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How to be a progressive libertarian

I sometimes get asked things like, "Libertarians are on the right, and progressives are on the left. Which are you? Are you a left libertarian or a right libertarian? An anarcho-capitalist or an anarcho-syndicalist? A capitalist or a socialist?"

I'm a libertarian, period.  I think the dispute between left libertarians and right libertarians (including that between anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-capitalists) is the most interesting in all of political theory.  I also think it's very misguided, for reasons I'll sketch in a moment.

There's some tactical reasons for libertarians not to divide left/right, and there's some principled reasons.

The tactical reasons are that many important issues already unifying the two sides can be achieved in the near-term if people act in unison.  What the world needs now, first, is a reduction in militarism—whether used by states or by corporations or (to a much more limited extent) by workers—and in practice that mainly means curtailing the international physical aggression of the most powerful and quick-triggered state. Libertarians of all stripes have historically been at the forefront of opposing that.  E.g., for a long time in the 60s and early 70s, right-libertarian journals were the only periodicals with reasonable circulation that would publish left-libertarian critics (like Chomsky).

The principled reason not to divide (yet) is, simply, that nobody has this stuff figured out; both ideals need more realistic formulations, and since there's no reason to expect enlightenment to drop from the sky, both ideals need a kind of experimentation.  E.g., how would a left-libertarian set of individuals repel invasion or keep a coercive vanguard party from arising? How would a right-libertarian set of individuals keep coercive monopolies from forming, or correct for the huge amount of past coercion (fraud, theft, murder) that puts present rich and poor at an unfair competitive condition, or, for that matter, insure that babies are fed?  (I'm not asking all this as a challenge here, and I'm not suggesting that the problems are hopeless.)

So here's what I'm really in favor of: self-determination under initial conditions that are as free as possible from (remnants of) coercion.

By "self-determination" I mean that (as far as possible) each person should have a stake in decisions proportional to how that decision could make them worse off.  Roughly, if it won't hurt you at all, you have no say in it, if it would hurt you a little, you have a little say in it, and if it would hurt you a lot, you have a lot of say in it.  (Though there are lots of practical issues to work out--how to measure "hurt", for instance—in practice, I think, this would be like a democracy, but with safeguards against a majority's deciding to hurt a minority, because the minority's "say" in the decision would increase.)

By "(remnants of) coercion" I mean (at least) current physical force and lingering effects of physical force in the (distant and recent) past, especially lingering wealth differentials to the extent that they've resulted from aggression--invasion, slavery, internal repression, etc.  Though again there are lots of practical issues to work out—how to measure present effects of past evils—in practice, I think, this would involve significant reparations to large numbers of poor, working-class, and middle-class people, oppressed racial minorities and women, etc., around the world.  (A graphic case is made in "The Real Foreign Debt", a letter from a Native American chief.)  There are extremely few well-off individuals and corporations in the world today—maybe none—who've earned their wealth without reliance on massive public subsidies (e.g., for R&D, or with blood spilled on the battlefield, etc.) or without reliance on force or threatened force.  For similar reasons, though it's worth mentioning separately, it would also mean a much more level-playing field for ideas, in education and the media.

I think these are conditions that libertarians should be working towards whether they are left-libbers or right-libbers.  (Right-libertarians sometimes wish to weaken the state without simultaneously weakening other institutions that have grown fat on the state.  I hope this is because they vastly underestimate the extent to which state coercion has initiated and perpetuated corporate power—because then we have an empirical disagreement, easily settled in my favor by a serious study of the history of capitalism.  I fear, though, that this is because they are not true to the ideal of liberty—they are all in favor of tomorrow's reparations for tomorrow's violations of liberty, but not in favor of today's reparations for yesterday's violations of liberty.)

Well, suppose these general-libertarian conditions (of self-determination w/o coercion) could be brought about.  Then would I favor left-libertarianism or  right-libertarianism?

You know what?  If we got that far, I think we could build a just society either way (with kinks of the sort I mentioned above worked out—vanguard parties, coercive monopolies, etc.).  Or in some combinations of ways—e.g., with some people living the anarcho-syndicalist way, and their neighbors living the anarcho-capitalist way.  I believe in self-determination.  I would not dictate the right/left choice even if I could. 

Nevertheless, for myself, in the circumstances I described, I would choose the left-libertarian way, because I value cooperation and a safety-net (even with less production, if that turns out to be the cost, as it might not) over competition and a bottomless pit of despair (even with more production, if that turns out to be the benefit, as it might not).  I believe the overwhelming majority of people would choose likewise (in circumstances where relevant ideas were not shielded from them by media monopolies built on past coercion).  But I would understand the other choice.  And if it turns out that very few other people would choose like me—imagine a kind of straw vote—I'd happily join the right-libbers rather than live alone or in a tiny commune of left-libbers.

So I'm a libertarian, period, for self-determination without coercion and remnants of coercion whether by state or boss or expert or coworker.  It's work to provide fuller details of such a picture of society, but it's also exhilarating, and within the reach of commonsense.  It also has nothing obvious to do with capitalism vs. socialism, right vs. left.

—Eric Lormand