Keeping Libertarian, Keeping Left

As I’ve noted elsewhere: “Part of being a left-libertarian is that on the one hand you’re constantly trying to prod fellow libertarians into moving farther left, while on the other hand you’re constantly trying to show fellow leftists that libertarianism is already farther left than they realise.”

I might add that when you do both in the same piece, libertarians tend to hear mostly the criticism of libertarians, while leftists tend to hear mostly the criticism of leftists.

Thus for Dean Baker, from the left, my chief message was apparently that “progressives have unfairly maligned libertarians as defenders of corporate power;” and for Matthew Yglesias, likewise from the left, my chief aim was apparently “to cast doubt on the legitimacy of castigating libertarians as corporate stooges.” But from the libertarian side, Steven Horwitz worries that I may be too quick to charge libertarians with being corporate stooges. (And elsewhere on the web my article has been read as outright anti-libertarian.) I claim, of course, as always, the position of golden mean.

Reply to Matthew Yglesias

All three of my interlocutors agree with me that the state, as it stands, uses its power to benefit large corporations. The chief question at issue between Matthew Yglesias and myself is how best to remedy this situation. There would seem to be three possible options:

1. Either abolish or radically diminish the power of the state.

2. Keep the state as it is but demand that it remain neutral and noninterventionist.

3. Use the state actively as a tool against corporate power.

Yglesias seems to think that the libertarian solution is (2), which he rejects as unrealistic. The “concept of a state apparatus that simply sits on the sideline watching the free market roll along” is “impossibly utopian,” Yglesias argues, because people will inevitably “try to manipulate the state to advance their own ends.” Hence Yglesias favors (3) instead.

But of course the libertarian—or at least the radical libertarian—agrees with Yglesias that a passive bystander state is utopian, and so favors (1) rather than (2). But for the libertarian, (3) is impossibly utopian as well; the incentival and informational perversities that beset the state are inherent in its monopolistic nature, so that the hope of achieving benign outcomes via the state is a chimera. (1) may be difficult to achieve given the prevailing political climate, but unlike (2) and (3) it poses—or so we libertarians claim—no inherent, ineradicable tendency to instability, and so is the least utopian option of the three.

Now it is true, as Yglesias rightly points out, that some states are more favorable to corporate power than others, and it is on this fact that Yglesias founds his hopes for reform. But given the state’s inherent liability to be influenced by concentrated over dispersed interests, this is a bit like pointing out that some heroin addicts are less unhealthy than others—the observation is true enough, but it’s no argument for seeking the right kind of heroin.

Yglesias notes that, as he sees it, “what corporations are after in politics is political action that gets them money and whether or not this coincides with the dictates of a purist laissez faire vision is a matter of mere happenstance.” Yglesias lists this as one of our points of agreement, but in fact from my point of view there’s no “happenstance” about it; corporate opposition to free markets is systematic, because free markets are systematically inimical to corporate power. (Note: I don’t consider “repeal regulations on me but not on my competitors” to be a selectively pro–free market policy; I see it as purely and wholly anti—free market.)

Yglesias also describes the libertarian utopia as a place “where politics just somehow doesn’t happen.” I’m not sure whether this as meant as a description of (1) or of (2), but in any case it depends what is meant by “politics.” If by “politics” is meant the legalized oppression practiced by governments, then certainly libertarians are fighting for the abolition of politics, just as we fought for the abolition of slavery two centuries ago. But in a broader sense of the term, libertarians need have no objection to politics; as Don Lavoie points out, there is “much more to politics than government”:

Wherever human beings engage in direct discourse with one another about their mutual rights and responsibilities, there is a politics… . in the sense of the public sphere in which discourse over rights and responsibilities is carried on … . The force of public opinion, like that of markets, is not best conceived as a concentrated will representing the public, but as the distributed influence of political discourses throughout society… . Inside the firm, in business lunches, at street corners, interpersonal discourses are constantly going on in markets. In all those places there is a politics going on, a politics that can be more or less democratic… . Leaving a service to “the forces of supply and demand” does not remove it from human decision making, since everything will depend on exactly what it is that the suppliers and demanders are trying to achieve… . What makes a legal culture, any legal system, work is a shared system of belief in the rules of justice—a political culture. The culture is, in turn, an evolving process, a tradition which is continually being reappropriated in creative ways in the interpersonal and public discourses through which social individuals communicate.[1]

Yglesias concludes that “libertarianism, even at its very best, tends to suffer from an impoverished set of ideas about how corporate domination of the public policy space might be prevented,” since it “seems to have little to say about how to bring about political change except to work hand-in-hand with business lobbies.” I’m not sure what versions of libertarianism Yglesias has in mind when he refers to libertarianism at its very best, but if he thinks that libertarians have had nothing to say about political change other than working hand-in-hand with business lobbies, then I must conclude that his familiarity with libertarian literature has been rather narrow. (I note in passing that the three supposedly libertarian policies that Yglesias criticizes—replacing Social Security with forced private savings, defending the rights of industry to pollute, and favoring tax-funded highways over tax-funded mass transit—are widely rejected and sharply criticized by many libertarians.)

