Kinsella’s Closed System- Left Libertarianism


Over at “Instead of a Blog”, Roman Pearah made a response to a statement by Stephan Kinsella about left-libertarians. I’d like to add the thoughts that this invokes for me on top of this.

Firstly, it seems very obvious that Kinsella is engaging in some serious package-dealing, which I can only assume is based on misunderstanding and ideological blinders. Kinsella throws around the term “Marxian” as if it accurately applies to just about any leftist variety of libertarianism and anarchism. This betrays a severe lack of understanding of the historical and ideological distinctions between statist and libertarian socialism. It seems evident that Kinsella makes knee-jerk reactions to left-libertarian ideas simply based on reading things into terms that he has been ideologically predisposed to dislike.

The main package deal that is set up is that certain concepts and terms are deemed to be “inherently statist” a priori, without any open and honest engagement with it, while certain normative positions that are really the positions of a particular subset of libertarians (LVMI-style Rothbardians in particular) are portrayed as essential to the definition of libertarianism, to the exclusion of other positions (geo-libertarianism, mutualism, libertarian socialism, etc.) that have long-since been part of libertarian discourse. To simply say that alternative positions “aren’t libertarian”, aside from implying a backwards kind of linguistic essentialism, is to close the notion of “internal debate” and frame everything in strictly binary oppositional terms.

What Kinsella is effectively doing is putting libertarianism foreward as a completely closed system of thought in which a particular set of positions down to the last detail are immutable and essential, in very much the same way that ARI Objectivists treat Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. But the reality of the matter is that libertarianism, in its most general sense, is constituted by a multitude of different criss-crossing positions. Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists do not have a monopoly on libertarianism, they are a subdivision of it. And while I may have disagreements with it, I don’t exclude it from being “libertarian”. The same cannot be said for the kind of dogmatist attitude that Kinsella is promoting.

It is entirely concievable for people to more or less agree on some basic premises and draw different conclusions from them, while still being a part of a broad ideological umbrella. It is also concievable for people to have similar conclusions while reaching them from radically different premises, while still being part of a broad ideological umbrella. But Kinsella doesn’t grant such leeway for “internal debate”: one must effectively accept the LVMI “platform” wholesale or one is not a libertarian. At best, the most leeway that he grants is for people who essentially accept the platform but do it on consequentialist grounds rather than on the basis of “natural rights” or deontology. But adding more to the system or tweaking it in any significant way is heresy.

The main reason for this seems to be that Kinsella has misconceptions about other points of view, having already ruled them out in the name of maintaining an “austro-libertarian” and “rothbardian” orthodoxy. He hears a more limited view of property rights and immediately jumps to the non-sequitors of mass-violence and state control. He hears the words “worker’s self-management” and cries “Marxist!”. He’s attacking a caricature of “the left”, a boogeyman that he has conjured inside of his head. Alternative ideas are dismissed through conjuring the image of the rabble-rouser, the bomb-thrower, the window smasher.

It is pain-stakingly obvious that Kinsella is militantly anti-leftist. But this anti-leftism is joined with a misleading proclaimation that one is at some sort of neutral “plumbline” in which one is “neither left or right”. This is a lie: Kinsella blatantly brings along certain baggage or commitments that are ideologically “right-wing” (at least in comparison to other positions) and proclaims them to be essential to libertarianism, and proceeds to attack people who do not (at least fully) accept those commitments to be non-libertarian. He pushes certain specific normative positions (both economic and cultural) as an inherent part of libertarianism, while playing the disingenous “thin libertarian” game of putting on a front of neutrality.

Kinsella is right about one thing: the conflict over “capitalism” is not purely linguistic. My own main disagreement with folks such as Brad Spangler, while I do sympathize with their position in comparison to someone like Kinsella, is that their rejection of “capitalism” is largely confined to a semantic-historical context in which one seems to mostly be just engaging in a salesmanship strategy. Some of these people mostly are in line with fairly standard anarcho-capitalist views, but wish to drop the term “capitalism” for public relations purposes. But to the extent that this is the case (and it certainly is not entirely the case, as I will proceed to get into), Kinsella cannot denounce these people as “unlibertarian” on his own terms.

The much more explicit currents of left-libertarianism do have substantive problems with “capitalism”. But this, in and of itself, does not necessarily rule them out from being libertarians or anarchists. For some, to one extent or another, most of the fundamental premises that himself Kinsella supports (which they tend to be in line with themselves) simply does not logically lead to “capitalism”. Instead of knee-jerkedly reacting by labeling them Marxists and saying that they aren’t libertarians, it is Kinsella’s responsibility to actually address the content of their position. But what he has mostly done is continue to insist on the orthodoxy that he promotes.

