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Left-Libertarians Admit Opposition to “Capitalism” is Substantive

I’ve noted in recent posts that while some left-libertarians seem to oppose standard libertarians’ positive endorsement of “capitalism” for semantic or strategic reasons, for others they actually oppose the substance of what libertarians mean by (non-crony, non-corporatist) capitalism (see, e.g., Capitalism, Socialism, and Libertarianism, and links in that post; see also Wirkman Virkkala’s post A capital ism?). An example of those with a more semantic or strategic concern would be Sheldon Richman, who is concerned about the “baggage” associated with the word, which will hamper our getting our pro-property rights, libertarian message out. Thus he favors using “free market” instead, but as far as I can tell this is similar to what we mean by “capitalism”–a libertarian society with a market based on respect for property rights, which of course includes private ownership of the means of production (and everything else). (See also Sheldon’s comment to Should Libertarians Oppose “Capitalism”?) Another would be Jock Coats, who notes here that while the baggage of the term “capitalism” might have turned him off had he not also seen the term “free-market anti-capitalism,” now that he understands the term he is “quite happy to be identified as an Individualist Anarchist/Mutualist and at times an Anarcho-Caplitalist,” and is “for keeping ‘capitalism’ as a word in our lexicon.”

To be clear, I think the semantical and strategic debate is one we can have, but it’s different than a substantive disagreement–and we can have that discussion too. But these are separate discussions and should not be intermingled. This leads to confusion at best and equivocation and dishonesty (on the part of leftists) at worst.

In my view there is little doubt that libertarians who have concerns about the appropriate words to use or strategic matters are of course libertarians. We just differ on the best way to convey and spread and communicate about our ideas. But those who disagree on substance may simply not be libertarians. This should not be masked by conflating the discussion with more mundane issues of semantics and strategy.

Now some of the left-libertarians more concerned about terminology and strategy deny or downplay the charge that at least some of them have much more than a mere lexical disagreement with us. So it is good that some of them are willing to explicitly admit this. Take, for instance, one Roman Pearah, who writes in Hmmm…No, Sir. I Don’t Like It.:

Stephan Kinsella is right about one thing: the reason I’m a free-market anti-capitalist is because I have substantive differences with him and other “standard libertarians.” To the extent that my friends on the libertarian-left are making linguistic and strategic arguments against the word ‘capitalism’ (and I’m not convinced that all of them are or that none of their arguments have a substantive element), I don’t have much of a dog in that fight.

But if Kinsella thinks this is a gotcha, a deep insight into our hidden agenda, then let me be clear: I mean capitalism like you do, and dislike it. As I said, there is no pretending it’s only “strategical or lexical” here.

And “BrainPolice”, in Kinsella’s Closed System, writes:

Kinsella is right about one thing: the conflict over “capitalism” is not purely linguistic. My own main disagreement with folks such as Brad Spangler, while I do sympathize with their position in comparison to someone like Kinsella, is that their rejection of “capitalism” is largely confined to a semantic-historical context in which one seems to mostly be just engaging in a salesmanship strategy. Some of these people mostly are in line with fairly standard anarcho-capitalist views, but wish to drop the term “capitalism” for public relations purposes. But to the extent that this is the case (and it certainly is not entirely the case, as I will proceed to get into), Kinsella cannot denounce these people as “unlibertarian” on his own terms.

The much more explicit currents of left-libertarianism do have substantive problems with “capitalism”.

So, good. The left-libertarians, I would say, are anti-“capitalist”–they have understandable reasons to oppose the term. Those who are anti-capitalist–even when you define the word to be clear we are talking not about crony-capitalism but about the property-rights respecting economic order of a laissez-faire, free market, libertarian society–I would say are really not libertarian. This is because, as I explained in Capitalism, Socialism, and Libertarianism, libertarianism upholds private property rights, which implies that the economic order of a libertarian society would exhibit private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism implies libertarianism, and vice-versa. To oppose “private ownership of the means of production” has to be unlibertarian since the only way to do this is to oppose the private property rights that underpin capitalism.

Now if you see the Pearah and Brainpolice posts above, you’ll see a lot of meandering, emotionalism, and unsupported assertions. Why, I have the audacity to be a libertarian who has a certain conception of libertarianism! The truth is Austro-anarcho-libertarianism is, at the very least, a definite branch of libertarianism. It is, in my view, the most consistent and fully libertarian view. Now of course there are other types of libertarian: utilitarians, consequentialists, minarchists, maybe even pacifists and constitutionalists to some extent. But at a certain point hostility to the basic notion of property rights as held by libertarians in general demarks one as non-libertarian. It mystifies me why those who are hostile to typical features of the economic order that would naturally accompany a libertarian-property-rights respecting society want to be called libertarian. Why not just say you are an anarcho-primitivist, anarcho-syndicalist, or whatever? Then argue your case. Why try to bamboozle property-rights respecting libertarians that you are one of them?

[TLS]

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  • Calvin May 19, 2010, 7:12 am

    “To oppose “private ownership of the means of production” has to be unlibertarian”

    ” at a certain point hostility to the basic notion of property rights as held by libertarians in general demarks one as non-libertarian. It mystifies me why those who are hostile to typical features of the economic order that would naturally accompany a libertarian-property-rights respecting society want to be called libertarian.”

    This is because historically and generally outside of the United States, to be a libertarian was to be a socialist. The concept of libertarianism was re-appropriated by those like Rothbard to mean capitalist. The anarcho-communist Joseph Déjacque was the first to use “libertarian” in a political sense in 1857. It is really the capitalists who need to qualify their usage of “libertarian” as “capitalist-libertarian” (although the only proper reaction to such an idea as “capitalist-libertarianism” is laughter).

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