What is Left-Libertarianism?

David Friedman writes:

My problem with BHL is that I have been unable to get its supporters to tell me what it is.

Does he really believe that, or is this just a way of being cute? I dunno.

Anyways, if you look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, you see that the term “left libertarian” standardly refers to someone who believes:

  1. That we have strong rights of self-ownership, and
  2. That the world as a whole, or at the least the economic value of the world’s resources, are commonly owned.

Left-libertarianism is, standardly, the most cartoon form of regular libertarianism, plus an implausible thesis about who owns the world’s resources by default.

As for bleeding heart libertarianism, BHL’s standardly accept the following two principles and hold that they are morally weighty:

  1. Every person has strong prima facie rights to an extensive sphere of civil and economic liberties.
  2. In order for it to be reasonable to demand that other reasonable people comply with coercive institutions, those people should have a sufficient stake in those institutions. Coercive institutions should tend sufficiently to benefit every reasonable person subject to them.

1 is a thesis about liberty. 2 is a thesis about social justice. Different BHLs will fill in 1 and 2 in different ways. (For instance, in the real world, won’t some people always slip through the cracks through sheer bad luck, regardless of what institutions we have? Surely that doesn’t mean there are no legitimate institutions of any kind, right?)  Different BHLs might have different views about what to do if 1 and 2 conflict. (For instance, how badly do markets have to function before this overrides some of our prima facie economic rights?) But that’s BHL in the abstract.

Some people obtusely claim that BHL is just a defense of statism. Well, it could be, but that depends upon certain empirical claims, claims about how institutions function. A BHL could advocate anarcho-capitalism, a minimal state, or a more-than-minimal state that still gives great room for economic freedom, such as Switzerland or even Denmark.

  • =That the world as a whole, or at the least the economic value of the world’s resources, are commonly owned.=

    I don’t see how this postulate can be squared with libertarianism. If world’s resources initially belonged to everyone everything belongs to everyone now b/c no one ever asked for and received the consent of everyone else for appropriation.

  • Gordon Sollars

    I don’t know how many BHLers David has asked, but if he was only talking about the exchange on Cato, he didn’t get an answer from them. Your explanation, which seems to be a condensation of another of your posts, does a much better job.

    • Gordon,
      In my final post in the Cato Unbound exchange (http://www.cato-unbound.org/2012/04/30/matt-zwolinski-and-john-tomasi/some-final-thoughts-2/), I said this: (see original for the links)

      …Like Jason Brennan, we are somewhat puzzled by David’s puzzlement regarding what we mean by the term “social justice.” At the very least, the broad meaning of the concept ought to be clear by now: social justice is a moral standard by which the institutions of a society can be evaluated on the basis of how well they serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged. This broad concept can be fleshed out in a number of different ways by different particular conceptions of social justice. And a full conception would say, among other things, what counts as “advantage” (Wealth? Primary goods? Utility?), what the scope of social justice is (The nation? Humankind? All sentient beings?), how this standard of moral evaluation fits alongside others (nobody – not even Rawls – believes that the fate of the poor is the only important criterion for judging the morality of a society’s institutions), and so on. Again, we have not attempted to articulate or defend such a conception here. But it is not as though bleeding heart libertarians have been silent on this issue. For several serious scholarly treatments, see John’s book here, orthis essay by Jason Brennan and John Tomasi. And see also the numerous blog posts from Jason (here, here, and here), Kevin Vallier (here and here) and me (here, here, here and here).

      As I said, this doesn’t present a fully fleshed out philosophical position. But that’s because BHL as such is not meant to be a fully fleshed out philosophical position. It’s a family of philosophical positions, united by a shared commitment to a general idea that they develop and flesh out in different ways.

      Does this not count as an answer to David, or to you? (If not, does my comment at David’s site, which I link to below?)

      • Gordon Sollars

        Matt, I thought David was looking for an answer within the confines of the Cato discussion. I did not think, but I don’t know if David thought, that there was no treatment anywhere – after all, I’ve read FMF. 😉 In any event, I think that your reply on David’s blog and (perhaps even more so) Jason’s post above count as an answer. I suspect, however, that David is looking for some sort of specific criterion of justice, so it might seem to him that you are fudging, while you think you are being as clear as you can be about a description for what is really a family of theories.

