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Some social anarchists and libertarian socialists, including Murray Bookchin, are sometimes called left-libertarian. Noam Chomsky also refers to himself as a left libertarian. –Left-libertarians– in this sense may share with "traditional socialism a distrust of the market, of private investment, and of the achievement ethic, and a commitment to expansion of the welfare state." However, –left-libertarianism– is perhaps used with particular frequency today to refer to either of two positions whose proponents draw radical conclusions from classical liberal or libertarian premises–one emphasizing links between self-ownership and egalitarianism, the other stressing the socially transformative potential of non-aggression and free markets.
One variant of contemporary left-libertarianism affirms the classical liberal and libertarian idea of self-ownership, while rooting a robust version of economic egalitarianism in this idea. It combines the conventional libertarian idea of self-ownership with unconventional views regarding the ownership of land and natural resources (e.g. those of Henry George), residual claimancy vis--vis the firm, or both. This approach is associated particularly with the work of such scholars as Hillel Steiner, Philippe Van Parijs, Peter Vallentyne, Michael Otsuka, and David Ellerman.
The version of left-libertarianism defended by contemporary theorists like Vallentyne, Steiner, Otsuka, van Parijs, and Ellerman features a strong commitment to personal liberty–embracing the libertarian premise that each person possesses a natural right of self-ownership–and an egalitarian view of natural resources, holding that it is illegitimate for anyone to claim private ownership of resources to the detriment of others. On this view, unappropriated natural resources are either unowned or owned in common, believing that private appropriation is only legitimate if everyone can appropriate an equal amount, or if private appropriation is taxed to compensate those who are excluded from natural resources. This position is articulated in self-conscious contrast to the position of other libertarians who argue for a (characteristically labor-based) right to appropriate unequal parts of the external world, such as land. A number of left-libertarians of this school argue for the desirability of some state social welfare programs.
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The Steiner-Vallentyne school of left-libertarianism takes a distinctive position regarding the issue that Robert Nozick calls the –original acquisition of holdings.– That is the question of how property rights came about in the first place, and how property was originally acquired.
Many libertarians–right, left, and center–tend to maintain that "wilderness" is unowned, and that unowned resources are made into property by use. This is generally referred to as homesteading. According to John Locke–s influential view, for instance, when a person –mixes her labor– with a previously unowned object, it becomes hers. A person who cultivates a field in the wilderness, by virtue of "mixing her personality" with the land, becomes the rightful owner of it (subject, on Locke–s view, to the Lockean proviso that equally-good land remains free for the taking for others).
Steiner-Vallentyne left-libertarians, by contrast, characteristically maintain that "wilderness" is commonly owned by all the people in a given area. Since there is no predetermined distribution of land and (they argue) since there is no reason to believe that, all things being equal, some people deserve more property than others, it makes sense to think of resources as commonly owned. Thus this brand of left-libertarianism denies that first use or "mixing labor" has any decisive bearing on ownership. Thus, land should be treated as presumptively owned in common. Different proponents of this school of thought have different ideas about what can be done with property. Some believe that one must gain some kind of permission from their community in order to use resources. Others argue that people should be allowed to appropriate land in exchange for some kind of rent and they must either pay taxes on the profits made from the appropriated resources or allow the products of those resources to become common property.
There are obvious affinities between the Steiner-Vallentyne approach to left-libertarianism and the approach endorsed by Henry George and his followers. Georgists tend to believe that all humanity rightfully owns all land in common and that individuals should pay rent to the rest of society for taking sole or exclusive use of that land. People in this movement are often referred to as "single taxers," since they believe that the only legitimate tax is land rent. However, they do typically believe that private property can be created by applying labor to natural resources. Contemporary geoists–as some followers of George–s prefer to be called–might arguably be labeled –left-libertarians,– whatever the precise links between their views and those of Steiner-Valleyntyne left-libertarians.
The Origins of Left-Libertarianism: An Anthology of Historical Writings, edited by Vallentyne and Steiner, places Hugo Grotius, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Spence, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and Henry George in the left libertarian tradition.
Though not left-libertarians themselves, G. A. Cohen, John Roemer, and Jon Elster have also written extensively about the notions of self-ownership and equality, which provide the basis for this branch of left-libertarian thought.
