Left-Libertarians Admit Opposition to “Capitalism” is Substantive

I’ve noted in recent posts that while some left-libertarians seem to oppose standard libertarians’ positive endorsement of “capitalism” for semantic or strategic reasons, for others they actually oppose the substance of what libertarians mean by (non-crony, non-corporatist) capitalism (see, e.g., Capitalism, Socialism, and Libertarianism, and links in that post; see also Wirkman Virkkala’s post A capital ism?). An example of those with a more semantic or strategic concern would be Sheldon Richman, who is concerned about the “baggage” associated with the word, which will hamper our getting our pro-property rights, libertarian message out. Thus he favors using “free market” instead, but as far as I can tell this is similar to what we mean by “capitalism”–a libertarian society with a market based on respect for property rights, which of course includes private ownership of the means of production (and everything else). (See also Sheldon’s comment to Should Libertarians Oppose “Capitalism”?) Another would be Jock Coats, who notes here that while the baggage of the term “capitalism” might have turned him off had he not also seen the term “free-market anti-capitalism,” now that he understands the term he is “quite happy to be identified as an Individualist Anarchist/Mutualist and at times an Anarcho-Caplitalist,” and is “for keeping ‘capitalism’ as a word in our lexicon.”

To be clear, I think the semantical and strategic debate is one we can have, but it’s different than a substantive disagreement–and we can have that discussion too. But these are separate discussions and should not be intermingled. This leads to confusion at best and equivocation and dishonesty (on the part of leftists) at worst.

In my view there is little doubt that libertarians who have concerns about the appropriate words to use or strategic matters are of course libertarians. We just differ on the best way to convey and spread and communicate about our ideas. But those who disagree on substance may simply not be libertarians. This should not be masked by conflating the discussion with more mundane issues of semantics and strategy.

Now some of the left-libertarians more concerned about terminology and strategy deny or downplay the charge that at least some of them have much more than a mere lexical disagreement with us. So it is good that some of them are willing to explicitly admit this. Take, for instance, one Roman Pearah, who writes in Hmmm…No, Sir. I Don’t Like It.:

Stephan Kinsella is right about one thing: the reason I’m a free-market anti-capitalist is because I have substantive differences with him and other “standard libertarians.” To the extent that my friends on the libertarian-left are making linguistic and strategic arguments against the word ‘capitalism’ (and I’m not convinced that all of them are or that none of their arguments have a substantive element), I don’t have much of a dog in that fight.

But if Kinsella thinks this is a gotcha, a deep insight into our hidden agenda, then let me be clear: I mean capitalism like you do, and dislike it. As I said, there is no pretending it’s only “strategical or lexical” here.

And “BrainPolice”, in Kinsella’s Closed System, writes:

Kinsella is right about one thing: the conflict over “capitalism” is not purely linguistic. My own main disagreement with folks such as Brad Spangler, while I do sympathize with their position in comparison to someone like Kinsella, is that their rejection of “capitalism” is largely confined to a semantic-historical context in which one seems to mostly be just engaging in a salesmanship strategy. Some of these people mostly are in line with fairly standard anarcho-capitalist views, but wish to drop the term “capitalism” for public relations purposes. But to the extent that this is the case (and it certainly is not entirely the case, as I will proceed to get into), Kinsella cannot denounce these people as “unlibertarian” on his own terms.

The much more explicit currents of left-libertarianism do have substantive problems with “capitalism”.

So, good. The left-libertarians, I would say, are anti-”capitalist”–they have understandable reasons to oppose the term. Those who are anti-capitalist–even when you define the word to be clear we are talking not about crony-capitalism but about the property-rights respecting economic order of a laissez-faire, free market, libertarian society–I would say are really not libertarian. This is because, as I explained in Capitalism, Socialism, and Libertarianism, libertarianism upholds private property rights, which implies that the economic order of a libertarian society would exhibit private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism implies libertarianism, and vice-versa. To oppose “private ownership of the means of production” has to be unlibertarian since the only way to do this is to oppose the private property rights that underpin capitalism.

Now if you see the Pearah and Brainpolice posts above, you’ll see a lot of meandering, emotionalism, and unsupported assertions. Why, I have the audacity to be a libertarian who has a certain conception of libertarianism! The truth is Austro-anarcho-libertarianism is, at the very least, a definite branch of libertarianism. It is, in my view, the most consistent and fully libertarian view. Now of course there are other types of libertarian: utilitarians, consequentialists, minarchists, maybe even pacifists and constitutionalists to some extent. But at a certain point hostility to the basic notion of property rights as held by libertarians in general demarks one as non-libertarian. It mystifies me why those who are hostile to typical features of the economic order that would naturally accompany a libertarian-property-rights respecting society want to be called libertarian. Why not just say you are an anarcho-primitivist, anarcho-syndicalist, or whatever? Then argue your case. Why try to bamboozle property-rights respecting libertarians that you are one of them?

