Posts tagged Jan Narveson

Can anybody ever consent to the State?

Update 2009-01-08: Typos fixed.

These are some remarks on the State and the conceptual possibility of consent, which I originally prepared for my appearance at the Molinari Society’s Authors-Meet-Critics last week in Philadelphia, but which I opted not to read because of time constraints. Fortunately, blogs are not subject to the same constraints of time or topicality, so I have expanded a bit on what I originally prepared, and now I offer them to you, gentle reader.

In their remarks on Crispin Sartwell’s Against the State, both Christopher Morris and Jan Narveson object to Sartwell’s conclusion that existing states are conceptually incompatible with the very possibility of consent (40, emphasis added). Specifically, they object to the strength or the sweep of the incompatibility claim: Morris thinks that this is an exaggeration and an unnecessary one, and Narveson insists that such a strong claim of incompatibility cannot be taken literally. Each attempts to refute the incompatibility claim, at least as originally stated, by means of counterexamples. Presumably, if you can point to at least one case where individual consent to be ruled is actually secured by an existing state, then clearly (modal logic and all that) it must not be logically impossible for existing states to secure it. And each argues that Sartwell could have done just as well, for the purpose of undermining consensualist accounts of legitimacy, with a much weaker claim. Narveson goes so far as to attribute this weaker claim to Sartwell, insisting that Sartwell really must have meant to say, not that existing states operate in a way that logically precludes any of their subjects from consenting to their rule, but rather that they operate so as to preclude the unanimous consent of all their subjects — that is, that there must always be at least one dissenter in any given state, not that there never can be any non-dissenters.

What then are the counterexamples to be considered? Narveson mentions those who voted in a government election for the party currently in power. Morris, for his part, says that at least some people seem voluntarily to perform acts that seem to constitute consent, and they seem to do so with the requisite understandings. I’d be interested to know whether the performances Morris has in mind are performative utterances like the Pledge of Allegiance or citizenship oaths, where the utterer explicitly declares her support for a particular government, or whether he also means to include other kinds of acts, which have some other purpose but from which consent can reasonably be inferred. But whatever sorts of spontaneous or ritualized performances Morris or Narveson may have in mind, what puzzles me is that, while they indicate these cases as counterexamples to Sartwell’s strong claim — as presented on page 40 of Against the State — neither Morris nor Narveson seems to engage with the direct argument for which the strong claim is the conclusion — as presented on page 50 — in which Sartwell explicitly considers and rejects the claim that these sorts of individual performances could count as consenting to the State’s rule. Thus:

… consent is always compromised by force; the mere existence of effective force dedicated to some end constitutes coercion toward that end, whatever you may think or want. If I consent to abide by the law when that law is enforced by a huge body of men with guns and clubs, it is never clear, to say the least, whether my consent is genuine or not. … It will always be prudent for me, under such circumstances, to simulate consent, and there are no clear signs by which a simulation could be distinguished from a genuine consent in such a case. That I am enthusiastic in my acquiescence to your overwhelming capacity for violence—that I pledge my allegiance according to formula, sing patriotic songs and so on—does not entail that I am not merely acquiescing. … [T]he mere existence of an overwhelming force by which the laws will be enforced compromises conceptually the possibility of voluntarily acceding to them. Or put it this way: the power of government, constituted by hypothesis under contract, by which it preserves the liberties and properties of its citizens, is itself conceptually incompatible with the very possibility of their consent. (50-51)

That is, the standing threat of overwhelming force ensures that any individual performance is made under duress, ruling out the preconditions for any genuine consent. I’d be interested to hear what Narveson and Morris make of this argument for rejecting their purported counterexamples to the strong claim. Unless there is some response to it, then it seems like the attempt to use individual performances as evidence for the actual existence of (at least some) individual consent to the State, which is to say, as evidence against Sartwell’s strong incompatibility claim, is simply question-begging.

Now, I think it would be perfectly fair for Narveson and Morris to object that Sartwell’s argument, as stated, does need some tightening, and may also need some elaborating. But I think that once the tightening and the elaborating have been done, the argument does in fact provide a basis for a very strong version of Crispin’s strong incompatibility claim — and the strong version of that strong claim will be of general interest for anyone who intends to connect their notion of political right to respect for individual liberty, and their notion of liberty to respect for individual consent in the use of person or property.

Now, if someone goes through the motions of consenting while under a background threat of force against dissenters, for Narveson or Morris to be able to insist that it is possible for that to express genuine consent only if they deny at least one of the following principles:

  1. Any seeming expression of consent to a condition C, if given under a standing threat of force against refusers, is given under duress.

  2. Any seeming expression of consent to a condition C, if given under duress, cannot be treated as a genuine expression of consent to C.

  3. If you cannot do anything that could be treated as a genuine expression of consent to a condition C, then you do not count as having consented to C.

All three seem initially plausible, to me at least, but if Narveson or Morris accepts all three, then it quickly follows that he cannot count as having consented to any condition C when there is a background threat of force against those who refuse to consent to C. Since that’s how existing states roll, nobody could do anything that would count as having consented to the state — and that would remain the case even for those who say that they consent with all their heart out of an earnest feeling of duty and with a great deal of pride. If all three principles are accepted, then even if you want to give your consent to the State’s rule over you, you can’t do it, because the state’s unilateral imposition of the terms preempts your efforts to consent to the terms.

So, if Narveson or Morris wants to avoid that conclusion, he’ll have to pick one of the principles to reject, and the question is which one to pick.

