Links, Left-libertarianism

Thoughts on Left Libertarianism

The Freeman has published my review  of Gary Chartier and Charles Johnson’s Market Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Poverty (buy it or download the free PDF). It’s a short review, but my bottom line is extremely positive:

Libertarianism is a revolutionary creed, and Chartier and Johnson remind us of the dangers of allowing it to be transformed into a staid apology for the status quo…Markets Not Capitalism is an important collection of essays that will, I can only hope, fundamentally change the way that libertarianism is perceived by the broader public, and provide new and inspiring direction for future scholarly work by libertarians in economics, philosophy, sociology, and law.

Despite my positive evaluation of the book, I still have some reservations about the broader left-libertarian position it presents. I mention these concerns briefly in the review, but they are mostly in line with those expressed by Steve Horwitz in his contribution to our recent symposium on left-libertarianism:

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.

At their best, left-libertarians strike me as too confident and optimistic in their predictions of what a stateless society would look like, and not confident and optimistic enough about the transformative and empowering power of individual choice and free exchange even in the context of our current system of state/crony capitalism. (This is a concern I have with left-libertarianism in general, but it explains my discomfort with the left-libertarian position on sweatshop labor, despite the good points they make on the topic).

At their worst, left-libertarians are too quick to embrace dubious economic and ethical ideas. I find, for instance the critique of Kevin Carson’s mutualism, especially its “labor theory of value,” entirely persuasive. See Jason Sorens’ series here here and here, and this special issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies, especially Bob Murphy’s essay. And I cringe when left-libertarians invoke Benjamin Tucker, whose Stirnerite egoism strikes me as bad philosophy, and whose rejection of rent, interest, and profit strikes me as bad economics – even once we make due allowance for the various qualifications and idiosyncratic definitions he attaches to these claims.

That said, I think the bad elements of left-libertarianism are currently playing a less important role than the good, and that the work of people like Roderick Long, Gary Chartier, and Charles Johnson is doing a lot to sharpen and strengthen left-libertarian thought, and to improve libertarian discourse in general. And as Markets Not Capitalism contains plenty of their work, along with some of the not-so-great stuff, I am happy to recommend it. It is an important collection that displays the key ideas of left-libertarianism, warts and all.

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • Victoria Granda

    Thanks for this. Great response to left-libertarianism. I share many of these thoughts, especially on the economic ideas you mentioned. If the left-libertarians want to gain more respect in the general libertarian world, they can’t be trashing profit and adopting the labor theory of value (that’s just asking to get discredited). I do think they do a good job of presenting libertarian ideas in a way that statist leftists can start reconsidering it, and recognizing we’re not just a bunch of selfish business men.

    • Where it is a question of “gaining respect,” hopefully clarity and care factor in somewhere, at which point characterizing the left-libertarian position as “trashing profit and adopting the labor theory of value,” without making it clear what the various actors mean by “profit” or “the labor theory of value” ought to be the kind of statement that brings a bit of discredit. Left-libertarians have at least shown a good deal of sensitivity to these problems, which arise from the lack of a shared language among the various schools of political and economic philosophy. The terminological difficulties are often even internal to individual schools: I imagine that an Austrian-inspired accountant has to tackle “profit” a little differently, depending on whether they are discussing the double inequality of value or balancing the books of a business. And why is it not “just asking to get discredited” to be (apparently) unaware that there have been several labor theories of value, not all of which are incompatible with subjective valuation?

      • Fallon

        Hi Shawn. The fact that one has capital and another is in her employ does not inherently mean injustice, right? Not until the scenario is populated with facts does one begin to have something to talk about in terms of justice. In a conceptual process, if one assumes the capital holder manipulated the scenario by murdering competitors then her employee is being denied opportunities— and that indeed may be translated as robbing the just value of one’s labor. It’s an exogenous crime. In real time, facts and meanings are subject to the uncertainty of historical analysis.

