Friday, May 2, 2014

Sheldon Richman Takes Down Walter Block & Lew Rockwell?

(Note: I am trying something suggested by Robert Wenzel in his post “Note to Libertarian Bloggers: How to Boost Traffic to Your Sites.”  I am going for a three-bagger with my title; the power hitter in the bunch should be pretty obvious.)

We have a new post from Sheldon Richman regarding thick libertarianism.  In this post, he contrasts his vision of libertarianism with that of Walter Block and Lew Rockwell, via recent posts by these two. 

His first couple of paragraphs are better left ignored.  I will start by offering Richman’s proposition:

The proposition on the table is that the most robust case for the libertarian philosophy (such as I articulated but of course did not originate) entails commitments not only to the Nonaggression Principle — or what I now call the Nonaggression Obligation — but also to other values that don’t directly relate to aggression (for example, opposition to even non-rights-violating forms of racism).

This is not a good start.  Do we really need to change the term again?  Max Borders recently did the same thing, using as his term of obfuscation and confusion “non-harm.”  “Nonaggression obligation” is even less visible on the internet (4 hits, two being Richman) than is non-harm (30 hits at last check).  Nonaggression principle?  13,000.

Why try to hide the absolute core of the foundation?  (Hint: because it must be hidden else the house built on this foundation of sand will come crumbling down.)

Richman brings some clarity to his view via his cite of Charles W. Johnson:

While no one should be forced as a matter of policy to treat her fellows with the respect due to equals, or to cultivate independent thinking and contempt for the arrogance of power, libertarians certainly can — and should — criticize those who do not, and exhort our fellows not to rely on authoritarian social institutions, for much the same reasons that we have for endorsing libertarianism in the first place. (Emphasis added by Richman.)

Wenzel warned me (if I recall correctly) that the “thicks” are making a “should” argument, not a “must” argument.  This appears to be the case.  It doesn’t help their case, but it appears to be the case.

Why? I know this will put me squarely in the camp of dim-bulbs, but here goes: what happens to the foundation of a philosophy when the “shoulds” of the philosophy come into direct conflict with the “musts,” as they must in Richman’s case?  If the foundation contains such a contradiction, then what does it say about the structure built upon it? 

The contradiction?  In this post, Richman uses the term “property” only once, and this only when referring to a statement made by Block.  He cannot discuss property because to do so will destroy every “should” he wishes upon libertarians, or introduce so many “excepts” that the “shoulds” become meaningless

Richman then adds:

Note…that Johnson says that the sort of commitments he has in mind “could be rejected without contradicting the nonaggression principle per se.” In other words, he does not say that someone who rejects these commitments is not a libertarian. He says only that rejection of the commitments weakens the best case for libertarianism, which in turn could weaken a particular libertarian’s commitment to libertarianism itself.

It is curious: Block and Rockwell, who, according to Richman, are wrong on this and reject these commitments as foundational to libertarianism, don’t seem any less committed to libertarianism for it.

Again, citing Johnson:

Noncoercive authoritarianism [for example, patriarchy] may be consistent with libertarian principles, but it is hard to reasonably reconcile the two.

There is so much to unpack in this short sentence.  I will start with definitions.  To understand noncoercive authoritarianism, I will start with understanding authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism: Authoritarianism is a form of government. It is characterized by absolute or blind obedience to authority, as against individual freedom and related to the expectation of unquestioning obedience.

As Johnson’s term includes “noncoercive,” neither Johnson nor Richman must mean to suggest this definition – government and coercion go hand in hand; this must be true even for Richman.  Therefore “noncoercive” will not work with “government.”

…principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people.

We can ignore the government definition.  The first portion of the above adds some clarity.

Now for noncoercive.  Focusing on the “coercive” part will get us there:

Coercive: serving or tending to coerce.

That doesn’t help much.

Coerce: to compel by force, intimidation, or authority, especially without regard for individual desire or volition; to bring about through the use of force or other forms of compulsion; to dominate or control, especially by exploiting fear, anxiety, etc.

So, noncoercive would be the opposite of this.

Let’s put the two together, as do Johnson and Richman.

Noncoercive authoritarianism: I did a search for this term, in quotes.  I received three (yes, three) hits; I didn’t think getting only three hits for anything was possible on the internet. 

One was for Richman’s current post; one was for Johnson’s post from which Richman draws, in which the term appears only the one time.  The third was at a protected site, in which the phrase is apparently (I write apparently because I can only glean this from the search results) used to describe Putin’s Russia.

In other words, nowhere is the term properly explained or defined – for goodness’ sakes, nowhere is it even used!  Perhaps it is because the two words when put together (within the context used by Richman) are so contradictory as to be illogical (well, except for in Russia – a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.  That explains it.).

Patriarchy: …is a social system in which males are the primary authority figures central to social organization, occupying roles of political leadership, moral authority, and control of property, and where fathers hold authority over women and children. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination. Many patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage. The female equivalent is matriarchy.

