James Leroy Wilson's one-man magazine.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Left-libertarianism revisited

Update 12-29-08: I clarify some points in the comments section. Please read them before responding yourself.

Update 12-31-08: I understand there has been some additional comments about this post here and elsewhere. Unfortunately, urgent matters of a personal nature have come up and I won't have time to address them.

Over three years ago, when I joined the Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left, I explained my reasons here and here.

I still agree with what I wrote.

But, while I was once linked to at LeftLibertairan.org, at some point I must have committed enough heresies to be kicked off that reservation. Which goes to show that "left-libertarian" can mean different things to different people. A couple of years ago, I recall posting at Ilana Mercer's blog, defending the position that the U.S. should give no aid to Israel (although I can't recover the specific link, I remember it). She agreed, but also wondered why "left-libertarians" weren't as critical of Palestinians as they were of Israel. In other words, we were, at least mildly, anti-Semitic. In contrast, and more recently, Richard Spencer conflates left-libertarianism with the views of Reason magazine.

So "left-libertarianism" is whatever those who find affinity with the Right don't like about some libertarians with whom they disagree. Of course, the same goes the other way. Left-libertarians can sneer as "conservative" anyone whose radicalism manifests itself in different ways. If I'm not "really" a left-libertarianism, it's because my own priorities may be different, even if my same basic commitment to equal rights is the same.

(By the way, Wikipedia holds that different definitions of left-libertarianism are contradictory.)

The problem with both "right-libertarians" and "left-libertairans" is that they place a higher priority on their cultural affinities (or prejudices, if you will) than on their anti-Statism, when the whole record of human existence establishes that it is the State, its laws, and its wars, that have created greater evil than personal prejudices and dislikes.

As Left-libertarians, we should remember that equality of rights is the only equality that is possible, and that that the expansion of State privileges masked as "rights" is the inverse of both actual rights and real equality.

  • The discrimination against single people by State sanctions promoting marriage is bad. The expansion of the definition of marriage to include same-sex, polygamous, or inter-species marriage does not promote "equality" or "fairness," it just increases the real and hidden taxes on single people who must pay for state-funded and and legally-mandated privately-funded benefits and privileges to "spouses." The State marriage laws are a redistribution racket and have no other reason for existence. Left-libertarians ought to be calling for their abolition, not for their expansion.
  • Let's agree with the left-libertarian argument that there should be open borders, and that this is indeed good for the economy. Is it not, then, even more so the case that: a) every native-born citizen should have an absolute and equal right to work as any imported unskilled laborer? And at any price, even if she is 15, 10, or 5 years old? (Oh, is that "going too far? Than you're not a left-libertarian, or any kind of libertarian; you're a mere conservative utilititarian.) b) no one should be entitled to welfare benefits of any kind, and it is easiest to cut immigrants (and especially undocumented immigrants) off from the trough first? c) When there are so many prohibitions on residents in the United States, why make a fetish on the "freedom of movement" right of foreigners to migrate here? Does it make more sense for left-libertarians to focus on smearing the anti-immigration forces as "racist," or to promote greater freedom for people already here (and thereby making a more welcoming place for immigrants seeking opportunity while discouraging those seeking handouts?)
  • Let's agree that free trade is good. But which is worse, a completely free domestic market with a 100% tariff on imported goods, or a highly-taxed and -regulated market with "free trade" of imported goods? (This idea I've borrowed from a commenter at Taki; the original context is lost.) If we lived in Singapore, perhaps we'd prefer free trade. But we live in the fourth-largest country on earth with the third-largest population. Doesn't it make much more sense to open the internal market (such as, by legalizing industrial hemp production), than by surrendering U.S. sovereignty to supra-national trade "agreements?"
As libertarians first and left-libertarians second, we should be aware that it isn't just the policy in itself, but rather the agenda behind the policy that counts. "Same-sex marraige" won't advance equality if it only broadens the Welfare State. "Open borders" won't help the cause of freedom if it just helps create a North American Union. And "free trade" won't help the cause of freedom if it creates a World Government based on uniform trade laws, from which uniform social policies follow.

I think the left-libertarian agenda may be too closely perceived as a war against "traditional conservatism" and the "Christian Right" and whatever it may stand for. I myself loathe what has passed for the Christian Right and what it stands for. But the enemy is not any real or imagined mystic or bigot. The enemy is The State.

If we forget that, Left-libertarianism loses all credibility.


  1. Anonymous5:45 AM CST

    Although All-Left is rooted in the American individualist anarchist tradition, it doesn't reject voluntary forms of communitarian anarchism as illegitimate. The wiki entry is wrong in that respect. However, the wiki entry may be correct that the tradition of communitarian anarchism, especially in Europe, is likely to be hostile to individualist anarchism. Another way to put is that what passes for left-wing libertarianism in the US would be regarded as right wing in, say, Europe.

    In terms of Leftlibertarian.org, which mostly consists of an xml feed aggregator of left-libertarian blogs, I'm not seeing any tendency to conflate libertarianism with Statist enforcement of positive rights, which I think is what you are implying...

