Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Proper Road to “Thick”

I will guess that, about as much as anyone in recent times, I have taken on the concept of “thick” within the context and discussion of libertarianism.  I will not rehash any of that in this post – for those to whom this is of interest, you likely know the story; for the rest, suffice it to say any appendage to the non-aggression principle would be considered thick.

At the same time, I have no doubt that for a society to survive and thrive, there is need for “thick” – what do people around here believe?  Some common understanding on issues that are not answered by the NAP is necessary.

Sheldon Richman is out with a very good piece – wonderful, in my opinion; I wish I wrote it.  Despite having tried on several occasions, I have never been able to explain myself on this topic as well as Richman has done.  It is entitled “Free-Market Socialism.”  Trust me, there is no oxymoron in this phrase.

In the piece, Richman connects how the individual becomes the social – fully in line with libertarian principles.  But instead of my paraphrase, here is Richman:

Libertarians are individualists. But since individualist has many senses, that statement isn’t terribly informative.

Virtually all libertarians observe the common customs of their societies, just as they conform to language conventions if for no other reason than they wish to be understood. I don’t know a libertarian who would regard this as tyranny.

As long as the “common customs” are not applied by a coercive monopoly, there is nothing wrong with this statement – it would be a reality in a libertarian world, if for no other reason than individuals would seek out community where they felt community. 

Further, however, the NAP does not answer every question of life – merely the question about when the use of force is acceptable.  I will go a step further: libertarians have not even agreed amongst themselves about the term “force” – or the applicability of the NAP to specific circumstances.

Is fraud “force”?  What about the applicability of the NAP to intellectual property?  Abortion?  Proper justice for a trespass?  I don’t think anyone can say these issues are “settled” within our community.

In fact, as one’s appreciation of the libertarian philosophy deepens, so does one’s understanding of the crucial behavior-shaping role played by the evolution of customs and rules—the true law—that have nothing whatever to do with the state. Indeed, these help form our very idea of society.

This is certainly a true statement for me.  When diving into the depths of some of the above mentioned topics, I have concluded that there may not be one “right” answer: if a community decides it wants to implement defense of intellectual property within their system of law, or define fraud as a violation – I can find no NAP-based reason to disagree (I will not delve into my reasons here, as this is well beyond the scope of this post).

Further, it seems clear that a libertarian world would allow for blatantly non-libertarian societies – as long as the members were free to leave.  If a group voluntarily decides to hold all property in common, have a field day – they cause me no harm.

The social is greater than the sum of the individuals – if it was not so, there would be no benefit in forming community.  Consider something as simple as the division of labor; try gaining the benefits of this invaluable process without voluntarily interacting with others.

Richman comments on prices – freely derived, necessary for a thriving society, determined by all…the result of countless individual decisions.  He discusses bankruptcy:

…no individual decided to put, say, the bookseller Borders, out of business. In an important sense, we did it collectively, but not at a mass meeting with people giving speeches and voting on whether the principals of Borders should keep control of the company’s assets. Rather, the demise of Borders and the transfer of its assets to others were the outcome of many individual decisions, most of which were not consciously coordinated. It’s just that enough people had preferences inconsistent with the company’s business plan. So the people who ran Borders were out, however much they objected.

In a free market, the people control the means of production – not in a communistic way, but a perfectly libertarian way; or, as Richman puts it:

In other words, the freed market would give traditional leftists what they say they want: a society in which free, voluntary, and peaceful cooperation ultimately controls the means of production for the good of all people.

No need for any “musts” or “should”: this is a road to thick that every libertarian could stand behind, without any concern about violating the NAP.


  1. There is a nature show on Netflix titled Swarms that shows many types of insects or animals which move together in a very community way. In watching how these swarms interact, say, the Budgies of Australia, the temptation of the eye is to claim the that intelligence of these swarms is "collectivism." The problem with that claim, of course, is that there is no command and control, no one individual ruling over others, no punishment for a bird or an ant that doesn't get with the program. Rather, each member of the swarm is doing exactly what it wants -- which is to move together with others like itself. Every one of those swarms is a perfect example of the workings of a fully free market and society. Even how the swarms deal with predators, which could be defined as those humans who want to force others to do their will, is enlightening. Some, like the Budgies, know all together how to avoid the predator untouched while still engaging in fully free market AND cooperative activities. It's quite a study.

