Interview with Roderick Long4 January, 2008 — qatryk
Hello, professor Long. Welcome to Poland. Is this Your first time here?
So how’s it been as of yet?
Oh, it’s been great. I’ve been walking around Poland, we went up to the castle today. Yesterday I had my session at the conference. I’ve been just walking around on the streets. It’s really beautiful.
And about the paper. It was on Spooner, right?
Yes, Lysander Spooner, on his theory of natural law and legal interpretation.
You’re known as one of the major exponents of left-libertarianism around the world. So, could You give me a brief description of what left-libertarianism is and how it relates to other tenets of libertarian thought.
Okay, well I guess it represents an integration, or I’d argue, a reintegration of libertarianism with concerns that are traditionally thought of as being concerns of the left. That includes concerns for worker empowerment, worry about plutocracy, concerns about feminism and various kinds of social equality – that kind of thing. And it goes back to – in the nineteenth century, a lot of people like Benjamin Tucker and so on – the individualist anarchists were very much a part of things like the feminist movement, the labour movement, the anti-racist movement – but approached these from a pure free market position and not advocating any kind of State control as a solution – in fact they saw State control as a problem, as something that helped to reinforce these other forms of oppression or was justified by the same kind of (mistakes?) as the other forms of oppression.
So what are the dominant strands of left-libertarianism?
Well, there’ve been a lot of different things that have been called that. Some would use the term left-libertarian to mean something equivalent to socialist anarchist. Then there are other people who used the term to mean a certain group of sort of semi-Georgist thinkers who favour some kind of material equality or equality of land or something like that – and those aren’t really the strands that I’m interested in. In the 1970s a guy named Samuel Konkin created something he called the Movement of the Libertarian Left – and though what I’m talking about is broader than that, a lot of what I’m talking about comes out of that movement. He was someone who was concerned with continuing the Rothbard strategy of alliance with the Left after Rothbard had given up on it. He was also an anti-political thinker – meaning he was against electoral politics – and in favour of a passive revolution from below, that is building alternate institutions and education and so forth – (…) for things that way rather than electoral politics. And although I’m not as severely against electoral politics as he is – You know, I don’t think I’d be destroying my soul by voting, nevertheless I agree that electoral politics is not gonna be the primary strategy – if it turns out to be part of the strategy, fine – but not any more. So that’s one of the strands that goes on. And then there are the mutualists, of whom Kevin Carson is one of the best known exponents today. They’re followers of Benjamin Tucker and they argue that free markets would reduce the interest rate to nearly zero and would replace the present-day capitalist firm structure with workers’ coops and independent contractors They also think that there is no such thing as legitimate absentee ownership of land – you can only own such land as you can personally occupy – and that’s not a view that I share, but certainly I would agree with people like Kevin Carson that the existing distribution of land in society is the result of heavy government intrusion into society on behalf of various kinds of corporate interests and that in a free society things would look pretty different, even though I disagree with them on some of the details.
What would You say is the reception of left-libertarian ideas among people on the left and people in the libertarian movement?
Well, mixed as You’d expect. Both libertarians and leftists – some of them are going to be suspicious of it and regard it as an attempt to merge what they love with what they hate – it’s like, you know, pouring (…) oil all over your ice cream – but on the other hand, we’ve gotten a lot of sympathetic reception too – a lot of leftists have told me that they were always very suspicious of libertarianism until they came across the writings of people like Kevin Carson and Charles Johnson and myself. They came to see that libertarianism didn’t have to be all about looking (out for #1), benefit to the rich and so forth, a certain kind of stereotype they had. And I know some libertarians also, who have moven to the left in this respect. And I was asked to be on the board of the corporate aspect of MDS, which is connected to the old SDS, the old 1960s leftist student movement that Rothbard was allied with for a while. So they were willing to elect me to the board – because I’m not sure how many of them knew about my background; some of them did and the ones I talked to were happy with it – they want to get a broad coalition of people going against imperialism and plutocracy.
You mentioned that mutualists argue that state intervention benefits certain people at the expense of other people and that You agree with that. What do You have in mind exactly?
