Is Left-Libertarian Economics a Degenerative Paradigm? Part One

“Left-libertarianism” can be defined in one of at least three ways. It can refer to “liberaltarianism,” a tactical stance and set of policy positions combining a substantially libertarian thrust with a preference for making alliances with the modern center-left. It can refer to a revisionist philosophical movement that differs from Robert Nozick’s entitlement theory of property rights in a more or less egalitarian direction, without going all the way to a Rawlsian social-ownership theory (Michael Otsuka, Peter Vallentyne, Philippe van Parijs, etc.). Finally, it can refer to anarcho-socialism, the original “libertarianism.” In what will probably be a fitfully updated series of posts, I am going to investigate the last of these, insofar as it has attempted to create a new school of positive economics.

I am going to focus, at least initially, on Kevin Carson’s Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, which seems to be one of the most influential recent works in this area. Carson’s theories have, for instance, had some influence on Auburn philosopher Roderick Long and a number of other libertarian public intellectuals such as Sheldon Richman, Gary Chartier, and others associated with the “agorist” and “voluntaryist” movements and with organizations such as the Center for a Stateless Society. And of course, influence has gone back the other way as well. Many left-libertarians, such as Fred Foldvary, have also been influenced by late 19th century economist Henry George, but I will not be focusing on their theories, which are relatively close to the neoclassical mainstream, compared to Carson’s mutualism.

Mutualism itself is situated to the right of the mainstream of European anarcho-socialism, which tends to valorize the violent Catalan anarcho-syndicalists of the Spanish Civil War and oppose markets in favor of collective organization for production. Carson, Long, and others characterize their brand of left-libertarianism as “free-market anti-capitalism.” Nevertheless, my main focus in this series will not be on the normative economic philosophy of mutualism/left-libertarianism/free-market anti-capitalism. Rather, I intend to focus on its positive claims. After all, Carson claims to have resurrected the labor theory of value (LTV) against its neoclassical critics and “to explicate… the laws of motion of state capitalist society.” Does he succeed in this effort, or does left-libertarian economics end up becoming a “degenerative program” in Lakatos’ sense, that is, a research program that generates no new scientific insights that are both true and unique?

In the next post in this series, I will take up Carson’s argument for the LTV and for the central role of the state in propping up capitalism.

7 thoughts on “Is Left-Libertarian Economics a Degenerative Paradigm? Part One

  1. Actually, left-libertarianism is defined as non-interventionist, opposing the military and weak on foreign policy. (Mary Ruwart, Wes Benedict, Justin Raimondo, Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell, Anthony Gregory, Reason, Cato, et.al.)

    Right-libertarianism is defined as pro-defense and strong on military matters. (Dr. John Hospers, Wayne Root, Barry Goldwater, Neal Boortz, Walter Williams, Libertarian Defense Caucus, et.al.)

    Get your labels right. Thank you.

    1. I think you might be slightly confused here. The people you seem to think are “right-libertarians” are what most libertarians would consider libertarian-leaning conservatives. In fact, it’s the interventionist policies that largely separate them from simple plumb-line libertarians (for better or worse).

      Conversely, some of what you’ve labeled as “left-libertarian”, including institutions like Cato and Reason, are what most libertarians would consider very mainstream libertarian, and what left-libertarians would generally consider “right-libertarian”. You threw in some people who may be more radical in their libertarianism (Lew Rockwell, etc.) but they would still be identified largely as “right-libertarians”.

      Even anarcho-capitalists like Rothbard are generally considered “right-libertarian” (although I think this is the sphere of libertarianism where the boundaries between the two groups begin to blur). In any case, what generally differentiates “right-libertarians” from left-libertarians (at least in the way I most commonly see it employed) is that left-libertarians endorse free markets from an egalitarian angle. That isn’t to say that “right-libertarians” don’t also employ consequentialistic egalitarian arguments to justify their views as well (they certainly do), but they also have a predisposition to make deontological arguments by appealing to rights-theory.

      There’s clearly an overlap within both groups. But, in any case, it would seem the largest difference between the two groups would seem to be the left-libertarians’ push for an ostensibly more robust commitment to egalitarian ends. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can the many works of this article’s aforementioned left-libertarians or even consult wiki:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left_libertarianism

    2. Yeah I’m pretty sure you just contrasted the american left and the american right, but tacked the word libertarian onto it.

  2. Poor Dondero. He argued for years that the “New Right” (the label the religious right went by in the late 70s/early 80s) and the “neoconservatives” were the same movement, based on the fact that the prefix “neo” means “new” and that “conservatives” are on the “right.”

    He says he got a political science degree from the University of Florida. I believe him — someone must have stuffed one in the gumball machine in the student union building as a prank, and along came Eric with a nickel. He’s been out of his depth ever since.

  3. Thanks, Jason. Actually I think there’s another, overlapping category of left-libertarianism: it refers specifically to left-Rothbardianism (Rothbard’s thought in his period of amity toward the New Left ca. 1970) and Sam Konkin’s attempt to build an agorist movement on that base. The founding core of ALL and C4SS are agorists with histories of association with Konkin, many of them having participated in the original LeftLibertarian yahoogroup which Neil Schulman destroyed.

    The ALL/C4SS are broader and more eclectic than the original MLL, incorporating most of the other left-libertarian strands, but center on a largely agorist core of members. I’m not an agorist or a Rothhbardian myself, but heavily influenced by Rothbard and Konkin.

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