Symposium on Left-Libertarianism, Libertarianism

The Conflation Trap

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

Left-libertarians differ from the (current) libertarian mainstream both in terms of what outcomes they regard as desirable, and in terms of what outcomes they think a freed market is likely to produce.

With regard to the latter issue, left-libertarians regard the current domination of the economic landscape by large hierarchical firms as the product not of free competition but of government intervention – including not only direct subsidies, grants of monopoly privilege, and barriers to entry, but also a regulatory framework that enables firms to socialise the scale costs associated with growth and the informational costs associated with hierarchy, while pocketing the benefits – and leaving employees and consumers with a straitened range of options. In the absence of government intervention, we maintain, firms could be expected to be smaller, flatter, and more numerous, with greater worker empowerment.

Thus we tend to wince when libertarians (or many of them, to varying degrees) rush to the defense of elite corporations and prevailing business models and practices as though these were free-market phenomena. First, we think this is factually inaccurate; and second, we think it’s strategically suicidal. Ordinary people generally know firsthand the petty tyranny and bureaucratic incompetence that all too often characterise the world of business; libertarians who try to glamourise that world as an arena of economic rationality and managerial heroism risk coming across as clueless at best, and shills for the ruling class at worse.

This is also why we tend to be less than enthusiastic about the word “capitalism” as the term for free-market society; as Friedrich Hayek notes, the term is“misleading,” since it “suggests a system which mainly benefits the capitalists,” whereas a genuine free market is “a system which imposes upon enterprise a discipline under which the managers chafe and which each endeavours to escape.” (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol.1, p. 62.)

But it is not only mainstream libertarians (and of course, to a far greater extent, conservatives) that tend to conflate the results of crony corporatism with those of free markets; such conflationism is all too common on the traditional left as well. The difference is that the evaluations are reversed; where the right-wing version of conflationism treats the virtues of free markets as reason to defend the fruits of corporatism , the left-wing version of conflationism treats the objectionable fruits of corporatism as reason to condemn free markets.

Central to both forms of conflationism is the myth that big business and big government are fundamentally at odds. As is often the case, the myth sustains itself by containing a kernel of truth; while big business and big government are partners, each serving to prop up the other, each side would like to be the dominant partner (as with church and state in the Middle Ages, or Dooku and Palpatine in the Star Wars prequels), so much – though not, I think, most – of the conflict between them is genuine. But we should not allow these squabbles between different wings of the ruling class, essentially over how to divide up the loot, to obscure the far greater extent to which the political elite and the corporate elite work together. Conservative politicians, largely agents of the corporate wing, wrap their policies in anti-big-government rhetoric, while liberal politicians, largely agents of the political wing, wrap their policies in anti-big-business rhetoric; the differences in policy often involve nudging the balance of power slightly in one direction or the other (will healthcare be mainly controlled by government directly, or instead by the private beneficiaries of government-granted privilege like insurance companies and the AMA?), but both wings systematically benefit from most of the policies propounded by each side. FDR’s presidency, for example, with its cartelising policies, gave a massive boost to corporate power, while the three chief indices of state power – taxes, spending, and debt – all skyrocketed under Reagan’s presidency.

But conflationism isn’t just a mistake about the prevailing system; it’s also a means by which that system perpetuates itself. People who are attracted to the idea of free markets are hoodwinked by conflationism into supporting big business, and thus becoming foot soldiers of the corporate wing of the ruling class; people who are repelled by the reality of corporatism on the ground are hoodwinked into supporting big government, and thus becoming foot soldiers of the political wing of the ruling class. Thus, thanks to the pincer-movement of right-conflationism and left-conflationism, those who seek to oppose the prevailing system end up in the ranks of its supporters – and the possibility of a radical challenge to the system as a whole is rendered effectively invisible. This is how conflationism functions.

My talk of “functioning” is not meant to imply that conflationism is deliberately propagated in order to divert potential enemies of the system into the ranks of its supporters (though of course it sometimes is).

In a broader sense, whenever some feature A of a system B tends reliably to produce a certain result C, and A’s being such as to produce C helps to explain the existence and/or persistence of B, and thereby of A, then we may say that the function of A is to produce C. Thus the fact that thorns tend to protect roses from being eaten explains why roses, with their thorns, exist and persist. It’s in that sense that I say that the function of conflationism within the prevailing state/corporate system is to bewilder its foes into becoming supporters, and to render alternatives invisible. Conflationism is an instance of malign spontaneous order.

Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn describes an intriguing experiment:

Bruner and Postman asked experimental subjects to identify on short and controlled exposure a series of playing cards. Many of the cards were normal, but some were made anomalous, e.g., a red six of spades and a black four of hearts. … For the normal cards these identifications were usually correct, but the anomalous cards were almost always identified, without apparent hesitation or puzzlement, as normal. The black four of hearts might, for example, be identified as the four of either spades or hearts. Without any awareness of trouble, it was immediately fitted to one of the conceptual categories prepared by prior experience. … With a further increase of exposure to the anomalous cards, subjects did begin to hesitate and to display awareness of anomaly. Exposed, for example to the red six of spades, some would say: That’s the six of spades, but there’s something wrong with it – the black has a red border. … A few subjects … were never able to make the requisite adjustment of their categories. (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp. 62-63)

In short, people tend to have not only difficulty with, but even aversion to, recognising something that doesn’t fit their established categories. This creates a problem for libertarians generally; for many in the political mainstream, the first impulse is to assimilate libertarians to a more familiar “anti-government” category, namely conservatives. When, after longer exposure, mainstreamers realise that libertarians aren’t quite conservatives after all, then they begin to see libertarians as the equivalent of “black spades with red borders” – conventionally conservative on some issues, conventionally liberal on others, rather than representing a radical alternative to existing ideologies. (Libertarians’ use of the Nolan Chart as an outreach tool may contribute to this tendency.)

What holds true for libertarians generally, holds to a still greater extent in the case of left-libertarians. The prevalence of conflationism tends to reinforce the impression that anyone who attacks (what we consider) the fruits of corporatism must be anti-free-market, and that anyone who defends free markets must be undertaking a defense of (what we consider) the fruits of corporatism. Thus nonlibertarian leftists tend to see us as corporate apologists in leftist camouflage, while nonleftist libertarians tend to see us as commies in libertarian guise.

