Baiting-and-Switching the Left

Many left-libertarians have wanted to redefine “capitalism” negatively for a while: basically to mean “corporatism.”  Now self-styled bleeding heart libertarians want to redefine “social justice” positively: basically to mean “concern for the poor.”

Both seem like rhetorical ploys of the same feather: an attempt to sound appealing to non-libertarians who also happen to frown on “capitalism” and smile  on “social justice”.  Both sets of non-libertarians happen to broadly line up with “the left”.

It is as if to say, “You on the left hate capitalism? So do we libertarians!  You on the left love social justice? So do we libertarians! Therefore, you should consider being a libertarian!”

The problem is, most non-libertarians who say they are against capitalism really mean they are against the free market, and not against only corporatism.  And most non-libertarians who say they are for social justice really mean they are for redistributionism, and not for narrowly “the well-being of the poor.”

So any “camaraderie” that can be effected by such bait-and-switch ploys can only ever be ephemeral “agreements” based solely on terminological confusion.  You may get some head-nods at certain cocktail parties when you say you are against “capitalism” and for “social justice”.  But once it is clear that you have very unconventional meanings for those terms, it will be clear that there is no true agreement at all.

Let us libertarians focus on actual arguments, and leave the word tricks to those with weaker positions.


  1. There is no need to redefine anything. Simply say ‘concern for the poor’ when you mean “concern for the poor”. It cannot be misunderstood, while, by the “left-libertarians” own reasoning, ‘social justice’ can be misunderstood.

    Moreover, ‘capitalism’ and ‘social justice’ are etymologically sound words, with meaning exactly the same as their “normal meaning”. Everyone agrees that capitalism involves concentration of capital, which leftists loath and non-leftists think is necessary and beneficial. Similarly, if ‘justice’ is “giving to each what is due” (by some fixed standard), ‘social justice’ would involve perception, and attempts of removal, of some systematic and large-scale injustice. This is what the term ‘social justice’ means, with leftists perceiving such a thing — labelling every inequality an injustice, and the attempt to remove it ‘social justice’.

    • You make no arguments in that regard. All you do is claim that since there are three or four different ways that people use the word capitalism, we should just give up the definition that we have, concede the argument, and surrender the parameters of debate to the left.
      Such intellectual ‘rigor’ impresses me not at all.

      By the same token, since evolution means things like ‘god-denial’ and ‘lies’ and ‘giant conspiracy by the liberal elite to destroy christianity’, we should refer to evolution as either creationism or anti-evolution or ‘stuff-changes-over-time’ism since that term is thus more closely related what we mean when we use the word evolution.

      I’d argue with you over this, but I’ve decided that every word you utter means something that I don’t care to clearly define.

  2. Congratulations on an excellent post Mr Sanchez! You said pretty much everything that had be said in order to show what’s really behind this business of terminologically revolutionizing libertarianism.

  3. Stop the infighting.

    You may not agree with their methods, but what does this critique do to advance anything?

    Let the “left” libertarians try to recruit how they think it might work, and you recruit how you think it might work. But arm-chair quarterbacking how other people are doing their outreach isn’t advancing anyone’s goals.

    • Exactly. Most liberals support big government policies because they think it is the only way to solve society’s problems. Much of the libertarian movement comes off as very callous in regard to the issues of poverty, the environment, etc., and this prevents people who harbor mildly anti-statist views from reconsidering their faith in the government.

      I can understand critiquing specific ideas of the left libertarians (like their idea to somehow get rid of inheritance), but if the movement gets formerly statist individuals to start thinking in terms of free-market solutions, it is overwhelmingly a good thng.

  4. It seems to me a hazardous business, trying to figure out what leftists mean when they use (what are to them) hooray words and boo words.

    I just don’t think there is any way to tell which leftists care about outcomes for the poor, which ones care about soaking the rich on principle, and which ones just care about being part of the consensus and saying things that sound morally safe and sophisticated.

    If I had to guess, I’d say the latter category is by far the largest.

  5. “Anarcho-capitalism” is at least as revisionist as the “left-libertarian” take on “capitalism”. Common economic statistics like national “capital accounts” include government securities and shares of Lockheed-Martin and international software patents, and in many cases, trade in government securities is highly significant, moving China from capital account surplus to a deficit for example.

    In reality, “capital” in common parlance is hardly consistent with (my) libertarian usage, but I often find nominal “libertarians” defending the idea that U.S. Treasury securities (entitlement to U.S. tax revenue) are proper “capital” as well as “property”. In this “libertarian” way of thinking, anything for which I trade my Federal Reserve Note is “property” as long as my trading partner trades voluntarily, never mind that he sells me someone else’s obligation to pay taxes.

