Lunchtime Links

  1. Delacroix in Morocco | Delacroix in Mexico
  2. The Jews in Europe | The Jews in Europe
  3. Barbarianism ain’t that bad | Barbarian liberty
  4. Why did we start farming? |  Why farms die (and should die)
  5. Daily hell of life in the Soviet bloc | reading Bertrand Russell

Lunchtime Links

  1. Interview with a secessionist
  2. Ducking questions about capitalism
  3. The perverse seductiveness of Fernando Pessoa
  4. Yet in this simple task, a doffer in the USA doffed 6 times as much per hour as an adult Indian doffer.”
  5. Conflicted thoughts on women in medicine
  6. The Devil You Know vs The Market For Lemons (car problems)

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.

Minarchism, Anarchism, and Democracy: A Shared Challenge

Minarchism–basically as small a government as we can get away with–is probably the most economically efficient possible way to organize society. A night watchman state providing courts of last resort and just enough military to keep someone worse from taking over.

The trouble (argues my inner anarchist) is that if we’ve got a government–an organization allowed to force/forbid behaviors–we’re already on the slippery slope to abuse of powers through political trading. Without an entrenched culture that takes minarchism seriously it’s only a matter of time before a) the state grows out of control and you’re no longer in a minarchist Utopia, or b) a populace unwilling to do their part allows violent gangs to fill the power vacuum.

Having a government at all is a risky proposition from the perspective of someone worried about the abuse of that power. Better not to risk it at all.

Anarchism relies on the right culture in a similar way. This is clear to critics of anarchism (basically it’s just the minarchists who are willing to take anarchists seriously at all) and is the crux of an important argument against anarchism. Without the right culture, what’s to stop people from just creating some new government? Nothing at all.

In fact, we face the same problem in the military-industrial-nanny-state complex of our imperfect real world. For any government–or lack of government–to work, the ideological framework of the people living in that society has to line up properly. To the extent people are ignorant, distracted, short-sighted, biased, or mean-spirited, we get governance that reflects those flaws.

If we want to live in a better world, we can argue all day about what sort of government we do or don’t want. But ultimately we have to work on improving the culture, because the median voter is still in charge.

A short note on monarchical nostalgia

Kingship organizes everything around a high centre. Its legitimacy derives from divinity, not from populations, who, after all, are subjects, not citizens. In the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory. But in the older imagining, where states were defined by centres, borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another. Hence, paradoxically enough, the ease with which pre-modern empires and kingdoms were able to sustain their rule over immensely heterogeneous, and often even contiguous, populations for long periods of time. (19)

This passage, from Benedict Anderson’s much-cited book on nationalism (Imagined Communities), does a good job of summarizing what the world looked like politically prior to the Industrial Revolution. It does a less good job of summarizing what monarchy is, politically (see this or this), but does do a great job of explaining why monarchies were able to exert governance over populations that were linguistically, religiously, and ethnically diverse.

What is less clear in this passage is its explanation for why paleolibertarians are so enamored with monarchy and why some non-paleo libertarians often write nostalgically about imperial pasts. Even though this is not clear in the passage (I doubt Anderson had intra-libertarian squabbles in mind when he wrote Imagined Communities), it is a great way to explore why libertarians have nostalgia for monarchy and empire.

Let’s start from the top, though. Libertarians don’t like nation-states because of nationalism, because of borders with taxes and restrictions on movement of goods and people, and because of the power that governments can exert over well-defined spaces of territory. So, instead of delving into the intricacies of why nation-states are around, some libertarians reach back to an older age, where “borders were porous and indistinct,” state sovereignty was not the end game of geopolitics, and governments had ways other than nationalist propaganda to bring diverse populations to heel. So on the surface, nationalism was non-existent, borders were open, and diverse groups of people lived together in relative harmony under one roof. What libertarian wouldn’t like that? Fred Foldvary’s post on restoring the Ottoman Empire is a good example of this kind of historical naivety. (Barry and Jacques have both written good rebuttals to this kind of wishful thinking.)

Historical naivety is one thing, but the arguments of so-called “anarcho-monarchists” are quite another. Arguing that monarchy is anarchy because monarchs don’t reign over a nation-state (instead they rule over the private property of the crown) is disingenuous at best, and nefarious at worst. Royal property and private property are two different things (“L’etat c’est moi“). This argument leads directly to the awful, embarrassing arguments of Hans-Hermann Hoppe and his acolytes, who have a bad habit of claiming that anarcho-monarchism is somehow libertarian. I’m going to skip over the specifics of their arguments (Zak has done great work on this topic, but in short Hoppeans claim that anarcho-monarchist societies would be able to physically remove undesirable people from their societies; “undesirables” mostly mean socialists, homosexuals, and non-Europeans), and instead point out that Hoppe and company are simply wrong about what a monarchy actually is.

Monarchies had porous borders, they constantly warred against their neighbors (sometimes for “interests of state”), and their populations were polyglot and illiterate. I haven’t spent any time reading Hoppe, so maybe I am treating him unfairly here and he is perhaps an advocate of a new type of monarchy, but as a student of Habermas I would assume Hoppe likes to use history as a guide for understanding and explaining the world around him. How on earth could he be so wrong about what monarchy actually is, unless he is being disingenuous about his whole anarcho-monarchist utopia?


On a completely unrelated note, Benedict’s Anderson’s book on nationalism is published by Verso Books, rather than a traditional academic press (such as Princeton University Press or University of California Press). Verso Books is a left-wing publishing house dedicated to radical critiques of everything non-leftist, so I find it a bit odd that Anderson’s book has come to be so well-cited in the academic literature on a number of topics. It’s a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s popularity, despite being an explicitly ideological book rather than an academic one, explains much of the strife currently happening on campuses across the West regarding freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.