really love the paragraph fourth to last. It’s always struck me as a huge lie to pretend that there’s some fertile common ground between libertarians and, say, Occupy Wall Street kids who despise the market because they don’t understand it AND because they hate the profit motive on principle.

    They’re saying “down with self-interest and consumer culture, back to the stone age campfire!” and we’re saying “Dude, I share your concerns. Did you realize Walmart has been socializing the costs of its transportation and security, yielding a benefit that might touch 1% of its annual revenue?” Not the same thing, not even close. Any alliance formed between those two viewpoints is coming apart ugly in five minutes.

    Left-libertarian should not mean “a libertarian who spends his life serenading left statists in the sorrow of unrequited love.”

    • Left-libertarian should not mean “a libertarian who spends his life serenading left statists in the sorrow of unrequited love.”

      But we like the sound of the song so much!

      • Sean II

        Glad to be of service. Do you also the like the way we fall all over ourselves making excuses for you like groupies, as you coldly ignore us in return?

        Meanwhile we’re explaining ourselves to concerned friends: “No, you don’t understand! You don’t know him like I do. He doesn’t ENJOY using massive coercion to dictate people’s choices with reckless disregard regard for unintended consequences. That’s not who he really is. He doesn’t HATE spontaneous order and individual liberty. He just had a bad experience with the market when he was a kid, and now he, like, doesn’t understand it. But he will. You’ll see, he will someday. We’ll move in together, and he’ll learn not to be scared, and then…”

    • Sergio Méndez

      They’re saying “down with self-interest and consumer culture, back to the stone age campfire!”

      Its true a lot of people in the Occupy Wall Street movement are against self interest and profit, or free markets, and SOME are primitivistst, but then I picture your portrayal of them as a charicature. Many of them are for what we have now, a mixed economy with more controls and regulations of banks and big buisness. I think the common ground here is also what they rightfully see as priviledge of the State towards big corporations and financial sector. The idea is to try to persuade these people about how that is the result of state intervention and not of free market process. And the idea, too, is to make an alliance with those persuaded, not with anyone in the left just cause they criticize corporations. Left libertarians are not interested to make alliances with democrats or chavistas, to name to statist forms of leftism, just for the sake of it.

      • Sean II

        The common ground WOULD BE “what they rightfully see as a privilege of the state towards big corporations”, but let’s face it…a lot of them just hate the corporations a priori, and many show no suspicion of the state. A good test is Obamacare: how many leftos even showed the slightest inkling of knowing that bill was a huge corporate welfare plan? It’s not a big number.

        We’re not talking about people who’ve read public choice books here. We’re talking about people who watch Michael Moore films and maybe, just maybe, read a wikipedia summary of Naomi Klein’s book.

        To pretend we’re having similar conversations is make-believe. In the end they’re no closer to us than the equally-error prone tea party cadres.

        • Sergio Méndez

          The conversation is made hard when libertarians insist (like David in this post) in presenting Wal Mart and other buisness that recieve big grants from the state as the model to follow, as the outcome expected from a free market (even when, as David, they acknowledge at the same time all those priviledges recieved from the state),

          • Sean II

            But David is only asking us to be appropriately skeptical of what we don’t know, and appropriately cautious before we promise something we can’t deliver.

            The usual line around these parts is a) “Wal Mart wouldn’t exist in a freed market.” because b) “it has too many diseconomies of scale, and depends on too many state-granted privileges” and c) “we shall manufacture everything we need in Sheldon Richman’s garage.”

            David is merely reminding us that we can’t possibly know a) and c) for sure, and probably shouldn’t go around making promises about things we do not know.

            At the same time, he’s also pointing out that we don’t even know b), how much Wal Mart actually benefits from the state. It might turn out to be far less than it loses.

            I find it impossible to disagree with those two sobering reminders, and I submit that we may all be guilty of a little irrational exuberance, for the simple reason that…trashing Wal Mart from a free market angle sure does gives us all something interesting to say.

