Saturday, April 5, 2014

Thick Libertarians Leave Less Room in the Tent

Is there something in the water?  Are there an inordinate amount of articles recently slicing and dicing what it means to be a libertarian, or is it just that I am now noticing these?

I am not a philosopher; I am not a trained libertarian theorist.  On such matters, I am the first to admit that I am not very sophisticated.  Lew Rockwell addressed this topic of what libertarianism is and isn’t recently, and addressed it so well that I feel completely inadequate in writing anything further about it.  However, such a feeling has rarely stopped me before, so here goes….

Apparently it is not enough to simply embrace the non-aggression principle; to be libertarian requires much, much more.  Who knew?

Well, Jeffrey Tucker to start, with his, by now, infamous “Against Libertarian Brutalism,” which I very briefly commented on here.  Very briefly, because I have rarely read anything so convoluted on this topic from someone considered to be one of the better writers in the wide tent of libertarian thinking.  I used only about 50 words to describe it the first time, I will use none now.

Next came Max Borders, writing at FEE: “Libertarian Holism.”  He introduces a new slicing and dicing under the libertarian tent, as I wrote at the time:

In it, he introduces a new language to describe the holders of different views of libertarian / pseudo-libertarian thought:

I hesitate to introduce yet another dichotomy (thick or thin, brutalist or humanitarian)…

Yet he does so: holists and solipsists.

The holists accept that people come to libertarian thought in different ways – not just “a principle of non-harm.”  As I commented at the time, I guess using the common term of “non-aggression” is too much to expect.

In any case, what Borders never mentions is that – regardless of the how one came to value libertarian thought – one must at some point end with acceptance of the non-aggression principle; this seems rather fundamental, doesn’t it?  Again, from my earlier post:

This is the root of libertarian principle.  Without pointing to it always, there is no libertarian – there is just my opinion is better than your opinion.

Now it is Sheldon Richman, in a post entitled “TGIF: In Praise of “Thick” Libertarianism.” Mr. Richman is an accomplished writer and thinker on all thoughts libertarian, so I enter this post with some trepidation, kind of like standing at the top of a double-black-diamond slope at 3000 meters.  But here goes:

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.

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)?

As I mentioned, I consider Richman to be a very accomplished writer on libertarian matters, so I am willing to go along…but after this introduction, I already know it is going to be difficult.  Suffice it to say, I don’t even have to believe that man is created by God in His likeness to understand the difference. 

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.

They can answer the question however they want and appeal to whatever underlying value they choose, as long as at some point they have answered affirmatively: Yes, a man is different than a rock!  Because, if they come to the other answer (there is no difference between a man and a rock), we are ALL wasting a lot of time worrying about this libertarian nonsense.

(Bear with me for a few paragraphs; I have struggled with finding a simple way to deal with the following, and this is the best I have come up with…)

In fact, by suggesting that different libertarians come to the answer of that man-rock question through different means, is he not suggesting that achieving a uniform agreement of the means of how we each came to that answer (yes, in fact a man is different than a rock) is not important for libertarian theory to otherwise hold? 

In other words, as long as we all have agreed that a man is not a rock (thank God, or god, whichever you prefer), Richman is saying, paraphrasing: who cares how you got to that answer.  And if this is true, why look to the primordial ooze, the time before this epiphany, for something necessary for libertarian theory?  All we need is for all of us to agree that a man is not a rock. 

Yet, if a commonality of the means by which one reached this conclusion is not important for libertarian theory to hold, what does this suggest about the entire premise of this essay?  And if it isn’t important to the premise of the essay, why bring up this subject of men and rocks in the first place?

But I am getting way ahead of myself.  Richman himself ignores all of this and instead jumps right in:

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.

I am one of those libertarians.  To the extent I am an otherwise nice or open-minded person I attribute to philosophies and beliefs outside of those associated with libertarian thinking and the non-aggression principle that is its foundation.

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.

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement.  However, I do not understand why Richman leans on Rand for his defense of thick libertarianism, or why we are supposed to believe that just because some libertarians quote it, the statement is automatically “libertarian.” 

Rand has been clear she is no libertarian (to my understanding, she despised us), and her writing, while wonderful in many respects and effective in leading many to libertarian thought, are often on topics well outside of the boundaries of libertarian thought.  Just ask her (figuratively, of course).  She will agree with me.

The freedom philosophy is intimately related to ethical, political, and methodological individualism. 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.

This is a bit difficult for me to understand.  Let’s assume both things are true: on the one hand, libertarianism is concerned with the initiation of force; on the other hand, libertarianism (according to Mr. Richman) should also be concerned with how people decide with whom to share their time and their property.

How can these two supposedly true statements be reconciled?  Is Richman suggesting that libertarian thought rejects the initiation of force except for those instances where we want to force you to think in a certain way?  Or is it that libertarian thought is clear about the inviolability of your property except when you want to exclude others from access to it based on grounds with which we don’t agree?

