Saturday, June 18, 2016

Right-libertarianism and left-libertarianism

After reading another sloppy take-down of libertarianism from a progressive (which of course emphasizes the "right-wing" currents in libertarianism), I was thinking of a concise way to distinguish left-libertarianism from right-libertarianism. Here's what I came up with:
  • Right-libertarians believe that the goverment is democratic.
  • Left-libertarians believe that the government is elitist.
This phrasing makes the distinction quite stark when you think about the implications of being "anti-government", and actually implies that there is substantial conflict between the two wings of the movement. Luckily, I think mainstream libertarianism is pretty "centrist" by this standard, believing that the USA's government has both democratic/populist and elitist aspects, both of which cause problems.

While there is also a "right/left" divide among libertarian cultural issues, these don't have a substantial impact on policy preferences (except abortion), so the divide I'm focusing on above is more about theories of power relationships (e.g. economics and social status). I see Ayn Rand as the quintessential right-libertarian. My impression is that these libertarians think that a free market would largely be organized around the same principles as today's economy -- the main difference being greater productivity as populist parasites are shed. In contrast, left-libertarians typically expect a radical restructuring of the economy as the existing large-scale organizations collapse without state support and are replaced by bottom-up organizations that give workers much more influence over the economy.


Lorraine said...

Right libertarians believe the government is democratic. They also believe democracy is a bad thing. Left libertarians believe democratic government is a bad thing, but mainly because of the government part, not the democratic part. I think at least some left libertarians would say that democratic government is a lesser evil than non-democratic government, or at the very least that democratic government is no worse than non-democratic government. Right libertarians in America have gotten so enmeshed into small-government conservative causes that they get mired in slogans like "America is supposed to be a republic not a democracy," or in the case of the more intelligent ones, get into stuff like "public choice theory" which I perceive primarily as a critique of democracy. The question of whether democracy has merit as an organizing principle in non-government contexts seems also to divide right-libertarians and left-libertarians. Of course right-libertarians will say they have no objection in principle to democratic governance of non-government entities, so long as they are demonstrably "voluntary," and the left-styled subset of market anarchists will say they have no objection in principle to for-profit business organized on a top-down basis, so long as it has no opportunities to extract rents. These non-objections strike me more as matters of style than substance, and of course differences over hypothetical questions such as whether cooperation or competition will be the path of resistance in a political power vacuum. For that reason I think of left-leaning-market-anarchists as more of a center faction than a left faction among libertarians. The macks in Roderick Long's caps-macks-socks continuum of preferences.

To me it's really quite simple:

* Right libertarians distrust government
* Left libertarians distrust both government and business

Middle of the road libertarians, I suppose, believe in "socialist ends via market means." I do not. For me the whole point of socialism (or as I prefer, communism) is to get cooperation to supplant competition.

Lorraine said...

And by the way, welcome back to the blogosphere. We all must do everything we can to rescue what's left of the blogosphere from the clutches of the likes of

Ricketson said...

Hey Lorraine! Thanks for dropping in. I thought that I would have lost all my contacts during my's good to still be noticed (even though I do sometimes enjoy speaking to the void).

Thanks for fleshing out the idea -- in my experience, left-libertarians definitely appreciate the democratic constraints on the government. Even right-libertarians may agree that a democratic government is the best protection for liberty (after Aristotle, I think).

I hadn't heard of the caps-macks-socks continuum, but it makes sense (

On business and government, it connects to my original point, even if it could stand separately. Left libertarians not only distrust both government and business, but see the governmental elite and business elite as a unified ruling class -- money and power are exchangeable commodities.

On the issue of competition, I see the state (democratic or not) as the most ruthlessly competitive institution we have. Private property is a refuge from competition, when it's instituted correctly.