Well, the way things are set up in terms of– Or let’s just start with the simplest things to begin with. You have things like taxes and regulations and licencing fees and zoning regulations and various things that make it easy– the richer you are, the easier it is for you to start up a business because you can afford the lawyers to pay and the fees to jump through all these hoops and so forth. I mean, for example, there are a lot of places where a licence to operate a taxi cab costs $100′000, which the average poor person doesn’t have lying around. I mean, a taxi service would be an excellent service for someone to start out with if they don’t have a lot of money because it doesn’t require a lot of capital up front. All you need is a car and a cell phone to start off with if you want a small taxi company – things like that. So that’s an example. Then of course there are massive subsidies, ways in which taxes are redistributing resources from the less affluent to the more affluent – though corporate welfare and so forth. You have things like — one thing that Kevin Carson has pointed out is that a lot of things like transportation subsidies and funds for roads and highways help enable big corporations to externalise the costs of transportation – and a lot of the goods that they transport; and also things like eminent domain, where a company starts up and the government just sort of seizes private property and gives it to them on the grounds that having them have the property would be more economically beneficial. So these are just some of the examples of the ways in which they do this.
I happen to know that Kevin Carson also advocates workers’ coops and argues that government intervention in the market causes, sort of, centralisation of capital in a limited number of hands and causes hierarchy in firms and businesses to arise. What could we do to counterbalance this effect?
Well, in a way this goes back to an argument that Rothbard made when Rothbard pointed out an implication of Mises’ calculation argument, which is that given that — it becomes impossible to rationally allocate resources — it becomes increasingly impossible the more insulated you are from the price signals of the market. And so this is true not just for a centralised government, but also, insofar as a firm becomes bigger and more centralised – there’s some benefits obviously to the forming of a firm – the reasons to do it – but there are costs to do it, too. And people talk about economies of scale – which there are – but there are also diseconomies of scale. But as firms get larger, it’s harder and harder for them to know how to allocate their resources within the firm and make decisions about things within the firm because they’re insulated from market signals. But, various ways in which the government helps to subsidise and prop up these big corporations means they’ve been able to externalise a lot of these costs, so they’re able to reap the benefits for themselves of the economies of scale, but he costs involved with the diseconomies of scale they get to stick on to the rest of the world. And so that’s why we get these centralised, hierarchical things which are in many ways bad for the market and bad for the workers in them. So, obviously one thing we need to do is get rid of these government — ways in which government props up this system. And also, encourage workers to organise – it’s an old line, and of course a lot of the ways in which workers have organised themselves have been pushing for various kinds of government favours and so forth which ends up actually making the system worse because the labour unions and so forth just get coopted into the whole system – and so the people who run the labour unions benefit a lot more than the average people do. But, having independent unions on the one hand and scaling back the power of government on the other – that’s the way in which you can really empower workers.
Could You expand on the “independent union” thing? ‘Cause You know – libertarianism and unions – it’s not exactly a very loving relationship and many libertarians are very sceptical of unions, so what would You say to them, basically?
Okay, well for a long time, libertarians and union supporters have been at odds and have seen each other as the Enemy. The unions in the early XXth century made their peace with Big Government and government in effect decided – I know more about the history of this in the US than in other countries but I imagine at lot of this applies to other countries as well – the alliance of Big Government and Big Business in effect decided to buy off the unions rather than fighting them decided to incorporate them into the system and so, as a result, unions receive various kinds of special government privileges but also various kinds of restrictions – restrictions on when you can strike and for what reason and the government can order people back to work and various kinds of things. And so, certainly unions as we know them have not been a very pro-liberty force. In the XIXth century it was different – there was more of a cooperation – you know, there were problems then too – but there was more of a cooperation between the labour movement and libertarians and the idea is that if you think of unions simply something for collective bargaining, a way in which – just as there are reasons to form firms, so there are reasons to form unions – it’s simply a way of, you avoid transaction costs, as you do in forming a firm, you organise together and you can see unions as simply one form of many kinds of associations for mutual aid, which were common in the XIXth and early XXth centuries. For example, the way that most of the working poor got their health insurance in the early XXth century was through mutual aid societies, fraternal societies, friendly societies and they basically got either regulated out or crowded out or both by the rise of the welfare state. So various kinds of mutual aid systems are — they’re alternative — when people think about how can the poor be helped they usually think either the poor help themselves, get a job – or you help them through private charity or you help them though government charity. But there is such a thing as mutual organisation for mutual self-help, which the government has made harder and harder to do – but that really is a promising way of going about it.
