What is a “left libertarian”?

I often hear a contrast drawn between “left-” and “right-libertarians.” In fact, I hear it so often, that I have no idea what it could possibly refer to. The history of the word makes it particularly confusing.

The word “libertarian,” prior to, perhaps, the later 20th century, referred to (definitely) left-wing, anarchist philosophies. The point is well-known and harmless. The modern day, American usage of the term refers to a different branch of philosophies, with a common root in classical liberalism. Comparing the left-wing anarchists of old to the Libertarian Party, for instance, would draw an obvious line between left-wing and right-wing politics. There’s nothing wrong or appropriative about this name change. The word “liberal” has also suffered a large definitional change in the United States that it hasn’t in most other countries. It could be argued that most political groups have shifted around under various names, at times co-opting even their ideological opponent’s.

So, “libertarian” to the average joe nowadays means something different than the libertarian socialism espoused by Proudhon or Bakunin. However, it could still be applied; it might just be an anachronism: two very different referents.

Then, for the modern libertarian movement, there again appears a “left” and “right” division. For instance, I hear Cato or the Institute for Humane Studies regarded as left-libertarian, and the Mises Institute as right-libertarian. Bleeding Heart Libertarians is called left-libertarian. These “left” groups are, however, all clearly in favor of mostly free market capitalism. Then there’s Center for a Stateless Society, which labels itself “pro-market anarchist,” and then, when people confuse it for just, I don’t know, anarcho-capitalism, Kevin Carson says he wants to use the word market instead. Maybe capitalism is too long to spell. In any case C4SS is considered left-libertarian. Michelangelo seems to use the term to refer to, again, capitalism-inclined folks. (I also hear Students for Liberty referred to as left- and Young Americans for Liberty more right-libertarian.)

“Left-libertarians” are not all anarchists intent on abolishing the state, but some are; meanwhile, libertarian socialists would hardly call market anarchism an “anarchism” at all, since they oppose private property rights. If you ask them, they generally seem pretty pissed off about the whole name co-opting. Noam Chomsky is, anyway.

So, it looks like there’s the left libertarians, who may be using an American anachronism, but maintain their philosophical etymology just as classical liberals try to. And then there’s the left-libertarians, who would still fall in the bottom-right of the modern political compass, directly to the left of the right-libertarians. Does that sound right? What is the sense in which a libertarian qua libertarian would use the term “left-libertarian”?

It doesn’t usually seem like libertarians use the term left-libertarian to refer to anarchic socialists, but it sometimes does. Hanging out with Marxists only makes it worse. I’m looking for someone who has been around the liberty movement longer than I have to make sense of it.

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22 thoughts on “What is a “left libertarian”?

  1. My feeling here is that the term left v right libertarians is a reference to cultural values more than policies per se. A lefty being a cosmopolitan, a righty a nationalist. Broadly speaking.

  2. Hi, a well written piece. It is a thorny area and one that gets even more difficult when you broaden things to include European concepts. I think many Americans would find the idea of “libertarian socialists” almost an oxymoron. As a ‘left libertarian” I think the crux is that we are anarchists who fight for personal liberty and personal property but who wish the market to function without the cronyism that we presently see between corporations and states (hence mutualist, agorist and anti-capitalist). I think though that if you contact 10 organisations you’ll get 10 different definitions. Just don’t ask the Peoples’ Front of Judea

    • So when you say “anti-capitalist,” you’re using it in the same sense as Kevin Carson; not opposed to the market, but state and corporate alliances? That makes a lot of sense to me, I just don’t get why it’s called “left.” Anyway, it feels compatible with a lot of opinions in libertarianism general.