  • Gary Chartier

    There are at least three distinct, if related, senses of left-libertarianism–roughly speaking, anarcho-communism, contemporary neo-Georgism, and left-wing market anarchism. The SEP article refers only to the second option, while the recent symposium here focused on the third. Wikipedia is helpfully comprehensive on this point:


    • martinbrock

      I broadly identify with the “left-wing market anarchist” view but not literally with any “anarchism”. Rothbardians specifically (including left-Rothbardians) are clearly minarchists rather than literal anarchists. I call them “nano-archists” or “nanarchists”. The problem with various formulations of “anarchism” is precisely the denial of a state, which these formulations nonetheless suppose, blinding proponents to potential weaknesses of their formulation.

      Even supposing that Rothbardian property rights constitute a sufficient system of justice, why expect people to respect these rights? “Private enforcement agencies” is no answer to this question. An enforcement agency need not enforce Rothbardian property rights, and I don’t imagine Rothbardian rights emerging from the interaction of many, competing enforcement agencies either.

      We already have many, competing enforcement agencies. They are states, and they’re forever warring with each other without ever much enforcing Rothbardian property rights. Rothbard actually assumes a state enforcing particular standards of propriety universally, somehow constraining competing enforcement agencies to the enforcement of only these particular standards. Any meaningful analysis of his system or any similar system requires an explicit account of this state.

      • jdkolassa

        I have been looking for this comment for months to bookmark it. Brilliant take, sir.

        • martinbrock

          That’s very flattering. Thanks. I assume that most people dismiss me as a crank, since people rarely reply otherwise. 🙂

          • jdkolassa

            I was just talking to an anarcho-capitalist a month or so ago and we were agreeing that anarcho-communists aren’t really anarchists, because you would need some sort of state to enforce their notion of communism.

            But what was left unsaid was that, well, anarcho-capitalists would need a state to enforce their system of property rights too. I keep trying to tell this to Rothbardians and Friedmanites and they keep inventing new ways of just pretending I’m saying something completely different.

          • erniebornheimer

            Assuming there will always be multiple conceptions of a good society, does that imply a state (or other enforcer) is necessarily unavoidable? It seems to me that anarchists (of all stripes) start with the assumption that their version of anarchy is the one society that’s most in accord with human nature, therefore people would accept it, if only it could be explained properly (or, once people found themselves in it). I guess the question is: how (or whether, or how much) is it morally acceptable to compromise one’s vision of a good (or better or decent) society? Clearly there are some times when compromise is the right thing to do (“right”in both the moral and practical senses), and sometimes when it’s not. But I don’t know any algorithm or rule of thumb to make that distinction.

    • John Kindley

      It’s unfortunate that the Georgist strand of left-libertarianism is called the Steiner-Vallentyne school, as in a recent BHL symposium Steiner proposed an absolutely insane tax on genetic advantages.

      • RickDiMare

        I find that kind of tax rather bizarre as well, and more importantly, unconstitutional because it’s like taxing unrealized gain.

  • RickDiMare

    It might help David Friedman to reconcile BHL’s concept of social justice and Georgism by looking into Henry George’s concept of the “citizen’s dividend,” which in my view, has morphed into the basic income or negative income tax concepts that David’s father once supported. The citizen’s dividend could also be said to have morphed into all the social programs we’ve developed since the New Deal era.

    The only (rather big) problem is that Henry George would not have supported these programs if labor/wages had to be taxed directly, nor if a privately-owned central bank issuer of “hybrid currencies” ran the show.

    But otherwise he believed that if certain forms of land ownership, land held for speculative purposes, and land exploitation of natural resources were properly taxed and regulated, there’d be plenty to redistribute for social justice programs, which again he called “citizen’s dividend,” but we might call: the negative income tax, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Affordable Health Act, etc.

  • The definition in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is referring to what I described in my post as the second meaning of “left-libertarian” and, as I made clear in that post, BHL is the third. As best I can tell, people who regard themselves as bleeding heart libertarians do not necessarily view the world’s resources as commonly owned.

