Left-Libertarianism

November 17, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ve been noticing an increasing number of references to so called “left” libertarianism. Because there seems to be a degree of ambiguity surrounding this distinction, I’m going to do a relatively short investigation into the meanings of the title left-libertarian to help others(and myself) better understand the ideas and their repercussions on the liberty movement.

Here goes nothing.

The origins of the term Libertarian

First of all, I will make it perfectly clear that I do understand that libertarianism has not always meant what it means in 2012. Obviously, the meaning of terms change. The classical liberals of days old were very much like the libertarians of today. Proponents of free markets and civil liberties have had different names over the years. Names change, but the ideas stay constant. That’s all that matters. Attempting to take back a term that has changed meaning in a particular culture is a fruitless endeavor. Quite frankly, it displays a level of pettiness should bother anyone who knows better.

To be perfectly clear, I’m defining “libertarian” as any individual that supports economic liberty as well as civil liberty. More specifically, anyone who is in favor or free markets and condemns government intervention in economic as well as social interactions. This definition reserves the term libertarian for minarchists, anarchists of the anarcho-capitalistic variety, voluntarists, and market anarchists. This is the common meaning of the word “libertarian”, and it has been since at least the creation of the Libertarian party in 1971, and obviously well before then.

Once again, bickering about the “theft” of the word libertarian which occurred in the United States decades ago is trivial and besides the point. You don’t see minarchists walking around referring to themselves as “liberals”. Stubbornness of that sort only works to decrease the meaning of words in the first place. That may be the intention of some, but it’s a fruitless effort nonetheless.

Libertarianism & The false paradigm

One of the only things all libertarians can agree upon is their condemnation of the left-right paradigm. One of the focal points of the libertarian movement is breaking the chains of the false paradigm and exposing it for what it is. The distinction should not be between “right” and “left”, but freedom versus authoritarianism. Thus, at face value, “left-libertarianism” seems like a rather dubious term. So it sort of begs the question: what’s the point of the distinction “left-libertarian”?

What is Left-Libertarianism?

There are instances in which “left-libertarianism” has real meaning. Unfortunately, there are a smaller group of people using the term libertarian in a very misleading fashion. It’s easiest to group left-libertarians into three distinct groups (shout out to Wiki):

Left-libertarianism can refer generally to three related and overlapping schools of thought:

  • Anti-authoritarian, anti-propertarian varieties of left-wing politics, and in particular of the socialist movement.
  • The Steiner–Vallentyne school, whose proponents draw radical conclusions from classical liberal or market liberal premises — either emphasizing links between self-ownership and egalitarianism. The term in this sense can also be seen as referring more broadly to political philosophies in the liberal tradition which embrace egalitarian views concerning natural resources, holding that it is not legitimate for someone to claim private ownership of such resources to the detriment of others. In this sense, the work of David Ellerman can also be seen as left-libertarian.[2][3][4][5]
  • “Left-wing market anarchism”, which stresses the socially transformative potential of non-aggression and free markets.

The third group of “left-wing market” anarchists are very compatible with my earlier definition. In fact, I find myself extremely sympathetic to the message of these people. Frankly, when the word left libertarian is used, this is the only meaning compatible with the contemporary definition of libertarian.

The first two groups are a rather different story. The Steiner-Vallentyne school is closer to liberty than the libertarian socialists. But it still makes such great concessions that it’s impossible to reconcile their claim to the word “libertarian” in the contemporary sense of the word.

The so called libertarian socialist school is in complete disagreement with the contemporary meaning of the term libertarian. In fact, these people are not libertarians at all. It’s just a congregation of anti-state socialist philosophies. It’s extremely misleading that people like Chomsky continue to refer to themselves as libertarians at all. Simply claiming that they had the word “first” is an exercise in futility. Practically no one uses the word libertarian in the sense that they do. As I mentioned earlier, you don’t see a bunch of minarchists walking around referring to themselves as “real liberals”.

In fact, people who find “libertarian socialist” to be a contradiction in terms are most definitely correct. According to Wikipedia, they are “the anti-state tradition of socialism….[with] a commitment to expansion of the welfare state.” Oh, so that’s interesting. They are anti-state, except for the welfare state. That seems to be a rather significant omission, no?

What separates libertarian socialists from real libertarians in the contemporary sense, is the way in which they define “liberty”. Libertarian socialists reject self-ownership. Thus, they believe in a society that is meant to protect us from ourselves. They reject any hierarchical structures, public or private. Because modern society has, as far as I’m aware, always organized itself in a hierarchical fashion, libertarian socialists must have some means of making decisions and ensuring that no one will decide to start opening “hierarchical” business.

So how does a particular societal system function if it plans to abolish the state and abolish private ownership in the means of production? How could any decisions be made? Why of course, the god that failed, democracy!

Libertarian socialists generally place their hopes in decentralized means of direct democracy such as libertarian municipalism, citizens’ assemblies, trade unions, and workers’ councils.[19]

In other words, if you are a part of the minority within a trade union or workers’ council, you can either follow the majority or GTFO. Libertarian socialists apparently don’t view this as a type of hierarchy. Funny, that.