Principle (1) looks like it’s not very far off of a definition of acting under duress (or performing the specific action of seemingly-expressing-consent under duress). I doubt that much of anyone will be inclined to reject that — or, if they are so inclined, it will probably be because they first rejected a principle very similar to principle (2) — basically, (2) modified so that under a standing threat of force against refusers substitutes for under duress — but are inclined to think that any case of genuine consent should (therefore) not be considered a case of action under duress. In which case you have a counterexample to (1) rather than to (2), as I’ve stated the principles. But if so, then the motivations for rejecting (1) will be similar enough to the motivations for rejecting (2) that my comments below should apply equally to either.

Principle (2) may look much more promising to someone who wants to defend the claim that people may be voluntarily consenting to state authority — even though they would have been forced to acquiesce even if they had tried to refuse. The idea would be something like this: Look, you’ve given us a perfectly good reason to think that there are at least some people who would seem to be consenting but aren’t actually consenting. Fine, but why think their situation affects those who sincerely do want to agree to the terms the State sets down? At most this seems like an epistemological problem — that we may have trouble finding out whether somebody consented or not just on the basis of their outward actions. It doesn’t make it logically impossible for them to have done so.

Some of the ways in which Sartwell tries to state his case might indeed incline you towards a worry like this — as when he argues that It will always be prudent for me, under such circumstances, to simulate consent, and there are no clear signs by which a simulation could be distinguished from a genuine consent in such a case. The mere fact that a second or third party couldn’t distinguish a simulation from genuine consent wouldn’t (just by itself) warrant the conclusion that there can be no such thing as genuine consent. But I think that there are two possible responses to this worry. First, if the worry is purely epistemic, it still poses a serious problem for any consensualist justification of the state — if it is the case, as I think it is, that it is illegitimate not only to use someone’s person or property without her consent, but also to use someone’s person or property when there is no possible way for you to find out whether she has consented or not. (Consider this an argument to the effect that the State cannot be legitimate because it has no reliable procedure for determining whether its rule over any given subject is in fact legitimate or illegitimate. Take that, Robert Nozick.) But, secondly, and more to the point, I think that there is a stronger interpretation of Sartwell’s argument, on which the worry is logical rather than epistemological, because the lack of clear signs of a distinction is not just a lack of diagnostic symptoms, but rather a lack of necessary criteria.

Think of it this way. The claim that a seeming expression of consent does not count, when given under duress, is usually justified by something like the following principle:

Principle of the Alternative: If Norton wants to place Twain’s person or property under a condition C, then Twain’s performing an action A expresses consent to C only if there is some alternative action B, which Twain could have performed, which would have counted as refusing consent to C.

I take this principle to be a necessary condition for a performance to meet the concept of expressing consent. An expression of consent is necessarily a choice among alternatives; if there is nothing that would even count as a refusal, then what we have is just not a matter of consent. Whatever Twain’s personal feelings about A or C may be, what he’s doing when he does A may be an expression of deference, or of obligation, or of some other similar sort of commitment. But whatever it is, it’s just not an expression of consent.

More strongly, and more importantly for the purposes of our argument, it is not enough that there just be something that would count as refusing consent. Consent is a property of transactions between two or more parties, and for you to have it, there must not only be something that would count as a refusal; your partner must also be willing to count that performance, whatever it is, as a refusal which she is bound to respect. An alternative must not only be available; there must be some reasonable expectation that the alternative would be practically effective.

Opt-Out Principle: If Norton wants to place Twain’s person or property under a condition C, then Twain’s performing an action A expresses consent to C only if there is some alternative action B, which Twain could have performed, which would have counted as refusing consent to C, and which Twain can reasonably expect Norton to accept as a decisive reason not to place Twain’s person or property under C.

Again, I take this principle to be a necessary condition for a performance to count as expressing consent; just as the lack of a possible refusal makes the issue one of obligation rather than consent, if Twain performs an expressive act without any expectation that there is some expression of refusal that Norton would consider himself bound to respect, then the issue is no longer one of consent, but rather of unilateral command. And again, it hardly matters what Twain’s personal feelings about the command may be. Maybe he’s into that kind of thing. But whatever he is doing, he is not succeeding at doing anything that would count as expressing consent. You can’t consent if you’re never asked, and if there really is nothing that Norton would count as a binding refusal, then Twain has never even been asked, in any meaningful way.

I think the Principle of the Alternative and the Opt-Out Principle, or something a lot like them, are central to Sartwell’s worry about the difficulty of telling a genuine willingness to accept the state’s terms apart from a willingness simulated only under duress. I also think that these principles, or something a lot like them, provide the only reasonable explanation for why, as a general thing, we should disregard a seeming expression of consent that was only given under duress, and would not have been given but for the threat. (It might seem important that such seeming expressions are not sincere reflections of the utterer’s inner state. But that by itself is not enough. I might freely give an insincere expression of consent — say I consent to let you use my car, but I secretly intend to call the cops on you and report it stolen. But then the expression, even though insincere, is still genuine consent; given my expression of consent to you, it would be false for me to claim that you had stolen my car from me, no matter what I may have whispered to myself in the dark recesses of my soul.) But if both principles, or something a lot like them, express necessary conditions for a performance to genuinely express consent, then it looks like Principle (2) follows without much delay. And it follows in its full logical force — the worry here, remember, has nothing to do with whether or not Norton knows that Twain is genuinely expressing consent; it has to do with whether or not necessary criteria have been met for Twain’s expressions to count as expressions of consent. If the state rigs the situation in such a way that there is nothing it would count as opting out, then it has also rigged the situation in such a way that there is nothing it could really count as opting in; opting just isn’t part of this game. Neither expressing consent nor expressing dissent are even options that are on the table; if the state gives non-negotiable, unilateral commands, merely being cheerfully responsive to those commands is not enough to count as consent in any meaningful sense. And if this is the case, then it ought to be clear that it immediately defeats any claim that, for example, voting, or paying taxes, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or anything of the sort, could count as giving your consent to be ruled by the government that you vote for, or pay taxes to, or pledge your allegiance to. If not voting, not paying your taxes, not reciting the Pledge, or whatever, would exempt you from the terms that the United States imposes on you, then those who chose to do so anyway might well be counted as consenting to be ruled by the United States. But anarchist activism would also be an awful lot easier than it is, and the United States would not, in fact, even amount to a State — at least, not in any sense of the word that anarchists use when they proclaim all States to be illegitimate (because nonconsensual). In the real world, where government taxes and government prohibitions fall on the heads of the voters and the non-voters alike, there is, as Lysander Spooner argues, no way that an performance under such conditions can count as consent to government.