Of course, things can get even more substantive than this. Some left-libertarians don’t accept the fundamental premises that Kinsella considers to be essential to libertarianism, and proceed to reject “capitalism” on the grounds of rejecting such underlying premises. But I would insist that even this, in and of itself, does not constitute sufficient grounds for claiming that such people are not libertarians. It is Kinsella’s responsibility to honestly engage those ideas. But he barely scratches the surface of doing this. Since they reject his foundational premises, they are branded as enemies, strawmanned, and then the “base” is rallied in the defense of “capitalism”.

Based on his sweeping condemnations of the libertarian left, it is really hard to tell if Kinsella would understand the distinction between, say, a council communist and a mutualist anarchist. By Kinsella’s standards, even contemporary mutualists, who to a significant extent don’t even function strictly within boundaries of traditional libertarian socialism, are lumped into the nebulous category of “not libertarian” along with any old variety of state-socialism. It’s as if he considers “the left” to be this amorphous body that must inherently coalesce into aggression and statism, without him having the slightest understanding of the wide variety of positions within it.

If anything, Kinsella proves the contention that paradigmatic American libertarianism (including its anarcho-capitalist subdivision) carries a notable amount of right-wing baggage. Calling it a “plumbline” that is neutral to the contemporary American senses of “left” and “right” is misleading when it blatantly converges more with the normative positions of the political right. If one wants to understand where the heck left-libertarians are coming from in an American context, it would behoove one to understand it as partially being constituted by the phenomenon of people passing through the paradigmatic libertarian right and transcending its boundaries, getting rid of the right-wing baggage that comes with it and radicalizing oneself beyond it.

For some in the libertarian left, the position held by someone like Kinsella is something they used to hold on to themselves, but they’ve grown past it. That may be hard for someone who currently holds to such a position to wrap their head around, but it is the case. Some of us had well-thought out reasons for rejecting it, or at least parts of it. Dismissing us as some sort of completely alien ideology coming out of nowhere, or as some sort of child of Marxism, severely misunderstands where quite a few left-libertarians are coming from (I.E. as post-ancaps or ex-ancaps). From their perspective, it’s an improvement of libertarianism, not an abandonment. This may be constituted by a combination of adding things, taking some things away, and modifying things. But Kinsella seems to be largely incapable of dealing with people on their own terms.

I don’t speak for all left-libertarians when I say this, but Kinsella is a paradigmatic case of most of what is wrong with “standard libertarians”. It is lacking in internal criticism and room for growth. It is becoming a stagnant intellectual climate or an echo chamber. If this is what “standard libertarianism” is, then good riddance to “standard libertarianism”. It needs a new standard, and it is precisely the libertarian left that has spawned developements for refining libertarianism rather than simply going along with what reduces to a dogmatic party line. Those who cannot deal with that are doomed to the dustbins of libertarian history.

Posted by Brainpolice at 9:26 PM

comments from original post:


Stephan Kinsella said…

This post is full of whining that I have the gall to have my own view of libertarianism. It accuses me of being a right-winger; I’m not. I’m for personal liberties, gay marriage, am an atheist. I condemn corporatism too. I’m anarchist and against IP. I’m in favor of cosmopolitanism and cultural tolerance and diversity.

I only support property rights. You can do what you want on your property including start a kibbutz for all I care. Recognizing the role of private ownership of property in production in a free society is not “right wing” for heaven’s sake. I see almost nothing of substance in this post worth replying to. Empty and silly claims about orthodoxy, package-dealing (Randian alert!), stagnant intellectual climate and echo chamber! For goodness sake. Have you seen the diversity of discussion and ferment surrounding Mises Institute activities and publications? My own journal Libertarian Papers publishes a variety of opinion and will continue to do so. The Mises Institute gives away thousands of materials for free and is on the cutting edge with its offerings on iTunes University and its new Mises Academy offering courses over the Internet.

Your comments are laughable on their face. Your inability here to even say much that is coherent is symptomatic of the confusion of the leftist mentality, a bizarre, almost mystical mishmash of collectivist notions and obsessions over classism, workers, unions, bosses, “alienation,” and whatnot. What ideas are stagnant and doomed to the dustbin of history–these hoary old ridiculous notions, or modern, optimistic, forward-looking, realistic, pro-society, pro-prosperity, ideas anchored in respect for individuals and their property rights?

April 22, 2010 12:28 AM 


Rorshak (1313) said…

Kinsella, perhaps it is you who should quit whining. Your post is nothing but bitching and trying to lump BP in with ‘leftist’ notions he doesn’t even mention in his post.

