Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Thick and Thin

Robert Wenzel posted a video, a debate between Sheldon Richman and Walter Block regarding left-libertarianism.  It is worth watching, beginning where Robert has indicated (I did not watch what preceded this).  My comment regarding the debate (with some comments for clarification now added), posted at Target Liberty:

There are three separate issues, I believe:

First: libertarian theory is libertarian theory - the NAP based on property rights. There are no "shoulds" or "buts" to this. Block is correct. How someone comes to accept this is unimportant - that they accept it is important. Again, Block is correct.

And Richman is incorrect.  Twice.

Second, how to achieve a libertarian society is a different issue. Promotion of the thinnest definition makes for the biggest tent. Repetitively…Block is correct.

Again, Richman is incorrect.

How to maintain a libertarian society, if ever achieved, is a third. Different communities are free to establish different [cultural – meaning property owners are free to discriminate] standards - call these non-libertarian standards achieved via libertarian means. I haven’t read or heard anything from Block on this.

Not to suggest Block hasn’t written on this (is there anything libertarian upon which Block hasn’t written?), just that I haven’t read it.

I have read Hoppe on this and I have read, in a more general sense, those self-described left-libertarians. I believe Hoppe is correct. However, as long as different communities are free to go their own way, this need not be a point of contention; yet by bastardizing points one and two, left-libertarians make it so.

This is where the modifiers can properly come in, and not before.  In other words, as long as different communities are free (or not) to establish in a libertarian way certain discriminatory rules (call it culture), there is no conflict between so-called left and other libertarians.  Live and let live in the one of ten thousand different libertarian communities that best fits your desires.

In the interview, Richman suggests Block hasn’t read the right stuff on left-libertarianism.  He offers as the best work a piece by Charles Johnson, “Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin: What Kind of Commitment Is Libertarianism?”

Well, I have read it.  Here goes:

To what extent should libertarians concern themselves with social commitments, practices, projects, or movements that seek social outcomes beyond, or other than, the standard libertarian commitment to expanding the scope of freedom from government coercion?

Which social movements should they oppose, which should they support, and toward which should they counsel indifference? And how do we tell the difference?

Johnson offers that “at least four other kinds of connections might exist between libertarianism and further social commitments….” 

At least he said “might.”

Thickness for Application

If feminists are right about the way in which sexist political theories protect or excuse systematic violence against women, there is an important sense in which libertarians, because they are libertarians, should also be feminists.

The initiation of violence or force is covered quite perfectly by the NAP; I see no need to garble it.  Johnson disagrees.

Importantly, the commitments that libertarians need to have here aren’t just applications of general libertarian principle to a special case; the argument calls in resources other than the nonaggression principle to determine just where and how the principle is properly applied.

Two thoughts come to mind.  First, why?  The initiation of violence is the initiation of violence.  Need we introduce something like “hate crimes” legislation?  Do we have to know what was in the perpetrator’s heart in order to identify a crime?

Second, I agree that the application of the NAP often is not clear-cut and local custom will influence application; for example, what is proper “punishment” or “restitution” for a given violation of the NAP?

But violence is violence.  The NAP doesn’t need help on this issue.

Thickness from Grounds

…there may be cases in which certain beliefs or commitments could be rejected without contradicting the nonaggression principle per se, but could not be rejected without logically undermining the deeper reasons that justify the nonaggression principle.

Consider the conceptual reasons that libertarians have to oppose authoritarianism, not only as enforced by governments but also as expressed in culture, business, the family, and civil society. Social systems of status and authority include not only exercises of coercive power by the government, but also a knot of ideas, practices, and institutions based on deference to traditionally constituted authority.

This is total and complete nonsense.  A society without any form of hierarchical order?  A tyrant is always standing at the ready, promising such a society. 

Are we talking about libertarianism in a world populated by humans or some other species?

But while there’s nothing logically inconsistent about a libertarian envisioning—or even championing—this sort of social order, it would certainly be weird.

No, “weird” is describing a political philosophy that requires a new man; in order to achieve leftist dreams creating a new man is always necessary.  This is true for leftists of all stripes.