            I mean, that’s one helluva of a hot talking point, especially when most of the people you meet in life are leftist professors and grad students.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I believe I am the “David” you and Sergio are referring to since I authored a comment here on WM, although my first name is not David (by chance, that is my middle name). Thanks for correctly understanding my point. I would just add this.

            The inherent problem with arguments along the lines of “WM wouldn’t exist, be as large, nasty…etc.” in a truly free market is that of counterfactuals generally, and encapsulated often in science fiction time travel themes. Meaning: “If I could go back in time and kill Hitler in 1919, how do I know that instead of Hitler there would have arisen a “Bitler” who would have been just like Hitler, but slightly less insane, and Bitler would have WON WWII”? Answer = you don’t know.

            Here, in this actual world, WM is highly unpopular in many quarters and its enemies use the state to discriminate against it in various ways. Would WM do better or worse in a truly free world? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. This is why I generally avoid, when I can, empirical arguments and focus on questions of moral principle. These arguments too are frustrating, but in a different way, and perhaps at least expose people’s basic moral beliefs.

          • Sean II

            In your alternate universe, would the internet still have been invented, and if so, would people in online comment threads compare each other to Bitler as a compliment?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Very funny…the problem is that I just don’t know.

          • Sergio Méndez


            I was refering more to this comment profesor Horwitz made in his post:

            “Even as I agree with them that we should end the subsidies, I wish left-libertarians would more often acknowledge that firms like Walmart and others have improved the lives of poor Americans in significant ways and lifted hundreds of thousands out of poverty in some of the poorest parts of the world. Those accomplishments seem very much in tune with the left-libertarian project.”

            I mean, if you on side ackowledge that Wall Mart recieve a lot of help from the Stat, why will you present it as a model for what it does to help the poor? I mean, why not present the state as a model of what it does to the porr, since one can argue many state programs also have helped them? Yet all libertarians will point that even if the State has helped the poor in ocasions, it has done it using unjust means or that the use of those unjust means has prevented a greater good for them. I think the same stands for Wall Mart.

            What I am asking is, if we are going to defend the virtues of free market, as libertarians in general (left, center or right), our examples should look for enterprises and buisness models that are not dependent or the less dependent on the State (directly or indirectly). Wall Mart certainly does not qualify in that category, nor most big buisness.

      • ZPT205

        I think the problem is that a lot of them think corporatism is capitalism, and that a free market in the way libertarians picture it can never exist. So when Occupiers point out corruption, they see that as the symptom, not the cause. Thus libertarians and occupiers are never going to agree on what to actually do about the situation.

      • Aeon Skoble

        “The idea is to try to persuade these people about how that is the result of state intervention and not of free market process” I totally agree, but I have that INCREDIBLY difficult.

    • martinbrock

      Left-libertarian should not mean “a libertarian who spends his life serenading left statists in the sorrow of unrequited love.”

      Maybe it should, but it certainly doesn’t in my way of thinking.

    • “left statists” isn’t one word.

      • Sean II

        Cool. How many words is “pedant”?

  • Drew

    Thats funny because never in history has a corporation rose up without a state propping it up. I dont think the east Indian company would have been as powerful without state guns

    • wofford

      How about Microsoft. Until the government went after it it had 0 lobbyists in DC on K Street. Government gets jealous and wants companies to pay tribute. Left libertarians would do well to consider where is the Wealth of Nations. It turns out it is largely in intangibles like intellectual property and patents and in plain old trust. You all are getting close to Lakoff’s “There’s no such thing as a self-made woman.”

      • Sergio Méndez

        “How about Microsoft”? How about Microsoft without IP law priviledges?

        • wofford

          Oh my goodness a Georgian in our midst supporting confiscatory powers of one group over another. You are advocating a tax on ideas. Change incentives and you change the pace of technological change. Entrepreneurs need the ability to scale and without capital markets and a robust and deep manufacturing sector that won’t be possible and without IP protections incentives disappear.

          • JOR

            Letting people do what they want with their own stuff is now a “tax on ideas”. Go figure.

    • Aeon Skoble

      That argument proves too much, as the saying goes. Not just corporations, but every individual person, depends on the state-as-it-actually-exists. But the idea is, we could live better or worse under this or that type of government. If you’re arguing that there would be no large enterprises if there were no government, you’re going to have to show that with some econ.

