The Left-Libertarian Balancing Act

The non-aggression principle forbids assaults on the bodies and property of nonviolent people. Along with the Lockean theory of homesteading, this principle lies at the heart of contemporary libertarian doctrine.

Although they promote the non-aggression principle, left-libertarians argue that interpersonal aggression is not the only impediment to liberty. Hunger, thirst, illness, heat, and cold have insidious ways of “aggressing” against people and limiting human maneuvering as well. With that in mind, left-libertarians assert that the pursuit of freedom requires us to overcome interpersonal obstacles as well as “natural” or “environmental” obstacles to voluntary human action.

It is already clear, then, that left-libertarians resemble but differ markedly from their leftist and libertarian friends. Like mainstream leftists, left-libertarians are inclined to support policies that help people achieve “freedom from want.” Like mainstream libertarians, left-libertarians are also inclined to reject policies that intensify human aggression against other humans. In these respects, left-libertarians look a lot like leftists and libertarians both.

But left-libertarians bemoan two significant omissions in mainstream leftism and libertarianism. For their part, many American leftists say too little about state aggression against civilians. Although they appropriately condemn government for bombing civilians abroad and locking up nonviolent drug offenders at home, they seem to ignore the root of the problem: namely, that governments arrogate to themselves the unique “right” to seize civilians’ bodies and property at the point of a gun. Thus, such aggressive acts as taxation very often get a free pass from leftists.

Meanwhile, libertarians more than understand the dangers of government. Indeed, most of their political activity centers on limiting (or outright abolishing) governmental action. But in basing their entire philosophy on the non-aggression principle, strict philosophical libertarians tolerate the possibility of mass suffering in their desired society. After all, if nobody may force anybody else to surrender even a penny for a worthy cause, then homeless orphans and sick seniors may very well die in the absence of forthcoming philanthropists.

Perhaps, as many libertarians are quick to respond, human altruism will always guarantee a safety net for people at the bottom of a stateless society. But strict libertarians, who advocate non-aggression on principle, should admit that they would favor statelessness even if donors wouldn’t meet vulnerable people’s needs in a stateless society. After all, the non-aggression principle proscribes taxation in all cases, including when too few altruists intercede for the victims of hurricanes, cancer, starvation, and other “attacks from nature.”

Thus, in paying special attention to interpersonal and natural aggression both, left-libertarians stick themselves in the middle, taking pains to perform a strenuous political balancing act. Their ongoing challenge is (1) to reduce natural suffering without increasing interpersonal aggression and (2) to reduce interpersonal aggression without increasing natural suffering.

Different left-libertarians have different ways of meeting this challenge. Some become “bleeding-heart libertarians,” small-government advocates who support only enough governmental intervention to shield people from the pain of dire poverty. Others become free-market anarchists, confident that human altruism and totally free markets can deliver all necessary goods to deprived people. Other left-libertarians admit to temporary agnosticism, waiting to see whether non-state organizations are adequately equipped to fulfill every human need in the 21st century.

It would be easy enough for left-libertarians to abandon this uneasy position by blending into mainstream leftism or libertarianism. But because they do not believe that either interpersonal aggression or natural aggression alone circumscribes liberty, left-libertarians proudly occupy the middle. They understand, as libertarians do, that the coercive subordination of one human being to another obstructs the victim’s flourishing. They also understand, as leftists do, that freedom is a vacuous concept if ostensibly “free” people lack the food, clothing, shelter, and medicine necessary to stave off aggression from nature. Although these positions are bound to provoke accusations of inconsistency, left-libertarianism actually seems to be one of the most consistent political dispositions. It is consistent, that is, with a comprehensive definition of human freedom in real-world settings.

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Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory