Libertarian outreach to the left hasn’t made this much sense in a generation.
Four decades ago, libertarians built a thriving alliance with the New Left that focused on the twin issues of war and the draft—of aggressive violence and slavery to the state. It was fruitful and exciting, but it fractured for a whole host of reasons, including the fact that some people on the New Left rejected the ideal of a peaceful, voluntary society and embraced revolutionary violence.
That wasn’t true of everyone. It wasn’t true of New Leftists who were also libertarians, people like the great Karl Hess, people like Carl Oglesby. Unfortunately, not everyone in the alliance fit their profile. And the New Left’s characteristic commitment to decentralization, its opposition to hierarchy and authoritarianism, didn’t seem to persist as its members grew older and joined the Establishment and started trying to use the System to achieve their goals instead of hanging on to their recognition that the System was itself the problem. Individual libertarians and libertarian institutions reached out to the left, but there was no concerted attempt to rebuild the alliance Hess and Murray Rothbard sought to construct.
Perhaps it’s not very surprising that there wasn’t. After all, when a president whose conservative opponents tarred him as a representative of the protest movements of the ’60s took office in 1993, a president a superficial observer might mistakenly have seen as a product of the New Left—never mind the fact that he was more likely a CIA asset informing on anti-war protestors—that president made sure everyone knew he wasn’t really a peacenik. Far from it. He made sure by committing American troops to a pointless conflict in Somalia, by involving the US military in an imperial war in the Balkans, by bombing a pharmaceutical plant in the name of fighting terrorism, by continuing the embargo that caused the deaths of vast numbers of Iraqi children, deaths his Secretary of State famously described as “worth it.”
The same president, whose conservative critics damned him as pot-smoking long-hair, sanctimoniously defended the drug war, including his decision to support his own brother’s imprisonment for peaceful drug-related conduct. Given how little he really identified with the counter-culture with which his attackers sought to associate him, it’s hard not to ask, Who cares whether or not he inhaled? That same president gave us the murder of peaceful people at Waco and Ruby Ridge and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which paved the way for the PATRIOT Act.
If that’s what the heritage of the New Left looked like, many libertarians doubtless thought, they could be pardoned for not giving a damn.
Conservatives also claimed to see evidence of the New Left’s influence on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. I don’t know, and I don’t much care, whether Bill Ayers ghost-wrote Dreams from My Father. What I do know is that, when he assumed office, Obama seemed absolutely committed to serving out George Bush’s third term: there were more bailouts, more giveaways to corporate cronies, and, worst of all, more surveillance, more torture, more state secrets, more war. If this was the American left, what possible point could there be in a renewed attempt by libertarians to ally with it?
But of course by “the left,” I don’t mean Democratic Party hacks. The Democratic Party has as much to do with principled leftists as the Republican Party does with principled conservatives. No, when I say that the time is ripe for a renewed libertarian outreach to people on the left, I mean precisely those people on the principled left who have begun to awaken from their dogmatic slumbers after writing blank check after blank check to Democratic politicians, the people who bit their tongues when they wanted to speak up about the betrayal of their convictions by partisan manipulators, the people who really thought they were doing something important when they swallowed the bile that rose in their throats, closed their eyes, held their noses, and voted for what they tried to convince themselves was “the lesser evil.” (If you want examples, think Glenn Greenwald and Naomi Wolf.)
I’m not just talking about them, though. I also have in mind the Greens who never stooped to voting for Democrats, who believed in decentralization and local knowledge, who saw the effects of subsidies and privileges on corporate size and corporate power, and who’ve cringed to see the Green movement increasingly supportive of managerialist technocrats.
I’m talking about union workers who’ve figured out that the Wagner Act framework has been sold to them as a way of protecting their interests, when the real motivation behind it was to prop up the power of their bosses and stop genuinely radical self-help measures.
I’m talking about the drug freedom activists who’ve realized that supposedly progressive politicians just want a kinder, gentler drug war, and members of minority communities who realize that the nanny state is responsible for a systematic assault on people of color that has left unbelievable numbers of the non-violent behind bars.
I’m talking about principled leftists who haven’t abandoned their goals, but who’ve figured out that their preferred means are ineffective, dangerous, and wrong—people who’ve realized that the problem isn’t this or that politician, but the state itself, that abuse by the state isn’t a bug, but a feature!
Some people will know that—along with friends like Roderick Long, Kevin Carson, Charles Johnson, Brad Spangler, Sheldon Richman, Tom Knapp, Paulie Cannoli, and Joe Stromberg, most of them at the Center for a Stateless Society—I regularly argue that libertarianism is and should be a movement on the left. But I’m not trying to make that case here. And I’m definitely not arguing that libertarians should try to trim their sails in order to persuade statist leftists to like them. My point today is just that libertarians can say to principled leftists: libertarianism is correct; freedom is right—it works, you should embrace it, and you don’t have to give up what you care about in order to do so. Libertarians care about things that matter to you, and you can and should achieve your goals using libertarian means.
If we ignore some cultural issues that don’t directly involve state action—and, of course, the elephant in the room, the question of the state itself—there are pretty clearly three broad axes along which political disagreements can be mapped. The categories I’m using aren’t conceptually tidy, but they capture the way the debates often happen in today’s world. The categories are foreign and military policy, personal freedom, and economic freedom. Principled leftists ought to resonate with what libertarians have to say in each category. In fact, “resonate” is too weak: principled leftists ought to realize that libertarianism offers them what they really want in each category, that as libertarians they can stop compromising, stop abandoning what they really care about, stop giving in to politicians who wouldn’t know a principle if—well, you get the idea.
Start with foreign policy and war and the national security state. Start with them because they’re absolutely central to libertarianism—if you want to know whether someone really opposes aggression, find out what she or he thinks about war. And start with them because they’re the most obvious bridge. The most simple and obvious thing for a libertarian to say to a principled leftist is, We’re with you on the wars.
Most importantly, of course, “we’re with you,” we can say, “because we oppose aggressive violence.” We see unjust conflicts play out time and time again in ways that lead to untold devastation, with little attempt either to prevent collateral damage or to compensate people for the unjust harms that result when bombs fall on wedding parties and children wake up in hospitals missing arms and legs. At the same time, we can also point out a host of complementary reasons: we oppose the draft, which often seems to be an unavoidable concomitant of long, expensive wars, as a kind of slavery; we oppose the tax and debt burdens that result from attempts to prosecute aggressive wars; and we agree with Randolph Bourne that war is the health of the state—that authoritarianism feeds on war.
And so, we can emphasize, we’re with you on the national security state, nourished by military conflict after military conflict targeting the enemy du jour. Libertarians have been in the forefront of opposition to the PATRIOT Act, to the invasion of privacy by government snoops, to the degradation and humiliation of airport visitors and airline passengers by the TSA, to the invocation of the supposed “state secrets privilege” to impede due process—if there’s any entity that shouldn’t be entitled to keep secrets, it’s the state; monopolists and thugs don’t deserve privileges—to indefinite detention without trial, to torture, to the president’s claimed right to kill non-combatant Americans without trial, to the national security letters that demand private information about us while gagging those who might otherwise tell us we’re being watched. On all of these issues, very much of concern to principled leftists, libertarians have said what needs to be said, loudly and clearly.
It should be easy to remind principled leftists that the president isn’t on their side. Congress isn’t on their side. The Supreme Court isn’t on their side. And, perhaps most painfully, activist groups that stood up to Bush are all too frequently not on their side, either. Too many groups that marched against abuses when they were Bush’s and Cheney’s abuses have been de-fanged by the con job that’s persuaded them that Obama really wants to do the right thing, really wants to, if they’ll just give him a little time and keep supporting him. (That’s one reason AntiWar.Com, the freedom movement’s single most valuable gift to political discourse in the United States, is so vital: it provides a home for people from across the political spectrum who are committed to speaking truth to power no matters who’s in office.) If you’re a principled leftist who cares about war and the national security state, the politicians and judges and professional activists aren’t in your corner. So: who ya gonna call? Who ya gonna call? Warbusters. Torturebusters. Surveillancebusters. Libertarians.
Libertarianism is a natural home for principled leftists because of its impassioned opposition to the warfare state, to the national security state. It’s just as natural a home for principled leftists because of its support for personal freedom.
Some people on today’s left, people like Alex Cockburn of CounterPunch, have figured out what leftists in the Black Panther Party knew a generation ago: gun laws don’t just create victimless crimes—they take away the tools people need to protect themselves against the state’s own thugs. In a world in which SWAT teams can be deployed to break up home poker games, people need to be able to defend themselves from assaults by the state.