      • Large enterprises inevitably create for themselves whatever the government can’t or won’t provide- infrasturcture, hospitals, police. So if the government shrank, we would simply see private coercive power defending the corporations. This was demonstrated pretty well during the last Gilded Age.

        • So, cronyism and corporate control over the nation are inevitable and unpreventable unless we maintain a Big Interventionist Government and a powerful State that heavily regulates industry through this Big Interventionist Government?

    • “Thats funny because never in history has a corporation rose up without a state propping it up. I dont think the east Indian company would have been as powerful without state guns”
      My only question regarding this line of thought is what’s more important, arrangements which prevent businesses from growing large, or a free market which allows businesses to grow to whatever size they attain? Now, when you speak of “power”, it’s true, no business has coercive power unless granted by a powerful State, but the size and economic clout a company has in a free market is really left to what developes, right? You might be right, that it’s impossible for a business to grow large and gain economic clout against competition, but if it happened no coordinated police action by society would be necessary to prevent the growth, right?

  • Great post.

    I am, though, puzzled why you talk of ‘capitalists’ and the opposition ‘capital or labour’ (pardon my English spelling), especially given that you reject the term ‘capitalism.’ I used to work for a salary, as did all of my colleagues, but each of us also owned shares in companies, mostly through our pension schemes, but some of us also through personal investments. So we were both capital and labour. Who, then, are ‘the capitalists’? People who use the term often have in mind company directors. But they, too, are salaried employees who also own shares (often paid partly in shares, but only partly). Marx’s talk of ‘capital or labour’ is just cobblers (same as everything else he wrote, apart from what he copied out of Adam Smith).

    So your comment

    “capitalists are all in favor of using the state to advance their own interests in the face of free market results they do not like”

    is plain false. I am not (I no longer labour, but still own shares in companies), nor are many others. Why not dump talk of ‘capitalists,’ and ‘capital and labour,’ as well as talk of ‘capitalism’?

  • One of the big charges by left-libs to actually-existing-capitalism is that of an oligopsony that exists between employer and employee. Large firms have a foot-up on who they employ and can therefore afford abusive, alienating conditions that wouldn’t exist if the market were freed. In a freed market, there would be more firms to choose from. There might still be poor working conditions and employer-employee agreements, but they wouldn’t be so much the norm. I’m not a left-lib or an economist, so I was wondering if this was as potent a criticism as I’ve been treating it. Is the market distortion here as great as someone like Carson says?

  • Sergio Méndez

    “Finally, half a cheer for a form of vulgar libertarianism. Often times libertarians find ourselves “playing defense.” When critics of markets argue that firms like Walmart are bad, they are usually not arguing for an end to state privilege, but objecting to the market itself, including a freed market. ”

    True, but left libertarians are also stunch critics of left wing conflationism, that was the point Roderick has repeated over an over in his posts on that topic. So is not that we are all over “vulgar libertarians” only, leaving left wing statists intact.

  • Gordon Sollars

    I only glanced quickly through the symposium posts, but I did not see a discussion of limited liability for corporations. I would have thought left-libertarians would object to this – indeed, I would have thought that many libertarians would be disconcerted by limited liability.

  • Personally, as a libertarian democrat, I find this article annoying for one reason: libertarian democrats such as myself are generally more concerned with civil liberties and civil rights than we are with economics. While I favor a freer market, including an end to the corporate hegemony that currently exists over our economic life, and encourage people to buy and shop local as much as possible (the corporate form IS a government privilege, and the laws regulating corporate governance allow top management to essentially loot shareholders) I’m far more concerned with the 2.5 million people in prison, and the 4-5 million on parole, probation, and the like, than I am with marginal tax rates. I’d gladly return to 1970’s tax rates if we could return to 1970’s incarceration rates as well — and consider that a major step towards a much freer America.