Strategic Thickness—The Causes of Liberty

Thus, for example, left-libertarians such as Roderick Long have argued that libertarians have genuine reasons to be concerned about large inequalities of wealth or large numbers of people living in absolute poverty, and to support voluntary associations, such as mutual-aid societies and voluntary charity.

Even a totally free society in which large numbers of people are desperately poor is likely to be in great danger of collapsing into civil war. A totally free society in which a small class of tycoons owns 99 percent of the property and the vast majority of the population own almost nothing is unlikely to remain free for long if the tycoons should decide to use their wealth to purchase coercive legal privileges against the unpropertied majority—simply because they have a lot of resources to attack with and the majority hasn’t got the material resources to defend themselves.

Look, have all of the voluntary societies you want – how could any libertarian argue?  The rest of this gobbledygook is one big strawman.  A totally free society where a few tycoons own 99% of the wealth?  Even Johnson recognizes the strawmanism (is that a word?):

Now, to the extent that persistent, severe poverty, and large-scale inequalities of wealth are almost always the result of government intervention, it’s unlikely that totally free societies would face such dire situations.

Duh.  So why bring up this leftist complaint?  Why not just focus on the root?

So what does Johnson recommend in today’s world of crony-wealth due to government intervention?

…it may well make good strategic sense for [libertarians] to support voluntary, nongovernmental efforts that work to undermine or bypass consolidated political-economic power.

If you want to support them or not is up to you; if I recall Democracy in America correctly, this was an inherent feature of a relative free society.  But voluntary efforts are thin as thin can be – why enter into an entire discussion about class warfare?  It sounds so Marxist.

Thickness from Consequences—The Effects of Liberty

…left-libertarians such as Kevin Carson and Matt MacKenzie have argued forcefully for libertarian criticism of certain business practices—such as low-wage sweatshop labor—as exploitative.

It is very easy to be “forcefully” concerned about this while drinking clean water in an air-conditioned office after a good night’s sleep in a warm bed.

Throughout the twentieth century most libertarians rushed to the defense of such practices on the grounds that they result from market processes and are often the best economic options for extremely poor people in developing countries.

Yes, I basically just said the same thing – but far more colorfully, don’t you think?

The problem with trying to use free market economic principles in the defense of such labor practices is that those practices arose in markets that are far from being free.

So why not just focus on removing the not-free-market practices?  Once again, why turn it into something it isn’t?  Why focus on the symptom instead of the cause?  (Can I say “Marx” again?)


Richman offers this article as the best defense of left-libertarianism.  This article could have been written (with minor modification) by any leftist of any stripe.

I have written before that Richman seems to place “left” as a higher priority than “libertarian”; in other words, he would sacrifice liberty (“The Cause”) to bring on his version of justice.  Richman here comes even closer to stating this directly…but still not quite.

Come out of the closet, Sheldon.  Say it loud, say it proud.


  1. I, too watched the debate from the anointed timeframe forward. From Sheldon's own arguments, it seems that he, and perhaps all left libertarians(?) are viewing the NAP as a mere means to some greater end. This seems to be what he is saying when he argues that we come to the NAP through some basis. Allow me to imagine that this basis might be some concept such as Social Justice, whatever that means. Therefore the end is Social Justice (or some similar view of a 'just' world), and the NAP is simply a means to achieve that. The higher goal would always be the envisioned end state.

    This brings up an interesting question. What of the right libertarians? And what of the plumb-line libertarians? Do they see the NAP as a means to some end, and what end would that be? Or do they see the NAP as an end unto itself? It seems a fair question. One I'm not qualified to really answer.

    Looking on the bright side of what is possible, when using your fine example of the ten thousand different libertarian communities we can see that the NAP supports many many different ultimate ends. Through adherence to the NAP and property rights, there could be a kaleidoscope of different outcomes (ends) at the local levels, all enabled by the NAP. This is why NAP and libertarianism should remain thin. To place specific ends above the NAP is to inch (or march?) towards totalitarianism.