  3. I use “left-libertarian” to mean “libertarian” (as opposed to “right-libertarian,” aka “libertarian in error”).

    Western European and American libertarianism are and always have been philosophies of the left, beginning with e.g. Thomas Paine, Frederic Bastiat, the libertarian class theory of Comte/Dunoyer (misappropriated and repurposed by the first major right-deviationist, Karl Marx), down through e.g. Benjamin Tucker. Historically, the right turn American libertarianism took with Rand and Rothbard was a cul de sac. “Official” Objectivism and paleoconservatism are right-deviations from libertarianism.

    But, then, I say that as an ultra-thin, brutalist-but-trying-to-be-humanitarian, paleo-left-libertarian. Not yet a major school of thought in the movement 😉

  4. As one of the only (if not the only) notewriters on this blog who would call himself a left-libertarian, and as someone who runs in C4SS’s circles pretty closely, I think it is a good question because the term has become one of abuse in libertarian circles to the point that its meaning is a bit obscured. Let’s give a bit of history of the term: basically, the term “left libertarian” was originally (a little more than a decade ago) reintroduced into the American libertarian movement lexicon to distinguish a group of left market anarchists (think C4SS) both from mainstream libertarians who were somewhat supportive of the Iraq war and from paleos who had right-leaning populist sympathies.

    Thus, you are right that it does not simply refer to classical social anarchists of the early twentieth/late nineteenth century. Most people outside of American libertarian circles use it this way, but American left-libertarians around C4SS have a more idiosyncratic use of it to refer additionally more narrow set of market-oriented anarchistic ideologies (although most of them would be fine with calling Kroptokin, Chomsky, etc. “left-libertarian” also). However, it is important to note that there are far more important links between these market anarchists and some of the (especially American) individualist and mutualist anarchists who are usually grouped in with early social anarchists, like Proudhon, Lysander Spooner, and Benjamin Tucker. In particular, Tucker’s notion of the “Four Monopolies” is particularly influential (Charles Johnson has written interesting articles on his relationship with ancaps https://c4ss.org/content/39996), and Proudhon is extremely influential over C4SS writers like Kevin Carson and Will Gillis (particularly his thoughts on property, community, and some of his economic theories, see Carson’s book “Studies in Mutualist Political Economy). There is, of course, a lot of disagreement among left-libertarians on some of these issues, Carson’s appropriation of Labor Theory of Value is something I abhor for example, but I think one thing that makes Left Libertarians at C4SS more distinctive is they take seriously how American libertarians do have some intellectual inheritance from some of the older anarchist thinkers. Further, anarchists who were socialist are often read and appreciated for their those on non-economic issues by these thinkers (I have a lot of appreciation for Emma Goldman on Feminism and her thoughts on Patriotism, for example).

    I think referring to Cato, SFL, IHS, or BHL as “left libertarian” is mostly kind of misleading. IHS and Cato and SFL have some left-libertarians write for them (I’ve written for SFL for example), but that would make they tend to be bigger tent than that and it’s a bit like calling NOL exclusively left libertarian just because I write here. BHL, meanwhile, does have a higher concentration of left-libertarians writing for it (Gary Chartier, Roderick Long for example), but very few of them self-identify as leftists and self-proclaimed left-libertarians tend to be a bit more radical (both in terms of being more likely to be anarchists and to be more interested in fighting social injustices systemically rather than piecemeal). Also, some left-libertarians tend to be very skeptical of philosophical liberalism (like Kevin Carson https://c4ss.org/content/15599) while others see liberalism as an essential part of their left-libertarianism but see it as having more radical implications than most BHLs (like myself and my friend Jason Lee Byas https://c4ss.org/content/49939). I’d refer to BHLs more as neoclassical liberals than as left-libertarians.

