Left-libertarianism

Left-libertarianism is a school of political thought that stresses equally both individual freedom and social justice. There are three overlapping subgroups within left-libertarianism:

1) Anti-authoritarian, anti-propertarian varieties of left-wing politics, and in particular of the socialist movement. 2) The Steiner–Vallentyne school, a political philosophy in the liberal tradition which embraces 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. 3) Left-wing market anarchism, which stresses the socially transformative potential of non-aggression and free markets.

The original school of left-libertarianism is libertarian socialism, the anti-state tradition of socialism. In a broad sense, people who may share with ‘traditional socialism a distrust of the market, of private investment, and of the achievement ethic, and a commitment to expansion of the welfare state’ might sometimes be described as ‘left-libertarians.’ More narrowly, social anarchists and libertarian socialists, including American political philosopher Murray Bookchin, are sometimes characterized as ‘left-libertarian.’ American linguist, cognitive scientist, and political commentator Noam Chomsky, who identifies as a ‘libertarian socialist,’ applies the ‘left-libertarian’ label to himself.

Most left-libertarians in this sense are anarchists, and frequently question the definition of self-ownership, at least when it is understood to underwrite capitalism, along with private ownership of the means of production and absentee ownership of private property, in favor of alternative rights of possession and stewardship which are understood as protecting personal autonomy while rejecting putative rights which they see as permitting the economic elite to control the lives of others. They support rights to personal property and the rights of occupancy over one’s dwelling, but reject commercial propertarianism and some do not consider the re-appropriation of such wealth to be an act of theft but rather an act of liberation (e.g. individual reclamation, theft of resources from the rich by the poor). Many reject arrangements that allow for hierarchy, kyriarchy (rule by domination), or begrudgingly consensual subordination. Similarly, some reject the non-aggression principle to the extent that it is used by right-libertarians to treat assaults on private property as assaults on individual liberty.

According to libertarian scholar Sheldon Richman: ‘Left-libertarians favor worker solidarity vis-à-vis bosses, support poor people’s squatting on government or abandoned property, and prefer that corporate privileges be repealed before the regulatory restrictions on how those privileges may be exercised. They see Walmart as a symbol of corporate favoritism—supported by highway subsidies and eminent domain—view the fictive personhood of the limited-liability corporation with suspicion, and doubt that Third World sweatshops would be the ‘best alternative’ in the absence of government manipulation. Left-libertarians tend to eschew electoral politics, having little confidence in strategies that work through the government. They prefer to develop alternative institutions and methods of working around the state.’

Some schools of Marxism (such as libertarian Marxism) are also referred to as left libertarian.

The Steiner–Vallentyne school of Left-libertarianism affirms the classical liberal idea of self-ownership, while rooting a robust version of economic egalitarianism in this idea. It combines the concept of self-ownership with unconventional views regarding the ownership of land and natural resources (e.g. those of 19th Century American political economist Henry George), residual claimancy (the residual claimant in the case of a public company is the stockholder who receives whatever resides after paying back bondholders), or both.

A central component of this view is the belief that unappropriated natural resources are either unowned or owned in common, because private appropriation is only legitimate if everyone can appropriate an equal amount, or if private appropriation is taxed to compensate those who are excluded from natural resources. This position is articulated in self-conscious contrast to the position of other libertarians who argue for a (characteristically labor-based) right to appropriate unequal parts of the external world, such as land. Most left libertarians support some form of income redistribution on the grounds of a claim by each individual to be entitled to an equal share of natural resources. A number of left-libertarians of this school argue for the desirability of some state social welfare programs.

Many libertarians —right and left- maintain that ‘wilderness’ is unowned, and that unowned resources are made into property by use. This is generally referred to as ‘homesteading.’ According to John Locke’s influential view, for instance, when a person ‘mixes their labor’ with a previously unowned object, it becomes theirs. A person who cultivates a field in the wilderness, by virtue of ‘mixing their personality’ with the land, becomes the rightful owner of it (subject, on Locke’s view, to the Lockean proviso that equally-good land remains free for the taking for others).

