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Adam Knott: A Question for Left-libertarianism

Adam Knott sent me the following and gave me permission to post it. As he says: The state and IP cut both ways. –SK

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Hi Stephan.

I recently had a brief e-mail exchange with Charles Johnson, after which I provided him with a list of questions directed toward left-libertarianism and the concept of thick libertarianism.

Among the most important points was one point I am attaching here.

The reason I’m sending it to you is because I see you were weighing in on the question of slave reparations on Long’s website.

I believe the left considers reparations a good idea because they make the general assumption (implicit) that most state intervention has resulted mainly in Rightist Accumulated Capital and Institutions. That is, they believe that the primary effect of past government intervention was to produce a currently existing Rightist institutional order.

Therefore, reparations for past wrongs can only benefit leftism, by forcibly making rightists repatriate all ill gotten gains from past government intervention.

This is based on the false assumption that no significant Leftist Accumulated Capital and Institutions have resulted from past government intervention.

If there is significant Leftist Accumulated Capital and Institutions which have resulted due to past government intervention, then any fair reparations scheme would have to entail the repatriation of these ill gotten gains as well.

I think the left-libertarian position is based on an implicit belief or premise that no significant leftist capital or institutions exist, which would have to be repatriated under the Rothbardian legal conception. And I think that if the entire structure of leftist capital and institutional structures that have been built due to coercive government intervention, were detailed as to their nature, scope, and magnitude, then left-libertarians would be less disposed to reflexively support reparations schemes and notions.

My argument goes back to an e-mail exchange we had quite a few years ago, which by now you have certainly forgotten. This was the argument that IP laws have resulted in a massive transfer of wealth which probably has yet to be fully documented. (this would be a great topic of research for the authors of Against Intellectual Monopoly)

Granted that business and the state has greatly benefitted from IP. But as my brief argument claims, the left has greatly benefitted from copyright laws as well. All past gains gotten by coercive IP laws need to be fully accounted for in any fair reparations discussion. And the left has benefitted greatly from past IP coercion.

This argument could be obscured in the past while copyright was considered moral or ethical by standard natural rights theory. But now that the legitimacy of copyright is under suspicion, this implies that gains from past copyright and present copyright, to the extent they result from coercively imposed laws of the state, are illegally gotten gains.

If we are to consider reparations schemes that envision current beneficiaries of past wrongs relinquishing their assets, in fairness we have to consider doing so in an evenhanded manner.

Also, if we are to propose attacking the state and rightist institutions because we believe they were coercively established, in fairness we should, in an evenhanded manner, also propose attacking leftist institutions as well.

My brief question to Charles was meant to bring to light this perhaps not much discussed aspect of reparations and proposals to attack rightist and/or business institutions.
Sincerely, Adam

A Question for Left-libertarianism

Do you believe that coercively granted government privilege has led to a significant amount of accumulated leftist institutions and accumulated leftist capital in society?

I mean this question in the following way:

An important point made by left-libertarianism is that the “free market” championed by many libertarians in the past wasn’t really a free market, but a regulated or interventionist market where the legal system granted special privileges to business. These special privileges have resulted in a structure of society that would not exist had markets been more genuinely free. Compared to the property relations that would have existed in the absence of these government interventions, the property relations today may be considered unjust by leftist standards, and even by right libertarian or traditional libertarian standards. Vast wealth and power discrepancies may not have been able to accrue were it not for past market intervention in favor of business interests.

At the same time, government intervention in the past has also favored non-business interests. The government’s coercive monopoly in education has institutionalized leftist and left-oriented social science instruction. Labor laws and pro-union laws have artificially transferred wealth away from ordinary citizens, channeling it to leftist organizations. And coercive intellectual property laws have greatly benefitted leftist institutions such as The New York Times, Harvard, and Hollywood. The massive transfers of wealth that have occurred to the left due to labor and union laws is probably incalculable. Also incalculable is the effect that decades of leftist social science instruction under the government’s education monopoly has had. Perhaps most importantly, the effect that intellectual property laws have had on the present structure of society has been profound. This is because the wealth transfer occurring under IP laws, from society at large, to leftist institutions such as the New York Times, Harvard, and Hollywood, was used almost exclusively for further leftist re-education and propaganda. In this sense, these institutions were extremely efficient “businesses” of the left, taking coerced funds and re-using them to effectively argue for further increases in leftist statism (meaning the entire state apparatus aiming at equalizing outcomes by mandating transfers of income, mandating labor practices, mandating economic associations, mandating workplace rules, etc.) To the extent all these factors were operating, then the present state of society and of current property and wealth relations has been greatly affected.