    As for what specific positions distinguish left-libertarians, in the more narrow sense of “Left Market Anarchist” from other types of libertarians, this is a good introduction (http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/the-distinctiveness-of-left-libertarianism/). Basically, we see more radical positions questioning social forms of arbitrary authority as just as important to our libertarianism as questioning state authority, such as feminism and the like. We see markets as fundamentally helping to undermine those social authoritarian impulses (http://distro.libertarianleft.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/MA53-Toward-an-Anarchy-of-Production-Text.pdf), and we tend to predict that a fully free market would produce lower levels of socioeconomic inequality, more workplace freedom (such as socialist-type worker co-ops) and so on (this, in my opinion, is one of the weaker parts of left-libertarianism as the models which would generate these type of predictions tend to be underspecified and not very rigorous). This is also a good introduction (https://www.studentsforliberty.org/2014/08/26/what-is-left-libertarianism/).

    And that leads us to the question of distinguishing markets from capitalism. It’s not just that we think “capitalism uses less letters,” it’s that we see the term capitalism as a term as embedded with the historical institutions that are called “capitalist” in which the market is only partially free. Even most mainstream libertarians don’t support monopolies and economic relations that are a result of rent-seeking and kickbacks from well-connected businessmen, the left-libertarian point is that when people use the term “capitalism” to refer to our current economic institutions or the economic institutions of the industrial revolution, they are referring not just to the ideal-typical features of a purely free market but also to the distortions in the market caused by some actions of the state and historically accidental social relations which are not necessarily the result of the market process. When libertarians say “capitalism” and refer pretty much only to markets, they/we are playing a pretty idiosyncratic language game foreign to the way most people seem to talk about capitalism, especially economic historians and our ideological opponents like Marxist socialists. The result is that everyone, including many libertarians themselves, are confused as to which features of political economy libertarians actually want to advocate for (free entry, free floating prices, entrepreneurship) and which we don’t really necessarily need to support (extremely high levels of inequality, cronyism, hierarchical firm organizations, etc.). This article (https://c4ss.org/content/1738) and this lecture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QsbvE_0Kpc) are good introductions to that debate.

    That was the way “left libertarian” was used in libertarian circles in circa 2010-12, pretty narrowly to refer to left-market anarchists at C4SS and occassionally older socialist anarchists. Now, some paleolibertarian types are trying to use the term to refer to any classical liberals who take social liberalism seriously (like BHLs), any mainstream “beltway” libertarians (Cato, IHS, etc.), any libertarians skeptical of alliances with conservatives, as well as C4SS types and Antifa-type anarcho-socialists. To me, it seems like that would make the term “left libertarian” synomous with “libertarians who aren’t Hoppe or Ron Paul” and so the term would lose most of its usefulness. Some libertarian socialists are trying to reclaim the term to refer exclusively to them (like the Libertarian Sociaist Caucus in the LP), which is to me seems a bit like trying to put the toothepaste back in the tube (like classical liberals who want the word “liberal” to refer only to them). Some mainstream libertarians are now latching on to this and using it to distinguish themselves from any and all conservative-leaning libertarians (like most YALers) and especially paleos, though again it becomes harder to discern what makes it distinctive. Some very thin libertarians who believe importing any social values external to property rights call basically anyone who has any liberal or leftist social values “left libertarians,” but again that seems to include even most classical liberals who aren’t necessarily fully libertarian and makes it too vague. It’s not really a linguistic hill I’m willing to die on, though.

    • Thank you, this is great. One question, although it looks like it might be answered, how do left-libertarians feel about Rothbard? I know he wandered occasionally in leftist circles, and he seems to be advocating something possibly similar but with different language, although maybe he doesn’t import much beyond property rights…

      Also, the “two many words” was sort of just a jab at Carson, I’m just using his name enough so he notices and unblocks me on Twitter.

      • “One question, although it looks like it might be answered, how do left-libertarians feel about Rothbard?”

        I don’t think there’s any general line on Rothbard among left-libertarians. Some love him (C4SS was very heavily Rothbard-influenced at its beginnings and several of its advisers knew him), some presumably hate him, many have mixed opinions.