  2. I don't mean to imply that. This post is perhaps more of a reaction to some comments made by some left-libertarians on these issues.

  3. Anonymous5:51 PM CST

    Frankly, most of this post makes no sense at all. Neither can I make out most of what you are trying to say.

    Are you trying to say, for instance, that cutting off illegal immigrants from welfare benefits would, in some mysterious way, result ultimately in the end of the welfare system? I would think that the coherent argument would be to the contrary - that piling on as many welfare recipients as possible would eventually cause the system to collapse.

    Similarly, a choice between 100% tariffs and no internal regulatory controls. Say what? Collectivism is collectivism, one form always leads to and strengthens the arguments for another.

    It sounds like what you're doing is engage in a variety of imaginary dicotomies in the hope of making a case for neoconservatism that is coherent. There isn't such a thing. Cease wasting your effort. The essence of conservatism is an unsystematic collection of prejudices.

  4. I'm not defending any kind of conservatism, especially neoconservatism. I'm saying that the libertarian response to gay marriage is to get rid of marriage as a State institution. The answer to immigration is to abolish our labor laws and welfare system. The answer to free trade is to de-regulate the internal market.

    The answer is not to call "bigots" those who don't want an expansion of legal marriage. It is not to call "racist" those who believe unlimited immigration in a welfare system is not sustainable. It is not to call "protectionist" people who wonder why goods can be imported in the United States that don't meat the regulatory standards imposed on domestic producers.

    (And is is NOT libertarian to wish that the United States government tax, regulate, spend the nation into bankruptcy and poverty in the hopes that, somehow, the people will turn to libertarianism after that.)

  5. I can buy much of your argument except the part about not calling people bigots, racists or protectionists. Admittedly, one can oppose gay marriage on grounds that are devoid of bigotry, but most folks who oppose it do so because they hate gay people, not because they problematize marriage as a redistributionist scam. You can make an argument for controls on immigration that is not racist, but those who oppose immigration because they hate Mexicans are still racists, and there's no reason not to call them that. You can argue for regulations on imports for lots of reasons that aren't ptotectionist, but you're still a protectionist if you're arguing on a protectionist basis. I've never seen "protectionist" as a pejorative like bigot or racist.

    There seems to be some inconsistency in your positions as to expansion of marriage and control of immigration. In the first, you oppose expansion of marriage because marriage per se is statist. In the second, you argue for more state intervention because there's other state intervention in place that makes immigration problematic. Isn't immigration control statist per se as much as marriage? Couldn't you just as easily argue that marriage should be expanded fairly as long as we're going to have marriage?

    Anyway, thoughtful post as usual, for which I am always grateful.

  6. Anonymous2:18 PM CST

    The positions taken and the logic used are typical “right-libertarian” positions. I never call them right-libertarian by the way since they are just conservative.

    The marriage argument is particularly weak and strained and exactly what I’d expect from a conservative.

    We can agree that no one has a “right” to state services including marriage. Or state roads, postal service, etc. And your argument is tell gay couples to f... off if they want the right to marry because that expands the state. By the same logic then, pushing a law to strip Jews of the right to attend state schools would be a great advance for liberty.

    While we’re at it we can also forbid them to use the post office, travel on government roads, received the social security that they paid for, have access to police protection, fire fighting services, etc. Apparently denying one group the equal protection of the law is now considered a great advance for liberty. Apparently, other than that gas chamber/concentration camp thing the National Socialists were really closet libertarians in that they were denying Jews access to so many government services.

    All these conservatives, in libertarian clothes, harp about the right of gay couples to marry and say the state should get out of the marriage business -- like your hero Ron Paul does. But they never actual push for abolishing marriage and often get married themselves (like Ron Paul did).

    Finally there is a contradiction between your antigay position and anti-immigration stand. If we stop immigration to satisfy the bigots (who never work to repeal welfare since many of them are on it) then we’d have to say that no American can enter a relationship with a foreigner. Without marriage how do we define relationships for purposes of immigration? If we don’t no American can marry a foreigner. If we do define it but also tell gays they can’t have it then we are saying that Americans, except gay people, can bring their partners to the US.

    There are legitimate rights that are denied because marriage is denied -- rights which you can take advantage of (I assume you aren’t gay) but which gay people can’t. That includes having their spouse come to the US and live with them, the right not to testify against their spouse, being taxed at higher rates, being denied “benefits” which they are forced to pay for, etc. And some of these, such as the foreign spouse issue, can’t be resolved by private contracts which the bigots want to force on gay couples only.

    I find it highly suspicious that on gay marriage you want to be “hard core” by denying gays the right to marry. And then when it comes to immigrants you argue that we shouldn’t be hard core and campaign against the infringement on freedom of movement. In one case you appeal to the the hard core to deny gay couples equality before the law and in the other you argue for compromise to deny immigrants their rights. The one thing consistent with your flip-flops is that you are pandering to the prejudices of the Bircher type Right-wing bigot.

