In Praise of “Thick” Libertarianism

by Sheldon Richman
In Praise of “Thick” Libertarianism

I continue to have trouble believing that the libertarian philosophy is concerned only with the proper and improper uses of force. According to this view, the philosophy sets out a prohibition on the initiation of force and otherwise has nothing to say about anything else. (Fraud is conceived as an indirect form of force because, say, a deceptive seller obtains money from a buyer on terms other than those to which the buyer agreed.)

How can libertarianism be concerned with nothing but force? This view has been dubbed “thin libertarianism” by Charles W. Johnson, and it strikes me as very thin indeed. (Jeffrey Tucker calls it “libertarian brutalism”; his article explains this perhaps startling term.)

As I see it, the libertarian view is necessarily associated with certain underlying values, and this association seems entirely natural. I can kick a rock, but not a person. What is it about persons that makes it improper for me to kick them (unless it’s in self-defense)? Frankly, I don’t see how to answer that question without reference to some fundamental ideas. Different libertarians will have different answers, but each will appeal to some underlying value.

Let’s get specific. Are there distinctly libertarian grounds for disapproving of racist conduct that does not involve the use of force? Some libertarians say no. They might hasten to add that while libertarians, as human beings, ought to disapprove of racism, they cannot do so aslibertarians, because their political philosophy only speaks to the proper and improper uses of force.

On the other hand, libertarians often quote Ayn Rand on the issue, even if they wouldn’t quote her on much else:

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage — the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.

The freedom philosophy is intimately related to ethical, political, and methodologicalindividualism. Therefore, the philosophy should be expected to detest any kind of collectivism— and particularly its “lowest, most crudely primitive form” — even in its nonviolent manifestations.

To put it more concretely, if a libertarian observed a growing propensity to embrace (nonviolent) racism, that person, qua libertarian, ought to be concerned. Why? Because that attitude and resulting conduct can be expected to eat away at the values conducive to libertarianism. It’s the same sort of reason that a libertarian would be concerned by, say, a growing acceptance of Keynesian ideas, even though merely holding and advocating those ideas does not require the use of force.

It is true that carrying out Keynesian ideas requires the use of force (taxation, monopoly central banking, and state “socialization of investment”), while one can imagine a racist society in which no force is used. But although a society of racist pacifists is not a logical impossibility, it strikes me as highly unlikely. In its denial of dignity to individuals merely by virtue of their membership in a racial group , there is a potential for violence implicit in racism that is too strong for libertarians to ignore. As I’ve written elsewhere,

A libertarian who holds his or her philosophy out of a conviction that all men and women are (or should be) equal in authority and thus none may subordinate another against his or her will (the most common justification) — that libertarian would naturally object to even nonviolent forms of subordination. Racism is just such a form (though not the only one), since existentially it entails at least an obligatory humiliating deference by members of one racial group to members of the dominant racial group. (The obligatory deference need not always be enforced by physical coercion.)

Seeing fellow human beings locked into a servile role — even if that role is not explicitly maintained by force — properly, reflexively summons in libertarians an urge to object. (I’m reminded of what H. L. Mencken said when asked what he thought of slavery: “I don’t like slavery because I don’t like slaves.”)

But it doesn’t end there. I can think of another reason for libertarians to be concerned about racism, namely,

it all too easily metamorphoses from subtle intimidation into outright violence. Even in a culture where racial “places” have long been established by custom and require no coercive enforcement, members of a rising generation will sooner or later defiantly reject their assigned place and demand equality of authority. What happens then? It takes little imagination to envision members of the dominant race — even if they have professed a “thin” libertarianism to that point — turning to physical force to protect their “way of life.”

So I’m puzzled by the pushback whenever someone explicitly associates the libertarian philosophy with values like tolerance and inclusion. We don’t care only about force and its improper uses. We care about individual persons. So we properly have concerns about any preferences that tend to erode the principle that initiating force is wrong.