Yglesias’s own suggested strategies for political change are a mixed bag. Some of them, such as campaign finance legislation and strengthening the civil service, seem to involve a mere shift of power from the corporate class to the political/bureaucratic class—cold comfort for those who see little to choose between them. Libertarianism is equally opposed to monopolistic power whether it is wielded by corporations or by bureaucrats; again, Yglesias’s solution seems to involve shifting the reins of monopolistic power from one party to another, which for a libertarian misses the point—we don’t want people’s lives to be directed by politicians instead of by businesspeople, we want people to be free to direct their own lives.

But Yglesias’s other suggestions—community organizing, public-interest advocacy organizations, and seeking allies in the trade union movement—are ones I think libertarians would do well to take. (Those of us in the Alliance of the Libertarian Left have been advocating just these sorts of measures for some time.) And while it is true that many libertarians oppose “strong labor unions,” Yglesias overlooks a vocal pro-union minority within the libertarian movement; I commend to his attention the writings of Kevin Carson, Charles Johnson, and Brad Spangler. In the nineteenth century, libertarians were at the forefront of various causes considered “left-wing” today, including the labor movement, the feminist movement, the abolitionist movement, and the antiwar movement; the causes of libertarians’ long rightward detour and the left’s long stateward detour are a long-debated topic, but in any case it is long past time for libertarians and the left to slough off their respective authoritarian accretions and rediscover their common radical heritage.

Reply to Steven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz and I disagree about fairly little here (and his apprehension that I am on the verge of charging him with “vulgar libertarianism” is unwarranted; for the record, by the nonexistent powers vested in me I hereby certify Steven Horwitz as a non-vulgar libertarian!). But he does think that I understate the extent to which the success of large firms like Wal-Mart is due to genuine entrepreneurship as opposed to governmental patronage; to the extent that this is so, there is a libertarian case for defending Wal-Mart (and the like)—and Horwitz refers to his own paper comparing Wal-Mart’s response to hurricane Katrina with that of FEMA.

I heartily agree with Horwitz that Wal-Mart did a far better job of disaster relief than FEMA; I also agree with him that Wal-Mart’s superior performance in this regard is to be attributed to its operating in a more competitive context and so facing less extreme incentival and informational perversities. Where we disagree, perhaps, is over the size of the gap between the competitive context to which Wal-Mart owes its success and the competitive context that would exist under genuine laissez-faire. I think it’s large enough that the preferability of Wal-Mart over FEMA looks a bit like the preferability of Mussolini over Hitler; yes, Mussolini was better than Hitler, and that can be worth pointing out, but I’d rather spend time looking for an alternative to both of them.[2] (And if a firm that, e.g., treats its employees as badly as Wal-Mart does could really thrive in a freed market, that might well justify skepticism as to the value of markets.)

Horwitz notes his agreement with Will Wilkinson’s argument that “when the primary subsidy is the national and local automobile-centric transportation infrastucture, I can’t really see the point in picking on a company that makes consumers better off by making the most of the tax-funded infrastructure everyone uses.” Two points: First, I never claimed that funding for highways was the primary means by which Wal-Mart benefits from governmental intervention; it’s only one of a long list. (For those who share Wilkinson’s and Horwitz’s skepticism of the extent to which large firms like Wal-Mart benefit from state patronages and would suffer from diseconomies of scale in a free market, I recommend Kevin Carson’s two books[3] on the subject.) Second, the fact that everyone uses the tax-funded highway system doesn’t mean that everyone benefits from it equally; firms with wider distribution, and so higher shipping costs, benefit more from public highways than their competitors, and to this extent public funding of highways constitutes a net redistribution from local firms to nationwide firms.

Horwitz contrasts two strategies for replying to the charge that free markets create socioeconomic inequalities; one is to acknowledge, indeed to emphasize, the existence of these inequalities, but to blame them on government rather than the market; the other is to point out that the inequalities are actually less extreme than is often supposed, thus showing that even as hampered as it is, the market is still managing to improve the prospects of the poorest. Horwitz maintains that while I champion the first strategy, the second is both more accurate and “more rhetorically effective.” In particular, Horwitz worries that if libertarians become fearful of pursuing the second strategy lest they be accused of “vulgar libertarianism,” they will miss opportunities to rebut statist arguments, and we will end up with even more statism than we otherwise might.