  7. Anonymous2:34 PM CST

    Although I agree with some of what you say (I think it's a mistake for libertarians to identify as either "left" or "right"), I have to object pretty strongly to some of your comments.

    The argument for open borders is not left-libertarian; it is simply libertarian. Every private property owner has a right to decide whom to allow on his property, but absent any explicit contractual agreement to the contrary, third parties, including the U.S. Federal Gov't, have no legitimate say in the matter. Attempts to justify the state's immigration restrictions inevitably resort to some form of anti-libertarian collectivist argument, or implicitly acknowledge the state as the ultimate owner of every scrap of land within its claimed borders.

    It is not a "fetish" to insist on the rights of everyone, regardless of where they were born; it is simply the only principled stand. This is not some airy, theoretical debate; enforcing immigration laws means applying violence against real, flesh-and-blood human beings who are only trying to find a better life for themselves and their families.

    If you're the sort who doesn't care how the state injures other people, as long as your own ox isn't gored, then the pragmatic argument for open borders is that immigration restrictions destroy the liberties of native-born Americans.

    It used to be that Americans didn't need to prove they had government permission to work, but the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 changed that. The Real ID Act of 2005, aimed at controlling unauthorized immigration, is creating a de facto national ID card. Vigorous enforcement of immigration controls have turned every part of the country within 100 miles of the border into a Bill-of-Rights-free zone.

    And then there are the assaults ICE has launched on those who employ unauthorized immigrants. American employers are not free to employ whom they will, and they are drafted as unpaid immigration enforcers. One ICE raid on a small company close to where I live resulted in the HR director facing up to 20 years in prison (nearly twice the average sentence for rape) and $500,000 in fines.

    None of this should surprise anyone. The U.S.'s long borders make effective enforcement of immigration restrictions almost impossible. Nothing short of a police state could do the job. And that's exactly what agitation for immigration restrictions is giving us.

  8. Anonymous3:02 PM CST

    One more comment, this time on free trade. I find it bizarre to see someone who claims to be a libertarian poo-pooing the importance of free trade; that has been an important part of libertarian thought since Adam Smith.

    Furthermore, you are making a false dichotomy between opening up the internal market and having free trade. There is no conflict between the two; why do you put them in opposition?

    And where do you get this nonsense about "surrendering U.S. sovereignty to supra-national trade 'agreements'?" If you're thinking about NAFTA, that treaty has nothing to do with free trade, despite its name. Britain didn't need to negotiate complex treaties (that, not-so-incidentally, impose new regulatory burdens) to implement free trade in the 19th Century; they just unilaterally repealed existing trade restrictions.

  9. Again, I am NOT for controlled immigration, or against free trade. I am saying that we must push for libertarian alternatives rather than whine about the real or perceived motives of those who disagree.

    The alternative to pushing the state into gay marriage in the name of fairness (and then polygamy, and then inter-species, etc) is to get the State out completely. This is the only solution that protects the rights of everyone.

    And what I'm saying is that we must promote constructive libertarian answers to problems many Americans attribute to immigration and trade. The answer is NOT to keep out immigrants or limit trade. I'm saying that the free market, and personal freedom, is the answer. Cut welfare and open up the market.

    Finally, I'm well aware that NAFTA is not really free trade. But those libertarians who may side with Buchananites to oppose it will get smeared for that reason.

  10. Anonymous11:28 PM CST

    Marriage wasn't always a state thing. Hell, the deeply religious used to be highly anti-government.

    The only reason the current crop opposes gay marriage is because they interpret it as government endorsement of a lifestyle they disagree with. Even if that were the case that'd still just beg the question of why the government is rubber-stamping ANYone's sex lives. The cultural/religious vow at the root of marriage doesn't require a willing State.

    If any left-libertarians think abolishing state approval of marriages isn't a better idea than expanding that approval, I haven't run across them yet. State license for relationships strikes me as an inherently capital "C" conservative thing, so it puzzles me that any conceivable Left could support it, whether the anti-government kind or not.

  11. Anonymous11:44 PM CST

    As for trade: prior to coming around to libertarianism (and subsequently anarchism), I used to flirt with a "humanitarian"-based protectionism, opposing trade with nations that tended to have mistreated & destitute laborers.

    Now? I just think in nations where that's the case the workers should take over.

    The politicized nature of globalization already suggests that without such pseudo-"free" trade agreements there'd be more local production anyway. An honest trade policy critic doesn't have to call for artificial cost increases, just removal of the artificial discounts.

  12. If anything at all, the mere existence of an argument within libertarianism that pits people who want to deny same-sex marriage based on the idea that the state has no place in marriage against people who want to affirm same-sex marriage based on the idea that all should have equal access to the law shows how destructive statism really is.

    Would either side here be willing to extend the definition of marriage to those who enter common law marriages while refusing state licenses as a matter of religious conscience? Be careful of your answer. It may betray who you think has the right to define marriage.