What is Left-Libertarianism

Left-libertarianism is a world view based on two fundamental concepts: liberty and equality. For the left-libertarian, liberty and equality are mutually dependant necessities to the just society. Equality wouldn’t be worth pursuing if there was no liberty. Liberty is empowerment, to tolerate vast inequalities is to tolerate the disempowerment of the individual.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, libertarianism refers to a belief in personal liberty and a radically deregulated market economy. For many libertarians, the free market and personal liberty are synonymous. Without one, you cannot cannot have the other. Libertarianism is usually associated with the political right. Making the concept left libertarianism seemingly self-contradictory.

The key ideal in Anglo-Saxon libertarianism is the ability to make your own choices in life and be responsible for the implications. This dictum, commonly espoused by those with a right wing perceptive of life, is foundational to deriving why libertarians believe in what they do.

You will hear such libertarians say that liberty and equality are ideals that are contradictory. To achieve equality will involve supporting activities that undermine ones liberty. To be a supporter of liberty means tolerating vast inequalities, even if undesirable to the welfare of the people. It is the individual’s liberty, not welfare, that is of fundamental moral importance.

The state, for instance, must use force to redistribute income to the poor. To do this though involves taxing individuals of their incomes and other form of wealth. Usually the taxes are discriminatory in nature in that they penalise the richest in society more. This is otherwise known as progressive taxation. Many libertarians who don’t support the full abolishment of taxation will support a flat tax, in which every individual pays the exact same percentage of their income no matter their economic circumstances.

The state will coerce individuals in a society to ensure that their money is spent by other people. Taxation becomes an act of theft by the government by spending someone else’s money on things like the welfare state.

Historically, such ‘coercion’ through the tax system has been how democratic socialist governments have strived to achieve liberty. So the libertarian asks the following question: How can one espouse liberty when to achieve equality coercion becomes necessary?

Surely, left-libertarianism is a contradiction in terms? A dream for idealists who want to have their pie and eat it as well. Life isn’t such forgiving to ideals. Realistically, however desirable liberty and equality may be,  only one ideal can be achieved at any one time. That ideal should be liberty.

Arguments such as these are the mantra of Anglo-Saxon libertarians. In fact, the term libertarianism refers exactly to people who believe such arguments in the English-speaking world.

Yet not all libertarians accept such arguments. Market anarchists, such as Kevin Carson, believe that it is the state, not the market, that is the first cause of the inequalities in our society. You get communists and socialist who want to abolish Leviathan, not let it grow and engulf the soul of humanity (which is the usual depiction of socialism in the west).

To get rid of the state is to get rid of the causes inequality, the supposed ‘natural’ hierarchies and the bureaucracies that become associated with state privilege. To promote liberty is to promote equality. Then, you’ll see the ideals of liberty and equality as a real life entity breathing, living and expanding as all societies do.

Left-libertarianism is one of the most intellectually diverse areas on the political spectrum. The diversity is more polarised than in any other area of the political spectrum. You have anarchist on the one hand, and small state socialists on the other. You have those that wish to abolish the market economy and money, you have others that want to promote markets in a far more radical way that some right wing pro-free marketers.

You will hear Gary Chartier proposing the radical privatisation of the state school system. You will hear Mikhail Bakunin wanting to abolish the market economy all together. The latter sounds the left wing; the former sounds like a right wing free market fundamentalist. What possibly could be left wing about radical privatisation?

Left wing market anarchists believe that competition in the market will erode most privileges that exist with the economy and society. The erosion of those privileges will lead to a state of equality between individuals, which is a key goal for those on the left.

There are six distinct but non-mutually exclusive schools in left-libertarian thought. Some of the differences between the schools are very radical. Yet the differences between others are profound yet compatible with one another.

The six schools are as follows:

  1. Libertarian Socialism
  2. Georgism
  3. Mutualism
  4. Steiner-Vallentyne School
  5. Centre-Left Libertarianism
  6. Market Anarchism

Despite the name, The Mutualist does not adhere to any one school strictly. It does have sympathies though with all the schools except market anarchism.

Libertarian Socialism
Peter Kropotkin, founder of Anarchist Communism.
Peter Kropotkin, founder of Anarchist Communism.

