Libertarianism through Thick and Thin
Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 15 years ago, in 2008, on the World Wide Web.
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
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
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.
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.
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 (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.
Nick Manley /#
I largely agree with your politics on Randian-Stirnite egoist grounds. I don’t think that even orthodox philiosophical Objectivism requires adulation of actually existing big business or the authortarian corportist form more generally. Is the immensely wealthy Hilton family composed of inspiring individualists? No! They gave money to John McCain’s campaign. He’s no friend of liberty — contray to the delusions of Republicans who see their party as a beacon of individual rights and limited government.
I suspect there are plenty of people in the higher levels of America’s economy that are downright cultural conformists. I doubt I’d make it to the top in a corporation run by good old boys by spouting radical feminist rhetoric.
Rand’s ideal of a free economy of passionate independent human beings still remains an unknown ideal. America will need philosophic and cultural change to achieve a truly individualist left-libertarian polity. I suggest that Alliance of the Libertarian Left chapters dialectically focus on this in conjunction with more traditional political activtism. Otherwise, you might find yourself empowering your enemies.
On the question of gradualism vs immediatism: would you push a button to elimnate food stamps tomorrow if you knew 30 people would starve?
Perhaps; that is what moralistic principled left-libertarianism demands, but I think this means we need to check our premises. People rightly don’t take kindly to moralities that tell them the good consists of suffering and pain.
I stand with Kevin Carson’s opposition to your immediatism. We need to dismantle the corporate state in a fashion that doesn’t leave people associating anti-statism with cruelty. This is particularly important for someone pushing an anti-statist version of socialism like yourself. Socialism in the public mind is already associated with vast human costs. No need to add to that perception.
Nick Manley /#
Just to clarify a mistake on my part: the parents of Paris Hilton gave money to McCain’s campaign. They are incredibly wealthy.
On the empowering your enemies comment: I didn’t mean to suggest that anything short of absolute agreement on everything constitutes a situation where a person becomes an enemy. What I was getting at was the consequence of inciting anti-statism among people intent on denying LGBT people access to resources without changing their underlying view on the world. A left-liberal welfare statist in San Francisco is likely to be more of a friend to an LGBT person, than an anti-statist conservative church person demanding the government stop taxing them to pay for disability payments to lesbians.
Perhaps; we need to champion the statement: no war but the culture and class war?
Craig J. Bolton /#
This is an incredibly well written and insightful article. However, to me what it in fact illustrates is that “libertarians” are no more clear or in agreement about the defining characteristics of “libertarianism” than “conservatives” are about “conservatism.”
For instance, I cringe when I read phrases indicating that libertarianism is synonymous with endorsement of the “nonagression principle” or that a particular policy “distorts markets” [as if markets outcomes were not largely predicated on the definition and enforcement of PARTICULAR prior choices about the structure of property rights].
Hardly anyone I know, including the few persons that are as informed and insightful as you, would deny that I am a rather “puristic” libertarian. However, I reject the nonagression principle and market theology in favor of prudence and institutional realism [a view that institutions should be judged on the actual behaviors they elicit rather than on the aspirational statements of their defenders].
Once you get your initial definitions straightened out, many of the borderline disputes about what libertarians should or should not do, qua libertarians, fall into place. Until that is done, one cannot do more than you have done [and done very well], which is basically to catalog the divergent views on that topic and the rationales offered for those divergent view.
So, again, thank you for a most englightening and pleasurable read, but I’m not certain that you have pushed back far enough into the premises of such a discussion to ever be able to reach any definitive conclusion. [But then, as you say in your conclusion, that wasn’t your objective.]
Nick Manley /#
Thank you for giving me a chance to spill all the pent up ideas on this topic I have. One of my most treasured areas of study is alternative education and child raising. I’d like to see an explicit objectively validated thick left-libertarian position on our obligations towards children. The relevance of the principle of individual rights to this issue should be clear. For example, we must strongly oppose any and all violence towards children — including spanking. I also like the idea of pondering a legal regime where children can sue their abusive parents for restitution at some point.
Arthur Silber has given friends of liberty a wonderful series of essays on Alice Miller’s work that are relevant to this topic.