In truth, in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent, even for the time being. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having ever been asked, a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practise this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, be finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defence, he attempts the former. His case is analogous to that of a man who has been forced into battle, where he must either kill others, or be killed himself. Because, to save his own life in battle, a man attempts to take the lives of his opponents, it is not to be inferred that the battle is one of his own choosing. Neither in contests with the ballot – which is a mere substitute for a bullet – because, as his only chance of self-preservation, a man uses a ballot, is it to be inferred that the contest is one into which he voluntarily entered; that he voluntarily set up all his own natural rights, as a stake against those of others, to be lost or won by the mere power of numbers. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, in an exigency, into which he had been forced by others, and in which no other means of self-defence offered, he, as a matter of necessity, used the only one that was left to him.

Doubtless the most miserable of men, under the most oppressive government in the world, if allowed the ballot, would use it, if they could see any chance of thereby ameliorating their condition. But it would not therefore be a legitimate inference that the government itself, that crushes them, was one which they had voluntarily set up, or ever consented to.

Therefore a man’s voting under the Constitution of the United States, is not to be taken as evidence that he ever freely assented to the Constitution, even for the time being. Consequently we have no proof that any very large portion, even of the actual voters of the United States, ever really and voluntarily consented to the Constitution, even for the time being. Nor can we ever have such proof, until every man is left perfectly free to consent, or not, without thereby subjecting himself or his property to injury or trespass from others.

— Lysander Spooner (1867), No Treason no. 2, § II ¶¶ 12–14

Spooner, for his own reasons, couches his argument in epistemological terms — or, more specifically, in terms of legally cognizable proof. But, once again, the argument that he frames epistemically can be reframed in terms of the conceptual criteria for a public expression of consent by means of the Principle of the Alternative and the Opt-Out Principle.

I suspect, then, that someone who wants to defend the claim that it is possible to consent to the state’s authority — in spite of the background threat of coercion against anyone who attempts to refuse — will ultimately have to fall back on rejecting Principle (3). That is, in order to defend the claim the claim they are trying to defend, they will need to make some kind of distinction between the property of consenting as such, and the property of expressing consent. In fact I think it’s likely that this is the real core of Morris’s and Narveson’s intuitive sense that of course there must be some people who are consenting to existing states. It may seem like we just know that it’s possible to consent to the state, because we think we see it in people all around us, in their everyday practices and beliefs — whatever attitude the state may have towards them, their personal attitudes involve an acceptance of the state. We might have the same feelings ourselves, or even if we do not, we might imagine that we have them. We might even express this attitude of acceptance with a form of words like I want the State to rule me, or even I consent to the authority of the state. But if the discussion is about consent, and not merely about acceptance or desire, and if consent is supposed to have any kind of weight in ethical deliberation about the transactions between two or more agents, then I doubt that such a notion of private attitudes of consent — attitudes which might not only be unexpressed at the moment, but might not even be expressible in principle, under the prevailing circumstances — is likely to be coherent. That is, I doubt that private acceptance of the state can be understood as consent, at least in any sense that would preserve the connection between consent and political legitimacy, which is after all what inspired us to introduce the question of consent into the discussion of political theory in the first place.

If there is no effective possibility of refusal, then there is no possibility of publicly expressing consent, and if there is no possibility of publicly expressing consent, then there is no possibility of consenting. If existing states make a standing threat to force people to submit to their terms, even if they do not agree to those terms, then governments cut off any effective possibility of refusal, and thus nobody can do anything that would count as consenting to be ruled by an existing state — even if she wants to do so, and even if she sincerely says that she agrees to the terms. Since all existing states do make that standard threat, no existing state rules by consent over any individual subject. And if governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, then no government has any just powers at all. Even the most patriotic pledger or the most dutiful voter has not consented to be bound by the terms the state imposes, even if she tried to get herself bound by them; she is not bound in conscience to pay taxes, or to obey government prohibitions, or to obey the government’s requirements in any other way, for even one second longer than she wants to. And no existing state has either the duty or the right to enforce those terms on her.

Where do you normally go to get criticized?

Some of y’all may have already heard through Roderick; but for those of you who haven’t, I will be in Philadelphia from today through (the afternoon of) the 30th of December. I hope to spend some time checking out some local attractions, but my immediate purpose in being here is to take part in the Molinari Society’s joint Author Meets Critics session for Crispin Sartwell’s Against the State and the Anarchism/Minarchism anthology from Ashgate. In virtue of my essay in the anthology I’ll be among the Authors. The Critics I’ll be Meeting are Jennifer McKitrick, Christopher Morris, and Nicole Hassoun. The session will be at the Philadelphia Marriot downtown (1201 Market St., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on Monday, 29 December, from 1:30 – 4:30pm. Here’s the current lineup, courtesy of Roderick:

GIX-3. Monday, 29 December 2008, 1:30-4:30 p.m.

