Libertarianism: What’s Going Right


by Kevin Carson
http://c4ss.org/content/12511

In “Libertarianism and Liberalism: What Went Wrong,” I gave my opinion of what was wrong with both mainstream libertarianism and mainstream liberalism (”wrong” in the sense to presenting an obstacle to an anti-authoritarian coalition of liberals and libertarians). In my last post, “Liberalism: What’s Going Right,” I discussed some reasons for hope within movement liberalism: some individuals who show signs of thinking outside the box when it comes to abandoning the worst features of the liberal establishment and finding common ground with free market libertarians. Now I’d like to do the same thing on the libertarian side.

The following are tendencies and subgroups within the larger free market libertarian movement, loosely defined, that largely steer clear of “vulgar libertarianism“ (i.e., pro-corporate apologetics under the cover of phony “free market” rhetoric) and present some basis for a possible entente not only with liberalism but with the broader left. I may write additional, more detailed posts later on some of these groups, but my purpose here is just to summarize them.

1. The movement with which I identify most closely as a libertarian, also probably the least important from the standpoint of actual influence, is the classical individualist anarchism of Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker and the Liberty circle. I call us “classical” to distinguish us from modern, left-leaning followers of Murray Rothbard who also claim the individualist anarchist label–not because the latter are not entitled either to that label or to our good fellowship, but because there are substantive differences and we need some verbal distinction to reflect them. The central difference is that we classical individualist anarchists still view our free market libertarianism as a form of socialism, and have views on rent and profit that are closer to those of Tucker’s Boston anarchists than to the Austrianism of Rothbard. Modern adherents of this nineteenth century radicalism include Shawn Wilbur, Joe Peacott, Joel Schlosberg, Matt Jenny, and Crispin Sartwell (although I’ve probably missed a few). R.A. Wilson, recently departed, promoted this version of anarchism in The Illuminatus! Trilogy (for example here).

On a related note, Larry Gambone of the Voluntary Cooperation Movement is heavily influenced by the mutualism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Robert Owen, the direct European ancestors of American individualism. Gambone played a large role in introducing Proudhon’s thought to modern North American anarchists (see his pamphlet “Proudhon and Anarchism“). He and Dick Martin, both in British Columbia, are the primary editors of Any Time Now.

2. The left-Rothbardians trace their origins to Murray Rothbard’s project, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, of an alliance with the New Left against the corporate state. Rothbard and other right-wing libertarians contributed to the New Left journal Ramparts (home of David Hororwitz, before he became an odious neocon) and William Appleman Williams’ revisionist history study group Studies on the Left. Rothbard’s journal Left and Right, and the early volumes of Libertarian Forum, were largely preoccupied with the New Left alliance.

Rothbard himself abandoned the project as hopeless after a few years, and moved rightward. But his close associate Karl Hess went on (for a while) to develop much closer ties of affinity to the left, participating in a community technology project in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC and even joining the Wobblies. And another Rothbard associate, Samuel Edward Konkin III, founded the Movement of the Libertarian Left as a vehicle for continuing Rothbard’s Old Right/New Left project. Konkin’s central contribution to what he called “Agorism,” the New Libertarian Manifesto (warning: pdf), is available at Agorisim.Info (with a lot of other Konkin pamphlets as well). The current Alliance of the Libertarian Left and Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left include many of those who have preserved and continued this left-Rothbardian line of thought.

3. Geolibertarianism, or Georgism, is large; it contains multitudes. Founded (of course) by Henry George, it amounts to an whole libertarian movement of its own, with variants ranging pretty far to the left and right: from Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov and Fred Foldvary on the right, to Ralph Borsodi and Michael Hudson on the left.

Georgism and individualist anarchism are both unlike mainstream contemporary libertarianism in that they remain much closer in spirit to the classical liberalism of Paine, Smith and Ricardo. Both retain the classical political economists’ understanding, abandoned by the main line of marginalist economics, that “land is different” from other factors of production because, as Will Rogers said, “They ain’t making any more of it.”

The central idea is that land isn’t governed by the normal market mechanism that regulates the price of reproducible goods, by driving it toward production cost. The more social wealth increases, the more people and dollars are bidding up the fixed supply of land, so that rents continue to rise relative to wages and more and more wealth disappears down the landlords’ rathole. The Georgist remedy is to eliminate all taxes on labor and capital, and put a “single tax” on the site value of land, so as to make unearned scarcity rent the main source of tax revenue. The effect is for the land currently being held out of use for speculative purposes to be put to use by human labor, and for rents to fall relative to wages.

