Lessons in Liberty: Left-Libertarianism


Ross Kenyon

Lessons in Liberty: Left-Libertarianism

Left-libertarianism detours only slightly from the traditional understanding of what it means to be a libertarian, but with some very important nuances. It is necessary to stress some basic moral principles that libertarians share to begin with:

1. No one should be allowed to aggress against peaceful people.

2. Producers should own the immediate fruits of their labor unless other agreements are made.

What substantially differentiates left-libertarianism from what we’re all used to are two major emphases:

1. The existing arrangement of property rights and wealth accumulation are not purely the product of the free market and productivity, and thus their legitimacy, as well as the bargaining power they command in the marketplace, must be called into question.

Left-libertarians recognize that historical feudalism, mercantilism, and existing crony capitalism have established a perverted economic order in which working people are exploited through systematic state subversion of market principles.

2. Egalitarian values are not seen as overtly threatening, as the state’s intrusion into the economy upset the natural trend of markets toward equality. Left-libertarians see socialist and progressive backlash against corporatism and its resulting inequality less as a threat and more as a well-intentioned but incorrect means of correcting the unjust distribution of wealth and power in today’s society.

Nothing has essentially changed from the ethical purview of libertarianism, but with this mindset, libertarians need not unnecessarily isolate themselves from those who have been most victimized by the statist economy and those on the Left who champion their interests.

In fact, many American proto-libertarians and radical market thinkers of the 19th century considered themselves anti-capitalists, such as Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner, who are now revered icons of the libertarian right.

There was a time before socialism referred almost exclusively to a system of collective or state ownership of the means of production like it does today. There were many socialists who stringently disagreed with Marx and Engel’s diagnosis of the origins of capitalism as inevitable, with or without the state there to aid the concentration of capital into the hands of an elite few.

Not only did pro-market socialists claim that the state was absolutely necessary for the exploitative economic order they were experiencing to historically emerge and continue to exist in their time, but they also argued that markets indeed served the interests of the working classes. Most famous in this tradition was the founder of mutualism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the proto-libertarians named above, the Ricardian socialists such as Thomas Hodgskin, and Eugen Dühring, the anti-Marxian socialist who earned himself an entire book’s worth of rebuttal from Engels for his dissent.

To them, socialism also encompassed systems where individual workers owned the means of production through natural market processes, and were thus not forced to accept dismal working conditions and wage labor due to state-granted rents to the wealthy.

It is undeniable that countless state intrusions into the economy throughout the four hundred year transition from feudalism to whatever you call what we have now has substantially shifted the economic bargaining power away from laborers and into the hands of the major holders of capital. A free market would restore whatever the legitimate balance is by removing the products of state fiat such as entry barriers and restrictive labor laws which prevent effective labor agitation, horizontally-oriented firms, and true common law negotiation.

Libertarians have a tendency of defending existing hierarchies and wealth distributions under the auspice of “rule of law.” Challenging the validity of existing property rights is acknowledged as a big no-no due to that primal conservative desire to not commit the perceived sin of “class warfare.” When libertarians behave in this manner they fail to realize how radical their philosophy actually is and how much liberty is in surprising harmony with the ends of their assumed antagonists in the progressive and socialist movements.

Confronting the problems of the modern world from a left-libertarian paradigm opens new dimensions of alliance to be explored between all people who yearn for a more just and sensible world. From its vantage point, the ethical landscape of our world is significantly more complex. Liberty is no longer as cut and dry as the standard right-libertarian defense of the absolute freedom of contract for employers who currently have the economy artificially stacked in their favor to monstrous advantage over labor.

Liberty’s main mission today is to allow the poorest and most dominated in society the chance to crawl out from under the boot of continuous state capitalist oppression to forge a better world for themselves, and not to help businesses pay less in taxes. While left-libertarians also want taxes lowered if not abolished entirely, it shouldn’t define the sum total of what it means to be a libertarian. There is a better, more complete world waiting which will independently please both those who seek free markets and those who yearn for egalitarian values in our society. Left-libertarianism is the bridge between all who seek either individual freedom or social justice.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons in Liberty: Left-Libertarianism

  1. It is quite true that no perfect free market has ever existed. But this does NOT mean that the property of someone such as Josiah Wedgewood (the 18th century founder of the modern mass pottery industry) or Jon Huntsman (senior) or Charles and David Koch is somehow not legitimate – it does NOT mean that anyone else has the right to take their land or other stuff.

    The basic Classical Liberal (and libertarian) principle that the long term economic interests of “the rich” and “the poor”, “employers” and “employees”, are in harmony remains valid. The idea of “Economic Class Conflict” (as opposed to a political conflict between “tax payers” and “tax eaters”) is false .

    There is nothing wrong with some people (or private organisations such as Churches or clubs, or commercial companies – the idea of “corporate persons” or “limited liability” NOT being the creation of the state) employing other people. And I do not believe that the “libertarian left” would favour rich individuals, such as Mr Josiah Wedgewood, employing people any more than they like boo-hiss “corporations” doing so.

    And there is nothing wrong with the private ownership of land.

    And the idea (of some 19th century thinkers) that money should be lent without interest – or that lending should come from credit expansion, not from REAL SAVINGS, is false.

    There is nothing morally good about material equality – although, yes, it is true that credit expansion tends (in the end) to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor (Richard Cantillon noted that as far back as the 1700s – and the wild inequality of most of Latin America has a lot to do with inflationism).

    On “Feudalism” – Karl Marx was mistaken, Feudalism is NOT an economic system (it is a political, legal and military one), one can (for example) have serfdom without feudalism and feudalism without serfdom.

    As for the Labour Theory of Value of David Ricardo – it is false, utterly false (refuted not just after the time of Ricardo, but even during his own lifetime).

    The Ricardo economic theory of land is also false – refuted, for example, by Frank Fetter (not just Cole Porter came from Peru Indiana).

  2. Almost, but not quite, needless to say – economies of the scale are real, and are not the creation of the state.

    For example – let us imagine that all state roads had never been built, and no private roads (such as Turnpike Trusts) were never built either – say there was some magic spell which prevented the building of major roads.

    Then people would tend to live near railway stations – and that that is where the “boo hiss” major retail outlets, such as Walmart, would be.

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