    • What ever happened to your kind? The more the conversation is about economics, the more suicidally depressed I get. Better to concentrate on the non-economic aspects of existence, where normatively positive change might at least be theoretically possible…

      I miss the good old days when libertarians were simply “liberal on social issues, conservative on economic issues”. Today’s libertarians start with the assumption that all issues are economic issues: Law is a branch of economics, psychology is a branch of economics, evolutionary biology is a branch of economics, etc., etc., etc. ad nauseam. It’s like they’re going out of their way to win some kind of unpopularity contest. This appears to be more central to what they’re about than the objectiveness of their unique perspective.

  • Walmart is labor-efficient, not land and resource efficient. When society collects the social costs of tying up land and using up resources, and stops taxing labor and exchange, the illusion of “economies of scale” will fall away. Yes, there will be some commercial centralization, but not nearly as much as there is today.

    • j r

      How is Walmart not land efficient? I can’t imagine that the total acreage on which a Walmart sits is more than the total acreage of all the smaller retailers it would take to supply the same number of customers.

      Also, why is land efficiency even a concern? This is a pretty big country.

    • martinbrock

      I didn’t understand this one either. Walmart seems to use its land, particularly its floor space, very efficiently. Most of the rest of its land is for parking, and lots are typically full enough during business hours. They’re rarely completely full, but I wouldn’t be happy if they were.

    • I think that the Idea that doing away with all government meddling will magically eliminate the advantages of large firms is not born out by the evidence. Large companies have some disadvantages, but also many strengths, independent of government. The fact that most of them can operate for a profit in various nations with varying degrees of government involvement proves that..

  • ThaomasH

    Maybe one should not complain about a word, but “left” to me implies not just anthing left of “right,” but of something “left” of mainstream liberalism. As such, “criticism of corporatism and militarism, as well as its concern with issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation” don’t distinguish the “left” of “Left-Libertarian” from “liberal.” Would “Liberal” Libertarianism” more accurate? 🙂

    • Shawn P. Wilbur

      Well, the actual identifications that left-libertarians have made “on the left” have tended to be with radical movements, such as (social) anarchism, rather than what we generally now think of as “liberal,” so, no, that probably wouldn’t be accurate…


    Great post, and I agree with all of it. So, consider what follows a friendly addition. With respect to Wal-Mart (and other huge corporations), left-libertarians are fond of pointing out how the state assists them, but ignore the elements of state intervention that harm their interests. With respect to Wal-Mart, I can think of three off the top of my head.

    In a libertarian society there would be no zoning laws or land-use regulations, which are used in many deep-blue communities in a discriminatory manner to exclude WM or prevent it from expanding. In libertopia WM could (provided it had the land, obviously) build whatever and wherever it wants. Second, in libertopia, WM would not have to worry about or defend class-action lawsuits if its workforce or managerial ranks did not exactly mirror the composition of the population at large.

    I personally believe that IP is morally justified, but most libertarian disagree. If they have their way, then in libertopia WM’s bargaining position would be massively strengthened against holders of IP, like Apple. The i-phone and i-pad would quickly become the Wal-phone, Wal-pad, etc. Accordingly, those who insist that the state materially advances WM’s position on balance relative to what would exist in a truly freed market owe us evidence and argument, not mere assertion.

    • Aeon Skoble

      Great point, Mark.


        Thanks, Aeon, I’m on my meds today.

    • martinbrock

      I don’t agree that there are no zoning laws or land-use regulations in a free society. People may enact these rules on their property if they wish, and we can’t assume the size of a community wishing to enact these rules. “Provided that it has the land” is a big proviso.

      Similarly, a community could require businesses within the community to fill racial or gender quotas, just as another community could segregate itself by race or gender. We can’t assume these choices. Free people are free to choose the rules governing them as long as they don’t imposed rules on people, and this freedom necessarily segregates people preferring certain rules from people preferring conflicting rules.

      I agree that business models profiting from current IP would be weaker; however, how this change plays out is not obvious. Many products compete with the iPad now. Why would Walmart branded products necessarily please consumers more? Walmart can’t draft Apple’s employees or dictate terms to FoxConn. Apple can still contract with FoxConn.

