Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Simple Account of Rights

Here's what I'll call the Simple Account of a right:

A moral subject, S, has a right against a moral agent, A, that A not engage in a specified course of conduct, C, provided that (i) it is wrong, all things considered, for A to engage in C and (ii) C constitutes (a) an all-things-considered harm to S, or (b) a failure to fulfill a duty owed by A to S.

What makes the Simple Account simple is that it defines rights in terms of moral duties. Wherever there's a (perfect, in the Kantian sense) duty, there's a right that the duty be fulfilled. I offer the Simple Account as a deliberate alternative to accounts of rights in accordance with which a right is a moral claim that can be backed up by means of force (however defined). Tendentiously, I'll refer to these as Narrow Accounts.

I think the distinction between the rights-violations that can and the rights-violations that cannot be remedied using force is important, and I do not mean to trivialize it. But I think an umbrella definition of rights is also important. That's because, given the network of associations that link rights-talk with other kinds of moral discourse, if we employ one or more Narrow Accounts of rights, the apparent scope of morality will be narrowed as well.

I emphasize that I am not claiming that this must be the case. This outcome is not entailed by the decision to opt for a particular version of rights-talk. But it seems to be very easy for someone—anyone—to slide back and forth between affirming that she has a right to perform some action and the claim that it is morally permissible for her to perform the action.

No sensible proponent of any Narrow Account supposes that the realm of rights (as understood in terms of her preferred Narrow Account) and the realm of the morally permissible are coextensive. That's why proponents of Narrow Accounts can speak, for instance, of a “right to be wrong.” On the other hand, no sensible proponent of the Simple Account supposes that force can appropriately be employed to enforce just any right (as understood in terms of her preferred view).

Thus, for instance, a proponent of the Simple View would say that someone who had freely made a promise to a partner to be sexually exclusive had no right to be sexual with someone other than her or his partner and had conferred a right on her or his partner to expect exclusivity. But the proponent of the Simple View could quite consistently oppose the use of force to secure this right.

By contrast, in a similar case, a proponent of a Narrow View would presumably say that someone who had freely made a promise to a partner to be sexually exclusive had a right to be sexual with someone other than her or his partner, but would act wrongly if she or he exercised this right, and that she or he had not conferred on her or his partner any right to expect exclusivity.

It seems to me that the proponent of the Narrow View runs the persistent risk of confusing others about her meaning when she says things like this. She can make it appear that engaging in conduct that does not justify the responsive use of force is morally indifferent or, at any rate, much less morally significant than behavior warranting the use of force, even if there is good reason to regard this conduct as deeply wrong. (One assumption seems important to me in this context: that limits on the use of force flow from the same underlying constraints as other moral norms. A credible account of the moral life will not, I think, involve surds. Rather, the same moral theory will generate limits on the use of force and, at the same time, other limits on behavior. Limits on the use of force are not best understood as free-standing, foundational moral truths unsupported by more general principles.)

The choice between Narrow and Simple understandings of rights is not a choice between different views of the use of force. It is a choice between (i) emphasizing the continuity between different kinds of moral discourse and (ii) emphasizing the limits on the use of force. There may be political contexts in which it is most important to stress (ii). But to the extent that our concern is to talk about what is just, and to the extent that morality forms a seamless web, we will have good reason to treat (i) as more important.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Update! Carson on Anarchism and Organizations

Kevin Carson’s first-rate Organizational Theory is now listed at Amazon.

Carson offers a powerful set of arguments designed to show that centralized, hierarchical business organizations exist—primarily—because of past and ongoing acts of dispossession and because of subsidies and monopoly privileges granted by the state. He points toward an alternate model grounded in the rights of workers, freed markets, and environmental sustainability.

If you’re not acquainted with Carson’s work, read him. Now. An articulate proponent of “free market anti-capitalism,” he’s developed a fascinating synthesis of Proudhonian, Austrian, and Marxist perspectives on economic issues. Check out his stuff here and here.