See here: http://thesacredmoment.blogspot.com/2006/02/essays-based-on-work-of-alice-miller.html
It troubles me when libertarians treat bans on spanking as a big deal. Is libertarianism about protecting all individuals from violence or giving parents a free pass to treat their children in any manner they please? This is the question I’d like to see answered.
John Kindley /#
Carried to its logical conclusion, the notion of self-government ultimately prescribes the individual’s government over his own self — i.e., self-control. To the extent the culture is successful in encouraging such self-control / self-government, the perceived desirability of extraneous control and coercion (e.g., by government) for the purpose of “making people moral” should lessen. This moral ideal of self-control is intimately linked to the ideal of freedom. See, e.g., Zeno, who was both the founder of Stoicism and the father of anarchism, and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who pointed out that the realm of freedom is the internal realm of what we choose to desire and avoid, our thoughts and attitudes. By attaching ourselves to and endlessly chasing things that are external to our trues selves, we forge our own chains. Our guide to what we should choose to desire and avoid is found in objective reality, especially the reality of man’s nature. Man is therefore most free and happy when he acts in harmony with natural law.
What are therefore the cultural commitments and presumptions that I think most accord with libertarianism and the ideal of liberty? Ones that recognize the vanity of so much desire, and seek to liberate human beings from the cravings that cause so much despair, unhappiness, and social disharmony. Ones that see in greed, pride, lust, gluttony, wrath, sloth and envy real sins, sins that first and foremost harm and render unhappy the sinner.
Rad Geek /#
No, but that’s because I don’t see the existence of food stamps as a violation of anybody’s rights.
As I said in On Crutches and Crowbars, you need to distinguish two kinds of government programs: there are those that violate people’s rights only because of how they are funded and those that violate people’s rights both because of how they are funded and also because of what they do. Food stamps are an example of the former: you don’t violate anybody’s rights by giving them vouchers for certain kinds of food. The only problem is that they are paid for out of a government slush fund that is funded by robbing money from working people. Forced government schooling, government drug prohibition, sex work prohibition, State-mandated psychoprisons, immigration laws, abortion laws, the war in Iraq, etc. etc. etc. are all examples of the latter: they get the money to do what they do by coercive means, and then what they do with it involves even more coercion against third parties.
So I don’t think that the immediatism-gradualism debate, at least not the part of it I’m interested in, has anything in particular to do with food stamps. It has to do with whether or not government taxes, government wars, government institutionalization laws, government drug policing, government border laws, etc. etc. etc. can ever be justified by the consequences that might follow if they were to be stopped immediately and completely. So, for example, if the question is whether I would push the button to stop the war on Iraq even if I knew that 30 families would lose their homes or starve (maybe they’re the families of military contractors or collaborationists in Iraq), then, yes, I would push the button. If the question is whether I would push the button to eliminate all border enforcement immediately and completely even if I knew that 30 families would lose their homes or starve (perhaps from the increased competition for low-wage jobs), then yes, I’d push the button. If the question is whether I would push the button to stop all government taxation immediately, even though I knew that 30 families would starve (say because food stamps could no longer be funded), then yes, I’d push the button for that, too. Because in all these cases there’s more people than just the 30 families involved, and those people’s rights and freedom and well-being all matter just as much as the rights and the freedom and well-being of the 30 families. If the alternative is to go on violating those invisible innocent people’s rights to their own lives and livelihoods in order to benefit those 30 visible families, then I don’t believe that’s something that anybody is entitled to do. How about you?
But if the question is just whether food stamps in particular (or TANF, or WIC, or whatever), which are not coercive in themselves but only funded coercively, should stay or go, without any change to the actually coercive element (i.e., the income tax, FICA, excise taxes, etc.), then I don’t think that individualist moral principles, even ultra-immediatist ones like mine, dictate any particular position one way or the other on that.