Even when mainstream libertarians acknowledge the existence (and badness) of corporatism, as most do, communication with left-libertarians still tends to come to grief. Left-libertarians are baffled when mainstream libertarians acknowledge cronyism in one breath, only to slide back in the next breath to into treating criticisms of big business as criticisms of free markets. More mainstream libertarians, for their part, are baffled as to why left-libertarians keep raising the issue of corporatism when the mainstream libertarians have already acknowledged its existence and badness.

Kuhn is helpful here too:

Since remote antiquity most people have seen one or another heavy body swinging back and forth on a string or chain until it finally comes to rest. To the Aristotelians, who believed that a heavy body is moved by its own nature from a higher position to a state of natural rest at a lower one, the swinging body was simply falling with difficulty. Constrained by the chain, it could achieve rest at its low point only after a tortuous motion and a considerable time. Galileo, on the other hand, looking at the swinging body, saw a pendulum, a body that almost succeeded in repeating the same motion over and over again ad infinitum. … [W]hen Aristotle and Galileo looked at swinging stones, the first saw constrained fall, the second a pendulum …. (Ibid., pp. 118-121)

Aristotle and Galileo were observing the same two facts: the stone keeps swinging back and forth for a while, and then it eventually hangs straight down. But for Galileo the swinging was essential and the eventual cessation accidental, a “friction” phenomenon; whereas for Aristotle, progress toward a state of rest was, and the sideways perturbations accidental.

Likewise, for those operating within a conceptual framework that sees conservative opposition to big government and liberal opposition to big business as essential and deviations from these norms as accidental, evidence that conservative policies promote big government or that liberal policies promote will be dismissed as inessential or anomalous or an excusable. (See, for example, this video in which Obama supporters condemn right-wing-sounding policies when they think they’re Romney’s, but either excuse them or go into denial when told that the policies are actually Obama’s.)

Similarly, for many mainstream libertarians, free exchange is what essentially characterises the existing economy, while the corporatist policies are so much friction; and just as there’s no need for constant references to friction when talking about how a mechanism works, such mainstream libertarians don’t constantly bring up corporatism when discussing the working of the existing economy. For left-libertarians, by contrast, corporatism is a far more central feature of the existing economy, and leaving it out radically distorts our understanding. In such cases left-libertarians and more conventional libertarians are arguing from opposite sides of a Gestalt shift, where what looks essential to one side looks accidental to the other.

I don’t mean to suggest that these disputes are rationally irresoluble, however. In the playing-card experiments, subjects did eventually come to see the suits correctly after sufficiently long exposure. And sufficient exposure to the evidence marshaled by left-libertarians can prompt the relevant Gestalt shift, as indeed it frequently does; most left-libertarians once started out either less leftist or less libertarian or both. But the prevailing conceptual framework, through which so many (both libertarian and not) look at the economy without seeing what we see, is, I think, no accident; it’s part of the means by which the big-government/big-business partnership maintains itself.

  • Mark L

    Really excellent essay, Roderick! I’d like to see more examination of the purported ways in which government enhances corporate power. The leftists I have spoken to on the subject acknowledge that govt. empowering of corporations can and indeed does sometimes happen, but they believe that on net that effect is vastly outweighed by government’s regulatory, restraining effect. I lack concrete (as opposed to theoretical) ammunition to argue otherwise.

  • Cal

    Left-libertarians differ from the (current) libertarian mainstream both in terms of what outcomes they regard as desirable, and in terms of what outcomes they think a freed market is likely to produce.

    Neither what you describe as desirable nor what you describe as likely in a freer market differ from mainstream libertarianism, except in some cases in emphasis or semantics.

    • Sergio Méndez

      Conflationism is not precisly a myth invented by Roderick Long of Left Wing libertarians. Kevin Carson has, after all, a long recopilation of its manifestations in literature, in his vulgar libertarian series:

      • Cal

        What Carson calls ‘vulgar libertarianism’ there is not the precisely the same as what Long describes as ‘right-conflationism’ in this post.

        Anyway, Carson’s ‘recopilation of manifestations’ is no such thing. His lone example in your linked post (Art Carden) does not conflate existing mixed economies a with pure free market counterfactual. Carden is explicitly making a case that in the actually-existing world, firms offering lower-wage jobs to immigrants are doing something to improve their lives (unlike the ‘anti-sweatshop student groups’ he praises). Carden is right here. And Carson and Long misconstrue the actual point mainstream libertarians like Carden are making:

        • Sergio Méndez


          In the first instance, is not that vulgar libertarianism is conflationism per se. What I meant, responding to Cal objection to Roderick essay, is that vulgar libertarianism is part of the practize of conflationism, when it associates the behavior of big buisness with the ideal of free market. Which takes me to my second point: actually, contrary to what you claim, Carden defends the behavior of Taco Bell as part of an strategy issued in a “market economy”. (the term he actually uses in the first paragraph Carson quotes). Which what makes his second paragraph paradoxical…since Taco Bell probably could not pay slave wages (or virtually treat Inmolake workers as slaves, which is more the case here) if there was a real market economy (instead of the existing “mixed economies” you talk about). And this goes beyond if Carden is right or not (which he is not, in any case).

          • Christ Jesus

            A ‘market economy’ is of course not necessarily ‘the ideal of a pure free market.’ That’s silly gotcha semantics. Taco Bell did not treat anyone as ‘slaves,’ so you’re abusing the term. You’re entirely avoiding Carden’s (and Zwolinski’s, and the vast majority of libertarians’) point, which is that in the actually-existing world, Taco Bell is in fact improving the lives of poor immigrants by offering them a better option they can freely choose. This is part of the solution, not the problem (which is according to libertarians, state interventionism). Whether or not Taco Bell would exist in the same form in a pure free market counterfactual world is utterly irrelevant.

            Libertarians want more and more competition for labor and the resultant higher living standards. That means free market and free trade reforms and the resultant economic development and growth. More unionisation and employer-employee hostility (as sometimes advocated by people like Carson) would do more to hurt the relatively poor, current workers and especially potential workers.