Update: Left-libertarian law professor Gary Chartier sent me the following email, reprinted with permission, along with my reply thereto:

Gary:

Interesting post re. the capitalism debate.

I strongly favor markets rooted in robust property rights (the interesting conversation to have about this would have to do with things like the cases in which variations among different communities or legal systems would be reasonable). When I express concerns about “capitalism,” I’m making both a strategic point (I think the word raises red flags) and a substantive one (I don’t like the prevailing social/political/economic order). But I am emphatically not arguing against private ownership, for forced collectivization (I have no personal affection for voluntary collectivization, but anyone else is free to experiment with it), for temporary statism, or for force as a basis for human interaction.

My reply follows:

I strongly favor markets rooted in robust property rights (the interesting conversation to have about this would have to do with things like the cases in which variations among different communities or legal systems would be reasonable)

I agree here.

When I express concerns about “capitalism,” I’m making both a strategic point (I think the word raises red flags)

This is reasonable.

and a substantive one (I don’t like the prevailing social/political/economic order).

Yes–but that is talking about “crony-capitalism” and we oppose it too. What BrainPolice and Peareah are saying (I think) is that they oppose a LAISSEZ-FAIRE private-property order–a private property order that does not have corporatism, mercantilism, state connections, etc.

But I am emphatically not arguing against private ownership,

I know.

for forced collectivization (I have no personal affection for voluntary collectivization, but anyone else is free to experiment with it)

Agreed

, for temporary statism, or for force as a basis for human interaction.

I think the interesting debate is this. First, what is the importance of all these disagreements? What kind of disagreements are they? Those who debate about this are maddeningly unclear, far to often. Are we just disagreeing on what we predict will happen? If so, who cares? I mean if we set up a private property order, and your mutual aid societies, coops, whatever succeed–fine by me. I just don’t think they will. But it’s just a prediction. A forecast.

Or: are they expressing a personal preference: “I would prefer to live in a localist mutual aid society of self-sustaining activity without big firms, without lots of specialization of labor”–this too, is fine, as a preference; and if you can find such a place to live, go ahead. I don’t think there will be much of this–all these littele kibbutzy things will be marginal or whatever, in my view–but fine. It’s just your preference. This is compatible with the free market. The market will cater to preferences (or not). Even now you can move to Lancaster and live with the Amish if you want.

But where it gets really interesting is the mutualists and georgist types who I think have a view of property that is fundamentally incompatible with libertarianism. For example they seem to believe that if you lose possession then you lose ownerhsip. So if I own a factory then the employees after a while get to own it. Or if I am a landlord and have tenants, they get to own it. To me this collapses ownership into possession and is antithetical to libertarian principles. (See A Critique of Mutualist Occupancy.)

These guys want to shoehorn this into libertarianism. They do this by saying lockean homesteading is at one end and Georgism/Mutualism at the other (Georgism being one of the stupidest, crankiest theories I’ve ever heard in my life, up there with Galambosianism); that it’s just a difference of degree in how we view “abandonment” rules. I think this is wrong. In any case, what it boils down to is that they think Lockean libertarianism is not the only valid type. I think it is.

So again, we all agree that there is A and B: we are A, they are B. They would say that A = Lockean libertarians; B = mutualist libertarians (say). I would say A = libertarians [who are of course Lockean] and B = mutualists.

So here again it’s a damned semantic disagreement. Now I think that we libertarians–we A people, we Lockean libertarians–are entitled to a damned word of our own. I’m sick of people taking our word from us. Why do those who hate the private property economic order want to say they are libertarian? Why don’t they leave us alone and call themselves mutualist or whatever? Why does it bother them that we call ourselves libertarian? I think it’s because they have a libertarian streak and they deep down know that aggression is wrong, and it unsettles them that we identify their non-Lockean deviations as being tantamount to advocating aggression. This bugs them. But then it always bothers quasi-decent people when you point out that they are advocating wicked views.