      If FoxConn’s community doesn’t enforce such contracts, Apple need not contract with them. Tooling up a factory to produce a fake iPad, that’s really as good as the real thing, without any help from Apple is not an easy thing to do, and even if a producer could do it, people are loyal to brands. They just are. Even if a reproduction is very good, people will know the difference.


        With all due respect, you miss the point. Of course, people can do whatever they want, but they can’t do whatever they want and act consistently with libertarian moral principles. Once I have purchased land in a just manner, non-owners can’t dictate to me what I can do on it, subject to the usual caveats about negative externalities. This is exactly what WM faces all over this country, particularly in “liberal” communities. The law is applied in a discriminatory manner.

        Same point with respect to employment: employers can’t violate agreements they have made with workers, but apart from that, they can hire and fire at will under the principle that all relationships must be voluntary. Of course, workers can also quit at will. This argument may not persuade you, because as I understand it you do not believe in any objective morality, libertarian or otherwise–but I really don’t want to debate this point with you. Believe what you like.

        With respect to IP, WM would simply reverse engineer Apple’s products and sell a clone. Seems like advantage WM to me.

        • martinbrock

          Libertarian moral principles are the moral principles that free people choose. How you purchase land justly depends upon the standards of justice in your community.

          If you assume that you’ve purchased land justly in a community permitting owners to sell land to Walmart, then of course, you’re free to sell this land to Walmart, but if selling land to Walmart is important to you, you need to verify that a community permits these sales before joining it or purchasing land within it if this purchase does not require membership.

          I own a condo now, but I’m sure I may not sell it to someone wanting to open a pet shop there.

          Employers in a community regulating the hiring and firing policies of community members will respect these regulations. They won’t ask your permission. They’ll respect these regulations, because they share the community’s values and joined it for this reason.

          I agree that it’s a disadvantage for Apple. I’m not sure how much of an advantage it is for Walmart. Target could also sell fake iPhones. Apple still has brand loyalty, but Walmart has no more brand loyalty than Target in this arena.

        • Of course you are arguing ex-post facto. But there is nothing at all wrong with a community saying you can buy to build housing here, or buy to build industry here. It is merely people protecting the value of their property. As a nice home near a tanning factory has nearly no resell value. And a home near a Tattoo Parlor/Liquor Store is not conducive for couples with small children. Yes, I know that sometimes these zoning laws are abused, but so what? you can say that about everything.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I must disagree. The zoning issue is somewhat complicated by the fact that people have a reliance-interest in the status quo, so if we did away with zoning there would have to be a transition period. Nonetheless, in principle I (and I believe most libertarians) oppose zoning because it unjustly restricts what persons can do with their justly acquired property.

            In a society governed by libertarian principles, people would be protected against the sort of negative externalities you envision by (i) the common law tort of nuisance, which would exist without the state; (ii) the availability of (voluntary) restrictive covenants that “run with the land” and can be used to preclude all but single-family residential use (if that is what the owner, his neighbors, etc. desire); (iii) the fact that there are very good reasons of the “spontaneous order” variety that incentivize certain land uses to clump together in an orderly and efficient way.

            Would this be perfect? No, but the current system is horrible, and commentators across the ideologoical spectrum blame it for many social ills, including raising the price of housing; environmental degradation (by wasting land, thus leaving less available for conservation as open space); denying parents educational choice by preventing them from moving to better school districts; promoting suburban sprawl, with longer, more polluting commutes; harming the economy generally by denying individuals the ability to live closest to their best employment opportunities; corrupting local politics; and segregating racial minorities and low income groups.

            The literature on this is vast, but two great articles are: (i) Bernard
            Siegan, “Non-Zoning is the Best Zoning,” 31 CA Western Law Review 127 (1994) and Robert Ellickson, “Alternatives to Zoning: Covenants, Nuisance Rules and Fines as Land Use Controls,” 40 U.
            CHI. L. REV. 4 (Summer 1973), 681.

  • martinbrock

    I have no problem with your nomenclature, and I have no more problem with Walmart than with Whole Foods or Trader Joes. I don’t pretend to know precisely what sort of retail outlets exist in libertopia, but I know that many people would miss Walmart, so I expect something like it to exist.