Steiner–Vallentyne left-libertarians, by contrast, characteristically maintain that ‘wilderness’ is commonly owned by all the people in a given area. Since there is no predetermined distribution of land and (they argue) since there is no reason to believe that, all things being equal, some people deserve more property than others, it makes sense to think of resources as commonly owned. Thus this brand of left-libertarianism denies that first use or ‘mixing labor’ has any decisive bearing on ownership. Thus, land should be treated as presumptively owned in common. Different proponents of this school of thought have different ideas about what can be done with property. Some believe that one must gain some kind of permission from their community in order to use resources. Others argue that people should be allowed to appropriate land in exchange for some kind of rent and they must either pay taxes on the profits made from the appropriated resources or allow the products of those resources to become common property.

There are obvious affinities between the Steiner–Vallentyne approach to left-libertarianism and the approach endorsed by Henry George and his followers. Georgists tend to believe that all humanity rightfully owns all land in common and that individuals should pay rent to the rest of society for taking sole or exclusive use of that land. Henry George also advocated elimination of intellectual property arrangements in favor of government sponsored prizes for inventors. People in this movement are often referred to as ‘single taxers,’ since they believe that the only legitimate broad based tax is land rent. George differed from right libertarians in that he advocated government taxation, regulation and as a last resort direct management of natural monopolies. Georgists also typically believe that private property can be created by applying labor to natural resources.

‘Left-wing market anarchists’ or ‘free-market left-libertarians’ comprise another contemporary school that self-identifies as ‘left-libertarian.’ Proponents of this approach strongly affirm the classical liberal ideas of non-aggression and free markets, while maintaining that, taken to their logical conclusions, these ideas support strongly anti-corporatist, anti-hierarchical, pro-labor positions in economics, anti-imperialism in foreign policy, and thoroughly liberal or radical views regarding such cultural issues as gender, sexuality, and race. This strand of left-libertarianism tends to be rooted either in the Mutualist economics conceptualized by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, classical American individualist anarchism, or in a left-wing interpretation or extension of the thought of American political economist Murray Rothbard.

Arguing that vast disparities in wealth and social influence result from the use of force, and especially state power, to steal and engross land and acquire and maintain special privileges, members of this school typically urge the abolition of the state. They judge that, in a stateless society, the kinds of privileges secured by the state will be absent, and injustices perpetrated or tolerated by the state can be rectified. Thus, they conclude that, with state interference eliminated, it will be possible to achieve ‘socialist ends by market means.’

The genealogy of contemporary market-oriented left-libertarianism overlaps to a significant degree with that of Steiner–Vallentyne style left-libertarianism. Carson-Long-style left-libertarianism is rooted in nineteenth-century mutualism and in the work of figures such as Thomas Hodgskin and the individualist anarchists Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner. While—with notable exceptions—market-oriented libertarians after Tucker tended to ally with the political right, relationships between such libertarians and the New Left thrived in the 1960s, laying the groundwork for modern left-wing market anarchism.

Mutualism emerged from early nineteenth-century socialism, and is generally considered a market-oriented strand within the libertarian socialist tradition. Mutualists typically accept property rights, but with brief abandonment time periods. In a community in which mutuality property rules were upheld, a land-owner would need to make (more or less) continuous use of his or her land; if he or she failed to do so, his or her ownership rights would be extinguished and the land could be homesteaded by someone else. A mutualist property regime is often described as one rooted in ‘possession,’ ‘occupancy-and-use,’ or ‘usufruct.’

Sometimes referred to as a ‘Ricardian socialist,’ Thomas Hodgskin was a thoroughgoing anti-statist. His position was socialist insofar as he believed that workers were exploited and that massive structural changes for the purpose of remedying their exploitation were just and necessary. But Hodgskin grounded his account of exploitation in a belief in pre-political property rights and was a committed proponent of free trade: the protection of property rights and free exchange would, he believed, uproot social injustice.

American individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker self-identified as a socialist, but opposed the state and favored individual ownership of property. He argued that the elimination of what he called the ‘four monopolies’—the land monopoly, the money and banking monopoly, the monopoly powers conferred by patents, and the quasi-monopolistic effects of tariffs—would undermine the power of the wealthy and big business and make possible widespread property ownership and higher incomes for ordinary people, minimizing the power of would-be bosses and achieving socialist goals without state action. Tucker influenced and interacted with anarchist contemporaries—including Spooner, Voltairine de Cleyre, Dyer Lum, and William B. Greene—who have in various ways influenced later left-libertarian thinking.