As one who embraces the principle of charity, I believe the pushback is motivated by an understandable fear that “thick,” or “humanitarian,” libertarianism might have the effect of watering down libertarian ideas about individual rights and property. To be sure, progressives mistakenly believe that the wrongness of racism in itself justifies government edicts against nonviolent forms of racism, such as invidious discrimination in hiring and accommodations. But we should be wary of the principle “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Libertarians should have no trouble condemning racism in terms of their political philosophy while emphasizing that nonviolent racism can and, under appropriate circumstances, should be met only by nonviolent — and specifically, nonstate — countermeasures.

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13 responses to “In Praise of “Thick” Libertarianism

  1. Sigh. No.

    There are many reasons to hold one emotional preference or another. But very few of those reasons are not rational and calculable.

    We have the only formal rational political philosophy other than the marxists, and they’re pretty much wrong about everything.

    The question for any libertarian who seeks freedom from the state, and the maximum prosperity for individuals, is how do we reduce a statement to that of property rights that can be adjudicated under the common law? Those arguments are NECESSARY arguments.

    Secondly, how can we create voluntary civic organizations for the satisfaction of PREFERENCES, given that the satisfaction of some preferences are LUXURIES, not necessities.

    If you want to act as a racist that’s fine with me, because I will satisfy the wants of those you ostracize. As long as there is no law forcing me not to serve or support someone, then we are free to allow the market to function.

    Ostracization (the right of exclusion) is necessary for the purpose of forcing conformity to moral cum legal rules. You cannot compel people to associate even commercially.

    Probably too dense a bit of deduction required above. But no. if you want left-libertarianism then you’ve abandoned reason.

    If you can construct necessary and preferential arguments that are reducible to property rights then you have a libertarian argument.

    Otherwise you’re just backsliding into religion.

  2. Agreed, but a further point is that there are too few of us to turn down tactical alliances with other groups that have different goals and motivations, but are no less opposed to the current order of things.

  3. “Thick libertarianism” /= “left-libertarianism”

    I’m a “thin left-libertarian.”

    Personally, I don’t find the arguments for “thickness” as a legitimate concept convincing, and I find them less and less convincing as advocates of “thickness” claim to see it in more and more places. It’s starting to remind me of the popular portrayal of the Salem witch hunts a la Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Every other day, someone is claiming that Walter Block or Hans-Hermann Hoppe or whomever had a poppet and consorted with the devil or something.

    • Agreed. We need more libertarians, not more sectaries.

    • To be honest, I can never keep track of what all these labels mean anyway.

      If “thick” libertarianism means there is some kind of right way for libertarians to behave in their everyday lives, I’m thick, I think. In that I think that you can only have a libertarian society if people broadly mind their own business. I don’t believe it’s libertarian to engage in social coercion.

      My example there is that I am an atheist, but I don’t think it would be libertarian to go down to my local church and wave placards and try to ruin things for the Christians like some Dawkinsian Westboro Baptist Church. In that sense, I think libertarians have to be tolerant and inclusive. Or you don’t get a libertarian society, even if it might have a small State.

      But then, my interpretation of libertarian is not just anti-statism, but a more general liberal outlook. As such I think private institutions and social situations can be libertarian or authoritarian too; businesses, the family, the school chess club, a faith, etc.

      • On the other hand, if “thickness” means using social coercion to promote social goals, then I’m thin.

  4. “think libertarianism = left libertarianism”????

    I did not see anything in the article about hating the “capitalists” and wanting to rob them.

    Or is Kevin (who writes about little else) not a typical example of “left libertarianism”?

    As for S. Richman’s article – it was interesting.

    The argument seemed to be that the philosophy that leads to the nonaggression principle also leads to other things.

    However, several different positions can reach the non aggression principle conclusion.

    It is a interesting debate – with many implications that I am not clear about.

  5. The interesting thing about A. Miller is that he was guilty – at least guilty of what he was actually accused of (which was NOT witchcraft).