Interesting that Richman provides patriarchy as his example.  I guess the father should not have authority over his household.  As I doubt Richman means to suggest that someone outside of the family should have authority over the family (he certainly can’t mean one of the children either, can he?), one can only conclude that there “should” be no social authority of any kind in Richman’s world.

I also guess that Richman doesn’t see that such a social structure can be deemed to offer benefits, on net, to each member within the social structure.

This is the “should” that is the foundation of libertarianism, according to Richman.  There should be no social authority.

You know, many of us anarcho-capitalists are often hit with the supposedly unanswerable “give me one example where anarchy worked.”  Besides the example offered by much of our daily lives, I have found and written about a few such societies – while not perfect anarchies, nonetheless close enough to be meaningful.

I have not found a single example anywhere of a functioning society where there is no form of hierarchy whatsoever – where there is no authority other than each individual having authority over himself.  None.  Anywhere.

Anarchy, in both principle and in the real world can and has and does work.  A world with no social structure or authority?  It is impossible.

Now that Richman has successfully included the impossible within the definition of libertarianism, he goes on to rebut certain statements of Block and Rockwell. 

In my article I defended the proposition that we owe other individuals nonaggression because we owe them respect as ends in themselves. (Block never says why we owe anyone nonaggression. Does he ever ask that question?)

“Owe” is such a terrible word to use in defense of libertarianism, isn’t it?  It sounds so, I don’t know, “should.”

I don’t know Block’s answer, but I offer mine – and I offer advance warning, simpleton me needs no other answer.  Nonaggression is appropriate for governing man’s relationship with man (hopefully we are past the man / rock thing) because the violation of this (and the violation of property) leads to death.  And absent life, I guess I don’t know what the point is to any of this.

Yeah, I know.  It isn’t Ph.D. level stuff.  I warned you.  You want to construct something more complicated, have at it.

An interesting example: after suggesting that Rockwell’s article amounts to not much more than “I know you are, but what am I?,” he states:

But [Rockwell] does a bit more: he makes an argument from authority by citing Murray Rothbard (of whom I was a long-time friend, informal student, and admirer).

I guess quoting Rothbard is bad, but attempting to build credibility by saying you once breathed the same air that Rothbard breathed is good?

Rockwell’s comparison of the degradation of “liberal” as a good template for the degradation of “libertarian” if the thick version takes hold is faulty, according to Richman.

Yet, we see this degradation of libertarianism even before our eyes; a quick visit with the Students for Liberty will disabuse Richman of the notion that ideas don’t have consequences.  The self-described “…most libertarian generation that has ever existed…” has fully embraced the “shoulds” as “musts.”

Our foundations also mean opposing cultural repression, societal intolerance, and authoritarian relationships and supporting feminism, gay and trans liberation, anti-racism, and worker empowerment, which are the other set of conclusions we must embrace….

We “must” embrace.  It seems Richman’s “shoulds” have already been turned into the “most libertarian generations” “musts.” Perhaps Richman should focus his attention on disabusing the students of this very un-libertarian notion.

Returning to Richman:

[Johnson] says only that rejection of the commitments weakens the best case for libertarianism….

The best case for libertarianism lies in the simplest and broadest – opposition to the initiation of aggression.  “Shoulds” have a nasty habit of turning into “musts” (see immediately above).

And in Richman’s case, “shoulds” are in direct contradiction to the most important (and only) “must.”

There is still no reconciliation offered of the “should” of thick with the “must” of property (and therefore life).  There isn’t because there cannot be.

A foundation built on sand.  This is Mr. Richman’s libertarian vision.


  1. Simple and yet not.

    As a libertarian who happens to be a Christian I believe that we are free to do as we will provided that we harm no one's person or property. To paraphrase the scriptures, "do not do to others what you would not have them do to you." Pretty simple if you ask me. Nothing there about prohibition, drug laws, racism or other forms of saving people from themselves. True nonaggression principle.

    As human creatures we NEED a structure or hierarchy for guidelines, but we rebel against God as the people in the scripture of 1st Samuel who asked for a king to rule over them. They did not want to be ruled by God.

    I am not trying to proselytize here. This is just my opinion. My take is that we are created beings made by God (absolute, supreme creator) and therefore are subject to His laws and judgements. Man is fallible and so are his laws. When you refuse to be governed by God then you have our situation. The blind leading the blind and both will fall into a ditch. My two cents.

    1. When stated in the negative, as you have done, it is referred to as the Silver Rule.

    2. bionic mosquito is right. Sheldon Richman is wrong.

      Richman's "thick libertarianism" argues that merely leaving others alone by scrupulously adhering to the NAP is "not good enough."

      Alas Richman's "thick libertarianism" is at its root, merely a variant on Anatole France's quip:

      "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread."

