Sheldon Richman, "The Libertarian Left"

The Libertarian Left:
Free-Market Anti-Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal
Sheldon Richman

Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign introduced many people to the word
“libertarian.” Since Paul is a Republican and Republicans, like
libertarians, use the rhetoric of free markets and private enterprise,
people naturally assume that libertarians are some kind of quirky
offshoot of the American right wing. To be sure, some libertarian
positions fit uneasily with mainstream conservatism—complete drug
decriminalization, legal same-sex marriage, and the critique of the
national-security state alienate many on the right from libertarianism.

But the dominant strain of libertarianism still seems at home on that
side of the political spectrum. Paeans to property rights and free
enterprise—the mainstream libertarian conviction that the American
capitalist system, despite government intervention, fundamentally
embodies those values—appear to justify that conclusion.

But then one runs across passages like this: “Capitalism, arising as a
new class society directly from the old class society of the Middle
Ages, was founded on an act of robbery as massive as the earlier feudal
conquest of the land. It has been sustained to the present by continual
state intervention to protect its system of privilege without which its
survival is unimaginable.” And this: “build worker solidarity. On the
one hand, this means formal organisation, including unionization—but I’m
not talking about the prevailing model of ‘business unions’ … but real
unions, the old-fashioned kind, committed to the working class and not
just union members, and interested in worker autonomy, not government

These passages—the first by independent scholar Kevin Carson, the second
by Auburn University philosophy professor Roderick Long—read as though
they come not from libertarians but from radical leftists, even
Marxists. That conclusion would be only half wrong: these words were
written by pro-free-market left-libertarians. (The preferred term for
their economic ideal is “freed market,” coined by William Gillis.)

These authors—and a growing group of colleagues—see themselves as both
libertarians and leftists. They are standard libertarians in that they
believe in the moral legitimacy of private ownership and free exchange
and oppose all government interference in personal and economic
affairs—a groundless, pernicious dichotomy. Yet they are leftists in
that they share traditional left-wing concerns, about exploitation and
inequality for example, that are largely ignored, if not dismissed, by
other libertarians. Left-libertarians favor worker solidarity vis-à-vis
bosses, support poor people’s squatting on government or abandoned
property, and prefer that corporate privileges be repealed before the
regulatory restrictions on how those privileges may be exercised. They
see Walmart as a symbol of corporate favoritism—supported by highway
subsidies and eminent domain—view the fictive personhood of the
limited-liability corporation with suspicion, and doubt that Third World
sweatshops would be the “best alternative” in the absence of government

Left-libertarians tend to eschew electoral politics, having little
confidence in strategies that work through the government. They prefer
to develop alternative institutions and methods of working around the
state. The Alliance of the Libertarian Left encourages the formation of
local activist and mutual-aid organizations, while its website promotes
kindred groups and posts articles elaborating its philosophy. The new
Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) encourages left-libertarians to
bring their analysis of current events to the general public through op-eds.

These laissez-faire left-libertarians are not to be confused with other
varieties of left-wing libertarians, such as Noam Chomsky or Hillel
Steiner, who each in his own way objects to individualistic
appropriation of unowned natural resources and the economic inequality
that freed markets can produce. The left-libertarians under
consideration here have been called “market-oriented left-libertarians”
or “market anarchists,” though not everyone in this camp is an anarchist.

There are historical grounds for placing pro-market libertarianism on
the left. In the first half of the 19th century, the laissez-faire
liberal economist Frederic Bastiat sat on the left side of the French
National Assembly with other radical opponents of the ancien régime,
including a variety of socialists. The right side was reserved for
reactionary defenders of absolute monarchy and plutocracy. For a long
time “left” signified radical, even revolutionary, opposition to
political authority, fired by hope and optimism, while “right” signified
sympathy for a status quo of privilege or a return to an authoritarian
order. These terms applied even in the United States well into the 20th
century and only began to change during the New Deal, which prompted
regrettable alliances of convenience that carried over into the Cold War
era and beyond.

