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Among the various sects of libertarianism, one has been receiving a certain amount of undue attention: left-libertarianism. As an anarcho-capitalist, I have my disagreements with left-libertarians, and am curious as to why they are generating the amount of interest they are. One reason for this may be their mode of communication. Left-libertarians tend to be more highly specialized than the average progressive, owing to their relatively greater interest in esoteric subjects. Attempting to decipher much of the libertarian left’s vocabulary is akin to reading a horoscope. Their success may, in large part, be credited to their refusal to pin down definitions. With ambiguous definitions, one may simply apply his own interpretations thereby rendering the content far more relatable (much like a horoscope).

This tendency of the libertarian left is illustrated well in Gary Chartiers 2008 article “The ‘Left’ in Left Libertarian.“ In the article, Chartier explains what the “left” modifier in left-libertarian means. Chartier argues that to be a consistent leftist, or “authentically leftist,” one ought to adopt an opposition to certain concepts included but not limited to “subordination”.

Chartier defines “subordination” as:

One person, A, is subordinate to another, B, when B has significant, persistent power over A. The power involved may be physical, but it may also be economic, psychic, social, or cultural. The important thing is that B determines, to some meaningful degree, what A does. A is significantly un-free in relation to B, either because B can impose on A some cost that A is unwilling to bear or because A genuinely (but mistakenly) believes that B is entitled to determine the character of A’s conduct.

Chartier is trying to define “subordination“ using the word “power“ which remains undefined. Left-libertarians have an arsenal of terms they use constantly and interchangeably precisely because they obfuscate the line between coercive and voluntary relationships. I can influence you by putting a gun to your head or by offering you money, or in countless other ways some of which are coercive and some are not. The libertarian left build up this whole nomenclature around avoiding this with turtles-all-the-way-down definitions so non left-libertarians eventually get tired of asking what this other term means. If one ever does get to the bottom they basically start over using the same strategy but a slightly different approach, such as maybe laying out a scenario you are supposed to agree is (here’s a new one) “exploitative”.

Returning to Chartiers definition of “subordination,” you cannot “determine, to [any] degree” what I do, you can only exert whatever influence you have. Left-libertarians tend to hate influence, but they won’t say this, so it all gets wrapped up like this. The more money somebody has, for instance, the more he’s willing to part with, so the more likely his success in getting me to do what he wants, and left-libertarians don’t like this either. Only they can’t find actual fault in any of this so they take something with a superficial resemblance, like threats of violence which are also examples of influence, and exclusively use terminology that encompasses both. Just like they do with “hierarchy,” “domination,” “authority,” and numerous other terms.

In a similar manner, and to his credit, Nick Ford wrote an article “14 Questions and Answers on Left-Libertarianism” in an effort to clarify the goal of left-libertarianism. In the section “What does the ‘left’ in left-libertarian mean?” he writes:

This form of “left” often involves an interest in solidarity, equality and liberty for the individual and the communities they inhabit. These cultural norms are meant to work against oppressive elements in society like capitalism (which is differentiated from markets), government and things like sexism, racism, etc.”

Does “equality” refer exclusively to rights? If so, libertarians can all agree on this since they contend private property rights (the root of all legitimate rights) apply universally to all moral agents. Or are left-libertarians asserting instead that everyone should be treated equally no matter their appearance, accomplishments, attitudes, beliefs, and so on? Of course the latter interpretation is something wholly different than the former. The same ambiguity applies to words like “oppression” and “domination”: are left-libertarians simply using these terms as substitutes for aggression, or do they also include non-aggressive behavior, such as an individual exercising a racial preference when choosing whom to befriend or provide a job opportunity to, under this banner?