    Do I hate capitalism? Define “capital”.

    Many non-libertarians who say they are against “free markets” and “profit” really mean that they are against corporatism and state capitalism. Let’s explain ourselves to these people and make common cause with them rather than picking silly, divisive, rhetorical fights with them.

    What is property? Property is theft. Property is also freedom. These statements seem inconsistent only until you realize that one man’s “property” is another man’s “theft”, because words mean different things to different people.

    • So in order to remain “pure” we libertarians who wish participate in voluntary transactions must do so without the use of Federal Reserve Notes or US securities? Conversations like the above are bordering on the ridiculous. It would seem to me the most relevant issue at hand is the term co-opt. Read Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, or Rothbard, there is a clear understanding “Capital”, both what it is and what it is not. The larger issue, the one that deserves the most attention from us Austrian/Libertarians is this idea of co-opting concepts that are commonly understood as being associated with certain ideologies or movements. This is intellectually bankrupt and beneath us. I don’t want to subvert or mislead anyone. Furthermore, as we should have learned from Mises, Economics makes no moral judgement about someones ends, only analysis of whether their means will effectively achieve their ends. The moral judgements enter the picture long after we have conducted our economic analysis of the given means. So from this perspective, the use of Federal Reserve Notes, US Treasuries, and other repugnant “money” substitutes are a viable means of achieving certain ends in our current economy. The same analysis can be applied to this idea of co-opting things like social justices or anti-capitalism. If we are to apply the “Austrian” view to this method of converting those on the left or from those that aren’t “libertarian”, I think we would find that this would not be effective and in long run cause net harm. If one is predisposed to view the world through the prism of left, and we in essence “lie” to them or commit intellectual fraud by espousing views that they on the left commonly understand, we are committing the vary actions that at some level we all directly oppose. The Libertarian movement, in my opinion, has the moral high ground. Freedom, this is what we should espouse, at every level, and in all things, Freedom. This is how we should combat those that think we need to be more like the left. Where the agree with Freedom, we can build focused and very reliable allies. Where they stray from Freedom, they will be unstable and unreliable so we should not concern ourselves with their alliances. In this way we can stay true to both our Economic principles as well as our philosophical ones.

      • I’m not the one demanding ideological purity here.

        Rothbard has a clear understanding of his use of “capital”, but his usage is not remotely common, and words mean what people commonly mean by them. His usage of “anarchy” is similarly idiosyncratic. I’m not saying it’s “wrong”. I’m only saying it’s not common. Anarcho-capitalism is a small denomination even with the Libertarian fold.

        The original “anarchists”, and also the original “libertarians”, in the United States were self-described “mutualists” (Proudhonists) like Benjamin Tucker, not Rothbardians. Rothbard himself was well aware of this fact and accepted Tucker as an ideological forebear. Though Tucker wasn’t an anarcho-capitalist, exactly, and he didn’t identify with “capitalism”, he wasn’t a state socialists either. Historical ideologies are far more varied than the “left/right” dichotomy discussed above.

        I identify with the “Austrian” view myself, but I have no interest in converting those on the “left” to the “right”. I couldn’t care less which of these labels you prefer. I prefer neither. I’m more interested in your faith in centralized, statutory authority. If you have little of this faith, we have plenty of common ground.

        I don’t see the Bleeding Heart Libertarians straying further from idealized Freedom than this blog, but Freedom is not a single ideal. It is a category of ideals with an historical tradition. I didn’t fall far from the anarchist tree myself, but classical liberalism is not anarcho-capitalism as a matter of historical fact. Anarcho-capitalism is one school of thought within the larger tradition.

        • The term “pure” or I suppose you could substitute “true” is may have been a poor choice and obscured the general nature of my post. I am also not as concerned with labels as such, only in that they can help define certain principles, that if you are frequenting this blog, most will understand. If we hold to pretty standard libertarian fare, Freedom, as well as capital are not in doubt as to their meaning. What I feel is a serious error in judgement with respect to the tenor of the BHL, is this idea that “we” mostly like minded Libertarians agree with some other definition of the words. It is a dangerous road to go down, politically speaking, to swim with the sharks, when you in fact are not a shark, but are disguised as a shark. To this end is where I see the BHL crowd going. Obfuscation of our principles is not, to my way of thinking, helpful.

  6. “The problem is, most non-libertarians who say they are against capitalism really mean they are against the free market, and not against only corporatism.”

    Well, the problem is also most libertarians and right wingers who are for capitalism really mean they are for coorporatismo and not for free markets.

  7. Many left-libertarians have wanted to redefine “capitalism” negatively for a while: basically to mean “corporatism.”

    Not really.

    a) It’s not a redefinition; it’s pointing to the complexities of actual usage.

    b) The main left-libertarian usage has not been to use “capitalism” for corporatism, but to use “capitalism” for a condition that we think is caused by corporatism.

