Ilya Somin misses the point:
In a recent widely-cited Washington Post column, conservative commentator Michael Gerson claims that libertarians promote “a freedom indistinguishable from selfishness.” The accusation that libertarians are really advocates of selfishness is a very common one. Googling “libertarianism + selfishness” yields 1.9 million hits, the majority of which are attacks on libertarianism similar to Gerson’s.
So does Gerson, and part of the reason is that at least some libertarians embrace “selfishness” as a self-characterization. Leftoids, and collectivists in general, reduce the definition of “selfish” to “wanting to keep stuff”. It is a fundamental of libertarianism that people who have stuff should be allowed to keep it, and that society should help them do so. If simply wanting to keep stuff is “selfish”, libertarians are defiantly fine with that. It comes from the same impulse that gave us “Yankee Doodle” as an American anthem.
Generous people see the unfortunate and help them from their own resources. Collectivists (in which term I include “compassionate conservatives” as well as left-Liberals, Socialists, et. al.) want somebody else to help, so that they can guard their own stuff with miserly avidity. I’ve lost the link, which came via Norm Geras, but there is at least one prominent British Leftist who advocates frank acknowledgement of that motive. Leftoids and collectivists accuse others of “selfishness” as a way of deflecting the fact that they, themselves, are profoundly and destructively selfish and covetous.
Across most human societies, people who take stuff away from others are considered Bad (“robbers”, “thieves”, etc.). This is an obstacle to collectivists, who want to take stuff away from others (in order to Do Good, or so they loudly proclaim). Fortunately there’s a loophole. It is a Good Thing to punish Bad People, and taking stuff away from them is a suitable punishment.The conclusion is obvious: define the people who have the stuff you want as Bad People. Taking stuff away from Bad People, to punish them for being Bad, is then virtuous — and, as a bonus, you get the stuff. Only a cynic would suggest that getting the stuff was the point in the first place.
Productive people inevitably have more stuff than the non-productive. It follows from the Sutton Rule that those who want stuff must take it from the productive. Since they must define the people who have the stuff they want as Bad People, collectivists must inevitably define the productive as Bad. Nobody wants to be included in the Bad People list, so they avoid being Bad (producers) and try to be Good (consumers). The society sinks into poverty, because nobody wants to be Bad.
This is especially pernicious in an industrial society. An industrial society requires concentrating stuff into big piles (the “means of production”, or capital). The custodians of the big piles clearly have a lot of stuff, which is an irresistible magnet to the collectivist. Having a lot of stuff must therefore be defined as Bad (“rich”), so that the collectivists can help themselves to the stuff. When they do, the big piles go away — but all the stuff in an industrial society comes from production. If there are no big piles there are no means of production, therefore no production, therefore no stuff. The society sinks into poverty, with the collectivists shrieking all the way down that people who don’t give them stuff are Bad. Poverty is increasing! We have to have more stuff to correct that! Take it from the Bad People!
Western societies are more productive than most (all?) others, and a good chunk of the reason for that is one of Christ’s fundamental teachings. Christianity says that it is not virtuous to punish Bad People; that’s God’s job, and He doesn’t need any help. (It may be necessary to make the society work properly, but it isn’t virtuous.) A Christian has no justification for taking stuff away from Bad People to punish them, and that takes away the prime excuse for taking stuff. That teaching, however tenuously accepted, allowed Western society to accumulate big piles of stuff and use it to produce more stuff — wealth. Abandoning the principle allows collectivists to claim virtue because they take stuff from Bad People, which destroys the wealth-producing mechanisms the principle allowed.
Libertarians, who are often (though not universally) atheists, are attempting to define the Christian principle as a secular one. Taking stuff away from people is always a Bad Thing; it may be necessary, but it’s still Bad, and should therefore be avoided when possible. Collectivists resist that attempt, wanting to Do Good with others’ stuff while jealously guarding their own, and demanding that they be recognized as Good for taking stuff away from Bad People. Criticizing libertarians for “selfishness” is accusing them of not coughing up when the leftoids (liberals, “compassionate conservatives”, et. al.) demand their stuff so they can selfishly conserve their own while Doing Good, and be defined as Good People for that. It is deeply and profoundly selfish, and the criticism is intended to deflect that judgement.