What you say about property rights just proves what BP is saying. Your conception of property rights is the only correct one, any deviance from this is nothing but leftist corruption. (For the record, my view on property rights is probably closer to yours than BP’s)

April 22, 2010 1:38 AM 


Brainpolice said…

The discourse of libertarians and anarchists has moved so far past what you are promoting, Kinsella, that it really seems odd that you’re still promoting it. You seem to be stuck at the level of “ancap is the only true lib”, when other people have long since surpassed that and moved towards at least an attempt at some sort of anarchism without adjectives position that ancap fits into.

My own ideological developement has lead me past even such anarchist-without-adjectives notions, but I consider it to at least be a more sophisticated position. But it doesn’t seem like you’re remotely at that level: you’re still at the level of promoting anarcho-capitalism as a singular model for freedom. For many others, the discourse has moved way past that.

As far as people being “right-wing” goes, it is hard to see the statements that you make, which sweepingly condemn the entire libertarian left as a horrible deviation or an alien ideology, and not conclude that you are ideologically commited to “anti-leftism” (which implies “right-wing” commitments). I mean “right-wing” in terms of views on economic power and organization.

It’s great that you may have “social liberal” inclinations on some issues, but when the topic shifts to property and economic organization, you express what appears to be a dogmatic anti-leftism in which any way of dealing with ownership and economic organization other than the most absolutist norms and a defacto defense of “capital” is condemned as inherently violating freedom. *That* is what is “right-wing”.

April 22, 2010 2:21 AM 


Anonymous said…

I think Kinsella is being unfair to the state by wanting to abolish it. That sounds like class war rhetoric to me. After all, we can’t prove that it didn’t get its territory legitimately, and anyway that was too long ago for us to locate the descendants of those it aggressed against, amirite? I mean, sure, there was some violence involved, but it would be too messy to determine who the state’s belongings should go to, and so the best thing would just be to leave it alone. Since whatever the state claims is its property is therefore its property (possession is 9/10 of the law, remember?), there’s nothing unlibertarian about it doing whatever it wants to those of us who are tenants on it. Sure, this leads to hierarchy, brutal exploitation, and death, but there’s nothing unlibertarian about that at all! We should never succumb to the Marxoid temptation of resisting domination and hierarchy in our lives. That would violate our rightful masters’ propertee claims, which is doubleplusungood, as decreed to us by our divinely appointed arbiters of Law, Justice, and Liberty(TM). Kinsella’s wanting to abolish the state suggests a leftoid disenchantment with Natural Hierarchy and a Marxoid concern that it’s unfair for some people to live off the labor of others. Next thing you know, he’ll be babbling about far-left concepts like “the workers”. What is this world coming to??

April 22, 2010 2:27 AM 


Brainpolice said…

Anonymous, if I’m percieving this right, you just made a silly attempt at irony that reduces to a ridiculous straw man. Nothing about my criticism of Kinsella is questioning the general goal of anti-statism. As if the only the reason why anyone would have a different view is if they intended to defend the state! Talk about the false framing of a discourse, you’re brilliant at doing that! Thanks for proving my point.

April 22, 2010 2:32 AM 


Shawn P. Wilbur said…

What passes for “diversity” at LvMI actually looks a lot like an echo chamber from outside. How else could this grab-bag nonsense — “the leftist mentality, a bizarre, almost mystical mishmash of collectivist notions and obsessions over classism, workers, unions, bosses, ‘alienation,’ and whatnot” — pass as anything other than trolling in those circles?

April 22, 2010 3:16 AM 


Brainpolice said…

I was thinking something along those lines as well, Shawn. While I certainly wouldn’t deny that LVMI associates have internal disagreements over various things, in comparison to the broader intellectual community it appears very much like an orthodoxy.

When it comes to the way that discourse is framed and LVMI’s relations to its “outside”, I mostly see people who rally behind anti-leftism. When it comes to actually engaging anything that could remotely be called “the left”, it’s fairly strongly closed.

As far as I can tell, Kinsella is trying as hard as he can to keep it closed. Left-libertarianism is being treated as a threat to orthodoxy, mostly on the basis of prejudices. I would hardly consider that to be a diverse and open system, or anything particularly intellectually rigorous.

April 22, 2010 3:34 AM 


Mark D Hughe said…

If any of you know me you will understand the colossal irony of this post. Nevertheless, I find I must defend the LvMI against what is clearly a misinformed smear campaign. To suggest that the LvMI is an echo chamber of rightists is nothing short of laughable. All one has to do is consider, just consider, the anti-war efforts of Lew Rockwell. Love him or hate him, no other living libertarian has been so vocal or erudite in his condemnation of American foreign aggression. And, it is only because of the bully pulpit of the LvMI that he has been able to do this.