          • Sergio Méndez


            I think it is quite clear that when you talk about a market economy, you ar talking in general terms of free market (is the common usage of the word). So I fail to see the complain that it is “silly gotcha semantics”. And no, in this case we are not talking about slaves as an hyperbole, but as a specific description of what this workers suffered (which of course Carden´s doesn´t aknowledge, nor do you) : .

            Regarding corporations who take actually existent conditions of empowered masses of people to exploit them, saying that because they make 1 cents an hour for their labor instead of nothing, is not precisly helping to solve the problem. Is just an abuse of real existing conditions of disempowerment of workers (conditions that some times are created by the same corporations, as the historical records shows with likes such as the United Fruit Company). While other alternatives of real worker empowerment (compensations for land theft, systemic violence, or the chance to get to work in cooperatives etc) are overlooked, sometimes disincouraged, put in fair disadvantage by goverment regulation or overtly prohibited. That is why we left libertarians get dismayed or baffled when we see such discourses comming from “mainstream” libertarians (meanning, Anglo Saxon, right wing, second half XX century libertarians).

          • Christ Jesus

            No, it is of course not the case that ‘when you talk about a market economy’ you are necessarily talking about a pure free market… much less the counterfactual left-anarchist ‘freed market’ with no IP etc that Long and Carson imagine. Google ‘market economy’ and see how people use the term or look it up in a dictionary. This is engaging in petty semantics and completely avoiding the larger point.

            Ending coercive abuse of migrant workers by any employers is entirely admirable and libertarian, but that does not constitute ‘Taco Bell engaging in slavery’ which you defined as ‘paying slave wages’ and not as holding workers by force against their will as in the instances prosecuted by the federal government. Explicitly the mainstream libertarian argument does not apply to such instances. The argument is about the vast majority of cases, which as Carden points out are part of a ‘market economy’ meaning they are not proactively coerced in the context of actually-existing general rules.

            ‘Exploiting’ someone by offering them the option to freely choose to make more money if they want is a comparatively good thing and should not be punished. it improves the actually-existing situation. It is part of economic development. It has improved billions of lives and done more to relieve poverty in raw numbers than anything else. Thanks to free market and free trade reforms enabling such ‘exploitation’ in China, for example, we’ve seen the greatest reduction of poverty in human history. That is why we mainstream libertarians (and mainstream economists) are baffled by the inane and obscurantist ‘leftist’ venom on this issue.

            I have no idea why you’re talking about ‘Anglo-Saxons’. I’d say the majority of notable mainstream libertarians of the later 20th century had Jewish ancestry or were from the European continent (plus Thomas Sowell and others of course). Contrariwise, as far as I can tell by their surnames, second half XX century ‘left-libertarians’ are Anglo-Saxons (Long, Carson, Wilbur, Johnson…). Why the hell do you care about their ancestry anyway? Are you some kind of anglophobe?

          • Sergio Méndez


            You can pretend that when people talk about market economy they are not talking about “free market economy” or an economy ruled by the markets. It is up to you, but I am not sure who are you going to fool here, except yourself.

            Regarding the issue on Taco Bell and the inmolake workers, I gave you a link explaining how they were subjected to what it can be called slavery, since you denied or pretended it was hyperbolic on my part to use the word.

            Regarding the issue of explotation, I think it is fair to use it when workers capacity to bargain for their salaries has been artificially reduced by the use of force (by states, sometimes paying leap services to corporations who see for cheap labor work).. So comming here and calling it “freely chosen” and “an improvement” for workers, pretending those constrains do not exist and that there are no viable alternatives, is frankly insulting.

            Regarding the issue of modern libertarianism (specially the kind we see in forums like this) as “anglo saxon”, I don´t think it is an unfair characterization. Libertarianism, as XX century phenomena is mostly dominated by persons comming from anglo saxon culture (Americans and British), and yes, that includes left libertarians. But then, most libertarians today are NOT left libertarians (while most non anglo saxon libertarians, who come from an older tradition of libertarianism, say, XIX century libertarianism, are not anglo saxon).

          • TracyW

            What do you mean when you say ” leap services”?

            This sentence doesn’t work if I read it as a typo for “lip services” and I can’t think of any other sensible meaning.

            And it still strikes me that a corporation (for their own selfish reasons) offering workers the option of working for higher wages is a good thing, even if the state artificially reduced the workers’ bargaining capacity. Would you say that a physio who helps you partially regain some skills after a mugging was exploiting you?

          • TracyW

            Regarding corporations who take actually existent conditions of empowered masses of people to exploit them, saying that because they make 1 cents an hour for their labor instead of nothing, is not precisly helping to solve the problem.

            I think you’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good here. Yes, it would be better if these people were being offered $100,000 a year for jobs in air-conditioned offices. But it’s still good that corporations are offering them some money, and using biased words like “exploitation” to describe those who are (for their own selfish reasons) doing something to make the poor better off is a bad idea. That’s why I, and many other people, get dismayed or baffled when we see such discourses coming from “left-libertarians”. (And I agree with Chris Jesus that this note about Anglo-Saxon etc comes out of the blue and surely what matters is the quality of the arguments, not the names you apply to the makers of them).

            And how are cooperatives overlooked or discouraged? (Genuine question, I’m aware of quite a few cooperative organisations, eg John Lewis department stores, The Co-Op, Fonterra, law firms).

          • TracyW

            On the case of the actual slavery, you give a link to a list of cases of investigations and convictions of people for slavery. I don’t see how this ties in with your idea that corporations and government are in cahoots with each other.

            And slavery is hardly confined to big corporations. Plenty of immigrant domestic servants are kept in slave situations, see

            This to me is the biggest argument against anarchism (not that you’re arguing for anarchy) people are often very nasty to each other, in all sorts of situations, indeed in situations so varied that I don’t think it can be explained by class analysis (to return to the left-libertarian style of arguments).

    • martinbrock

      I don’t get the feeling that Long is an anarcho-capitalist by another name, but he does seem to be a nanarchist (nano-archist), like the anarcho-capitalists. I’ve never taken the “anarcho” in “anarcho-capitalism” very seriously, because Rothard’s utopia is clearly enough a minarchy, but I can’t take anyone else’s “anarchism” seriously either. All of these systems have states hiding behind the curtain.