Molinari Society symposium: Authors Meet Critics:
Crispin Sartwell’s Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory and
Roderick T. Long and Tibor R. Machan, eds., Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, 1201 Market Street, Room TBA

Chair: Carrie-Ann Biondi (Marymount Manhattan College)

Critics:

Authors:

The session will consist of three essays from the Critics offering critical responses to the books, followed by short replies from the Authors, and a discussion and Q&A to follow. Nicole Hassoun has diligently sent in her critical essay and Jan Narveson has sent in such replies as he’s been able to prepare, given what’s been sent to him (with some bonus remarks about Crispin Sartwell’s book); what the rest of us will be saying is, I guess, a mystery only to be revealed in the fullness of time. But I’m looking forward to hearing the critical engagement with the work we’ve done, and to joining in on the discussion.

The APA Eastern Division has refused to give out any information about room assignments in the materials you can get without forking over a registration fee — for evil’s sake, of course — so I won’t know where inside the Marriot we’ll be until tomorrowish. But as soon as I do know, I’ll let you know.

Anyway, come on down if you can; it’d be great to see you there. Or, even if you can’t, if you happen to be in the area, drop me a line; I’ll be around.

Libertarianism through Thick and Thin

This is the promised expanded edition of an essay which originally appeared in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty in August 2008. Enjoy!

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?

Clearly, a consistent and principled libertarian cannot support efforts or beliefs that are contrary to libertarian principles—such as efforts to engineer social outcomes by means of government intervention. But if coercive laws have been taken off the table, what should libertarians say about other religious, philosophical, social, or cultural commitments that pursue their ends through non-coercive means, such as targeted moral agitation, mass education, artistic or literary propaganda, charity, mutual aid, public praise, ridicule, social ostracism, targeted boycotts, social investing, slow-downs and strikes in a particular shop, general strikes, or other forms of solidarity and coordinated action? Which social movements should they oppose, which should they support, and towards which should they counsel indifference? And how do we tell the difference?

Recently, this question has often arisen in the context of debates over whether or not libertarianism should be integrated into a broader commitment to some of the social concerns traditionally associated with anti-authoritarian Left, such as feminism, anti-racism, gay liberation, counterculturalism, labor organizing, mutual aid, and environmentalism. Chris Sciabarra has called for a dialectical libertarianism which recognizes that Just as relations of power operate through ethical, psychological, cultural, political, and economic dimensions, so too the struggle for freedom and individualism depends upon a certain constellation of moral, psychological, and cultural factors (Total Freedom, p. 383), and in which the struggle for liberty is integrated into a comprehensive struggle for human liberation, incorporating (among other things) a commitment to gay liberation and opposition to racism. Kevin Carson has criticized the vulgar libertarianism of apologists for capitalism who seem to have trouble remembering, from one moment to the next, whether they’re defending actually existing capitalism or free market principles (Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, p. 142), and has argued that free market anarchists should ally themselves with those radical industrial unions, such as the IWW, that reject the interventionist methods of the state labor bureaucracy. Radical libertarians including Carol Moore, Roderick Long, and myself, have suggested that radical libertarian insights naturally complement, and should be integrated with, an anti-statist form of radical feminism.

On the other hand, Jan Narveson has argued that left libertarian concerns about the importance of cultural and social arrangements are at the most a strategic issue which libertarians should consider a separate issue from the structure of our theory. Leonard Read, the indefatigable founder of FEE, famously promoted the argument that libertarianism is compatible with Anything That’s Peaceful. And Walter Block has criticized left wing libertarians for perverting libertarianism (Libertarianism is unique, p. 28) in their effort to integrate common leftist concerns into the libertarian project. So long as cultural values are expressed without indulging in government intervention or any other form of coercion, Block argues, it should not matter to plumb-line libertarians whether the cultural values in question are left wing, right wing, or something else: Give me a break; this issue has nothing to do with libertarianism. … No, these are all matters of taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum (Ibid., p. 29).

However, it is important to keep in mind that the issue at hand in these discussions goes beyond the debate over left libertarianism specifically. The debate leads to some strange bedfellows: not only left libertarians defend the claim that libertarianism should be integrated into a comprehensive critique of prevailing social relations; so do paleolibertarians such as Gary North or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, when they make the equal but opposite claim that efforts to build a flourishing free society should be integrated with a rock-ribbed inegalitarian cultural and religious traditionalism. As do Randian Objectivists, when they argue that political freedom can only arise from a culture of secular romantic individualism and an intellectual milieu grounded in widespread, fairly specific agreement with the tenets of Objectivist metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology. Abstracting from the numerous, often mutually exclusive details of specific cultural projects that have been recommended or condemned in the name of libertarianism, the question of general principle has to do with whether libertarianism should be seen as a thin commitment, which can be happily joined to absolutely any non-coercive set of values and projects, or whether it should instead be seen as one strand among others in a thick bundle of intertwined social commitments. These disputes are often intimately connected with other disputes concerning the specifics of libertarian rights theory, or class analysis and the mechanisms of social power. In order to better get a grip on what’s at stake, it will be necessary to make the question more precise, and to tease out the distinctions between some of the different possible relationships between libertarianism and thicker bundles of social, cultural, religious, or philosophical commitments, which might recommend integrating the two on some level or another.

Thickness in entailment and conjunction

Let’s start with the clearest and least interesting cases.