        I guess I’d put myself in the last of those three classes. Obviously a brilliant guy, but two I have two major problems with him:

        1) He was back and forth on strategy during his life, and that he died while deep down in a pretty slimy deviationist rabbit hole (the “paleo strategy”) has produced massive and ongoing damage to the libertarian movement. He’d presumably have righted himself at some point had he lived.

        2) His claim that the non-aggression principle is “the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory” does justice to neither non-aggression or libertarian theory. Non-aggression, rightly understood, is what Nozick called a “side constraint.” ANY theory which adheres to it is a “libertarian theory,” and there can be any number of them. It seems to me that his deductive claim, implying as it does one unitary theory logically derived from non-aggression, underpins the “thick” posthumous approach of his disciples, who keep trying to tie libertarianism to (in shorthand) “bourgeois virtues” as a basis in much the same way that “official Objectivism” ended up following Rand’s personal quirks on certain subjects rather than actually exploring what her theories implied.

      • Agreed. Maybe right-wing populism works for the liberty Republicans, but conservatives are definitely losing the youth culture to left-wing ideas. There’s where the next base is, I believe. The mobilisation for Rand Paul was nothing like the mobilisation for Bernie Sanders.
        I’m not so much worried about someone’s associations, but the “libertarian to alt-right pipeline” definitely gained unfortunate traction in the public eye after Cantwell and Spencer posited themselves as post-libertarians.

        This is great, I need to read more from C4SS.

      • Thomas is right that there is no general line on Rothbard from left-libertarians. The most I can say is the ones who are a fan of his love Rothbard’s early work, especially “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle,” which is even included in *Markets not Capitalism* and some of his early moral theoretical works, while carefully distinguishing it from his attempt to appeal to populist right-wingers with the paleo-phase later in his career and calling that an aberration from what he really thought.

        I’m personally in the camp that sees very little value in Rothbard, his continued affinity for the old right throughout his career suggests to me he wasn’t really interested in the cosmopolitan implication. I also find his political theory to be fairly question-begging, “thin,” and reductionist, and he seemed more interested in finding a new audience throughout his career to market his stripped-down ethics to than really pursuing much interesting. I also can find no excuse to find value in his early works given how terrible his later works were when other thinkers said the valuable things he did say far better. I find a lot of his economics, outside of some of the fantastic empirical work he did, to be very naive and dogmatic, particularly his misappropriation of revealed preference in welfare economics, his oversimplification of ABCT, and his terrible empistically unjustified economic epistemology. I also haven’t found arguments from a Lockean natural rights-based perspective very convincing since I was a freshman. But I’m probably among the more radical anti-Rothbardian left-libertarians, so what I say is in no way representative of other left-libertarians.

  5. When you hear the term “left-” or “right-libertarian” there is usually one of two things happening:

    1. The author is trying to draw a line in the sand by signalling to her readers which camp she is in. (This, obviously, is a kind of signalling that usually happens when an author has a weak argument.)

    2. The author is embarrassed by another libertarian’s argument and so tries to distinguish between two types of libertarian. (I have done this before.)

    Either way you look at it, chances are high that, when these terms show up, the issue being discussed has long since lost its usefulness in discovering knowledge or insight.

    With that being said, the two terms do have some usefulness as you wander on down the rabbit hole. Left-libertarians tend to be more purge-y and clique-y (just like other Leftists) and right-libertarians tend to be more short-sighted and nationalist-y (just like other Rightists).

    • I hear it quite often and usually to disparage “left-libertarians,” although now I see the divide is less definite and also, SFL is not so “left” as might actually fit the term. Though maybe C4SS is an outlier and it shakes up the penumbra of organizations that are called “left-lib.”

      I was wondering if the Left tendency of purging, as seemingly rampant presently, is (in the short term) going to lead to a hyper-focused, miniscule, militant sect, or an endless toiletbowl descent that eventually eats itself and starts over. Looks like C4SS provides some experimental evidence of the former.

      Anyway I don’t think I have an allegiance either way. Seem to have beliefs that fit into either “camp.” Go liberty.

