What is a “left libertarian”?

I often hear a contrast drawn between “left-” and “right-libertarians.” In fact, I hear it so often, that I have no idea what it could possibly refer to. The history of the word makes it particularly confusing.

The word “libertarian,” prior to, perhaps, the later 20th century, referred to (definitely) left-wing, anarchist philosophies. The point is well-known and harmless. The modern day, American usage of the term refers to a different branch of philosophies, with a common root in classical liberalism. Comparing the left-wing anarchists of old to the Libertarian Party, for instance, would draw an obvious line between left-wing and right-wing politics. There’s nothing wrong or appropriative about this name change. The word “liberal” has also suffered a large definitional change in the United States that it hasn’t in most other countries. It could be argued that most political groups have shifted around under various names, at times co-opting even their ideological opponent’s.

So, “libertarian” to the average joe nowadays means something different than the libertarian socialism espoused by Proudhon or Bakunin. However, it could still be applied; it might just be an anachronism: two very different referents.

Then, for the modern libertarian movement, there again appears a “left” and “right” division. For instance, I hear Cato or the Institute for Humane Studies regarded as left-libertarian, and the Mises Institute as right-libertarian. Bleeding Heart Libertarians is called left-libertarian. These “left” groups are, however, all clearly in favor of mostly free market capitalism. Then there’s Center for a Stateless Society, which labels itself “pro-market anarchist,” and then, when people confuse it for just, I don’t know, anarcho-capitalism, Kevin Carson says he wants to use the word market instead. Maybe capitalism is too long to spell. In any case C4SS is considered left-libertarian. Michelangelo seems to use the term to refer to, again, capitalism-inclined folks. (I also hear Students for Liberty referred to as left- and Young Americans for Liberty more right-libertarian.)

“Left-libertarians” are not all anarchists intent on abolishing the state, but some are; meanwhile, libertarian socialists would hardly call market anarchism an “anarchism” at all, since they oppose private property rights. If you ask them, they generally seem pretty pissed off about the whole name co-opting. Noam Chomsky is, anyway.

So, it looks like there’s the left libertarians, who may be using an American anachronism, but maintain their philosophical etymology just as classical liberals try to. And then there’s the left-libertarians, who would still fall in the bottom-right of the modern political compass, directly to the left of the right-libertarians. Does that sound right? What is the sense in which a libertarian qua libertarian would use the term “left-libertarian”?

It doesn’t usually seem like libertarians use the term left-libertarian to refer to anarchic socialists, but it sometimes does. Hanging out with Marxists only makes it worse. I’m looking for someone who has been around the liberty movement longer than I have to make sense of it.