The use of cryptic words such as “solidarity,” “equality,” and “oppressive” are commonplace in left-libertarian literature. They generally have a value-laden connotation and allow for people to project their own interpretations onto them, while being vague enough to avert any attempt at their critique. A left-libertarian can always assert an objector is engaging in a strawman argument by claiming a different interpretation of these terms than the one being critiqued. In other words, as a left libertarian I’d be loathe to make a proposition, and also as a left-libertarian my favorite tactic for avoiding that is to refuse to define any terms or accept any real definition. That way, any critique of my position can be dismissed – “that’s not even what I was saying!” Thus, left-libertarians often employ such terms as means of equivocation using one meaning or connotation for one purpose, and another for an additional purpose so as to reconcile what would otherwise be a contradiction.

When people start using arcane terms to explain concepts, watch out. But left-libertarians abhor clear definitions of terms that expose their propositions to criticisms. If you peruse left-libertarian thought you will come across this trait. For instance, in Libertarian Anticapitalism Charles W. Johnson attempts to define “capitalism”. He defines it as,

“[t]he commercialization of everyday life — that is, a condition in which social interactions are very largely mediated through, or reshaped by, overtly commercial motives, and most or all important social and economic institutions are run primarily on a businesslike, for-profit basis.”

These distinctions start to break down under even the most basic of criticism. For starters, what are the economic consequences of “the commercialization of everyday life“? When I go to the grocery store, is that an overt commercialization of something? Of “everyday life”? Commercialized as compared to what? If you make the “for profit” aspect the important part of “commercialization,” it’s unclear how or why you would distinguish monetary profit with a more general kind of profit; namely, psychic profit. So what is commercialization? Is it simply when people or institutions pursue self-interest or pursue self-benefit? Don’t most people behave this way? All the adverbs like “largely,” “overtly,” “primarily,” etc., make it impossible to resolve any dispute as to whether a given arrangement fits the definition. Perhaps we are to assume that, like pornography, we simply “know it when we see it.” Nonetheless, I don’t see how any useful predictions could be extracted from it. It’s not even a description of anything, and it’s really not useful for economic analysis.

We use definitions for the purpose of making words or concepts clear. Stating what a word means is the purpose of a definition. A definition should be anything that can reliably be referred to, to distinguish what the term refers to from what it doesn’t, and can be used to resolve disputes about that question. Provided with a good definition, the listener or reader should be able to point out examples of the concept with little to no help. Consider that we wanted to define “car”. With a successful definition, the reader/listener should be able identify every car that he sees. Let’s assume the person listening or reading overlooks and misses some cars (or includes some other objects such as motorcycles), can’t tell whether an object is a car or not; then the definition is a failure. The definition by Johnson is merely an abstract and does not help any sort of discussion – I would know no more about capitalism after hearing the definition than I did before. Thus, it is committing a logical fallacy of definition.

It is this approach that attempting to change the rhetoric and the substance of libertarianism (which as a philosophy strictly concerns itself with the justified and unjustified use of force in society). If left-libertarians want to identify with whatever legitimate causes or personal concerns they have, then I am all ears and we can discuss how those issues pertains to libertarianism, but otherwise it seems imperative that we figure out what those other things are instead of using ambiguous terminology which totally just means one thing when they’re recruiting, and totally does not thereafter.*

Left-libertarians seem to confuse identity with relation. They shoehorn a variety of concepts into libertarianism because they somehow loosely “relate” to liberty. In this way they add in all these extra commitments above and beyond non-aggression. Yet this gets us into enigmatic territory, because you can posit arbitrary relations all over the place. For example, “Politeness is complementary to liberty. We couldn’t hope to maintain a free society if everyone were extremely rude to one another”. Thus, “Politeness is an additional commitment libertarians must uphold,” et al. Replace “politeness” with “equality,” or some other leftist value, and you’ve basically got their argument (see Charles W. Johnson’s Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin for further confirmation).

The libertarian left’s major problem is their lack of denotative definition. They rely entirely on connotation or how a word feels. If you’re in tune with them, it feels more or less the same to you as it does to them and you get to enjoy conflicting or contradictory usages because they all just know what you mean.

By relying on ambiguity, you never have to admit defeat, can infinitely accuse your opponent of misconstruing your position, and can equivocate or flip flop between various meanings of words. It’s impossible to be pinned down.

