We here at TOL assume that most of our readers are familiar with the concept of left-libertarianism. After all, you’re reading a libertarian blog, written entirely by women, that frequently comments on topics like sexism and social tolerance. However, sometimes we take our readers for granted, and it may be time for an introduction.

Wikipedia’s page for left-libertarianism is unhelpful to anybody who isn’t a political philosophy scholar, as it presumes the reader has knowledge of the various offshoots* of libertarianism proper—or at least the inclination to click through several more pages.

If you, like I, are not an academic or philosopher by trade, and you don’t want to take the Wikipedia approach of categorizing left-libertarians according to relatively obscure terms, what’s our alternative? If I may make an attempt at passing for ideologically-Turing-capable, here are a few conceptual layman’s blueprints to help readers get a sense of what this left-libertarian project is all about.

Defining left-libertarianism by what it isn’t:

Like broad libertarianism and right-libertarianism, left-libertarians emphasize the liberty of the individual. Free markets, freedom of contract/association, nonaggression, and nonintervention in foreign conflicts are the philosophical pillars broadly shared among libertarianism’s various offshoots. Left-libertarians may quibble with the rest about whether individual property ought to extend to what could arguably be deemed community resources (land, air, water, natural resources, etc.), but self-ownership and private property are also important pieces to the left-libertarian puzzle.

Left-libertarianism stands in opposition to the notion that libertarianism belongs under the umbrella of conservative political philosophy. Left-libertarians reject the notion that libertarians are “Republicans who want to smoke pot.” They often reject fusionism, and generally reject dogmatic social conservatism, populist Tea Party rhetoric/politics, Reagan worship, the emphasis of traditional gender roles, and general pessimistic view of humanity (Thomas Sowell would call it a “constrained vision”) as envisioned by conservativism. Moreover, most left libs are not convinced that religious belief – even a popular religion such as evangelical Christianity – should dictate the social norms for society. The clearest example of this is marriage equality, where Right-libertarians are more inclined to say “get the state out of the marriage business,” while Left-libertarians view marriage as a legal contract between two individuals, which gay individuals are unjustifiably prohibited from entering.

Defining left-libertarianism by who they are:

You may be thinking: “Left libertarians sure do count a lot of modern-day hippies among their ranks.” True, there are plenty of vegans, free lovers, and individuals with a flair for drug experimentation, who claim the left-libertarian title. But psychonauts and the sexually-adventurous (sexonauts?) aren’t the only or even majority of left-libertarians. Women, academics, and libertarian-leaning people with an eye for social justice make up a large portion of left-libertarians. “Socially liberal, fiscally conservative” is an apt descriptor with an emphasis on the social part. Left-libertarianism also includes a lot of former social democrats who’ve gained an understanding of public choice and market economies.

In recent years, some left-libertarians have attempted to build a bridge with the American left. On a few issues, particularly technology policy (surveillance, privacy, etc.) or marijuana legalization, there’s been some success, but I suspect most have found that the organized American Left is more interested in winning or maintaining its electoral territory than (say) broad criminal justice reform.

Defining left-libertarianism by its priorities:

You can usually spot a Left-libertarian by the political news stories he or she shares on Twitter. To the left lib, issues like the growing police state, the war on drugs, electronic surveillance, racial and gender inequality, military interventionism, free speech, and marriage equality take precedence, at least rhetorically, over issues like gun rights, marginal tax rates, regulations on businesses (insofar as they are an inherent evil—business regulations certainly have relevance to the issues left libs care about), health care reform, and judicial activism. In this respect, left libertarians have a lot in common with civil libertarians, and arguably the far-Left (though notably, a Leftist and a Left-libertarian will usually disagree on how to get to a shared goal – cooperation versus coercion, markets vs. government, etc).

Defining left-libertarianism by its overarching goals:

Left-libertarians are interested in analyzing power dynamics beyond the individual-state model. For example, many left-libertarians recognize that the employee-employer relationship has the potential to be nearly as damaging as the individual-state relationship. Only the state can throw you in jail, but the employer can make your life miserable, up to and including limiting your ability to take your labor elsewhere (excessive non-compete contracts, for example).

Left-libertarianism sees peace, prosperity, cooperation and human flourishing as the ends, to which liberty is a means. Contrast this to the idea, held by many libertarians, that liberty is an end itself, or that liberty is the best way to promote civil society and social stability. To the left-libertarian, liberty isn’t solely about being left alone to live your life, or shrinking the government and leaving society’s organization up to corporations and other bureaucratic institutions. It’s about viewing liberty, open markets, cooperation, free trade, and non-aggression as the tools necessary for building a better world for everybody.

Want to learn more about left-libertarianism?

The Distinctiveness of Left-Libertarianism (Bleeding Heart Libertarians)

Symposium on Left-Libertarianism (Bleeding Heart Libertarians)

The Left Lane of Liberty (Praxeology.net)

The Libertarian Left (The American Conservative)

Wherein a Right-Libertarian Sticks a Toe in Left-Libertarianism and Finds That the Water is Fine (Popehat)

*Of course, labels have a habit of being re-appropriated by hipsters seeking to differentiate themselves. I have more than one friend who describes themselves as so-called “libertarian socialists.” This strikes me as a non-sequitur title that a 22-year-old might think sounds subversive, but I’m no philosopher. If you can explain it to me, I’m all ears. 

