A Left-Libertarian Primer

Many thanks to the more than helpful edits of Kyler Dineen and Mike Moceri

The “Left” in Left-Libertarian

The goal of this paper isn’t to convince anyone of the benefits of anarchism or to convince anyone that they should be a left-libertarian. Instead, I’d like to help deepen our understanding of what the position entails and what activities people who subscribe to the philosophy may support.

I want to start by talking about the contentious use of the word “left.”

Some people are probably familiar with someone “on the left” being a Democrat, a state-socialist or a communist. But the term has a broader meaning. I use it to refer to people like the anarchist David Graeber or the historian Howard Zinn. Left-libertarians are more likely to draw influences from folks who are radically subverting or questioning the status quo. “Democrat,” therefore, is not synonymous with “the left.”

There are a few useful ways that I’ve found to define the term “left,” one of which is attributed to Gary Chartier, a professor at La Sierra University. The leftist, according to Chartier in his article The “Left” in Left Libertarian, “…is marked by opposition to subordination, exclusion, and deprivation.”

Chartier explains:

  • ”Subordination” is when A holds persistent power over B. e.g. the power of a boss over a worker;
  • ”Exclusion” is when A is told in no uncertain terms that they do not belong in said group – that they are entitled to neither the fruits of membership or the recognition of being even capable of achieving membership. e.g. when African Americans were excluded from segregated spaces;
  • “Deprivation” is when A lacks the minimum essentials required e.g. when someone is denied shelter and access to food either by the community or by individual merchants.

Chartier argues that all of these things concern vulnerability.

Opposing vulnerability, however, isn’t enough. A particular method for opposing it is necessary. There is a difference between means and ends, though. I don’t think (and neither does Chartier) that exclusion is inherently bad, just that it is generally suspect to a leftist. A “leftist” usually considers the facts and ensures that said opposition is legitimate before acting on it.

The notable leftist Cornel West says on the meaning of being a leftist:

[being] concerned about structural violence, you are concerned about exploitation at the work place, you are concerned about institutionalized contempt against gay brothers and lesbian sisters, hatred against peoples of color, and the subordination of women. It means that you are willing to fight against, and to try to understand the sources of social misery at the structural and institutional levels, as well as at the existential and personal levels.

It’s also notable that West’s definition relies on two of Chartier’s themes, exclusion and subordination, and amplifies them with real world examples.

Another approach is attributed to Karl Hess, a prominent libertarian in the 60s through the 80s. He used a more historical than philosophical or contemporary/real world model. He talks about the left and right being divided by their interest in concentrations of power and wealth.

According to Hess, the historical left has always been marked by “…politics and economics that opposes the concentration of power and wealth and, instead, advocates and works toward the distribution of power into the maximum number of hands.” He defines “the right” by its impulse to do the opposite.

This doesn’t mean, as Hess points out, that if you push a conservative enough they’ll want to institute a monarchy or dictatorship, but rather that, “the ghosts of royal power whisper in the conservative tradition.”

These three approaches are conversation starters, and not enders. One might say that “None of the self-described leftists I know are like that,” and that’s fine. I’m sure there are people who identify as leftists even though they have none of the concerns that Chartier, West, and Hess address. However, these three authors give us a more comprehensive view of “the left” than the colloquial meaning provides.

I think left-libertarianism fits comfortably under all three approaches. I don’t contend that these are perfect definitions or that they perfectly encapsulate what you’d find in your average left-libertarian. But I do think they help start the conversation.

The “Libertarian” in Left-Libertarian

If we take from “left” to mean opposition to subordination, deprivation, and exclusion, where does the “libertarianism” come in?

Libertarianism has a closer link to radicalism than modern-day progressivism. It’s a practical philosophy for building a less subordinating, depriving, and exclusive society. As Marx might say, “Philosophers have spent their time speaking about the world, but the real goal is to change it.” Libertarians challenge us to do that.

While there are some outliers (I am specifically thinking of Bleeding Heart Libertarians who may identify also as left-libertarians or Chris Matthew Sciabarra, a kind of left-Objectivist who is also a minarchist), for the most part left-libertarians see their libertarianism as rooted in certain traditions and figures more closely aligned with anarchism than minarchism. I’ll cite three examples:

  1. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a mutualist writer in the 19th century, was one of the first people to explicitly call himself an anarchist. In his treatise, General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century, he effectively reaffirms the value of the division of labor, trade, and property. But he argues that these things should be done on the basis of reciprocity or mutuality.
  2. American anarchists like Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker thought that the best way to affirm the values of good credit, just property titles, and the market is through “anti-capitalism.” Anti-capitalism being defined more along the lines of Hess’s concentration of power in few hands than the Mises’s definition of POOTMOP (Private Ownership of the Means of Production).
  3. Left-libertarianism draws from libertarian philosophical fusion of the 1960s and 70s that featured the New Left. The New Left at the time was talking about things like anti-imperialism, free speech, racism, sexism, and so on.

So the “libertarianism” invoked here has much more to do with something like market anarchism than minarchism. But there are exceptions.

One such exception would be so-called Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Some people think they are the same as left-libertarians. I’d like to make it clear that while there is some definite overlap, but they are not the same thing.