    I just blogged about this.

    • Roderick,
      Whether “capitalism-as-corporatism” is the “chief preference” or a subordinate preference is beside the point.

      Telling the non-libertarian left you are against “capitalism” when you mean you are against “a social condition caused by corporatism” is just as much a bait-and-switch as if you meant you are against corporatism.

      • Given that a) what most leftists are referring to by “capitalism” is those very conditions we’re talking about, and b) given that we talk about “free-market anti-capitalism,” it’s hard to see how there could be a “bait and switch” involved.

        • b) does mitigate the situation to an extent, but not entirely, because even the complete “FMAC” package gives a distinctly non-propertarian vibe. “Freedom” and “markets” have both been advocated by anti-private-property types (libertarian socialists and market socialists). Whereas the classical meaning of capitalism is unmistakable: “private ownership of the means of production.”

          As for a), I just don’t buy it. Whenever I read or hear non-libertarian critiques of “capitalism,” it is always a critique of a SYSTEM (price-rationing, profit-seeking, marketing, driving competitors out of business, etc) not of CONDITIONS. The left really do hate the untrammeled disposal of private property, and the social system of production it engenders.

  8. This is not a bait-and-switch, per se. It’s an attempt to destroy libertarianism from within.

    First, they redefine capitalism. Then, they redefine social justice. This is in order to redefine libertarianism.

    Know them by their tactics. The tactic is “deconstructionism” (part of “critical theory” used by “progressives”). The deconstructionist uses rhetoric to deconstruct a term or concept, by asking “What do we really mean by this?” What do we mean by libertarianism? What do we mean by freedom? What do we mean by liberty? What do we mean by free markets? What do we mean by individual? etc, etc. etc.

    The goal is to use rhetoric to empty a concept of its meaning. Then, the deconstructionist pours a new meaning into the concept. So, empty libertarianism of its meaning. Then, give it a new meaning. (The deconstructionist never deconstructs the new concept. If he did, it would not withstand scrutiny. Deconstructionism and critical theory lead nowhere.)

    Libertarians need to recognize this threat. The answer is simply to restate the core values – individual and economic freedom.

    • First, they redefine capitalism.

      We’re not the ones redefining it. We’re recognising the actual usage.

      The answer is simply to restate the core values – individual and economic freedom

      Which is just what we’ve been doing.

      • If you’re recognizing the actual prevailing usage, why do you always have to explain why “free market anti-capitalism” isn’t necessarily an oxymoron?

        And you haven’t been simply restating the core values. You’ve followed J.S. Mill in *expanding* the core value of individual freedom to include freedom from “unreasonable social pressure.” And some of you have *narrowed* the core value of economic freedom so as to exclude extensive absentee ownership.

  9. Sanchez is right: left-libertarians are attempting to play word games in order to assuage the sensibilities of liberals; however, the sensibilities of liberals are directly tied to the feelings that they have around means. It would seem a weird thing to say that someone didn’t like something merely because of the syllables employed in its enunciation.

    • left-libertarians are attempting to play word games in order to assuage the sensibilities of liberals

      I, for one, am not mainly concerned about the “sensibilities of liberals”; as a left-libertarian, I’m concerned about purging libertarianism of its un-libertarian accretions.

  10. “Capitalism” as a word, I believe was coined by Marx, so it has always been pejorative and maybe even meant what we would today call corporatism. But I agree that it is not very well defined what it is that it means when we say “capitalism” at a cocktail party.

          • That piece reads just as syndicalist as the piece I cited above does. Land rent stems from slavery, and the capitalist picks up where the landlord left off, in oppressing the laborer. Following the natural tendency of the Ricardian framework, profit is depicted as an unjust deduction from wages.

            “But what he then received, and now receives, under the name of profit, is a portion of the wealth annually created by labour. In fact, the capitalist has obtained the whole of the landlord’s power, and his right to have profit is a right to receive a portion of the produce of the landlord’s slaves.”

  11. I agree with you when it concerns left-libertarianism, but not when it concerns social justice. Most people support redistributionism — and other policies they think will help the poor (or, maybe more accurately: policies which aim to avoid having the rich gain at the expense of the poor) —, because they think it’s the only effective option in the limited amount of cases where it’s needed (since most people will admit that capitalism, in most cases, does help the poor [by providing cheaper goods]). So, if you say that libertarians are interested in social justice, they are now open to listening as to how libertarians propose to serve the interests of the poor. So, it’s not so much complete hostility to capitalism, as it is a belief that in specific circumstances capitalism alone doesn’t cut it.