Look for a full review of Kevin’s new book in the next few weeks.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bailouts and More

On December 19, I enjoyed the chance to participate in a discussion on Liberty Cap Talk Live with hosts Todd Andrew Barnett and James Landrith, Jr., and fellow guest Bill Westmiller. Check it out.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Political Fable from Stephen R. L. Clark

“There was once a band of brigands, living as predators rather than producers. The brigands formed some friendships with each other, but their relationships were mostly those of dominance and submission. One winter it occurred to them that instead of taking food away from the productive villagers down in the valley they could simply set up residence there. This they did, killing such of the villagers as openly opposed them and telling the rest that they were now their protectors against any (other) robber bands. The villagers, who had hitherto organized their affairs by the laws of free will, were slowly forced into a sly submission. The robbers took the village women, reared children and grew old. Their descendants might have been peacefully absorbed, but it occurrred to that same brigand genius to enlist youngsters in his military elite. At first only their own descendants became nobles, but likely looking villagers were also taken up. After a few hundred years the common people were even allowed some limited say in the question of who should reach the nobility, though it was always understood that no one who advocated any radical change in the organization of the village would be welcome. These elections were held in adversarial rather than consensus style, and power to manipulate 'the people's choice' and determine the event notoriously lay with cabals. All villagers were heavily taxed, and encouraged to accept the situation by being told that some of these moneys would be dispersed on projects of their own choice. It rarely occurred to anyone to note that if Group A and Group B agreed to support each other's projects then the whole community would be pay8ing for both A and B, though no one very much wanted either of them, and either group could probably have afforded its own project were it not also paying for the other. The villagers were always subject to confiscation of their property, to press-gangs (or conscription) and continual propaganda to the effect that they were incapable of governing themselves within their own natural communities. The Spencerian question is, of course, when did these conquered villagers retrieve their freedom? And the answer comes: not yet.”
—Stephen R. L. Clark, “Slaves and Citizens,” The Political Animal: Biology, Ethics and Politics (London: Routledge 1999) 33-4.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

“Socialism” for Left Liberty

I know I'm coming a bit late to the game, but I wanted to offer some brief responses to Shawn Wilbur's request (in anticipation of the first issue of Left Liberty) for analyses of "socialism," "solidarity," and "individualism." I'll start with "socialism.”

The socialist definitional free-for-all that has captured the ongoing attention of a number of people on the libertarian left (and others) has put back on the agenda the question whether there is a way of understanding socialism that renders it compatible with a genuinely market-oriented anarchism. If socialism must mean either conventional state-socialism or state socialism with ownership of the means of production vested in local micro-states or some vaguely defined model of collective ownership rooted in a gift economy, then it has to be clear that socialism and market anarchism aren't compatible.

But it ought to be troubling, then, that one of the founding spirits of market anarchism, Benjamin Tucker, clearly considered his variety of market anarchism to be an alternative to state-socialism—as a form of socialism. Words (nod to Nicholas Lash) are known by the company they keep, and I think it's worth reminidng readers of the diverse company kept by "socialism." I think it makes sense, therefore, to offer a definition of "socialism" that will make clear why Tucker, at least, clearly ought to be included.

With that in mind, then, I suggest that we understand socialism negatively as any economic system marked by the abolition (i) of wage labor as the primary mode of economic activity and (ii) of the dominance of society by (a) the minority of people who regularly employ significant numbers of wage laborers and (b) the tiny minority of people who own large quantities of wealth and capital goods. We might understand socialism in positive terms as any economic system marked by (i) wide dispersal of control over the means of production; (ii) worker management as the primary mode of economic activity; together with (iii) the social preeminence of ordinary people, as those who both operate and manage the means of production.

State socialism has attempted to realize socialism through the power of the state. Not surprisingly, given everything we know about states, state socialism has proven in most respects to be a disaster. Coupled with the economic inefficiencies associated with central planning, the secret police, the barbed wire fences, and the suppression of dissent are all elements of state socialism’s disastrous record.

If you want to define socialism as state socialism, be my guest. Many people do so. But the history of the term makes clear that many people have not meant state control or society-wide ownership of the means of production when they have talked about socialism.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The “Left” in Left Libertarian

My previous post regarding the nature of left libertarianism was fairly general and vague about what I mean by “left.” If the notion of left libertarianism is going to make sense, we need to be clear on what is and isn’t left.

I don’t think there's anything wrong-headed about other recent characterizations of the central concern of the left as anti-authoritarianism, openness to the future, or opposition to privilege. I want, though, to offer a different proposal regarding what I take to be the central elements of a leftist agenda and to suggest what may be a thread capable unifying these elements.

An authentically leftist position, I suggest, is marked by opposition to subordination, exclusion, and deprivation.


One person, A, is subordinate to another, B, when B has significant, persistent power over A. The power involved may be physical, but it may also be economic, psychic, social, or cultural. The important thing is that B determines, to some meaningful degree, what A does. A is significantly un-free in relation to B, either because B can impose on A some cost that A is unwilling to bear or because A genuinely (but mistakenly) believes that B is entitled to determine the character of A’s conduct.

I assume here that subordination is presumptively morally objectionable. That, indeed, is part of what it means to adopt a position I would recognize as leftist. I do not seek to justify this presumption (perhaps that's a task for another post) nor to suggest how one could correctly identify cases in which it might rightly be defeated. I suspect that most of my readers do not like being subordinated, and might be inclined to accept this dislike as revelatory of something important. But my goal here is not to show them that they should.

Note that the question, Is there a relationship of subordination in a given case? doesn’t determine the answer to the question, If there is subordination in this case, what is the appropriate remedy? I emphasize this because many libertarians and anarchists adhere to what might be called the Principle of the Proportionality of Remedies (PPR). According to this principle, my using physical force against someone is appropriate only when defending myself against a physical threat posed by her to me or someone else; my infringing on her property rights apart from those in her body is appropriate only when defending myself against a threat posed by her to my non-bodily property rights. And so forth.

Someone who endorses the PPR may be nervous about the notion that subordination (or domination, or hierarchy—pick your favorite term here) might be exercised economically or psychically. Clearly delimiting subordination, so that the only sort with which one ought to be concerned is physical, provides a check on the use of force. By contrast, appearing to conflate different kinds of subordination runs the risk of justifying the use of force to respond to non-forcible exercises of influence.

But this worry is ill-founded, for several reasons. Among these:

(i) Physical force can be seen to underly many other forms of domination that do not themselves involve physical force. Persistent violence against women in a given social environment may lead to a climate of fear and submission on the part of many women, even in relationships with men who have not themselves behaved violently and might not threaten to do so or be inclined to do so. The knowledge that a strike might be broken through the use of violence might dispose workers in a morally objectionable work setting to avoid initiating the strike in the first place. And so on. An important aspect of objection to the subordination in these cases will be, precisely, objection to this background of physical violence.

(ii) More fundamentally still, someone who acknowledges that subordination comes in different forms need not maintain that all of these forms merit the same kind of remediation. Being on the left means being opposed to subordination, but it needn't mean supposing that all sorts of subordination should be dealt with in the same way. There is nothing inconsistent about holding both that workers in a given firm are dominated in a morally objectionable way by managers and that this morally objectionable domination does not on its own in any way justify the use of physical force against the managers. Acknowledging the reality of subordination as morally objectionable need not involve erasing moral differences among kinds of subordination or responses to them.


Some person, A, is excluded from a group when it is made clear that she does not belong to the group, that she is entitled neither to the material incidents of membership nor to the recognition as a fellow member (and respect) associated with belonging.

Unavoidably, some intimate relationships exclude: close friendships and monogamous partnerships are obvious examples. No credible leftist position will seek simply to eradicate the particularity of these relationships. And it can thus defend no bright-line rule regarding permissible and impermissible exclusion. Roughly, though, I think, it will want to offer at least two kinds of limits on morally permissible exclusion.

(i) It will want to say that, even when particular intimate sub-communities justly exclude someone—for the simple reason that they would cease to be the kinds of communities they are if they weren’t strictly limited in size—there is clearly room for her in the broader community of which they are components. She is clearly welcome there, clearly included there.

(ii) It will want to say that, when justifiable exclusion occurs, it ought not to reflect false beliefs about or unreasonable reactions to some group to which the excluded person belongs. Perhaps A acts reasonably in declining to marry B because of, say, important differences in the ways in which B and A understand the nature of marriage, differences which might emerge from B’s membership in a particular group with a tradition of viewing marital relationships in a certain way. But surely this is quite different from A’s declining to marry B either because of (a) the fact that certain visible members of B’s group hold beliefs about marriage, even if (1) A does not know that B holds these beliefs or (2) B credibly denies holding these beliefs or (b) A holds to a visceral prejudice against members of B’s group, believing, say, that cohabitation with a member of this group would render someone like A unclean.

A credibly leftist position, then, will oppose exclusion-in-general, treating as reasonable exceptions only (roughly) when they don’t involve exclusion from large, relatively impersonal, communities and relationships and only when they are not rooted in false beliefs or unreasonable reactions.

Again, it is important to emphasize that treating exclusion as morally objectionable does not determine what counts as an appropriate remedy for morally unjustifiable exclusion. I won’t repeat the points I made above with regard to subordination which are, in general, applicable here as well. It is not necessary to justify exclusion as reasonable or morally appropriate, all things considered, to object to the use of physical force as a remedy for exclusion.


A credible leftism will oppose deprivation.

Some person A experiences deprivation if she lacks the resources needed for (i) physical survival and health; (ii) clothing and shelter; and (iii) material circumstances that qualify as minimally dignified in accordance with the norms prevailing in her commnity.

To oppose deprivation in this sense is not so far to assign blame for anyone’s deprived condition. Nor is it—I repeat—to identify any particular remedy for deprivation as morally required or permitted. That is a separate question. A position is credibly leftist if it regards ignoring the deprivation of others as prima facie morally objectionable. But a position can reasonably be regarded as leftist while defending any of a wide range of responses to that deprivation as consistent with (or demanded by) prudence or justice, provided those responses can reasonably be regarded as effective, or likely to be so.


A position qualifies credibly as a leftist position if it involves clear objection on moral grounds to subordinating people, excluding them from community membership, or tolerating their deprivation. I suggest that concern with subordination, exclusion, and deprivation can be seen as united by a concern with respect for and protection of people who are vulnerable—vulnerable to the power of those who dominate and exclude, vulnerable to the circumstances that lead to deprivation and the risks associated with being deprived. (More broadly, we might righly include within the concern for the vulnerable that animates positions credibly recognizable as leftist concern for those who suffer the direct violence of the state when it wages war, tortures, or, often, imprisons.)

The Range of Leftist Positions

Morally grounded opposition to subordination, exclusion, and deprivation, perhaps best seen as linked by a concern for the vulnerable, defines what I am inclined to argue is the minimum core of a leftist position. I do not mean to suggest that all those who might claim to be leftists would acknowledge just these commitments—the Stalinist or the Maoist seems unlikely to exhibit much in the way of concern for the particular vulnerable person. And I do not mean to deny that many of those associated with the left might go on to hold particular positions about the most effective or just ways of achieving leftist goals. Some might argue, for instance, that a position was not authentically leftist if it failed to involve recourse to the state or the use of physical force against persons to prevent subordination, exclusion, or deprivation. This seems to me to be a possible development of leftism, but not a necessary one. There is, at minimum, no reason why someone who supports the anarchist project of doing without state could not adopt a leftist position of the kind I have described.

I think it is clear that a market anarchist could be a leftist. Whether a market anarchist should be a leftist is, of course, another matter. Whether she should be will depend on what reasons warrant opposition to subordination, exclusion, and deprivation, and the consonance of those reasons with her reasons for endorsing market anarchism.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Framing Left Libertarianism: A First Pass

Left libertarianism (hereinafter LL) can be seen as an exercise in packaging and propaganda. Or it can be seen as a powerful expression of concerns that ought to be at the heart of movements for freedom.

Cynical libertarians and leftists alike might see talking about LL as an exercise in spin. Perhaps it's an attempt to sell unsuspecting leftists on libertarian ideals that are fundamentally at odds with the left's agenda. Or perhaps it's an effort to graft an alien life-form onto the body of the libertarian movement, saddling it with concerns that have no place on a genuinely libertarian agenda.

Neither account of LL is remotely persuasive or appealing.

LL is authentically libertarian both because it is anti-statist (the LLs who come readily to mind are all anarchists; I take it as a given here that the LL is an anarchist or something close enough for the difference to be irrelevant) and because it affirms the value of markets and property rights. At the same time, LL is authentically leftist because it seeks to challenge privilege, hierarchy, exclusion, deprivation, and domination--both ideologically and practically--and because it can exhibit a genuine commitment to inclusion, empowerment, and mutual respect.

And it can do this, not by redefining terms--so that, for instance, freedom from physical coercion turns out to be the only kind of freedom that really matters--but instead by demonstrating the consonance between libertarian ideals and principles and a good-faith embrace of the left's central concerns.

It may do so by pointing out the radical implications of commonly accepted libertarian principles.
  • Thus, for instance, it may highlight the degree to which a history of violence and collusion with (or sponsorship of) tyranny on the part of economically powerful people and organizations vitiates the legitimacy of the property titles held by these people and organizations and justifies the homesteading of their putative property by those who live and work on it.
  • Similarly, it may note that the full implementation of libertarian principles related to the injustice and imprudence of monopoly and subsidy would likely undermine, in multiple ways, the power of hierarchical, centralized business organizations and facilitate the replacement of many by worker-managed cooperatives and dramatically enhance the influence of workers in most or all of the others.
  • It may demonstrate that these same libertarian principles rightly lead to a rejection of the kind of privilege that allows influential businesses, professional groups, and individuals to use state power to exploit others (as when well-connected businesses extract tax privileges that provide them non-market advantages over their competitors, or when occupational groups harm both the public and poor potential competitors by maintaining wealth and privilege through expensive licensing requirements imposed or maintained at their behest by the state).
  • And it may stress that the same principles that condemn the state in general provide a powerful basis for opposing war and imperialism in particular.
It can also emphasize the degree to which the same moral principles that drive opposition to the state's oppressive power can provide good reason for challenging the kinds of social inequities that rightly claim the attention of many people on the left. To the extent that their opposition to state power is rooted in a given moral theory, of whatever sort, they can show how other concerns flow from that theory. Natural law theory, virtue theory, Kantianism, moral pluralism, even (though it still seems to me to be a non-starter, for multiple reasons) consequentialism--all can be shown to ground support for market anarchism, and all can be shown to ground moral concerns independent of market anarchism. And (for instance) the very concern with the moral equality of persons that underlies a denial of any “natural right to rule” and the rejection of collectivist inattention to individual particularity both render racism, sexism, and heterosexism morally untenable.

Right libertarians may be inclined to reject the left libertarian position on multiple grounds. They may maintain (i) that there is nothing particularly libertarian about concern with the workplace authority or well being of workers or with, say, racism. Or they may argue, more strongly, (ii) that such concerns are anti-libertarian.

Whether objection (i) is persuasive will depend in part on how one supposes opposition to state power is grounded. To the extent that it is rooted in a particular moral theory, however, that theory itself can likely be used to generate moral judgments about matters other than state power. There is nothing arbitrary about arguing both that a given theory grounds regard for liberty and that it grounds other moral judgments or attitudes.

