Libertarianism: What’s Going Right

In “Libertarianism and Liberalism: What Went Wrong,” I gave my opinion of what was wrong with both mainstream libertarianism and mainstream liberalism (”wrong” in the sense to presenting an obstacle to an anti-authoritarian coalition of liberals and libertarians). In my last post, “Liberalism: What’s Going Right,” I discussed some reasons for hope within movement liberalism: some individuals who show signs of thinking outside the  box when it comes to abandoning the worst features of the liberal establishment and finding common ground with free market libertarians. Now I’d like to do the same thing on the libertarian side.

The following are tendencies and subgroups within the larger free market libertarian movement, loosely defined, that largely steer clear of “vulgar libertarianism” (i.e., pro-corporate apologetics under the cover of phony  “free market” rhetoric) and present some basis for a possible entente not only with liberalism but with the broader left. I may write additional, more detailed posts later on some of these groups, but my purpose here is just to  summarize them.

1. The movement with which I identify most closely as a libertarian, also probably the least important from the standpoint of actual influence, is the classical individualist anarchism of Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner,  Benjamin Tucker and the Liberty circle. I call us “classical” to distinguish us from modern, left-leaning followers of Murray Rothbard who also claim the individualist anarchist label–not because the latter are not entitled  either to that label or to our good fellowship, but because there are substantive differences and we need some verbal distinction to reflect them. The central difference is that we classical individualist anarchists still view our  free market libertarianism as a form of socialism, and have views on rent and profit that are closer to those of Tucker’s Boston anarchists than to the Austrianism of Rothbard. Modern adherents of this nineteenth century  radicalism include Shawn Wilbur, Joe Peacott, Joel Schlosberg, Matt Jenny, and Crispin Sartwell (although I’ve probably missed a few). R.A. Wilson, recently departed, promoted this version of anarchism in The Illuminatus! Trilogy (for example here).

On a related note, Larry Gambone of the Voluntary Cooperation Movement is heavily influenced by the mutualism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Robert Owen, the direct European ancestors of American individualism.  Gambone played a large role in introducing Proudhon’s thought to modern North American anarchists (see his pamphlet “Proudhon and Anarchism“). He and Dick Martin, both in British Columbia, are the primary editors of Any Time Now.

2. The left-Rothbardians trace their origins to Murray Rothbard’s project, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, of an alliance with the New Left against the corporate state. Rothbard and other right-wing libertarians contributed  to the New Left journal Ramparts (home of David Hororwitz, before he became an odious neocon) and William Appleman Williams’ revisionist history study group Studies on the Left. Rothbard’s journal Left and Right, and the  early volumes of Libertarian Forum, were largely preoccupied with the New Left alliance.

Rothbard himself abandoned the project as hopeless after a few years, and moved rightward. But his close associate Karl Hess went on (for a while) to develop much closer ties of affinity to the left, participating in a  community technology project in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC and even joining the Wobblies. And another Rothbard associate, Samuel Edward Konkin III, founded the Movement of the Libertarian  Left as a vehicle for continuing Rothbard’s Old Right/New Left project. Konkin’s central contribution to what he called “Agorism,” the New Libertarian Manifesto (warning: pdf), is available at Agorisim.Info (with a lot of other  Konkin pamphlets as well). The current Alliance of the Libertarian Left and Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left include many of those who have preserved and continued this left-Rothbardian line of thought.

3. Geolibertarianism, or Georgism, is large; it contains multitudes. Founded (of course) by Henry George, it amounts to an whole libertarian movement of its own, with variants ranging pretty far to the left and right: from  Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov and Fred Foldvary on the right, to Ralph Borsodi and Michael Hudson on the left.

Georgism and individualist anarchism are both unlike mainstream contemporary libertarianism in that they remain much closer in spirit to the classical liberalism of Paine, Smith and Ricardo. Both retain the classical  political economists’ understanding, abandoned by the main line of marginalist economics, that “land is different” from other factors of production because, as Will Rogers said, “They ain’t making any more of it.”

The central idea is that land isn’t governed by the normal market mechanism that regulates the price of reproducible goods, by driving it toward production cost. The more social wealth increases, the more people and  dollars are bidding up the fixed supply of land, so that rents continue to rise relative to wages and more and more wealth disappears down the landlords’ rathole. The Georgist remedy is to eliminate all taxes on labor and capital, and put a “single tax” on the site value of land, so as to make unearned scarcity rent the main source of tax revenue. The effect is for the land currently being held out of use for speculative purposes to be put to use  by human labor, and for rents to fall relative to wages.

The most left-leaning version of Georgism is the geolibertarian agenda I mentioned in my earlier post: taxing land value, resource extraction, and carbon emissions and other externalities, funding a guaranteed minimum  income out of this rent collected by society, and then allowing progressive ends to be promoted entirely by the price incentives resulting from these policies, in a totally unregulated market. The idea is that in a society where workers have the bargaining power that comes with unlimited access to cheap land and a social dividend of ten or fifteen thousand bucks per capita, labor regulations will be superfluous. And in a society where  pollution is heavily taxed and the price of fossil fuels reflects high severance fees, the same is true of pollution laws. And so on, and so on.

I’m not a Georgist, for reasons that would require way too much digression to go into now. But George’s thought, in all its manifestations, has been an immensely positive leavening force on both left and right, bringing out  the best aspects of both communities. On the left, it softens the tendency to rely on the bureaucratic state, and promotes in its place an egalitarianism that works through the removal of privilege and the perfection of market mechanisms. On the right, it counteracts the instinctive tendency to rally to the defense of the rich and corporate interests.

Each of these movements, in its own way, offers some potential as a basis for common action with the left against the increasing authoritarian police state, and against the corporate-state nexus that dominates the economy.

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 20th, 2008 at 7:30 pm

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