The Levellers as Left Libertarians


by Julio Rodman
http://c4ss.org/content/20076
The Levellers as Left Libertarians

The seemingly unbridgeable ideological gap in America between economic libertarians, on the one hand, and on the other, those who advocate various manners and degrees of redistribution of wealth can be rationally resolved through an understanding of the significance of the concepts of property rights and redistributive justice to those who advocated them in 1640′s England, in the course of their struggle against a dominant and economically parasitic aristocracy. Sometimes, in order to resolve a certain public moral disagreement in a way which satisfies the concerns of all contending parties it is necessary to recall the common history and historical struggles of the parties in disagreement; so that common and often inexplicit moral concerns can be identified on the basis of which common conclusions about political and economic policy can be deduced. Sometimes, in other words, people in dispute on moral and political matters may actually be fighting for the same thing without realizing it.

The left libertarian ideal of a voluntaristic society composed of small property holders is of common historical significance to, and captures and harmonizes the concerns of, contending parties in this particular modern moral debate. And such harmonization is in fact central to the purpose and spirit of left libertarianism, which seeks to establish that the value of economic liberty, which is conventionally considered a “conservative” or “right-wing” ideal, is not just reconcilable with but actually inseparable from egalitarian economic ideals typically associated with “leftism”.

Identifying the origins of ideas is never a precise task, but an origin for the moral concepts and values at play in the modern public disagreement between libertarians and statist redistributionists can plausibly be located in the English Civil War, in the dispute between the Levellers and the Diggers over the proper revolutionary response to domination by the feudal-monarchial ruling class. Mid-17th century England was a time in which many of the controversies that animate modern politics, and particularly those surrounding property rights and redistributive justice, first materialized and were first explored. Later western political philosophy concerning the question of property, such as Locke and Marx, can, despite the generally unrefined and imprecise nature of the writings of these English revolutionary public philosophers, be fairly characterized as an attempt to resolve the questions broached by the English Revolutionaries of the 1640’s.

It was a time when lingering feudal property relations clashed with the beginnings of capitalist property relations, in a manner which inspired comparisons between common and private property – which are less obvious in a modern era where common ownership is a rare and mostly forgotten experience. The transition of property relations also stimulated analyses of various problems related to poverty and redistribution, problems which motivated, on account of their radical novelty, an inventiveness in moral solutions to which later thought and political practice are indebted. We are especially indebted because our modern economic situation, in which smaller property-holders and the propertyless are trodden upon by a corporatist ruling class which has a foot in both the political and the economic realms and which relies for its wealth on state-granted privilege, is analogous to the situation of the English revolutionaries, who faced a propertied aristocratic ruling class with the same general characteristics. Thus, the ideas of the English Revolutionaries are, as a philosophical matter, especially relevant to our current experience of class warfare; they were also, as a matter of history, crucially and lastingly influential upon American political culture. In short, the Levellers argued for an egalitarian distribution of private property and the Diggers for the abolition of the institution of private property itself. Let us now recall the history of the English revolutionary movement, in order to draw lessons relevant to modern politics from each of these two groups’ teachings and from a close examination of their points of difference. But despite the fact that these revolutionary camps are arguably the ancestors of the bitterly antagonistic modern ideological camps of libertarianism and communism, respectively, these two English revolutionary groups were actually inspired by the experience of the same oppressions and faced a common enemy, in the above-mentioned ruling class of the time.

To historians, the English Civil War is remembered typically as a conflict which called into question both the proper relationship between the Crown and the Parliament and the proper constitution and political role of the Church in English society. But it was also, as is convincingly argued by the Marxist historian Christopher Hill in several of his historical writings, a revolt of the lower orders of society, represented in the military, against the clerical and landowning masters of a fading feudal era. Between Charles’ accession to the throne in 1625 and the start of the Civil War in 1642, Charles I angered the Parliament primarily by, on the one hand, having a Catholic wife and instituting church reforms that made the state church more Catholic in appearance, and on the other, alternatively dissolving the Parliament, ignoring its demands, and reluctantly summoning and partially cooperating with it when his foreign adventures grew too expensive to fund in any other way. Eventually, conflict erupted between Crown and Parliament, ending with Charles’ execution in 1649. Parliamentary victory was followed by a decade of what can fairly accurately be described as military dictatorship, under Oliver Cromwell and, for a brief time, his son Richard.

During the war, Oliver Cromwell had been second-in command, under Sir Thomas Fairfax, of the New Model Army. The latter was formed a few years into the conflict through a re-organization and centralization of existing forces, inspired by a series of military blunders thought to have been an outcome of the disorganization and incompetence of the existing Parliamentary forces. The new army differed not only in its organization and efficiency, but also in its composition and ethos. It was comprised primarily of common people, with rank and promotion based upon merit rather than property. It also became a home to many religious radicals, whom Cromwell actively recruited from Eastern England, and many of whom were volunteers who enlisted with idealistic intentions. The New Model Army turned out to be a remarkable forum for the free discussion of ideas, and these ideas, due to the class makeup of the army and to the radical political leanings of the religious rebels who filled its ranks, tended to be revolutionary in nature opposing the political, economic, and religious status quo.

Another interesting feature of this army was that, in contrast to modern society, which is largely indifferent to the moral debates taking place within an ivory tower academia, in the culture of the army, and in the radical movement generally, philosophy and social and political life were wedded. Radical philosophers were the patron thinkers of the New Model Army’s soldiers, and the ideas written by the leading Leveller philosophers, Richard Overton, William Walwyn, John Lilburne, and Thomas Prince, permeated army discussions. Those in the army who were inspired by Leveller writings came to these philosophers’ defense on numerous cases of the latter’s persecution by the authorities–by, for example, petitioning for their release when the latter were imprisoned for criticizing what they perceived as the authoritarian nature of the Council of State, formed as a replacement for the King’s executive authority after his execution [1]. These philosophers could not have been more directly involved in public life, or more practically engaged with the common people’s struggle with which the former were philosophically preoccupied.