  6. Left Libertarians or Left Minarchists? I’ve read through introductory texts on C4SS that claim to define left libertarian positions and my one over-riding question is whether these people accept the non-aggression principle or not. If they are NAP libertarians who just prefer to concentrate on social issues then I have no problem with them, but if they want to retain some statist type taxation or income redistributionist powers in pursuit of their social justice issues then they are not NAP libertarians, they are simply the left wing school of libertarian minarchism who want a nightwatchman state limited to providing social welfare programs rather that the right’s provision of cops, courts, and military.

    But what I’ve been reading at C4SS has been so cagey that they don’t quite come right out and categorically state their position on NAP. So right now I consider left libertarians to be “Left Minarchists” similar to right libertarians who I would call “Right Minarchists.”

    • Whether or not C4SS are minarchists is right there in the title of the site:

      “Center for a Stateless Society: A Left Market ANARCHIST Think Tank & Media Center” [emphasis mine].

      “my one over-riding question is whether these people accept the non-aggression principle or not”

      Well, if it’s such an over-riding question, why don’t you spend 30 seconds on Google and get it answered?

      Oh, fine, I’l do your work for you. The answer is that most of the C4SS people subscribe to the non-aggression principle and nearly constantly preach non-aggression, while there will be an occasional dissident on the subject.

      • Tom, I think that you didn’t quite understand what I was asking about.

        It’s been my experience from reading online forums that just because someone claims to be “anti-statist” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re anti-authoritarian. Some anti-statist socialists advocate imposing their beliefs on everyone else in what I would call “statism by other means” such as having big unions seize all businesses or an entire society run by a national workers association.

        It took me a while to dig this out of my old files but in an email exchange you and I had back in 2013 I was unfamiliar with the whole world of “left-libertarians” and found some of them a bit slippery on where they stood on the Zero Aggression Principle and rejection of all coercion, and since you identified as “left libertarian” I asked you about this. Your response included this statement:

        One of the reasons you might find the answers about left-libertarianism “slippery” is that it’s a pretty broad category. Just like “right-libertarian” includes Objectivism, Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism, minarchist LibertarianPartyism, etc., there are various kinds of left-libertarian.

        You then added “In my opinion, if it conflicts with the ZAP, it’s not libertarian.”

        Over the years I’ve read articles from C4SS which identifies as “left-libertarian” and found some of them to be “slippery” as well, especially from passages from this article:

        The Left-Libertarian Balancing Act
        https://c4ss.org/content/46498

        “left-libertarians are also inclined to reject policies that intensify human aggression against other humans.”

        Inclined? Not just reject?

        “Reduce interpersonal aggression without increasing natural suffering.”

        Reduce? Right-Libertarian Minarchists want to “reduce” aggression by severely limiting government and therefore don’t want to eliminate aggression since they still require taxation to fund their nightwatchman state. This implies to me that C4SS might support a nightwatchman social welfare state.

        “Different left-libertarians have different ways of meeting this challenge. Some become “bleeding-heart libertarians,” small-government advocates who support only enough governmental intervention to shield people from the pain of dire poverty.”

        So does this mean that C4SS accepts left- and bleeding heart-libertarians who believe in small-government (i.e., “some coercion”?

        “left-libertarians proudly occupy the middle.”
        If there is a middle between coercion and non-coercion What is it?

        “these positions are bound to provoke accusations of inconsistency.”

        So even C4SS understands that they’re open to, at the very least, misunderstanding.

        Our email exchange back in 2013 didn’t explicitly cover C4SS itself. If they fully embrace ZAP and all forms of anti-authoritarianism but only want to “concentrate on” social welfare issues I will enthusiastically embrace C4SS.

        But then they need to stop equivocating and state clearly what THEY believe, not what left-libertarians in general believe.

        Does your statement “In my opinion, if it conflicts with the ZAP, it’s not libertarian” apply to C4SS, i.e., they do not conflict with ZAP?

