Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Leftist Wolf in a Libertarian Sheep’s Clothing

Sheldon Richman offers “The Libertarian Case for Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage.”  I have been thinking about this piece on and off for several days.  Although there are many statements which require some unpacking, on a superficial read it offers nothing with which a thin libertarian might argue.  Yet, I have remained unsettled; something didn’t sit right.

I have decided that my primary issue is that Richman attempts to pull a real bait and switch, the thick-libertarian wolf in thin-libertarian sheep’s clothing.

Richman opens well enough; he offers the bait:

I tried to come up with a solid libertarian argument for why the Supreme Court should not have struck down state bans on same-sex marriage (SSM).

(Is Richman about to make a “thin” argument?  Spoiler alert: after much contemplation, I conclude…don’t hold your breath.) 

On many levels, I tend to agree with him on the above sentence – as I wrote early on, this is a question of culture far more than a question of libertarian principle (beyond “get the state out of marriage,” which Richman reasonably addresses).  Based solely on the NAP, I find little reason to disagree.

So much for Richman’s “bait,” where is his “switch”?  In his post, he buries it in the very last sentence – perhaps so it will not be easily connected to his opening sentence (and certainly why it took me so long to identify the primary source of my unsettled condition).  Richman closes:

It is insulting and condescending to tell them they ought to be satisfied with civil union and its merely material benefits.

Richman’s opening sentence makes clear he is looking for solid libertarian arguments, yet he closes with a sentence that has nothing to do with libertarianism.  As a libertarian, one is certainly free to insult and condescend (although Richman disagrees, as I will come to shortly).  Why couldn’t he leave well enough alone?  On a “solid libertarian argument” – within the context of the reality of a state – it is difficult to argue with him.  Why does he have to get “thick”?

In between his first sentence and his last, there are other points worth addressing – not as important, necessarily; perhaps inserted for no other reason than to distract from the bait and switch.

Most important of these to address, Richman recognizes the burdens that will be placed on employers:

Now it is true that mandated family and medical leave coercively imposes costs on employers (and ultimately employees) and therefore cannot pass libertarian muster. It is also true that with this latest Supreme Court decision, FMLA benefits will now apply to more people. But contrary to some libertarians, that is no reason to condemn the Supreme Court’s decision. Rather, it’s simply a reason to work for the repeal of the FMLA.

This is a very reasonable view, and – one could argue – a very libertarian view.  This can only be a libertarian view if one constantly upholds the recognition of property rights.  Yet nowhere have I read that Richman advocates for the property rights of bakers who refuse service to gay couples, or of bartenders who refuse service to (insert your favorite protected class here).  In fact, he often writes what could easily be interpreted as the opposite – and even calls it libertarian.

Yet Richman, in this post, pretends otherwise – that he is actually concerned about the property rights of the baker:

Similarly, the prospect of the government’s compelling bakers and photographers to participate in same-sex weddings hardly constitutes a reason to ban same-sex marriages. Let’s target the actual rights violators and leave the innocent alone.

Richman does not care about the baker’s or photographer’s property rights in such circumstances.  He has written often that libertarian philosophy should embrace treating others respectfully (including to not insult or condescend), see here and here – please take a few seconds (it won’t take more) to consider his arguments in the context of gay couples and bakers of wedding cakes.

Libertarian philosophy leaves room for racists, sexists, and other so-called “brutalists” (and I am pleased to welcome Jeffrey Tucker into the brutalist club).  Of course, individual libertarians need not approve of these worldviews (I write, for those for whom this need be stated explicitly).

Richman (and other left-libs), insist that it is necessary to integrate culture into libertarian theory when it is the culture of which they approve: no matter the behavior, don’t condescend, don’t insult, don’t exercise property rights in a discriminatory (racist, sexist, whatever) manner.  Ask them how they feel about integrating a more traditional Judeo-Christian culture into the libertarian philosophy – I bet you will find it has no place in their libertarian world.

Treating all people – even people who live a lifestyle of which you might disapprove – with respect has nothing to do with libertarian theory; at least when I write about culture I don’t insist (or even suggest) that you must (or should) agree with me to hold true to libertarian philosophy and the non-aggression principle.  This is why thin libertarians leave more room in the tent.  You need not pass a cultural test to enter.

Unfortunately, even when Richman has solid libertarian grounds to make his point, he cannot help but revert to his thick, left-leaning view; at this point, I struggle to decide which is more core to his philosophical framework: the non-aggression principle or the embrace of causes that might be broadly labeled “social justice.”


I struggle no more…. I was about to publish this post when I ran across a curious exchange.  Richman’s piece was also posted at; see the comments:

Long Lost Friend June 26, 2015, 5:02 pm

You acknowledge that the decision today will expand the state’s programs like the FMLA and even the issuance of marriage licenses itself, but then you go on to say that this is a preferable situation in the interim until we can manage to get the government out of the marriage business altogether.