There are clearly cases in which certain social, cultural, religious, or philosophical commitments might just be an application of libertarian principles to some specific case, which follow from the non-aggression principle by virtue of the law of non-contradiction. An Aztec libertarian might very well say, Of course libertarianism needs to be integrated with a stance on particular religious doctrines! It means you have to give up human sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli! Or, to take a politically current debate, it might well be argued that libertarians ought to actively oppose certain traditional cultural practices that involve the systematic use of violence against peaceful people – such as East African customs of forcing clitoridectomy on unwilling girls, or the American and European custom of excusing or justifying a man’s murder of an unfaithful wife or her lover (although not allowed for by government laws, revenge murderers were until very recently often acquitted or given a lesser sentence by judges and juries). What’s going on in these cases is that consistent, principled libertarianism logically entails criticism of these social and cultural practices, for the same reason that it entails criticism of government intervention: because the non-aggression principle condemns any violence against individual rights to life, liberty, and property, regardless of who commits them. Thus we might call this level of integration thickness in entailment. Thickness in entailment does raise one important issue: it is vital for libertarians to recognize that the non-aggression principle commits them to political opposition to any form of systematic coercion, not just the forms that are officially practiced by the government. Thus principled libertarianism is politically committed not only to anti-statism, but also to opposition to private forms of systematic coercion, such as chattel slavery or domestic violence against women. But in the end, it is dubious how far thickness in entailment really counts as a form of thickness at all, since at bottom it amounts only to the claim that libertarians really ought to be committed to libertarianism all the time.

At the opposite extreme, we might consider the extent to which there are social or cultural commitments that libertarians ought to adopt because they are worth adopting for their own sakes, independent of libertarian considerations. For example, it may be worthwhile for libertarians to all be kind to their children, because (among other things) being kind to your children is a worthwhile thing to do in its own right. You might call this thickness in conjunction, since the only relationship it asserts between libertarianism and some other social commitment (here, kindness to children), is that you ought to accept the one (for whatever reason), and also, as it happens, you ought to accept the other (for reasons that are independent of libertarianism). But again, it is unclear how far this counts as an interesting form of thickness for libertarianism to demand. If libertarianism is true, then we all ought to be libertarians; and besides being libertarians, we all ought to be good people, too. True, that, but it’s hardly an interesting conclusion, and it’s not clear who would deny it. Certainly not those who generally advocate the thin libertarian line.

Thickness in entailment and thickness in conjunction tell us little interesting about the relationship between libertarianism and other social commitments. But they do show the extent to which our original question needs to be asked in terms more precise than those in which it is usually asked. Considerations of entailment make clear that consistent libertarianism means not a narrow concern with government intervention only, but also opposition to all forms of coercion against peaceful people, whether carried out within or outside of the official policy of the state. And considerations of conjunction make clear that what is really of interest is not whether libertarians should also oppose social or cultural evils other than those involved in coercion (no doubt they should), but more specifically whether there are any other evils that libertarians should oppose as libertarians, that is, whether there are any further commitments that libertarians should make, beyond principled non-aggression, at least in part because of their commitment to libertarianism. In the two cases we have considered, the logical relationship between libertarian principles and the further commitments is either so tight (logical entailment) or else so loose (mere conjunction) that either the commitments cease to be further commitments, or else they become commitments that are completely independent of libertarianism. Thin-conception advocates like Block and Narveson often argue as if these two dubious forms of thickness were the only sorts of relationships that are on offer, and if they are right, then it seems unlikely that there is anything very interesting to say about thick libertarianism. But I will argue that, in between the tightest possible connection and the loosest possible connection, there are at least four other interesting connections that might exist between libertarianism and further social or cultural commitments. To the extent that they allow for connections looser than entailment but tighter than mere conjunction, they offer a number of important, but subtly distinct, avenues for thick libertarian analysis and criticism.

Thickness for application

One of the most important, but most easily overlooked, forms of thickness is what I will call thickness for application. There might be some commitments that a libertarian can reject without formally contradicting the non-aggression principle, but which she cannot reject without in fact interfering with its proper application. Principles beyond libertarianism alone may be necessary for determining where my rights end and yours begin, or stripping away conceptual blinders that prevent certain violations of liberty from being recognized as such.

Consider the way in which garden-variety political collectivism prevents many non-libertarians from even recognizing taxation or legislation by a democratic government as being forms of coercion in the first place. (After all, didn’t we consent to it?) Or, perhaps more controversially, think of the feminist criticism of the traditional division between the private and the political sphere, and of those who divide the spheres in such a way that pervasive, systemic violence and coercion within families turn out to be justified, or excused, or simply ignored, as something private and therefore less than a serious form of violent oppression. To the extent that 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. 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 non-aggression principle to determine just where and how the principle is properly applied. In that sense the thickness called for is thicker than entailment thickness; but the cash value of the thick commitments is still the direct contribution they make towards the full and complete application of the non-aggression principle.

Thickness from grounds

A second logical relationship that might hold between libertarianism and some further commitment is what I will call thickness from grounds. Libertarians have many different ideas about the theoretical foundation for the non-aggression principle—that is to say, about the best reasons for being a libertarian. But whatever general foundational beliefs a given libertarian has, those beliefs may have some logical implications other than libertarianism alone. Thus, there may be cases in which certain beliefs or commitments could be rejected without contradicting the non-aggression principle per se, but could not be rejected without logically undermining or contradicting the deeper reasons that justify the non-aggression principle. Although you could consistently accept libertarianism without accepting these commitments or beliefs, you could not do so reasonably: rejecting the commitments means rejecting the proper grounds for libertarianism.