Earlier You mentioned that left-libertarianism shares certain concerns with the movements on the left. That includes feminism. So again, feminism and libertariansim haven’t been exactly buddies in history, so can this marriage be saved?
(laughs) Where have I heard that line before? Yeah, that’s a reference to an article that Charles Johnson and I wrote called: Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved? In the XIXth century, libertarianism and feminism were much more closely allied. The major libertarian thinkers like Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner, Herbert Spencer, Voltairine de Cleyre and so forth were very much — they tended to see patriarchy and government as part of an interlocking system, each one helping to support the other and each one deriving from similar kind of mistaken attitudes. Nowadays, by and large, many feminists – not all – but many feminists have looked to the state and state control as a means of achieving their goals but this often turns out to be frustrating for them because the state continues to be run mostly by men and often they find that the way laws get written or applied are not exactly what they wanted but they still keep going to “Daddy State” because they don’t see any alternative – they think that — they’ve come to think of the market as something that will produce systematic discrimination and that they have to intervene. Many libertarians think that the market penalises discrimination and therefore — or at least penalises discrimination when it’s irrational because if you deliberately hire the less qualified man over the more qualified woman because you’re a sexist then your bottom line will suffer and so forth. So if the market penalises irrational discrimination, any discrimination that survives on the market must be rational and therefore if women are being discriminated against it must be for some good reason, they must really be less efficient and so forth and therefore a lot of libertarians think that there can’t really be a problem here. But I think there are two mistakes there. First, I think it is a mistake to think that there couldn’t be any discrimination on a free market, because pervasive social and cultural attitudes can — you know, they don’t automatically go away. Markets give you economic incentives – there are costs to these things – but people assume there’s no one willing to pay those costs, and if enough people pay them, systems like that can survive, so in addition — that’s not an argument for using non-market means like government to solve the problem, especially since if you’ve got pervasive discrimination, probably people in government are going to have the problem too. But it’s an argument for various kinds of organised associations – voluntary – but organised associations to fight against this sort of thing. But, second, it’s worth remembering that we don’t have a free market and everything that cuts down competition makes it easier for companies to engage in discrimination, because it socialises the costs. Also, by encouraging the large-scale growth of these corporations, making them internally less rational but preventing them from being punished by the market for that, it means that it’s harder for people to tell whether they’re making rational decisions with their employees – and so it’s harder for the costs of discrimination to actually be felt. So, the way to fight discrimination is first, to have freer markets, and second, to do sort of education and consciousness raising and organisation for women’s interests.
This sort of ties in to another point. I think it’s Charles Johnson that promoted the concept of “thick” and “thin” libertarianism. So what is thick and thin libertarianism exactly?
Okay, thick libertarianism is the idea that libertarian goals should be integrated with other sorts of goals or that libertarianism should regard itself as being part of movement for more that just negative liberty, whereas thin libertarianism is the idea that libertarianism should just be focused all on libertarian rights per se and nothing broader. But exactly what thick libertarianism means — there are different ways of talking about thick libertarianism. For example, you could say that there are — you might think there are certain cultural values such that a libertarian society is unlikely to survive unless those values are widespread. If most people in society have become acculturated to Nazi values – you could spread Nazi values though purely non-coercive means, you know, spreading your Nazi pamphlets around in a free society – but if enough people become convinced of it, it’s not going to remain a libertarian society for long. So, one way in which libertarianism is bound up with other values is that the promotion of those other values may be part of promoting the free conditions for the survival of a free society. Another example would be — there are ways in which some of the reasons for being a libertarian are also reasons for supporting these other values – so that although there is no necessary connection between the two. It would be odd, for example, to think that people matter so much that we shouldn’t be allowed to violate their rights, but they don’t matter at all beyond that so it doesn’t matter whether they’re starving in the gutter in front of you and you just step over them. Again, there’s no logical inconsistency, it’s just that the reasons for being a libertarian are also reasons for concern with wider values like independence and autonomy and mutual aid. And — well, those are two, there are more ways to pick – those are the two ones that we talked most about. So the idea is that libertarianism — reasons for being a libertarian are also reasons for supporting these other values and that libertarianism would work better if you had people broadly committed to things like mutual aid and so on. Think of it just that way – if people don’t have values of mutual aid then there’s gonna be a lot of suffering in a free society and people are going to say: oh, it’s a problem with libertarianism and then we’d all go back to statism. I mean, it’s a simplified answer, but an example.