    On the other hand, while we shouldn’t pretend that everyone in libertopia is happily self-employed and on her way to being independently wealthy or happily sharing socks with fellow travelers in a co-housing community, we also shouldn’t pretend that everything we like about statutoria remains in libertopia.

    Spaced out libertarians suppose that we’ll be vacationing on the moon for the cost of a Caribbean cruise as soon as Big Brother gets out of the way. I rather imagine that no man ever sets foot on the moon again. I could be wrong, of course, but turning a profit on space tourism without massive state subsidies doesn’t look so likely. The price of a Mets game might go up too (and well it should).

    For the broad middle of the U.S. population, I agree that inequality is often overstated, and I also agree that the poor aren’t so poor here, but I don’t agree that the extremes of wealth at the top of the distribution are either exaggerated or unchanged in recent decades, and I’m convinced that freed markets do not support these extremes. Free markets implies ceasing the enforcement of many property rights, and we should frankly confront this fact.

  • Shawn P. Wilbur

    From my position, as a mutualist somewhere “to the left” of left-libertarianism, my immediate thought is that perhaps one of the problems is that left-libs have, so far at least, identified “vulgar libertarianism” too narrowly, in part because they haven’t entirely escaped it. I’m sympathetic to the criticism that merely eliminating state-based privileges and subsidies may well not automatically bring about the sort of society left-libertarians envision. But I would be inclined to think that means that left-libertarians, if they are “utopian,” are stuck in between two rather different utopias. There is the vision of a world in which we are all free, and then the vision of a world in which “market forces” are free, and in these sorts of “libertarian” circles, there has perhaps been another, rather more insidious sort of conflation of those visions.

    • They don’t call ’em “market forces” for nothing. A market society is not a free society.

      • Shawn P. Wilbur

        Actually, it seems more useful to say that “a market society” covers too many options for us to say very much about its freedom.

      • Sheldon Richman

        Market forces are simply other people’s exercise of autonomy.

        • This is actually the sort of definition of “market forces” that worries me.

      • martinbrock

        If you don’t expect to obtain fruits of my labor by agreeably exchanging fruits of your labor for them, how do you expect to obtain them? How do you obtain them in your idea of a free society?

    • martinbrock

      I can identify myself similarly, and I’m the last to suggest suddenly eliminating the state. The ensuing disintegration would be disastrous.

      I favor an approach more like the ill-fated “public option” in Obamacare but in reverse. Give people the option of withdrawing to intentional communities free of practically all state benefits and the corresponding taxes. People in these communities would still pay sales taxes outside of their communities, so they wouldn’t be taking a free ride on state roads financed by gasoline taxes for example.

      We could call these communities “communes” or “enterprise zones” or “prisons”. It’s all the same to me.

      Would the rich retire to these communities? Some might, but here’s the catch. In a free community, you get to live by your own rules, shared by other members of the community, including radically right-libertarian rules if that’s what you want, but the only property you have in the community is what you bring with you.

      The United State no longer enforces your property rights outside of your community, and only the community enforces your rights within it. You have no pre-existing titles to land outside of the community, no patents, no trademarks, none of it. You can negotiate rights with the other communities, subject to any conditions imposed by your community, but you don’t take your U.S. property rights with you. The U.S. is just another community in this sense, just the largest one at time zero.

      This proviso keeps the rich in the United State community, unless they really are not rich by virtue of the United State’s force. How many people then remain in the U.S.? This question interests me. Does the United State prohibit its members to trade with these communities? Does it matter?

  • Michael Matalucci

    I think one of the major problems is that many on the left side of libertarianism lump together business and finance. The basic business structure of corporations like Walmart is compatible with free market economics. It’s the banks that seem to be a throwback to Mercantilism. Banking and finance would not exist at all in their present state in a free market economy.

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  • K.P.

    I know I’m late here and doubt anyone will reply but wouldn’t Steve’s view on the market carrying more weight make him more of a right-libertarian than left? At least, by Roderick Long’s view of the differences?

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