Since the Patrick Henry Supper Club meeting, I've been thinking about a lot of the questions I've received on what left libertarianism is. I can't answer for anybody but myself, but I figure this is as good a place as any to try.
First, I should address the term "left", since many find it grating and statist. My use of the term rests on its original usage since the French revolutionary era, stemming from the seating arrangements of the French legislature. Those who supported the ancien régime - the status quo, the establishment, the ruling class - sat on the right side of the assembly. Those who opposed the old guard (for whatever reason) seated themselves on the Left. Of course, opposing the establishment is not an endeavor unique to the Left, strictly speaking; nevertheless, it has been the Left that throughout history has consistently worked against authority. The Left has not always been libertarian, but the farther left one goes, the freer one gets, until you end up on the so-called "infantile Left" that was far too anarchic for somebody like Lenin. The central theme of leftism, at its heart, has been resistance to the status quo. That is the sense in which I'm a leftist (and the sense in which somebody like Stalin or Clinton could hardly qualify when compared to other thinkers and activists on the Left).
My leftist principles would not be alien to other libertarians. Abolishing aggression and fraud is still the ultimate means to libertarian ends. Where I find I differ with more mainstream libertarians is on my speculative vision of what those ends look like if the principles or liberty are consistently followed to their natural conclusion. Yes, it is a cultural issue, but not just that - left libertarians extend the analysis of the State consistently to uncover those aspects of the economy, society, and environment which are affected by the pernicious influence of the State in some way. A world without institutionalized violence, they believe, will necessarily free humanity to organize in a variety of ways that will change the face of the planet.
When I was an active party member, most Libertarians with whom I spoke regaled me with visions of an ideal world that essentially looked like our present one. Sure, they looked forward to less taxes, less arbitrary edicts, and more respect for individual rights and freedoms, but they pretty much thought they would end up living in the same world, with the same familiar institutions and the same lifestyle. It was about getting back to the Constitution and limiting government, then carrying on with Western civilization as we had before. The general course of history - technologically, socially, intellectually - was moving in a certain direction, and all the State did was either corrupt or slow down "progress".
What doesn't occur to them is that our understanding of "progress" is flawed, and that mistake has been imposed upon society only through the mechanism of government. The environment is in crisis. Society, even without "nanny state" intrusions and social engineering, is still riddled with injustice and suffering. Our economy is imbalanced and top heavy with little room for individual self-determination. Humans are finding their lives and their choices increasingly influenced not just by government, but also by corporations and other impersonal institutions whose trade is in strong-arming families and communities. Neighborhoods now largely consist of isolated, alienated employees on leave from their real lives as wage slaves, instead of actively participating in the decisions that affect them. Big business offers "managed" lives to profit off of people rendered tired and helpless by the rat maze they've created. These are problems with the direction we're headed, and they cannot be cured by simply cutting taxes and paying more attention to the Bill of Rights.
I don't claim to possess any extraordinarily superior spark of insight, but I do think many libertarians suffer from a failure of imagination when applying libertarian principles thoroughly to these issues. Corporations are creations of government privilege which are granted limited liability, preferred access to our leaders, and constitutional rights as if they were living, breathing human beings whose interests were no different than ours. The power differential they exploit is not "laissez faire" economics, but rather the result of State intervention in the otherwise voluntary, human-scale economy, resulting in artificially bloated organizational behemoths. We are certainly not becoming freer, and direct government manipulation, while ever present, is only dwarfed by big business's need for a rational, sanitized, intimidated customer base to dump junk on. Environmental problems go deeper than mere property rights issues and get down to the incentives and privileges afforded industry by the State. Poverty, suffering, and unfair labor practices here and around the world cannot be the result of a "free market" if what we have now is demonstrably not free. So why shouldn't we oppose them on the same grounds that we oppose other side-effects of central planning and top-down command? What are the alternatives to the institutions, practices, and concepts that have created these problems?
A left libertarian does not believe the State is the root of all evil. We simply believe that arbitrary, centralized authority has effects that absolutely permeate the market and the community, distorting beyond recognition how a free society operates. Life as we know it is intimately tied up in complex issues of hierarchy, equality, social justice, and power throughout society - but also such irreducible personal qualities like compassion, care, friendship, solidarity - things that inhuman bureaucracies like corporations and governments cannot understand. The problem of the State is the most intense apprehension of these issues, but it must be recognized in its many institutional forms. We need an approach to our problems that doesn't mechanically recite axioms and principles from a detached point of view. Individualism is not the spurning of community and democracy, and liberty can be understood in a less atomic sense than many libertarians use.
The libertarians of the 19th century - figures such as Benjamin Tucker, Gustav de Molinari, and Lysander Spooner - inevitably identified privilege as the core problem that pervaded society. Privilege is a private right that necessarily deprives others of some aspect of their freedom. They saw a nation decaying under privileges being handed out to the rich, the powerful, and the well connected. Libertarians actually preceded Marx in performing class analysis on our society. They were against the established authority and saw the State as a force distorting what would otherwise be a free and voluntary society in which individuals cooperated and competed in peace without the need for compulsion. And they were visionaries who saw privilege in its myriad forms: subsidies, lobbying, centralization, regulatory cartelization, monopoly, crony capitalism.
Left libertarians carry on in this tradition by rigorously analyzing our situation for authoritarian influences that, time after time, stem from State privilege. Business, economics, science, education, the environment, race, class, transportation, labor issues - they're all suffering not just from the seen effects of the State, to paraphrase Bastiat, but the unseen effects as well. By isolating and exposing some of the less obvious effects of privilege, perhaps we can start to imagine what problems unrestrained human creativity and intelligence can solve.