A second contemporary school sometimes labeled –left-libertarian– stresses the value of radically free–or –freed––markets. Proponents of this approach strongly affirm the classical liberal and libertarian ideas of non-aggression and free markets, while maintaining that, taken to their logical conclusions, these ideas support strongly anti-corporatist, anti-hierarchical, pro-labor positions in economics, anti-imperialism in foreign policy, and thoroughly liberal or radical views regarding such cultural issues as gender, sexuality, and race. This strand of left-libertarianism tends to be rooted either in classical American individualist anarchism or in a left-wing interpretation or extension of the thought of Murray Rothbard. It is typically linked with the thought of scholars including Kevin Carson, Roderick T. Long, Charles Johnson, Brad Spangler,, Samuel Edward Konkin III, Sheldon Richman, Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Arthur Silber, and Gary Chartier.
Arguing that vast disparities in wealth and social influence result from the use of force, and especially state power, to steal and engross land and acquire and maintain special privileges, members of this school typically urge the abolition of the state. They judge that, in a stateless society, the kinds of privileges secured by the state will be absent, and injustices perpetrated or tolerated by the state can be rectified. Thus, they conclude that, with state interference eliminated, it will be possible to achieve –socialist ends by market means.–
The genealogy of contemporary market-oriented left-libertarianism–sometimes labeled –left-wing market anarchism––overlaps to a significant degree with that of Steiner-Vallentyne-style left-libertarianism as the roots of that tradition are sketched in The Origins of Left-Libertarianism. Carson-Long-style left-libertarianism is rooted in nineteenth-century mutualism and in the work of figures such as Thomas Hodgskin and the individualist anarchists Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner. While–with notable exceptions–market-oriented libertarians after Tucker tended to ally with the political right, relationships between such libertarians and the New Left thrived in the 1960s, laying the groundwork for modern left-wing market anarchism.
Mutualism emerged from early nineteenth-century socialism, and is generally considered a market-oriented strand within the libertarian socialist tradition. Mutualists typically accept property rights, but with brief abandonment time periods. In a community in which mutuality property rules were upheld, a land-owner would need to make (more or less) continuous use of her land; if she failed to do so, her ownership rights would be extinguished and the land could be homesteaded by someone else. A mutualist property regime is often described as one rooted in –possession,– –occupancy-and-use,– or –usufruct.–
Sometimes referred to as a –Ricardian socialist,– Thomas Hodgskin was a thoroughgoing anti-statist. His position was socialist insofar as he believed that workers were exploited and that massive structural changes for the purpose of remedying their exploitation were just and necessary. But Hodgskin grounded his account of exploitation in a belief in pre-political property rights and was a committed proponent of free trade: the protection of property rights and free exchange would, he believed, uproot social injustice.
American individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker self-identified as a socialist, but opposed the state and favored individual ownership of property. He argued that the elimination of what he called the –four monopolies––the land monopoly, the money and banking monopoly, the monopoly powers conferred by patents, and the quasi-monopolistic effects of tariffs–would undermine the power of the wealthy and big business and make possible widespread property ownership and higher incomes for ordinary people, minimizing the power of would-be bosses and achieving socialist goals without state action. Tucker influence and interacted with anarchist contemporaries–including Spooner, Voltairine de Cleyre, Dyer Lum, and William B. Greene–who have in various ways influenced later left-libertarian thinking.
The most visible leftist movements in the United States after Tucker–s time were statist, anarcho-syndicalist, or anarcho-communist. By contrast, perhaps because of the use of leftist rhetoric to support statism during the Progressive and New Deal eras, market-oriented thinkers tended increasingly to identify with the Right. The developing political landscape was more complicated, however, than this broad-brush sketch might suggest. Sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, for instance, attacked the state as an entity that uses force to acquire wealth and secure market-distorting privileges for elites, with the implication that a market free of such privileges would undermine elite power. The American essayist and social critic Albert Jay Nock applied Oppenheimer–s analysis to the history of the United States in Our Enemy, the State. Though Nock is often characterized as a figure of the so-called –Old Right,– he roundly criticized existing economic arrangements as resulting from state-sanctioned violence and maintained by state-guaranteed privilege, and drew on the work of historian Charles Beard to underscore the role of economic elites in shaping American political institutions to their own advantage.
The doyen of modern American market-oriented libertarianism, Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard, was initially an enthusiastic partisan of the Old Right, particularly because of its general opposition to war and imperialism.  But Rothbard had long embraced a reading of American history that emphasized the role of elite privilege in shaping legal and political institutions–one that was thus naturally agreeable to many on the Left–and he came increasingly in the 1960s to seek alliances on the Left–especially with members of the –New Left––in light of the Vietnam War, the military draft, and the emergence of the black power movement.
