My Tentative Embrace of Left-Libertarianism

Logo of the Alliance of the Libertarian Left
In the profile section of my Facebook page and increasingly in conversation when asked, I’m describing my political orientation as “left-libertarian” rather than “progressive” or “liberal”. I kind of feel like an adolescent experimenting with or trying on for size a persona that they are intrigued with but may not yet be fully comfortable with. Perhaps in wrestling with principles built around the primacy of liberty, I’m trying to rationalize some sort of continuity with ideas that I inherited from my parents. My mom always saying that in terms of parenting principles, that “kids will tell you what they need”, and when it came to education, “teachers should run the schools”. My father (though never explicitly stated as far as I can recall) believing that life at its best is an adventure, with twists and turns and outcomes always in doubt.

In at least tentatively embracing left-libertarianism, I’m fully aware that the political orientation of “libertarianism” is typically associated (by progressives and liberals) with a “hands off my private property” kind of radical conservatism or more recently dad Ron and offspring Rand Paul. That is an orientation that I suggest be better called “right-libertarianism”, because the championing of small government and private property are ideas that most conservatives find common ground with.

Maybe a purer statement of libertarianism can be found in the mission statement of the Cato Institute as called out in Wikipedia…

To broaden the parameters of public policy debate to allow consideration of the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets, and peace.

I think people identified on the left side of a linear political spectrum can find a lot of common ground with those principles, particularly peace, but the others as well, with caveats and concerns. (See my piece “Left-Libertarianism and a Broader Political Spectrum” imagining more of a triangular than a linear political spectrum.)

People on the left are generally associated with support of a broader concept of government and its promotion of equal opportunity, regulation of business, providing universal public education and a social safety net. Yet most also support limiting government intrusion into matters related to reproductive rights, sexual orientation, and moralistic regulation of behavior.

Folks on the left generally have issues with unrestricted liberty regarding private property, but generally resonate with the principle of individual liberty in the form of “follow your heart” as long as we work to give that opportunity to everyone and not just people of wealth or other privilege.

And though many on the left have issues with capitalism, unfettered “big business”, or at least a market that is “free” in the sense of being totally unregulated, most beyond the most extreme socialists accept the principle of “free enterprise” and the choices that “the marketplace” can provide if properly calibrated by government regulation.

Looking at the Wikipedia article on Left-libertarianism, it calls out a number of flavors within this broad heading, including “social anarchism” with some principles that I identify with…

Social anarchism sees “individual freedom as conceptually connected with social equality and emphasize community and mutual aid.” Social anarchism rejects private property, seeing it as a source of social inequality.

Though there can often be conflicts between individualism and a more community-focused way of thinking, I think this can be a creative and productive tension, and agree with the connection between individual freedom, community and mutual aid. And though I don’t completely reject private property, I do see it more in terms of a limited stewardship rather than outright ownership.

Further on in the Wikipedia article the concept of “self-ownership” is referred to…

Self-ownership is the concept of property in one’s own person, expressed as the moral or natural right of a person to be the exclusive controller of his own body and life which naturally includes the Inherent Birthright to free access to Land to secure those rights. According to G. Cohen, the concept of self-ownership is that “each person enjoys, over himself and his powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that he has not contracted to supply.

Though I have not thought through the whole “free access to land” thing I resonate with the above statement, particularly the idea of controlling ones own destiny and freely contracting with, rather than being compelled by others. I would particularly like to see these ideas reflected more in how students are viewed in public schools and relationships between adults and youth in general. (Something I’ve expounded on extensively in a lot of my work.)

Furthermore, the Wikipedia article calls out a connection between left-libertarianism and the concept of egalitarianism…

Its general premise is that people should be treated as equals on certain dimensions such as religion, politics, economics, social status, and culture. Egalitarian doctrines maintain that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status. It is defined either as a political doctrine that all people should be treated as equals and have the same political, economic, social, and civil rights or as a social philosophy advocating the removal of economic inequalities among people or the decentralization of power.

In Unitarian-Universalist ethics this doctrine is reflected in the principle of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”. Certainly a principle that is shared with most people on the left side of the political spectrum. And I interpret the concept of “removal of economic inequities” as being focused on equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome.

Left-libertarianism is also associated with the “non-aggression principle”, which is a broader concept of “peace” than just ending military aggression and coercion. Again according to Wikipedia it is…

An ethical stance which asserts that “aggression” is inherently illegitimate. “Aggression” is defined as the “initiation” of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property. In contrast to pacifism, the non-aggression principle does not preclude defense.

