Article By Noah Mickel
My opposition to Left Libertarianism is very well documented, but I’m concerned I haven’t given the philosophy a coherent response. Now, after reading essays from figures within this movement, from Spooner, Tucker, and Proudhon to Long, Johnson, and Chartier, I feel I’m prepared to respond to the philosophy in full. Before I continue, I want to be clear: I’m not one to write people out of the movement. Unlike some of my friends in the Anarcho-Capitalist sphere, I think Left Libertarians fall within the big-tent of libertarianism, like the Objectivists and Tea Party Conservatives. However, I do have more qualms with the former than I do the latter two.
My first issue with Left Libertarianism regards their opposition to “capitalism.” Gary Chartier’s essay “Advocates of Freed Markets Should Oppose Capitalism” lays out his reasoning for opposing “capitalism,” and remains one of the seminal modern works of Left-Libertarianism. He begins by describing capitalism as three distinguishable “senses”:
capitalism1– “An economic system that features personal property rights and voluntary exchanges of goods and services.”
capitalism2– “An economic system that features a symbiotic relationship between big business and government.”
capitalism3– “Rule – of workplaces, society, and (if there is one) the state – by capitalists (that is, by a relatively small number of people who control investable wealth and the means of productions).”
Further on in the following paragraph, he describes capitalism1 is just a free market, or as Chartier calls it, a “Freed Market”, with which he has no issue. In the following sections, he explains how these other “senses” of capitalism are used in everyday language, particularly by the general populous. The dispute I have here is capitalism, as it is defined in most other pro-free market work, is solely capitalism1. Ayn Rand defines capitalism as “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights,” in her book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Hans-Hermann Hoppe describes capitalism as “an institutionalized policy of the recognition of property and contractualism,” in A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism. Despite their huge philosophical differences, both Rand and Hoppe acknowledge that private ownership and voluntary exchange are the essence of capitalism.
Later on in the essay, Chartier goes into “why capitalism2 and capitalism3 are inconsistent with free market principles.” As shown above, capitalism1 is consistently the essence of capitalism across free market ideologies, so the argument that some other description of “capitalism” is in opposition to free market principles means the system being defined as “capitalism” is in fact missing the central tenets of capitalism, and of free markets – private property rights and voluntary exchange. In the piece, Chartier states “free market anti-capitalism” isn’t oxymoronic, as they are opposing capitalism in its latter two senses. Those two senses, however, are not capitalism, but rather a corruption of capitalism through institutionalized violations of private property rights.
In part four of his essay, Chartier gives strategic reasons for opposing capitalism, particularly the use of the word “capitalism” in place of the term “free market,” as a free market advocate. Based on the reasoning above, I would be sacrificing a word clearly defined as “private property and voluntary exchange” to do things like “expressing solidarity with workers” and to “reclaim ‘socialism’ for free market radicals.” With the understanding of what socialism means today, none of the seven goals he lists seem worthwhile with the cost of intentionally misusing terms like capitalism, socialism, or aggression.
Opposition to “capitalism” isn’t my only issue. Their conception of “property” is incredibly flawed. Left-Libertarians, most notably Mutualists like Kevin Carson, oppose specific types of property and contract for a variety of reasons. However, none of their complaints regard any kind of aggression, at least in the specific definition of “physical force against another’s private property”. For example, many Left-Libertarians believe landlord-lessee relationships are illegitimate, where a landlord who controls the use of an apartment or home, and a lessee voluntarily enters into a contract with that landlord to use that space. Their argument – property is only legitimate if you use it. This position is growing in popularity, evidenced by the recent Libertarian Socialist caucus rise within the Libertarian Party, with their catchphrase “rent is theft.” To the typical libertarian, this is a perfectly legitimate, voluntary transaction. To the Left-Libertarian, this is theft, because the landlord doesn’t “own” the building, as he never uses the building. This conception has a number of issues, particularly in the scope of its application, and the maintenance of these preferences.
