Why Do I Call Myself a Left-Libertarian?


I thought this might be of interest to you guys, so I’m cross-posting it from Back to the Drawing Board.

I received a very fair comment on a previous post, “On Distributive Justice and the Indeterminacy of the Market Process,” from an anonymous reader, asking:

Reading this post, I am quite baffled why you name your blogspot libertarian-left.blogspot.com. How can you say that you work in the Left Libertarian tradition, when in this post you completely reject the ideas of all the most famous Left-Libertarians including Henry George and Steiner and Otsuka and Vallentyne? How can you say that you “attempt to incorporate concepts such as equality, opportunity, and need into my framework”, when this post seems to be arguing that they cannot be incorporated to your libertarian framework? I cannot find aything leftist about your ideas. Exactly what distinguishes your beliefs from Right-Libertarianism pure and simple?

I thought it might be worthwhile to give that question a thorough answer, since I anticipate that it may come up again, and others might find this answer interesting.

There is definitely a tension within the world of libertarian thought regarding the meaning of the term, “left-libertarianism.” One school of thought identifying itself as left-libertarian describes its ideas as upholding the libertarian conception of self-ownership while insisting that a just society would distribute worldly resources according to some egalitarian principle. This is the tradition into which writers like George, Steiner, Otsuka, and Vallentyne fall. As you rightly notice, I am clearly not a part of this camp [Update: I discuss this position in this post].

The other interpretation of the term “left-libertarian” has been offered by Roderick Long, building on Rothbard’s (and later Samuel Konkin’s) idea that libertarianism is more naturally allied with the political left than with the right. Dr. Long gives a really good explanation of his views in this interview. And as you might have gleaned from my description of this site on the sidebar, I basically agree with his approach.

I’ve been very conflicted about using the term “left-libertarian” to describe myself, as it’s unquestionably true that the first meaning is more widely acknowledged and used today, and I’m not a big fan of inherently confusing terminology. But I’ll offer two points in my defense. The first is simply that I chose the name for my website before realizing how deeply I disagreed with the folks in the Steiner camp, and the status quo has thus become somewhat entrenched.

But secondly, and more substantively, I don’t think that left-libertarianism of the Steiner mold has much to do with leftism, except to the extent that it has something to do with egalitarianism and, in some sense, it views a non-egalitarian property regime as oppressive. The bread and butter of the left, I think, has always been to root out oppression and mistreatment in society and demand its rectification. And that has been my concern as well, as I search for different ways to think about the respect to which people are due and build ideas about living together that try to embody that respect.

Now, an important part of the commenter’s question was this:

How can you say that you “attempt to incorporate concepts such as equality, opportunity, and need into my framework”, when this post seems to be arguing that they cannot be incorporated to your libertarian framework?

This, I think, is a somewhat unfair reading of my earlier post. In the last section of that post, I wrote:

Perhaps it is the case that, as individuals who appreciate each other’s value and moral worth, we owe it to each other to lend a helping hand in times of need. And if we did not lift a finger when others were facing crisis, that we would be failing to uphold our duties as morally responsible people. To say this implies no injustice in the market system which brings about unfortunate outcomes, nor does it imply that somehow we need to find some point in the past to serve as a “source” of injustice. Rather, we can think of distributive injustice as a recognition that in a community or society where so many live free of need, there are individuals among us who struggle to survive, without so much as a helping hand from their neighbors.

Of course, the mere existence of need and want surely cannot entail the presence of injustice. The same respect for the value of life which commands us to care about our neighbors also commands us to recognize the importance of living our own lives according to our own goals and desires. Earlier, we noted an idea from F.A. Hayek that coercion is evil because it “eliminates an individual as a thinking and valuing person and makes him a bare tool in the achievement of the ends of another.” We suggested that the tragic need which drives individuals into exploitative labor relationships is evil for this reason as well. But we must now acknowledge that the attitude which places on the successful individual the burden of caring after the world’s needy is evil for exactly the same reason (I discussed this in a previous post). Addressing one evil through the introduction of another seems like a questionable way to proceed. But it does not seem that either extreme — ignoring the suffering of others or sacrificing oneself for the good of those in need — is the correct one. What is needed is a balance between the two.

In saying this, I had hoped to address what I felt to be some of the important and relevant concerns that people on the left might have had in response to my argument. And I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that other leftist concerns (e.g., about the proper social response to inequality, oppression, lack of opportunity, etc.) “cannot be incorporated into my libertarian framework.”

My point was that these concerns cannot coherently be levelled as a moral objection to the market process itself. It was my hope to convey that a just society would not simply accept the often arbitrary, sometimes lamentable, and always sub-utopian products of the market process, insensitively brushing the unpleasant bits under the rug. The market process, I think, is just, and cannot be condemned wholesale because of its inherent potential to generate undesirable outcomes for some people. But I think that there is more to living together than the market process, and that the concerns of the left are valid reasons for searching for solutions outside of the typical consumeristic market paradigm. That, I think, is where the “left” in my “left-libertarianism” comes through.

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