The most left-leaning version of Georgism is the geolibertarian agenda I mentioned in my earlier post: taxing land value, resource extraction, and carbon emissions and other externalities, funding a guaranteed minimum income out of this rent collected by society, and then allowing progressive ends to be promoted entirely by the price incentives resulting from these policies, in a totally unregulated market. The idea is that in a society where workers have the bargaining power that comes with unlimited access to cheap land and a social dividend of ten or fifteen thousand bucks per capita, labor regulations will be superfluous. And in a society where pollution is heavily taxed and the price of fossil fuels reflects high severance fees, the same is true of pollution laws. And so on, and so on.

I’m not a Georgist, for reasons that would require way too much digression to go into now. But George’s thought, in all its manifestations, has been an immensely positive leavening force on both left and right, bringing out the best aspects of both communities. On the left, it softens the tendency to rely on the bureaucratic state, and promotes in its place an egalitarianism that works through the removal of privilege and the perfection of market mechanisms. On the right, it counteracts the instinctive tendency to rally to the defense of the rich and corporate interests.

Each of these movements, in its own way, offers some potential as a basis for common action with the left against the increasing authoritarianism police state, and against the corporate-state nexus that dominates the economy.

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 20th, 2008 at 7:30 pm

2 responses to “Libertarianism: What’s Going Right

  1. The attack on “corporate” stuff (i.e. companies) is a diversion as Kevin Carson hates largescale individual employers also.

    Nor does it matter if they own landed estates, factories, or chains of shops. He hates any large scale individually owned enterprise – just as much as he hates one owned by a”corporation” (a church, a limited liability company – or whatever).

    The “Adam Smith” problem as the Germans call it (the contradictions in the thought of Smith over time) are best explored by Rothbard in his history of economics.

    Thomas Paine is all over the place politically – he starts off saying how much he is favour of reducing the size and scope of government, then he started promising just about every benefit possible (government finance for education, old age – and just about everything else). At first Paine claims that it could all be paid for by getting rid of the King and hangers on – then (when it was pointed out that the sums did not add up) he propsed an orgy of taxes – including a land tax that went up to 100%.

    Tom Paine (at least in his last years) is not a good guide to economic policy.

    David Ricardo.

    His weird obsession with land is actually not the worst thing about him. The worst thing is the Labour Theory of Value – Adam Smith may have got confused over value, But Ricardo proposed a clear and detailed theory….

    The troube is that David Ricardo’s Labour Theory of Value is also wrong – utterly wrong, indeed absurd. As is everything that stems from this theory.

    As for Henry Georgism (which Carson has it both ways on – claiming not to be one, and then praising its absurdities), it was refuted by Rothbard 50 years ago (and refuted by others long before him).

    So called “vulgar libertarianism” is libertarianism – period.

    Kevin Carsonism is just another name for communal collectivism.

    By the way a “corporate state” has a specific meaning – it is not just a country with a lot of big companies in it.

    The specific meaning of “corporate state” can be found in the thought of Mussolini (but also it can be seen in the writings of others).

    Neither in Fascist Italy or National Socialist Germany were “the corporations” in charge (as Carson claims to believe) – on the contrary the sstate was in charge. In Fascist Italy the directly state owned sector became the biggest in the world (outside Soviet Russia) and in National Socialist Germay big businessmen were reduced to “shop managers” (as they had been under German “War Socialism” during the First World War).

    See Ludwing Von Mises “Nation, State and Economy”, “Socialism”, “Omnipotent Government” and “Human Action” (all works of “vulgar” libertarianism) and see F.A. Hayek “Road to Serfdom”, “Constitution of Liberty” and “Law, Legislation and Liberty” (works of more moderat classical liberalism).

    These works give a more serious view of both intellectual (and other) history, and or economic and legal thought.

  2. Will Wolverhampton

    Lord Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

    Hamlet: Words, words, words.

    Gove wants the U.K. to be more like Finland and Singapore. His solution: words, words, words. Meanwhile, no-one mentions or discusses certain demographic changes that do not conduce to educational or economic success, or indeed any kind of success that Britons in 1900 might have recognized as such.

    Still, look on the bright side: there’s no shortage of words.

    “I’m not a Georgist, for reasons that would require way too much digression to go into now. But George’s thought, in all its manifestations, has been an immensely positive leavening force on both left and right, bringing out the best aspects of both communities. On the left, it softens the tendency to rely on the bureaucratic state, and promotes in its place an egalitarianism that works through the removal of privilege and the perfection of market mechanisms. On the right, it counteracts the instinctive tendency to rally to the defense of the rich and corporate interests.”

    “Community” should be left to the Guardian-reading community. “Immensely positive leavening force” sounds like Blair ending world poverty.