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. In politics, these patterns of deference show up most clearly in the honorary titles, submissive etiquette, and unquestioning obedience traditionally expected by, and willingly extended to, heads of state, judges, police, and other visible representatives of government law and order. Although these rituals and habits of obedience exist against the backdrop of statist coercion and intimidation, they are also often practiced voluntarily. Similar kinds of deference are often demanded from workers by bosses, or from children by parents or teachers. Submission to traditionally constituted authorities is reinforced not only through violence and threats, but also through art, humor, sermons, written history, journalism, childrearing, and so on. Although political coercion is the most distinctive expression of political inequality, you could—in principle—have a consistent authoritarian social order without any use of force. Even in a completely free society, everyone could, in principle, still voluntarily agree to bow and scrape and speak only when spoken to in the presence of the (mutually agreed-upon) town Chief, or unthinkingly agree to obey whatever restrictions and regulations he tells them to follow over their own business or personal lives, or agree to give him as much in voluntary taxes on their income or property as he might ask. So long as the expectation of submission and the demands for wealth to be rendered were backed up only by means of verbal harangues, cultural glorifications of the wise and virtuous authorities, social ostracism of unruly dissenters, and so on, these demands would violate no-one’s individual rights to liberty or property. But while there’s nothing logically inconsistent about a libertarian envisioning—or even championing—this sort of social order, it would certainly be weird. Yes, in a free society the meek could voluntarily agree to bow and scrape, and the proud could angrily but nonviolently demand obsequious forms of address and immediate obedience to their commands. But why should they? Non-coercive authoritarianism may be consistent with libertarian principles, but it is hard to reasonably reconcile the two; whatever reasons you may have for rejecting the arrogant claims of power-hungry politicians and bureaucrats—say, for example, the Jeffersonian notion that all men and women are born equal in political authority, and that no-one has a natural right to rule or dominate other people’s affairs—probably serve just as well for reasons to reject other kinds of authoritarian pretension, even if they are not expressed by means of coercive government action. While no-one should be forced as a matter of policy to treat her fellows with the respect due to equals, or to cultivate independent thinking and contempt for the arrogance of power, libertarians certainly can—and should—criticize those who do not, and exhort our fellows not to rely on authoritarian social institutions, for much the same reasons that we have to endorse libertarianism in the first place.

Strategic thickness—the causes of liberty

There may be also cases in which certain ideas, practices, or projects are entailed by neither the non-aggression principle nor the best reasons for it, and are not logically necessary for its correct application, either, but are causal preconditions for implementing the non-aggression principle in the real world. Although rejecting these ideas, practices, or projects would be logically compatible with libertarianism, their success might be important or even causally necessary for libertarianism to get much purchase in an existing statist society, or for a future free society to emerge from statism without widespread poverty or social conflict, or for a future free society to sustain itself against aggressive statist neighbors, the threat of civil war, or an internal collapse back into statism. To the extent that other ideas, practices, or projects are causal preconditions for a flourishing free society, libertarians have strategic reasons to endorse them, even if they are conceptually independent of libertarian principles.

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 – that tend to undermine inequalities and to ameliorate the effects of poverty. The reasoning for this conclusion is not that libertarians should concern themselves with voluntary anti-poverty measures because free market principles logically entail support for some particular socioeconomic outcome (clearly they do not); nor is it merely because charity and widespread material well-being are worth pursuing for their own sake (they may be, but that would reduce the argument to thickness in conjunction). Rather, the point is that there may be a significant causal relationship between economic outcomes and the material prospects for sustaining a free society. 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. Even a totally free society in which a small class of tycoons own the overwhelming majority of the wealth, 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 unpropertued majority—simply because they have a lot of resources to attack with, and the majority haven’t got the material resources to defend themselves. Now, to the extent that persistent, severe poverty, and large-scale inequalities of wealth are almost always the result of government intervention – and thus as much a concern for thickness from consequences, as discussed below, as for strategic thickness — it’s unlikely that many totally free societies would face such dire situations; over time, many if not most of these problems would likely sort themselves out spontaneously through free market processes, even without conscious anti-poverty activism. But even where problems of poverty or economic inequality would sort themselves out in a society that has already been free for some time, they are still likely to be extremely pressing for societies like ours, which are not currently free, which libertarians hope to help become free through education and activism. Certainly in our unfree market there are large-scale inequalities of wealth and widespread poverty, most of it created by the heavy hand of government intervention, in the form of direct subsidies and the creation of rigged or captive markets. Those tycoons who now enjoy the fruit of those privileges can and have and and will continue to exercise some of the tremendous advantage that they enjoy in material resources and political pull to pressure government to perpetuate or expand the interventions from which the profiteering class benefits. Since libertarians aim to abolish those interventions, it may well make good strategic sense for them to oppose, and to support voluntary, non-governmental efforts that work to undermine or bypass, the consolidated economic power that the government-privileged robber barons currently command. Otherwise we will find ourselves trying to fight with slingshots while our enemies haul out bazookas.

Or, to take a less controversial example, many if not most libertarians, throughout the history of the movement, have argued that there are good reasons for libertarians to promote a culture in which reason and independent thinking are highly valued, and blind conformism is treated with contempt. But if this is a good thing for liberty, it must be for reasons other than some kind of entailment of the non-aggression principle. Certainly everyone has a right to believe things simply because everybody believes it, or to do things simply because everybody does it, as long as their conformism respects the equal rights of independent thinkers to think independently and act independently with their own person and property. It is logically conceivable that a society could be rigidly conformist while remaining entirely free; it would just have to be the case that the individual people within that society were, by and large, psychologically and culturally inclined to be so docile, and so sensitive to social disapproval, ostracism, and verbal peer pressure, that they all voluntarily chose to go along with the crowd.

But, again, while it is logically possible for people in such a society to be convinced to respect individual liberty, it’s hardly likely to happen, or, if it does happen, it’s unlikely that things will stay that way for very long. If libertarians have good reasons to believe that reason and independent thinking are good for liberty, it is because, in today’s unfree society, where the vast majority of people around you are statists, it takes quite a bit of critical thinking and resistance to peer pressure in order to come to libertarian conclusions. And similarly, in a free society, it’s likely that a healthy respect for critical thinking and contempt for conformism would be necessary in order to successfully resist later attempts to re-institute collectivism or other forms of statist coercion.