April 22, 2010 6:15 AM 


Matthieu said…

Kinsella, I asked this question on Sheldon’s post. How is a collective defined? How it is born ? Hence, what are the notions that can be considered collectivist?

Free market libertarians are used to point out what a free market really is. Now it’s our turn to point out what a collective really is; and a nation is NOT a collective.

All anarchists are faced with the following problem in their condemnations of their philosophical siblings: if a non-statist group must inevitably end up as a state due to its ‘flawed’ rules, then anarchy is impossible. Under anarchy, such a group must be free to select its own rules, else it would not be anarchy at all. Kinsella, and anyone else for that matter, can only caution against collectivism, or else he is not an anarchist.

April 22, 2010 8:38 AM 


Matthieu said…

Mark, if the best you can come up with in support of LvMI is Rockwell’s attack on US imperialism, then I’m pretty much going to believe the others with regards to its one-sidedness. Attacking foreign aggression is common place among all libertarians; it isn’t a hot issue that divides anyone, save for the fake libertarians who vote for George Bush.

April 22, 2010 8:43 AM 


quasibill said…

I would argue that it’s a symptom of a very common conceit – little “o” objectivism: The belief that there is precisely one (or one with a small system of closely related satellites) answer to the question of human community, and that, of course, the person speaking is sufficiently knowledgeable of the conditions of every individual human to be able to conceive of the one true answer.

Such conceits inevitably devolve to cults of personality, as the counter-examples to the faith pile up. The conceit cannot maintain a sizable following without retreating further and further into cognitive dissonance.

Failure to acknowledge the limits of individual knowledge, to acknowledge the nearly limitless variations of human priorities, to acknowledge that the pursuit of happiness and freedom are individual pursuits that are not amenable to the mental masturbation of would be philosopher kings – all this leads to caricatures like Kinsella (and his mirror opposites amongst socialist libertarians).

As much as I find Kinsella distasteful anymore, I have to say – if LvMI is an echo chamber, I can point to several prominent left libertarian sites that are equally so, if not more so. And I say that admitting that I prefer the left libertarian echo chambers to the LvMI one, even as I wish they were more “sophisticated” in their analyses.

April 22, 2010 9:35 AM 


Juan Fernando Carpio said…

Brainpolice: Your post reminds me of the socialdemocrats and centrists that cannot tolerate Austro-libertarians being coherent and solid in their positions (ref: method, deduction, Enlightenment values) and want them to have a mix with Socialism so they are not “closed”, “extreme”, etc because as we all know, if one adheres to the better available positions from one’s POV, one is “closed” and “not reasonable”, as opposed to muddled, self-conflicted and barroque thinkers who are “open”, “wise” and “progressive”.

Some people may get bored of being right (sound, logical, coherent) and try to go Left and call those who stay “behind” the Right (but notice, oh Left-“libertarians” that it’s always the self-labeled Left that pins the “Right” label on others; it’s like jumping off a cliff and calling myself brave and the others coward: juvenile) only because some truths and notions of justice and wealth creation and thus of distributive justice may very well be eternal. No need to find new “emotions” and “directions” when truth instead of adrenaline is the main concern. LL’s need to try some Zen meditation or find some other deconstructive hobby, methinks.

April 22, 2010 12:19 PM 


Anonymous said…

Congratualtions BP. You managed to having Kinsella froth at the mouth with saying “mean” things about Hoppe.

& we all know how belligerant Stephan can get when you rebuke Hoppe:

April 22, 2010 4:14 PM 


Anonymous said…

“What passes for “diversity” at LvMI actually looks a lot like an echo chamber from outside.”

And dissenters will be banned or ridiculed.

April 22, 2010 4:18 PM 


Brainpolice said…

Juan: your comment just seems to presuppose the begged question, namely, that you’re right.

What is dogmatic and closed about Kinsella isn’t that he has strong convictions, but the way that he frames any discourse with other convictions that are within the general umbrella of libertarian and anarchist ideas. He simply dismisses alternative positions as wrong *a priori* or *by definition*, rather than actually openly and honestly engaging them on their own terms.

What’s also dogmatic about it is that he clearly does not *understand* the positions of the people that he is sweepingly condemning. He just lumps it all into the enemy category, with no understanding of nuance or any sort of conception of how these things relate. He’s fighting a spook.

