Left Libertarian: A Tradition That Champions Equality and Social Justice

By | Updated September 1st, 2021

Can libertarians be of the Left? 

Many would laugh at such a question. After all, libertarianism tends to be a fervently pro-free market ideology. But all ideologies have their shades of grey. With libertarianism being no exception to the trend. 

The left libertarian tradition is one that champions equality and social justice under the framework of a free-market economy. The leftist libertarian political economy stresses a separation of economy and state while championing mutual ownership of resources in a voluntary manner. 

Left Libertarians’ Unique Views 

A strong skepticism of the prevailing mixed economy defines what is a left libertarian. 

Their beliefs on ownership are particularly nuanced. Natural resources such as land, oil, and trees can be subject to collective ownership. While left libertarians respect private property more than most of the prominent forces on the left, they do not fully eschew collective forms of property ownership. 

Voluntary co-operatives, communes, and other worker-driven arrangements can be used to empower workers and allow them to enjoy material benefits without having to face capitalist exploitation. 

Going back to natural resources, individuals in a leftist libertrian order can still use the aforementioned commonly-owned goods. But there’s a catch: The use of such resources can only occur after society grants these individuals permission. In order to gain permission, individuals must make a payment to society at large. 

The Intellectual Basis for Left Libertarian Economic Thought

Such logic is inspired by the thought of 19th century economist Henry George, who pushed for a land tax. George’s views on property rights were somewhat unique by United States standards, which tended to be more rooted in classical liberalism or free-market conservatism. In contrast, George saw land as a commonly-held resource and could not be held exclusively by an individual.

This conception of land ownership stood in contrast to the views of John Locke, who believed that land could be privately owned and homesteaded by individuals. Lockean views of private property tend to be more prevalent among Republicans, right-wing libertarians, and other classical liberal adjacent movements.

The Overlap and Differences Between Leftist Libertarians and Anti-Property Movements

Left-wing libertarians have a lot in common with collectivist and Marxist views on private property, at least in a conceptual sense. Although the similarities have limits. Advocates of collectivism on the authoritarian left are more likely to use state power to achieve their ends at the expense of individual freedom. 

At the end of the day, left libertarians come in all shapes. They don’t generally dismiss the insights of Marxism and incorporate some of the anti-property beliefs of the renowned left anarchist thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. 

Proudhon is widely viewed as the father of the political philosophy of anarchism and is famous for his quip “property is theft.”

Like libertarian socialists, the libertarians of the left go beyond concepts of self-ownership and stress the need for voluntary institutions that close inequality gaps. Left-wing libertarians sympathize with economic redistribution of resources, albeit in a voluntary manner to correct disparities in inequality. 

American philosopher Gary Chartier is a prominent anarchist who blends certain facets of libertarian thought with an anarchist agenda to create a stateless society. Chartier’s brand of anarchism doesn’t take a statist approach to addressing the question of allocating resources, but his vision for a stateless society remains rather unique.

How Left Libertarians Differ From Other Libertarians

Overall, left-libertarians are not fans of corporate power. 

This is in line with long-standing traditions of left anarchism and libertarian socialism that do not automatically praise big business and see corporations as extensions of state oppression. 

This lies in contrast to more right-leaning libertarians, who tend to be influenced by economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. This more conventional pro-business sect doesn’t have problems with big business per se.

Pro-capitalist strains of anarchism such as anarcho-capitalism also tend to favor capitalist institutions and don’t view corporations as negatively. Non-aggression and self-ownership are put on a pedestal by right libertarians. 

The Right Libertarian Focus on Markets and Private Property

General libertarian theory tends to focus heavily on free markets, individual rights, freedom of association, and limiting state involvement in the economy. Some of the libertarians more influenced by philosopher Ayn Rand and economist Murray Rothbard tend to be stauncher defenders of capitalism. 

In light of these basic principles, the typical libertarian doesn’t spend much time talking about social justice. They don’t hold egalitarian beliefs and emphasize natural rights like right wing libertarians and anarchists. 

The Leftist Libertarian View of Inequality

Proponents of left libertarianism believe that there are structural forms of inequality and injustice that certain disadvantaged groups have faced in society. For the sake of maintaining a dignified society, they believe that these social problems must be addressed.