    • But, to most people, “social justice” is much more closely identified with the means (redistribution) than with the ends (the interests of the poor).

      When college students clamor for social justice, they are not calling directly for human prosperity by whatever means. They are calling specifically for redistribution.

        • The issue is not whether redistributionism is a means or an ultimate end. The issue is whether they specifically mean redistributionism when they call for “social justice”. And they do.

    • Jonathan,

      Redistribution is not a concept that is limited to rich and poor. Using treasury funds to support Green Energy is a redistribution, but has little to do with altruism and the poor.

      The concept is re-distribution. It is aimed at those who are perceived to have too much, and use their position of power to deprive others of getting some of what has be “unfairly” distributed to the so-called 1%. Therefore it must be redistributed by taking it from some and giving it to others. The coercive power of the government is the best way to get at it, and thus is simply rent-seeking.

      The object of redistribution, in any specific context, is advocated by those who want their favored category to receive more, and argue that it should be taken from some disfavored category. Few feel “sorry” for the rich, and that category has something to “give”.

      The 16th Amendment was passed on the strength of the “soak the rich” sentiment stirred up by the Morgan’s, Rockefeller’s, et al. Nothing much has changed.

      As for Libertarian politica influence, that category of political philosophy is still a minor factor, evidenced by Ron Paul’s showing in the primary. At best, it has earned some small bargaining position, which will remain inert if Paul refuses to deal with Romney.

      Such are the realities of life.

      • Wildberry,

        But redistributionism is not supported for the sake of redistributionism. For instance, the average person probably did not support the redistribution of wealth to bankers, unless they genuinely believed that it helped them out by stabilizing the banking sector. Likewise, redistribution to green technology is supported on the (alleged) basis that it will prevent an environmental disaster.

        We can also separate different categories of redistributionism. The bailout was not a redistribution that falls within the category of social justice, and nobody confuses this fact. If anything, it is the exact opposite, since recently there has been such a large push-back against the bailouts.

        By the way, the first sentence in your second paragraph undermines your entire first paragraph. But, I agree with your first paragraph — it’s just that it had nothing to do with what I wrote!

        • Jonathan,

          As you may recall, the bailout was justified on the basis that if the economy was allowed to fail through government inaction, then everyone was going to suffer. Credit is now being taken by Obama, Geithner and Bernanke for saving us all.

          My point is that all intervention, expecially redistributive schemes, are justified on some popularist basis, but that is not necessarily the intended (stated) purpose by those who have most to gain. The current backlash is only because it didn’t really help “us” but it definately helped some people, and I think those people were alway the most important beneficiaries.

          The bailout was justified as social justice (preserving the economy), and is pointed to by those beneficiaries as proof that the government is looking out for “us”.

          This is a poor format to explain your last comment, but I dont’ think it does. Green energy is fundamentally justified on the basis that oil companies, et al, are benefiting too much, and should be made to pay for a good part of the burden of subsidizing non-competitive energy alternatives, so we can live “sustainably”. If oil (and coal) interests go bust, that’s good for green energy, especially if their demise funds the rise in fortunes for the “substainable” faction, whose popular supporters are subsequently exploited politically.

          Any particular program of redistribution is justified on a public policy basis, with such justification carefully designed to capture sufficient political factions to minimize rebellion, and provide sufficient political support for the policy.

          The fact that it doesn’t “work out” is blamed on others, while those that are on the inside of the deal benefit greatly.

          I remember Mises saying to the effect that an econimist’s job is not to select the ends, but to analysis whether the chose means will deliver the expected ends.

          I am saying that the intended ends are achieved by those who are in a position to benefit most from a given redistribution scheme. The rest of “us” are simply bamboozled into supporting (or at least not rebelling against) the scheme because of a popular belief that the policy is socially justified. The actual ends are achieved, they are just not the ends upon which popular political support depends.

          The bailout “saved” the economy because the major financial players are still installed in their previous position. Had the bailout not occurred, they would not be. Mission accomplished.

        • Redistribution is taking from someone to give to someone else. It is a very simple act. The rest is rhetoric.

          The best example of rhetoric is “we owe it to ourselfs.” Another very good example of rhetoric is “social justice.”

          I think Daniel is talking about the recent discussion at cato about what “we” owe to the “working poor.” It a very suspicious example of rhetoric: people are not very warm to poor people, since we all know some and we know why they are poor, but these are “working poor people.” See, they aren’t only poor, they are also working, how can you not have a warm feeling about them? Poor working people! (tears falling from my eyes).

          By the way, the bailouts where presented as a form of social justice, it came with a lot of propaganda about the bad bankers, but how bad it would hurt the world if the banks were let to fall.

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