    I would enjoy any thoughts you have surrounding the question of whether and how the NAP is a means, or an end, to whom.

    1. “From Sheldon's own arguments, it seems that he, and perhaps all left libertarians (?) are viewing the NAP as a mere means to some greater end.”

      This is exactly the feeling I had. I am glad you introduced this into this post.

      “I would enjoy any thoughts you have surrounding the question of whether and how the NAP is a means, or an end, to whom.”

      I think you have answered this: Can it be an end for society in order to achieve a means for the individual?

      An end for answering the societal (political) question of when the use of force is justified. A means for individuals to thereafter be free to pursue whatever further ends they desire…desires not in violation of the NAP, of course.

      There is no such thing as a societal end beyond the NAP for a libertarian as a libertarian, it seems to me. As a human being, the number of ends thereafter is limitless – we are all different, with different values, etc.

      So, how to distinguish left from right in this? I have written, and still believe, that Hoppe’s cultural construct is more conducive to maintaining a libertarian society. But who knows? It doesn’t really matter what I believe. I go back to the ten-thousand communities. There need be no issue as long as libertarianism is defined as nothing more than the NAP grounded in property rights.

    2. Let there be many libertarian societies, and let us benefit from competition.
      Why bother designing the perfect libertarian society, when we know that societies design themselves?

      And if some community does not like the NAP or the idea of property rights, let them have it their way. The people there will either succeed or run away asking to be admitted in a NAP-property rights community. No problem, unless the commies want the slave to be returned.

  2. "strawmanism (is that a word?)"

    Googled it; has been used before but I don't think it's in any dictionary.

  3. My belief with the left-libs is that when the vast majority of them get to the end of their lives and their leftism and high time preference leads to less favorable outcomes they'll stick with the leftism and jettison the libertarianism. In other words, for many of them libertarianism is a convenient tool and not much more. I put the many of the conservo-libertarians in the same position, except that I'm of the belief that conservo-libertarians culture tends towards lower time preference and therefore is less likely to necessitate the flip.

  4. I see left-thick libertarianism as a form of legalism (as in "religious legalism").
    Imagine we live in a free society, with complete free association. There is a group of bleeding-hearts who say: "inside our group, it is forbidden to pay women less than men. The reason for this is that we consider it unjust and it hurts our feelings." Then there is a group of very religious people who say "inside our group we have forbidden pornography, liquor, music and wearing green hats. The reason for this is that we consider all those things to be sinful and are offenses to God." Probably, in the BH group it is allowed everything that is forbidden in the Religious group, and perhaps in the religious group it is not allowed for women to even have a salary, let alone to have an equal salary. I can see that the BH group will criticize and avoid association with the religious group, and that the religious group will do the same. And I can see a group of thin-libertarians saying to both groups "we don't really care either for your religion or the salary of your women. We can do business, if you so please." Therefore, in the eyes of those who do not believe in the particular god (or concept of justice, feelings, worldview) of a particular group, it is possible still to cooperate, but they have to be wary of possible problems stemming from legalism.


    The thin libertarianism of Walter Block is more encompassing, tolerant, consistent and capable of surviving.
    Being a principled yet kind person does get you far, like Ron Paul.
    Being a jerk, even a polite jerk, does not get you far. And I better don't give examples.


    With respect to Sheldon Richman, I think he is great. He's too well read to fall for Zwolinski's traps. Here's a Tom Wood's show with Richman: http://tomwoods.com/podcast/ep-62-separating-school-and-state/

    I think he is wrong about the "left" thing. He argues that capitalism is a loaded word that should not be used. It is loaded for those who hate that word, but "left" and "feminism" and "social justice" are also tainted words for other people.

    But he is a wonderful teacher of libertarian thought.

    As happens with Szasz, many libertarians can disagree completely over his main point, but they have to agree with almost everything else, because they say the same things.


    Block also did a debate with Bryan Caplan. It was refreshing.
    Caplan is not a BHL. And I wouldn't be surprised to see Caplan picking a fight with the BHLs someday. He is a professor, not a social justice warrior, not one for playing politics. So even if he is not an Austrian, he can become an ally at some point. Sort of.