Our final example is in Sheldon Richman’s article Free Market Socialism. Richman argues that the free market would give leftists what they want: society owning the means of production. Using Borders as an example, he says:

But no individual decided to put, say, the bookseller Borders, out of business. In an important sense, we did it collectively, but not at a mass meeting with people giving speeches and voting on whether the principals of Borders should keep control of the company’s assets. Rather, the demise of Borders and the transfer of its assets to others were the outcome of many individual decisions, most of which were not consciously coordinated. It’s just that enough people had preferences inconsistent with the company’s business plan. So the people who ran Borders were out, however much they objected.

Richman is mistaken here. In market transactions, the individual acts and the outcome, or the side effect, is the manifestation of demand. On the other hand, when collectives “act,” the actual action (by individuals) does not occur until some sort of consensus (rarely unanimous) has been reached. The ironic thing is that they do this because they think they can engineer a solution (assuming they have good intentions) that meets society’s demands, but the side effect of the actions of free individuals can naturally accomplish this vastly better than any collective can.

Through the lens of methodological individualism, we can see that the focus is on individual actors driving prices. The pricing of not only consumer’s goods, but also the capital goods and labor used to make those consumer’s goods, are determined by consumer preferences, and that it is the consumers, not “everyone,” that dictate the direction of investment and creation of wealth in society. Profits are paid to entrepreneurs who accurately predict and follow consumer preferences, and guide resources from lower valued ends to higher valued ends. While the market as a collective helps establish prices, it’s the marginal decisions of individuals that matter in the end. The marginal decisions to buy or sell, to choose between definite amounts of various goods, all occurs on an individual scale. Richman is asserting that since “the market” put Borders out of business that we all (as part of the market) collectively own Borders (or any other business) which is socialism.

He concludes,

In other words, the freed market would give traditional leftists what they say they want: a society in which free, voluntary, and peaceful cooperation ultimately controls the means of production for the good of all people.

Richman is displaying a contradiction between his mentioning of methodological individualism and his equivocation of implied socialism:

  • Methodological individualism, collective nouns are only viable insofar as we understand individuals do things
  • “We” collectively put Borders out of business
  • Ignore the private owners and the consumers who made that business unprofitable and instead refer to them as owning the means of production

In other words: the market collectively closed Borders, socialism is the common ownership of the means of production, therefore the free market is socialism (collective ownership of the means of production). Never mind that Borders was privately owned, not collectively owned. That is, I did not own a share of Borders. Richman is describing socialist ends with capitalist means. When terms and concepts become this verbose, they are easily used to conflate two very different concepts in order to cast aspersions on one thing based on its superficial resemblance to another thing. It seems left-libertarians employ this tactic when dealing with any term whose definition has any wiggle room. You can describe the free market in ways that can be appealing to the left by using rhetoric that would appeal to them (and certainly free market capitalism will benefit everyone) but the harder you try to do that, the sketchier it gets. By now you may see the common thread: left-libertarians consistently employ vague terminology which serves to smuggle but also confuse and obfuscate, rather than clarify, libertarian philosophy.

The libertarian left’s major problem is their lack of denotative definition. They rely entirely on connotation or how a word feels. If you’re in tune with them, it feels more or less the same to you as it does to them (as you can see in the above example from Richman and Johnson), and you get to enjoy conflicting or contradictory usages because they all just know what you mean. In this case, left-libertarians don’t have to use an explicit definition, they just slightly leave the term out there implicitly defined as “any type of arrangement the terms of which may or may not go against my sensibilities.”

There’s a difference between talking and communicating. If you have your own private interchangeable definitions of key terms, you’re not communicating. If there are disputes about those definitions, some sort of understanding has to be reached before any communication surrounding them can occur. And some definitions are more analytically useful than others. Some seem deliberately designed to frustrate analysis. I prefer the ones that facilitate it. It’s not a quiz to see if an individual knows “the definition,” or that they must conform to your definition, it’s about understanding what an individual specifically means or what proposition is being made. When you have to commit to solid concepts, definitions, and so on, you must be prepared to dig in and argue your case.