Radicals on the issue of property all agreed in locating society’s oppressors in the ruling aristocracy, which parasitically lived idle and comfortable existences off of the labor, land-rent, and taxes of the public; but these radicals did not articulate all of the same criticisms of the aristocracy, nor propose identical remedies to the subjugation of the non-Aristocratic English. Both sought an end to the economic oppression mentioned, but while the former identified the primary economic injustice which they were faced in existing patterns of private property-holding and seemed to believe that the dissemination of the benefits of private property ownership among the poor was the proper means to mitigating poverty, the latter viewed private property itself as an inevitable source of widespread deprivation and servitude, and sought a solution in communism. The Levellers directly inspired both Locke and the Jeffersonian Republicans, and those who advocated the abolition of private property articulated beliefs that were later central to socialist thought, the latter of which gives central place, specifically in its account of primitive accumulation and of the alienation of labor, to an analysis of the historical expropriation of peasants at the emergence of capitalism, a phenomenon which, as we will discuss, is at the heart of the English Revolutionaries’ experience of changing property relations.

The Levellers represented individuals inhabiting something of a range of social position. In the first place, they spoke for the yeoman farmer, a phenomenon which emerged at the twilight of feudalism and the emergence of markets. As Hill recounts, the English civil war occurred against the backdrop of the beginning of the dissolution of feudal relations, in which all individuals had been bound by basically immutable economic hierarchies based upon land-ownership, and in which land, rather than movable wealth, was as such the basis of all economic activity. Various isolated local communities had for centuries produced largely for their own consumption rather than for the purpose of domestic or international trade, and exchanged goods for labor within localities; but between the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, farmers came to produce more and more for a national, and with the discovery of the New World, an international market, and money, typically made of silver from the Americas, came to supplant the old method of exchanging labor for necessities. Accompanying the introduction of money relations were the beginnings of a division of labor, as localities sought profitability in national and international exchange instead of self-sufficiency, as well as the emergence a market for land, of which the new yeoman farmer took advantage. The yeoman farmer was a sort of capitalist farmer, who had progressed in his economic practice beyond traditional feudal relations, and who was commonly either a former feudal lord who had adapted to new economic circumstances or an enterprising peasant who had acquired his own property [2].

But while some peasants found a somewhat more independent economic role in the new yeoman social stratum, others were made landless, forced to beg and placed at the mercy of the draconian Poor Laws of the era; the Levellers also found followers among and spoke in defense of this demographic. Landlessness was affected by a combination of trends and events. In the first place, rents charged by lords, which had remained stable for centuries, began to fluctuate, partially on account of changes in the supply of land accompanying the sale of formerly monastic land, pricing many peasants out of land they had held for generations. A further cause of increased landlessness was the encroachment of aristocratic landowners upon peasant “copyholds,” traditional feudal peasant landholdings of uncertain legal status in changing times, and whose legal protection was denied by the same legislation, the Act of 1660, which abolished various aristocratic obligations traditionally attached to landowning privileged in feudal times [3]. Many other peasant land possessions which were held in common, were “enclosed” for purposes of efficiency, with titles to particular pieces of land granted to particular landowners, who were not typically the current peasant occupants of common land, but rather tended to be acquisitive large landowners. In addition to all this, during the Reformation of sixteenth century, monastic lands were confiscated, a process which involved both evicting large numbers of peasant tenants and eliminating in monastic wealth the largest source of charitable support for the poor, leaving the landless not just without the benefits of ownership but also without material necessities, and furthermore victim to the cruelty typically visited upon vagrants by the state [2]. Moreover, the greater historical context of all this injustice is that the class of feudal landlords at the time were descendants of the Norman invaders, led by William the Conqueror, who had by force, half a millennium earlier, imposed feudal hierarchy on the current peasants’ ancestors and expropriated their labor. The descendants of the conquerors were now, besides enjoying privileges traceable to the historical injustice mentioned, using the state to seek their own advantage at the expense of England’s poor, during the course of disruptive economic changes that threatened the comfort of both peasants and landlords dependent on a land-based economy. In the context of the interaction between these various trends, questions pertaining to entitlement to land appropriated from the earth or acquired through exchange, as well as questions regarding the legitimacy and relative virtues of common and private property, demanded asking but were terribly complicated to answer on account of the novelty of these issues.

The Leveller movement can plausibly be said to have begun shortly after the life-long radical John Lilburne resigned from his position as Major in the army, in protest of institutional religious intolerance. His political activity immediately following his departure from the army, caused the House of Lords to imprison him, which motivated mass protests on his behalf. Around the same time, radical liberals Richard Overton and William Walwyn published “A Remonstrance of many thousand citizens“, a radical tract which called for, among other things, an end to the Merchant Adventurer’s Comapany’s monopoly on foreign trade [1]. The latter was one of a number of state-imposed monopolies, which were sold to a few merchants, and the sales of which primarily enriched a small group of court aristocrats. State-granted monopolies had the effect of frustrating the economic activity of producers of various sizes and of a diversity of commodities, and of degrading the standard of living of the poor by raising the prices of essential goods [2]. Understandably, these monopolies were thoroughly despised by everyone but the small number of individuals among the merchant and landowning classes who benefited from them; and they were criticized frequently by both Levellers and Diggers.

And it was primarily this that the Levellers and Diggers had in common in their views: they both criticized the parasitism of the state and the old aristocracy upon the poor as well as their arbitrary cruelty toward the latter. The Levellers targeted not only the monopolies but also state-employed aristocrats for maintaining high salaries at the expense of the poor, accusing them of “the highest oppression, theft, and murder in the world, thus to rob poor people…to maintain their pomp, superfluities, and debauchery” (Legall Fundementall Liberties) [4]. They also frequently protested the imprisonment of landless debtors and beggars, and the imposition of taxes and tithes upon the general public (Level Petition of 1648) [5]. They also at times, as we will discuss, demanded the distribution of wealth to the landless.