But even leftists who don’t realize—yet—how important self-defense against the state is can see how little support they get from mainstream politicians on issues like the drug war, and why libertarianism is a natural home for people who are tired of feeling the heavy hand of the state used to suppress their personal freedom.
Principled leftists know that the drug war serves as an excuse to keep a shocking number of people, especially people with dark skin, behind bars. They know that it keeps drug prices high—and so makes crime more likely and helps to fund the government’s black ops around the world. And they know that it provides ongoing excuses for the cancerous expansion of a police state at home and of the government’s military presence around the world. Libertarians can say: we’re with you; we’ve been opposing the drug war with passion for decades.
We can also remind principled leftists that we’ve been actively, vocally involved in the campaign for marriage equality. I think we can all agree that the existence of a special, unique, legally mandated and unmodifiable marriage contract is a relic of the status society we all want to abandon. But until we can get the government out of the marriage business, we’re proudly and loudly committed to ensuring that the law doesn’t deny the opportunity to marry to anyone on the basis of irrational prejudice. In the same way, they should know that, while conservative Republicans are still in favor of sodomy laws in Texas, and Democrats are often pretty quiet about supporting sexual freedom, libertarians are unequivocal.
Principled leftists like Glenn Greenwald recognize that free speech matters, that it’s worth protecting, even when the speakers are people you don’t like, saying things you don’t like, in ways you don’t like, with the support of funders you don’t like.
Modern liberals used to be free speech absolutists. No more. Principled leftists who want to defend free expression without qualification know that won’t find much in the way of support in the Democratic Party or at the Huffington Post. But they will among libertarians.
And what’s a better fit for principled leftists than libertarianism when it comes to police violence? As libertarians, we believe no one is entitled to special legal privileges and immunities. We know that it’s not OK, not remotely OK, when people are gunned down or beaten savagely because they don’t look the right way, or because they had the nerve to be “disrespectful” or “uncooperative” to people with badges and guns and sirens at their disposal. Principled leftists, especially members of minority communities, realize that establishment politicians won’t stand with them against police violence—but they should realize that libertarians will.
Unjust wars, the national security state, the drug war and the sex police and the violent cops and the censors—if you’re really concerned about these issues, and of course a lot of principled leftists are, then you ought to see libertarianism as a natural fit.
A lot of principled leftists don’t seem to realize how much real libertarians care about war and violence. Perhaps they’re only aware of the faux libertarians who think attacking people governed against their will by evil regimes is an expression of libertarian principle, who think bombing private property right here in the US is morally appropriate if the target is a Muslim cultural center. (Yes, Leonard Peikoff, I’m talking to you.)
And some principled leftists may think that concern with personal freedom is somehow a luxury. If so, they’re obviously not remembering the legions of young people whose lives have been destroyed by the drug war.
But I think the real barrier to appreciation by principled leftists of why libertarianism is an excellent fit for them is the perception that libertarians are unconcerned about poor people and are really just shills for big business.
That’s where we’ve got to take the offensive. We can and must insist, confidently and proudly, that there’s nothing at all about libertarianism that commits libertarians to favoring corporate power or intrusive bosses or to being unconcerned about destitution and economic insecurity. Rather, the key point is that it is ineffective, inefficient, dangerous, and unjust to try to use state aggression to address these problems. If we can help them to see this point, then, on the economic front, too, principled leftists can embrace the freedom movement’s agenda.
People who say dismissively that libertarians are “pot-smoking Republicans,” who think libertarians are stooges for the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, don’t see the difference between being pro-business and being pro-market. Libertarians are enthusiastically pro-market. But that means they’re constantly on the opposite side of the fence from those who are pro-business—at least, if being pro-business supporting privileges for businesspeople as a class, if it means favoring tariffs and subsidies, patents and copyrights, the use of eminent domain to steal people’s property and transfer it to developers, or the protection of favored economic interests with zoning laws and building codes and licensing requirements.
Corporate power results precisely from the chummy relationship between business elites on the one hand and politicians on the other. The vast majority of politicians are ultimately on the side of the wealthy and well connected (either they’re wealthy and well connected themselves, or they seek to become so using their political offices, or they’re in the pockets of those who are), and history shows that they have consistently used efforts designed to promote “the public interest” to benefit the corporate elite. The power of that elite depends ultimately on privileges granted and maintained by the state. It is entirely compatible with a libertarian, pro-market agenda to relentlessly oppose these privileges.
