Some Clarifications on Left-Libertarianism

SFL Staff

After my post about left-libertarianism, fellow campus coordinator Levi Gourdie wrote a responseexplaining what he takes to be benefits of right-libertarianism. There are a few points in his post that I’d like to respond to.

First, Levi uses Murray Rothbard as an example of a right-libertarian. There were certainly some very right-wing parts of Rothbard’s thought, and in certain periods, these were especially pronounced. However, Rothbard was a complex thinker, and taking his entire career as paradigmatically right-libertarian is no more plausible than taking all of it as paradigmatically left-libertarian.

In “Left & Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” Rothbard even says that he views free market libertarianism to be on the far left of the political spectrum. To better understand Rothbard’s complicated place in these debates, I recommend Roderick Long’s retrospective essay, “Rothbard’s ‘Left & Right’: 40 Years Later,” and signing up for our Rothbard Virtual Reading Groupthat Levi mentions, co-led by Roderick Long and Kevin Vallier.

The main distinction Levi draws between left-libertarianism and right-libertarianism is that while right-libertarians see liberty as a worthy goal all on its own, left-libertarians value it merely as a means to eliminating domination. This is odd both because left-libertarians typically also value liberty as an independently important value, and because right-libertarians also have their own set of instrumental uses for liberty.

In fact, neither of the right-libertarians that Levi refers to – Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises – valued liberty for its own sake. In her non-fiction, Rand believed liberty was instrumentally valuable for achieving life-centered values, and Mises was an ardent utilitarian. Both of these figures are crucial for understanding the idea of liberty, but neither saw liberty as an independently important goal.

Some right-libertarians also value liberty because they believe it will preserve important traditions, maintain “natural” status hierarchies, or any number of other rightward social goals. Of course, many of these right-libertarians also value liberty as a goal in and of itself – just like left-libertarians.

One instrumentally important feature of liberty that right-libertarians and left-libertarians strongly agree on is the coordinating function of the price system. Levi seems to imply otherwise, saying that price signals are a reason to not worry about capitalism. What makes this particularly strange is that a major part of the left-libertarian critique of managerial capitalism is that decision-makers in large corporate hierarchies are prone to mistakes precisely because they are insulated from price signals.

Levi states that “because of their support for the non-aggression principle, [right-libertarians] hold that capitalism is the most moral system on earth.” In the abstract, bare non-aggression seems to be completely indifferent between capitalist and non-capitalist arrangements, as defined by left-libertarians. Arguably, applying it to the real world gives reason to favor non-capitalist ones, since capitalism was built upon countless property rights violations, and is maintained by institutionalized state aggression.

Perhaps Levi says this because, as he notes, the “capitalism advocated for by most right-libertarians is much more in line with Ayn Rand’s definition in ‘What is Capitalism?’” There, Rand states that capitalism “is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.”

It’s perfectly fine if Levi prefers to use that definition of capitalism, but critiques of the thing left-libertarians are referring to by “capitalism” cannot be answered by appealing to a different definition of the word “capitalism.” Especially when that definition refers to something left-libertarians emphatically support, and claim is at odds with the thing they’re attacking. A defense of the market process is not a defense of the boss, and if left-libertarians are right, it’s an attack on the boss.

Finally, Levi suggests that right-libertarianism is a more welcoming approach, and to fully respond to this point would require an entire post of its own. Briefly, though, accepting non-state forms of domination is not a neutral position, and those who care about those issues will be made uncomfortable by a movement that is so dedicated to fighting state power but so indifferent or even supportive of other kinds of power. While clearly there are times for broad coalitions – of which Students For Liberty is a great example – it’s also important to be able to step beyond the basics and advocate for a more truly radical and revolutionary position.

That truly radical and revolutionary position is left-libertarianism, and it’s one that I’ve seen attract people who would have otherwise never considered libertarianism. I welcome further critical discussion of left-libertarianism, but hope that we can focus on real disagreements.

For the most part, anyway. Left-libertarians also make a point to note that there will also be a role for the commons in a free society, which would serve as a kind of truly “public” property.