14 comments… add one

  • OK, that about does it. I’m even more confused now than I was before. I “get” that certain words have baggage, and that because of this baggage some libertarians would suggest that we not use them. (I generally find semantical debates tiring, right above debates about whether or not Rocky Road is a better ice cream flavor than Heavenly Hash, but maybe that’s just me.) I understand the importance of the marketing aspects of libertarianism, as conveyed by JuanFer in a recent post on these very pages. I also must admit, frankly, that I don’t give a rat’s ass about trying to market freedom to anyone. I leave that strategic and/or activist exploit to others. And I wish them well!

    What I find puzzling–to the point of complete bamboozlement–is what a libertarian, and I’m trying very hard here not to fall into the trap of defining “real” versus “fake” libertarianism, thinks is the ultimate outcome of an absolute adherence to private property rights. As the author of the post at which these comments are directed so exceptionally communicated, the root of libertarianism, in fact the underlying principle of every so-called belief held dear by libertarians–including the fabled Non-Aggression Axiom–is private property rights. As such, I am at a bit of a loss as to what anyone, be he left, right, center-cut, or deep-dish, can be promoting when he ascribes to libertarianism while simultaneously decrying capitalism. What in the hell…? Maybe I’m just confused and someone else commenting here can educate me. Please be gentle.

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  • I Agree with Mr Alston about semantical debates being exhausting. I wonder if these left-libs understand the fundamental yet intricate and essential economic importance that the roll of “Capital” plays in the wellbeing of any economy. And to further agree with Mr Alston, that includes a cold fundamental acknowledgement to the reality that exists, the concept of property. The NAP only carries us so far in the absence of a coherent acknowledgement of property and capital. We can’t even begin to define aggression without first understanding property.

    I feel that many left-libs think that a free-society(Anarchist based) should digress in it’s ability to exploit the division of labor and capital accumulation. With some of them I get the sense that they want us to economically move backwards under anarchist conditions, and that this would be a better outcome. The self sustaining, local only cooperative, communistic type of alleged free-marketeer. It’s folly. The the fundamental reason why any geographical region becomes wealthy is due to a prolonged untainted period of time where capital was freely allowed to accumulate. Capital accumulation is the crux of a free society(anarchic), it is what makes us prosperous. Capitalism describes specifically the key tenant of a free-society which makes it rich. Being an anarchist is one thing, but society does not grow in wealth by sharing corn fields with local neighbors under a primitive barter system. The larger the division of labor becomes, the more intricate it is. The longer property rights are respected, the more capital accumulation that will ensue and ultimately the richer we all become. That is what Capitalism defines, there is no reason to be rid of it. I feel like this is an attack on the productivity of man in general, and that various forms of the communist anti-business ideology is finding it’s ways in to taint things. We’ve already lost liberalism and libertarianism has always been split. We don’t need to loose capitalism as well.

    We want our capital abilities to grow, not shrink. I often get the feeling that left-libs want the opposite. Much like modern liberals who want us to digress back to the tribal stage carrying bows and arrows in an effort to save earth. Any how thats my rant. *Shrug*

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  • Kinsella, “left libertarianism” in the US is just a revival of the original “individualist anarchist” movement in the US. Libertarianism is a tradition that originates from 2 strains of French radicalism, one being the laissez faire radical french liberals and the other being the french anarchists. There has always been a capitalist/anti-capitalist divide in libertarianism that goes back to, say, the debate between Bastiat and Proudhon. In the United States, the original libertarian movement was a synthesis between these 2 schools.

    The original libertarian movement died with Tucker’s emigration to Europe and the onset of the 2 global wars. The later revival of libertarianism in the 20th century was not necessarily correlated with an analysis rooted in the political economy, leading to libertarianism being identified with Chicago School Capitalist efficiency. It is quite arguable that this form of libertarianism became the dominant State institutional framework after the fall of Keynes in the latter part of the 20th century.

    I’ve argued with you before regarding “corporations” and you ridiculed the notion of a “ruling class,” which, frankly, runs counter to libertarianism absolutely being rooted in class politics of the political economy. Left libertarianism is a revival of this emphasis on “plitical economy.” in addition, it is a revival of Déjacque’s “Libertarie,” which critically examines social institutions as well(IMHO, the left libertarian critique against Paleo-libertarianism as been pretty effective, in that most of the “Paleos” won’t use that term to describe themselves anymore).

