Good and Bad Left-Libertarians – Opting Out


There are two kinds of anarcho-lefties. The first are the left-libertarians, who fundamentally agree with me and other libertarians regarding the proper use of force in society: It is only to be used in defense of person and property. Where the left-libertarians differ is that they prefer voluntary mutual aid arrangements than employer-employee and landlord-tenant relationships. They also place more emphasis on the structural inequalities that are brought about thanks to the state, and how statism disproportionately affects minorities. These I have little qualm with.

The second kind are what I’ll call the libertarian socialists: Classical anarchists that are explicitly anti-capitalist. They believe that the private property ethic is problematic per se, the employer-employee relationship is inherently immoral and want them both abolished in favor of the workers seizing the means of production to create a more equal society. They oppose all hierarchies, making no distinction between voluntary and non-voluntary hierarchies. It’s these second kind that causes issues.

Pause for a bit on this bleating about how right-wingers “stole” the word “libertarian” from the more left-leaning anarchists of the 19th century… get over it. It is true that the idea of libertarianism that I hold is modern and mostly American in nature. A European, or anybody that was born before 1900, would think of libertarian as something quite different. However, we need not be beholden to the historical definition of terms in perpetuity. Nor should we be expected to believe what other people believe because we happen to identify with the same word.

Modern libertarianism was more or less invented by figures like Murray Rothbard, Leonard Reed, and Rose Wilder Lane in the mid-20th century. They were economists and thinkers that combined the libertarian anarchist analysis of the state with the classical liberal analysis of economics to form a whole new movement. During the inception of those ideas, hippies like Karl Hess would rub shoulders with bougie figures such as Albert Jay Nock. Activists would identify at various times with the New Left and the Old Right. It was an eclectic group, as you might expect in a movement with inspiration by a spectrum of thinkers.

The modern libertarian socialists, in my opinion, are trying to undo these decades of work in order to conflate libertarianism with socialism. They are trying to convince people that what they’re really doing by advocating individual freedom, is advocating for the seizure of the means of production.

Part of what people like Rothbard were doing during this time was jettisoning the crappy parts of libertarian anarchism, namely the shoddy economics and analysis of employers and landlords, and updating it with good economics. They also improved classical liberal thought by shattering the naive trust in the state as the means to protect person and property. Where the constitutionalists deny progress by still believing in the state, the libertarian socialists deny progress by continuing to subscribe to bad economics, as Kevin Carson does by attempting to rescue the labour theory of value in his Studies in Mutualist Political Economy.

This wouldn’t matter much, except that an apparently-acute difference in worldview becomes all the bigger down the line. The difference between me and the libertarian socialists is that if the state disappeared tomorrow, and I was found completely wrong — that companies could no longer accumulate capital, and enterprises would have to be collectively run by the workers — I wouldn’t mind that much. If it becomes the case that under a truly freed-market, capitalists become redundant, I’d be happy to discover that.

However, if the libertarian socialists turn out to be wrong — that when the state disappears, workers still find it in their interest to work for a capitalist, and have no inclination to seize the means of production, they’d be angry. They’d agitate for the state to come back. To quote a more famous anti-socialist: “No, no, no!”

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.