At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two wellsprings of modern
pro-market left-libertarianism: the theory of political economy
formulated by Murray N. Rothbard and the philosophy known as “Mutualism”
associated with the pro-market anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon—who sat
with Bastiat on the left side of the assembly while arguing with him
incessantly about economic theory—and the American individualist
anarchist Benjamin R. Tucker.

Rothbard (1926-1995) was the leading theorist of radical Lockean
libertarianism combined with Austrian economics, which demonstrates that
free markets produce widespread prosperity, social cooperation, and
economic coordination without monopoly, depression, or inflation—evils
whose roots are to be found in government intervention. Rothbard, who
called himself an “anarcho-capitalist,” first saw himself as a man of
the “Old Right,” the loose collection of opponents of the New Deal and
American Empire epitomized by Sen. Robert Taft, journalist John T.
Flynn, and more radically, Albert Jay Nock. Yet Rothbard understood
libertarianism’s left-wing roots.

In his 1965 classic and sweeping essay “Left and Right: The Prospects
for Liberty,” Rothbard identified “liberalism”—what is today called
libertarianism—with the left as “the party of hope, of radicalism, of
liberty, of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity.” The
other great ideology to emerge after the French revolution “was
conservatism, the party of reaction, the party that longed to restore
the hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of
the Old Order.”

When the New Left arose in the 1960s to oppose the Vietnam War, the
military-industrial complex, and bureaucratic centralization, Rothbard
easily made common cause with it. “The Left has changed greatly, and it
is incumbent upon everyone interested in ideology to understand the
change… . [T]he change marks a striking and splendid infusion of
libertarianism into the ranks of the Left,” he wrote in “Liberty and
the New Left.” His left-radicalism was clear in his interest in
decentralization and participatory democracy, pro-peasant land reform in
the feudal Third World, “black power,” and worker “homesteading” of
American corporations whose profits came mainly from government contracts.

But with the fading of New Left, Rothbard deemphasized these positions
and moved strategically toward right-wing paleoconservatism. His
left-libertarian colleague, the former Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess
(1923-1994), kept the torch burning. In Dear America Hess wrote, “On the
far right, law and order means the law of the ruler and the order that
serves the interest of that ruler, usually the orderliness of drone
workers, submissive students, elders either totally cowed into loyalty
or totally indoctrinated and trained into that loyalty,” while the left
“has been the side of politics and economics that opposes the
concentration of power and wealth and, instead, advocates and works
toward the distribution of power into the maximum number of hands.”

Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939) was the editor of Liberty, the leading
publication of American individualist anarchism. As a Mutualist, Tucker
rigorously embraced free markets and voluntary exchange void of all
government privilege and regulation. Indeed, he called himself a
“consistent Manchester man,” a reference to the economic philosophy of
the English free-traders Richard Cobden and John Bright. Tucker
disdained defenders of the American status quo who, while favoring free
competition among workers for jobs, supported capitalist suppression of
competition among employers through government’s “four monopolies”:
land, the tariff, patents, and money.

“What causes the inequitable distribution of wealth?” Tucker asked in
1892. “It is not competition, but monopoly, that deprives labor of its
product. … Destroy the banking monopoly, establish freedom in finance,
and down will go interest on money through the beneficent influence of
competition. Capital will be set free, business will flourish, new
enterprises will start, labor will be in demand, and gradually the wages
of labor will rise to a level with its product.”

The Rothbardians and Mutualists have some disagreements over land
ownership and theories of value, but their intellectual
cross-pollination has brought the groups closer philosophically. What
unites them, and distinguishes them from other market libertarians, is
their embrace of traditional left-wing concerns, including the
consequences of plutocratic corporate power for workers and other
vulnerable groups. But left-libertarians differ from other leftists in
identifying the culprit as the historical partnership between government
and business—whether called the corporate state, state capitalism, or
just plain capitalism—and in seeing the solution in radical laissez
faire, the total separation of economy and state.