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.

The distinction between these two examples is so obvious to me, I am wondering if my sanity has been lost while staring down that double-black-diamond precipice….

Non-violent racism: I choose to exclude others from my property for racial reasons.  I might even convince a few others to do so with their property.  We form an all-(let’s safely call it) Martian neighborhood in our libertarian community; people from Venus need not apply.  Only those who join us in this crusade will suffer the consequences, if any, of our biases. 

Of course, those we discriminate against will also suffer.  What of the suffering by those on the receiving end, those whom we have excluded from our property for race-based reasons?  Is there some positive right that should be granted?  This would be consistent with libertarian thinking how?

Conversely, the Keynesian.  Keynesianism can only be achieved by government force, imposed upon me without my agreement.  As the only way to make manifest the Keynesian viewpoint is through government force, the conversation ends quickly.  A Keynesian is arguing that everyone must be party to his agreement, whether they want to agree or not.

The racist libertarian, even if successful in promoting his views, cannot force me to live as a racist; the Keynesian, by definition, forces me to live as he wishes. 

From the point of view of the one being discriminated against, one could argue that he is being “forced” in the same way Keynesianism is forced upon us all.  Is this what Richman suggests?  Does he want to open the door for positive rights in libertarian theory?  This will be the end of libertarianism as we know it.

Further, I can make arguments against the Keynesian position based completely on the non-aggression principle.  Try doing that for arguments against racism.

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.

That’s what I just said.

But although a society of racist pacifists is not a logical impossibility, it strikes me as highly unlikely.

“Not a logical impossibility” and “highly unlikely” suggest two things: 1) that it isn’t necessarily so, and 2) it hasn’t happened yet. 

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.

A “potential for violence.”  The use of racism does not necessarily result in violence.  Does libertarian theory offer some justification for forced, pre-emptive intervention?

Of course, it does not.  So speak out against racism, but don’t look for justifications in libertarian theory for this position.  If racism is a pre-curser to violence “too strong for libertarians to ignore,” what other thoughts could be saddled with this concern?  Where would Richman draw the bright red line?  Is it only race?  Why?

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.

When confronting what I find to be racially-charged statements, I often have suggested (sometimes strongly) that one considers the possibility that such thoughts are only the first step toward genocide.  I do so not from any libertarian viewpoint, but from my ethical upbringing and understanding of history.

With the above statement, Richman offers a similar viewpoint but finds through it a shortcoming of thin libertarians.  That racism is at the root of genocide is true, but, given the infinite incidents of racism in this world, it is worth noting that genocide has rarely, thankfully, been the final result.  For this, we must for some reason, be pre-emptive?

Further: most human beings hold some less-than-all-embracing view about many subjects, including gender, traditional marriage, lesbians and gays, and religion.  Some of these – especially the last – have led to violence, a violence as strong as any rooted in racism.  Are religious beliefs – not violence based on religion, but merely beliefs – next on Richman’s list, as racism is today? 

If one aggresses, deal with the aggression.  Isn’t this enough? 

So I’m puzzled by the pushback whenever someone explicitly associates the libertarian philosophy with values like tolerance and inclusion.

And I am puzzled when an otherwise staunch defender of liberty so strongly suggests that I must believe and act in (or avoid acting in) certain (in-and-of-themselves non-violent) ways.

Why are so many libertarians placing qualifications on what it means to be a libertarian?
·        In order to come into the libertarian tent, you must be tolerant.
·        In order to come into the libertarian tent, you must be inclusive.
·        In order to come into the libertarian tent, you must be humanitarian.
·        In order to come into the libertarian tent, you must be a holist.

This is what it means to be a thick libertarian.  Pretty soon, these libertarians are going to disqualify pretty much all of the human race from entry into the club.

Keep in mind, thin libertarians leave more room in the tent for a larger party; the thicker the libertarian, the less room there is for others to join us.

Be a thin libertarian.  I prefer to have room for more under the tent.


  1. Excellent BM! My tinfoil hat is firmly ensconced. Choose whichever conspiracy theory/organization you wish, anything that might hinder the agenda will be penetrated and co-opted. Libertarianism will by its very nature always be vulnerable to such shenanigans, since letting people do what they want is what we are about.

  2. Very nicely done Bionic. I don't think Richman's statement about genocide is accurate though...

    1. Thank you, Lila.

      After I wrote (and posted) this, I thought I could have been a bit more nuanced on this point. Absent some blatant error, though, I rarely go back to a post to edit.

      At least to the extent I understand the history of genocide, it seems to me either race or religion can be found at the root. (If you have different views, I would welcome to learn.) This is why I wonder if religion is next on the list of topics to be shed if one wants to be libertarian.