      On the other hand, no two nanarchisms can be that far apart. In my way of thinking, anarcho-capitalism is an option for people who want a minimal state with much personal liberty, but so is practically any other legal system that people are free to accept or reject at will. Anarcho-capitalism might scale up better than some other systems in principle, but I doubt that it would be the choice of many people, so its scalability is hardly relevant.

      The principal difference between “left” and “right” libertarians, in my way of thinking, is that “left” libertarians do not assume that people must or necessarily will choose highly individualistic models of property ownership. A left libertarian personally prefers more common ownership and mutual aid and also expects that within markets freed of many statutory impositions, including many impositions now called “property”, most other people will prefer these arrangements as well.

      Most people want similar arrangements within the statist order, and people won’t feel any more secure in a freer society. No one in a radically free society is ever rich enough to pretend that he doesn’t need the cooperation of others. If you think you ever could be, then you don’t understand “free society” as I do.

      But as a left-libertarian myself, I cannot insist that people choose more common ownership and mutual aid and other “leftist” arrangements, because my “libertarian” half doesn’t allow it.

      • “A left libertarian personally prefers more joint ownership and mutual aid and also expects that within markets freed of many statutory impositions, including many impositions now called “property”, most other people will prefer these arrangements as well.”
        As long as it’s strictly a voluntary development, I will be ecstatic to see it come about, although I’m not sure what you mean by impositions called “property” and how we’re freed from these impositions called “property”.

        • martinbrock

          I only mean the usual, Treasury securities, most if not all intellectual property, the right of states to prison labor, all sorts of contracts with the state, various restrictive covenants. Hereditary title has always been controversial among classical liberals as well. We’re freed from these rights by ceasing their enforcement. For example, Microsoft employees may take the source code for Windows XP and continue developing it in a different direction, and no one can threaten to lock them in a cage or shoot them for doing it. People can sell raw milk too.

  • Sean II

    That was beautiful.

    In my case, the first step toward a cure for conflationism was empirical. I came into the corporate world expecting to encounter, and eventually to join, a bunch of industrial super captains straight out of Atlas Shrugged.

    What happened instead is that I met some of the most loathsome people I have ever known – petty, scheming, rent-weasels whose minds were full of slogans and buzzwords and an ugly instinct for bureaucratic manoeuvre, but void of anything else. (Odd since Atlas Shrugged is stocked with just such characters…but the power of conflation is so great that I completely missed the lesson, apparently along with millions of other readers.)

    The funny part is, I first turned away from campus leftism because I couldn’t stand the people. They were just too obviously ignorant, immature, snobbish, and phony. I saw through their bullshit in large part because I couldn’t accept the idea of a world where people like that were on the side of truth and justice.

    I was convinced I’d find something different and better once I got into the world of business with real, grown up, profit-motivated adults. Instead, what I found was an equally snobbish, equally phony gang of ruthless and exploitative assholes.

    If there’s hope for a widespread embrace of the left-libertarian project, I believe it must come from people who’ve had disillusioning experiences similar to my own.

    • martinbrock

      I’m still laughing at how totally full of shit everyone is.

  • StudiodeKadent

    “Left-libertarians are baffled when mainstream libertarians acknowledge cronyism in one breath, only to slide back in the next breath to into treating criticisms of big business as criticisms of free markets.”

    I don’t see myself as a left-libertarian but I like this blog and greatly approve of a stronger emphasis of anti-corporatist sentiment by libertarians. But I wish to offer a certain suggestion to the above quote.

    Perhaps the reason that many libertarians tend to have a reflexive sympathy for big business even in the face of rampant corporatism is because a lot of the criticisms made by a significant slice of the left (I most emphatically don’t consider left-libertarians part of this slice) aren’t so much criticisms of corporatism per se, but rather rejections of the entire modernist-enlightenment enterprise?

    Look at the primitivist-romantic undertones of so much of the environmentalist movement (there are exceptions to this, of course). And the disdain some leftists have towards “mass consumption” and treat “mass culture” as prolefeed (I believe Prof. Long has, in the past, referred to this slice of the left as the “Aristocratic Left”).

    For the most part, Libertarians come from a thoroughly modernist-enlightenment worldview, at least implicitly (even the skeptical-Hayekian types are principally critiquing rationalistic systems of thought born out of the Continental Counter-Enlightenment, rather than critiquing human reason (empirical reason) itself). We generally all enjoy the dream of human progress, advancing material prosperity, technological development and all that Promethean/Randian/Schumpeterian type stuff.

    But many on the left have very, very different philosophical commitments, typically of German Idealist and/or Rousseauvian-Romantic origin.

    Forgive my Randianism but it seems there’s a “sense of life conflict” that occurs.

    Whilst actually-existing-capitalism is anything but a consistent reflection of Enlightenment values, business as an activity (i.e. the honest pursuit of profit by voluntary exchange) is very much compatible with these values.

    I honestly think that on some sort of, I guess, subconscious level, libertarians perceive the conflict and then go on the defensive… defending a very imperfect corruption of our ideals against what is seen as a blatant negation of them.

    I absolutely agree that libertarians do need to be on guard against conflationism; corporatism was after all the policy of the fascists (themselves counter-enlightenment romantics), and with religionism and nationalist-romanticism rife on the right we have just as many enemies there too. But I think the tendency is explainable by reference to philosophical underpinnings.

    • Sergio Méndez

      It seems to me that, there are many powerfull reasons to criticize the enlightment project, after what we witnessed in the XX century, including the ideal of progress (not necesarely per se, but as it manifested historically. What strikes me as naive of anglo-saxon view of enlightment is that it doesn´t seem to acknowledge how the concepts of reason-progress-industrialization have been used (since its very begginings) as ways to justify all sorts of of opresion (imperialism, colonialism, racism etc), It may be that the conclusion many continental philosophers draw from their criticism (a rejection of logos, reason, primitivism blindness to non western forms of opresion) are unwarranted, but their criticism stands. But naive faith in enlighted reason cannot be held anymore.

