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May 22, 2020

Reconciling Libertarian and Leftist Views of Power and Equality

There are a lot of similarities in the two ideologies’ critiques of power and domination, but great differences in how they view state vs. market power. Yet both can learn from each other.

Libertarians and leftists often see themselves as occupying different sides of a political divide. Market-oriented libertarians and liberals identify with the cause of liberty, while the socialist left tends towards the ideal of equality. However, there is far more commonality between these than might appear. Both libertarians and leftists are critical opponents of power and its myriad abuses, whether out of concern for equality, or for liberty.

However, there is a significant point of departure between these camps over the nature of social institutions and how they work. It is this difference among others that truly sets libertarians and socialist leftists apart. Crucially, I am not claiming that social science is the only dividing line (values are extremely significant) but rather that nuanced differences in normative theory become more pronounced when discussing institutions. Although the libertarian view offers a number of superior insights, we ought to recognize the depth of our common discourse and the possibility for bridging divides.

Shared Values, Shared Heritage

Libertarian and liberal thought usually begins with a strong commitment to the moral centrality of individual freedom and self-sovereignty. Libertarians in the Kantian and natural rights traditions argue that every person has inherent ownership over their own bodies. Ownership in my person confers the right to use my body to act as I wish, provided my actions do not violate the rights of others, and interactions are always consensual. Consequentialist libertarians argue that we ought to maximize each person’s ability to choose and direct their own lives. They argue that achieving good outcomes (or maximizing utility) requires advancing the capacity of each person to make independent choices.

Both camps hold that people should be largely allowed to act without being interfered with, and that coercion and physical force are grievous moral wrongs. This concern applies to all areas of life and human existence, from personal activities like expressing my gender identity, choosing my sexual partners, and consuming recreational drugs, to how I engage in commerce and what I can buy and sell. As a result, libertarians of all stripes are fiercely against any person being imposed upon by someone else without their agreement.

In this regard, libertarians are strong critics of social hierarchy. Liberalism (from which libertarianism originates) arguably begins with the critique of monarchy in the writings of John Locke and others, and via defenses of free speech and religious tolerance. Liberals have been critics of religious persecution and feudalism, abolitionists opposing slavery, supporters of free trade and private property, and fierce critics of both imperialism and colonialism. All of these efforts have been explicit attacks on an idea unfortunately now used mainly on the left—the privileges that some parties hold above others.

The leftist and socialist traditions bear a similar heritage, evolving as out of liberalism as a radical egalitarian critique of its ideological parent. They do so primarily around economics, but have also been critical of versions of liberalism that defend imperialism or limitations on rights of women and minorities. Many leftist and socialist conceptions of equality are arguably attempts at expanding freedom by dismantling hierarchies and increasing individual autonomy. This connection was raised by libertarian luminary Murray Rothbard in his essay “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty.” Rothbard points out that leftists and libertarian share a historical resistance to monarchy and feudalism, and advocacy for universal rights, equality under the law, and economic and political enfranchisement. Liberal thinkers such as Frederic Bastiat sat on the left (anti-monarchical) side of the French National Assembly together with ardent socialists.

In this light, the divide between liberty and equality, libertarian and leftist, is far less substantive than often believed. As I’ll discuss later, true liberty requires equality among persons, in a society not fundamentally organized around divisions of power. This is a view held and defended by liberal and libertarian heroes such as Smith, Mises, Hayek, and many others, as well as by major thinkers of the left from Marx and Engels to Foucault and Butler.

Means of Production: The Property Fiefdom

However, similarities of ethical concern diverge considerably once integrated with institutional analysis. For many on the socialist left, a chief conduit of oppression and power over others is the ownership of property and capital. Socialists such as Marx classically stated that the key question of society is who controls the means of production. On this view, the finances and equipment to make goods and services allow you to shape or direct the actions of others by controlling their material conditions.

The socialist tradition sees control of resources as a monopolistic affair. A select group of wealthy capitalists, what Karl Marx called the bourgeoisie, or for Bernie Sanders the “millionaires and billionaires,” run all major businesses and own most natural resources. They can set the rules for how goods and services are distributed, who can work, how much people are paid, what they must do in their jobs, what things cost, and so on. This view often (though not always) relies on the labour theory of economic value, in which value is determined by the amount of work put in by the person who performed it. On the labour theory, capitalists exploit workers by not giving them the full profits, or surplus value, from the sale of their goods and services.

