There is a common argument used by libertarians in defense of a free society that attempts to characterize a libertarian system as one that should be preferable to all because it would be a system of panarchy, where everyone may voluntarily choose the sort of economic and governmental system in which he would like to live. The argument is most often deployed as an attempt to appease socialists and show that the two sides can peacefully disagree and coëxist. The following example is a quote from the Cato Institute’s David Boaz:
One difference between libertarianism and socialism is that a socialist society can’t tolerate groups of people practicing freedom, but a libertarian society can comfortably allow people to choose voluntary socialism. If a group of people—even a very large group—wanted to purchase land and own it in common, they would be free to do so. The libertarian legal order would require only that no one be coerced into joining or giving up his property.1
While it is true that a libertarian society would permit a group to purchase land and manage that land communally, this does not reconcile differences between libertarians and socialists. To suggest that it does is to ignore a foundational discrepancy between the two camps—their theories of property. As Boaz says, the libertarian will allow communal ownership and management of the property, but the socialist will argue that he should not have to purchase the land in the first place because monopolistic land ownership is illegitimate. For better or for worse, the socialist is forced to play by the propertarian rules of the libertarian legal system before he can even establish a commune.
If tolerance to this degree is the best that a libertarian society can offer, it does not set itself very far apart from today’s statist status quo. In 2006, “more than 1,100 such [communes], known as eco-villages and co-housing communities, have been built or are in the planning stages” in the United States.2 These communes operate within the legal constraints of the United States; there is no mass government crackdown on communal living any more than there would be in a libertarian society. The same is true of the kibbutzim in Israel where, until recently, not even clothes could be owned individually.3 In fact, the socialist may even find the status quo preferable to a libertarian society because it is possible that the State could grant the land to the commune instead of requiring they participate in the capitalist system and purchase the land.
Though it is true that it would be more permissible for something resembling socialism to exist in a libertarian society than it would be for a libertarian microsociety to exist in a socialist system, the theories of property are still incompatible and socialism in its full form could not exist within a libertarian legal framework. This does not mean that a libertarian legal system is undesirable or is not the best alternative, but that the differences between socialism and libertarianism cannot be reconciled by merely agreeing to disagree. Socialists do not find Boaz’s argument as conciliatory as libertarians like to think. Instead, the debate over property should continue, because as long as theories of property remain incompatible, one side will always be violently aggressing—by the opposite camp’s definition—against the other and the disagreement will always have the potential to lead to conflict.
1. David Boaz, “The Coming Libertarian Age” Cato Policy Report (January/February 1997).
2. Andrew Jacobs, “Extreme Makeover, Commune Edition” The New York Times (11 June 2006).
3. David Hardaker, “Israel’s kibbutz falls to market forces” Australian Broadcasting Company (7 March 2007)