Thus behind the political-economic philosophy is a view of history that
separates left-libertarians from both ordinary leftists and ordinary
libertarians. The common varieties of both philosophies agree that
essentially free markets reigned in England from the time of the
Industrial Revolution, though they evaluate the outcome very
differently. But left-libertarians are revisionists, insisting that the
era of near laissez faire is a myth. Rather than a radical freeing of
economic affairs, England saw the ruling elite rig the social system on
behalf of propertied class interests. (Class analysis originated with
French free-market economists predating Marx.)

Through enclosure, peasants were dispossessed of land they and their kin
had worked for generations and were forcibly turned into rent-paying
tenants or wage-earners in the new factories with their rights to
organize and even to move restricted by laws of settlement, poor laws,
combination laws, and more. In the American colonies and early republic,
the system was similarly rigged through land grants and speculation (for
and by railroads, for example), voting restrictions, tariffs, patents,
and control of money and banking.

In other words, the twilight of feudalism and the dawn of capitalism did
not find everyone poised at the starting line as equals—far from it. As
the pro-market sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, who developed the conquest
theory of the state, wrote in his book The State, it was not superior
talent, ambition, thrift, or even luck that separated the
property-holding minority from the propertyless proletarian majority—but
legal plunder, to borrow Bastiat’s famous phrase.

Here is something Marx got right. Indeed, Kevin Carson seconds Marx’s
“eloquent passage”: “these new freedmen became sellers of themselves
only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production,
and of all the guarantees afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And
the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of
mankind in letters of blood and fire.”

This system of privilege and exploitation has had long-distorting
effects that continue to afflict most people to this day, while
benefiting the ruling elite; Carson calls it “the subsidy of history.”
This is not to deny that living standards have generally risen in
market-oriented mixed economies but rather to point out that living
standards for average workers would be even higher—not to mention less
debt-based—and wealth disparities less pronounced in a freed market.

The “free-market anti-capitalism” of left-libertarianism is no
contradiction, nor is it a recent development. It permeated Tucker’s
Liberty, and the identification of worker exploitation harked back at
least to Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869), a free-market radical who was one
of the first to apply the term “capitalist” disparagingly to the
beneficiaries of government favors bestowed on capital at the expense of
labor. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “socialism” did not
exclusively mean collective or government ownership of the means or
production but was an umbrella term for anyone who believed labor was
cheated out of its natural product under historical capitalism.

Tucker sometimes called himself a socialist, but he denounced Marx as
the representative of “the principle of authority which we live to
combat.” He thought Proudhon the superior theorist and the real champion
of freedom. “Marx would nationalize the productive and distributive
forces; Proudhon would individualize and associate them.”

The term capitalism certainly suggests that capital is to be privileged
over labor. As left-libertarian author Gary Chartier of La Sierra
University writes, “[I]t makes sense for [left-libertarians] to name
what they oppose ‘capitalism.’ Doing so … ensures that advocates of
freedom aren’t confused with people who use market rhetoric to prop up
an unjust status quo, and expresses solidarity between defenders of
freed markets and workers—as well as ordinary people around the world
who use ‘capitalism’ as a short-hand label for the world-system that
constrains their freedom and stunts their lives.”

In contrast to nonleft-libertarians, who seem uninterested in, if not
hostile to, labor concerns per se, left-libertarians naturally
sympathize with workers’ efforts to improve their conditions. (Bastiat,
like Tucker, supported worker associations.) However, there is little
affinity for government-certified bureaucratic unions, which represent
little more than a corporatist suppression of the pre-New Deal
spontaneous and self-directed labor/mutual-aid movement, with its
“unauthorized” sympathy strikes and boycotts. Before the New Deal Wagner
Act, big business leaders like GE’s Gerard Swope had long supported
labor legislation for this reason.

Moreover, left-libertarians tend to harbor a bias against wage
employment and the often authoritarian corporate hierarchy to which it
is subject. Workers today are handicapped by an array of regulations,
taxes, intellectual-property laws, and business subsidies that on net
impede entry to potential alternative employers and self-employment. As
well, periodic economic crises set off by government borrowing and
Federal Reserve management of money and banking threaten workers with
unemployment, putting them further at the mercy of bosses.