      • Didn’t the 20th century reject the Enlightenment project? Can you really pin the Holocaust, eugenics, and nationalism on Adam Smith and John Locke?

        • StudiodeKadent


          I agree with you.

          Nazism and nationalism were products of counter-enlightenment Romantic thinking.

          Sure, Eugenics had a pseudoscientific gloss, but the bases of Eugenics were racial essentialism and methodological collectivism and altruism (the belief that individuals existed to further their race’s interests).

          Hayek pointed out that every single 20th Century Totalitarianism was based on a form of Cartesian-esque rationalism… Rand would’ve described this rationalism as “intrinsicism” but both Rand and Hayek were in agreement that this kind of rationalism was fundamentally an abuse and distortion of actual human reason (which both of them characterized as empirical, contextual and fallible). And Rand was, in my opinion, correct in characterizing this rationalism as a near-religious and almost-Platonic phenomenon.

          And every single time this Totalitarianism was rooted not in Locke, Smith etc. but rather in the counter-enlightenment Continentals… the Romantics and the German Idealist (Kant might have been a Classical Liberal, but Fichte and Heidigger certainly weren’t and we know who Hegel influenced!).

          The idea that the 20th century “disproved” the Enlightenment project is based on a confusion of Enlightenment with Counter-Enlightenment thinkers.

    • I prefer a trichotomy to a dichotomy (one which you hint at yourself):

      Renaissance rationalism – critical, sceptical, open-minded, progressive (Hayek/Popper)

      Enlightenment rationalism – dogmatic, authoritarian, canvass-cleaning/utopian, often socialistic (Bacon, Descartes and all)

      Romantic irrationalism – mystical, dogmatic, authoritarian, collectivist, closed-society, atavistic (Rousseau and the horde of humbugs he inspired with his windbag rhetoric).

      • StudiodeKadent

        Thanks! I tend to be trichotomous myself (I’m an open-system Objectivist so it kind of comes with the territory). Your “Enlightenment Rationalism” would be a form of Intrinsicism (like Platonism), and your “Renaissance Rationalism” would probably fit in the (broadly-speaking) “Aristotelian” (as Rand used the term) category. I’d also put the Empiricists in the Aristotelian category as well, for the most part.
        Rousseau and Romanticism is complicated, because Rousseau influenced Marx, who was a German Idealist Intrinsicist type, philosophically (Marxism is oh-so-hardcore-methodological-collectivism-and-a-priorism). I’m not sure I’d call Romanticism the “subjectivist” category per se because it is so deeply connected to the Intrinsicists…. BUT Rand often pointed out how the subjectivists and intrinsicists were often bedfellows and intrinsicism often served as a rationalization for subjectivism.
        But speaking entirely of Enlightenment philosophy alone, I tend to use four basic categories…
        1) British/Empiricist enlightenment (Locke being the exemplar)
        2) Continental/Rationalist enlightenment (Descartes being the exemplar)
        3) British/Empiricist counter-enlightenment (Hume being the “tipping point”)
        4) Continental/Rationalist counter-enlightenment (Kant being the “tipping point” but Rousseau does have a lot to answer for)
        Or maybe Romanticism is the “emotionalist” side of the counter-enlightenment and German Idealism is the “intrinsicist-rationalist” side of the counter-enlightenment. Any attempt to come up with Quaint Little Categories tends to run into difficulties like this.

        • Sergio Méndez

          Marxism is apriorist? How so? If the core of marxist philosophical tought is dialectic materialism, the idea institutions, rights, political subjects are configurated by relationships of production? Is hard to think marxism as apriorist when is core it is historicist!

          • StudiodeKadent

            I’m speaking methodologically; Marxists usually start with the theoretical framework and assume it to be true, then proceed in a deductivist fashion. And of course they find ways to insulate the theoretical framework from empirical criticism, such as “false consciousness” and related concepts.
            As for Marxist historicism, this itself is a product of deductivism from first principles.

  • As a libertarian, not mainstream, Left, Right, just libertarian, I don’t experience this conflation since my primary concern is opposition to the source of cronyism/corporatism which is statism and the feeding trough which fosters rent-seeking/ protectionism and cronyism. If government is limited and prevented from offering favors and protections to businesses/groups/individuals, then everyone is susceptible to competition in the market. It’s not businesses, per se, that I champion, but the free market itself. In this market of non-coercion, protected by laws which prevent the violation of basic rights, if communism is voluntarily agreed upon as an operating system for some, then I’m fine with it. Whatever is voluntartily agreed upon, even if it entails the growth of Big Businesses with hierarchical arrangements, if people voluntarily submit to this arrangement, is fine with me. As a libertarian, I oppose the forced arrangements by the few on the many. All markets will naturally entail competition — otherwise, parasitism destroys the structure. What I worry about is the sociallly concerned who value their world-views so much they feel they have to correct society in order for society to then be free — just a temporary period of adjustment is all they need to set the world right.

  • RickDiMare

    ” . . . left-libertarians regard the current domination of the economic landscape by large hierarchical firms as the product not of free competition but of government intervention – including not only direct subsidies, grants of monopoly privilege, and barriers to entry, but also a regulatory framework that enables firms to socialise the scale costs associated with growth and the informational costs associated with hierarchy, while pocketing the benefits – and leaving employees and consumers with a straitened range of options. In the absence of government intervention, we maintain, firms could be expected to be smaller, flatter, and more numerous, with greater worker empowerment.”

    This process began during the Civil War and has never abated. Henry George, Jr. provides a good birds eye view of its early stages in “The Menace of Privilege: A Study of the Dangers to the Republic from the Existence of a Favored Class” (1905):

    And his father, Henry George, Sr., noted that the root cause of this phenomenon was the public’s use or toleration of impostor “hybrid currencies,” where Congress’s legitimate monopoly over the money supply (then represented by Greenbacks), and the administration of property rights in general, was conflated with privately-owned banking corporations, who leached off the Treasury Department’s seignorage rights with their own privately-motivated currencies.

    So, in effect, regardless of our political affiliation, we all condone and perpetuate the system Roderick well described in this essay whenever we use the banking system and don’t demand our right to have our accounts held exclusively in Treasury-DIrect coin-based currencies (which is not to advocate that we actually take physical possession of the coin).