Eliminating state-supported privileges takes us a long way toward dealing with the problem of poverty. Without various barriers—think of those posed by the demand that people obtain licenses from the state before they go to work, or live only in buildings that meet standards worked out in order to boost the construction industry’s profits, or operate businesses only in places where the state says it’s OK to do so—it would be easier for people to provide for themselves, to be more productive, simply to live inexpensively. Also important, though, would be the reversal of the effects of massive theft on the part of the state. And the success of mutual aid networks in the past suggests that, where economic insecurity and deprivation persisted despite the elimination of privilege and the rectification of problems created by past injustice, people could care effectively for each other without any involvement by the state—if the state would simply get out of their way.
Statist leftists often see state regulation as needed to protect consumers. But of course libertarians have no problem at all with consumers’ use of the legal system—not the system of government regulation, but the system of tort law—to protect themselves when they’re defrauded or when they’re harmed directly or indirectly by pollution. As long as people have legally recognized rights to the integrity of their bodies and their property, they can do this without the involvement of the state. (In fact, when, in the nineteenth century, people sued polluters in this way, courts stepped in to protect polluters. One function of government regulation is to give polluters “safe harbors,” immunizing them against lawsuits by ordinary people as long as the polluters have complied with government regulations.) So in this respect, too, the goals of principled leftists and libertarians don’t have to be seen as different.
And, to pick another hot-button economic issue, we can point out to thoughtful people on the left that the passage of Obamacare wasn’t about solving the health care crisis: it was about mandating a massive give-away to the insurance industry, without doing a thing about the underlying factors that raise the costs of health care and limit access—from professional licensure to medical device patents to hospital accreditation to state subsidies for unhealthy foods to the FDA approval process and prescription requirements.
A libertarian approach to things that trouble principled leftists in the economic realm is effective because it removes the props that keep the corporate elite powerful; it’s less dangerous than alternate approaches because it doesn’t vest more power in the state to infringe on our autonomy and control our lives; it’s less inefficient because involving the state in trying to restrain corporate power, even if it were well-intentioned, would be problematic because the state can’t—can’t in principle, because of its lack of information—manage the economy; and it avoids injustice because it’s wrong of the state to claim authority over people without their consent, and we haven’t consented—I haven’t, and I’m betting no one here has, either—to letting the state control our bodies and our possessions in order, supposedly, to improve our lives.
Libertarians and principled leftists agree in general about war and personal freedom (except where libertarians are more radical). And, in the economic realm, libertarians and principled leftists are on the same team when it comes to the basic goals of eliminating corporate power and privilege, protecting consumers, and dealing with economic insecurity. Some leftists seem to think the state is somehow vital to dealing with poverty, corporate power, and risks to consumers. But libertarians know, and can readily explain, how concerns like these can be addressed without the state—and can, indeed, be addressed more satisfactorily when state-secured privileges are eliminated.
Let’s take that message on the road.
Let’s tell principled leftists that, if they want to find political allies who oppose aggressive warfare, reject the national security state, abominate the drug war, loathe special immunities for law enforcement agencies, and despise corporate privilege, they’ve found them—right here. This is where they belong—here where their deepest convictions about war and violence and personal freedom are enthusiastically shared, here where they can explore and implement peaceful, non-authoritarian means of achieving their social and economic goals.
Let’s tell the heirs of the New Left—the Greens and the people at Food Not Bombs and the organizers of underground raves—that we share their commitment to participation and decentralization and grass-roots organization, and that, precisely because we do, we believe they have every reason to stand with us against statist solutions that keep people from managing their own lives.
Let’s tell people on the left that it’s time to rebuild the alliance crafted by Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess, that there’s no reason, no reason at all, to keep supporting the establishment politicians who promise everything and deliver nothing. Let’s help them see that the state is the problem, not the solution. Let’s let them see that we reject aggressive violence, that they can work with us to make a society rooted in non-violent, voluntary cooperation a reality. Let’s tell them it’s time to join the freedom movement.
Let’s tell them it’s time to come home.
Gary Chartier is Associate Professor of Law and Business Ethics and Associate Dean at the School of Business, La Sierra University, Riverside, CA.