By contrast, right-libertarians do not have problems with natural hierarchies or social traditions per se. In fact, they see them as a natural part of life that should not merit state activism to supposedly “correct.”

Leftist libertarian views on hierarchies are rather nuanced. Some argue that certain leadership structures in society are rooted in backwards, authoritarian institutions that inhibit certain personal and political freedoms.

Left-wing libertarians don’t categorically reject egalitarianism. They believe that a non-state approach of activating communal activism can reach this goal. Many right-wing critics of left libertarianism, who tend to be more individualist and receptive of private ownership of resources, take issue with certain premises of the libertarian left. 

For proponents of right-libertarianism, left libertarians come off as bleeding hearts who fail to acknowledge that certain forms of inequality are natural and inevitable aspects of the human condition. Right libertarians believe that holding pro-egalitarian premises lends credence to state-promoted efforts to socially reconstruct society.

How Left Libertarians Differ From Contemporary Liberals

A left wing libertarian may at first appear to have similarities with proponents of left wing liberalism, given their affinities to addressing issues of racial and social inequities that they perceive to be enduring features of contemporary society. 

A libertarian leftist, however, would be much more hesitant towards using the administrative state to solve these perceived problems. 

Similarly, advocates of left-libertarianism would also be uneasy about “woke” corporations taking up the mantle of fighting “systemic racism.” For them, these gestures are PR stunts that obscure some of the more egregious acts of corporate malfeasance that big business is involved in. 

To the libertarians of the left, big business works in tandem with the state, as evidenced by the granting of subsidies and other forms of state privilege that benefit well-established corporations. 

Unlike social democrats, modern liberals, and other left-leaning proponents of mixed economies, left libertarians want to rethink the current political economic paradigm altogether.

The Consensus on Foreign Policy Restraint

Those of the libertarian left persuasion are staunch non-interventionists. On this issue, they are in line with the overwhelming majority of libertarians. The only time war is justified is when a political community suffers a direct attack. 

However, libertarian leftists view wars as imperialist ventures that transfer wealth from the poor to politically-connected defense enterprises. 

The libertarian left agreed with the New Left on the opposition to conflicts such as the Vietnam war and would form transpartisan alliances to rise against the warfare state. One of the most well-known figures from the New Left that served as an inspiration to the libertarian left was the American linguist Noam Chomsky,

Chomsky would later become one of the leading voices of leftist anarchist thought in the U.S. His firm critiques of the U.S. government’s expansive foreign policy have made him an icon in anti-war circles. 

Left-libertarianism sees the perpetual wars of the past century as tools to not only bring destruction abroad, but also curtail civil liberties at home.

Political Strategy of the Libertarian Left

Libertarian leftists are not necessarily political in the sense that they involve themselves in partisan politics. The Libertarian Party does have some left-libertarian factions in its ranks, but these sects tend to be more involved in more grassroots political efforts, academia, or influencing general culture. The more liberal libertarians who hold conventional beliefs about limited government are more likely to partake in Libertarian Party politics. 

Undoubtedly, libertarians of the left would eschew activism within the Republican Party. Leftists libertarians do not see eye-to-eye with movement conservatism on a host of economic and social issues. In the later case, the libertarian left would argue that traditional conservative beliefs generate massive polarization.

Leftist libertarians tend to be pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, arguing that efforts to regulate these activities impedes on people’s ability to exercise their individual freedoms

Concluding Thoughts

It would be misleading to suggest that left libertarians are directly descended from the likes of thinkers such as Karl Marx. Indeed, they do share beliefs that align with marxist and anarcho-syndicalist thinkers. 

However, libertarians of the left do offer a unique take on building a more just society without having to use a heavy-handed state to realize this vision. In addition, the leftist libertarian tradition provides thoughtful critiques on excessive corporate power. 

Libertarian leftists do not promise utopia, but they do offer an alternative path that appeals to a wide spectrum of people disaffected by the current state of American politics. Like most unorthodox political philosophies, leftist libertarian ideas are worthy of vigorous debate.

In a time dominated by outrage politics and sensationalism, the left libertarian vision for society is perhaps a reasonable approach in finding a unique way to solve society’s current problems.

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