The labour-theory view is well-illustrated by Napalm Death, (the legendary humanitarian, social anarchist grindcore band) in “From Enslavement to Obliteration”:

“Committed to a life of slavery/

In the factories our own hands have built/

Where we must work twice the graft/

Before gaining the goods we’ve already slogged to create.

To consume all things material/

Stands above human compassion/

As we compete with our fellow man/

In the bid for a stronger position.

In our ruthless search for prosperity/

We become the tools of our own oppression/

Forming the backbone of a society/

That thrives on mass division.”

However, oppression can also simply involve control and dominance by the wealthy over the autonomy of workers. Elizabeth Anderson advances this point in “Private Government,” a highly critical but non-Marxist view of the contemporary workplace. Anderson argues that businesses and corporations often function as dictatorial environments, in which bosses are able to impose severe demands on workers.

Many leftists believe that capitalists manipulate politics by bribing politicians through campaign contributions and sometimes even directly. Capitalists can also pressure politicians to do as they wish in return for providing the state with resources. Leftists (particularly of the Marxist bent) frequently argue that capitalists coerce the public to support measures favouring their interests, either through fear of economic reprisal, or through ideological indoctrination that the system also benefits them.

From any of these avenues, the state is manipulated to act primarily on the behalf of the wealthy, shaping society for their benefit. We are thus ultimately faced with a class division of economic elites from everyone else. The central struggle of politics is to wrest resources from the hands of the wealthy, propertied classes and redistribute them to the masses, and to provide protections for the public from employer abuses. 

Means of Predation: The Stomping Boot Heel

Liberalism takes a decidedly different approach. For this tradition, what is important is not control over the means of production, but rather over the means of predation. The central instrument for control and dominance over other people is not the market, but the state. Ownership of resources is less significant compared with the power to use violence, often imposed in a heavily predatory, bandit-like fashion. It is the state, with its territorial monopoly on the “legitimate use” of force which ultimately determines who has property and to what extent it is protected, who can act and decide, and who cannot. While control of a business will aid someone in impacting the behaviour of others, it still remains significant that in a free market, no person can be directly made to work for anyone else. It is only the power of government that fully grants the power to dominate.

As the sociologist Franz Oppenheimer argued in his opus The State:

“There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others… I propose in the following discussion to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the “economic means” for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the “political means.”

From a libertarian point of view, the true class struggle is not primarily between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the wealthy and the poor. Rather as Randall Holcombe and others argue, it is between those who control the government, and those who do not. In the economic realm, we consensually exchange our services. In politics, we force others to obey our will. This is still the case even if as Michael Munger argues, not all exchanges are perfectly optimal. 

Liberals argue that the chief political struggle is not about resources per se, but about limiting the power and scope of the state. This is made even more significant when we consider that economic value is not determined by labour, but by the subjective values and preferences of each individual. Thus, workers are not not forced to serve any particular employer, and an employer cannot extract any kind of surplus value or profit from their work. Furthermore, because preferences are subjective, the power held by business is contingent on efforts to to serve consumers. Leftists are correct to highlight that market dominance provides businesses with influence, but overlook how such power can rapidly shift if consumers decide to abandon certain products or services. Big companies, unlike states, are continually subject to competition.

Furthermore, political power is not garnered simply by having capital. Access to money does not automatically determine the ability to buy influence.  Rather, political reach is directed by the extent to which extensive regulations and taxes encourage lobbying and rent seeking, establishing a market for political manipulation and corruption. It is important not only to look at the mere presence of money or lobbying, but on structures and processes in states that allow institutions, or the “rules of the game,” to be distorted.

As Mancur Olson observed, the combination of concentrated benefits to a specific group, together with dispersed costs across society, leads to incentives to lobby on the part of the former, but not the latter. More basically however, if the state is in the business of distributing funds and regulating industry, such groups have an immediate incentive to maneuver policy in to benefit themselves. As a result, it becomes possible to distort taxes and regulations to discriminate against others in your favour. Such activities often hurt poor and marginalized people the most. 

These processes aren’t just occasional instances, but built in to the system. Rent-seeking and lobbying occur because state policy is universally applied. Thus, even ethically inclined actors are incentivized to lobby out of fear that others will gain and they will lose. Government policy inherently creates perpetual defection in an ongoing prisoner’s dilemma. As Frederic Bastiat argued in “The Law,” regulations and taxes enable socially sanctioned redistributive theft, or “legal plunder.” The power of state enables politicians and bureaucrats to steal property from ordinary people who are rightful owners, to interest groups to whom the resources do not belong.

