Libertarianism: A Branch of the Left?

Murray Rothbard

Rothbard’s “Left”

I’m fond of saying that libertarianism is a branch of the left. My argument is very simply Murray Rothbard’s argument in “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty“. I don’t think I’d change or qualify a word of that essay. If you haven’t read it, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.

Roughly, Rothbard’s argument goes as follows: traditionally, the left has always been the movement positioned against the ruling class. The right was the monarchs and aristocrats, and their goal was maintaining and enriching their own power. The left fought against them. And things could really be as simple as that. But the advent of socialism created a complication: socialists have leftist goals (distributing welfare among the people), but propose to achieve them through rightist means (state power).

Rothbard thus sees socialism as a “middle of the road” movement: left aims, right means. Libertarianism, on the other hand, opposes both the goal of consolidated welfare for a privileged class, and the means of state power. Thus libertarianism should rightly be seen as the modern iteration of the anti-unjust-power tradition of the left.

This is all well and good. I still buy this. This is how I personally think of “libertarianism” and “the left”.

The contemporary “Left”

But I have a confession to make. I know full well that that’s not how most people interpret these words. “Libertarianism” –  although it’s burdened by unfortunate associations with racism, corporate privilege, constitutionalism, and other unsavory dispositions (how fair/accurate those associations are is a subject for another post) – I think people more or less see as I do.…

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The Meaning of a Free Market

There’s something that’s always bothered me about the concept of a free market, and I suspect it bothers others too. A free market is supposed to allow the free interactions of its many participants. Intervention by the state is exactly what doesn’t happen in a free market, by definition.

But the state is composed of people too. It’s an organization – a unique one, for sure, but an organization nonetheless. Why treat it as something extraneous to the market, imposing on it from without? Why not consider state regulations of the market to be just the contributions of one of many market actors in a free market? Isn’t the state/market distinction ultimately arbitrary? What, in principle, is so different about the state?

Behind these questions lies an important insight into how to best bring about the emergence of a truly free market.

 

Let’s first imagine that a free market is simply everyone doing whatever they choose.  Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone has unlimited options. Each person’s actions will impose constraints on the actions of everyone else. I cannot, for example, buy eggs if no one around me sells eggs. These inevitable constraints aside, let’s not stipulate any other limitations.

This scenario is “free market” at its extreme: it lets the “free it all!” disposition run full throttle to its logical endpoint.

Notice that this state of affairs is what we already have. Everyone – including all market actors, including the state – is already doing whatever they choose within the constraints imposed by the actions of others.…

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