An article in the Australian by a “libertarian social-democrat” sparked a debate among friends about the idea of left-libertarians. It seems to me that this badge is used in two different ways, and it’s worth drawing the distinction between “good” left-libertarians and “bad” left-libertarians.
1. Libertarians who identify with leftist culture, “left” issues and a communitarian moral philosophy. This group believes that human interaction should generally be voluntary, but they want to stress the importance of community groups instead of businesses, they care relatively more about civil liberties, gay equality and drug legalisation, and they have a communitarian vision of how people will voluntarily coordinate. I think this is clearly libertarian, and in my old age I’m starting to shift closer to this vision of society.
Because of the difference in culture and priorities, this group can sometimes appear in conflict with “right-libertarians”. I’ve seen plenty of debates between “left” and “right” cultured libertarians, where both are convinced the other is a political enemy. When I “translate” for them, it becomes clear that they mostly agree on politics. This problem is exacerbated in Australia where we don’t have a strong libertarian tradition and so many people identify with “left” and “right” and learn to see things through that framework.
2. And then there are socialists with the wrong name. This group seems to use “libertarian” because they want to be associated with liberty, but then they prefer policies that destroy liberty and involve an authority group using violence/coercion to over-ride voluntary action.
To try and defend their oxymoronic mix of coercion with liberty, this group is forced to do intellectual gymnastics. Their basic trick is to try and define voluntary non-violent behaviour (such as trade or homesteading) as involuntary, and so they are allowed to use retaliatory force to take what they want. Literally, the only way they can do this is to say “voluntary is involuntary”… which takes us to “war is peace” and “slavery is freedom” types of idiocy.
Of course, an honest statist could argue that liberty (meaning voluntary human interaction) is a bad or silly idea and that people should be controlled. Or they could argue that liberty leads to chaos, inequality and poverty and so it should be over-ridden by the coercive power of an authority group. Those are coherent arguments, and while I think they are wrong, at least we can have an honest debate.
But to argue that “voluntary non-violent actions are involuntary and violent, so I’m allowed to use violence in response” is just plain dishonest.
Libertarian ideas are not the opposite of leftist or communitarian ideas, and it makes sense for there to be a strong (and long standing) left-libertarian tradition. And the libertarian tent is large enough for a range of opinions, from moderates to objectivists to anarchists to classical liberals to minarchists and others. But the unifying feature is that libertarians generally prefer voluntary action to involuntary action, and consequently prefer a small government. That excludes socialism (meaning government control of economy/life), no matter what you call it.