Libertarian socialism, otherwise known as social anarchism or as socialist libertarianism, was the original form of left-libertarianism, historically speaking.  The term libertarian socialism was synonymous with left-libertarianism.

The goal of libertarian socialism was to create a non-hierarchical and non-bureaucratic society with no private property.

Libertarian socialism arose during the time of vast inequalities between the powerful and the majority. In those days, the state was quite happy giving privileges that allowed the powerful to sustain their influence politically and economically.

Liberty became the ideal of freeing the shackles of the majority from the powerful capitalist class who predominantly influenced society to suit their needs. The idea of socialism was one of liberation when it originated.

In the early days of socialism, the state was seen not as the saviour of the working classes and the oppressed. The state was the ultimate authority imposing the capitalist and hierarchical order onto society. Its abolishment would go a long way to abolishing all hierarchical structures in society. Liberating the common man.

It was not until the late 19th century and early 20th that this picture of socialism changed. The rise of the Bolsheviks in Imperial Russia was the most extreme and symbolic success of the later development of socialism. Alongside the moderate social democracy espoused by the SPD in Germany and the Fabians in the UK, the statist variant of socialism became the dominant form across the world.

Only in the 1940s, when Friedrich von Hayek published his Road to Serfdom did the idea of socialism become intellectually equivalent to socialism. The success and influence of Hayek’s definition of socialism was great. Many of the denouncers of socialism do not dismiss the plight of workers as the reason for socialism failing, but the idea that a large state can bring about a successful equitable economy.

The great misconception of the socialist movement is that it is a fetish for the state. Some socialists are lovers of the state.  But not all.

The libertarian socialist movement was a very diverse movement. For they all had different answers to a key question. What would such a society be like?

Anarcho-syndicalists, for instance, believed that society ought to be run by the trade unions. Believing that through solidarity, direct action and direct democracy were key to freeing labourers from the shackles of the wage system.  Daniel De Leon and Rudolf Rocker were prominent syndicalists.

Council communists believed that worker’s councils would organise a society. Council Communism was a reaction against the democratic centralism of the Bolshevik party.

Anarcho-communists wanted to abolish private property, public property and the capitalist wage system. Peter Kropotkin founded this movement within libertarian socialism.

Anarcho-collectivists wanted to abolish private and public property but wanted to replace the wage system with a labour note system in which a labourer’s wage was determined by the difficulty of the job. Anarcho-collectivism was designed to be a synthesis between communitarianism/collectivism and individualism. Mikail Bakunin was the primary advocate of this form of libertarian socialism.

All of these schools are those that put a great deal of emphasis on liberty and opposition to the state. No way can libertarian socialism be seen as a pro state movement. However, depending on your definitions and understanding of the concept of liberty, you can question whether or not libertarian socialism is a philosophy that will promote freedom in reality.

Georgism
Henry George
Portrait of Henry George (1865). Author Unknown.

Georgism is the first of our pro market forms of left libertarianism. Georgists believe that all land ought to be commonly owned. Economic injustice was the ability of an economic system to allow individuals to either have access to more land than other or to have access to land that no one else can.

Productive activity such as labour, improving the quality of land, and etc. were seen as the rightful products of the labourer.  Income derived from the use of land though was a breach of the idea that all land was commonly owned.

Therefore, economic agents had a moral obligation to pay a rent to the whole of society in order for a particular agent to privately own a piece of land.

‘”Single taxers”, or geolibertarians, are those who believe that the only morally justifiable tax is a land value tax that acts as the economic rent each agent must pay for using a piece of land exclusively.

Given that the richest people in society own the most valuable land and the largest quantities of it as well, a very progressive tax system would ensue that would allow for a mass distribution of wealth to the poor while still having a free market economy in which productive activity would be encouraged.

Georgism has many prominent supporters from Leon Walras, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Solow, David Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, Ralph Nader, Leo Tolstoy, Fred Harrison, Aldous Huxley, Samuel Brittan, Martin Wolf, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Phillipe van Parijs and Hillel Steiner.

Mutualism

Mutualism is the school that wants to promote equality through a market based economy in which the means of production were socially owned by either the workers or consumers.  Mutualism has similarities with distributivism, a form of Christian democracy based upon Catholic social teaching. Click here for more info about Mutualism.