  • martinbrock

    First, to be clear, I don’t know which outcomes of the free society are desirable in any universal sense. I only know what I desire. I do not and cannot deny that other people desire racial segregation (of whatever race) or patriarchy or matriarchy or monogamy or polygamy or segregation based on sexual orientation (of whatever orientation) or communally held property or individually held property.

    If “left libertarian” means a personal desire for diversity and equality, in terms of race and gender and sexual orientation and forms of property ownership, within a single community, then I’m still “left libertarian” in this sense, but I have no wish to impose this preference on anyone else. I want to live according to my own convictions, not to impose my convictions on anyone else. What other people desire is none of my business. I want to coexist peacefully with people not sharing my desires.

    I’m not sure that’s a disagreement with Long, but it’s an important distinction.

    I fully agree with Long’s analysis of the distributional consequences of freeing markets. Freed markets are not strictly egalitarian in any sense, but they are much flatter than the statist quo. States concentrate wealth. States always concentrate wealth. States have always been and must necessarily always be instruments of concentrated wealth. Anyone arguing coherently otherwise does not define “state” as I do.

    I also fully agree with this interesting theory of “conflationism” and the Gestalt shift between “left” and “right” perceptions of existing economic organization.

    • Rationell

      I suppose it depends on what is meant by “imposing” something on another person. It is after all completely possible to work towards a society that is more tolerant of differences in for example sexual orientation or race without violating the non-aggression principle. If by “imposing” one means using coercion to make someone act according to ones wishes.

      • martinbrock

        Frankly, I don’t even feel a need to persuade homophobes to like me. I just don’t care. I only want them to leave me alone, and I’m happy also to leave them alone. I don’t actually believe that homosexuality or acceptance of homosexuality is “right”. It’s only my preference.

        • Rationell

          I think I see what you mean. I guess the best thing (possibly the only thing we can reasonably achieve on any large scale) is to have people respect the non-aggression principle and to involve themselves in other peoples affairs as little as possible beyond strict libertarian principles. The tolerance would in that case come into being through “osmosis” between the different groups (for example fundamentalist muslims being exposed to media espousing western secular beliefs or such).

          • martinbrock

            I’m not sure any tolerance would occur through osmosis. If fundamentalist muslims stay on their side of an agreeable line (and do not kill me or hold me there if I happen to stray across the line), that’s all the tolerance I need from them. If they’re happier not being exposed to media from my side of the line, I’m also happy for them.

    • andycleary

      Again, Martin, I probably have written almost exactly these same things before… The importance of giving up on the notion on some “universal” anything – morality, rights, property relationships, etc – and adopting the starting point that all we can have is our *personal preferences* for these things, preferences that cannot be imposed on other but only negotiated with others, is a drum I have been beating relatively alone for quite some time.

  • jmafc

    In the second paragraph after the second Kuhn quotation, there seems to be something missing:

    “… conservative policies promote big government or that liberal policies promote will be dismissed …”

    Probably means to read “or that liberal policies promote big business”.


    I agree with the spirit of many of the comments previously made. Either “left-libertarianism” varies in certain fundamental respects from mainstream libertarian values or alternatvely is simply a superficially different marketing spiel. You either, it seems to me, accept what Nozick calls “unpatterned” principles of justice or you seek to impose by coercive means a distribution of social goods that satisfies your preference. If society operates on principles that protect the voluntary choices of competent adults, we should (under mainstream libertarian principles) willingly accept whatever ensues, although of course we are free to try to persuade others to modify their choices. On the other hand, if you accept the above constraint, then your “desires” and predictions about what a truly free world would resemble is irrelevant.

    • martinbrock

      Left-libertarians do not advocate coercive distribution of wealth. We oppose coercive holding of wealth of various sorts. Distribution occurs in the market. Holding occurs in the property system, in the standards of propriety either respected voluntarily or imposed forcibly upon the unwilling. Property is theft, and property is also freedom. That’s not a contradiction. It’s an irony reflecting the diverse uses of “property”.

      Here’s one example of a fundamental difference between left- and right-libertarians in my way of thinking. It involves the classically liberal formulation of the rights of man, “life, liberty and property”.

      Life, liberty and property, in that order are rights that free men agree to respect. When I meet you in the state of nature and wish to avoid a violent contest for dominance, I imagine a sequence of agreements.

      First, I agree not to kill you if you agree not to kill me. If we can’t agree to this extent, I see no point in further negotiation. This agreement is our mutually recognized right to life.

      Second, I agree not to restrict your liberty forcibly, to hold you against your will, if you agree not to restrict mine.

      These first two rights are distinct from other standards of propriety, because I have no interest in any other standards overruling these two.

      Finally, we arrive at property, standards of propriety governing who, among the two of us, may exclusively control what natural resources and when, where and how we may control them.

      No property right may contradict the two agreements we have already reached. We may adopt standards imposing our will on others, but I will not pretend that we’ve respected any right of the others this way, because the others are not party to our negotiation. Any force we impose on others without their assent to the standards we adopt is an aggressive force.

      Maybe we can’t avoid this aggression against others while defending the standards we agree to respect, but I will not pretend to be a god above the God of nature. We may impose standards upon one another without any agreement, so avoiding this disagreeable imposition is the only possible point of our negotiation.

      By contrast, right-libertarians begin with property and declare property rights “natural”, sacrosanct, absolute, universal, requiring no one’s agreement. Property rights may even overrule rights to life and liberty.

      I don’t know whether you identify with “right” or “left” or any similar prefix to your libertarianism, but I do observe this difference between various, self-described libertarians.


        For good reason, most libertarians refuse to rank rights in any strict hierarchical order, and you’ve given me no reason to think this is mistaken. Your claim that a contract to the effect that “I agree not to kill you if you agree not to kill me…” always outranks all other moral principles (or constsitutes some grand comprehensive ethical system) is plainly incorrect. Putting aside the (valid in my judgment) objection that morality is not merely a matter of agreement, your principle is clearly incomplete and inadequate.