Who’d You point out as a thin libertarian, because as I see this, there’s mostly thick libertarians around, I mean left-libertarians are thick libertarians, Rothbard was thickish, Ayn Rand was thick as a brick and don’t even get me started on Hoppe. So, who’s thin?
Well, Walter Block may be the paradigm case of a thin libertarian. Not that he doesn’t have other values but he’s always insisting that as long as it meets the criterion of libertarian rights then, from a libertarian standpoint, nothing else about it matters. In fact, he has an article that will be forthcoming in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, but I think there’s a version of it on the mises website already, where he criticises both me and Hoppe for running off in our various directions – mine leftward and Hoppe’s rightward. It’s on the grounds that this will weaken the libertarian movement because we’ll start fighting each other – you know, like libertarians aren’t fighting each other already – we’ll start fighting each other instead of fighting the Romans, as it were. But just in terms of that strategic worry, it doesn’t seem to be the case – I don’t just work with left-libertarians, I work with libertarians of many different flavours. Soon they’re all attacking each other but I’ve managed to get along with most of them most of the time. I guess thin and thick are a matter of degree, not everyone is as purely, ideally thin as Walter – I’m sure he’ll appreciate that compliment.
So, what about, for instance, neolibertarians. Randy Barnett recently came out of the closet with his pro-war views. Are they a valid strain of libertarianism?
Well, it depends on what you mean by a valid strain of libertarianism. In one sense, the only valid strain of libertarianism is whatever agrees entirely with me – you know, there is only one true libertarian and I am he. But if you mean – am I going to purge Randy Barnett out of the movement, well A: I don’t have the power and B: no – Randy has done a lot of good stuff. If you look on his website you have great articles about anarchy and about legal theory and so on. I think that he’s deeply, totally wrong about the war. People sometimes say: well look, either you have to regard this as a minor deviation, something that’s not too important or else you have to say that it’s really major and therefore he doesn’t count as a libertarian any more. But I don’t think these are the only two options. I think someone can have a really, really major deviation and still count as libertarian – an inconsistent libertarian. But people like Randy Barnett have contributed so much to the libertarian movement that I’m not going to rule them out and say they’re not libertarians – it’s just they’ve gone sadly astray on the war issue. Well, you know, Benjamin Tucker supported World War I, supported the Allies. Everyone’s allowed one deviation, Rothbard used to say. (laughs)
Did Rothbard have a deviation?
Oh, he had many. (laughs) Walter would say – I don’t know if Walter would say this but I can imagine Walter saying that Rothbard’s one deviation was saying that you’re allowed one deviation. (laughs)
Okay, so – the vanilla question. Ron Paul. Chance or no chance? Vote? Don’t vote? What do You think?
I don’t think his chances are very good. I think that – you know, it’s interesting to see how much he’s managed to stand out from the pack. He’s done better than I expected. But in the end, I don’t think that the Republicans are gong to go for him. He might end up with higher percentage points than anyone expected, but I would be shocked and awed if we won the nomination. In terms of: should you vote for him? For people, who are US citizens – well, that’s up to you. I’m pleased to see him doing well, I’m not really a supporter of him in the sense that I disagree with him on a number of issues that I regard as pretty important – immigration, abortion, equality for gays, that kind of thing. But I’m pleased to see him doing well. As for whether I’d vote for him – given how little a vote matters, I’m not sure it matters. I doubt I’ll have an opportunity to vote for him. I’m not going to switch my registration to Republican and vote for him in the primary – it’s just too icky. And he’s not gonna win the nomination so the issue of whether to vote for him in the presidential election is not probably going to come up. But I wish him well. I have various problems with him but I certainly wish him well. So, there’s my icky, wishy-washy vanilla answer.