The Diggers, or “True Levellers,” also criticized the ruling aristocracy’s parasitism upon and cruelty toward the poor through governmental means, such as through the institution of monopolies and the domination of Stuart government and manipulation of legal procedure, by the aristocracy. But the Diggers offered further criticisms of a distinctly proto-socialist flavor, targeting the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the labor and material deprivation of the propertyless many. In fact, it seems accurate to say that, while the Landless found advocates in the original Leveller philosophers and a home in the Leveller movement, the Diggers were exclusively concerned with the plight of the landless, and not with that of the small property owner. But, as we will see, the Diggers’ neglect of the concerns of the small property holder was apparently not motivated by belief in the intrinsic evil of private property, but rather by a pessimism, which I will later argue against, regarding the practical results of the institution of private property.

Even before the Digger Movement officially emerged in 1649, with Gerrard Winstanley’s proclamation of his communist beliefs, and with he and his followers’ cultivation, in defiance of large landowners, of public lands and communistic distribution of their product, distinctly communistic ideas regarding property were voiced from within elements of the Leveller movement. One pamphlet in particular, an anonymous piece from 1648 titled “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire“, written before the official emergence of the Diggers [6], condemns the institution of private property, on the basis of the observation that vast inequality, between the excessively propertied few and the propertyless many, as well as the servitude of the latter to the former, tends to accompany the institution of private property. Like all political radicals of the time, the author expresses his grievances in Biblical terms:

The creature man was priveleged with being Lord over other inferior creatures, but not over his own kinde; for all men a like being priveleged by birth, so all men were to enjoy the creatures alike without propertie one more than the other, all men by the grant of God are a like free, and every man individuall, that is to say, no man was to Lord or command over his own kind: neither to enclose the creatures to his own use, to the impoverishing of his neighbors…but man folling his own sensualitie became a dvourer of the creatures, and an incloser, not content that another should enjoy the same privelege as himself, but incloseth all from his Brother, so that all the Land, Trees, Beasts, Fish Fowle, are enclosed into a few mercinary hands; and all the rest deprived and made their slaves…[7]

The author of this Leveller pamphlet calls for the abolition of private property, and, in its place, an egalitarian distribution of wealth–”a just portion for each man to live, so that none need to begge or steale for want, but everyone may live comfortably.” He also, as Marx, Oppenheimer, and many others later would, traces the rise of this inequality, not to the interplay between natural human differences and the dynamics of voluntary acquisition and exchange of private property, but rather to historical violence and theft, by the Norman invaders against traditional peasant occupants. Common to Leveller and Digger writings is, in a pre-Marxian application of Marx’s general historical theory of primitive accumulation to the case of England in particular, a condemnation of Norman domination and of the original violence and theft to which then current unequal property arrangements were traceable. Interestingly, this pre-Winstanley communist pamphlet also seems to articulate something similar to the socialist theory of surplus value. The author posits that inevitably resulting from the establishment of private property is, not just widespread propertylessness, but also an unjust form of servitude of the propertyless to the rich, whereby the latter live idly off of the fruit of the labor of the former: “ye rich men…God will visit you for all your oppressions; you live on other men’s labors, and give them their bran to eat, extorting extreme rents and taxes on your fellow creatures.”

Winstanley, in a pamphlet titled “The True Levellers Standard Advanced“, similarly claims that inequality, between the excessively propertied and the propertyless, as well as the servitude of the masses to the idle rich, are inevitable results of the establishment of private property. He posits a dichotomy between the “Earth [being] the peculier Interest of Lords and Landlords” and being a “Common Treasury of relief for all.” And he criticizes an agrarian version of wage-slavery: “He that works for another, either for Wages, or to pay [landowners] Rent, works unrighteously, and still lifts up the Curse”; the only alternative, he says, is for all men to “work and eat together, making the Earth a Common Treasury.” He comes close to stating that private property is intrinsically immoral as opposed to it being immoral by virtue of its tendency to engender poverty or economic servitude; but every remark resembling the former claim, such as those asserting that the Bible commands common ownership, seems to be immediately followed or preceded by a claim that there is an empirical connection between the existence of private property and the above-stated results of the institution [8]. That is, it is not clear in the letter of the text, as with the previous text, whether he believes that, if, hypothetically, private property could somehow be equitably instituted so as to avoid the typically resultant widespread propertylessness and economic servitude, that the institution would be morally good or permissible. Perhaps he does not address this theoretical possibility because he does not consider such a state of affairs to be a practical possibility, and thus worth addressing. But it is precisely the practical possibility of such universal private ownership which is envisioned in the Jeffersonian ideal of a republic of small property-holders, and in a more radical form, in left-libertarianism; we will shortly examine the practicability as well as the justice of such an arrangement of private ownership.

But even if Digger writings do not, as philosophical precision would require, clarify whether private property would be justifiable were it possible for it to be widely enjoyed, it is clear that their moral evaluation of private property is crucially influenced by their observation of gross material inequality in the England of their time. A reading of the Digger condemnation of private property which is informed, as is proper, by a knowledge of the socio-historical context of Digger writings, must acknowledge the fundamental importance of the above-stated theory of economic causation, to the Diggers’ negative moral evaluation of private property. This context is, to repeat, one in which private property is, primarily as the combined result of historical violence and theft, and of continuous coercion of the poor by the rich through the apparatus of government, the privilege of the view, and maintained by those few with the accompanying cost of the material deprivation and servitude of England’s denizens.