My argument is that there is going to be LESS incentive to do that now. A government that grants cash and prizes to same-sex couples will not be opposed by these couples. Not to mention the fact that this is just a slippery slope to the government further encroaching on the liberties of those who choose personally not to recognize marriages between same-sex couples on religious grounds. My prediction is that it will not be too long before churches that refuse to marry same-sex couples lose their tax-exempt status, while those who do engage in the practice will retain it. Rather than celebrating this decision as a temporary fix, we should grieve it as a portent of even greater state overreach.

Sheldon Richman June 26, 2015, 7:20 pm

The world is a messy place, but I don’t believe in sacrificing people to The Cause.

Richman capitalizes “The Cause.”  The capitalization suggests something.  But Richman doesn’t expand – not in his reply here, at least.

I did a search for “the cause” and “Sheldon Richman,” and came up with the following:

…we will never bring the mass of people to the cause of liberty.

the cause of understanding society, prosperity, and liberty.

So I, for one, don’t accept the division of the case for freedom into “the moral” and “the practical.” It’s a mistake, not to mention harmful to the cause.

And what happens to the cause when “privatization” is perceived to fail, as it did with the Baltimore schools and elsewhere?

“The Cause” is liberty.  Richman does not “believe in sacrificing people to” liberty.  Consider what this suggests within the context of all of the left-leaning writing that Richman has done.

Let me be clear – I do not believe in sacrificing people for any cause; this is at the root of the non-aggression principle.  But context is important.  When a thin libertarian makes such a statement, the meaning is clear.  Richman, on the other hand, regularly includes features such as “respect” and “dignity” in his definition of libertarian.

Richman does not believe in sacrificing people to the cause of not sacrificing people!  To make some sense of this: Richman believes in the enforcement of (his preferred) positive rights to the detriment of the protection of your negative rights.

I have regularly posed the question: what would Richman suggest when his “shoulds” (treat all people, regardless of race, sex, lifestyle, etc., with respect and dignity) conflict with my property rights?  I have never received an answer.  I need not wait anymore; Richman’s answer is clear.  It is my property (my liberty) that will be sacrificed. 

I can only conclude that Richman is a leftist – in the very commonly-understood meaning of the term.  Libertarianism is useful to Richman only when it does not get in the way of his leftist philosophy.

A leftist wolf masquerading as a libertarian sheep.


  1. Nice that someone is sticking to his (NAP) guns.
    When gay "marriage" first evolved back in California, I said: "Well if they're going to allow gay marriage, they need to be just as sticky about gay divorce. This in the discussion about employer mandates.And isn't that just where the problems lie? Just like illegal immigration.
    It's the damn GUMMINT sticking their noses (and our money) where they shouldn't be.
    If it were just two people pledging their lives to each other in front of friends and family (witnesses), I'd just go "Awwww, that's sweet". (and actually, I have). But the legal entanglements spoil the mix.
    Back to mandates. At the time (1995 or so) AIDS was getting out of hand. So I posited a "serial marry-er" who would marry infected friends, provide them with health care for their remaining days, then re-marry etc etc.
    Many would make him a hero. Sucks for the employer...

  2. Uh, oh, he is calling Sheldon a leftist. Here is a quote for you from Rothbard's Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, page 447:
    "While he fought ardently in opposition to socialist and communist schemes, Bastiat elected to sit on the Left, as a proponent of laissez-faire and the republic, and as an opponent of protectionism, absolute monarchy, and a warlike foreign policy."

    While this labels are ultimately silly, the roots of libertarianism are firmly on the left, because liberty was ever at odds with tradition. For what is tradition, but a restriction on future choices?

    1. Ed, are you paid to carry Richman's water? You come to his defense, I reply, and you disappear.

    2. In Bastiat's time, the "left" didn't mean what you want it to, Ed.

    3. Ed, they call themselves left-libertarians. Take your beef up with them.

  3. 1. Wouldn't it make sense for libertarians to emphasize daily that libertarianism is completely neutral regarding lifestyle choices and that non-violent non-fraudulent lifestyle choices and viewpoints (however obnoxious) are not "actionable"?

    2. Shouldn't libertarians be trying hard to convert people with obnoxious lifestyle choices and outlooks to the NAP? If someone if going to be a Ku Kluxer, wouldn't you prefer one that follows the NAP as opposed to one that does not?

    3. It's been 8 years since Ron Paul smashed Rudy in that debate. How come the evangelicals still do not understand that libertarianism would allow them to live in "pious" private communities with "pious" non-public schools where no one would ever even lay eyes on a gay person or a doper and they could fly the rebel flag from now until forever?

