Defending the Libertarian Left

In a recent discussion, this article was brought to my attention.  I would say  that of its arguments may be a valid critique of some subset of the libertarian mainstream, many conservatives and the typical caricatures libertarians that are often presented as.  It seems directed most at what Kevin Carson and others refer to as “vulgar libertarianism” or the tendency of self-identified libertarians to forget whether they are talking about the ideal market they advocate or the crony corporatist system we have.  

To quote Carson:

“Vulgar libertarian apologists for capitalism use the term “free market” in an equivocal sense: they seem to have trouble remembering, from one moment to the next, whether they’re defending actually existing capitalism or free market principles. So we get the standard boilerplate article in The Freeman arguing that the rich can’t get rich at the expense of the poor, because “that’s not how the free market works”–implicitly assuming that this is a free market. When prodded, they’ll grudgingly admit that the present system is not a free market, and that it includes a lot of state intervention on behalf of the rich. But as soon as they think they can get away with it, they go right back to defending the wealth of existing corporations on the basis of “free market principles.”

Needless to say if I believed, as the author of this Examiner piece believes, that libertarianism is all about letting monopolistic corporations run roughshod over the economy, I would reject it as well. I have often noted the tendency of right-leaning, mainstream libertarians to conflate what we currently have with the free market, so it should not surprise me that left-leaning critics of mainstream libertarianism are starting to do the same.

The robust libertarian response to this type of conflationism is as follows.  What we have currently is not a free market, but a corporatist system that takes money and options away from the general population and transfers them to the rich and well connected. We have a huge military industrial complex that waste huge portions of the country’s wealth and turns them into redundant weapons and pushes for expensive wars. We have numerous zoning laws and business regulations that greatly raise the overhead of anyone trying to start a business, thereby pushing them into employment with the large bureaucratic corporations that dominate the economy.

We have laws forbidding people from starting restaurants out of their home or taxi services out of their own cars, without pointless capital outlays. We have an expensive drug war, that persecutes millions of working people for victimless crimes.  We have an intellectual property system, that encourages planned obsolescence, products that thwart repair, and are incompatible with parts from other makers.  We have a system of agricultural subsidies that directs production to often unhealthy food, and a tariff system that enriches companies at the expense of the consumer.

Furthermore we have outlawed some of the most effective labor bargaining tactics, like wildcat strikes, sympathy strikes  and mandated mandatory cooling off periods, making legal organized labor negotiations ineffective. More so, we do not consistently protect the property rights or the bodily autonomy of poor and working class people, when it is compromised by corporations (which a libertarian social order must) and we have liability caps that limit the amount of damages a corporation can be held responsible for when they do damage the property or well being of others. All of these are things that libertarians should oppose.  These are things that the government does to make the general population poorer and enrich the wealthy and well connected.

In previous discussions, others have expressed surprise that I would include things such as support for organized labor or “helping the little guy” as libertarian positions.  I would say that these things are closer to the traditional meaning of the label, than some of the more contemporary uses of the term.  The term was originated to describe the anti-state radicals of the 19th century including radical free market traditions such as those of Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner, mutualists such Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as well as social anarchists like Pyotr Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin (who shared much of the same concerns, and intellectual influences, but rejected market based solutions, in favor of voluntary collectivization).  

There is actually considerable overlap between these traditions and the ideas of such contemporary figures of the libertarian left as Kevin Carson, Gary Chartier, Charles W. Johnson, Sheldon Richman and Roderick Long (Who uses Austrian Economics to reach some surprisingly left leaning conclusions).  There is also considerable overlap between these ideas of the above mentioned figures and addressing the concerns of the more mainstream left, it is my hope that the near future will present many opportunities for dialogue and coalition building between these all these traditions.

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