Left-libertarians often protest that their attempts to politely explain certain concepts (“domination,” “exploitation,” “solidarity,” “subordination,” “oppression,” “social justice,” etc.) to their opponents typically prove fruitless. This, as I have illustrated, is likely due to the inability of the listener/reader to extract an actual proposition from any expression of uniquely left-libertarian terms/concepts without being accused of engaging in a strawman argument. The operative terms used by left-libertarians are fluid and obscure — as such it becomes virtually impossible to ascertain the essence of their philosophy — certainly nobody seems willing to commit to a definition of the concept and then stick to it, which is kind of problematic for theories like the ones they advocate.

In contrast, left-libertarians argue that concepts worth anyone’s time cannot be simply presented. It is true, simplicity is not the single requirement for a good argument. In fact, oftentimes positions are much better if they’re nuanced and complex. However, there’s a huge problem if your ideas become so totally complicated and dubious that you’re unable to clearly explain anything, and arguments degenerate into social science terminology word salad.

In the analysis of literature, as Rothbard points out, “the most elemental procedure of literary criticism (that is, trying to figure out what a given author meant to say) becomes impossible.”

He continues,

“Communication between writer and reader similarly becomes hopeless; furthermore, not only can no reader ever figure out what an author meant to say, but even the author does not know or understand what he himself meant to say, so fragmented, confused, and driven is each particular individual.”

Rothbard concludes,

If we cannot understand the meaning of any texts, then why are we bothering with trying to understand or to take seriously the works or doctrines of authors who aggressively proclaim their own incomprehensibility?”

In other words, what’s the point of even having a conversation or debate if you can’t define the terms? If terms are fluid then what does that mean for human language? The paradox is that the very argument they are making is self-refuted by their own misunderstanding or inability to provide workable definitions.

A left-libertarian could ask what I have against synonyms, especially ones with valuable nuance. However, “valuable nuance” is very nearly an oxymoron. And synonyms are great, except the only reason to introduce one in the examples described it seems is to sneak something in without actually offering it as a proposition. To one degree or another, this been a problem for the left generally. The use of the tactic itself does appear to be almost exclusive to the Left as a whole, but unlike progressive liberals, left-libertarians apply it to a broader array of terms and arguments. They develop a corpus of incomprehensible sophistry that’s so vague that it becomes a blank check. The components of left-libertarian arguments can be, and often are, infinitely shifted and manipulated so that they can avoid having to concede anything — just keep adding layers of complexity.

Nevertheless, if my criticisms are flawed, I’m clearly struggling in vain to discover an actual proposition of those theories and I’ve gotten it wrong (every single time, ever), in which case instead of being accused of a strawman or referencing biblical length text left-libertarians might try, “Oh, but you seem to have misunderstood the claims of the concept,” and then tell me what they are actually supposed to be. Occasionally a few left-libertarians have tried to do me this favor, which I appreciate, but always, always couched in ambiguous terms whose meanings change throughout the conversation such that I have still, in all my life, never been told in useful terms just what these concepts mean.

Perhaps this sounds like I’m not optimistic about ever having this problem solved, which is true. And maybe that makes it sounds like I’m disingenuous about wanting to be filled in, which is not true – I want to understand these concepts just like I want to meet an extraterrestrial life form, which I think probably doesn’t exist, so you’re not going to catch me acting like I’m trying to achieve either goal.

So if a left-libertarian wants to try to tell the rest of what these theories actually say and mean in words they’re prepared to unambiguously define, I’m all ears. I just don’t think any of them will because I don’t think any of them can.


*See Motte and Bailey Doctrines

Austrian Economics | Property-Rights | Paleo-Culture

Austrian Economics | Property-Rights | Paleo-Culture

Essays on Economic, Political, and Social Theory

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Jeff Peterson

Jeff Peterson is an Austrian and anarcho-capitalist in the Rothbardian/Higgsian tradition. He manages the Anarcho-capitalist/Austrian Facebook page We The Individuals.

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