Hillel-Vallentyne School of Libertarianism
John Locke
John Locke, the founder of Classical Liberalism.

The Hillel-Vallentyne School is very similar to Georgism. This school agrees with the position above about the distribution of land. This schools emphasises that the distribution of land in the present is as the result of a historical process in which people have managed to acquire land unfairly at the expense of the common man. This injustice is one of the main causes of inequality in our society.

Because land starts out as a wilderness with no one having a claim of ownership to land, the Hillel-Vallentyne libertarians believe that it logically follows that all human commonly own land. The fact that a worker, etc., may appropriate a bit of land at first does not give that person a moral right to claim that land over others.

Steiner-Vallentyne libertarians agree with both John Locke and Henry George that claims to ownership of land cannot be done in a fashion which would act as a detriment to others.

This theory of the appropriation of land is the main difference between this model of libertarianism and the right leaning libertarian models proposed by the likes of Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State and Utopia. Nozick emphasises that the right to self-ownership for the individual but also that those who make claim to an unowned resource as theirs have the right to claim that resource as their own.

Hillel and Vallentyne accept the idea that we own are selves. We have full rights to control and decide for ourselves the coarse of our lives. The Analytic Marxist G.A. Cohen describes the concept of self-ownership as:  

each person enjoys, over himself and his powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that he has not contracted to supply. (Cited in The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. 2004. Blackwell Publishing. p. 630)

Steiner-Vallentyne libertarians can support the Land Value Tax or they may support other models of how to distribute land assuming land is commonly owned by man. Some members of this group also accept the idea of minimal welfare state by supporting policies such as a universal basic income which a guaranteed income any citizen of a country has a right to claim without any conditions.

Prominent members of the Hillel-Vallentyne model of libertarianism include Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne, Phillipe van Parijs, Michael Otsuka and David Ellerman.

Centre Left Libertarianism

This school of libertarianism is generally associated with the Liberty Caucus of the Democratic Party in the US.

It can refer to those who have a mildly libertarian outlook in regards to the economy. For instance, libertarian Democrats will oppose corporate welfare, oppose regulations on small businesses, want to introduce tax cuts and more likely to oppose government deficit spending.

It can also refer to civil libertarians within the Democrats. Those for instance that strongly support civil liberties, legalisation/decriminalisation of marijuana and Second Amendment rights. They will though oppose bans on prostitution and gambling; oppose the War on Drugs; the US PATRIOT Act; indefinite detention without trial and charge and support for civil rights.

Centre-left libertarians are much more likely to support the Democratic platform in regards to health care. So centre left libertarians would be against privatising the health care system of  a given country as proposed by the Libertarian Parties in the US and the UK.

Left Wing Market Anarchism

The final school of left libertarianism takes its inspiration from the most radical form of right wing libertarianism: anarcho-capitalism. Left wing market anarchism originated when Murray Rothbard had a brief flirtation with the New Left movement.

Agreeing with Rothbard and the Austrian School of Economics in regards to the operations of the market, this school emphasises the idea that it is not the market, but the state, that causes the vast inequalities in society.

Rather than having the state step in to provide assistance for those most vulnerable to the effects of laissez-faire markets, we should let the markets themselves be the driver towards greater equality.

The role of the state is to act as the stabilisers for those who are powerful enough in the market that they are able to manipulate to let themselves escape from competition naturally provided by the markets.

For left wing market anarchism, capitalism is the system of state interference in the market giving advantage to a select few in the economy at the expense of other market participants. Left wing market anarchists will happy state phrases such as: “Free Market, Anti-Capitalism”. This school of left libertarianism does not find such phrases contradictory but a key insight into the working of the economies we live in today.

Unlike right-libertarians, left-libertarian market anarchist  are also are concerned with discrimination against minority groups or even majority groups such as women. Thinkers such as Kevin Carson (also a Mutualist), Roderick T. Long and Gary Chartier are influential in this group.

  • Patrick Thai

    Hi there as someone with little to no knowledge on economics and philosophy I was wondering if you could direct me to some resources to learn about the Steiner-Vallentyne school of left libertarianism.