Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Why Do I Call Myself a Left-Libertarian?

I received a very fair comment on my previous post, "On Distributive Justice and the Indeterminacy of the Market Process," from an anonymous reader, asking:
Reading this post, I am quite baffled why you name your blogspot How can you say that you work in the Left Libertarian tradition, when in this post you completely reject the ideas of all the most famous Left-Libertarians including Henry George and Steiner and Otsuka and Vallentyne? How can you say that you "attempt to incorporate concepts such as equality, opportunity, and need into my framework", when this post seems to be arguing that they cannot be incorporated to your libertarian framework? I cannot find aything leftist about your ideas. Exactly what distinguishes your beliefs from Right-Libertarianism pure and simple?

I thought it might be worthwhile to give that question a thorough answer, since I anticipate that it may come up again, and others might find this answer interesting.

There is definitely a tension within the world of libertarian thought regarding the meaning of the term, "left-libertarianism." One school of thought identifying itself as left-libertarian describes its ideas as upholding the libertarian conception of self-ownership while insisting that a just society would distribute worldly resources according to some egalitarian principle. This is the tradition into which writers like George, Steiner, Otsuka, and Vallentyne fall. As you rightly notice, I am clearly not a part of this camp [Update: I discuss this position in this post].

The other interpretation of the term "left-libertarian" has been offered by Roderick Long, building on Rothbard's (and later Samuel Konkin's) idea that libertarianism is more naturally allied with the political left than with the right. Dr. Long gives a really good explanation of his views in this interview. And as you might have gleaned from my description of this site on the sidebar, I basically agree with his approach.

I've been very conflicted about using the term "left-libertarian" to describe myself, as it's unquestionably true that the first meaning is more widely acknowledged and used today, and I'm not a big fan of inherently confusing terminology. But I'll offer two points in my defense. The first is simply that I chose the name for my website before realizing how deeply I disagreed with the folks in the Steiner camp, and the status quo has thus become somewhat entrenched.

But secondly, and more substantively, I don't think that left-libertarianism of the Steiner mold has much to do with leftism, except to the extent that it has something to do with egalitarianism and, in some sense, it views a non-egalitarian property regime as oppressive. The bread and butter of the left, I think, has always been to root out oppression and mistreatment in society and demand its rectification. And that has been my concern as well, as I search for different ways to think about the respect to which people are due and build ideas about living together that try to embody that respect.

Now, an important part of the commenter's question was this:
How can you say that you "attempt to incorporate concepts such as equality, opportunity, and need into my framework", when this post seems to be arguing that they cannot be incorporated to your libertarian framework?

This, I think, is a somewhat unfair reading of my earlier post. In the last section of that post, I wrote:
Perhaps it is the case that, as individuals who appreciate each other's value and moral worth, we owe it to each other to lend a helping hand in times of need. And if we did not lift a finger when others were facing crisis, that we would be failing to uphold our duties as morally responsible people. To say this implies no injustice in the market system which brings about unfortunate outcomes, nor does it imply that somehow we need to find some point in the past to serve as a "source" of injustice. Rather, we can think of distributive injustice as a recognition that in a community or society where so many live free of need, there are individuals among us who struggle to survive, without so much as a helping hand from their neighbors.

Of course, the mere existence of need and want surely cannot entail the presence of injustice. The same respect for the value of life which commands us to care about our neighbors also commands us to recognize the importance of living our own lives according to our own goals and desires. Earlier, we noted an idea from F.A. Hayek that coercion is evil because it "eliminates an individual as a thinking and valuing person and makes him a bare tool in the achievement of the ends of another." We suggested that the tragic need which drives individuals into exploitative labor relationships is evil for this reason as well. But we must now acknowledge that the attitude which places on the successful individual the burden of caring after the world's needy is evil for exactly the same reason (I discussed this in a previous post). Addressing one evil through the introduction of another seems like a questionable way to proceed. But it does not seem that either extreme -- ignoring the suffering of others or sacrificing oneself for the good of those in need -- is the correct one. What is needed is a balance between the two.

In saying this, I had hoped to address what I felt to be some of the important and relevant concerns that people on the left might have had in response to my argument. And I certainly didn't mean to suggest that other leftist concerns (e.g., about the proper social response to inequality, oppression, lack of opportunity, etc.) "cannot be incorporated into my libertarian framework."

My point was that these concerns cannot coherently be levelled as a moral objection to the market process itself. It was my hope to convey that a just society would not simply accept the often arbitrary, sometimes lamentable, and always sub-utopian products of the market process, insensitively brushing the unpleasant bits under the rug. The market process, I think, is just, and cannot be condemned wholesale because of its inherent potential to generate undesirable outcomes for some people. But I think that there is more to living together than the market process, and that the concerns of the left are valid reasons for searching for solutions outside of the typical consumeristic market paradigm. That, I think, is where the "left" in my "left-libertarianism" comes through.


Dan Waxman said...

I'd be interested to know your rationale for rejecting the Steiner/Otsuka/Vallentyne style left-libertarianism (i.e. self-ownership coupled with a very stringently egalitarian proviso regarding the initial acquisition of external worldly resources).

I feel as though temperamentally I am in a similar position to you - I also have a problem with oppression and mistreatment, and I think that in a libertarian society - including (especially?) the ones which reject common world ownership - these evils would be far less common. But I don't think I have worked out a satisfactory answer to my own conflicted intuitions about the initial acquisition of property, and, to be perfectly honest, I don't think it helps that the literature is notably thin on actual *arguments* either way. At most we get a bald assertion that the earth is originally unowned from Nozick and co, then we get people like Cohen and Otsuka complaining that this assertion is 'blithe,' without putting forward any argument whatsoever for their alternative! So like I said, I'd be interested to know your thoughts, especially if you've come to some kind of stable reflective equilibrium on the issue.