  • jeff

    When did libertarians start limiting marriage to a contact between *two* individuals?

  • FoC

    That’s odd, because the thinnies come off as Fabians, looking to smear a veneer of freedumb over the same tired socialist rhetoric.

  • Bleeding Heart Libertarians is not a left-libertarian web site. It’s more along the lines of “liberaltarianism,” which is pretty centrist as such things go, although a couple of left-libertarians occasionally contribute there (Roderick Long, Gary Chartier, etc.).

    If you’re looking for a left-libertarian web site, the standards defining the brand are the Alliance of the Libertarian Left (http://all-left.net) and the Center for a Stateless Society (http://c4ss.org).

    • It wasn’t really the intention to point to left libertarian sites, per se, but to good specific resources for those who want to know more and explore deeper after the primer. BHL did an entire symposium on left libertarianism, which is what is linked here.

      Thanks for the extra links, though!

      • Gina,

        Ah, OK … I see what you mean now. Sorry about that.

        I’m kind of touchy and hair trigger about left-libertarianism lately, what with people confusing right v. left libertarianism with thin v. thick libertarianism (I’m an ultra-thin paleo-left libertarian), and although I read BHL and have some friends there, references to it tend to send me off on a tangent.

    • AuntMerryweather

      That is my oversight, I apologize. I attempted to point readers to more accessible sources – hence Popehat and the AC. I trust that any readers who’d like to learn more wouldn’t have trouble finding all-left or c4ss, but perhaps an update is in order.

      • AuntMerryweather,

        Oh, it’s not a problem or something you should feel any need to apologize for. It’s just that I’m an evangelist for C4SS/ALL and will always be quick to wedge them into any discussion of left-libertarianism 🙂

  • No employer forces anyone to sign a non compete clause. They are offered as a condition of employment. Anyone not wishing to sign one is free to work somewhere else.

    • AuntMerryweather

      Most non-compete clauses are not really enforceable in practice, but I use it as an example. You could easily substitute “creating a hostile work environment for Muslims/gays/whatever” or something similar. Sure, you’re free to go somewhere else if you don’t like it, but history is littered with unfair/discriminatory practices that were, ahem, widely practiced. To a left-lib, any uneven power balance between an individual and an institution is recognized as potentially oppressive.

  • MaineShark

    Liberty doesn’t come in flavors. “Left-libertarian” is as meaningless as “right-libertarian.” Or, rather, the meaning of each is to define someone who is /not/ libertarian at all, on some critical issue. “Left-libertarian” isn’t a type of libertarian; it’s a way of saying, “I’m a libertarian, except for…”

    Those who apply “aisle” labels (either direction) to libertarianism are admitting to some deviation from libertarianism, generally because of some emotional attachment to a particular issue, where they can’t accept that others’ liberty is just as important as their own.

    I’d also not this article is full of false dichotomies (eg, the marriage claim, where it’s proposed that stating that government should not be in the marriage business, and that marriage is a contract which is currently restricted from certain individuals are somehow mutually-exclusive positions, when they are in fact the same position) and distortions (eg, assigning libertarian “wins” like marijuana legalization to some plan by left-libertarians, when what credit belongs with libertarians, belongs with libertarians, in general, not some faction).

    Real libertarianism embraces liberty on /all/ issues, rather than carving out certain ones as some sort of magical exception. Those who believe in “liberty, except for a business that wants to discriminate” are no different than those who believe in “liberty, except for those gays.” Both are failing the cause of liberty, and neither has any claim to some moral high ground – the moral high ground is already occupied, by those who don’t just believe in liberty for themselves and those with whom they agree, but even for those with whom they disagree (or even actively dislike).

    • steelydanfan

      “Real libertarianism embraces liberty”

      Which, of course, is why real libertarianism opposes capitalism and private property altogether, because both are oppressive, authoritarian constructs.

      In other words, real libertarianism IS left-libertarianism. If you knew what you were talking about, you’d know that that’s been the case all along: http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/150-years-of-libertarian

      • MaineShark

        There’s no such thing as liberty without private property. Liberty is based upon self-ownership. If one cannot own property, then one cannot own oneself, and there’s no point in talking about liberty if you don’t even have the right to tell others they cannot make use of your body.

        Libertarianism doesn’t give a hoot about capitalism or socialism. Form a commune, if you like. Build capital-ville, where money is everything. Or anything else. I don’t care, as long as everyone participating is doing so of their free and voluntary consent.

        Those who would mandate /either/ socialism or capitalism (or anything else) cannot possibly be libertarians, because libertarians don’t mandate what others must do.

        • steelydanfan

          Actually, libertarians DO mandate that you cannot oppress or coerce another, which is why libertarians reject capitalism wholesale.

          • MaineShark

            If two individuals mutually decide to engage in capitalism, neither is oppressing or coercing the other. By definition.