You mentioned abortion. I take it, You are pro-choice, right? So, are You pro-choice on the grounds that Murray Rothbard was pro-choice or something else?
Yeah, it’s sort of broadly Rothbardian. I mean, there are two questions: one is when does the foetus become a person and the other is does its being a person mean that it’s wrong to abort it. So I would say: first of all, although I can’t pinpoint the precise point I would say that it needs to have some kind of minimal mental capacities to be a person. So I would say it’s not a person at conception. I think it is a person before birth – but I’m not prepared to say when – given the rest of my view, it doesn’t matter that much, because I do think that the right to life does not include the right to live in someone else’s body and so the mother has the right to eject it by any means necessary, if she decides she doesn’t want it there. So, I guess it’s broadly along Rothbard’s lines.
What’s the best strategy for achieving libertarianism? You mentioned that You don’t like electoral politics and You probably agree with the, sort of, Koninite-agorist/agorist –
I say agorist ’cause when you say Anarchy! Agora! Action! the accent is the same place each time.
So You agree with the agorist position?
Yes, broadly, as I said before, I’m not dead set against electoral politics. I don’t think electoral politics inherently sanctions the State, although that moral concern is something more than the volutaryists said and that the agorists said – the agorists have more of a strategic worry, which is they think that we should be trying to win people away from the State and encourage withdrawal from participation in it and therefore it’s counterproductive to engage in electoral politics. I mean I’m broadly in agreement with that but I think that You have to use marginal value analysis here as anywhere else and decide whether there may be some cases — especially with referenda, perhaps less with voting for people, but with referenda there are occasions where you may be able to prevent something awful from happening by voting against it. And I also think that, come the Revolution, it will be nice to have some of our people on the inside to make the State not react too violently as it starts to wither away, and so it would be good to have some people in there. But on the whole, I think that the way to view this is not to — you know, it’s not primarily about seizing political power, it’s primarily about creating alternative institutions and educating people such that at some point people just ignore the State. Because the wonderful thing with the State is, unlike other evils in the world, like tornadoes and hurricanes and so forth, if you ignore the State, it will go away. Now if just one person ignores it it won’t go away, but if enough of us ignore it, it will go away – ’cause it’s just a bunch of guys giving orders. It’s only if people start obeying those orders that they really are a State. Otherwise they’re just a bunch of guys in suits. So what we really need to do is to create the kind of culture and alternative institutions and so forth that people just no longer take the State seriously, just like — there used to be a guy in XIXth century America who called himself Emperor Norton – Charles Johnson likes to use his example – he went around and called himself the Emperor of America and wore fancy robes and people either played along or not as they liked. I would have no trouble with a government that were like that – you could go and it’d be like going to Disneyland and they could call themselves President or Prime Minister or whatever they were and you could play along or you could say ‘oh, this is boring’ and you could leave.
What is Your opinion on cooperating with more pro-freedom conservative types, right-wingers, Birchers, people like that?
I’m pretty open to who I’ll cooperate with. I think that different libertarians with different talents and inclinations probably will do better at cooperating with some people than with others. I probably would get into arguments too often with Birchers and so forth for me to be the ideal person to cooperate with them, but I’m certainly not against cooperating with them, I think that as you cooperate with them you actually try to seduce them towards your position as well and so I I’m pretty open to cooperation but I’m specialising more in the particular alliances I’m interested in building because those are the ones where I have the best feel of how to communicate with the people and what the shared issues are and (…)
Lew Rockwell has this theory that left-libertarianism is gaining popularity right now, but only because it’s right-wingers and Bushites and people like that who are in power and when the roles switch and when the Democrats will get in it will be back to the old days of paleolibertarianism and more right-wing oriented libertarianism. What do You think about that?