    2. Dear BM,
      To define mass murders as race based genocides is very limiting to the mass murders inflicted through history from ancient times to the recent episodes. To me, in the context of your post, is the nature of power. One can think of a Carthaginain peace in ancient history. How do we classify the communist massacres in Ukraine, the Cultual Revolution in China, or in Cambodia. Were the persecutions after the Reconquista in Spain purely religious or based on the power politics of Ferdinand and Isabella. In the end, can there be a race based, or any other, genocide in a libertarian society? I think the answer is no. Can I imagine genodice, or a least mass murder, in society based on equality? absolutley.

      I enjoy your blog.
      Best wishes,

    3. Ira, thank you for the note.

      Clearly, I could have written this sentence more clearly. For the record:

      I recognize that mass-murder will have at its root any one (or more) of several probable excuses.

      I recognize that these are just that - excuses: in order to whip the population into a frenzy to either support or ignore the crime, race, religion, or any other emotional wedge will be deployed.

  3. I think Richman is exploring the philosophical link between the non-aggression principle and libertarianism, and is saying that if you subscribe to the non-aggression principle, you do so on moral grounds by recognizing the rights of the individual as supreme and rejecting interference in people's peaceful activities.

    So, if you follow the non-aggression principle on moral (rather than utilitarian) grounds, you must also reject discrimination based on race, sexuality, and religion, since these represent negative feelings toward individual traits or choices that don't directly affect others.

    Even Rothbard's quote from Rockwell's article implies a moral case for non-aggression:

    "There are other libertarians who have no moral theory at all apart from the imperative of non-violation of rights."

    There is a difference between a libertarian's respect of other peoples' discrimination, as in saying "non-violent" racism is tolerable, vs. being a racist libertarian, the latter being a perversion of libertarian thought according to Richman.

    In the end, Richman is saying that a libertarian is de facto tolerant, humanitarian, etc., since being the opposite means you reject the moral case for non-aggression.

    1. I come to libertarian thought / NAP completely on moral grounds. The idea that it works best has never been satisfying to me; someone will always present a better argument for something else working better. And better for whom?

      But don’t initiate violence? Clean, simple. Sure we struggle at times with its application – IP is one such example. But at least we have a north start to guide the discussion.

      However, I still see no way to reconcile the requirement for the non-aggression principle with the requirement for eliminating racism – in thought or (non-violent deed). It cannot be done. one or the other must be subservient – both cannot be foundation stones for a consistent theory.

      “In the end, Richman is saying that a libertarian is de facto tolerant, humanitarian, etc., since being the opposite means you reject the moral case for non-aggression.”

      Says who?

      Define tolerant; in what circumstances? A libertarian can be very intolerant when it comes to (just one of several examples) trespass of his property – one could even be described as a zealot. He could be so intolerant that he might even shoot!

      What about the tolerance for a libertarian who is not tolerant about race – say because he came to value libertarian thought via pragmatic reasons (to lean on your flawed statement)? Doesn’t he deserve tolerance (however you define it) in Richman’s world? Who is Richman to draw the line on what things I tolerate and what things I don’t?

      The entire reasoning is nonsensical.

    2. Thanks for the reply, BM.

      By tolerant, I mean tolerant of others' peaceful actions.

      And sure, non-violence means non-violence, i.e. tolerance, even if the 'racist libertarian' upsets you.

      I suppose Richman can't see how a libertarian who recognizes the morality of the NAP, who respects the inalienable rights of the individual, can simultaneously disrespect someone's non-aggressive traits or choices, or to lump an individual into a group which one finds disagreeable.

      I also subscribe to the NAP on moral grounds, and I would consider myself tolerant, inclusive, and humanitarian (maybe not holistic), and I have a hard time seeing how someone can subscribe to the NAP and also discriminate against groups of people. I feel like it must be a moral decision, and I feel like Richman feels the same way.

      I agree that the NAP is the bedrock of libertarianism, but I also believe that the primacy of the individual is the bedrock of the NAP.


    3. "...I also believe that the primacy of the individual is the bedrock of the NAP."

      This is the rub - it's OK if that individual is (fill in your preferred label) but not if the individual chooses not to associate with (fill in your preferred label.

  4. Richman writes (as you quote him), "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."

    Consider this statement: "Old people, by and large, are bad drivers." Or, "Children are generally poor at calculus." These are generalizations about group characteristics. These statements don't treat members of these groups as individuals. Do they create the potential for violence? Hard to imagine they do. Are they unlibertarian? I can't see how.

    These statements are similar to racist statements. The reason we're repulsed by racist statements and not the ones above is that racist statements are wrong, and also because the are often accompanied by hatred (being bad drivers does not cause most people to hate old people). The reason we are repulsed is NOT because these are statements about groups of people.

    I think thick libertarianism is driven by the natural desire to be more relevant. If we just say we're against the use of violence against innocent persons, then we're not really saying much. But, for me, that's enough! The world would be completely different if just this one simple idea was accepted. I very much agree with your article.