Reclaiming Libertarianism

Reclaiming Libertarianism

Noam Chomsky calls himself a ‘libertarian socialist.’ Impossible as it is for any thinking person not to respect Chomsky for his intellectual brilliance, to  many people, this label is as contradictory as ‘libertarians’ who don’t trust the state to provide medical care, but do trust the state to execute people.

Let us be clear. Libertarianism is simply a belief in freedom. That is all.

It does not necessarily mean an absolutist approach to the free market. It just means that we believe that the market is a powerful force separate from the state  – and that it often plays an enormous role in preserving individual freedoms. Free exchange of capital seems to be the best workable way of ensuring free exchange of everything else – be it love, sex, money, ideas, or even just good old-fashioned happiness. But it should always be that way around – the market exists to benefit us, and to improve our standards of living, because we choose it. We do not exist to serve the market.

You don’t have to be a socialist to feel that not everything a private company does is okay. If a corporation stands opposed to individual freedoms, a libertarian will judge both eggs by the same salt, and conclude that is equally abhorrent to cause harm and restrict liberty whether the state or a CEO is doing it.

With the exception of the freedom to actively harm (not cause offence, or hurt feelings, but actively harm), libertarians simply believe that freedom is the fundamental purpose of life, but more than that – and this is how the word has become an acceptable way of describing yourself as a sociopathic right-winger – we believe freedom is more important than equality.

Socialism, ultimately, believes the opposite. Socialism surely cannot happen unless liberties are removed. (Either that or human nature fundamentally changes.) You can argue that the removal of liberty would be temporary, or even justified, but it must happen, nonetheless, for socialism to work. So who gets to control whom? Surely faith in one’s convictions, or a belief that one has fundamentally good intentions, does not justify the removal of liberties? The preservation of liberty stands opposed to real equality of ownership. Thus socialist libertarians are surely either not really socialists, or not really libertarians.

To identify as a libertarian, you shouldn’t have to clarify that you’re a compassionate human being by prefixing your belief in freedom with an opposing philosophy. What a sad thing that a believe in freedom is overwhelmingly presumed to be a wish to use that freedom for bad than for good.

Disagree? Give me a piece of your mind by posting a comment!


7 thoughts on “Reclaiming Libertarianism

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  1. Okay, I’ll bite. 🙂

    “Socialism surely cannot happen unless liberties are removed. (Either that or human nature fundamentally changes.)”

    Can you explain how and why you think this is the case?

    1. Hello Slipshod Sibyl,

      Thanks for taking the time to post.

      I suppose it depends whether you believe everyone will fundamentally treat each other as equals and share the world’s resources unless somebody makes them, but human nature doesn’t seem to work this way. It also depends on whether you believe that you can manage equality of ownership without restricting people’s right to sell their own labour (never mind anyone else’s) at whatever price they, and others, value it. I don’t see how you could do that. To me, that is a restriction of somebody’s liberty.



  2. I hear a lot of people say ‘oh socialism is lovely, but human nature is naturally selfish’
    To an extent, yes it is, if nothing for evolutionary reasons. However i would argue that actually capitalism encourages people to be even more selfish than they would naturally be. If all human beings care about are themselves and their immediate families – how do you explain altruism?

    Another mistake people make with socialism is thinking that socialists are proposing that such a system would automatically result in utopia. Socialists don’t necessarily believe this. What socialism is not about is creating a perfect system where everybody will be friends. It is simply about evening the balance out a little bit. What I am not speaking of however is communism – as seen in the former Soviet Union or China. You can’t force everybody to be on the same wage for doing different jobs – especially if this doesn’t apply to the government. And if it doesn’t apply to the government I would argue that is state capitalism (whereby the government is rich and still trading with other countries but forces everyone else to be on the same wage under the guise of communism, not that I like the idea of communism anyway)

    Socialism is a kind of middle ground if you will. Where national facilities are under state control – instead of it all being privately owned and restrictions on businesses making a profit at the expense of people. But here comes the crux. I’m a bit of a radical socialist in that I believe that laws should be decided by people’s delegations as opposed to a minority of representatives. When you have top-down socialism you end up in a situation such as that in Laos where actually, it is quite oppressive and still hierarchical. When you have bottom-up socialism founded upon grassroots movements then you have real opportunity for change. I’m not necessarily talking about direct democracy here (where everybody in the country decides laws) as there’s simply too many people in the world to make that work. I’m talking more about people’s councils and everybody having the opportunity to participate in government law-making process if they so wish through local people’s councils – (as opposed to merely voting for which of the two equally as awful parties you should like to vote for every two years) It used to be three, but I think we can safely argue that the Lib dems are spineless and really no better than the Tories in their current guise. Lol but that’s another debate!