    Left libertarianism may reject treating “land” as a factor of capitalist production, a mode of analysis borne out of neo-callsical economics. Other than that, there really isn’t that mcuh difference between the “left-libertarian” capitalism and standard fare “capitalism’ of the Austrian School. It is a mistake to try to identify “left libertarian” with “social anrchism,” which are not the same thing, at least not in the United States. I’m particularly amused by the fact by “Austrian” anarcho-cpaitalists tendency not to really take their theories seriously enough, with the tendency to be stauch defenders of corporate agents of the money monoploy such as Bank of America. There was a past post here that defended obedience to money monpolists(“Credit Reports”) as a legitimate condition for the right to work. Now, in a libertarian society, I do think that “reputation markets” would and perhaps should play a key role, but not reputation markets measuring obidience to how one obeys monopoly institutions. You see, you call that capitalism, and I don’t…

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    • ka1igu1a, thats because your still missing the point of the actual word “capital–ism”. Your focusing and nitpicking on various historical references, which any word for that matter may may carry as baggage, and ignoring the mechanical and technical implications that capitalism naturally implies. Notice the emphasis on “Capital” (Please see the Austrian Theories of Capital). The ideological details or differences we place underneath it are irrelevant. It’s still capitalism we are discussing, changing the word only makes it’s meaning more lost. There is a reason why we’ve been using capital–ism as opposed to voluntaryism up until recently. Voluntary exchange is just one key component of fully functional market. Ultimately wealth comes back to the accumulation of capital(and/or capital goods), protection of property, and all the other implications which are involved there in.

      And finally you said

      “I’m particularly amused by the fact by “Austrian” anarcho-cpaitalists tendency not to really take their theories seriously enough, with the tendency to be stauch defenders of corporate agents of the money monoploy such as Bank of America. “

      I can say that your assessment of “Austrian” ancaps seems misguided or I do not understand what your talking about. I’ll admit I hold no authority over what ancaps believe but at least in my case I haven’t a clue as to what your talking about. The above quote makes no sense, at least not to me. Which theory are specifically are you referring to? And what are you referring to when you say, Bank of America Money monopoly?

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      • First, let me apologize for the large amount of typos in my original comment; i wrote it fairly quickly and didn’t really proofread it.

        Just to clarify things, I am a radical libertarian, best summarized as being Chomsky on foreign policy/empire, Adam Smith/Hayek(the scottish tradition) on economics, Henry George when it comes to land, Bastiat when it comes to law, de jasay when it comes to politics, and radical french liberal tradition in terms of class analysis. This puts me squarely within the libertarian tradition.

        Why the term “left libertarian”? Technically, “left libertarian’” in the US typically refers to those who hold to the principles of “libertarian justice,” but don’t subscribe to Lockean homesteading when it comes to land. In my case, I hold Georgist views. Left Libertarian may also refer to those who employ a “thick” dialectical methodology when deconstructing the role social institutions may play in “implied coercion.” I moderately subscribe to this. Left libertarianism may refer to a “labor theory of value” which also may or may not reject traditional interest on capital(above any administrative costs). I do not subscribe to this. Finally, Left Libertarianism may also refer to a political analysis deeply rooted in “class theory,” in other words, the “political economy.” I strongly ascribe to this.

        So, technically, these are the 4 characteristics I identify with “left Libertarianism” in the individualist tradition that distinguish it from the so-called “plumbline American libertarianism.”

        For clarity of argument, it is best not to conflate individualist left-libertarianism with non-individualist anarchism. “Left” is not a synonym for “non-propertarian.” I think Kinsella’s original post was mixing in commentary from left libertarians and non-propertarian anarchists and wrapping the whole thing under the guise of “left.” Kinsella also demonstrates a propensity to identify “left” with the so-called Statist progressive left, which is largely just “corporate liberalism,” an ideology I, in fact, view as being conservative.

        For Left libertarians, the problems with the term “capitalism” is perhaps partly conceptual, but it’s mostly methodological. The non-propertarian anarchist critique against capitalism is entirely conceptual. Don’t conflate the the two critiques. Of course, the non-propertarian has a substantive, conceptual disagreement with capitalism. Nothing new there…

        The methodological critique against capitalism is a bit different. Rest assured I’m well aware of Austrian capital theory, whether formulated in terms of the Misean Evenly Rotating Economy or Garrison’s Hayekian triangles. But what is Capitalism? Capitalism is typically characterized as sustainable economic system of private means of production and private property rights operating under rule of law regimes. Since libertarianism, historically, has been a fierce critic of ‘rule of law” in the context of the State, Capitalism, from a libertarian perspective, should really be defined as an economic system of private means of production and private property rights operating under a “Ruling Class.” Thusly, from a methodological approach, one rooted in political economy, there should be some skepticism involved in deconstructing elements of capitalism.

