Sunday, February 6, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Libertarian Left

Over at The American Conservative, Sheldon Richman has a very interesting article on the Libertarian Left. I have a lot of sympathy for left-libertarians such as Kevin Carson and others. I believe they are essentially correct in their argument that capitalism has always been “statist” in one sense or another. Capitalists have always been happy to have the state on their side, even if they oppose state intervention for others. Perhaps most importantly, left-libertarians tend to side with the less fortunate members of society and thus avoid the accusation that they are simply court philosophers for the rich, a problem that I believe right-libertarians have despite the fact that they sometimes appeal to populist rhetoric and imagery. 

However, like so many other philosophical traditions, I cannot completely buy into left-libertarianism. First, I cannot subscribe to very strong support for free markets even in the anti-elitist form described and supported by left-libertarians. I cannot completely agree with a philosophical system that might, for example, demand legal prostitution or legal abortion because of a refusal to restrict certain services or individual liberties in a free market economy. Furthermore, I am convinced that in advanced economies, certain industries, such as the post office, libraries, utilities, health care, etc., should be under public ownership. Evidence suggests that natural monopolies are probably best reserved for public ownership or at least heavily regulated private ownership.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, left-libertarianism, like right-libertarianism, Marxism and other philosophical schools coming out of the Enlightenment milieu, has the downside of falling into the errors of economism and utilitarianism. Again, this goes back to the problem of the state and the market, and when the state ought to intervene in the market. If you believe that the economy is ultimately subservient to higher values, then you open up the stage to state intervention. Amintore Fanfani, in his important work Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism (1934) noted that capitalism and communism were both guilty of subjecting all of life to the rule of economics and materialism. The various forms of libertarianism pose a similar problem in that they seek to subject all of life to the values of the free market, even if it is the fairer, more egalitarian version of the free market supported by the left-libertarians.

Still, I appreciate much of the work done by the left-libertarians, and I believe their analysis of various topics can be very useful. Socialists, social democrats and populists should be interested in what the left-libertarians have to say, even if they do not always agree with them.


  1. Interesting post. I'd regard myself as a left libertarian, albeit one with very strong statist economic views. But a few points:

    -It seems unanswerable to me that the war on drugs has been an ethical and logistical failure. I myself rarely drink, don't smoke and have no interest in taking drugs, but it seems to me that a more traditionalist social democrat left might be at risk of inheriting some rather stagnant conservative ideas about the role of the state in fighting drug abuse. I don't share the view that many smug leftists also present that legalisation is a no-brainer: it could easily lead to a human cost and a huge cost to society. Yet it does seem to me something worth trying.

    -I am pro-life. Yet being Orthodox I do have to face the rater uncomfortable fact that Romania and Greece (two of the most devout nations in the EU) have horrific abortion rates as does Russia and the USA. Surprisingly the Netherlands has a fairly good record in this regard. I do again think that the conservative right has a fairly stagnant position and that bourgeoise societies may easily be especially apt to have a high abortion rate out of shame or concern over living standards.

    Most Latin American countries have made abortion illegal. However, I doubt if this is due to a USA style shock-jock right but I think is more due to grassroots Christianity.

    -As I've written about on my own blog, I do think that it's difficult for young people in the West to appreciate just how much society changed throughout the 20th Century and how alien the bourgeois society of their grandparents were. Perhaps economic liberalism has led to a cultural plurality. If so I think this is the one component of capitalism that we should embrace.

    -The internet has given us freedom of speech and inquiry as never before, giving us info to contradict both the state and newspaper magnates. I think this is also a good thing.

    -In Greece the current government says it will only pay the salary of one Priest for every 5 who retire. It seems to me that through being too close to the state, the Greek Orthodox Church has lost a lot of respect and made it easier for pub-bore atheists to find a receptive audience.

    being honest I think that 'libertarian left' as I would define it should have nothing to do with conservatism or radicalism but aim to try and combine economic egalitarianism with a fair degree of social liberalism.

    But these are just my thoughts.

  2. Hi Gregor,

    Good points on the drugs issue. I admit that my natural inclination is toward prohibition, at least for hard drugs. However, Portugal’s apparent success with decriminalization and a stronger focus on treatment is interesting. I was going to write about the Portuguese case, but I simply don’t know enough about drugs policy to do a decent post.

    I agree that pro-lifers often fail to dig deeper into the abortion issue, for example, dealing seriously with issues like poverty and dangerous, non-medical abortions that certainly did occur in the past. I see this as a product of the pro-life movement’s ties to the economic Right, which keeps it from dealing seriously with the economic factors, including consumerism and the culture of materialism.
    Instead, the pro-life movement, like the Right in general, often refuses to believe that anything bad happened before the post-war settlement came into being.

    I also agree with you about cultural plurality and the Internet. As much as I dislike current pop culture, I do have the freedom seek out practically anything I want in terms of culture, and that is undeniably a good thing.

    Interesting point regarding the status of the Greek Orthodox Church, I agree that the separation of church and state has had some important benefits, and has perhaps given religions more moral or persuasive authority even if they have less official political power.

    I think many social conservatives fail to understand that many folks these days simply don’t agree with them. All too often social conservatives blame everything on “the Government” in the abstract imposing its values on people. While in some cases this might be true (for example, instances of social liberal judicial activism in the U.S.), in many other cases it is not. I hear these kinds of arguments from traditionalist Catholics all the time and it drives up the wall.

    Ultimately, I think social conservatives in the West will either try to separate from modern society as some traditionalists and paleoconservatives recommend, or they will remain active in society and try to change people’s minds via persuasion. I support the latter view even though I am often tempted to agree with the former in my darker moments.