A Left-Libertarianism I Don’t Recognize

This series at Thoughts on Liberty shows just how poorly understood left-libertarianism is, even among those who would claim to know enough about it to laud it as ​”the future of libertarianism.​” Rachel Burger begins her “defense” of left-libertarianism by conflating it with liberaltarianism. Left-libertarianism is a body of outlooks within libertarianism wh​ich see leftist concerns about problematic social arrangements as legitimate but also recognize that existing institutions of power are not likely to be helpful in solving these social woes. We see corporate power and the boss-worker relationship as stifling, and we don’t want the most hierarchical institution of all, government, trying to do anything about it. Liberaltarians have the opposite view about power, and, as Roderick T. Long points out, they tend to see their left-leaning concerns as being moderating influences where left-libertarians see the two as reinforcing each other or even radicalizing one another.

The article goes on to delve into a topic that seems as abused as it is popular: millennial libertarianism. News sources as disparate in ideology as the Huffington Post and Town Hall (which, unfortunately, are not disparate enough) have published articles in praise of it. With some questionable sociological claims about the way Millennials have grown up, Burger comes to the conclusion that “Millennials are all about community, not individualism.” This claim is entirely unclear, even from the data Burger cites. The Pew Research Center study to which the article links says, “Millennials have emerged into adulthood with low levels of social trust.” But also, “They are about as likely as their elders to have a favorable view of business, and they are more likely than older generations to say they support an activist government.” Burger further claims that Millennials “are the least narcissistic generation in decades.” This is a controversial assertion that may not even be using the proper definition of narcissism. Burger ​goes so far as to​ claim that Millennials tend to live with their parents because of this supposed community-oriented thinking, completely ignoring the fact that anyone born after 1986 would have graduated high school or college into one of the worst job markets in American history.

Moving on to the recommendations for spreading libertarianism to​ her communitarian, family-dependent​ Millennials, Burger’s first point is to play down individualism. Instead, she says, libertarianism needs to address identity politics. This dichotomy is very strange. Identity politics seeks to understand the ways in which socially contrived groups of individuals live among each other. Most often, it seeks to understand implicit social dynamics that put some groups in positions of social inferiority with respect to some other group. In other words, those of us who are interested in identity politics want to free individuals from the groupings they are assigned by others. We seek to free people in a radically more individualistic way than ​do ​adherents to thinner libertarian ideologies wh​ich​ see the government as the only social ill oppos​able​ on libertarian grounds.

In fact, what left-libertarianism has as its central tenet is that every individual should have complete control over their life and no one else’s. Misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and the myriad other bigotries that can haunt the lives of underprivileged individuals ​are​ social power structures. Burger deserves applause for pointing out that left-libertarians and liberaltarians seem to be the only libertarians grappling with these collectivistic problems, but she is completely backwards in saying that this means collectivistic rhetoric will win Millennials (or, more meaningfully, anyone with concerns about the socially oppressed) to libertarianism. This is the mistaken liberaltarian interpretation of identity politics’ success. Instead of presenting bad ideas (like communitarianism) as a front for libertarianism, left-libertarians want to show how identity politics is intensely focused on the identity of individuals.

The rest of Burger’s first article suggests some good techniques for bringing the community-minded into libertarianism, but they’re not terribly specific to left-libertarianism and really just continue her mistaken idea that left-libertarianism is somehow more collectivistic or moderate than other forms of libertarianism. Most libertarians recognize that communities and government are the antithesis of each other. Cooperation can’t happen under the influence of power dynamics, but even the most capitalistic anarcho-“capitalist” understands that. It’s part of why every libertarian is concerned about government influence in the market. Here, Burger has lost an opportunity to delve further into the critical framework left-libertarianism offers, and instead relegates a two hundred year-old body of thought to mere rhetorical strategy.

In her article, Burger fails to even explain what kind of left-libertarianism she thinks libertarians need to work with more. She treats her subject matter as though it were nothing more than a way of choosing conversation topics to interest the left. I highly doubt Rothbard was being rhetorical when he wrote:

[T]here were from the beginning two different strands within Socialism: one was the Right-wing, authoritarian strand… which glorified statism, hierarchy, and collectivism and which was thus a projection of Conservatism trying to accept and dominate the new industrial civilization. The other was the Left-wing, relatively libertarian strand, exemplified in their different ways by Marx and Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism: but especially the smashing of the State apparatus to achieve the “withering away of the State” and the “end of the exploitation of man by man.

 Maybe next time Burger will consider reading about what she wants to recommend for others.​

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory