What is left libertarianism?
“The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes
I’ve been a lifelong liberal/progressive because I care about people, I care about the environment, and I care about the future of humanity and our planet. Progressives focus on these issues more than conservatives, so it’s felt like a natural home for me for most of my life.
In recent years, however, I’ve “come out” as a libertarian because I also care about freedom and creativity, civil rights, and treating people as responsible adults rather than children.
But aren’t these political views in conflict, perhaps even unreconcilable?
Not at all. There is in fact a long history of “left libertarianism,” with Noam Chomsky perhaps embodying this tradition most prominently in recent years. Chomsky has warned, throughout his long life, about the potential for abuse from various sources of power, including corporate power, government power, and the power of entrenched mindsets.
One of the biggest debates in politics is, and has always been, about the appropriate size and role of government. Lefties are generally perceived as wanting bigger government in order to provide needed services and strong regulation of corporate power. Righties often see government itself as the bigger problem and want to shrink it or even, in some extreme cases, make it so small that it can be “strangled in a bathtub” (Grover Norquist’s famous line).
Fortunately, a new approach to this perennial debate is emerging, which marries the best of left and right. This new approach arises from the increasing power of networked and crowd-sourced solutions to many of the collective problems we face in today’s world. The rise of crowd-sourced solutions is, in turn, based on our new tech-based society, in which information is rapidly becoming free and access to that free information is rapidly becoming universal.
Essentially this approach says that both left and right are correct in worrying about, respectively, abuse of power by big corporations and abuse of power by big government. So the solution is to rely less on both of these centers of power and find new centers of power, more localized and more accountable, made possible by new technology like the Internet, computers and cell phones.
There is a risk in naming this new approach to political philosophy, but some have suggested “peer progressivism” or “progressive libertarianism,” or as I’m suggesting in this essay “left libertarianism.” I have also used the term “wiki democracy” and “isocracy” (rule of equals) to describe the outcome of this new philosophy and new tech tools that are rapidly enhancing our democracies around the world.
Regardless of the labels we use, the key idea behind left libertarianism is that a lot of things that government has often done can and should be crowd-sourced — that is, performed by the crowd, the masses, rather than by government or corporations. This is different than the historically right-wing tendency to want to privatize government, but it is nonetheless a type of privatization. Rather than privatizing by selling off government assets and responsibilities to corporations, however, crowdsourcing looks to a broader universe of entities than just traditional corporate interests to take the place of traditional government.
Crowdsourcing generally relies on regular people like me and you, but it can include a broad variety of entities as part of the “crowd.” The crowd can include individuals, civic groups, corporations, and even government entities, working together to find creative and efficient solutions. We are increasingly crowdsourcing government and we should be actively looking for ways to accelerate this trend.
A key part of crowdsourcing is direct democracy in elections and policymaking. New technology is making online voting and mobile voting highly feasible and desirable. Estonia has had online voting since 2005.
Left libertarians look at policy debates in a way that is similar to the long-standing debate about states’ rights, traditionally a conservative value — but we go a lot further. That is, rather than looking just to the dichotomy between federal and state power, we look to whether policy decisions should be made at the county or city level rather than the state or national level. Or, even more importantly, whether peer networks, crowds, can make the policy decisions without any direct government involvement.
The basic principles that I follow in my version of left libertarianism are:
1. The goal of life and any political system should be to enhance freedom and creativity for all people.
2. Governmental decision-making should take place at the lowest feasible level, which means as close as possible to the people affected, and including the lowest level of crowdsourcing. But decisions should still be made in a way that ensures other societal goals or principles can be met.
3. The fully distributed (non-centralized) peer network best represents the principle of devolution of power to the lowest feasible level, even if it can’t always be achieved fully in practice.
4. Facts and reason should be the primary tools for all political decisions.
5. Money and the corrupting effects of money should be mitigated as much as possible in creating laws and implementing those laws, as well as in making any political decisions.
6. In order to function as a nation, some responsibilities must remain at the federal level.
Applying these principles to real-world problems will always be subjective and debatable. But that’s the nature of all political philosophies. A key difference from traditional progressives that results from these principles is the dramatic devolution of power from the federal level in many situations that don’t demand a federal solution.
Most social issues, in particular, should remain at the state level or lower, rather than defaulting to the federal level. This means that left libertarians will generally support gun control decisions, education, reproductive rights, gay rights, drug rights and religious tolerance issues being determined at the state level.
Other issues that very likely must remain at the federal level include foreign policy (because a single actor must represent a nation, rather than each state conducting its own foreign policy), national defense, immigration, environmental protection of air and water pollution (because these issues easily cross state boundaries in a way that can’t be prevented) and possibly health care (due to the difficulty in allowing each state to determine exclusively its own path to the possible detriment of people moving between states).
The hope is that this new approach to politics will allow us to get past the old debates and instead get our hands dirty creating new localized solutions that allow us to solve problems where they’re felt — and not rely on a distant and unaccountable federal or state government to save us after each crisis. Or to cause their own crises through over-reach, an increasingly common problem in an age of autocrats and power grabs.
Stephen Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age is an accessible and entertaining overview of this new approach to politics and governance. A more academic and in-depth treatment may be found in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Chomsky’s book Understanding Power is perhaps the best philosophical and historical introduction to left libertarianism.
A longer version of this article is available here.
And a follow up is here.