Framing Left Libertarianism, A First Pass

Gary Chartier


Left libertarianism (hereinafter LL) can be seen as an exercise in packaging and propaganda. Or it can be seen as a powerful expression of concerns that ought to be at the heart of movements for freedom.

Cynical libertarians and leftists alike might see talking about LL as an exercise in spin. Perhaps it’s an attempt to sell unsuspecting leftists on libertarian ideals that are fundamentally at odds with the left’s agenda. Or perhaps it’s an effort to graft an alien life-form onto the body of the libertarian movement, saddling it with concerns that have no place on a genuinely libertarian agenda.

Neither account of LL is remotely persuasive or appealing.

LL is authentically libertarian both because it is anti-statist (the LLs who come readily to mind are all anarchists; I take it as a given here that the LL is an anarchist or something close enough for the difference to be irrelevant) and because it affirms the value of markets and property rights. At the same time, LL is authentically leftist because it seeks to challenge privilege, hierarchy, exclusion, deprivation, and domination–both ideologically and practically–and because it can exhibit a genuine commitment to inclusion, empowerment, and mutual respect.

And it can do this, not by redefining terms–so that, for instance, freedom from physical coercion turns out to be the only kind of freedom that really matters–but instead by demonstrating the consonance between libertarian ideals and principles and a good-faith embrace of the left’s central concerns.

It may do so by pointing out the radical implications of commonly accepted libertarian principles.

  • Similarly, it may note that the full implementation of libertarian principles related to the injustice and imprudence of monopoly and subsidy would likely undermine, in multiple ways, the power of hierarchical, centralized business organizations and facilitate the replacement of many by worker-managed cooperatives and dramatically enhance the influence of workers in most or all of the others.
  • It may demonstrate that these same libertarian principles rightly lead to a rejection of the kind of privilege that allows influential businesses, professional groups, and individuals to use state power to exploit others (as when well-connected businesses extract tax privileges that provide them non-market advantages over their competitors, or when occupational groups harm both the public and poor potential competitors by maintaining wealth and privilege through expensive licensing requirements imposed or maintained at their behest by the state).
  • And it may stress that the same principles that condemn the state in general provide a powerful basis for opposing war and imperialism in particular.It can also emphasize the degree to which the same moral principles that drive opposition to the state’s oppressive power can provide good reason for challenging the kinds of social inequities that rightly claim the attention of many people on the left. To the extent that their opposition to state power is rooted in a given moral theory, of whatever sort, they can show how other concerns flow from that theory. Natural law theory, virtue theory, Kantianism, moral pluralism, even (though it still seems to me to be a non-starter, for multiple reasons) consequentialism–all can be shown to ground support for market anarchism, and all can be shown to ground moral concerns independent of market anarchism. And (for instance) the very concern with the moral equality of persons that underlies a denial of any “natural right to rule” and the rejection of collectivist inattention to individual particularity both render racism, sexism, and heterosexism morally untenable. Right libertarians may be inclined to reject the left libertarian position on multiple grounds. They may maintain that there is nothing particularly libertarian about concern with the workplace authority or well being of workers or with, say, racism. Or they may argue, more strongly, that such concerns are anti-libertarian.
    Whether objection is persuasive will depend in part on how one supposes opposition to state power is grounded. To the extent that it is rooted in a particular moral theory, however, that theory itself can likely be used to generate moral judgments about matters other than state power. There is nothing arbitrary about arguing both that a given theory grounds regard for liberty and that it grounds other moral judgments or attitudes.Of course, a right libertarian might say that she affirmed the value of liberty as basic, as ungrounded in any more general theoretical judgment. But the left libertarian need not concede a complete disconnection between a concern with racism, or workplace authority, or poverty and liberty conceived of as a basic value. This is so not only because (the left libertarian might say) structures and actions violative of liberty in the right libertarian’s focal sense serve to foster the subordination of workers and members of ethnic minority groups and the continued impoverishment of the poor, but also because it seems inconsistent to oppose subjection to the arbitrary authority of state actors while regarding the arbitrary authority of those who don’t threaten physical violence as morally neutral.A standard right libertarian objection at this point might be that authority not rooted in physical force or the threat of physical force cannot justly be opposed using physical force. But this objection is a red herring.

    The left libertarian need not regard aggression against anyone’s person or property as an appropriate response to non-forcible but morally objectionable conduct. Organized boycotts, shaming, shunning, the use of various public and private bully pulpits, work slowdowns, and other mechanisms for enforcing social norms and rules that do not violate the principle of non-aggression are all available to the left libertarian.

    The left libertarian can also emphasize that, while it is (tolerably) clear what it means to attack someone’s body, while the notion of someone’s body is a relatively stable one, just what counts as aggression against someone’s property will itself be contestable, and will depend, in particular, on just what her property rights are. A court in a mutualist community would obviously be quicker to recognize the rights of workers homesteading a shuttered factory than a comparable court in a community with conventionally Lockean property rights. A local jury in one market anarchist community might perfectly well conclude that the commercial property rights it was prepared to enforce didn’t include the right to deny someone ordinary services on the basis of race. There is nothing about market anarchism, per se<, that settles the question just how different communities that all endorse private property rights will or should understand those rights, or just when different courts or protective agencies will be inclined to, say, award tort or contract damages. Which rights should be endorsed by a legal system in a market anarchist community, and what remedies should be available for their infringement, can only be answered in terms of ongoing moral argument–just the sort of argument that allows diverse communities in a market anarchist society to serve as laboratories in which experiments in living are carried on.

    Non-libertarian leftists (NLLs) may be equally suspicious of left libertarianism. They may doubt that left libertarians are really concerned about poor people, about workers, about sexual minorities, and others about whom they profess to care. Just as the left libertarian can rightly resist the right libertarian’s framing of LL as statist or as irrelevant to liberty, so the left libertarian can rightly resist the leftist non-libertarian’s framing of LL as unconcerned with exclusion, domination, and deprivation.

    Here, the left libertarian must emphasize to the NLL just how much the state really is implicated in the structures of subordination, impoverishment, and violence they both reject. The left libertarian can rightly stress the role that state-granted monpolistic privileges and subsidies play in underwriting putatively private power. She can offer the NLL a wager: that the removal of the threat of state violence as a back-stop for such power would play an enormous role in defanging it.

    She can point out that market anarchism does not, cannot, mean maintaining the current system of property relations, untouched, in the absence of state power–not only because of disagreements about property rules (as between Lockeans and mutualists) but also because of the injustice that vitiates so many existing property titles (as to the latifundia of Latin America). And she can stress, as to the right libertarian, that adhering to Leonard Read’s dictum to limit one’s actions to “anything that’s peaceful” need not mean abandoning the right to subject the behavior of those who use their property in morally objectionable ways to incisive critique or the capacity to exert significant influence on that behavior.

    Left libertarianism represents a particularly radical development of generally acknowledged libertarian moral judgments and an elaboration of the implications of moral principles that can be seen to provide plausible grounds for rejecting statism. It can provide bases for challenging and means for reducing or ending exclusion, subordination, and deprivation that are authentically consistent with market anarchism. Thus, it can outline identifiably libertarian means to identifiably leftist ends, and it can persuasively redescribe those ends and means as both genuinely libertarian and genuinely leftist.


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