Of course, a right libertarian might say that she affirmed the value of liberty as basic, as ungrounded in any more general theoretical judgment. But the left libertarian need not concede a complete disconnection between a concern with racism, or workplace authority, or poverty and liberty conceived of as a basic value. This is so not only because (the left libertarian might say) structures and actions violative of liberty in the right libertarian's focal sense serve to foster the subordination of workers and members of ethnic minority groups and the continued impoverishment of the poor, but also because it seems inconsistent to oppose subjection to the arbitrary authority of state actors while regarding the arbitrary authority of those who don't threaten physical violence as morally neutral.

A standard right libertarian objection at this point might be that authority not rooted in physical force or the threat of physical force cannot justly be opposed using physical force. But this objection is a red herring.

The left libertarian need not regard aggression against anyone's person or property as an appropriate response to non-forcible but morally objectionable conduct. Organized boycotts, shaming, shunning, the use of various public and private bully pulpits, work slowdowns, and other mechanisms for enforcing social norms and rules that do not violate the principle of non-aggression are all available to the left libertarian.

The left libertarian can also emphasize that, while it is (tolerably) clear what it means to attack someone's body, while the notion of someone's body is a relatively stable one, just what counts as aggression against someone's property will itself be contestable, and will depend, in particular, on just what her property rights are. A court in a mutualist community would obviously be quicker to recognize the rights of workers homesteading a shuttered factory than a comparable court in a community with conventionally Lockean property rights. A local jury in one market anarchist community might perfectly well conclude that the commercial property rights it was prepared to enforce didn't include the right to deny someone ordinary services on the basis of race. There is nothing about market anarchism, per se, that settles the question just how different communities that all endorse private property rights will or should understand those rights, or just when different courts or protective agencies will be inclined to, say, award tort or contract damages. Which rights should be endorsed by a legal system in a market anarchist community, and what remedies should be available for their infringement, can only be answered in terms of ongoing moral argument--just the sort of argument that allows diverse communities in a market anarchist society to serve as laboratories in which experiments in living are carried on.

Non-libertarian leftists (NLLs) may be equally suspicious of left libertarianism. They may doubt that left libertarians are really concerned about poor people, about workers, about sexual minorities, and others about whom they profess to care. Just as the left libertarian can rightly resist the right libertarian's framing of LL as statist or as irrelevant to liberty, so the left libertarian can rightly resist the leftist non-libertarian's framing of LL as unconcerned with exclusion, domination, and deprivation.

Here, the left libertarian must emphasize to the NLL just how much the state really is implicated in the structures of subordination, impoverishment, and violence they both reject. The left libertarian can rightly stress the role that state-granted monpolistic privileges and subsidies play in underwriting putatively private power. She can offer the NLL a wager: that the removal of the threat of state violence as a back-stop for such power would play an enormous role in defanging it.

She can point out that market anarchism does not, cannot, mean maintaining the current system of property relations, untouched, in the absence of state power--not only because of disagreements about property rules (as between Lockeans and mutualists) but also because of the injustice that vitiates so many existing property titles (as to the latifundia of Latin America). And she can stress, as to the right libertarian, that adhering to Leonard Read's dictum to limit one's actions to “anything that’s peaceful” need not mean abandoning the right to subject the behavior of those who use their property in morally objectionable ways to incisive critique or the capacity to exert significant influence on that behavior.

Left libertarianism represents a particularly radical development of generally acknowledged libertarian moral judgments and an elaboration of the implications of moral principles that can be seen to provide plausible grounds for rejecting statism. It can provide bases for challenging and means for reducing or ending exclusion, subordination, and deprivation that are authentically consistent with market anarchism. Thus, it can outline identifiably libertarian means to identifiably leftist ends, and it can persuasively redescribe those ends and means as both genuinely libertarian and genuinely leftist.