A liberal in the 19th century was a believer in
small government, free markets, and individual freedom, roughly what we now
call a libertarian. The
label had earlier been used for left anarchists, still earlier for
believers in the doctrine of free will. Early in the 20th Century,
after the opponents of liberalism stole its name, believers in classical
liberalism started calling themselves libertarians.
While "libertarian" can still mean a left anarchist, “left
libertarian” usually means a libertarian in the newer sense who
supports ideas or policies identified with the left. The oldest and probably
best worked out doctrine along those lines is geolibertarianism, based on the
ideas of Henry George, a prominent Nineteenth Century economist and journalist. Its
central tenet is that since no individual has a just claim to the income from
the site value of land, government ought to support itself by taxing all and
only that income. The
amount of money needed by a government, at least in the view of a libertarian,
is much less than the total produced by such a tax, leaving the rest free to be
distributed among the population. Thus the Georgist position provides an
argument for some level of what others would regard as income redistribution.
Libertarians mostly base ownership on
creation — I made it so it's mine — but land, with rare exceptions, is not created by humans. John Locke
famously argued that humans acquire ownership over land by mixing their labor
with it, clearing the jungle or digging out the boulders, provided that there
is as much and as good unowned land left for others, but that solution raises a
number of problems. One is the question of why mixing your labor, or anything
else you own, with something gives you ownership of it. As
Robert Nozick put it, “If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea
so that its molecules … mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to
own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?”
A second problem is the Lockean proviso, the requirement
that your act of appropriation leaves “enough and as good left in common for
others.” That is unlikely to be true of land in any densely settled country,
which seems to imply that the conversion of land from commons to property must
stop as soon as the amount of commons becomes small enough that reducing it
further means that some people can no longer wander over the commons, feed
their pigs on its acorns, collect deadwood, as well as before. A possible response
is that the condition is satisfied as long as everyone is better off than he
would be if all the land had remained commons, that the large gain from the
greatly increased production due to treating land as property can be set
against the loss from a reduction in the amount of land in the commons.
The Georgist solution raises problems too. Not only did I
not create the land, we did not create it either, so how is the government entitled
to remove land from the commons, giving someone the right to exclude people from land that neither he nor the
government justly owns? Readers who share my interest in the issue may want to
look at an old article
of mine in which I offered my own not entirely satisfactory solution.
The book Markets not Capitalism: Individualist anarchism against
bosses, inequality, corporate power, and structural poverty (hereafter
MnC) presents a form of left libertarianism that descends from the ideas of 19th
century anarchists who considered themselves socialists, individualist socialists in contrast
to state socialists such as Marxists, writers such as Benjamin Tucker and
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The
modern left libertarians whose views are represented in MnC would like to
reclaim the socialist label. They refuse to call what they support “capitalism”
on the not unreasonable grounds that, to most people, the term describes a
mixed economy in which governments play a large role. They reject the term
“free market” on similar grounds — the existing market is not free — in favor
of “freed market,” what would exist after government and its interventions were
eliminated. They argue that most of the things socialists dislike about present
societies would not exist, or at least be much less common, in a freed market,
hence that socialists should be libertarians.
The problem is that there is no good reason to believe it is
The funding of public highways through tax revenues, for
example, constitutes a de facto transportation subsidy, allowing Wal-Mart and
similar chains to socialize the costs of shipping and so enabling them to
compete more successfully against local businesses; the low prices we enjoy at
Wal-Mart in our capacity as consumers are thus made possible in part by our
having already indirectly subsidized Wal-Mart’s operating costs in our capacity
as taxpayers. (MnC Chapter 20).
The author does not mention that, during the period of
Walmart’s initial expansion, federal regulation made transport more expensive
by cartelizing the trucking industry, as demonstrated by the sharp drop in
costs after the industry was deregulated. Nor
does he mention that libertarians expect governments to produce goods and
services less efficiently than private firms, making costs higher and quality
lower. That gives us one government activity that made transportation cheaper,
two that made it more expensive. The author mentions the one that pushes in the
direction he wants, ignores the other two, and concludes that transport was
less expensive due to government, benefiting Walmart.
A good analogy is subsidies to freeways and urban sprawl, which make our feet less usable and raise living expenses by enforcing artificial
dependence on cars. (MnC Chapter 40).
Subsidies to mass transit, the urban alternative to cars
pushed by opponents of urban sprawl, are about a hundred times as large per
passenger mile as the subsidy to highways.
Walmart and urban sprawl are not the only things socialists
dislike about the modern world so not the only things left libertarians would
like to claim that a freed market would reduce or eliminate. Others include
large corporations, wage labor, the cash nexus and income inequality. Things
they would like to see replace them include workers’ cooperatives,
self-employment, gift economies.
In each case there may well be ways in which government
intervention in the economy pushes things in the direction they claim. But in each case, as with highway costs, there are effects in the opposite direction as well. To demonstrate
that point, here are arguments for the opposite of the conclusions offered by
A large hierarchical organization has to pass a lot of
information up and down the hierarchy in order that the people at the top can
know what those at the bottom are doing and those at the bottom know what those
at the top want them to do. The more such information there is and the more
hands it passes through, the more legible the firm’s activities are to the
government, making it easier to collect taxes and enforce regulations. At the
other end of the scale, in the limiting case of a one man firm, the boss cum
worker does not have to trust anyone but himself to keep his secrets, which
makes it easier to evade taxes — for instance by classifying consumption
expenditures as business expenditures or not reporting payments in cash — or
regulations. So one effect of a government that taxes and regulates is to increase
the advantage of smaller firms over larger.