        What is the version of labor theory of value that you accept? Is it different than Mr. Carson’s? We can at least agree that there is no such thing as a unit of labor/value, right? There is no ‘measurement’ in economic theory. Nor is there anything necessarily socially valuable when someone does ‘work’.

  • martinbrock

    Human labor is most of the cost of everything, because humans consume most of what humans produce, and humans like artifacts. This fact is very apparent in the cost accounting of most businesses, particularly in the wealthiest, service dominated economies. Labor is the largest single cost, even most of the cost, of most businesses.

    A subjective theory of value (of price formation) is not inconsistent with this observation. Market prices are subjective, but most of what people subjectively pay for goods and services is a return to labor. The labor theory of value is not strictly true, but it is a decent, first order approximation, which is why classically liberal economists posited it.

    • j_m_h

      You’re talking more about accounting costs than about economic costs.

      What I’ve read by Marxs and others about the LTV led me to believe that Marx was actually struggling to replace money with a measure of labor and then have the market allocation based on that metric. The problem is that neither the labor input nor the monetary price is the true cost: the lost alternative that was not taken, the opportunity cost.

      Both the labor metric and the price are proxies for the unobservable opportunity cost we pay as a society/economy. Which is actually better? I’d suggest the monetary one is the simple and cleanest one. Comparing labor inputs is highly problematic at the margin. (BTW, I think Marx was actually struggling to see a marginal view but lacked the tools.)

      • good_in_theory

        I don’t think Marx ever treated ‘labor inputs’ as unproblematically comparable Average socially necessary homogeneous human labor time is not really supposed to be something simple (or even possible?) to calculate and compare. (gesellschaftlich notwendige gleichartiger menschliche Arbeitszeit)

        • j_m_h

          I don’t think I really said he did, but that’s beside the point being made.

          The cost of production is not labor or monetary units, it’s the forgone alternatives that are given up. In a social production-exchange setting no individual really makes the choice on those opportunity costs, or at least many of them, in the same way they would if they were autarkic.

      • martinbrock

        I don’t understand the labor input as an objective quantity (like hours). People subjectively choose goods requiring much human effort to produce over goods requiring less human effort to produce, and in a free market, people choosing these goods over other goods value human labor accordingly.

        People aren’t satisfied with berries fresh from the vine when they can consume cobber and wine instead. Eating the fresh berries requires less labor and may be healthier or “better” by other objective criteria, but it’s not the subjective preference of many people given a choice, and people will pay more for a cobbler requiring more labor or more skilled labor to produce.

        Society doesn’t pay anything in my way of thinking. Society is a collectivist abstraction. You might as well say that the Universe pays. I doubt that the Universe cares how I consume berries.

        I still believe that common labor could be an effective standard of value for extending credit and thus a monetary base. Using labor this way does not assume the classical labor theory of value.

        I agree that Marx was more of a marginalist than a proponent of the classical labor theory of value. I had a citation defending this point at one time, but I’m not sure I can find it quickly.

        • j_m_h

          I wasn’t really trying to suggest such a unit (nor suggesting Marx was or that he view social necessary labor as simple and unproblematic).

          The point I wanted to make was that it’s not the labor that was used that is the real cost that is incurred is the opportunity costs of all the people in the society — so “society/economy” was a shorthand. This is what determined the allocation of labor across all the industries as well as the outputs from all those industries. The real cost of anything is not the labor content, that is required for everything pretty much; the real cost is what was given up.

          The other aspect I wanted to point out is that in a production and exchange society one person is not making that calculation of allocating labor to outputs wanted. Yes, the autarkic person will face uncertain production but typically finished with the desired bundle of outputs. There is more uncertainty regarding the complex of outputs and rewards to contribution (labor being one) once we know what the results are and people start evaluating the ex post “choice” situation.

          I’ll have to take a look at the price of berries and the price of some pie, and calculate the fresh berry content of the pie before accepting your claim that such tight relationship between labor input and market price for a good is true.