Competition-inhibiting cartelization diminishes workers’ bargaining
power, enabling employers to deprive them of a portion of the income
they would receive in a freed and fully competitive economy, where
employers would have to compete for workers—rather than vice versa—and
self-employment free of licensing requirements would offer an escape
from wage employment altogether. Of course, self-employment has its
risks and wouldn’t be for everyone, but it would be more attractive to
more people if government did not make the cost of living, and hence the
cost of decent subsistence, artificially high in myriad ways—from
building codes and land-use restrictions to product standards, highway
subsidies, and government-managed medicine.

In a freed market left-libertarians expect to see less wage employment
and more worker-owned enterprises, co-ops, partnerships, and single
proprietorships. The low-cost desktop revolution, Internet, and
inexpensive machine tools make this more feasible than ever. There would
be no socialization of costs through transportation subsidies to favor
nationwide over regional and local commerce. A spirit of independence
can be expected to prompt a move toward these alternatives for the
simple reason that employment to some extent entails subjecting oneself
to someone else’s arbitrary will and the chance of abrupt dismissal.
Because of the competition from self-employment, what wage employment
remained would most likely take place in less-hierarchical, more-humane
firms that, lacking political favors, could not socialize diseconomies
of scale as large corporations do today.

Left-libertarians, drawing on the work of New Left historians, also
dissent from the conservative and standard libertarian view that the
economic regulations of the Progressive Era and New Deal were imposed by
social democrats on an unwilling freedom-loving business community. On
the contrary, as Gabriel Kolko and others have shown, the corporate
elite—the House of Morgan, for example—turned to government intervention
when it realized in the waning 19th century that competition was too
unruly to guarantee market share.

Thus left-libertarians see post-Civil War America not as a golden era of
laissez faire but rather as a largely corrupt business-ruled outgrowth
of the war, which featured the usual military contracting and
speculation in government-securities. As in all wars, government gained
power and well-connected businessmen gained taxpayer-financed fortunes
and hence unfair advantage in the allegedly free market of the Gilded
Age. “War is the health of the state,” leftist intellectual Randolph
Bourne wrote. Civil war too.

These conflicting historical views are well illustrated in the writings
of the pro-capitalist novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1982) and Roy A. Childs
Jr. (1949-1992), a libertarian writer-editor with definite leftist
leanings. In the 1960s Rand wrote an essay with the self-explanatory
title “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business,” which Childs
answered with “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism.” “To a
large degree it has been and remains big businessmen who are the
fountainheads of American statism,” Childs wrote.

One way to view the separation of left-libertarians from other market
libertarians is this: the others look at the American economy and see an
essentially free market coated with a thin layer of Progressive and New
Deal intervention that need only to be scraped away to restore liberty.
Left-libertarians see an economy that is corporatist to its core,
although with limited competitive free enterprise. The programs
constituting the welfare state are regarded as secondary and
ameliorative, that is, intended to avert potentially dangerous social
discontent by succoring—and controlling—the people harmed by the system.

Left-libertarians clash with regular libertarians most frequently when
the latter display what Carson calls “vulgar libertarianism” and what
Roderick Long calls “Right-conflationism.” This consists of judging
American business in today’s statist environment as though it were
taking place in the freed market. Thus while nonleft-libertarians
theoretically recognize that big business enjoys monopolistic
privileges, they also defend corporations when they come under attack
from the left on grounds that if they were not serving consumers, the
competitive market would punish them. “Vulgar libertarian apologists for
capitalism use the term ‘free market’ in an equivocal sense,” Carson
writes, “[T]hey seem to have trouble remembering, from one moment to the
next, whether they’re defending actually existing capitalism or free
market principles.”

