There is, of course, a major difference between the two branches of Libertarianism: one is non-propertarian (i.e., they don’t believe in private property), the other is propertarian (for them private property is a fundamental human right). Interestingly, Noam Chomsky has pointed out that everywhere in the world except in the United States, being a libertarian means falling into the non-propertarian group, so that most libertarians in the US are actually not libertarian by the historical standards of the rest of the world.
Confused? Hold on, we are just getting started. It would seem natural to think of non-propertarian as leftist and of propertarians as conservatives, but it ain’t that simple. True, all non-propertarians are in fact left-leaning, including Chomsky’s favorite ideology, anarcho-syndicalism. These are people that fight for the individualization of the means of production, similar to socialists and communists, but unlike the latter, are strongly against state control (they are anarchists, after all!). Moreover, they think that natural resources are a common good to be shared, hence their stance against private ownership of things like land, water, and energy. Needless to say, I have extreme sympathy for this position, though I think it overestimates humans’ ability to live peacefully and to respect each other’s rights.
It is also true that many propertarians (which are often referred to broadly as “anarcho-capitalists” — not an oxymoron!) are conservative: they want a strong national defense (though they do often question aggressive military action against other countries), they endorse a conservative life style (though they do not seek to impose it by law), and they think that big business is the victim of state intervention. They are not as bad as actual religious fundamentalists, but I wouldn’t want to spend an evening in such company.
Then again, there are some propertarians who are in fact rather progressive in terms of their social attitudes (the above mentioned friends of mine who are libertarian tend to fall into this category). Not only they are against war, but oppose policies that foster impoverishment of large sections of the population, as well as any form of oppression, including in the workplace (some of them are even known to support trade unions!).
And what, you might say, about Objectivism? That’s the so-called “philosophy” espoused by non-philosopher (but highly successful fiction writer) Ayn Rand, who is often invoked by libertarians as their idol (especially by leftist libertarians). Interestingly, the two top selling books of all time in the United States are the Bible and Atlas Shrugged, from which simple observation an entire book could be written on American culture.
Well, it turns out that Rand herself despised libertarianism, referring to it as a threat to freedom and capitalism! (She despised many things, including everyone who disagreed with her.) Objectivists accuse libertarians of adopting a toothless form of Objectivism. That’s because objectivists loath any type of anarchism, including anarcho-capitalism, and think that state government is absolutely necessary, if in limited fashion. On the other side of the divide, Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason magazine (a libertarian publication), has gone so far as to say that he is positively embarrassed by the common association with Ayn Rand and her followers. Ouch.
And then there is the dark side of things, like the infamous episode of the “Chicago Boys,” a group of libertarian economists trained at the University of Chicago who provided active, and in fact crucial, assistance to the illegitimate government of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, thereby supporting a tyranny that ended up being responsible for the death of 3,000, the incarceration or torture of another 28,000, and the suspension of civil liberties in that country for a decade and a half. Not exactly a record of which to be proud, my libertarian friends. (Of course, some excuse this sort of thing by pointing out that Chile went through a reasonably good economic time under Pinochet, which to me only further proves how uncompassionate libertarians tend to be.)
All libertarian positions, it seems to me, have the same fundamental problem in common: they do not take human nature seriously. (Yes, I know that it is politically incorrect these days to talk about such a thing as “human nature,” but I’m thinking of the general outlines of what makes us human, not of rigid biological determinism. And at any rate, that’s another conversation.) The problem is that any anarchist position — be it propertarian or not — simply puts too much trust in humans’ ability to live a good and reasonable life without societal checks and balances. For all our cooperative instincts, we are still too darn selfish and greedy for that to work. Moreover, modern societies are made of millions, often hundreds of millions, of individuals, and on that scale a society simply cannot exist without a functional government. That, of course, is not to say that we should give the government any more power than is strictly necessary, but the libertarian’s view of “strictly necessary” seems unreasonably, well, restrictive.
Which brings me to the crucial issue of rights. Propertarians see life, liberty and property as the fundamental rights of human beings. Non-propertarians agree on life, but think that real liberty comes only when one has free access to natural resources, which in turns means that property needs to be limited. We can have a long debate about what rights we ought to respect, or have to give priority to, but for me it is inevitable to feel that the propertarian position ends up looking mean and uncaring: according to a libertarian, if I own water on my land, and you are dying of thirst, it is my right to hold on to my resource unless you can pay for it (this example was actually brought up to me by a libertarian friend of mine). Of course, many libertarians would say that they are compassionate beings, so they would give the water away under those circumstances. Besides the reasonable skepticism one can have about “compassionate -isms”, they are still missing the point: I don’t think you have the right to withdraw a vital resource from another human being, even if in practice you are willing to gift it to them.
At any rate, given the complex structure and deep contradictions of the libertarian universe, at the very least, libertarians should all do us the following favors: first, don’t label yourself a libertarian, unless you are willing to tell us, at a minimum, whether you are a propertarian or non-propertarian; second, if you are a propertarian, ask yourself why so many people think your ideology is uncharitable, and see whether you shouldn’t reconsider it, at least a little. Lastly, please do not invoke Ayn Rand, she wouldn’t like it one bit.