But despite the fact the Levellers write in the same context, share the same enemies, and are alike concerned about the plight of the landless, they, contrary to the Diggers, defend the institution of private property, and they do so in a manner which is philosophically supportive of the modern ideal of a republic of small property-holders, and furthermore, I argue, the ideal of left-libertarian market-based anarchism. Their arguments in favor of private property seem to be, in the first place, positive in nature–that is, they defend private property on the basis of the benefits it confers upon the individual owner or on society as a whole; this is in contrast to the Lockean/Nozickean defense of private property, according to which private property is to be respected because a certain set of holdings has come to exist through, and come to be inviolable on account of, a seamless historical progression from a legitimate original acquisition of unowned Earth through a series of voluntary exchanges. Secondly, the Leveller arguments seem to be made with egalitarian, while not communistic, intention–that is, with the implied aim of, not abolishing private property, but diffusing the benefits of private ownership among many hands, including, importantly, into the possession of the propertyless many at the time of Leveller activism. The crucial difference between the Levellers and the Diggers, I argue, does not concern the question of whether the institution of private property is in theory just or valuable, but rather the question of whether private property in practice is inevitably associated with inequality and with the propertylessness and deprivation of the many. The Levellers seem to believe that equality of economic result, and, most importantly, the equal distribution of the privilege of private ownership, is compatible with the institution of private property.

Largely because, as mentioned, communism was somewhat common among the devotees of Levellerism in the army, the intellectual leaders of the movement often found it necessary to address the accusation that they themselves were communists. They did so, most of the time, by vociferously denying their intention to abolish private property, and accordingly enumerating the virtues of the institution. Lilburne, for instance, defends private property on several grounds:

In my opinion and judgment, the deceit of levelling of property…is so ridiculous and foolish an opinion, as no man of brains, reason or ingenuity, can be imagined such a sot as to maintain such a principle, because it would, if practised, destroy not only any industry in the world, but raze the very foundation of generation, and of subsistence or being of one man by another. For as for industry and valour by which the societies of mankind are maintained and preserved, who will take pains for that which when he hath gotten is not his own, but must be equally shared in, by every lazy, simple, dronish sot? or who will fight for that, wherein he hath no interest, but such as must subject to the will and pleasure of another, yea of every coward and base low-spirited fellow, that in his sitting still must share in common with a valiant man in all his brave noble achievments? The ancient encouragement to men that were to defence their country was this: that they were to hazard their persons for that which was their own, to wit, their own wives, their own children, their own estates. [9]

He argues, first, that private property is justified by the economic benefits it bestows upon society: the expectation that one will be able to keep what one creates through labor motivates an individual to work. Furthermore, he says, private property gives an individual a sense of responsibility for and devotion to his country during wartime, rooted in a sense of personal proprietary responsibility.

That the latter argument refers to military service is significant. This seems to suggest, in the context in which it is written, Lilburne’s belief that the New Model Army’s membership, of which an important component is England’s propertyless, should be given private property, in order to reinforce their fighting spirit with tangible motivation. It is possible that Lilburne was blinded by his elitism to the obvious redistributionist implications of the latter theory pronounced in this passage–that he, in Hill’s words, “assumed the immutability of existing property relations,” [10] despite the fact that his defense of private property logically implies the redistribution of property to the propertyless, or at least enclosure of common property for the benefit of the landless; however, that he did have such an egalitarian intention is suggested not just by the fact that he was well aware that the war being waged against the crown was being fought largely by the propertyless, but by the fact that he was, or at least wished to be, a patron philosopher of precisely these propertyless soldiers.

Even more illuminating and relevant to a study of the roots, in 1640’s England, of the ideal of widespread private ownership, is the Leveller petition of 11 September 1648. This petition, written by the intellectual representatives of the movement, contains several statements interesting for our present purposes: the petition asserts the importance of private property, and particularly of protecting against its infringement by the more powerful members of society; denounces communism; and suggests either undoing recent enclosures or ensuring that these enclosures grant property titles to the poor. The petition commands that Parliament work to make “kings, queens, princes, dukes, earls, lords, and all persons alike liable to every law of the land, made or to be made; that so all persons, even the highest, might fear and stand in awe, and neither violate the public peace nor private right of person and estate.” This defense of private property is obviously not a reaction to beggars stealing from the well-fed, but to wealthy landlords and government officials stealing from the common people, through, for instance, taxes, tithes, and monopolies, all of which are explicitly condemned elsewhere in the petition.

But while the petition commands of the parliament that “you would have bound yourselves and all future parliaments from abolishing propriety, levelling men’s estates or making all things common,” the petition elsewhere criticizes the legal phenomenon of enclosure in practice. As discussed, enclosure tended primarily to benefit large landlords, and typically disenfranchised peasant occupants holding land in common. The petition proposes, alternatively, returning enclosed lands to common ownership by the previous peasant occupants, or enclosing them, but with private property titles granted to these occupants rather than to aristocratic expropriators. Motivating the proposition of these two alternatives as solutions to parasitism and theft by the aristocracy, might be the reasoning that, even if land is not all made private, as would be ideal, it is better that some land be common, to the benefit of the poor, than that all land be private, but to the benefit of a few aristocrats at the expense of the many. Perhaps, rather, the leading Leveller thinkers preferred that some, but not all things be held in common, in deference to particular, long-established local expressions of communal peasant tradition. Important to notice is that these writings are not perfected works of academic philosophy but pamphlets and petitions written by rebels with immediate political goals; these thinkers may have neither consciously and decisively chosen between these two hypothetical solutions in their own minds, let alone explicitly articulated a preference on paper for one or the other.

But the Leveller proposal here of enclosing for the benefit of the poor suggests a sort of private property egalitarianism, that is, advocacy of the dispersal of private property among many hands, an ideal hinted at also, as discussed, in Lilburne’s defense of private property as a motivation for enthusiastic military service. Private property egalitarianism is, in combination with Leveller praises of the institution of private property, further implied by the essentially egalitarian spirit of the writings of pro-private property radical thinkers of the era, according to which the largest landowners of the time were evil and to which, in the words of Richard Overton, “it must be the poor, the simple and mean things of this earth that must confound the mighty and strong.” At the very least, these philosophers demonstrate frequently that they are not interested in defending the private property of the wealthiest members of English society; they are concerned, in part, about the plight of the landless, and the propertied among their supporters were small, yeoman farmers, often former peasants, who worked their own land and earned through labor the produce they consumed or sold. In their role as champions of the small property-holder’s struggle against an economically parasitic state and aristocracy, they began, with novel, if clumsy and ambiguous reasoning and economic proposals, a tradition of idealizing the way of life of the small property holder as well as a vision of a society composed of individuals with small private holdings. Traditionally, this ideal finds expression as the vision of a republic of small property-holders, alluded to in modern American glorification of the “small business owner”; combined with a fuller awareness of the profound and inevitable influence of the state in fostering and exacerbating inequality, the ideal of a society of small property-holders supports market anarchism.