The most visible leftist movements in the United States after Tucker’s time were statist, anarcho-syndicalist, or anarcho-communist. By contrast, perhaps because of the use of leftist rhetoric to support statism during the Progressive and New Deal eras, market-oriented thinkers tended increasingly to identify with the Right. The developing political landscape was more complicated, however, than this broad-brush sketch might suggest. Sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, for instance, attacked the state as an entity that uses force to acquire wealth and secure market-distorting privileges for elites, with the implication that a market free of such privileges would undermine elite power. The American essayist and social critic Albert Jay Nock applied Oppenheimer’s analysis to the history of the United States in ‘Our Enemy, the State.’Though Nock is often characterized as a figure of the so-called ‘Old Right,’ he roundly criticized existing economic arrangements as resulting from state-sanctioned violence and maintained by state-guaranteed privilege, and drew on the work of historian Charles A. Beard to underscore the role of economic elites in shaping American political institutions to their own advantage.

The doyen of modern American market-oriented libertarianism, Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard, was initially an enthusiastic partisan of the Old Right, particularly because of its general opposition to war and imperialism. But Rothbard had long embraced a reading of American history that emphasized the role of elite privilege in shaping legal and political institutions—one that was thus naturally agreeable to many on the Left—and he came increasingly in the 1960s to seek alliances on the Left—especially with members of the ‘New Left’—in light of the Vietnam War, the military draft, and the emergence of the black power movement.

Working with other radicals like Ronald Radosh and Karl Hess, Rothbard argued that the consensus view of American economic history, according to which a beneficent government has used its power to counter corporate predation, is fundamentally flawed. Rather, he argued, government intervention in the economy has largely benefited established players at the expense of marginalized groups, to the detriment of both liberty and equality. Moreover, the ‘Robber Baron’ period, hailed by the right and despised by the left as a heyday of laissez-faire, was not characterized by laissez-faire at all, but was in fact a time of massive state privilege accorded to capital. In tandem with his emphasis on the intimate connection between state and corporate power, he defended the seizure of corporations dependent on state largesse by workers and others.

Rothbard himself ultimately broke with the left, allying himself instead with the burgeoning paleoconservative movement. However, drawing on the work of Rothbard during his alliance with the left and on the thought of Karl Hess, some thinkers associated with market-oriented American libertarianism came increasingly to identify with the Left on a range of issues, including opposition to war, to corporate oligopolies and state-corporate partnerships, and an affinity for cultural liberalism. One variety of this kind of libertarianism has been a resurgent mutualism, incorporating modern economic ideas such as marginal utility theory into mutualist theory. Kevin A. Carson’s ‘Studies in Mutualist Political Economy’ helped to stimulate the growth of new-style mutualism, articulating a version of the labor theory of value incorporating ideas drawn from Austrian economics. Other market-oriented left-libertarians have declined to embrace mutualist views of real property, while sharing the mutualist opposition to corporate hierarchies and wealth concentration. Left-libertarians have placed particular emphasis on the articulation and defense of a libertarian theory of class and class conflict, though considerable work in this area has been performed by libertarians of other persuasions.

Criticisms of the different schools of left-libertarianism have come from the right and left alike. Right-libertarians like Robert Nozick, holding that self-ownership and property acquisition need not meet egalitarian standards and that they must merely avoid worsening the situation of others, have rejected left-libertarianism of the Steiner–Vallentyne school. G. A. Cohen extensively criticized the claim, typical of this school, that self-ownership and equality can be realized simultaneously. In ‘Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality,’ Cohen claims that any system that takes equality and its enforcement seriously is not consistent with the full emphasis on self-ownership and ‘negative freedom’ of market libertarian thought.

Murray Rothbard criticized what amounted to the cultural aspect of left-libertarianism of the Carson-Long school (Left-wing market anarchism), challenging the tendency of proponents of libertarianism to appeal to ”free spirits,’ to people who don’t want to push other people around, and who don’t want to be pushed around themselves’ in contrast to ‘the bulk of Americans,’ who ‘might well be tight-assed conformists, who want to stamp out drugs in their vicinity, kick out people with strange dress habits, etc.’

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