    It is like Theodor Miller “The Authoritarian Personality” or his sidekick Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”.

    If we have to put things in terms of “witches” – it would be as if the following occurred……

    Someone files into your house (via an open door or something) on a broomstick – and turns your family into toads with a magic spell.

    And then this person (in her big hat and with wart upon her nose) turns to you and says “you are paranoid to believe in witches”.

  6. Sorry for thinking so slowly – I am dog tried. But I have finally been presented with an example to try and work out what “think libertarianism” might be (if it is NOT just death-to-the-capitalists “left libertarianism”).

    The head of the company that makes the “Firefox” website has been forced to resign (massive campaign against him – led by other companies), because six years ago he gave a thousand Dollars to an anti “Gay Marriage” campaign in California.

    What is the “Thick Libertarian” view of this?

    Is it a bad thing to try and punish someone (make them lose their job) for the beliefs (is that not Mr Miller was complaining of in relation to “McCarthyism”?).

    Or is the Thick Libertarian view that being anti “homophobia” (the Adorno tactic of treating dissent as a form of mental illness – the Frankfurt School P.C.tactic of reducing dissent to “phobias” and other such) trumps freedom of speech – even if the speech was six years ago (“once a homophobe always a homophobe”)?

  7. “What is the ‘Thick Libertarian’ view of this?”

    That question is sort of, but not exactly, like “what flavor is ice cream?”

    “Thickness” is the idea that there are other things besides the non-aggression principle which are in some way integral/essential/necessary to libertarianism.

    Different “thick libertarians” will take different positions on what those other things are.

    But the Eich thing doesn’t really have much to do with “thickness.”

    A baker should be free to bake or not bake a cake for a same-sex couple.

    A same-sex couple should be free to publicly say that the baker is both an idiot and a bigot if he turns down a cake job over something like that, and encourage others not to do business with the baker.

    Ditto web browsers — if Mozilla wants to hire Brendan Eich as CEO, they’re completely free to. And if Mozilla’s past, present or future customers want to point out that by using Mozilla products one is effectively giving money to a guy who hates marriages and families so much that he spent $1,000 opposing them, they’re completely free to do that too.

    • Well, this is where I slightly disagree. Of course people have a right to apply social coercion, but I don’t think it’s a libertarian thing to do, if you see what I mean. I think the heart of being a libertarian is a society where you mind your own business, and attacking somebody isn’t doing that.

      For instance, suppose I disapprove of gayness, personally. I don’t, but pretend I do. As a libertarian, I would not use coercion against gay people, even if I don’t personally approve. I would not publicly embarrass them, refuse to serve them in my imaginary shop, etc. Because their gayness is their business.

      I really do think that in practise, the only way to get a stable libertarian society is for people to have a personal ethic of leaving each other alone, in their everyday lives. There used to be quite a lot of that in Britain. Somebody might think that the two men who share a house at number 34 are “that way”, but they would leave them alone and not pry. The progressivist society is the opposite; everyone constantly monitoring everyone else, and that’s how liberty dies.

      John Stuart Mill was basically right that “social” coercion can be just as oppressive as State coercion. As a libertarian, I don’t approve of either.

      • I agree. An individual can be a libertarian simply by accepting something like the non-aggression principle. A society of libertarians is only likely to come about if most people within it are tolerant of personal differences. Regardless of how many laws there are, a society riddled with personal questionnaires and boycotts is unlikely to be free in other than the formal sense.

  8. “parade their disapproval” perhaps I was too hasty in thinking (when I first read those words – so many years ago now) that J.S. Mill did not have a point. Perhaps he does have a point.

    If every aspect of your opinions is examined by people who then organise (“in a non violent, non state way”) to get you dismissed from your job, not served in shops, not rented a room…….

    And on and on.

    Such behaviour may not be a formal breach of the non aggression principle – but such a population (of “thick libertarians”?) would be utterly repulsive.