        (Personally I reject the whole left-right thing; I’m just Modern American Libertarian, period.)

      • Garry,

        I’ll repeat and then expand on and qualify my previous statement:

        “Most of the C4SS people subscribe to the non-aggression principle and nearly constantly preach non-aggression, while there will be an occasional dissident on the subject.”

        That was my experience of C4SS while working there from 2009-2015, although toward the end I felt that the institution was drifting into a dangerous infatuation with “thickness”* via Critical Theory, Privilege Theory and other pomo nonsense.

        I don’t keep close track of C4SS since I left because I have a soft spot for it that aches and because, frankly, William Gillis is cancer and thinking about the Center under his hand makes my gorge rise. When I do notice it, sometimes it is for solid libertarian work and sometimes it is for crap that looks like it was created with the Postmodern Essay Generator (http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/).

        But: The site’s banner still advertises it as an anarchist institution, and I still see names on the masthead that are beyond a doubt adherents of the non-aggression principle, and content that conforms to it. In the absence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I’d have to once again repeat my claim:

        Most of the C4SS people subscribe to the non-aggression principle and nearly constantly preach non-aggression, while there will be an occasional dissident on the subject.

        * Of course, “thickness” is a plague on both “left” and “right” libertarianism as they grapple with the problem of how to define aggression and to differentiate truly voluntary community from state. For every left-libertarian musing about syndicalist rule by workers’ council, there’s a Hoppe musing about “physical removal” of non-aggressors who just happen to not fit in with some pre-designated, “community”-decreed moral scheme (e.g homosexuals in a community centered around some particular brand of Christianity).

  7. Possible meanings of “left-libertarian”:

    1 – Traditional anarcho-socialism (Kroptkin, Bakunin, Chomsky)
    2 – Anti-Leninist, “spontaneist” Marxism (Rose Luxemburg, Pannekoek, “autonomists”)
    3 – Market anarchism who believe that a true free market will have much more self-employment, workers coops, etc and less hierarchical corporations than the present system (I suppose that it is the position of Roderick T. Long and Charles Johnson, or perhaps also Lysander Spooner; Kevin Carson, Ben Tucker, Proudhon or Ben Tucker are somewhere between 1 and 3)
    4 – Georgism
    5 – Libertarianism pro-capitalist in economics, but leftist in social issues (pro-immigration, pro-gay marriage, pro-drug legalization, pro-abortions, etc.); perhaps it is the line of Cato and Reason?
    6 – “Liberaltarianism” – similar to 5, but accepting some redistributive policies, desgined to be the less intrusive possible (vouchers instead of public schools, UBI instead of several welfare programs, etc.)

    • Personally, I would only really recognize the first four definitions as “left-libertarian.” The latter two are centrists — they want more freedom, but limit their aims to things they think can work within the constraints of the existing system.

      I would expect a free market to result in lower rates of wage labor and higher rates of self-employment/entrepreneurism. Some left-libertarians (I’ve argued this with Carson in particular) seem to think that a free market would virtually eliminate wage labor. I disagree. In my opinion there will always be large numbers of people who, for time preference and other reasons, prefer lower risk and “a steady paycheck” to striking out on their own. And there will always be people looking to hire them.

      • “5” seems to be what in the LvMI/LewRockwell.com circles is usually called “left-libertarians”; I really never heard “left-libertarian” applied to “6”, but I imagine that, if it is applied to “5”, could also be applied to “6”.

      • Response hypothesis: The LvMI/LRC people like to caricature Cato and Reason as “left-libertarians” because they find Cato and Reason easy to pick on, and actual left-libertarians terrifying. Every time they try to take on someone like Kevin Carson, their target picks them up by the necks and drags them down the hall to the little girls’ room to give them an intellectual swirlie. It’s a lot safer to tilt at a windmill and tell yourself you whipped yourself a giant than to take on an actual giant.

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