Now, if we’re no longer talking about pushing hypothetical buttons, but rather about real-world politics, then there is a separate issue, aside from the moral concern, as to strategic priorities. While I don’t see any reason to go out of my way to mount political efforts to abolish food stamps (apart from more general efforts to abolish taxation and the State as such), there’s also the question of whether it is strategically wise to put any organizing or activist effort into attempts to oppose rollbacks or elimination of a program like food stamps or other coercively-funded-but-not-coercive-per-se government welfare programs. I think that the short answer to that isI wouldn’t waste one bit of my time or energy defending the existence of programs like these if they came under any serious political challenge. But that’s not because of my immediatism (which, again, has to do only with government actions that are coercive per se). It’s because I think that these programs are useless or worse for the people who get entangled in them, and that the only channels for trying to save them (i.e., electoral politics, lobbying, petitioning) are all rigged, and that it’s a tremendous waste of time and money and energy and organization to try to preserve them, when you could be putting all those things to much more effective use in neighborhood organizing and mutual aid projects that aim to bypass and replace the welfare State — Food Not Bombs, abortion funds, free clinics, fighting unions, etc. etc. etc. Why waste your limited time and energy try to prop up or bail out these bloated beasts from the imperial presidencies of the 1930s and 1960s, with all their waste and all their attached strings and all their pinheaded bureaucrats who couldn’t care less whether the supposed of their programs live or die, when you could be puting the same effort to work at getting people out from under and creating grassroots programs in your own community that will do a much better job of getting people together and meeting their needs?
I suspect the only people who would associate that kind of program with cruelty are people who have a vested interest in ignoring or distorting the truth (e.g. professional busybodies and welfare administrators; government officials; ideological anti-libertarian blowhards; etc.). Those aren’t the kind of people that I intend to or even hope to reach.
Darian W /#
Thanks a lot for writing and posting this.
A strategy I was recently thinking of applies to what you said about strategic thickness. That is, one reason government is supported is because people see it doing things that they feel need to be done. Thus, libertarians ought to displace government by actively doing things. Instead of saying that the free market will take care of something, show how the free market takes care of problems by actually attempting to take care of them in a non-coercive manner. This makes the free market position appear much more relevant and honest. I think that mutual aid and countereconomics can be framed as part of this strategy.
Perhaps related is the idea that political action reflects social action, and policy implements dominant cultural desires (the desires of the most powerful elements of society). As a left libertarian, I recognize that the state institutionalizes intolerance and teaches authoritarian social values, but social authoritarianism reinforces political authoritarianism as it encourages a state of mind where pushing people around is accepted as the norm.
Nick Manley /#
Thank you for your honesty in responding to me. I fear I gave off the wrong impression. I am not accusing you of being cruel or attempting to be cruel. As someone who shares your basic concern about the need to delimit coercion to self-defense, I don’t equate compassion with forcing one producer to support another. This whole issue of immediatism vs gradualism is one I want to devote more time to thinking about. I completely disagree with consequentialist arguments in favor of statism, so I agree that we shouldn’t generally favor statism to prevent a potential consequence from occurring down the road. This is the logic people throw at me when I call for the end of The War on the Drugs. They posit horror scenarios about broken families and wasted lives. I can understand their concerns, but they are essentially forcibly foisting the responsibility for avoiding drug addiction onto all illicit drug users. My individual right to ingest the substances I choose is not void, because there is a possibility that someone else might become painfully addicted to a drug.
I really dislike ethical arguments implicitly based on the premise that the good requires the sacrifice of anyone. It’s the not always stated notion behind statist pragmatism and altruist moral codes that attack the pursuit of self-interest. It’s Rand’s dialectical attempt to transcend this by positing a non-dualistic egoism that rejects the sacrifice of others to one’s self that partially draws me towards her.
Anyhow, I feel you’re essentially right about the need to debate real world political situations. None of us will ever have a chance to push the magic button that dismantles the corporate state in one swoop.
Our option in the real world vis a vis the welfare state is to draw on the anger that people feel about its depredations towards them to attract people to our ideas. I don’t mean we should rhetorically manipulate them and treat them as ignorant people in need of a vanguard, but we can share ideas with them about ways out of their current situation. We could even organize a mutual aid society while calling for tax credits to low income people, so they can better sustain it.
I’ll write more tomorrow.