April 22, 2010 4:29 PM 


Stephan Kinsella said…

I can’t tell what you guys are but it doesn’t seem libertarian to me. Otherwise you would not be so rankled by a rather mundane application of basic libertarian principles on property rights. You guys are right to come up with a new label but “left-libertarian” is misleading, since you are apparently not libertarian. Why not call yourselves something more descriptive and be done with it.

April 22, 2010 4:36 PM 


Anonymous said…

“What’s also dogmatic about it is that he clearly does not *understand* the positions of the people that he is sweepingly condemning.”

You have elucidated your position superfluously on the LVMI forums and in your videos (emphasis on discussions regarding absolutist property rights). The lot of them refuse to acknowledge your argument without strawmen. Stephen is clearly not the only culprit, and this exemplifies the claim that LVMI is an echo chamber.

April 22, 2010 5:02 PM 


Brainpolice said…

“You have elucidated your position superfluously on the LVMI forums and in your videos (emphasis on discussions regarding absolutist property rights). The lot of them refuse to acknowledge your argument without strawmen. Stephen is clearly not the only culprit, and this exemplifies the claim that LVMI is an echo chamber.”

I mostly have given up on communicating with LvMI forum members. You’re largely correct that they can’t engage these questions without strawmen. But my claim isn’t restricted to the forums: Kinsella essentially spearheads an anti-left-libertarian crusade on the blog. And the blog itself is largely an echo chamber in my view.

April 22, 2010 5:50 PM 


Anonymous said…

“Kinsella essentially spearheads an anti-left-libertarian crusade on the blog.”

Ironically, his intense fixation on semantics quibbling puts the Marxists to shame at their own game. Maybe Kinsella would put forth a substantial response to his critics, if it weren’t for their inferior left-libertarian logic.

April 22, 2010 6:04 PM 


Matthieu said…

I can’t tell what you guys are but it doesn’t seem libertarian to me.
So all this because it doesn’t ‘seem’ libertarian to you. Good thing Juan is here telling us about eternal truths, he might be able to help you find out about whether we are libertarian or not, as a matter of eternal fact.

April 22, 2010 6:18 PM 


Matthieu said…

Our ‘inferior logic.’ That’s a good one. Something is either true or false, the product of logic or madness. But read Kinsella again, and try to feel the logic in the phrase: ‘It doesn’t seem libertarian to me.’

Kinsella and others like him have a view of ‘libertarian-ity’ that depends on the content of the rules adopted. This is self-defeating: if one rule is adopted and maintained freely, then it is done in accordance with libertarian principles, yet if it’s the one rule that Kinsella disapproves of, it is unlibertarian no matter how it came about. How is this ‘logic’ ‘superior’ ?

April 22, 2010 6:43 PM 


Anonymous said…

“How is this ‘logic’ ‘superior’?”

It’s superior because he is the spokesman of the true libertarians. All who dare say otherwise are sycophants of the proletariat. Left-libertarianism is merely an isolated hotbed of infidelity.

April 22, 2010 6:58 PM 


Anonymous said…


“Anonymous, if I’m percieving this right, you just made a silly attempt at irony that reduces to a ridiculous straw man. Nothing about my criticism of Kinsella is questioning the general goal of anti-statism.”

No…you completely missed the point that anonymous #1 was making. I can’t say any more than that without ruining the joke. =P

April 22, 2010 7:22 PM 


Brainpolice said…

Yes, it occured to me afterward that the satire could have been meant to go the other way.

April 22, 2010 8:13 PM 


Anonymous said…

I’d like to know how many people here and at LVMI are familiar with Bohm-Bawerk’s approach tot terminology.

April 22, 2010 9:58 PM 


Francois Tremblay said…

Hey Kinsella, it is a fundamental libertarian principle that a libertarian cannot be a twat. You are a twat. Therefore, you cannot be a libertarian. Stop using our terminology to bolster your position. Nyah nyah nyah.

April 23, 2010 3:20 AM 


Anonymous said…

“I can’t tell what you guys are but it doesn’t seem libertarian to me. Otherwise you would not be so rankled by a rather mundane application of basic libertarian principles on property rights”

Kinsella, if you want to start being so strict about the word libertarian than you yourself ought to stop using the word libertarian. See 150 years of Libertarian.

April 23, 2010 7:19 AM 


Pirate Rothbard said…

Libertarian and liberal both have the word liberty at its root. As such, both words ought to apply to people like Kinsella who support freedom, and not to statists like the author of this blog.

But a more interesting question is whether statists should be called socialists, when what they advocate is so antisocial.

April 23, 2010 4:42 PM 

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