The typical Left-Libertarian conception of property follows a tradition of the Mutualists, starting with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Put simply, they believe in “occupancy-and-use” norms, or opposition to absentee ownership. The problem with this lies in the upholding of these particular norms. If they believe absentee ownership is an “aggression,” then force may be used to regain this property, which creates unclear lines upon when aggression can be used. How long does something need to be vacated for me to appropriate a building for my own use? If the person comes back to that building, can I use force against them to maintain occupancy of the building they previously maintained and lived in? Regardless, due to my belief in the definition of property a la Locke, any kind of usurpation of property just due to vacancy or lack of use is theft. Hence, you cannot defend these “norms” through force, as they cannot be justified as aggressions.
If occupancy and use norms aren’t aggressions, we need to understand them as nothing more than undefendable preferences. If they aren’t aggressions, these “norms” are merely personal oppositions to certain kinds of ownership. Due to the scope of political philosophy, what you want people to do is irrelevant unless you’re asking if you can use force to maintain your ‘preference’. Occupancy and use norms are either illegitimate uses of force or undefendable preferences which fall outside of the scope of political philosophy.
Despite my oppositions to their views on “capitalism” and property norms, neither are as fundamentally problematic and appalling to me as “thickism”. A key part of Left Libertarianism, thickism is now ubiquitous to the Left Libertarian movement, as opposed to the “thin anarchism” of Benjamin Tucker. It should be made clear, however, that the concept of thickism is a part of many ideologies, including the so-called Alt-Right, Objectivists, and uneducated Hoppeans who don’t understand his work. Charles Johnson explains this concept in his landmark essay on the subject, “Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin”. Thickism is an expansion of libertarianism to include certain social commitments as necessities to libertarianism for various reasons.
The first type of thickness that Johnson defines is “thickism in entailment”, where he states “there are clearly cases in which certain social, cultural, religious, or philosophical commitments might just be an application of libertarian principles to some specific case, which follow from the non-aggression principle by virtue of the law of non-contradiction.” Following this, Johnson states that this thickness would apply in cases of involuntary clitoridectomy or justifying a man’s murder of an unfaithful wife. However, both of these cases are clear violations of the non-aggression principle, widely accepted as a cornerstone of libertarian philosophy across the board. In this way, this “thickness” isn’t actually a thickness at all, but a thorough application of the Non-Aggression Principle across the board. In this way, I agree with Johnson’s point, but reject it as a form of thickism, but merely a part of thin libertarianism.
Second, Johnson describes a type of thickness he deems “thickness for application”. He explains, “There might be some commitments that a libertarian can reject without formally contradicting the Non-Aggression Principle but which she cannot reject without in fact interfering with its proper application.” He goes on to explain the feminist idea that the “private” and “political” spheres aren’t divisible and that violence within marriages are ignored as they aren’t government applications of force. This is, frankly, ridiculous. All libertarians understand that any kind of physical aggression is regarded as criminal, and can be responded to with force. Because these spheres “cannot be separated”, Johnson says “all libertarians should be feminists”, and with that, he adds an entire set of commitments on top of libertarianism because he warps the NAP to require certain behavior for the “full and complete application of the NAP.” This falls outside of the scope of libertarianism, as anything beyond violence is not responsible to with force.
Third, Johnson describes “Thickness from Grounds”. Johnson believes that, because of some philosophical grounds for libertarianism, certain social beliefs are fundamental to libertarianism as such. This is obviously true in many cases, but this isn’t a thickness from libertarianism, but a thickness from personal philosophy. If one holds a certain philosophy, they’re going to hold certain beliefs as a result of that philosophy. For instance, if one is an objectivist, they have a set of ethics they choose to live by, or if one is a Catholic, they choose to adopt a lifestyle based on the life of Jesus. However, these external commitments are not politically based, but morally based.