The modern small property holder faces a different kind of aristocracy, one comprised of political entrepreneurs with large corporate holdings, who seek protections and enrichments far beyond what a free market would afford them and who do so at the expense of smaller less politically influential property holders. The centralizing tendencies of modern market economies are due only in part to the forces of voluntary exchange and to natural economies of scale; economic centralization in a capitalist context tends to be crucially dependent upon state intervention, and intervention furthermore which is beyond the mere protection of property rights. As such, economic centralization can theoretically be combated in different cases, both by reforms that limit the centralizing tendencies of the market, and by reforms that restrict the involvement of the government in the economy when such involvement intentionally or unintentionally has centralizing affects upon the economy. The most obvious example of the former are laws preventing the consolidation of private monopolies, and perhaps also, in a way, campaign finance regulation to the limited and superficial extent to which such regulation is effective. But there are numerous, and typically less appreciated sources of economic consolidation which are political in origin and which therefore call for minimization through permission of greater freedom from the state in the ownership and exchange of property. In fact, the latter contributors to economic centralization are more prominent, and the realization of an egalitarian distribution of private property requires, at the very least, a greater estrangement between political and economic power; in fact, probably requires, in light of the stubbornly plutocratic character of the modern state, the abolition of government. Let us examine a few political sources of economic centralization, and consider both reformist and anarchistic libertarian changes which might rectify the specific centralizing trends at issue.

Crucial to the development of modern industry, in accordance with the statist method of development which historically happened to occur, was the creation of reliable transportation infrastructure. Even if such state support to economic development were necessary, it is certainly not necessary that such infrastructure be funded out of general revenue, without discriminating in the collection of revenue on the basis of the frequency with which different individuals use this infrastructure. Large national and international corporations, which rely much more heavily on such infrastructure than small local producers, in effect receive a massive subsidy from smaller capitalists, and in doing so, benefit from artificial, politically-induced economies of scale. Reforms might be instituted which internalize transportation costs, either through more extensive toll systems, or through some type of electronic monitoring system, eminently feasible given the modern state of technology, which monitors the weights and itineraries of vehicles frequenting terrestrial public routes and charges accordingly. In fact a regime of private road construction and maintenance, as advocated by Murray Rothbard, would more effectively accomplish the same result. Not only would costs be internalized in this case, but would also generally be smaller, on account of greater efficiency and diverse innovation of private over political economic production.

With the obvious exception of restrictions that prevent the consolidation of private monopolies, most economic regulations have the effect of, to some degree, encouraging larger-scale business models, because economic regulations typically increase either or both startup and operation costs of regulated businesses. Of particular, but certainly not exclusive, concern in this regard in the United States, are licensing regulations. Occupational licensure is a regulatory practice – the textbook justification for which is its necessity for the protection of consumers against dangerous or low quality services. Licensing boards, which are primarily a state-level regulatory phenomenon, are typically lobbied for and established by members of an unlicensed profession, with the undeniable intention of inflating incomes and restricting entry, and are, furthermore, usually staffed by those same people; these boards restrict entry into a profession by criminalizing unlicensed practice and by imposing various requirements upon however many are permitted to apply for licensing, including requisite schooling and fees of various kinds, requirements which are often burdensome or prohibitive. Licensed professions possess distinctly monopolistic characteristics; and the monopolistic restrictions which maintain these professions are responsible for significantly enlarging the costs associated with proprietorship. In the United States, despite the fact that occupational licensure affects roughly one-third of the workforce, it receives relatively little attention in economics textbooks, compared with other regulations affecting labor, such as and wage controls and laws concerning unionization; and the problem of licensure is entirely ignored in public political discussion.

This is despite the additional fact that a large number of such regulations reveal themselves to be so unreasonable and unnecessary as to be comical, such as licensing requirements imposed on floral arrangers and fortune-tellers. Many regulations, such those enforced upon hair stylists or interior designers, are unjustified on account of the fact that incompetent practitioners can do no serious damage, or by the fact that consumers are perfectly capable of determining on their own the quality of the product they receive, even if consumers are not skilled enough to perform the service for themselves. Some other licensing regulations, while neither obviously absurd nor unnecessary, nevertheless do not stand up to cost-benefit analysis from a consumer’s point of view. In any case, this is a thoroughly neglected feature of American regulatory culture, which needs to be subjected at least to reform, and, for best results, replaced by total voluntarism. Monopolistic collusion between organized private economic parties and the state, whereby regulatory barriers such as licensing and capitalization requirements are instituted with the effect and often the intention of artificially restricting competition, is to some degree unavoidable so long as a state exists which can be so manipulated by organized or powerful economic actors. In a market anarchist society, there would of course be no mandatory licensing, although there would probably be various private sources of certification of and rating for products.