I’m happy to agree that there are cases when the second strategy is quite accurate; even hampered markets can work surprisingly well. I think we may disagree, though, about the extent to which serious inequality pervades our society—and it is for precisely that reason that I’m also skeptical of his further claim that the second strategy is more rhetorically effective. Certainly there are many respects in which the living conditions of the poor have improved over the years. But there are also many respects in which they haven’t improved or have gotten worse; and even those aspects that have improved are still pretty bad—especially compared with what we could expect to see in a freed market. So when people hear free-market advocates assuring them that their lives are great and getting better, when the everyday reality they experience tells them the opposite, they’re likely to conclude that free-market advocates are apologists for existing inequalities.[4] At any rate, I find I make much more headway with leftists by explaining prevailing inequalities as creatures of the state than by downplaying them.

Reply to Dean Baker

I agree with pretty much everything that Dean Baker says in his piece about the horrific results of copyright and patent law, and consequently I have little to add beyond “Amen!”—and another “Amen!” to his closing wish to “see libertarians be as aggressive in confronting the interventions that support corporate power as they were in confronting Social Security.” (And I would likewise recommend that Baker take a look at the Alliance of the Libertarian Left to see some of the ways that libertarians are doing this.) Finally, in response to Baker’s question: “where are the libertarians’ research programs on alternatives to patents for financing drug research or alternatives to copyrights for financing creative and artistic work?” I will point him to the resources listed at the Molinari Institute’s anti-copyright page.


1 Don Lavoie, “Democracy, Markets, and the Legal Order: Notes on the Nature of Politics in a Radically Liberal Society,” pp. 112-116; in Social Philosophy & Policy 10, no. 2 (Summer 1993), pp. 103-120. See also the discussion of the “authoritarian theory of politics” in Roderick T. Long and Charles Johnson, “Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved?” (online:

2 Note to all careless readers out there: if you think I just claimed that Wal-Mart is comparable to Hitler, you need to reread; a similarity of relations does not entail a similarity of relata.

3 Carson, Kevin A., Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Booksurge (2007; online:, and Carson, Kevin A., Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, forthcoming (online:

4 See my discussion of Barbara Ehrenreich in “Proletarian Blues,” Austro-Athenian Empire, 25 November 2006 (online:

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, philosopher and libertarian theorist Roderick T. Long draws a sharp contrast between corporatism and libertarianism properly understood. He argues that liberals, conservatives, and even libertarians have all been guilty to some degree of obscuring this difference, and that the quality of our political discourse has suffered accordingly. He suggests that libertarians should guard themselves against falling into the trap of “vulgar libertarianism,” in which all things good spring from business, and particularly from business as usual. Corporations, he argues, should be no more free from scrutiny than any other institution in society, and often businesses have done more than their share to hamper free economic relations in the industrialized world.

    One implication of all of this is that the truly free market is farther away than we imagine. Long suggests several ways in which a freed market would be different from what we see around us today. Notably, nearly all of these differences are to the benefit of the consumer and the small or start-up business. These likely outcomes of laissez faire suggest new grounds for left-liberals and libertarians to revise their thinking on economic issues and on politics more generally.

Response Essays

  • In his response to Long, Matthew Yglesias argues that although corporations naturally seek to win special privileges from the state, libertarianism is far from the obvious solution to the problem. Instead, he reiterates the charge that libertarians often act as corporate apologists and suggests that the net effect of any “free market” advocacy will tend strongly toward corporate power. Liberals may have much to learn from libertarians on certain issues and in some policy areas, but the laissez-faire solution to corporate political influence is unworkable.

  • Steven Horwitz offers several examples of so-called “de-regulation” that only served to benefit corporations, while leaving the government, and therefore the taxpayers, to shoulder the risks of the market. He argues that market competition is a form of regulation, albeit a kind worth wanting, as it forces corporations to respond to consumer demand and punishes them when they fail to meet it. He takes issue with Long’s lead essay by arguing that “playing defense,” that is, defending today’s corporations when they act consonantly with a fully freed market, is a valuable part of libertarian advocacy. One must nonetheless take issue with these same corporations when they violate the principles of laissez faire and distinguish carefully between these cases.

  • In his response essay, Dean Baker declines to tally up a “score” of how well libertarians, or other groups, have defended a truly impartial, laissez faire economy. Instead, he suggests intellectual property as an obvious area where libertarians must challenge corporate power to distort the market. Patents that make health care more expensive and copyrights that artificially restrict whole areas of our culture are obviously concessions to corporatism, and the “extraordinary abuses” undertaken to enforce these privileges should be vigorously challenged. Although libertarianism has been skeptical of both patents and copyrights, Baker suggests that this is an area deserving still further attention, and one in which liberals could perhaps become solid allies.

  • The discussion this month has focused to a greater than usual degree on the activities of certain Cato Institute policy scholars. The editors thought it appropriate to solicit responses, and we present them here in their entirety.