Signs of Right-conflationism can be seen in the common mainstream
libertarian defensiveness at leftist criticism of income inequality,
America’s corporate structure, high oil prices, or the healthcare
system. If there’s no free market, why be defensive? You can usually
make a nonleft-libertarian mad by comparing Western Europe favorably
with the United States. To this, Carson writes, “[I]f you call yourself
a libertarian, don’t try to kid anybody that the American system is less
statist than the German one just because more of the welfare queens wear
three-piece suits… . [I]f we’re choosing between equal levels of
statism, of course I’ll take the one that weighs less heavily on my own

True to their heritage, left-libertarians champion other historically
oppressed groups: the poor, women, people of color, gays, and
immigrants, documented or not. Left-libertarians see the poor not as
lazy opportunists but rather as victims of the statemyriad barriers to
self-help, mutual aid, and decent education. Left-libertarians of course
oppose government oppression of women and minorities, but they wish to
combat nonviolent forms of social oppression such as racism and sexism
as well. Since these are not carried out by force, the measures used to
oppose them also may not entail force or the state. Thus, sex and racial
discrimination are to be fought through boycotts, publicity, and
demonstrations, not violence or antidiscrimination laws. For
left-libertarians, southern lunch-counter racism was better battled
through peaceful sit-ins than with legislation in Washington, which
merely ratified what direct action had been accomplishing without help
from the white elite.

Why do left-libertarians qua libertarians care about nonviolent,
nonstate oppression? Because libertarianism is premised on the dignity
and self-ownership of the individual, which sexism and racism deny. Thus
all forms of collectivist hierarchy undermine the libertarian attitude
and hence the prospects for a free society.

In a word, left-libertarians favor equality. Not material equality—that
can’t be had without oppression and the stifling of initiative. Not mere
equality under the law—for the law might be oppressive. And not just
equal freedom—for an equal amount of a little freedom is intolerable.
They favor what Roderick Long, drawing on John Locke, calls equality in
authority: “Lockean equality involves not merely equality before
legislators, judges, and police, but, far more crucially, equality with
legislators, judges, and police.”

Finally, like most ordinary libertarians, left-libertarians adamantly
oppose war and the American empire. They embrace an essentially economic
analysis of imperialism: privileged firms seek access to resources,
foreign markets for surplus goods, and ways to impose
intellectual-property laws on emerging industrial societies to keep
foreign manufacturers from driving down prices through competition.
(This is not to say there aren’t additional, political factors behind
the drive for empire.)

These days left-libertarians feel vindicated. American foreign policy
has embroiled the country in endless overt and covert wars, with their
high cost in blood and treasure, in the resource-rich Middle East and
Central Asia—with torture, indefinite detention, and surveillance among
other assaults on domestic civil liberties thrown in for good measure.
Meanwhile, the historical Washington-Wall Street alliance—in which
recklessness with other people’s money, fostered by guarantees,
bailouts, and Federal Reserve liquidity masquerades as deregulation—has
brought yet another financial crisis with its heavy toll for average
Americans, additional job insecurity, and magnified Wall Street influence.

Such nefariousness can only hasten the day when people discover the
left-libertarian alternative. Is that expectation realistic? Perhaps.
Many Americans sense that something is deeply wrong with their country.
They feel their lives are controlled by large government and corporate
bureaucracies that consume their wealth and treat them like subjects.
Yet they have little taste for European-style social democracy, much
less full-blown state socialism. Left-libertarianism may be what they’re
looking for. As the Mutualist Carson writes, “Because of our fondness
for free markets, mutualists sometimes fall afoul of those who have an
aesthetic affinity for collectivism, or those for whom ‘petty bourgeois’
is a swear word. But it is our petty bourgeois tendencies that put us in
the mainstream of the American populist/radical tradition, and make us
relevant to the needs of average working Americans.”

Carson believes ordinary citizens are coming to “distrust the
bureaucratic organizations that control their communities and working
lives, and want more control over the decisions that affect them. They
are open to the possibility of decentralist, bottom-up alternatives to
the present system.” Let’s hope he’s right.

Sheldon Richman blogs at Free Association.