Of further interest are regulations pertaining to street vending. Street vending—that is, the sale of goods on public property, often through a temporary or mobile structure, is a common and largely unregulated phenomenon in many less developed economic environments, such as Beijing and Mexico City. In the more precisely regulated economic environments of developed nations, street vending is widely prohibited and strictly and usually arbitrarily regulated where it is not prohibited. This is largely at the urging of immobile business owners who sell the same or substitutable goods and thus have an interest in eliminating competition, and at the pressure of various powerful economic actors seeking to maintain a bourgeois aesthetic in the urban environment surrounding their place of operation which is incompatible with the street vending ambiance. These latter interests have a stronger political influence on account of their greater wealth and greater tax contributions; vendors, by contrast, are always poorly organized, if at all, for purposes of defending themselves against unfair policing and regulatory practices, and against political maneuvers by wealthier and more educated economic competitors. In the United States, law firms of both libertarian and leftist inclination have in recent years taken an interest in this area of public interest law. Closer academic economic attention to the street economy, as well as the establishment of efficient, consistent, fair, and ideally permissive regulatory regimes for economic activity on public property, deserve to become more urgent priorities in industrialized nations. In an anarchist society, of course, there would be no “public” property to speak of, but there would plausibly be some common property, established by convention or habit; and there would be no state through the influence and manipulation of which immobile property holders could bully such public vendors. Also possible is that private ownership of land would be much more widespread, thus making mobile vending less common or necessary.

And further examples abound. Large corporations contribute significantly to national economic productivity and to government revenue, and corporate eminences tend to occupy the same social circles as regulators and politicians and to serve as crucial contacts for the latter’s career purposes. For all of these reasons, politics unsurprisingly is characterized by numerous particular favoritist gestures toward large corporations, aside from the general systemic phenomena noted above. And regulation generally has the effect of restricting productive capabilities to larger firms, which can afford the costs and manage the legal hoop-jumping that often comes with being regulated. Only through the abolition of the state can the Leveller dream, central to the American tradition and to contemporary American discourse, of an equitable distribution of the privilege of private ownership, be reliably and substantially realized.

Notes:

[1] Quoted in Hoile, David. The Levellers: Libertarian Radicalism and the English Civil War. http://clichesofpolitics.com/Levellers.htm

[2] Hill, Christopher. “English Revolution of 1640.” Marxists.org. http:// www.marxists.org/archive/hill-christopher/english-revolution/

[3] Hill, Christopher. The Century of Revolution. p 147. Taylor and Francis Group, 1980.

[4] Lilburne, John. “Legall Fundamentall Liberties.” Online Library of Liberty. http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2183&chapter=201117&layout=html&Itemid=27

[5] Leveller Petition of 1648. Online Library of Liberty. http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2183&chapter=201116&layout=html&Itemid=27

[6] Hill, Chrisopher. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Penguin Books, 1995. Pg 117—Hill notes the initial indistinguishability of the Levellers and the Diggers, and the uncertain authorship of the “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire” pamphlet.

[7] “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire”. Marxists.org. http://www.marxists.org/history/england/english-revolution/light-shining.htm

[8] “The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men.” Marxists.org. http://www.marxists.org/ reference/archive/winstanley/1649/levellers-standard.htm

[9] Quoted in Robertson, D.B. The Religious Foundations of Leveller Democracy (New York: Kings Crown Press, 1951), p.87.

[10] Hill, Christopher. The World Turned Upside Down. (PDF)

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23 responses to “The Levellers as Left Libertarians

  1. There are considerable dangers in labelling the Levellers as libertarians and egalitarians.

    The first thing to note is that levellers was the name bestowed on them by their enemies, a name they detested. It was a classic political slander which exaggerated and distorted what they were about. They were certainly for weakening the power of the aristocracy and had a democratic spirit amongst themselves, but they were very far from being egalitarian or willing to embrace anything approaching a full manhood franchise, let alone a full adult franchise.

    The greatest Leveller leader John Lilburne was most insistent on the fact that he was a gentleman and their democratic instincts during their period of real political influence (1646-49) did not stretch even to including men who had masters – women and almstakers were also excluded. Most of the leaders were either small gentlemen or petite bourgeois. It is however true to say that the Agreements of the People became more radical, but only after the movement had lost its importance.

    Perhaps most importantly, the Levellers were operating at a time of intense religious fervour and they would certainly never have embraced Roman Catholicism.

    As for the Diggers, unlike the Levellers theirs was a movement insignificant in numbers and political and social effect. They were also wrapped in religious chains. However, they were economically very radical. Winstanley considered all buying and selling a cheat.

    LA readers may find these essays of interest

    http://englandcalling.wordpress.com/the-beginnings-of-english-democratic-thought/

    http://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/the-levellers-the-first-english-radicals/

    http://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/how-england-became-the-mother-of-modern-politics/

  2. “They were certainly for weakening the power of the aristocracy and had a democratic spirit amongst themselves, but they were very far from being egalitarian or willing to embrace anything approaching a full manhood franchise, let alone a full adult franchise.”

    Part of the difficulty in evaluating the movement is that, as Christopher Hill argues, there may have been a slight difference in degree of radicalism between the leading philosophers and the rank and file. Part of the reason for the latter is that the leading philosophers uniquely had a strategic political interest in evading charges of radical egalitarianism, even though, I think, those charges were basically justified. The passage about property as an inducement to enthusiastic military service, I think, is an important indication of those philosophers’ strategically hesitant radicalism.

    And they certainly weren’t for universal suffrage, but they were proposing a marked expansion of the franchise.

  3. Libelling people who are dead is easy – they can not answer back.

    In reality people such as Richard Overton (they rejected the name “Levellers” as a libel by their enemies) totally rejected the idea of forced redistribution of wealth (indeed they believed that people who tried to steal land in this way should be hanged).

    Nor did Overton and the others pretend that rent was a tax.

    As for anti “corporations” stuff – there is a vast difference between rejecting government granted monopolies and demanding (like French Jacobins) an end to the property of all bodies corporate.

    Overton and the others certainly did not say that charities, foundations, associations (and so on) could not own land or other such.

    Reading this post was a bit like reading Kevin Carson’s latest effort – where he misunderstands the nature of farming in the Middle Ages (the so called Three Field system and so on).

  4. I didn’t argue that they advocated theft from the rich. What I noted is that they believed that the aristocracy had stolen from the poor, and that they wished for a society in which private ownership was more widespread. The only actively redistributionist policy proposal that I mentioned was their advice that new enclosures be granted to the poor instead of the rich, which, I agree, is hardly equivalent to theft from the aristocracy; but it is still a from of redistribution.