Working with other radicals like Ronald Radoshand Karl Hess, Rothbard argued that the consensus view of American economic history, according to which a beneficient government has used its power to counter corporate predation, is fundamentally flawed. Rather, he argued, government intervention in the economy has largely benefited established players at the expense of marginalized groups, to the detriment of both liberty and equality. Moreover, the –Robber Baron– period, hailed by the right and despised by the left as a heyday of laissez-faire, was not characterized by laissez-faire at all, but was in fact a time of massive state privilege accorded to capital. In tandem with his emphasis on the intimate connection between state and corporate power, he defended the seizure of corporations dependent on state largesse by workers and others.
Rothbard himself ultimately broke with the left, allying himself instead with the burgeoning paleoconservative movement. However, drawing on the work of Rothbard during his alliance with the left and on the thought of Karl Hess, some thinkers associated with market-oriented American libertarianism came increasingly to identify with the Left on a range of issues, including opposition to war, to social and cultural hierarchies, and to corporate hierarchies and corporate-state partnerships. One variety of this kind of libertarianism has been a resurgent mutualism, incorporating modern economic ideas such as marginal utility theory into mutualist theory. Kevin A. Carson's Studies in Mutualist Political Economy helped to stimulate the growth of new-style mutualism, articulating a version of the labor theory of value incorporating ideas drawn from Austrian economics. Other market-oriented left-libertarians have declined to embrace mutualist views of real property, while sharing the mutualist opposition to corporate hierarchies and wealth-concentration.
Contemporary left-libertarians also show markedly more sympathy than mainstream or paleo-libertarians towards various cultural movements which challenge non-governmental relations of power. For instance, left-libertarians Roderick Long and Charles Johnson have called for a recovery of the nineteenth-century alliance between radical liberalism and feminism.
While adopting familiar libertarian views, including opposition to drug prohibition, gun control, civil liberties violations, and war, left-libertarians are more likely to take more distinctively leftist stances on issues as diverse as feminism, gender and sexuality, sexual freedom, race, class, immigration, and environmentalism. Especially influential regarding these topics have been scholars including Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Roderick T. Long, Charles W. Johnson, and Arthur Silber.
Agorism, an anarchist tendency founded by Samuel Edward Konkin III, advocates counter-economics, working in untaxed black or grey markets, and boycotting as much as possible the unfree taxed market with the intended result that private voluntary institutions emerge and outcompete statist ones.
Geoanarchism, an anarchist form of Henry George's philosophy, is considered left-libertarian because it assumes land to be initially owned in common, so that when land is privately appropriated the proprietor pays rent to the community.
Criticisms of left-libertarianism have come from the right and left alike. Libertarians like Robert Nozick, holding that self-ownership and property acquisition need not meet egalitarian standards and that they must merely avoid worsening the situation of others, have rejected left-libertarianism of the Steiner-Vallentye school. G. A. Cohen extensively criticized the claim, typical of this school, that self-ownership and equality can be realized simultaneously. In Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, Cohen claims that any system that takes equality and its enforcement seriously is not consistent with the full emphasis on self-ownership and "negative freedom" of libertarian thought. Murray Rothbard criticized what amounted to the cultural aspect of left-libertarianism of the Carson-Long school, challenging the tendency of proponents of libertarianism to appeal to ––free spirits,– to people who don't want to push other people around, and who don't want to be pushed around themselves– in contrast to –the bulk of Americans,– who –might well be tight-assed conformists, who want to stamp out drugs in their vicinity, kick out people with strange dress habits, etc.– Stephan Kinsella has accused left-libertarians of this variety of treating much corporate property as illegitimate without explaining clearly why it should be regarded in this way and has offered a range of other objections to some specifically left-libertarian doctrines.
Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index
Anarchism Critiques –
Class Analysis –
Class Conflict/Class Struggle –
First International –
Left, The –
Left History –
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Libertarian Socialism –
Mark, Karl –
Marxism Overviews –
Radical Political Theory –
Revolutionary Politics –
Social Change –
State, The –
Strategies for Social Change
Alternatives – Anarchism – Anarchism Critiques – Anti-Marxism – Class Analysis – Class Conflict/Class Struggle – Emancipation – First International – Freedom – Left, The – Left History – Libertarian Politics – Libertarian Socialism – Libertarianism – Mark, Karl – Marxism – Marxism Overviews – Radical Political Theory – Revolution – Revolutionary Politics – Social Change – Socialism – State, The – Strategies for Social Change
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