Perhaps we can take it for granted that leftists will consider the effect of corporate privilege to be worse than the effect of privileges granted leftist organizations and institutions. Believing so may be what it means to be a leftist.

But my question to you is not whether one effect was worse than the other. My question is whether in your opinion, coercively granted government privilege has benefitted leftist organizations and institutions, and has resulted in an existent accumulated leftist capital (institutions, organizations, public figures, scholars, politicians, public opinion, literature, art, etc…) that is significant?

In your opinion, do left-libertarians generally believe that coercively granted government privilege has resulted in significant accumulated leftist capital?

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  • Bob Kaercher July 29, 2009, 11:23 am

    All right, I’ll bite. (Though to be honest, I’d be even more interested to see how Johnson or Long answers these questions.)

    “Do you believe that coercively granted government privilege has led to a significant amount of accumulated leftist institutions and accumulated leftist capital in society?”

    Oh, absolutely. And I don’t disagree with what you say in the following two paragraphs.

    “Perhaps we can take it for granted that leftists will consider the effect of corporate privilege to be worse than the effect of privileges granted leftist organizations and institutions. Believing so may be what it means to be a leftist.”

    Well, if you’re referring to LIBERTARIAN leftists, I’m not sure that you can take it for granted. I suspect that each left-libertarian will have a different take on this. Speaking only for myself, I think a more accurate observation is that corporate privilege and privilege for statist-left institutions have often gone hand in hand to mutual benefit. Many large corporations have happily gone along with promoting statist-leftism and continue to do so. (Research the surge in government-enforced corporate privilege during the so-called “Progressive” era, or Kevin Carson’s essay on “Liberalism and Social Control,” to see some historic examples of this.) Has not BP (to cite one example) hopped on the “climate change” bandwagon?

    “But my question to you is not whether one effect was worse than the other. My question is whether in your opinion, coercively granted government privilege has benefitted leftist organizations and institutions, and has resulted in an existent accumulated leftist capital (institutions, organizations, public figures, scholars, politicians, public opinion, literature, art, etc…) that is significant?”

    Sure it has.

    “In your opinion, do left-libertarians generally believe that coercively granted government privilege has resulted in significant accumulated leftist capital?”

    Well I’d have to say I’m agnostic on that question. You’ll simply have to ask different left-libertarians their thoughts on the matter. I suspect that their answers will vary. I’m leery of trying to paint all individuals associated under a single label with broad strokes. This is a pet peeve of mine in regards to examining the views of both left- and non-left libertarians alike (or any other political movement, for that matter).

    As for the question of slavery reparations, I think that there can be a theoretically libertarian justification for it on Rothbardian grounds, but as long as we have the central state that we have, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that that option is even on the table. Any “reparations” bill that gets passed by the U.S. Congress will hardly be Rothbardian, and will instead be a free-for-all grab-bag as it won’t be based on any objective principles of justice.

    I’d prefer that we dismantle the state first, and *then* enter into a serious discussion of slavery reparations, as well as reparations for people who were robbed to benefit the leftist institutions you refer to, although even then justifiable reparations will be highly problematic in both cases. But they are both issues that should be seriously examined in the future.

    And speaking broadly and generally about making restitution to victims of statist crimes: If the glorious collapse of statism should ever arrive, we may choose forgiveness in many instances instead of seeking some form of restitution or reparations. (Though clearly there will have to be exceptions to this. There will no doubt be many pro-statist actors who should not be forgiven and be held fully accountable to justice.)

    I once heard Robert Higgs say that government has created a real cesspool that frequently makes consistently sound moral and/or ethical decisions extremely difficult, if not impossible, in many instances. That’s an excellent point. Recognition of that fact may lead to simple forgiveness in a lot of cases post-state.

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