Furthering this point, I’ll quote Roderick Long from his article, Left Libertarianism: Its Past, Its Present, Its Prospects:

Insofar as BHL represents a fusion of the free-market commitments of libertarianism with the social-justice concerns of the left, left-libertarianism may be counted as a subset of BHL; but left-libertarians tend to be more radical, in both their leftism and their libertarianism, than the majority of those self-identifying as BHL proponents. … Most BHL proponents appear to see their libertarian commitments and their left-wing commitments as at least to some extent moderating each other; left-libertarians, by contrast, tend to see their libertarian and leftist commitments as mainly reinforcing each other. … One might say that if the dominant BHL aim is to fuse Hayek with Rawls, the dominant left-libertarian aim is to fuse Murray Rothbard with David Graeber.

The Theory of Left-Libertarianism in Practice

With this background in mind, how does the radical leftism of Chartier, West, and Hess mesh with the radical libertarianism of folks like Spooner and the left-fusionism of the 60s and early 70s?

I’ll draw on a few notable examples that mesh leftist concepts with popular libertarian theories or theorists.

First, in Charles Johnson’s essay, Women and the Invisible Fist, he links the notion of Hayekian spontaneous order with the radical feminist notion of rape culture:

Brownmiller holds that rape culture involves some conscious, centrally-coordinated campaigns – such as the use of rape as a weapon of war in conflicts between male governed nation states. But her understanding of rape culture crucially depends on the structural effects of widely dispersed actions, which are carried out by a “swarm of men” acting “in anonymity,” rather than by governments or organized bodies of men acting on a centrally directed plan; this ought to suggest a very clear and direct parallel to Hayek’s characterizations of spontaneous order as polycentric order, more akin to “organism” than to “organization.” The undirected but systematic actions of the “swarm” of Myrmidon rapists have profound social effects but, because of their very anonymity, “police blotter rapists have performed their duty … so well … that the true meaning of their act has largely gone unnoticed”; just as Hayek characterizes spontaneous orders in such terms as “the unintended and often uncomprehended results of the separate and yet interrelated actions of men [sic] in society.”

(I do not have the space within this essay to defend radical feminism, but if you’re curious more about where feminism and libertarianism intersect I heartily recommend Charles Johnson and Roderick Long’s, Libertarian Feminism: Can this Marriage be Saved?)

Second, Kevin Carson, in an article called Economic Calculation in the Corporate Commonwealth, draws rather explicitly on Mises’ calculation critiques of state-socialism and Hayekian knowledge problem critiques of state-socialism and applies both to the modern corporation.

He explains:

The basic cause of calculational chaos, as Mises understood it, was the separation of entrepreneurial from technical knowledge and the attempt to make production decisions based on technical considerations alone, without regard to such entrepreneurial considerations as factor pricing. But the principle also works the other way: production decisions based solely on input and product prices, without regard to the details of production (the typical MBA practice of considering only finance and marketing, while treating the production process as a black box), also result in calculational chaos.

To compare, consider Hayek’s prediction of the uneven development, irrationality, and misallocation of resources within a planned economy (“Socialist Calculation II: The State of the Debate”)…

… As an example, [Hayek] cited “the excellence, from a technological point of view, of some parts of the Russian industrial equipment, which often strikes the casual observer and which is commonly regarded as evidence of success.”

To anyone observing the uneven development of the corporate economy under state capitalism, this should inspire a sense of déjà vu. Entire categories of goods and production methods have been developed at enormous expense, either within military industry or by state-subsidized R&D in the civilian economy, without regard to cost. Subsidies to capital accumulation, R&D, and technical education radically distort the forms taken by production. … Blockbuster factories and economic centralization become artificially profitable, thanks to the interstate highway system and other means of externalizing distribution costs.

Lastly, Nathan Goodman uses the Hayekian knowledge problem to discuss the issue of privilege in society.

He quotes Hayek, saying:

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.

Nathan explains Hayek’s position by way of example:

The disability rights movement has for years organized under the slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us” and opposed many groups that try to make decisions related to disability without ever consulting anyone who has a disability. For example, Autism Speaks, one of the largest autism related non-profits, has never had an autistic person on its board. In spite of their name, they do not speak for autistic people, but rather over us. They have put out fear-mongering propaganda about autism that many autistic people, me included, find highly offensive. They promote programs and “cures” that autistic people find utterly unhelpful and counterproductive. They should examine how autistic people may possess knowledge of autism that they lack. In other words, they should acknowledge distributed knowledge and check their privilege.

Keep in mind that saying “check your privilege” doesn’t necessarily entail telling someone to shut up. It’s akin to Ayn Rand’s “check your premises” in that it “…is an attempt to get people to recognize the limits of their knowledge”.

The Practical Application of Left-Libertarianism:

In conclusion, I’d like to cite some practical examples of what left-libertarian activism looks like in the real world. Here are three examples that comes from Jason Lee Byas in his article called What is “Left-Libertarianism”?:

  1. Lysander Spooner’s American Letter Mail Company;
  2. The radical labor efforts of Dyer Lum and Sam Konkin’s idea of “counter- economics.”
  3. It can be found in left-libertarian enthusiasm for projects like crypto-currencies, 3D printing, file-sharing, grass-roots mutual aid, and cop-watching.

More generally, the left-libertarian strategy revolves around identifying damage and routing a way around it. As such our methods are not necessarily always going to be as confrontational as other schools of thought may advise.

As Kevin Carson explains, the left-libertarian aim “…is not to overthrow the state, but to ignore it. Anyone who wants to continue to support the state and obey its laws is free to do so, so long as they leave us alone. Our goal is to build the kind of society we want, and prevent the state from overthrowing us while we’re doing it. The last person out of the state can turn off the lights.”

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