    I would say that yes it is true that it would be very difficult to convince people of the benefits of socialism. But is that not merely because we’ve conditioned against it? Of course, the situations in countries which operate under the guise of socialism doesn’t exactly help. Certainly not when as I say – it is opposed from above. But I think that’s part of another debate on how socialism should come about, and exactly how we define socialism

    Ok, now we come to the question of individual liberty. It’s true there would be some restrictions on how we sell our labour. I.e – national facilities not being privately owned, much higher taxes for bigger businesses or wealthy individuals to prevent them becoming obscenely wealthy.
    However – it depends upon how you define freedom. For example, how free are people generally under capitalism? Theoretically we have equality of opportunity. In practice, this is not the case. For capitalism to work it needs rich people but it also needs people who are poor.It relies upon boom and bust. I would argue that it relies upon exploitation as well to some extent – which is what we see with nearly all the bigger multi-billion £ corporations today. It leads to a system whereby some people cannot afford basic resources like food. To a situation where some countries suffer at the expense of others as resources are plundered but then – crucially, are distributed unevenly because of the uneven class structures which means some people/countries naturally need then gain more than others.
    Some capitalists say oh but with the free market only lazy people lose out. This is quite simply not the case. For while some people are able to work their way out of poverty – others are not able to. Whether it is because of starvation, lack of opportunity or they are living in a part of the world where resources are being mined or taken by corporations for them poverty is not a choice.
    So under capitalism yes there is freedom. If you can afford it.
    I’m not saying socialism is perfect. It won’t solve all the world’s problems. And it can only work if it is not done from the top-down. (Which unfortunately may mean that it is unlikely to find its way back into politics unless the people choose it. And under the current system which I would argue is quite right wing and dominated by murdochs papers which have an interest in persuading people against socialist policies/principles, it is unlikely that people are ready for socialism just yet. Not unless things get so bad that some sort of backlash or social unrest happens.- which has not been unknown in history.
    However, once a system of grassroots socialism is in place, I don’t think that it would restrict freedoms to such an extent that it would wreck people’s lives. It’s true that people would not be able to get filthy rich. But if this system were implemented in some forms across the world, people would not be dirt poor either.

  3. Hello Janalyst,

    What a great post! I do hope you keep commenting on articles, I really enjoy your replies.

    I don’t believe all human beings are innately selfish – as you say, you get altruistic people. But that’s not everybody. It’s probably right that capitalism can help selfishness to flourish, although I don’t accept that it always does – look at people like Bill Gates who are actually giving away all their profit. Whose hands would have liked to see that money put in, instead?

    I think a lot of people agree with you that it’s important to “even things out a bit,” to some extent. I support things like the NHS and state education. These things give people a more equal start in life and protect basic human rights. Given that these things already exist alongside capitalism in Britain, what further specific policies would you like to see the government set to make this happen? Would you have an upper wage limit, for example? How would it be decided and who would set it? Would you limit the number of products someone is allowed to sell, or the number or businesses they are allowed to run? Or would you allow people to generate profit, then tax it and share with the less well-off? How would you determine who is rich enough to be taxed and who is poor enough to be given extra help? What happens when there are no rich people left to tax?

    I can see we are in agreement about top down government! Of course we do have smaller parties like the SWP, UKIP, the BNP (God forbid!), etc, but the fact is, people choose not to vote for those parties. People can also start their own party or stand for election themselves. I think more people should be encouraged to do this. I agree, though, that the broader the political discourse, the more we all benefit; it would be nice to see the smaller parties gain influence under a fairer voting system like Proportional Representation. None of this should stop person 1 trading their products with person B at whatever price the market values their skills at.

    The difference between our mutual dissatisfaction with government, I suppose, is that it seems to me business can be a way to establish a power base separate from government. Where we might agree, is on the current imbalance of power in that equation. I admire socialism very much for their role in the great advancements we’ve had in this over the past few centuries in making sure “workers” are given their share of the power balance – and still support further equalisation of that power balance. I just want to see that happen still within the framework of that originator-worker-consumer relationship, which makes it fundamentally capitalist. Perhaps I’m wrong in this but it seems to me that socialists seek to place greater significance on the role of the ‘workers’ than on the role of the others in the equation – apart from anything else, the line between these three groups is blurred anyway, since most workers are also consumers, most bosses also work, etc.

    Of course you’re right, it might be because we’ve been conditioned against it that so many people are wary of socialism – although we do have a lot of love for certain quasi-socialist principles like the NHS etc. It might be because we have seen for ourselves in the very recent past (and even current news) how appalling it can be when it is tried. It might be because the majority of people simply like capitalism, and actually enjoy earning money, enjoy passing it on to their loved ones, enjoy shopping and choosing which products to buy, etc. The could be any myriad of reasons why people don’t vote for socialists in elections but just like any other political party that fail to get elected, if the electorate, for whatever reason, remain unconvinced, it’s undemocratic to ignore them. I think it’s dangerous to disregard people’s electoral choices because we assume they are making them in ignorance or bias. Many people consider long and hard before choosing to vote for a party like Labour or the Lib Dems or the Tories, many of them know their history etc and make an informed choice for the party they most want. That is their right, isn’t it?

    What you describe in your final paragraph is not libertarianism, it is dictatorial capitalism. If companies (or anyone) restrict other people’s liberties or human rights, that is not right, any more than if the state or a man in the street was to do so. I’m not making the argument that when you have capitalism, in any guise, you automatically have freedom for everyone – that would be ridiculous. I think basic human rights (like basic healthcare, not being tortured and so on) are essential to preserving freedom. I just think people also have a right to sell their labour, start a business, etc, on their own terms. Examples of capitalist oppression do not discredit libertarianism any more than the horrors of communism should discredit socialism. Libertarians should oppose the oppression of anyone.

    Thank you for reading Left Eye Right Eye. I look forward to seeing future posts from you! a


  4. I’ll read the comments tomorrow (it’s 1.12am here) but a quick word about this quote. “What a sad thing that a believe in freedom is overwhelmingly presumed to be a wish to use that freedom for bad than for good.” That’s true because too often the exercise of freedom is presented as a zero-sum game. It seldom is – were it not for co-operation, we’d still be in the caves.

    This is the best book I’ve read on freedom and co-operation – Don’t read the plot summaries though!

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