It should be noted that any of the above ideologies, including libertarian socialism, would be compatible with and possible in a voluntarist or anarcho-capitalistic society. The reverse, however, is most certainly not true. I’ve not been able to find how exactly libertarian socialists plan on enforcing strict adherence to non-propertarian principles with the absence of the state. If anyone knows, please feel free to comment on this article. I’d love to hear your explanation.

Libertarian socialism has nothing to do with the current meaning of the word libertarian. It does, however, fit very nicely into a more obvious group— socialism. It seems that the distinction of “libertarian” socialism is meant to distinguish it from state socialism. Then why not use a more fitting contemporary term? Perhaps social anarchists, anti-state socialists, or left-anarchists.

Libertarianism has a very obvious meaning in modern society. Tagging the word “libertarian” in front of socialism doesn’t change what it is. By refusing to let go of a word whose meaning has changed drastically, libertarian socialists are attempting to overcome an insurmountable tide of common knowledge.

Furthermore, I see no point in making a distinction between “right” libertarianism and “left” libertarianism. You’re either for state intervention or you’re against it. Such a distinction as left vs right simply gives the impetus for mischievous individuals to capitalize on the destruction of the word itself, and further decrease the usefulness of language.

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§ 2 Responses to Left-Libertarianism

  • D Russell says:

    Left Libertarians and Libertarian Socialists oppose authoritarianism and oligarchy whether whose in charge are government officials or people in private business. Libertarians such as those in the modern Libertarian Party oppose government control of society, but they have no problem with a few global corporations and international banks controlling everything. In my opiniont, “right libertarians” Libertarian Party members and Libertarian Republicans are not TRUE libertarians because they do not oppose the rule of an oligarchy so long as that oligarchy is private and not public and does it by economic means and not “law.” I personally oppose ANY form of oligarchy and authoritarianism whether the absolute power is wielded by the state or by private individuals. Also, you didn’t mention in your so called “history” of libertarianism that “Libertarian” was first used by communist political philosophers. And you forgot that in most other nations, “Libertarianism” is NOT associated with laissez-faire capitalism. Its only taken that way in America, not really anywhere else.

    • eds17 says:

      This is a pretty typical left-libertarian response so I’ll try to touch on all of your points.

      “Left Libertarians and Libertarian Socialists oppose authoritarianism and oligarchy whether whose in charge are government officials or people in private business.”

      That’s somewhat correct, but you seem to be ignoring the group of left-libertarians who implement leftist interpretations of the late Murray Rothbard’s work. People like Gary Chartier and Roderick Long come to mind. For a more extensive introduction to this line of thought see Roderick Long (http://www.cato-unbound.org/2008/11/10/roderick-t-long/corporations-versus-market-or-whip-conflation-now).

      “Libertarians such as those in the modern Libertarian Party oppose government control of society, but they have no problem with a few global corporations and international banks controlling everything.”

      First of all, the modern Libertarian party is good general representation of modern libertarianism in the English speaking world(not just the United States).

      Secondly, many libertarians(most?) find “global corporations and international banks” to be a result of anti-market policies and state power in general. Most serious libertarians believe that a market based society(that is, a society with no state or at least very little state intervention) would provide more decentralized and localized decision making. That’s the short answer. For more, see the Roderick Long article above.

      Put simply, you’re arguing against the conditions which YOU believe would result from a libertarian society. Libertarians believe the market will bring about conditions favorable to society as a whole. Thus, they support markets.

      “Libertarian Party members and Libertarian Republicans are not TRUE libertarians because they do not oppose the rule of an oligarchy so long as that oligarchy is private and not public and does it by economic means and not “law”

      See above.

      “I personally oppose ANY form of oligarchy and authoritarianism whether the absolute power is wielded by the state or by private individuals.”

      As do I. Apparently, I’m just working from a different view of how things would work in a free market.

      ” Also, you didn’t mention in your so called “history” of libertarianism that “Libertarian” was first used by communist political philosophers.”

      Well, no, not exactly. It’s French equivalent (“libertaire”) was used by communists. I see people like Noam Chomsky assert that the term “libertarian” was stolen by pro-market people in America. This is not the whole truth. There was never a strong sense in which the English term “libertarian” was associated with communism. It was primarily associated with varying forms of individualism.

      I will grant that the word did take on a decidedly free market meaning during the 20th century in the United States. This is because the old term for free marketeers, “liberal”, was stolen by social democrats and progressives. In search of a new term, many classical liberals took up libertarian. The term “libertarian” has been used in this free market sense in the United States (and more recently, in Great Britain) for quite a while now. Only a few grumblers (see Chomsky) remain.

      ” Its only taken that way in America, not really anywhere else.”

      See above. Most of the English speaking world (especially the United States and the UK) use “libertarian” in the free market, individualist, sense of the word.

      Even still, what difference would that make? Even if the US was the only nation to use the word libertarian in a free market sense, that has nothing to do with the strength of liberty and free markets as an idea. It’s a petty side argument over semantics and distracts from the more important issues at hand.

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