Anonymous said...

Danny, have you seen Lew Rockwell's "The General Line"? He says:

"From the right we get a love of property, local political control, and bourgeois culture (and yes, that includes its roots in faith). Also, it is from this tradition that we inherit love of the market economy. People say we make the market a god. It’s more correct to say that we see in commerce the hand of God using the free actions and choices of billions of people to create orderliness where the pseudo-god of government only creates chaos and destruction. The glory and mystery of global commerce has been observed for thousands of years, but it is no less wondrous to see in our everyday lives how it is that people pursuing their self-interest in peace can only promote the interest of society.

"From the left, we inherit a deep suspicion of power, a critical attitude toward the status quo, a defense of cosmopolitanism, a belief in the universal rights of man, and the desire to expose the underlying interest-group relationships behind political control. The hatred of war has roots in the right and left, but the left seems decidedly less inclined to whoop it up for war these days. And like all good people of any persuasion, we reject collectivism in all its forms."

I see no reason why some of the best ideas that both the right and the left have produced cannot be profitably combined and incorporated into libertarianism.

Danny said...

Dan, thanks so much for stopping by and for the question! I thought it was worth addressing in its own post: On the "Other" Kind of Left-Libertarianism

Danny said...

Dmitry, I would argue that most of the values that can be gleaned from the right are largely those which come naturally from a solid understanding of economics. I don't think that those values are political so much as realistic. We defer to the market because we know the limitations of centralized government solutions. We know that freedom produces wealth more effectively than planning. We aren't fooled by lofty rhetoric. That's just being smart; I don't think that's particularly "rightist".

I do recognize that a respect for property has historically been more characteristic of the right than of the left. But I guess I think that the way I understand the justification for property rights (in terms of respecting others' need to live their own life according to their own plans) is pretty solidly in line with the kinds of reasons that would appeal to the left, as opposed perhaps to the reasons that would appeal to those on the right.

Anonymous said...

Reasons for private property rights that appeal to the left and the left's respecting others' need to live their own life? You must disagree with Rothbard's "apart from the tendency on the Left to employ coercion, the Left seems to be constitutionally incapable of leaving people alone in the most fundamental sense; it seems incapable of refraining from a continual pestering, haranguing and harassment of everyone in sight or earshot." Is today's left any different?

Danny said...

Well there are two schools of thought that are getting combined in Rothbard's analysis. One group on the left takes after the Marxist tradition, where the problem with the existing society is that it is exploitative. Because the members of the proletariat don't have access to the means of production, they are forced into wage slavery, depriving them of the capacity to live their own lives. This school of thought, I think, could be amenable to a libertarian approach to political philosophy, and is the group on the left that I had in mind in my previous comment.

Another school on the left, though, takes after rationalist perfectionism, and sees the role of society as being to promote the good however possible. This school of thought is, I think, very much opposed to libertarianism on a fundamental level. Rather than seeing people as worthy of respect, this view sees them as ill-suited for taking care of themselves and in need of a watchful nanny. This is the group that Rothbard had in mind in the quotation you presented. Confronting folks like these must be done simply on the grounds of economic theory; the insights of the Austrians and the Public Choice school seem like the perfect retort. But libertarian ideas simply won't work on these people unless they learn to respect and love people instead of scoff at them.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how Marxism, a school of thought which I thought to be the polar opposite of libertarianism "could be amenable to a libertarian approach to political philosophy." Are you trying to convert Marxists to libertarianism? Isn't that very difficult? Or are there strands of thought within Marxism that appeal to you? I understand how that could happen: both Marxists and libertarians are radicals; both think the present political order is exploitative (Marxists, by capitalists; libertarians, by the state and its friends). But Marxism seems to me to come with too much nonsense. For Mises it was polylogism and wrong economic theory; Rothbard identified its crazy theological underpinnings; I've just blogged on his ridiculous sociology. I mean, if you think there is anything valuable in it, just use those few nuggets and forget about Marxism as a system of thought.

By the way, have you seen Walter Block's Libertarianism is unique; it belongs neither to the right nor the left: a critique of the views
of Long, Holcombe, and Baden on the left, Hoppe, Feser and Paul on the right

Danny said...

The core idea is that libertarians and Marxists both think that coercion is wrong, and both think about coercion in ways that are very similar. G.A. Cohen shows how this commitment actually ends up destroying the Marxist position in Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality, but where he argues that Marxists should reject self-ownership and embrace egalitarianism, I argue that they should insist on self-ownership and see where it takes them.

Marx himself has some really great stuff about freedom and self-determination, and his application of Hegelian idealism to the individual life is the only instance I've ever seen personally of Hegel being used in a truly productive way. There's surely a lot of chaff in Marx, largely due both to his acceptance of the labor theory of value and his failure to recognize the implications of his own characterization of class ideology. But that doesn't mean that he should be ignored, and it especially doesn't mean that we should ignore the reasons why people find him so compelling.

That being said, if you don't want to play with the Marxists, that's okay too. I just like Marx (more than a lot libertarian thinkers!), and think he has a lot to offer.

I haven't checked out Block's essay; I'll do that when I get a chance. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I'd like to see you discuss the good parts of Marx in future essays.

I've actually blogged on Cohen's Rescuing Justice and Equality extensively.

Danny said...

Dmitry, I've posted a response to a part of Dr. Block's essay here: Walter Block on Sexism: Straddling the Line Between Thin Libertarianism and Vulgar Libertarianism.

And I'll definitely try to find something to say about Marxist thought as I move forward. I've already written on alienation and distributive justice, where I think Marxist thought provides us with valuable insights (even if I don't necessarily agree with Marx), so you might be interested in those posts.

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