    And no, I was not just being cute. I understand the Georgist position and can see some arguments for it. But every time I try to get BHL folk to define their position clearly enough so that I can argue for or against it I fail. I think that includes the exchanges between me and Matt in the comments to my blog post.

    With regard to your definition, it might help to know what count as “coercive institutions.” If I use force to keep you from killing me, is that a coercive institution? What if you have no stake at all in keeping me from being killed? In keeping people like me from being killed?

    • martinbrock

      I’ve given you what seems to me a clear position, if not precisely the SEP’s definition. It’s more like Jason’s second BHL principle taken to its logical conclusion, i.e. free people have a right to any systematic propriety that a sufficient number of other people also accept, not to be bound by Rothbardian propriety or even Lockean propriety per se.

      I agree that “Earth’s resources are commonly owned” is practically meaningless, and I have little sympathy with Georgism, since it seems to presume a state acting “for the people generally” collecting George’s Single Tax. No state collecting this tax can possibly act “for the people generally”, and I don’t expect any state to be satisfied with only this tax.

      Left-libertarianism is intentional community. There are no natural or inalienable property rights beyond a right to life and a right to be free of community standards with which one disagrees by leaving one community for another. Lockean or Rothbardian standards might predominate in most communities, but a left-libertarian doesn’t take this outcome for granted.

      Another formulation of “left-liberty” involves the propriety of a market exchange of labor for labor. This formulation does not take the labor theory of value for granted. On the contrary, it assumes that non-human resources have a marginal value distinct from the value of a proprietor’s labor, but it also supposes that a proprietor has no right to consume this value.

      One realization of this principle involves something like a progressive consumption tax, not transferring the value of non-human (or dead-human) resources to a state but only requiring a proprietor to invest this value to increase goods available in the market rather than personally consuming it. I sometimes advocate this reform of existing states, but I have little faith that a state enforcing this standard would be content with the infinitesimal revenue that a properly structured, progressive consumption tax would raise.

    • martinbrock

      I confused you with Mark_D_Friedman earlier.

  • Hume22

    Jason, Your #2 is an unfortunate mixture of justice and political legitimacy. That’s the biggest problem with Public Reason liberalism, Gaus, etc., no plausible account of legitimate political authority (particularity problem).

    • My problem with (the second) #2 is the privileging of ‘reasonable
      people.’ It is a closed-minded, closed-society, repressive approach. As
      George Bernard Shaw said: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the
      conditions which surround him. The unreasonable man persists in trying
      to adapt surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the
      unreasonable man.’ And as Popper said: ‘the growth of knowledge depends
      entirely on the existence of disagreement.’ Or, even more strongly,
      ‘There is a place, and a function, within the critical method of
      science, even for the lunatic fringe.’ And again: “Any assumption can,
      in principle, be criticized. And that anybody may criticize constitutes
      scientific objectivity.’ The idea that all reasonable people will agree
      is not only wrong, it is pernicious.

    • Well, maybe institutional legitimacy, if not political legitimacy. The principle expressed in 2 applies to anarchist institutions as well. Questions about legitimacy is a proper subset of questions about justice.

  • John Kindley

    Why can’t we all just be Georgists?

    • RickDiMare

      From a tax law viewpoint, and because of the 16th Amendment, Americans are Georgists (and Lockean/Ricardian as well), whether we like it or not.

      The conventional view is that the 16th Amendment created “the” income tax, but if one explores the facts and circumstances surrounding the two 1895 Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan cases, it becomes evident that the 16th Amendment was only necessary to authorize one particular form of income tax, a tax on the Georgist notions of land rents and natural resource yields (where land, labor and capital are the property sources and the income derived from them are rental income, interest income, dividend income, profit from hiring labor, capital gains, etc.). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollock_v._Farmers%27_Loan_%26_Trust_Co.

  • John Kindley

    Seems to me what all these left-libertarianisms have in common is recognition that the primary purpose of the State is to steal from the poor to give to the rich, and that much of the poverty and unjust economic inequality that exists is caused by the State. The corollary of this recognition is that in opposing the State our priority should be on the ways in which the State burdens the poorer rather than the richer.

    • martinbrock

      The idea that any state has ever stolen from the rich to give to the poor is laughably ridiculous.

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