I think many welfare-state liberals and leftists and democratic socialists and the like would be much more favorably inclined towards libertarianism if we SAW some of this voluntary welfare in action, yes. Many of us already support programs like that in one way or another–funds and shelter for women who need to travel to get abortions, for example.
Nick Manley /#
I would do more if I wasn’t broke a lot of the time. It’d help if I felt better about U.S. culture too, because I sometimes get too disgusted to want to do much except leave the country.
Part of the problem is structural too. There are severe impediments to economic activity erected that hamper any attempt to bypass “the system”. There’s also the state-banking nexus and assorted Wall Street fuck ups leading to depression-inflation.
Nick Manley /#
I remember a news story about two teenage girls arrested for braiding hair without a licensed degree. They were liked by their customers, but that doesn’t necessarily fly with professional busybodies.
Unschoolers or anyone with an innovative idea disliked by the industry establishment are really hurt by stuff like that. It would be interesting to see how much the incomes-freedoms of the lower classes would rise without all of the assorted restraints-subsidies that keep state capitalism intact.
Great post, Charles. Still processing my own ethical and moral commitments outside libertarianism with regard to thickness from grounds, as you put it.
This is totally tangential, but I thought you might be interested to find out that in fact it is part of the law in the US (as well as, most probably, other Western countries) that spousal killings due to adultery are classified as manslaughter rather than murder. The Volokh Conspiracy had a fascinating and disturbing post about the legal situation not too long ago.
John Dias /#
I think that a prosperous and free society depends on economic stability. But stability also depends on cultural factors, such as intact families, the capacity for empathy, and a disdain for narcissistic entitlement. You mentioned strategies for getting there in the real world. The need for these cultural factors intuitively resonates with a broad cross-section of the public, despite stated differences in political philosophy or party. In fact, it may be an effective strategy to advance libertarian thinking “to the masses” on such a cultural front, rather than advancing what is bound to be perceived as political dogma. I think that liberty is advanced when the culture emphasizes personal responsibility for oneself and empathy toward others. But when you promote liberty to common people in a package of ideology, it is too easily dismissed as dogmatic political rants by the “ideologues of intelligentsia.”
Again, I promote this approach as strategy; a cultural emphasis on empathy and personal responsibility resonates in favor of libertarianism more effectively than an ideological emphasis does. People in our hyper-political culture have made political ideology their religion, and public policy its practice. That’s why a cultural approach which deemphasizes ideology is more likely to achieve the desired political aims of the libertarian — more effectively than open political appeals would.
Incidentally, I noticed in your essay that you associate feminism with efforts to curb domestic violence — specifically domestic violence against women. I am a libertarian MRA — Men’s Rights Advocate — and I believe that politicization itself is an even greater threat to liberty than bad policy itself. Even when a husband is showing restraint toward a violent wife, current domestic violence policy (in California) requires that the man be arrested when violence has been alleged (such as if neighbors hear an argument and call police). If the wife is physically abusing the husband, she will nevertheless be considered a victim on the pretext that the husband could have done more damage to her if he had chosen to do so.
In the above scenario, an abusive wife merely only need allege that her husband frightened her, and this would be grounds under the law for a restraining preventing him from returning home. Notice that no violence need be done in order for liberty to be curtailed. The public, fixated on living out their political religion through state policy, implements their good intentions to protect domestic violence victims through a draconian policy. That’s what I mean when I say that politicization itself — the fixation on enacting a policy — is even more damaging to long-term liberty than bad policy itself. It’s also why we can’t advance libertarianism as effectively by selling it as an alternative political ideology; the existing hyper-political culture already has its assortment of ideological flavors. Far more effective is to promote cultural libertarianism (for lack of a better term) as a means of rolling back political infringements on our freedom.
Practically, in the above scenario, a women who is genuinely frightened that her husband may “go off” can take responsibility for her own safety by seeking shelter elsewhere, rather than using her emotions as the pretext for evict her heretofore non-violent husband from her house. A culture of responsibility would teach her to take this route, and a culture of empathy would invite sympathetic friends and neighbors to invite her in.
Sergio Méndez /#
Have you ever considered that “personal responsability” is in itself an ideological commitment?