No Masters: Together Against “The Man”

It is tempting for a pro-market, libertarian-identifying person to conclude the debate wholly on the side of liberalism. However, as I said at the outset, I think there are important insights both sides of this discussion might learn. The philosopher Roderick Long argues that the major issue in politics is not simply the relative virtues and vices of states or markets, but rather equality of authority, a view also held by Elizabeth Anderson.  Whether we have the right to impose ourselves on people and create obstacles either to the actions they will or would like to take marks the divide between freedom and oppression. Being critical of hierarchical relations, of some choosing for others, is the central mission for all lovers of equal liberty.

Thus, what’s important to note in the leftist critique of markets is the possibility (though not inherency) of economic actors to sometimes eliminate or reduce the range and quality of choices available. This impacts where we can work, our job requirements, and the range and costs of goods and services. Even if an economic actor is not a monopoly, difficult life circumstances as well as costs and frictions in the labour market mean that sometimes the deal we accept isn’t one which we are fully or even largely happy with. Sometimes negotiating leverage is more heavily weighted to one side of the table. The opportunity costs people face can be brutal ones, and pro-market libertarians should be the first to acknowledge that reality, even if they remain skeptical that government action is the best, or even a permissible, way to address them. 

In non-economic realms, civil society can sometimes impose values and norms which oppress people despite being nominally voluntary. Such informal pressures often become the justification for physical force. This is an idea shared by classical liberal stalwarts like John Stuart Mill as well as libertarian-leaning leftist heroes such as Michel Foucault.

More radically, property requires justification not only in terms of the fruits of one’s labour, but in terms of whether it contests or engenders coercion. It is certainly true that property rights are essential to a free society. They allow us to pursue a variety of independent plans and projects, to make free choices without permission from others, to innovate, and create  economic surplus. In particular, property allows people to exit from situations and choose a variety of alternatives—what David Schmidtz calls “the right to say no.” It is highly significant that early fights by feminists and other equality movements have been over the right to own property.

However, as libertarian philosophers Matt Zwolinski and Kevin Vallier point out, property is upheld by norms and laws which protect and define its nature. All property, even that not governed by the state, coerces us by limiting our actions. In this regard, property and the laws structuring it coerce people both into accepting property rights, and into doing so in particular form. Entitlement to property must be justified not only by self ownership or personhood, but must also account for meaningful decreases in freedom and equality that may result. This is especially (but not exclusively) the case when property laws are a product of rent seeking. Overall, we should see institutions as an avenue to consider the contentious and difficult notion of “social justice.” Crucially, concerns about property are not equivalent to mandating any particular policy, but they do require a normative reckoning for any pro-liberty critic of power. Critiques of the state and of power must not end at the property line.

Crucially, despite the very real presence of private oppression, the largest coercive institutional monopoly of any kind remains the state. The guys with the guns still get to make the big calls. Diminishing (or even abolishing!) the state has the potential to achieve both freedom and equality. Vitally, as market friendly left-libertarians frequently point out, the state is often a direct oppressor of the poor and the marginalized. States routinely harm the least well off by distorting markets (raising prices, enforcing monopolies, and preventing mobility), stealing land and property, shutting down attempts to organize and form voluntary labour unions, and many other harms. Perpetual warfare, growing militarism, and utterly disastrous foreign interventions, as well as aggressive, violent policing and punitive criminal codes have all had especially negative and disproportionate impacts. These policies are compounded by and combined with horrific and deeply cruel migration restrictions, enforced by brutal and intensive border policing—what Bryan Caplan rightly labels a “global apartheid.”

However, for those leftists skeptical of libertarianism’s humanitarian commitments, Jason Byas asks some essential questions well worth considering. Similar observations about state power have been made by major scholars on the left. Marx’s view of political influence mirrors many ideas from liberal political economy, especially public choice. Likewise, the socialist historian Gabriel Kolko emphasized how lobbying and state privileges structure a class divide between business elites and the rest of society. 

Overall, a commitment to equality of authority means a commitment to liberty for all, in which no one can force themselves or their will on anyone else. In recognizing this, anti-authoritarian and anarchist leftists and libertarians have the potential to join together in a bleeding heart movement; ending war, reforming criminal justice, and opposing cronyism and machinations by big business, but supporting freed markets, ethical exchange, and mutual aid. In this arena, both leftists and libertarians should be able to unite against many popular ideas about contemporary capitalism, regardless of broader ideological commitments. We can be joined in resistance to all forms of power and domination, fighting back against those who seek to impose themselves on the equal freedom and dignity of others.