        Imagine that in a state of nature I have homesteaded property in a completely morally legitimate way [impose whatever conditions you think just]. My property includes a source of water, i.e. a well I have dug. But there is abundant underground water, so any other homesteader, or those using land in common, can also obtain water by digging a well on their property. I am in no way taking more than my fair share.

        Nevertheless, another person doesn’t want to expend the labor to dig a well, so he claims my well as his property, erects a fence, and refuses to give me access. I claim that after appropriate warning, I am entitled to use violence to evict the aggressor, including deadly force if he resists with violence (even though not specifically trying to kill me); thereby violating your grand ethical principle. Do you disagree?

        Alternatvely, imagine that I possess the only supply of a drug that will cure a widespread deadly epidemic. I have produced this drug using my own resources and intend to distribute it for free, saving a billion innocent lives. A group of nihilists who simply hate people intend to destroy my stockpile of this drug, and the only way to stop them is to kill them. Is it wrong to take their lives in defense of mere “property”? In other words, “property” translates into lives, and people devote their lives to acquiring certain property valuable to them–so your attempted ranking makes no sense–sorry.

        BTW, your argument against a non-contractual basis for property rights is a strawman. Nozick, Hayek, Rothbard and many other libertarians have elaborate arguments for property rights. They don’t as you say simply “declare particular property rights that they exclusively choose “natural”, sacrosanct, absolute, universal, requiring no one’s agreement,” although at least Nozick and Rothbard would deny that they depend upon the existence of a real or imagined contract.

        • martinbrock

          Your claim that a contract to the effect that “I agree not to kill you if you agree not to kill me…” always outranks all other moral principles …”

          I don’t make this claim. I say that this contract with me outranks other terms of contracts with me. I don’t decide other people’s moral principles, and I understand only subjective moral principles.

          … (or constitutes some grand comprehensive ethical system) is plainly incorrect.

          I don’t say that it’s grand or comprehensive either.

          Putting aside the (valid in my judgment) objection that morality is not merely a matter of agreement, your principle is clearly incomplete and inadequate.

          I don’t know much about any universal morality, and agreement is all I know about justice. I haven’t discussed property in detail, but if you expect to know the property rights I will respect, you do need to ask me. You need to do more than ask. You need to negotiate.

          I am in no way taking more than my fair share.

          I agree with you, because I accept the Lockean Proviso myself, but the next man you ask might disagree.

          A man might say that you owe a disabled person some of your water because this person cannot dig a well, and I might agree, I might decide to join a community with this other man and not with you. My libertarian principles require me to leave you alone as long as you leave as much and as good for me and others. If this other man and I can provide for the disabled in our community without your help, I’m content, but if you then become disabled yourself, you can’t expect much from us, because you are outside of our community.

          I’m not suggesting that you lack compassion for the disabled, of course. I’m sure you don’t. I’m only acknowledging your point that I haven’t specified a comprehensive system. Countless details remain to be settled by mutual agreement.

          Nevertheless, another person doesn’t want to expend the labor to dig a well, so he claims my well as his property, erects a fence, and refuses to give me access.

          If this man is outside of your community, then you and other members of your community will impose rules upon him. I have no fundamental problem with that, but I don’t take these rules for granted. Maybe the man is acting properly within your community. Maybe you’ve violated the community’s rules by failing to provide water to a disable man. Maybe you’ve forfeited the well this way.

          I claim that after appropriate warning, I am entitled to use violence to evict the aggressor, including deadly force …

          I claim that you may not use deadly force in general, and I might come to this man’s defense if you did; however, I might also aid you in a less lethal attempt to recover your property if I belong to your community and our rules favor your claim.

          You certainly are not entitled to kill anyone under these circumstances in any absolute sense. I respect no rules on stone tablets. Rules on stone tablets are always written by men for the men writing the rules, no matter how elaborate the arguments for them.

          Do you disagree?

          Yes, I do. I deny any grand ethical principle. I assert only an essentially libertarian principle. A right to liberty without a right to life is nonsensical. A dead man is not meaningfully free.

          A group of nihilists who simply hate people intend to destroy my stockpile of this drug, and the only way to stop them is to kill them. Is it wrong to take their lives in defense of mere “property”?

          In the scenario you describe, you do not kill these nihilists in the defense of mere property. You kill them in defense of the lives you would save with your drug. I would join a community with rules permitting you to repel this assault on your drug and to use deadly force as a last resort. I don’t say that you must not defend your life or other lives, but we aren’t discussing rights in this scenario.

          If a pack of wild dogs threatens to destroy your stockpile of the drug, the principle is the same. The dogs are not wrong, and you have no right to kill them, any more than a dog has a right to kill a rabbit that it intends to eat or to kill another dog in a contest for territorial dominance.

          Dogs kill in these circumstances regardless of rights and wrongs. Rights and wrongs are artifacts meaningful only within a human civilization. Your nihilists are not part of a human civilization, and I don’t expect you to be civilized in response. I might expect you to behave like a dog, but that’s no insult. I would also behave like a dog. Dogs are wonderful creatures.

          In other words, “property” translates into lives, and people devote their lives to acquiring certain property valuable to them–so your attempted ranking makes no sense–sorry.

          Your assertion that you protect property rather than lives makes no sense, but your example doesn’t address my ranking at all. The ranking does not assert any absolute ordering of natural rights. It only asserts the order of rights in a contract that you may have with me if you choose to have it.

          BTW, your argument against a non-contractual basis for property rights is directed against a strawman.

          I’m only telling you that I do not respect a non-contractual basis for property rights and will not aid you in enforcing one. I don’t recognize non-contractual rights myself. That’s all. You can shoot me if I violate some right that you assert regardless of contract. Arguments don’t stop bullets, but you’ll never hear me say that you have a “right” to shoot me. You may say that you have a right to shoot anyone for any reason or no reason, of course.

          Nozick, Hayek, Rand, Rothbard and many other libertarians have elaborate arguments for property rights. They don’t as you say simply “declare particular property rights that they exclusively choose “natural”, sacrosanct, absolute, universal, requiring no one’s agreement,” although at least Nozick, Rand and Rothbard would deny that they depend upon the existence of a real or imagined contract.