While the non-aggression principle doesn’t entail any particular attitude towards socioeconomic equality, or independent thinking, it is quite likely that any chance of implementing the non-aggression principle in the real world will be profoundly affected by whether these material or intellectual preconditions have been met, and so principled libertarians have good strategic reasons to promote them, and to adopt forms of activism that tend to support them through non-statist, voluntary means.

Thickness from consequences—the effects of liberty

Finally, there may be social practices or outcomes that libertarians should (in some sense) be committed to opposing, even though they are not themselves coercive, because (1) background acts of government coercion are a causal precondition for them to be carried out or sustained over time; and (2) there are independent reasons for regarding them as social evils. If aggression is morally illegitimate, then libertarians are entitled not only to condemn it, but also to condemn the destructive results that flow from it—even if those results are, in some important sense, external to the actual coercion. Thus, for example, 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. Throughout the twentieth century, most libertarians have rushed to the defense of such practices, on the grounds that they result from market processes, that such arrangements are often the best economic options for extremely poor people in developing countries, and that the state socialist solution of expansive government regulation of wages and conditions would distort the market, violate the rights of workers and bosses to freely negotiate the terms of labor, and harm the very workers that the regulators professed to help. But the problem is that these analyses often attempt to justify or excuse prevailing business practices by appeal to free market principles, when those very practices arose in actually existing markets, which are very far from being free. In Carson’s and MacKenzie’s view, while the twentieth-century libertarians were right to criticize state socialist claim that existing modes of production should not be even further distorted by expanded government regimentation, but too many twentieth-century libertarians confused that genuine insight with the delusion that existing modes of production would be the natural outcome of an undistorted market. Against these confusions, they have revived an argument drawn from the tradition of nineteenth-century individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker, who argued that prevailing government privileges for bosses and capitalists — monopoly, regulatory cartelization of banking, manipulation of the currency, legal restrictions and military violence against union strikers, politicized distribution of land to connected speculators and developers, etc. — distorted markets in such a way as to systematically push workers into precarious and impoverishing economic arrangements, and to force them, against the backdrop of the unfree market in land and capital, to make ends meet by entering a free job market on the bosses’ terms.

On Tucker’s view, as on Carson’s and MacKenzie’s, this sort of systemic concentration of wealth and market power can only persist as long as the government continues to intervene in the market so as to sustain it; free market competition would free workers to better their own lives outside of traditional corporate channels, and would allow entrepreneurs to tear down top-heavy corporate behemoths through vigorous competition for land, labor, and capital. Thus, to the extent that sweatshop conditions and starvation wages are sustained, and alternative arrangements like workers’ co-ops are suppressed, because of the dramatic restrictions on property rights throughout the developing world—restrictions exploited by opportunistic corporations, which often collaborate with authoritarian governments and pro-government paramilitaries in maintaining or expanding legal privilege, land grabs, and oppressive local order—libertarians, as libertarians, have good reasons to condemn the social evils that arise from these labor practices. Though they could in principle arise in a free market, the actual market they arose in is profoundly unfree, and there is every reason to believe that in a truly free market the conditions of ordinary laborers, even those who are very poor, would be quite different, and much better. Certainly this offers no reason for libertarians to support the state socialist solution of giving even more power to progressive government in an ill-conceived attempt to correct for the predations that plutocratic government already enabled. But it is a good reason for libertarians to support voluntary, state-free forms of solidarity — such as private fair trade certification, wildcat unionism, or mutual aid societies — that work to undermine exploitative practices and build a new society within the shell of the old.

Onward

I should make it clear, if it is not yet clear, that my aim in this essay has been to raise some questions, provoke some discussion, and offer some categories for carrying on that discussion intelligently. I’ve not attempted to answer all the questions I’ve raised, or to provide a fully detailed elaboration of thick conceptions of libertarianism. And I’ve deliberately left a lot of questions open for further discussion. Two of them are worth mentioning in particular, in order to avoid possible confusion.

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First, pointing out that conscientious libertarians may have good reasons, as libertarians, to favor other social projects in addition to libertarianism raises a related, but importantly distinct question: whether libertarians should favor a gradualist or an immediatist stance towards the abolition of statist controls while those other social projects remain incomplete or frustrated in their progress. In particular, if getting or keeping a flourishing free society depends on having a base of certain social or intellectual preconditions in place, should libertarians still make direct efforts to abolish all statist controls immediately and completely, regardless of the social or cultural situation? Or should they hold off until the groundwork is in place, and restrict themselves to calls for limited and moderated repeals in the meantime?

For much of his career, Murray Rothbard endorsed a form of thin libertarian anarchism, arguing that libertarianism will get nowhere until we realize that there is and can be no libertarian culture (Left-opportunism: The case of S.L.S., part one, in Libertarian Vanguard, February 1981, p. 11). At the same time, he endorsed ultra-immediatism, joking that if he had a magic button that immediately abolished an aspect of the state, he’d break his finger pushing it. In Total Freedom, Chris Sciabarra criticizes Rothbard’s thin libertarianism as unanchored utopianism (202); Sciabarra argues that a dialectical sensibility recommends a more comprehensive three-level model of social transformation, incorporating not only to the political structure of the state, but the interlocking dynamics by which political structure (Level-3) affects, and is affected by, individual psychology and philosophy (Level-1) and the framework of established cultural institutions (Level-2).