        For example, the austrian approach views central banking and a cartelized money monopoly as a chief enabler of Statism, the social costs of this monopoly being inflation that is primarily burdens the poor and the middle class. I will paraphrase Tucker that ‘free market banking” is one of the great benefits of mankind but “monopoly banking” is one of the great scourges. Of course, we have monop0ly banking, a scourge, so it surprises me to see articles like this:

        http://libertarianstandard.com/2010/04/13/should-employers-be-allowed-to-check-your-credit/

        which basically justifies obedience to a scourge monopoly as a condition for employment. In a truly free market, I seriously doubt people would have to go into the degree of consumer credit card debt they have to go into now just to survive. I’m not even sure there was any such thing as credit cards, or it was a very small market confined to the wealthy, until the US officially went off the gold standard in the early 70s.

        To me this argument is equivalent to progressives advocating you can’t work, or even have to go to jail, if you haven’t paid your taxes. The Bank monoply is just one step below the government monopoly.

        Here’s Karen De Coster sticking up for the Bank Monopoly here:
        http://www.lewrockwell.com/blog/lewrw/archives/25625.html

        Here’s Kinsella sticking up for the Bank Monopoly here:
        http://blog.mises.org/9531/is-foreclosure-resistance-libertarian/

        Kinsella refers to a ‘contract,’ but he is referring to a contract with a scourge monopoly, a monopoly that is held to be a scourge by radical Austrian analysis. And this is what I mean by a weakness in a methodological approach. Your are not being consistent. You might as well be defending paying taxes to the scourge monopoly of government because of the “social contract.”

        Personally, I prefer the term “Laissez-faire” to Capitalism.

        Reply
        • NOt familiar with the term “scourge monopoly.” I agree the banks are horrible institutions supported by the Fed, fractional reserve banking, FDIC etc. But the left libertarians in the post you link to are supporting they support mortgagees squatting on property owned by the mortgage holder–not because the mortgage holder is a bank with unclean hands, but simply because they favor “workers” etc. If you want to argue the bank is criminal and/or complicit with or a part of the state and thus has no right to own property, fine; then the question is who the real owner is. Why it’s the employees/workers is not clear. Why not the mortgagee?

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    • Kaligula,

      I don’t ridicule the idea of class analysis; see here.

      I disagree with leftists who accept the state’s propaganda that without the state’s privileges corporations could not exist. I of course favor the state getting out of it altogether.

      As for Bank of America etc., you must have me confused with someone else.

      Reply
      • I can’t reference the original discussion on BradSpangler.com regarding “class analysis” because that site is down. But it appears you have changed your thinking.

        I read Hoppe’s analysis you linked to. Interestingly, I made a comment on Freedom Democrats no t too long ago about how one could recast libertarian class theory in Marxist terms

        http://freedomdemocrats.org/node/3752#comment-8148

        Even though I’ve been a critic of your views at times, i do find much value in your writings regarding IP and copyright. And I do have to give your props for your willingness to engage in debate. You don’t run away…

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  • “So here again it’s a damned semantic disagreement. Now I think that we libertarians–we A people, we Lockean libertarians–are entitled to a damned word of our own. I’m sick of people taking our word from us. Why do those who hate the private property economic order want to say they are libertarian?”

    Libertarian was first used as a term in reference to anarchists, invented by anarchists. Why do those who love the statist private property economic order want to say they are libertarian?

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    • We anarchist libertarians are of course not in favor of any state system.

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    • Lockean statist.

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      • I meant to say Lockean is not the same as statist. Apparently the math signs cannot be used.

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    • Libertarian was first used as a term in reference to anarchists, invented by anarchists. Why do those who love the statist private property economic order want to say they are libertarian?

      Quite true, but you can state this even more strongly:

      Libertarian was first used as a term in reference to anarcho-communists, invented by anarcho-communists. Why do those who love private property want to say they are libertarian?

      That is, it wasn’t just any anarchists, but anarcho-communists! (They called themselves libertarian communists at the time, of course; some still do.) And the argument doesn’t depend on whether the private property is statist or not; even anarcho-capitalists who favour a state-free economic order with private property should be distinguished from communists!

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  • AnCaps, like austrian-school minarchists, subscribe ultimately to the subjective marginal utility theory of value. This is what distinguished them from left-anarchists. This stems from a more studious interest in matters of economy. Left wingers are more concerned with social issues. These 2 fields of interest are completely intertwined but historically they have been dividing. The more modern left anarchists (Carsonian Mutualists) have come to accept SMU (maybe not completely), and in my experience, most AnCaps have a high level of interest in matters of social justice. So the left-right paradigm becomes increasingly meaningless, as it should, and the only real spectrum to consider politically is authoritarianism vs libertarianism.

    Reply

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