Well, I think it’s certainly true for some libertarians. Some libertarians have moved left because Bush has been a great recruiter for left-libertarianism. But, I certainly don’t think it can be true of everyone. I certainly know a lot of people, including myself, who were left-libertarians under Clinton – not that we didn’t hate Clinton too, we were good libertarians and hated Clinton, there was plenty to dislike – but, the Summer Soldier and the Sunshine Patriot will leave us once the Democrats get in power – which I think they’re pretty likely to do – but there’s a core of left-libertarians for whom neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will ever be palatable again.
Okay, so let’s shift emphasis from the right to the left. Have You in the past cooperated with any person on the left? Some kind of Noam Chomsky person or something like that?
Well, as I’ve said I’m part of this outfit — right now it’scalled Foundation for a Democratic Society, before that it was called Movement for a Democratic Society Incorporated. It’s a long, ugly story about various name changes and too crazy to get into it. One thing that libertarians and leftists have in common is that we’re just crazy in terms of our infighting. But anyway, so I was involved with that, I was at the meeting in New York City in January or February and I’m on the listserv so I’ve been involved with that. Back in the 90s I was involved with some leftis in anti-war activities in North Carolina at that time.
What do You think libertarians could learn from leftists, and vice-versa?
Well, libertarians can learn from leftists about – well I think that when libertarians and leftists sort of split up in the XIXth century, libertarians began specialising in understanding the benefits of market-oriented, for-profit solutions, while leftists specialised in understanding the benefits of non-profit, cooperative ways of associating. And likewise, libertarians specialised in understanding the evils of State-based forms of oppression, and leftists specialised in understanding the evils of non-State-based, private forms of oppression. So I think what each has to learn from the other is – the leftists have to learn from libertarians good things about the market that the Left doesn’t understand and bad things about the State that the Left doesn’t understand. What libertarians need to understand is bad things about forms of private power, that libertarians tend to think ‘well, if it’s not directly supported by the State then it doesn’t matter from a libertarian point of view’ and also, some of the benefits of forms of voluntary association that aren’t for-profit. So i think those are probably the two main things each side can learn from the other.
What are Your thoughts on the future of left-libertarianism in general and about the cooperation between leftists and libertarians?
Oh, well, I’m optimistic about it. Of course, if you’re a political radical of any kind you have to be optimistic because the alternative is complete despair, but I am optimistic about it, I see more interest growing for the coalition and various people on each side that always looked with suspicion on the other begin to come together. The Internet is a wonderful way in which people can find each other and find out about these perspectives and ideas. So, yeah, I’m pretty hopeful.
So what are You up to? Any new projects? Hideous Dark Secrets Hiding Under the Ground or something?
I can’t tell You my hideous dark secrets, but there’s a book that Tibor Machan and I have edited together, which is an anthology about anarchy and minarchy. He got together a team of minarchists and I got together a team of anarchists and we have each side arguing its position and it’ll be coming out from Ashgate in February, so on my side I have Charles Johnson, John Hasnas, Aeon Skoble and John Narveson. Then I’ve got my book on Wittgenstein and Austrian Economics that is supposed to be coming out from Routledge some day – I look forward to whenever that’s going to appear. I’ve got — what else have I got coming up — I’ve got some articles forthcoming in the Cato Institute’s Encyclopedia of Libertarianism – something on the Stoics and the Epicureans, something on the history of liberty in the Ancient World, something on John Brown and something on Ralph Waldo Emerson – I think those are the things I’m doing. That project has been waiting for many, many years – looks like they might finally be going ahead with it and the thing finally will be coming out.
What are those two books going to be called?
My book on Austrian methodology is called “Wittgenstein, Austrian Economics and the Logic of Action” and the anarchy/minarchy book is called — it’s an odd title, we didn’t pick the title, the publisher did, it’s something like — “Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?” As I said, we didn’y pick that subtitle. And the Cato Encyclopedia of Libertarianism is just the Cato Encyclopedia of Libertarianism.
OK, so that basically it. Thanks!
Well, OK, thanks very much.
Interview by: Jędrzej Kuskowski