Sciabarra’s critique of Rothbardianism, and his later writing foreign policy, have emphasized the dangers of directly pursuing libertarian policies in contexts where libertarian individualism and anti-authoritarianism are not well-established in the local culture. All this strongly suggests that Sciabarra prefers a form of libertarian gradualism, and suspects that any form of immediatism depends on non-dialectical disregard for the cultural base necessary to sustain liberty. But whether Sciabarra’s right about that, or wrong about that, you need to keep in mind that endorsing a form of strategic thickness does not, just by itself, commit you to gradualism; that’s a separate issue that needs a separate argument. Believing in particular material or cultural preconditions for the flourishing or long-term survival of a free society, once statist interventions are repealed, does not entail any particular position on whether those invasions ought to continue until that base is established. A dialectical sensibility requires us to consider the possibility that individual attitudes and cultural institutions might adjust dynamically as the political structure changes, and that these changes might be favorable rather than hostile to the cultural base that we advocate. Or they may not: illiberal attitudes may be intransigent, and even without statism they may nevertheless find new, equally destructive expressions. They may even worsen. The point awaits further investigation, and is not settled simply by accepting a thick conception over a thin conception of libertarianism.

But even if you concede that immediate repeal of statist controls, without the preconditions in place, would eventually result in disaster, rather than cultural adaptation, that still doesn’t settle the argument in favor of gradualism. To do that, you would need to add some kind of further moral argument that would show that people are entitled to continue invading the rights of other people in order to maintain a particular standard of living, or to stave off aggression that would otherwise be committed by some unrelated third party at some point in the future. I happen to think that the kind of arguments that you’d need to add to thick libertarianism in order to justify gradualism are morally indefensible. Fortunately, since they are separable from strategic thickness itself, there is no reason why advocates of strategic thickness need to adopt them. That’s an important debate, and one worth having—but it’s worth having elsewhere, since it’s independent of the debate over thickness.

Second, it should be clear that I have not attempted to provide detailed justifications for the specific claims that I made on behalf of particular thick commitments—for example the claims that libertarians have strong reasons to oppose sexism or to support state-free efforts at mutual aid and labor solidarity. To explain the different forms of thickness, I drew most of my examples from the left libertarian literature, and I happen to think that there are good arguments to be made on that literature’s behalf. But for the purposes of this essay, these claims are intended as particular illustrations of underlying concepts—not as proofs of a detailed left libertarian analysis. For all I have said here, it might still be true that further argument would reveal reasons of thickness in application, or from grounds, or in strategy, or from consequences, that support a form of libertarianism quite different from that which I advocate, such as orthodox Objectivism, or even support a form that is almost exactly the opposite, such as Hoppean paleolibertarianism. Consider the reasons that Objectivists give for going beyond laissez-faire principles alone, and culturally glorifying big business specifically—it’s basically thickness from grounds (Randian egoism) and strategic thickness (in the belief that vilifying big business provides grist for the altruist-statist mill). Or consider the reasons that Hoppe offers for ostracizing homosexuals and condemning large-scale migration of unskilled laborers—it’s basically thickness from consequences, on the belief that without statist intervention against restrictive uses of property rights, these lifestyle choices would not be sustainable in the face of opposition from civil society. I, as a left libertarian, find these specific appeals specious (or, in Hoppe’s case, grotesque). But that means only that I disagree with the specific premises, not with the general forms of argument that all thick forms of libertarianism help themselves to.

Just which actual social and cultural projects libertarians, as libertarians, should incorporate into theory and practice still needs to be hashed out in a detailed debate over specifics. But I hope that here I have at least cleared some of the ground that must be cleared for that debate to sensibly proceed.

Radical feminism, libertarianism, and the terrifying feminist menace to men’s wing-wangs

A couple of weeks ago, I criticized an article by David Gordon that criticized left libertarians who criticized Ron Paul. (David Gordon later criticized my criticism of the criticism of the criticism; I posted a rejoinder; and Gordon posted a reply to the rejoinder.) Along the way in my first remarks, I mentioned (by way of an example) my views on libertarianism and anti-statist radical feminism:

I don’t think that libertarianism should be subordinated to certain cultural values such as radical feminism. I believe that libertarianism, rightly understood, is both compatible with and mutually reinforcing with the cultural values of radical feminism, rightly understood. (For a more detailed explanation of the different kinds of links that there may be between libertarianism and radical feminism, see my reply to Jan Narveson on thick libertarianism.) The independent merit of radical feminism is one reason to support libertarianism as a political project (because opposing the patriarchal State is of value on feminist grounds), but that’s never been the sole reason or the primary reason I have suggested for being a libertarian. The primary reason to be a libertarian is that the libertarian theory of individual rights is true. From the standpoint of justice, the benefits that a stateless society offers for radical feminism are gravy.

The views I was briefly referring to here are views that I already expressed in much greater detail in an essay on libertarian feminism that I co-authored with Roderick Long, which was linked from the same post. Over at Liberty & Power, Keith Halderman picked up on the shorter version of my remarks on radical feminism and lodged objections. You can see how it goes from there in the comment section; I complained that his post indulges in a ridiculous cheap shot, that it falsely attributes a view to radical feminists that as far as I know none of them actually held or hold, that it falls into some vulgar libertarian confusion between free market principles and defending the socioeconomic arrangements that actually exist in our unfree market, and that libertarians perhaps oughtn’t get so worked up about the dreadful menace that angry feminists pose to the safety of men’s penises.

Halderman then responded to my complaints with what I think amounts to more confusion, along the way questioning [my] commitment to limited government. As well he should, I suppose; but his suspicious glances are pointed in the wrong political direction, and based on a clear misreading of my comments. For replies, see my first and second follow-up comments.