Another effect is to encourage gift economies, informal
transactions more generally. If I do my friend’s taxes for her and she babysits
my kids, neither transaction ever shows up on our income tax forms. That is one
way in which the existence of government makes gift economies more, not less,
Another way in which the existence of government discourages
hierarchical organizations is by the structure of taxation. Corporate profits
pay taxes twice, once in corporate income tax and a second time as income to
the stockholders, although the second may, depending on the details of tax law,
be diluted by special treatment for dividends or capital gains. The same
activity done in an unincorporated form, as by a doctor in private practice,
pays taxes only once.
One way of getting things is by paying someone else for them,
another is by producing them yourself — cooking your own dinner, growing tomatoes
in your back yard. One way of making a living is to work for someone else for
pay, another is to work for yourself, make jewelry or art and sell at art
fairs, write books. Here again, one advantage of making your living that way is
that your activities are less legible to tax collectors and regulators.
Arguably the shift from self-employment to wage labor over the past hundred and
fifty years was one of the causes of the growth of government expenditure from
about ten percent of national income in the U.S. in the Nineteenth Century to
about forty percent currently.
Most high income people at present get their income either
as highly skilled workers, such as physicians, or successful entrepreneurs,
both roles that would continue to exist in a freed market. While government
activities result in some people being richer, some poorer, than they would
otherwise be, their least ambiguous effect on the income distribution is
through taxation. Taxing capital gains makes it more difficult to accumulate
wealth. Income taxation in the U.S. at present is heavily biased against the
rich: The top one percent of taxpayers pay about 29% of their income in federal
taxes, the bottom quintile about 3%.
The Advantage of
The 19th century individualist anarchists were in
a better position than their modern successors to claim to offer what
socialists wanted because they knew less economics. They seem to have believed
that if anyone could open his own bank and print his own money, loans would be
freely available — according to Tucker at an interest rate of less than one
percent. They were confusing money with capital. In a system of private issue
anyone can invent his own money and print it, but that does not mean that
people will give him things in exchange.
At least some of them seem to have viewed rent as well as
interest as a government creation.
It was obvious to Warren and Proudhon that, as soon as
individualists should no longer be protected by their fellows in anything but
personal occupancy and cultivation of land, ground rent would disappear, and so
usury have one less leg to stand on. Their followers of today are disposed to
modify this claim to the extent of admitting that the very small fraction of
ground rent which rests, not on monopoly, but on superiority of soil or site,
will continue to exist for a time and perhaps forever, though tending
constantly to a minimum under conditions of freedom. (Benjamin Tucker, MnC
A world where anyone who wanted to work for himself could
get an almost interest-free loan and anyone who wanted to farm could get almost
rent-free land would look to a 19th century socialist more like what
he wanted than anything twenty-first left libertarians can believably promise.
Limiting it to libertarians in the modern sense,
there are at least four categories of left libertarians, two of which are discussed in this chapter:
The Bleeding Heart Libertarians (discussed here
and here) have constructed versions of libertarianism designed to be acceptable
to the academic left, their fellow philosophy professors.
The left libertarians who view themselves as the heirs of
the individualist socialists of the Nineteenth Century have constructed a
version, and a presentation, designed to appeal to people who would describe
themselves as socialists, more nearly the left of the labor movement than of
The Geolibertarians are distinguished not by their target
audience but by their argument, offering their solution to the problem of
initial appropriation as a justification for taxation to support needed
government functions and what other libertarians would view as income
The fourth group are distinguished not by their view of
libertarian doctrine, which is conventional, but by their view of everything
else. They are likely to regard themselves as feminists, to be concerned with
racism and climate, to favor same sex marriage. On what might be loosely
described as culture war issues they usually take the side identified with the left.
The groups have some overlap of members and ideas. Bleeding
Heart Libertarians make use of the Georgian argument to justify income
transfers. Members of the first two groups are likely to agree with the left on
some culture war issues, making them at least fringe members of the fourth.
Identification of left libertarian variants is most easily done
by text, not garb or physical appearance. Bleeding Heart Libertarians speak
respectfully of Rawls, whose name appears nowhere in Markets Not Capitalism.
“Boss” appears forty-five times in the book but its only appearance in the
contributions by Bleeding Hearts to the Cato symposium I shared with them was a
reference to the book’s subtitle; it makes no appearance in Progress and
Poverty, the founding document of Georgism. References to the ruling class
and the oppression of workers are more likely to appear in the rhetoric of my
second and fourth groups than in that of other libertarians.
One More Category
The people discussed so far mostly self-identify as
left-libertarians. There are also people who think of themselves as leftists but
have been convinced by, or worked out for themselves, enough of the libertarian
argument to be in some sense libertarians. Examples would be Cass Sunstein, who
occasionally describes himself as a libertarian, Larry Lessig, whom I have
occasionally tried to persuade that he should, and Scott Alexander, the author
of one of the anti-libertarian faq’s discussed here, not all of which he still agrees with. James
Scott, author of at least two books that I and many other libertarians, like,
is arguably another example, despite his efforts to make it clear to his
readers that he is not one of those icky libertarians. I discuss him in this essay.
This essay is a draft of a chapter for something I am working on
. Several links in it are to other draft chapters. As always, comments are welcome.