    4. Why does no one preach that shunning would be an excellent and effective method for dealing with persons with odious lifestyles and viewpoints?

    1. Bob, thank you for the comment.

      1. Yes. This would be thin.

      2. To the extent a libertarian feels called to “convert,” yes.

      3. Because they believe in salvation by the state.

      4. I and others have written about this, but maybe not enough?

    2. "4. Why does no one preach that shunning would be an excellent and effective method for dealing with persons with odious lifestyles and viewpoints?"

      "4. I and others have written about this, but maybe not enough?"

      I have an article sitting on one of my computers about the topic that RW rejected....would you consider reading it and perhaps posting it on your site with me being a "guest contributor"?

      It might need a little editorial work and I'm open to minor changes....I know last we talked about the prospect, around a year ago or so that you were too busy...but I thought I'd put it out there since it seems relevant again.

    3. Nick

      I do so enjoy your writing, however other than Alice of Wonderland fame (and maybe one other such character), I have stayed away from guest posts.

    4. lol...I understand. If you ever change your mind please let me know.

  4. Beautifully reasoned article.

    "I have regularly posed the question: what would Richman suggest when his 'shoulds'...conflict with my property rights?... It is my property (my liberty) that will be sacrificed."

    Can we invite him to a public forum of some kind, get him on stage, turn on a camera, then confront him with this question in a way he can't evade? Want a little confirmation before we chisel his name in the tablet of hell.

    1. Richman and the other thicks have had ample opportunity do answer this question. In fact all the thicks ever do is dodge the question.

      Given the amount of time and energy that they spend insisting libertarians must be cosmopolitan, it is clear how they would come down on this issue. Not just Richman but all the thicks.

  5. By the way, thick libertarians are just supporters of whatever the current state agenda is. It's no coincidence that thicks are concerned with LGBT "rights", "white privilege", feminism, etc, and this is what the state is concerned with as well.

    If the state were to change, for example, to become "Islamic State" one could easily see thick libertarians endorsing that statist program as well. Libertarianism with exceptions to the NAP, just as our state cosmopolitan libertarians advocate today. So in this case the NAP would apply unless you were a blasphemer, homosexual, an infidel, a slave, and so on. In principle these thick additions to libertarianism are no different than those that thick libertarians want to apply to cis gendered white males and other state disfavored people.

    Enough with calling these people thick libertarians! I propose a different word for them. Modern communists disavow the Soviet Union nomenkatura as 'state capitalists'. I propose that we refer to thick libertarians as 'state libertarians'. Those who are libertarian, and take their cues from the state. Let us implement this terminology forthwith, and no longer use the term thick or thin.

  6. BM,

    I linked to this post on my site in my own critique of Richman and have been in an exchange with Thomas Knapp of C4SS over what Richman meant when he wrote it. Strangely, Knapp brought up something you said here that I did not quote in my post and seemed determined to make it the center of the argument. I refused to debate the merits of it there, and even stranger is that while he was willing to discuss what you said there he has yet to comment about it here.

    You wrote that "Yet nowhere have I read that Richman advocates for the property rights of bakers who refuse service to gay couples, or of bartenders who refuse service to (insert your favorite protected class here). In fact, he often writes what could easily be interpreted as the opposite – and even calls it libertarian."

    On my site Knapp posted this link to one of Richman's articles, where he acknowledges the property rights of such people while advocating for ways to deal with them without using state violence, and I'm curious how you view it within the context of what you said above.

    1. How I would view it is that Richman is either confused, or purposefully confusing. From the link you provided:

      While such behavior is repugnant, the refusal to serve someone because of his or her race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is nevertheless an exercise of self-ownership and freedom of nonassociation. It is both nonviolent and nonviolative of other people’s rights. If we are truly to embrace freedom of association, logically we must also embrace freedom of nonassociation.
      From another Richman post:

      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.

      Let’s get specific. Are there distinctly libertarian grounds for disapproving of racist conduct that does not involve the use of force?

      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.


      So, how are these two reconciled? How can libertarianism include the freedom of non-association and at the same time be associated with tolerance and inclusion. A philosophy cannot so directly contradict itself without being considered bankrupt.

      If you want to advocate tolerance and inclusion, feel free; just don’t include it as a desire to expand the meaning of libertarian philosophy – as Richman does.

      I suspect that I write as much as any libertarian about cultural and ethical topics. I try to never make these a part of my statements about libertarian theory, property, and the NAP. Richman does. He is wrong to do so, and he is helping to corrupt the message.

    2. Well put. I am similarly puzzled by the two seemingly contradictory statements. It's only fair that if he's going to argue one view, he has to disavow the other.