          I know that Rothbard and others deny that rights require a contract, and I know that they have elaborate arguments for the rights they exclusively choose without a contract. The elaborate arguments don’t contradict my assertion. Elaborate arguments require agreement unless one argues that they require no agreement. Rothbard argues that his property rights require no agreement. The words “sacrosanct” and “absolute” seem applicable to me.

          • andycleary

            Martin, lest you fear that you are the only one who thinks about things in this way: this is *exactly* the way I think about it.

          • martinbrock

            Cool. We’re a community.

          • andycleary

            icwudt. 😉

  • RickDiMare

    I may be repeating myself here, but regarding the conflation issue, which is a very serious problem, I’d like to provide links to two short essays I wrote which try to get at the root cause of the ever-increasing disparity of wealth in the United States.

    The first is Doc #11 “Why Businesses Should Be Required to Report Three Separate Income Tax Liabilities on Their Annual Returns:”

    The second is Doc #49 “Revisiting the 1935 Social Security ‘Federal Constributions Insurance Act’ (FICA):”

  • Sergio Méndez

    Interesting article, althought I will have wished it focused more on left libertarianism rather than in libertarianism as whole. What happened with Charles essay? In the calendar it appears to be published today, no Holbo one.

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  • Excellent article, full of the sort of “faults” I was dinged for in every English class I ever took (parenthetical remarks, run-on sentences), but I can read it just fine. Also seems to have triggered extensive discussions over semantic differences, when I think the point of the article was to illustrate how semantics separate us 😉

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  • Tony

    Dear libertarians,

    found this article and the comments very interesting.. i’m new in this kind of forums, i’ve meet this from c4ss. In Europe, the word libertarian was sinse the 19 century another way to say anarchist, in the classical meaning. I’ve found that in the US the word change meaning from the 60’s.. It’s ok, words are no property of a special group or person..

    after reading the most comments i have to say that this article makes only a litle bit sense to me. Until now, i have to give my credits to martinbrock for his clear explanations, which i can subscribe.

    meanwhile, some questions arise to my mind. And i would expect some answeers from all the parts involved in this conversation. So putting the main subject upsidedown: what are the common goals, beliefs and shares between left and right libertarians? Until now it seems to me that they (you) only share the word “libertarian” and nothing more… I see you in opposite fields of thought and of beliefs (values), in what concerns to individual and society. Why do you think you share beliefs?

    Anyway, just to position myself, i have nothing against markets, or freed markets, i also understand them as a valuable critic of corporate capitalism. But i don’t put all my trust in any kind of economic system. I put my trust on what individuals, their will and their strength decide. So, as you can guest, natural rights are just one more religious spook for me. And without believing in natural rights, all the subsequent conclusions (right) libertarians do, are based on error. It’s a weak theory.

  • Archibald Lewis Ignacio Woodro

    Although the article makes a lot of good points, there seem to be some assumptions underlying it that are just fundamentally incorrect.

    The largest issue is the apparently central assumption that there’s anything very similar about “left-libertarianism” (what historically was just called “libertarianism” – and still is, outside the USA) and “mainstream libertarianism” (what’s sometimes called “anarcho-capitalism”, or in my opinion more accurately termed “propertarianism”). Truth is that there isn’t and the apparent similarities are little more than coincidence and the result of equivocations on words like “government” and “freedom”.

    When an ‘anarcho’-capitalist talks about “freedom”, they mean the freedom for property-owners to do what they like with their property and on their property. They believe that governments are oppressive principally by impinging on people’s property rights – that people should be free to do whatever they like, as long as they stay out of the properties of others.

    For ‘left-libertarians’, freedom is broader than that, and it includes freedom FROM private property. For them, fundamentally, freedom means freedom from any arbitrary, unjustified power, and that includes the power of property-owners. To a ‘left-libertarian’, undemocratic control of capital (be it land, buildings, industrial machines, etc) by a small minority is always unjustified and abhorrent – regardless of whether that minority consists of capitalist ‘owners’, feudal aristocrats, or government bureaucrats.

    All of the ‘anarcho’-capitalists I’ve ever met or read agree that someone can exercise whatever arbitrary power they like if it’s within their own property – and if others don’t like it they either have to leave the property, or accept it. To a ‘left-libertarian’, that idea is totally unacceptable, and really no worse than the despotic acts of a feudal monarch or a fascist despot.

    The other problematic assumption is the idea that what you call “corporatism” is anything but the inevitable result of a capitalist economy (by which I mean, principally, an economy based on private ownership of capital and production for profit). ‘Corporatism’ doesn’t just happen because business or government is corrupt, or because the presence of government distorts the free market – it happens because it’s profitable. It’s in the interest of business to have a government that favours their interests, so the profit motive forces them to pursue that.

    This issue, fundamentally, is about what each side means by ‘government’. From an ‘anarcho’-capitalist, the idea is normally that if you abolish government, the free market will reign, and all the important freedoms will follow. To most ‘left-libertarians’, this is nonsense. If you abolish government, what will be left in that vacuum? Concentrated, organised private power – corporations and businesses. In the absence of a modern nation-state, what stops a corporation from qualifying as a government? They’re organised and hierarchical, they control territory, they have power and exercise authority over that territory – how does that differ significantly from a government, and why is it any better or more legitimate? In fact, it’s far worse than modern Western states, because in those, despite all their flaws, there is at least a popular, democratic component to how they are governed. Without a government, on privately owned land, there is pure, undemocratic, corporate tyranny. Without a government above him, how is a property baron distinguishable from a petty feudal king? Undemocratic, profit-motivated entities will always seek power because it’s profitable to do so, whether that means subverting an existing government, helping to create a new one, or acting like a government itself.

    ‘Mainstream libertarianism’, ‘anarcho’-capitalism, or propertarianism, is a deeply, deeply reactionary ideology. To use Marxist terms, it is a bourgeois ideology that exists to serve bourgeois class interests – kept alive by the funding of wealthy individuals and organisations because it flatters their egos and serves their interests. It is an ideology that advocates unrestrained, feudal, corporate tyranny. It is an ideology that has far more in common with fascism, with feudalism, with absolutism and with authoritarianism, than it does with any form of leftist ideology, because it puts the rights of the rich to their property over the lives and wellbeing of the rest of humanity.

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