Why am I a left-libertarian? This question breaks into two parts: why, given that I'm a libertarian, am I on the left? And why, given that I'm on the left, am I a libertarian? First things first. Here are six reasons. I'll be brief; these are intended to be first words in a dialogue, not last words.
1. A missing theory of property duties. I say "duties" rather than "rights", as right libertarians or classical liberals do, for a simple reason. To justify inequalities of property, you must demonstrate that the poor have a duty to respect the rich's property. How can this be done?
John Locke had one answer. Private ownership, he said, was OK as long as it left "enough and as good" for others. We should therefore respect others' property simply because it's doing us no harm - there's enough and as good land for us to use.
Even if this proviso held in Locke's time, it obviously doesn't hold today. So how can we justify property inequality?
I'll ignore Nozick's answer, which is pure gibber.
One answer comes from Israel Kirzner. Someone who discovers a new use for a resource, he says, has in effect created property out of nothing (pdf). And what, he asks, is wrong with the "finder's keeper's" rule? For example, Paul McCartney created songs out of nothing. He found them. So why shouldn't he own them?
The problem is, this only justifies a fraction of property ownership. Arab princes are wealthy not because they've discovered new uses for oil, but because they are lucky enough to own land under which there are oil deposits.
And in many cases the history of land ownership is the history of theft, conquest and expropriation. How can we justify property ownership based upon this?
Here classical liberals suddenly become crude utilitarians. Here's Deepak Lal:
Most societies throughout history have recognized the chaos that would be caused by seeking to redress any fault in the historical descent of every current title to property...They have, therefore, correctly applied some form of statute of limitations. (Reviving the Invisible Hand, p186)But would the chaos really outweigh the benefits? This must be an empirical question. And it's an open one - because there's some evidence that unequal property ownership is a barrier to economic development.
2.Autonomy is a real value, not a notional one. Classical liberals - I'm thinking especially of this book by Anthony de Jasay - devote much effort to defining liberty and justice as the absence of state coercion. They devote less effort to saying why these conceptions are so valuable.
Left libertarians, by contrast, believe values matter to the extent that they promote human development and thriving. In some (many?) cases, the mere absence of coercion does not suffice to do this.
Imagine a man dying of thirst in the desert, whilst a bystander has plenty of water, but no inclination to help him. Classical liberals say this is a just position - there's no state coercion.
But most of us would think things would be better if the state did intervene, to force the man with water to help the dying man.
3. Self-ownership doesn't justify inequalities. A cornerstone of Nozick's libertarianism is the principle that we own ourselves, so that any effort to tell us what to do is a form of slavery.
This principle, though, doesn't justify inequalities of income, because incomes are jointly produced by individual talents and social circumstances. Thierry Henry's skills as a footballer, Bill Gates' as a software developer or Paul McCartney's as a songwriter would have earned them little 100 years ago. Even if they own their talents, they've no right to the social conditions in which these talents can thrive.
4. Inequality is a form of market failure. This matters, because it shows that the wealth of these people is the result of luck - the luck of being born into the right time, or into the right society.
By the same reasoning, poverty is also due to bad luck - of being born Liberian rather than American, or being born "unskilled" (or into a time when one' skills are no in demand) rather talented.
Now, commonsense tells us that, where luck is so important, we can take out insurance to mitigate it's effects.
But we can't do so because we can't insure ourselves before being conceived against being born into the wrong society.
This is merely a market failure. All but the most extreme libertarians would argue that there's a case for the state to correct market failures. So there's a case for some type of redistributive taxes, to replicate the insurance pay-outs that we would have entered into, had we been able.
5. Markets don't work perfectly. Classical liberals believe free markets do indeed promote human thriving. This is deeply true - up to a point. But there are problems. Markets generate creative destruction, imposing losses, albeit temporary, upon millions. They don't give people self-determination and autonomy at work, because most firms are ruled by a hierarchical managerialist ideology which might be out-dated. Path dependency and barriers to entry mean inefficient monopolies can continue to thrive. And, as Robert Shiller has pointed out, many markets in insuring big risks - recession, industrial decline - just don't exist.
Classical liberals often reply to this that, in the long-run, these problems disappear. This is a curiously Stalinist answer - it imposes a theoretical ideal upon a world it doesn't fit. People don't live in the long-run, but in the present.
These market failures are another case for redistribution as insurance. The trick is to design the redistribution so as to minimize the disruption to markets that work well.
6. Demands for equality won't go away. There's another way in which classical liberals are strangely Stalinist. They seem to want to over-ride the huge public demand for state intervention. This ignores the question: how can we preserve and expand economic liberty in the face of this?
Left Libertarians pick up James Buchanan's suggestion:
The rich man, who may sense the vulnerability of his nominal claims in the existing state of affairs and who may, at the same time, desire that the range of collective or state action be restricted, can potentially agree on a once-and-for-all or quasi-permanent transfer of wealth to the poor man, a transfer made in exchange for the latter's agreement to a genuinely new constitution that will overtly limit governmentally directed fiscal transfers. (The Limits of Liberty, p171)For example, wealth transfers (which could be annuitized) can be an alternative to intrusive and inefficient market interventions such as minimum wage laws or protectionism.
The question is: why, in the 30 years since The Limits of Liberty was published, has this suggestion not been followed?
Here's my theory. Thatcherism and Reaganism won the class war, and so reduced the vulnerability of the rich man's claims thus making one-off transfers unnecessary.
Classical liberals are happy with this. Some of us aren't.