    Nothing in this article is “anti-corporation”, in the sense of opposing in principle the institution of limited liability. My point has to do with the interaction between the corporate and the political spheres.

    I also didn’t claim that Overton believed a rent and a tax to be equivalent.

    I honestly am not sure what part of my article you’re addressing with your point about private ownership by charities and foundations, but I would love to address that criticism after you clarify it.

    • Julio – as was general in the period, the Levellers believed in a Golden Age. Their Golden Age was one before the Norman Yoke had been imposed and they saw themselves as fighting for lost freedoms, not gaining freedoms which had never been. They also believed the franchise had once been much more open (there may have been some truth in this because the complication of voting qualifications grew in the fifteenth and especially the sixteenth centuries).

      Many of their ideas are similar to those of the Chartists 200 years later. Both movements strove for what Australians call “a fair go”, that is a reasonable chance for everyone willing to try.

      • But isn’t their concern with the Norman Conquest really related to a sort of libertarian class conflict worldview. Their idea seemed to be that the ruling class was founded through violence and theft against the traditional owners of the land, and that maintained its power through violence and theft against the descendants of those traditional owners? In other words, didn’t their conservative focus on the justice of the past also amount to a radical demand for the future realization of a very different and more egalitarian mode of property relations? I look forward to your thoughts.

        • Well, their aims, however they were arrived at, were certainly radical in effect. But it is a mistake to see theirs as primarily an economic movement. The real radicalism of their policies was political not economic, with their wish for annual parliaments, the abolition of the Lords and a much expanded franchise.

          However, that political radicalism in itself bade fair to replace one privileged group with another, because there was a strong feeling amongst Levellers that only those who had fought for Parliament should partake of the new political freedoms. They certainly wished to exclude Royalists, great and small and would have not had any truck with Catholics and probably not with the episcopate CoE. Nor, until they were a dying cause did they abandon the idea of excluding masterless men and almstakers.

          if they had been successful in realising their dreams It is all too easy to envisage a situation where the new ruling elite became the descendants of those who had fought for Parliament.

        • “But it is a mistake to see theirs as primarily an economic movement. The real radicalism of their policies was political not economic, with their wish for annual parliaments, the abolition of the Lords and a much expanded franchise.”

          This may be so, from an British point of view. But the fight for universal suffrage in America had other origins, and the reform of legislative procedure here also has a history to which Levellerism is basically irrelevant. The legacy of the Levellers in America is really in the uniquely American libertarian movement, and in the related Jeffersonian strain of American politics, which dreams of a republic of small property holders; the latter feature of American economic thought is manifested in contemporary politics in the celebration of small business ownership.

          I think that in some ways their economic ideas were more radical than their political ideas. In fact, their advocacy of radical libertarian economic ideas–if I am correct about this–would not be incompatible with a degree of political conservatism on issues like suffrage. The right to property has no obvious or necessary connection to the right to democratic participation; in fact, skepticism about the value of democratic politics is an important feature of historical and contemporary libertarian thought.

          Part of the problem here, I think, is that we’re viewing the legacy of the Levellers from different cultural standpoints, and with different philosophical interests. I didn’t talk much about their non-economic ideas, both because I am an American and because I’m a libertarian.

  5. please pardon the typos

  6. Julio if you do not claim that tax and rent are the same sort of thing, you should not have implied that they were (and that is what you did).

    As for “the rich” stealing from “the poor”.

    Which rich person stole from which poor person in the 1640s?

    For a non collectivist waffle language such as “the rich stole from the poor” is meaningless.

    Produce an individual thief and an individual victim in the 1640s – or you have nothing to say.

    By the way – I repeat that Richard Overton and the others regarded both the charge that they wished to take land from some people and give it to other people, and the very word “leveller” as gross libels.

    Only their enemies called them “Levellers” – and only their enemies claimed they wished to take land from private parties and give it to other private parties.

    • “Which rich person stole from which poor person in the 1640s?”

      If for instance, a state-granted monopoly, run by some appointed court aristocrat, subsists off of taxation and erodes the profit of small landowners and modestly-propertied merchants, isn’t that redistribution from the poor to the rich? Not sure what your point is here about the need to name individual people.

      “Only their enemies called them “Levellers” – and only their enemies claimed they wished to take land from private parties and give it to other private parties.”

      Neither abolishing state-granted monopolies nor granting new enclosures to the poor, to name two of the Levellers’ radical economic politics I discussed, are accurately characterized as “taking land from private parties and giving it to other private parties.” The former involves terminating ongoing theft by a politically connected dominant economic class, and the latter isn’t technically redistribution at all, although it would have effected a more egalitarian distribution of wealth.

  7. I wrote “masterless men” in my last comment. I meant the opposite, men with masters…

  8. Dear Julio.

    I still can not see any specific individuals named here – if you are going to talk about “theft” you must name the specific thief in the 1640s and the specific victim (the individual who had their land stolen) in the 1640s – otherwise you have nothing to say concerning “theft” or “stole”.

    You also seem to have missed where I said that opposing government granted monopolies was nothing to do with wanting to take land by force.

    So I will say it again – opposing government granted monopolies is nothing to do with taking land by force.

    Indeed if you had tried to take land by force (to achieve a “more egalitarian distribution of wealth”) Richard Overton and the other so called “Levellers” would have HANGED you (did you miss that the first couple of times I pointed it out?).

    Pro freedom people do not believe that income and wealth are “distributed” – only collectivists believe that income and wealth rightfully belong to “the people” and should be “distributed” according to some principle of “social justice”.

    As I have pointed out before (much to Dr Gabb';s irritation – as he believes in a “big tent” that includes the “libertarian” left) the only logical relationship between people who believe in the use of force to “distribute” wealth (such as land) and people who do not is kill-or-be-killed.