  2. Nice write up BM.

    I've been spending what little time I've had lately reading just a bit of Spooner's exploration into how judicial systems might come to function within anarchistic society.

    So far, it seems "natural law" is always the bottom line...and even Rothbard deferred to it and used it.

    Obviously it can be subjective (though Rothbard hoped that man would be able to slowly rid himself of it in his philosophies, I think that might have been too optimistic) and I'm not sure that we will ever by able to eliminate subjectivity in our philosophies 100%. It's simply not the human experience IMO.

    What Spooner does seem to do well is explain the process & rationality of it(establishing judicial systems) pretty well. It seems like libertarians have run away screaming from natural law in the last 100 years or so especially, when I'm not so sure that they should be considering some form of integration with it, the NAP, & objectivity/subjectivity.

  3. Libertarian Socialism is only reconcilable if one redefines socialism. Socialism is NOT simply the mass of people using their individual choices to direct market direction, but rather a COORDINATED effort to do so. What the author that bionic quotes is calling socialism is not a coordinated effort therefore it is not socialism.

    1. What do you mean by "coordinated"?

  4. Ditto kanuuker

    Socialists and those who seek to apologize for socialism do always seek to re-define and soften the appearance and the promise of socialism. But the socialism as it was originally defined, absolutely cannot exist without violence. It is not simply the coordination, it is absolutely the violent enforcement.

    For people are not mindless bugs. They are simply not happy to go where the swarm goes. Such never happened and will never happen.

    Moreover, to pretend that NAP, or Libertarian idea, or Anarchism, or Freedom is an instrument of achievement of happily existing balanced society (such as the socialism promises itself to show) is a gross misdirection. Happiness is a possible outcome, but not a goal.

    The root of all freedom ideas is to provide for everyone the ability to do anything or nothing at all. No one is expected to do anything that the crowd wants. The assumption, correctly so, is that no one can say what is right or wrong, except that it is wrong to force any of these two opinions.
    We are all, therefore, shall have the freedom to do either, but we must pay for everything we do. We must have consequences of our own decisions. And that consequence is not forced on us by anyone, but by our selves.

    I find this attempt to somehow sneak socialism into the freedom's tent to be disgusting.

    1. Mava, is there something specific that I wrote that you find "disgusting"? Please point to it, and while considering the context, explain your position.

      Or are you (as did kanuuker) ignoring the way the term "socialism" is used in this post? It is not necessary to explain to me its more usual definition. That is not the definition I have used here (and have explained, clearly, the use) - nor has Richman, although I understand his leanings quite well in other articles of his.

    2. That was my entire point - you simply changed the definition of socialism. "Free market socialism" is an oxymoron in the same way "christian athiest" is an oxymoron. I know you know this and that's why I'm perplexed as to why you used "socialism" this way. I'm not disputing the content of the article; I just think its dangerous to start changing the definition of words like that because it creates confusion.

  5. It is typical to misread the actions of the swarm as "mindless." Yet the opposite, mindfulness must mean the enforcement of one mind upon all - tyranny. Real mindlessness is the enforcement of the demands of one mind upon others with everyone "doing what they are told" out of fear. The fact that an insect wants to do something different from what a free human wants to do - and both without penalty of punishment - does not remove the illustration of how a free market just works well when there is no mind control. As I suggested, it is tempting to want to call the swarm "control," but when you think it through, it is the ultimate expression of freedom - BUT, freedom means we can freely be humans, which much of the time is a desire to move together as a community entirely in peace. People like gathering together and working together. Libertarianism allows such a way of living to exist by removing the ingredient of force. The moment people move together because if they don't they will have pain inflicted on them by an outside "mind" is the essence of socialism. People moving together in freedom is the free market.

  6. Something you said caught my attention. You said, "if a community decides it wants to implement defense of intellectual property within their system of law, or define fraud as a violation – I can find no NAP-based reason to disagree."

    My question: What happens when someone outside this community, who lives in a community that opposes intellectual property, "steals" the intellectual property of someone within the pro-intellectual property community? War?

    1. The same question we face daily today - as there is no worldwide uniform law nor worldwide final court / arbitrator (besides war...). Most of the time, we live with it - and often without even noticing the differences.

      There are stories of IP not very well enforced in China - so far, thank God, only legal and non-violent means have been deployed to rectify. I don't know why this would change.

      Do you suggest war as the solution to force the same IP laws onto everyone? If not done by force, the laws / contracts will not be uniform, I suspect.