Looking back at my 55 years in this incarnation, I don’t recall ever having been in a physical fight with another human being, but I do recall many occasions of having to “defend myself” in terms of continuing to chart my own course rather than be compelled to change direction by others representing some sort of conventional authority.

And finally, regarding the concept of an unregulated “free market”, I am not comfortable with this, seeing it as license for exploitation and the assertion of hierarchical authority through the accumulation of money and economic power. I do resonate toward an idea of “free enterprise” in an environment that facilitates individual and group initiatives in terms of starting businesses, schools, or other organizations to achieve individual or group goals or otherwise contribute to the community. An environment that involves facilitative rather than directive regulation.

That last point I think is an interesting and critical one. A lot of right-libertarians see all external authority (except perhaps God’s) and resulting regulation as naturally directive and suspect. I see (or at least envision) a fundamentally different form of authority that is agreed to through democratic process and facilitative rather than directive in nature.

So for example, rules and regulations that facilitate universal health care coverage I would argue facilitate “free enterprise”, by freeing people to be more entrepreneurial by not having to consider the consequences of job changes or self-employment on maintaining their health insurance.

And while I agree that universal access to taxpayer financed public education is a good thing, where I part company with most progressives and liberals is that I oppose the rules and regulations that direct young people to go to school and study a standardized curriculum in a regimented sequence. I see this as limiting that same “free enterprise” as applied in the broad sense of the enterprise of human development.

For me, trying to flesh out this left-libertarian position and whether it fits me, I want to champion the principle of human liberty and creativity in all areas, and the possibility of facilitating egalitarian governance that can promote rather than squelch it. Again, liberty and regulation have classically been at odds with each other, but the latter has been associated with a hierarchical context of external authority, of rules made by an elite in order to control everyone else. I’m wrestling with reframing regulation in a facilitative and egalitarian context, that somehow contributes to creating an enriched environment for liberty, creativity and free enterprise.

So where I’m at is more work in progress than final destination, so I need to do much more thinking, writing and discussion on this. Your thoughts as always, are requested and facilitative of my process.

5 replies on “My Tentative Embrace of Left-Libertarianism”

  1. Ah – Free Access to Land. The True mark of any truly mature civilization. It’s very easy to understand the principle. If a man or woman is to have complete ownership over themselves they must have Free Access to Land. As everyone need to reside somewhere, the alternative is forced entry into some form of employment either for oneself or for another in order to earn money to purchase Land. This places the concept of money above the concept of Life and we all know in our hearts of hearts that Life is invaluable so reasoning follows – like a little Lamb – that for individuals to be Truly Free there must be an Inherent Birthright to the Free Access to Land. There are simple ways to accomplish this in today’s system with very little pain to the current social structure and what flows out of such an action in the long run is by far the most stable society humanity has yet encountered. We can chat about this more if you like. Just let me know.

  2. While we may differ in some areas,I think your blog is quite interesting.I myself,am a left-libertarian anarchist who sharply disassociates from ‘right libertarianism’.You might find my blog interesting in understanding and exploring how left-libertarians tend to think about things.

  3. Scott… glad you liked my piece!

    What I like about anarchist ideas is the concept of informal governance at a more human level that involves the agency of everyone, not just experts and “superiors”. I’m all about our societal transition over the sweep of millennia from hierarchies of control toward a circle of equals, and even engaging youth in that circle. You might also like my post on my initial flirting with anarchist ideas…

  4. Hello there! I really enjoyed this post and it also helped me identify more with Left Libertarianism. For a long time, I was your regular neo-liberal, but in 2012 or so I woke up to see the bigger picture of “politics” and how neither the mainstream left or right in this country (USA) have the solutions we truly need.

    This was all sparked by Ron Paul, from his messages of liberty and freedom. I was a staunch supporter of him but more recently, I realized the idea of a free market is not so appealing. Like you mentioned, it opens up the marketplace to a lot of exploitation, mainly of low-wealth individuals and Mother Earth herself… So, this is where I broke from Right Libertarianism!


  5. Hey Logan… glad to hear from someone else who is taking a fresh look at our politics! My own interest in left-libertarianism was sparked by reading and hearing the ideas of radical educator and libertarian John Taylor Gatto.

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