      The danger, as bionic mosquito put it so succinctly, is that “Shoulds” have a nasty habit of turning into “musts”

      As a "minarchist" Ayn Rand needed to "check her premises." But she was right to take a hardline stance against what she termed "altruism."

  2. Interestingly, this general idea came up once when I had an on line discussion with a Roman Catholic who had described charity as a positive duty for all Christians, according to all Christian teaching. I pointed out to him that this was not the case, since Roman Catholics do now accept that we Anglicans are Christian, and our teaching differs. In support of this, I cited the 38th of the Articles of Religion of the Church of England (

    "Of Christian men's good which are not common

    "The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast; notwithstanding every man ought of such things as he possesseth liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability."

    He then asserted, figuratively telling me to my face that my beliefs were not what I believed them to be, that that "ought" meant "must" - and he continued to do so even after I rebutted him by pointing out that that reading would make the whole article vacuous and pointless since it undercut the whole "right, title, and possession of the same". He simply denied what I told him, that Protestantism reserves a place here for acting according to the informed conscience as might seem fit in all the circumstances and after taking other priorities into account, but no, he would have it that we, too, must do these things as a positive duty, an obligation.

  3. On Richman's assertion that thick libertarianism will not copy the path of liberalism, as no thick libertarians advocate government action, I can only respond, "Give it time". The Temperance Movement was a good idea, but proponents got impatient at the slow (or no) progress in it, so they started enlisting government in their cause. Why would thick libertarianism be any different? People focus on the the immediate problems (e.g. female genital mutilation, mentioned in the articles as an example) and forget the principles behind everything. The kinds of people libertarianism had at the beginning were clearly more principle-oriented than the adherents likely to attach themselves to it later. Movements get watered down (and even co-opted) as they get popular.

    Anyway the other problem with the thick libertarian argument is that it involves a lot of arm-waving, which makes me suspicious. I don't see the point in redefining libertarianism, other than perhaps to make it go away. I don't even include property rights in it (mostly because I don't believe in the "rights" meme at all). To me, NAP is all it is.

    I suppose Richman et al. wish libertarianism were an easier sale, and want to jazz it up a bit. But that is a trap.

  4. It seems to me that "thick libertarians" are concerned with libertarianism being associated with attitudes that are frowned upon in modern mainstream culture, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. Presumably "thick libertarians" think it will be easier to recruit more people if there's no such "guilt by association" - instead of taking the approach of explaining to people that "guilt by association" is a logical fallacy to begin with.

  5. @Autloykos
    None of this has anything to do with racism, sexism, and homophobia, even if you grant that the way in which those words are used endows them with any real meaning.
    It has to do with political censorship. Period.

    The state always disguises its coercion in fine sounding words
    Tucker is making the state's case as a private actor, just as torture was outsourced to private contractors. .

  6. You seem to have misunderstood what I meant by what I wrote. I'll take the blame for that and try to be clearer.

    I was referring to what "thick libertarians" actually seem to perceive. As far as I can tell, "thick libertarians" honestly perceive racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. as real issues, not only when it comes to recruitment, but in and of themselves as well. Of course, I could be wrong here. It could be the case, as you seem to insinuate, that all "thick libertarians" are being at least intellectually dishonest. But please forgive me for finding that hard to believe.

  7. Maybe we can just go with the "Nonaggression Intimation" to cut to the chase?

  8. Sorry, I don't know what your point is with that.

  9. This thick libertarianism is a nuisance, and who knows, maybe they will succesfully co-opt the phrase "libertarianism" simply because the mainstream helps them do it.
    But factually speaking...honestly, how many people do we really think are politically correct, "tolerant", social justice warriors on the one hand, and pro-free market on the other? Surely this would turn their beloved "big tent" pipedream into a thimble sized one. Social justice warriors tend to go hand in hand with socialist economic views. They are redefining libertarianism, yes, but they are also marginalizing themselves into non-existence. There are many more people that simply want to be left alone and live in peace, than there are people who want the state to leave them alone while bothering everyone else with their P.C. culture war.

    As for Richman:
    "In my article I defended the proposition that we owe other individuals nonaggression because we owe them respect as ends in themselves."

    Why do we OWE others respect? What exactly *is* respect? Why do we owe it to others as ends in themselves?
    Giving respect cannot be an end. It must be a means, or it means nothing and thus would have nothing of value to add.

    It really is not complex, even though Richman would like it to be. We owe others non-violence, because we feel others owe it to us. The only meaningful morality is one that is universal and consistent, and so one treats another in a way one wants the other to treat them. Non-aggression is a morally consistent *means* of achieving non-aggression towards oneself. And it is non-aggression toward oneself that maximizes the possibility of survival, happiness and prosperity. That ties to the root of the meaning of life itself. Contrary to giving others "respect" as ends in themselves, which has nothing to say about life.