    Either one side will end up with their throats cut or the other side will end up with their throats cut – and that is really the end of the matter.

    • “Pro freedom people do not believe that income and wealth are “distributed” – only collectivists believe that income and wealth rightfully belong to “the people” and should be “distributed” according to some principle of “social justice””

      Actually, both Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard, hands-down the two most important libertarian philosophers, believed in a principle of libertarian redistribution, as a rectification of past or ongoing injustice against property. See Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Chapter 7, Section 1, and Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty, “The Problem of Land Theft”. The fact that I am currently in possession of something does not necessarily mean that I am the rightful owner; if I own soemthing that I took by force from someone else, or which otherwise has theft or fraud in its history, the good can be justly taken from its current and redistributed to its rightful owner. This is what happens when the police track down your stolen car at a local used car lot and return it to you; its a moral truism as well as a libertarian principle. The libertarian principle that “taxation is theft,” implies that returning the tax money is just.

      The perpetrators in 17th century were those who were in possession of land stolen during the Norman conquest, or who were currently stealing from the peasant or merchant class through taxation, or through the effective wealth redistribution entailed by state-granted monopoly privilege. The victims were those who would have otherwise been in possession of the land or movable wealth stolen, had the above-mentioned injustices not occurred or been ongoing events. Your demand that I specifically name Lord Joe the Magnificent as one particular thief and Paul Marks the peasant as one particular victim, is a red herring.

      A more egalitarian distribution of wealth is not in violation of libertarian principles, so long as no justly owned property is seized in the process, eroding the the concentrated wealth of a ruling class whose prosperity is due to conquest and taxation, is not in violation of anyone’s property rights. Propertilessness is an unfortunate predicament, and if it can be rectified by merely redistributing from violent and thieving bullies, I hardly see why a libertarian like yourself would feel the need to object.

  9. Julio – it is difficult to see how the property rights of small men (and their general freedoms) could be protected in practice without either a parliament elected on a broad franchise and/or a written constitution which creates superior law that cannot not be changed by a simple act of amendment or repeal by a parliament . The latter is is precisely the problem with the English Bill of Rights of 1690: it has no greater standing than any other Act of Parliament.

    • Democracies with universal suffrage and legislative office without property requirements, are guilty of all kinds of arbitrary regulation and legal expropriation of small property owners. Democracy provides a machinery by which certain individuals and groups can demand that the state take from other individuals and groups, either through redistribution or thorugh regulation that selectively hurts certain competitors to the advantage of others. And we had a commerce clause and a takings clause in the our written constitution which arguably delineating private property rights, but that didn’t prevent jurists from reinterpreting it out of existence to suit government interests and to appeal to popular trends in thought about private property.

      • Julio – There is no absolute guard against tyranny, but it can be made less likely by such things as a written constitution and a broad franchise. Of course, if,as has happened with Britain and the EU, politics are made supranational, the franchise brake on abuse is rendered null.

        • I don’t think that all of the political features commonly lumped together under “liberal democracy” really hang together that tightly. Advocates of democracy tend to speak of individual rights as if they’re a feature of democracy; but in reality, mass participation and veneration collective wisdom, and on the other, individual rights, are always in tense conflict. The more there is of one the less there is of the other. And tyranny and democracy are not simply bookends on a spectrum: the modern phenomenon of totalitarianism, the ultimate nemesis of individual freedom, was mostly an outgrowth of mass politics, rather than of a monarchical or aristocratic mode of politics. Democratic culture birthed the danger of the cultural and political effacement of the individual.

          For this reason, I think Tocqueville was wise to attribute the concept of individual freedom–albeit in a non-universal form–to pre-democratic, aristocratic culture. Individual freedom as a universal phenomenon is imperiled in both systems in different ways; but identifying democracy as proper home of in individual liberty, in matters of property or otherwise, is certainly an oversimplificaton.

    • The Metric Martyrs case purports to privilege the BoR 1689 as exempt from implied repeal; and one of Hoffman’s more recent judgments, and Laws’ obiter dicta may have privileged it even from explicit repeals. We may deny the legitimacy of the new constitution raised up since 1997 – but that is where we are.

      • I really can’t see how it would have even protection against implied repeal, Sean. The BoR is simply an ordinary Act of Parliament. (The Parliament at the time saw no need to make it superior law because what they were guarding against was the power of the monarch not the abusive behaviour of an executive other than the monarch).

        It is also true that Judges cannot make law which binds Parliament.

        • Robert – the BoR has been protected against implied repeal and amendment by the Metric Martyrs case. Also, the judges are now claiming that the sovereignty of Parliament is a doctrine of the courts, and that it may be limited or taken away by the courts.

          No point complaining about this – least of all in trying to contest it. The Constitution is what the authorities decide it is.

  10. Julio I see you are from the Kevin Carson school of deception – specifically the practice of citing free market thinkers (such as Nozick or Rothbard) and even free market terminology (in his last post here Kevin actually cited “the invisible hand” in support of total and absolute collectivism) to defend collectivism – the opposite of what they believed in (and what the terminology is actually for).

    You still have not names any specific land thieves in the 1640s or the names of any specific individuals who had their land stolen – although I have now given you three chances to do so. It is therefore logical to assume that you are using the words “stole” and “thieves” for your own desire to do the very thing (steal land) that you accuse unnamed people of doing – a practice known as “projection” (projecting your own criminal desires on your opponents – in this case unnamed ones “the rich” or “the aristocracy” not being a name of any specific person of whom I have heard).

    I do not know how Robert Nozick would have responded to you Julio (a man who was so upset about getting the cold shoulder from his fellow academics that he gave up talking about libertarianism), but I can guess how Murray Rothbard would have responded to you – and we both know it would not have been a pretty sight.

    As for Richard Overton and the so called “Levellers” – as I have already pointed out, if you had tried any violent land theft (with or without any stupid lies about “libertarian redistribution”) they would have hanged you.

    And they would have been right to hang you.