John Dias /#
Sergio Mendez wrote:
No… I believe that personal responsibility is directly in conflict with ideology. I define ideology not just as a set of beliefs and values, but as a political set of beliefs and values. Personal responsibility is not political.
First of all, this is a great essay and speaks to many questions that I’ve been thinking about as I attempt to understand libertarianism and left-libertarianism in particular.
I’d like to go into a more detailed review but I’ll begin with a single question that covers a great deal of my initial feeling.
Doesn’t this framework essentially allow you to make libertarianism whatever it needs to be to fit your true intuition and ideology, which may not have a name? Or to put it another way, why be libertarian as opposed to say liberal-egalitarian or democratic socialist? What’s so vital about the non-aggression principle above all else if you feel compelled to make exceptions in cases where it doesn’t work for your ends?
I think most liberals would agree with non-aggression when it didn’t interfere with their theory of justice. I think it comes does to define what aggression really is. In other words, perhaps everyone is “libertarian” once you sort out the definitions but once you agree with that, it becomes rather unhelpful as a concept. It just seems to me that the fierce, uncompromising loyalty to non-aggression too often ignores justice (for instance the tax issue which asks the person who is hesitant to have his earnings stolen, “What makes you so sure they are all fully and rightly yours to begin with?”) Your concern with things outside libertarianism proper shows a concern for balance but I get the sense that you aren’t willing to take that to the logical end. And I’m not sure why not knowing your “theoretical foundation for the non-aggression principle”.
Sergio Méndez /#
Really? So what parameters define when a person is or not responsible? And until what point you are responsible to other people? And anyways, personal responsability is a mantra of the right, usually utilized as a cover to “make the poor bastards who commit mistake pay, and leave the rich fat ones go away with it”. It is very naive to pretend that is not a “political” position on itself.
I think you completly misunderstand what Charles is proposing. I don´t see him making any exception for the non agresion principle. He is saying that a thick libertarianism can easely achieve its means without using coertion (for example, that you can certainly push for egalitarisnim via voluntary cooperation, for example, and that does not require a violation of the non agresion principle).
John Dias /#
Personal responsibility, as with many concepts, can be whipped up into a political topic. That doesn’t mean that it is essentially political. Why even have governments to parse our responsibilities to each other, if in fact we are committed to solving our own problems?
Take, for example, the debate over gay marriage. From my perspective, it shouldn’t be the government’s place to license marriages in the first place. Getting “legally married” invites divorce judges and blood sucking attorneys into your life in the event that your marriage fails. Rather than having a debate over whether to stop the licensing of marriages, we have focused on the issue of which marriages should be licensed.
Why do people specifically choose to get legally married? Apart from tradition, I would say it’s because one of the two parties is counting on the other for financial security in the event of a divorce. They see legal marriage as an entitlement. This is the exact opposite of taking personal responsibility for one’s own material comfort and security. All of us have the capacity to work a paid job and earn our keep; why should marriage allow an escape from this? So what you have is a debate over which groups are allowed to receive the legal stamp of approval, and yet no discussion about the damage imposed by seeking government validation for your matrimonial union.
As far as where my responsibility to another begins, ask that question to people who have been washed ashore a deserted island. To me, that’s the only context in which an answer has any meaning within the context of libertarianism.
Thanks for clarifying important points in addition to the very enlightening article you contributed to the Freeman.
I’m just not sure where I stand with you on these points, because I’m afraid of an ideological approach to these ends rather than the contemplative one you’re suggesting. If people think about libertarianism and what it naturally entails or suggests in other areas besides state politics and come to conclusions about other things they should support / oppose, well, so much the better for everybody. But what I’m afraid of is a situation where people, for instance, begin adopting positions on things that are thickly related to libertarianism without understanding the connection, so that left libertarianism becomes a cultural cargo cult (like conservatism) rather than an avenue to better understanding the human experience.
In other words, we’d probably sign up for all the same secondary causes, but while you seem perfectly fine to describe your position on all those causes as a libertarian one, I’d prefer not to. And I’m not even certain how important that slight difference is… it may or may not be. But you certainly haven’t muddied any waters on this issue, so thanks for your insights and analysis.