    Block is like the knight in the chessboard.


    Lastly, the rightism and the leftism may be heartwarming for some, but are divisive. Which is good because we are not fascists or communists. And moderates, will bring to anger both right and left.

    Libertarians will always find a way to feel letdown by each other.

  5. Jason Lee Byas points out that thin libertarianism is a logical contradiction:


    1. The last place I'm going for logical refutations is C4SS.

    2. Nice fallacy of origins, Dr. Weezil.

  6. I still reject the necessity for any “NAP +” type position. Of course we should give examples of how differing people of differing values and cultures could/would establish voluntary communities. However, under an actual NAP regime, those roles will most likely be taken by experts from the “hospitality industry” and there will be as many types of communities as there are types of deodorant or musical styles (OH DEAR, can we afford to have 23 types of deodorant when children are starving?).

    Are these thick-ists trying to gain favor with actual leftists? Why would any libertarian bother with that because those people will always hate us. The thing that motivates leftists is their underlying hatred for average working people, poor people and minorities. In fact, they are the true “racists” because they do not believe that average people and minorities can manage their lives without the compulsory help of the anointed leftist. In fact, this is behind the leftist instantaneous call for gun control in response to every shooting, among all of the other controls they demand.

    On the other hand, libertarians believe that average people and minorities will do just fine under the NAP because they and their property will be safe in the present and over time as they accumulate wealth and we trust their judgment and ablities. Further, I believe that the source of the hatred of Austrian School analysis by the left is that we insist the solution to our problems is to simply allow the populace to go at it and create the necessary prices and exchange ratios which will guide economic calculation. There is no role whatsoever for the anointed control freak leftist under that scenario who certainly does not want his fragile self-image destroyed with the notion that his controls are the cause (and the not the cure) of most of society’s ills. Ever met a Keynesian who grasped the notion that his “cures” were the cause of the problem?

    Are left libertarians suffering from that same control freak state of mind because they do not seem to trust that average people have the ability to do the right thing under the NAP?

    1. Agreed. But has leftist “help” already caused the masses to retrogress to a dependent feudal serf dependency? If self-reliance is not exercised it withers.


  7. The leftist vision of the "new man" (or "new science fiction man of the future") is right on. The NAP is for the same old schmucks we have now and their offspring.

  8. "Richman seems to place 'left' as a higher priority than 'libertarian'; in other words, he would sacrifice liberty ('The Cause') to bring on his version of justice."

    I'm glad you relent to say "seems" to. Because does he actually? Therein lies the crux of the issue. If he does, indeed Richman is not a libertarian and is corruptive to claim to be. But otherwise there is nothing to see here.

    From beginning to end of this video Richman tied all his left-libertarian positions back to the NAP, thus explaining why they are included and relevant to a libertarian belief system. Moreover, I didn't once hear him prioritize anything above the NAP. Hmmm. Why are we upset with Richman again?

    It's fine to criticize one group of libertarians hanging certain ornaments on its tree vs. another group hanging different ornaments on its tree vs. another group hanging no ornaments on its tree. As long as with all libertarian groups the tree is the NAP and nothing but the NAP, and the tree always comes first before any ornaments, I don't see what all the fuss is about.

    1. "Relent" has nothing to do with it. I hear and read his words also.

      Every president swears an oath to uphold the constitution. Yet subsequent actions, let's just say, call their commitment into question.

      Richman has all but said it directly. His use of "The Cause" and the context in which he uses it "seems" to strongly suggest that his leftism conquers his libertarianism.

    2. That's reasonable. I just need to see the evidence make the case. Same way the extensive evidence of their actual behaviors is what damns the presidents.

      Even our standard-bearing friend Walter Block has employed the term "The Cause" in his comments elsewhere on the question of accepting state money and using state infrastructure, commenting that libertarianism is not a suicide pact requiring us to live as hermits or kill ourselves in service of "The Cause."