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.