Finally, Johnson describes what he calls “strategic thickness”. In this kind of thickness, an external commitment is deemed good if it helps to achieve a free society. For the left-libertarian, these include things like actively supporting mutual aid societies and other voluntary forms of redistribution, often expressed by Roderick Long, as this would assist in the maintenance of a free society. The problem here again falls on a problem of scope. What will/won’t maintain a free society is a separate question. The ONLY questions that libertarians should be asking from the point of view of libertarianism is simply the questions of property, contract, trade, state, and force. These norms cannot be forced upon people, as no aggression has been committed, so what happens regarding strategy is compartmentalized from the questions of political philosophy.
Despite all of these clear errors, thickism has one problem much greater than the others: it goes outside of the scope of political philosophy. Political philosophy only deals with if and when force can be used. Any attempt to attach additional commitments onto libertarianism as such draws libertarianism out of it’s clearly defined scope. This isn’t an issue with Left Libertarianism as such, but with thickism in general. I hold this concern just as much with other ideologies which demand external commitments. However, Left Libertarians have the most egregious and large amount of external commitments, for less clear reasons.
Charles Johnson states that libertarians, “because they are libertarians, should also be feminists”, as we would oppose marital violence. Libertarians obviously oppose marital violence, but that is solely because of their capacity as NAP violations, and not because of our “solidarity with the female gender”. Gary Chartier tells libertarians that they should “express solidarity with workers” in the same essay I discussed above, along with six other reasons to oppose “capitalism”. Outside of maintaining contract and not permitting violence, “solidarity with workers” is merely a preference and outside of the scope of libertarianism.
In fact, all of the issues I have raised in the article come down to an opposition to thickism. The occupy and use norms don’t hold up as “aggressions”, and therefore are just unenforceable norms. Including these in a “libertarian” philosophy would be falling outside of the scope of political philosophy. Similarly, opposition to “capitalism” doesn’t hold up as “capitalism” isn’t an aggression, and opposing use of the word “capitalism” is just an unenforceable preference. Including this in a “libertarian” philosophy would also fall outside of the correct scope of political philosophy. Finally, the Left Libertarian demand for feminism, egalitarianism, income equality, and many other commitments, no matter how noble or despicable those causes are, fall outside of what political philosophy is concerned with. Left-Libertarianism blurs the line, creates confusion, and pushes for certain social commitments as demands for a “Comprehensive Liberty”, a cause I cannot support.
“But what’s the problem”, one may ask. “They’re just another brand of libertarian”. That’s fine, and I’m not saying Left Libertarianism should be kicked from the liberty movement. However, there are significant problems with left-libertarianism. For one, it alienates large swaths of the movement. “Liberaltarians” like Brink Lindsey, Vice President of the Open Society Project, claim “Ron Paul’s xenophobia was a hideous corruption of libertarian ideas.” Ron Paul, the man responsible for the reignition of the modern libertarian movement. Left Market Anarchist William Gillis, Coordinating Director for Anarchist think tank C4SS, had the gall to advocate for the murder of Rothbard and Ron Paul, saying “If someone shot Paul and Rothbard in the 80s, the world would almost certainly be a much better place.” At libertarian conventions, I’ve been called a xenophobe when I voiced skepticism regarding a policy of “open borders”. There is a problem when “libertarians” start to look like the “regressive left”.
This isn’t to say there aren’t kind, well-meaning left-libertarians. However, it is clear that they are not willing to accept not only difference of opinion but difference of lifestyle. They even opposed intellectual exploration of different ideas on college campuses with their “Students for a Stateless Society” program, where they explicitly said that meetings held were “safe spaces”. Allow me to quote a good friend of mine: “If we don’t check the excesses of the left, not only will we lose the chance to actualize real libertarian reforms, we will be relegated to the dustbin of history as another failed attempt to idealize human behaviour.” Left-Libertarianism must be challenged, despite the fear of being called a “fascist”, “xenophobe”, or “Nazi”.