Perhaps because I live in Chicago, perhaps because I work with other attorneys, in my day-to-day life I’m surrounded almost exclusively by people who identify with the mainstream, American left, centrist Democrats for whom mere mention of the word “libertarian” calls forth nightmarish imaginings of the Tea Party right. Regrettably, identifying myself as a libertarian stops any meaningful dialogue with this set before it starts; for them, libertarianism is associated with the extreme right wing of a one-dimensional American political spectrum that they have been successfully trained never to question. They often know just enough about Ayn Rand to regard libertarianism as an oversimplified and merciless case for corporate greed, for an economic status quo that finds the one percent growing ever richer while the “middle class” contracts and the poor suffer in sheer destitution. Ironically, this kind of centrist Democrat probably understands capitalism and its effects better than many libertarians, seeing economic predation for what it is and looking (however unsystematically) for something to step in and pull back on the reins. What they haven’t taken the time to understand, however, is either libertarianism as a real philosophy or the cavernous gulf that separates the economic system of the present moment from real free markets.
Because of this reflex revulsion at the mere mention of libertarianism, experience has inclined me to describing my politics as “left wing individualism.” This characterization, I have found, invites questions rather than angry diatribes, preparing the ground for a fruitful conversation as opposed to a futile debate. I borrow the phrasing “left wing individualism” from Eunice Minette Schuster, who made “A Study of Left-Wing American Individualism” the subtitle of her dissertation, Native American Anarchism. Schuster’s book follows Native American Anarchism from its nascent, prototypical forms to its blossoming as a distinct and fully realized philosophical system and movement. Her study is important insofar as it illumes a strain of political philosophy that can seem confusing and oxymoronic within the context of today’s mainstream political debates.
The individualist anarchists that Schuster discusses in the section of her book that treats anarchism in its “mature” state were both extreme individualists and socialists, architects of a project which we at the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) undertake to continue today. As advocates of unhampered freedom of competition, property rights, and the sovereignty of the individual, individualist anarchists are a part of the history of the contemporary libertarian movement. At the same time, like C4SS today, this group opposed capitalism and regarded socialism as, in the words of radical reformer Ezra Heywood, “the great anti-theft movement” of their day. Unlike today’s free market libertarians, who often demonize the poor as welfare receiving “takers,” thinkers like Benjamin Tucker, Ezra Heywood, and Josiah Warren (just to name a few) saw the rich as the true idle, freeloading class, the beneficiaries of privileges that allowed them to game the system and put a stop to real market competition.
These early libertarians saw that freedom and competition work for all the reasons that are familiar to us today: division and specialization of labor, the massive amounts of information distilled in prices, and accordingly the folly of attempting to plan the economy through the greatest monopoly of them all, the state. They argued that genuine competition in a free market is the best, surest way to ensure that labor is paid with its full product, that is, to solve what was then often called the Labor Question; this made them socialists, even if they fit uncomfortably with much of the socialist movement. Their fit with the liberal advocates of free trade and competition — the political economists — was no less uncomfortable, finding the individualist anarchists constantly compelled to school the economists in their own doctrine, to point out the errors and inconsistencies that characterized so much of what passed as defenses of free trade.
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