            Since you would interfere in that mutually-consensual relationship, you are not a libertarian.

            Oh, and libertarians do not reject coercion, since they are not pacifists. If someone tries to mug me, I will most certainly coerce him into stopping.

          • Devin_MacGregor

            How does one enforce private property?

  • zjohn

    Sounds like plain ol’ libertarianism to me. Perhaps you need to reassess your definitions of libertarianism and ask yourself whether your idea of Right Libertarianism is merely conservatism by another name.

    • AuntMerryweather

      To use a specific example: there are plenty of libertarians who might think, “yeah sure, gay marriage should be legal, whatever” but who otherwise don’t spend much time contemplating the historic/continued oppression of LGBTs, and who are instead more incensed by government intrusion into (say) health care or education. I would be hesitant to throw them out of the tent altogether.

  • steelydanfan

    Are you aware that libertarianism has ALWAYS been a radical-left-wing, anti-capitalist sociopolitical movement? The so-called “Libertarianism” of today that embraces capitalism is a comparatively recent invention, and is in no way “libertarian” in any meaningful sense since it advocates wholly authoritarian modes of socioeconomic organization.


    • MaineShark

      Actually, saying, “you can’t be capitalists even if you all consent to do so” is a wholly authoritarian idea. If you are going to try and /force/ others to organize in a particular way, then you are an authoritarian, not a libertarian.

      • steelydanfan

        Since capitalism is itself nothing more than naked aggression (private property, unequal ownership of wealth, etc.), it’s not aggressive to say “you can’t aggress against others.”

        I get that you like to pretend that capitalism is the absence of aggression, but you’re wrong.

        • MaineShark

          Private property, as already covered, is the absence of aggression in property rights. If you reject private property, then you are, by definition, stating that there are no such things as human rights, and anyone is free to do absolutely any oppressive thing to anyone else, at any time.

          Anyone who rejects private property is an aggressor.

          “Unequal ownership of wealth” is not aggression. Trying to make that claim just looks ridiculous. If John Doe and Bob Smith each find a log, and John Doe sits on his, while Bob Smith carves his into a chair, Bob Smith has more wealth than John Doe, but engaged in no aggression whatsoever.

          Saying that having more wealth than another is automatically evil, is like saying that having more sex than another is automatically evil. If someone obtains more wealth by theft or such, then it is evil. If someone obtains more wealth by doing good work and reaping the freely-given rewards, then it is not evil. Just like someone obtaining sex by rape is evil, but someone obtaining sex by consent is not.

          When you attempt to assign moral value to results which may be obtained through any number of channels (some moral, and some not), you demonstrate the utter lack of integrity of your position.

          Capitalism cannot possibly be “aggression,” or “the absence of aggression.” Capitalism is morally-neutral – it defines a sort of socoi-economic organization, but not how that organization came to be. Capitalism freely chosen is not aggression. Capitalism imposed on the unwilling is aggression. Just like socialism freely chosen is not aggression, while socialism imposed on the unwilling, is.

          Within a free market, any manner of socio-economic choices can be made by anyone who consents to those choices.

          • petermiller1986

            it makes more sense if you understand that left-libertarians have a different definition of just about everything. private property is not the same as personal property for them. other terms that have different definitions include democracy, profit, racism, socialism and capitalism.

  • Andrew

    i’ve been researching various political institutions when i wanted to find out more about the “classification” of my political views. im still on the fence over this left-libertarianism, if possible, do you think you could hear some of my political views and see how closely i match up with the current ideologies of lef-libertarianist?

    my main political tenants are as follows:

    >the role of the state is to supply the citizens with the needs to succeed in life and in their jobs. those needs are education, healthcare, and protective services (police, ems, and fire). education is the most important of these the key to the future is through learning

    >the role of the citizen is to learn and to leave not just society but the human race better off then before them. essentially, what I mean is that the job of a person is to not work to better the state (like in hardcore communism or socialism) but to find a way to increase the overall happiness of the human race-think of utilitarianism in philosophy.

    >im very anti big-business and very anti social class (the latter i feel i lean towards communist like views on the destruction of social class i always used to say communism was such a good idea if it wasnt for human greed and for oppression).

    >im very pro freedom but also understand the whole social contract theory and laws exist for a reason.

    >im very pro human rights in that life style choices that are not detrimental to society should always be legal (legal marijuana, gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, etc).

  • petermiller1986

    left-libertarianism = libertarian socialism. (not to be confused with authoritarian socialism a-la ussr). i’m not one, but i know a lot about them. some libertarian socialists even advocate markets, though most prefer networks of democratic communities for their mode of economic organization.

  • MarshallKeith

    The problem with the concept of so called left libertarianism is the fact that it still uses government cohersion to achieve it’s goal. You either believe in freedom or you don’t. You can’t claim to believe in so called “social justice” or “economic justice” and leave it to the tyranny of the majority. With real freedom it is up to the individual to decide. The concept of “communal property” is to give way to the tyranny of the majority. Under a real free market system you are free to pool your resorces and form a commune. But under so called left libertarianism. The propety is forced communal ownership and by definition under the tyranny of the majority.