          • martinbrock

            Regardless of the fresh berry content of a pie, if I want the pie, I must pay someone to bake the berries into the pie or expend the labor myself; however, I’m not suggesting a tight relationship between labor input and market price. I’m not suggesting that anyone can calculate a market price knowing only labor inputs or other inputs. I don’t believe so at all. The cost of inputs does not determine a market price.

            I’m only suggesting that most of what people pay for goods in a free market is a return to labor rather than a return to non-labor resources like land growing berries. Of course, “free market” excludes many costs imposed by states, like the cost of the war in Iraq and the cost of enforcing Apple’s design patents. These costs are very high and growing, but they are not productive resources at all in my way of thinking.

  • Nick Ford

    “And I cringe when left-libertarians invoke Benjamin Tucker, whose Stirnerite egoism strikes me as bad philosophy…”

    Just a general correction Matt:

    Tucker wasn’t a Stirnerite (at least not more officially if you want to claim he was *always* one…) until after his years of being a pretty devoted follower of Proudhon’s thought and translating a bunch of Proudhon’s work. Advocating things based on Spencer’s “equal freedon” and Proudhon’s and Greene’s ideas on mutual banking and so on (see Avrich’s, “Anarchist Portraits”, “Proudhon in America”).

    And even then I believe he eventually became quite cynical about anarchism and adopted a sort of anarcho-cynicism while he lived out his last 10 or so years (might be messing up the years here, doing it off the top of my head) in France with his wife and daughter.

    • Right. I didn’t mean to imply that he was always a Stirnerite. I have problems with the “equal freedom” view too, but that’s a subject for another blog post!

      • Nick Ford

        You should’ve just said you didn’t like Tucker then. And I’m not familiar with many of my LL comrades who take his Stirner years as an impetus to their line of thought.

        Now if you’re gonna critique his more Proudhonian (not that he was a strict Proudhounian or should be called a mutualist, he shouldn’t) days then I think we’ll have much more to say to you Matt. 🙂

  • Adam Ricketson

    Thanks for this discussion. As with all movements, I think that the
    most relevant aspects of left-libertarianism are the most immediately
    actionable elements. As such, utopian visions and abstract economic
    theory are not terribly important, and there are many opportunities
    (probably unavoidable) for idiocy when discussing such issues.

    The aspects of left-libertarianism that I find most compelling are their
    perspective on the nature of state power and the prioritization of
    reforms. Left-libertarians emphasize that state power is primarily
    elitist, and democratic aspects of the state are either secondary
    modifiers of power, or else just window dressing. This understanding is
    essential for all political activism. It assures that we are focusing
    our attention in the right direction and don’t get blindsided by our
    most powerful opponents. It also allows us to leverage the democratic
    ideology in our society and turn that against the state. The ultimate
    consequence of this understanding is to motivate us to seek reforms that
    weaken the elite — as they say, let’s stop the leg-breaking before we
    stop handing out free crutches.

    • In my opinion we (the modern advanced nations) lose more of our society by the fact that we are too democratic, and not elitist enough. It seems to me that ignorant masses are easily manipulated into all sorts of things which are contrary to their long term interest. If you want to call those charlatans who are the manipulators the “elite” then You may have a point. But I don’t see them as elite, in the sense that they are either particularly learned people, or particularly successful in non political endeavors.

      • Adam Ricketson

        Well, they are the political elite. That’s the only type of elite that could ever hold political power. The idea of a philosopher-king is absurd.

        • Well I agree with that, But my idea is that if we could return to more of the original idea of a limited representative republic, (less populist) Then a natural elite would be at odds with other groups of natural elites and they would not be able, any one group, of consolidating too much power.

  • dL

    a critique of the Horwitz position and clarifying the difference between laissez-faire and capitalism

  • Professor Zwolinski mentioned Bob Murphy’s critique of Carson’s opus “Studies In Mutualist Political Economy”. Carson gave a short rejoinder to his criticisms in a list of rejoinders. The relevant rejoinder is #2

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