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)
*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.