See the original article with the links intact here because I’m too lazy to add them here.

Recently Students for Liberty (SFL) had this post which tries to demonstrate that while libertarians are thick libertarianism itself is not a thick philosophy. A puzzling statement if I may say so myself. But nevertheless I shall endeavor to respond to this essay point by point and try to show how libertarianism itself is thick and why not only it is but why it inherently must be.

Responding to “All Libertarians Are Thick, But Libertarianism is Not Thick”

First off, it says it was inspired by two posts about whether libertarianism should be utopian or not but it is neither within the scope of this blog post nor do I have an interest myself to respond to these original posts. Instead I want to start off by commending Ankur for actually reading Charles Johnson’s essay…well ok only the Freeman Online version instead of the actual full length article. But still I’m impressed that he’s reading Charles Johnson at all and associated with SFL and posting it there, etc. It’s good to see not as well known opinions stated out in the open even if it’s being disagreed with.

Now seeing how I’ve written about thick libertarianism quite a bit at the old (but now sadly defunct) Free Dissent blog and I’ve talked about it on Porc Therapy and I’ve read and re-read this essay about thick and thin libertarianism two to three times and find myself well versed in his ideas in general I think I’m safe here to respond to what Ankur is saying.

Now with my “credentials” (if one wishes to call them) out of the way, what does Ankur say that I most disagree with?
” All libertarians are thick libertarians, but the libertarian movement in and of itself is not thick. In other words, all libertarians should use the market to argue for their moral beliefs, because as individuals it is impossible not to.”

Well to the extent that being a libertarian just means holding liberty as the highest social value and that carrying this social value on top of the rest (or next to the other ones that also have equal or near-equal value such as equality of authority or solidarity) means the lack of infringement on this liberty then we need to stop any ideas that do this. Now while it’s true that the market place (or rather the market place without government) would certainly in my opinion have much less oppression, coercion, unequal power relations, etc. than the current market place that doesn’t mean that just because government is gone everything is fine.

In fact I think this is one of Johnson’s major points that you’ve missed. You can’t just advocate the market place and hope everything will be alright even if you’re advocating other moral beliefs. As you said yourself that’s a given and so it’s supposed to be there regardless. In other words the market place and a lack of government are great but that’s not the only thing that libertarians advocate nor is government the only thing they should oppose especially insofar as the claim that we are all thick.

“What we cannot do, however, is define the whole of the movement based on the opinions of a certain sect of thick libertarians.”

Well certainly there are particular kinds of thickness in libertarians that come from grounds, strategy, consequences, etc. that are better than others. Why wouldn’t we root the movement in the ones that seem to get the most liberty for all?

“For example, some libertarians happen to be religious and some are opposed to religion. Each of these groups should use the market to argue their point and try to change society for what they believe to be the better.”

Well again religion isn’t much of a market affair, it’s more of a cultural or social affair and should be criticized in this way and not on the basis of a market place. Or even if it can be done on such a basis that doesn’t mean it should only be done in that way.

“However, libertarianism itself should take no position on the issue.”

Well why not? What if a religion advocates mass subservience and domination by and from priests but people are still free to opt in and out and it’s all voluntary and peacefully done? How is this exactly consistent with any sort of thick libertarianism? I mean sure it’s not violating the NAP but then as Johnson says in his essay,

“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?”

So I don’t understand why you say libertarianism takes no positions on this issue when it’s clear it’s a matter of liberty even if the NAP isn’t being violated.

“The best result will be reached naturally by market forces.”

Now hold on a second; how does this necessarily follow? Have the best results always been gotten through market forces throughout all of history? I think you’d be hard pressed to find a 100% sort of guarantee that this is the case. And even if things happen naturally through the market why is this inherently good? If big corporations start forming, amass lots of wealth for themselves and start hiring out people’s time in mass, artificially lowering the amount of capital they can access so that the workers must work for them…is it still alright?

To continue on,

“It is more useful to think of libertarianism as a forum rather than a unified group.”

Well having thick libertarianism or libertarians in general doesn’t mean having a unified group. Instead it means having a diversity of means and goals but that all share similar methods (though certainly not necessarily the same). For example a more religious libertarian may want to work towards having churches still seen as necessary in a freer society than someone who does not. Why? Well the more religious person may think it’s good for many people’s morale or “spirit”, whatever you want to call it.

Even if getting rid of church’s could happen through “natural market forces” (and I don’t see it happening through that) they might think that people may be more vulnerable to the world around them or less in touch with themselves and thus the morale of the greater free society may fall. So then I ask you…where are the NAP violations going on that cause this society to fall in the religion libertarians eyes?

Clearly there are none and so clearly there are more concerns than the NAP going on here.

“All that is required to be a libertarian is a commitment to the non-aggression principle.”
I disagree with this. As Johnson notes, one can believe in the NAP and still advocate terribly damaging things through economic inequality, incorrect/damaging cultural norms and standards and other social relations that go awry. I think to be a libertarian isn’t much at all to do with the NAP and there are certainly are some problems with taking it too far as well.

I’d argue instead, that valuing non-aggression is a consequence of being a libertarian. For once you realize that liberty, equality and solidarity are the best components of a free society then you must consequently oppose things like initiatory aggression that would slow these sorts of ideas from spreading.

“An argument in support of incorporating some particular “thick values” into the common definition of libertarianism (i.e. an opposition to state aggression) is that we must have some philosophical backing for the non-aggression principle. I agree that all libertarians ought to have some sort of philosophical beliefs that motivate the non-aggression principle, because the only two alternatives are (1) that the libertarian has no philosophy or (2) he or she has a philosophy which contradicts the non-aggression principle. The former is likely to abandon his or her belief in the non-aggression principle on a whim due to a lack of grounding, and the latter is simply illogical. However, having some philosophy which motivates the non-aggression principle is not the same as having some specific philosophy which motivates the non-aggression principle.”

Well sure, not necessarily but I think if we’re going to be honest about our analysis of power relations in society (whether within the context of the state or not) we need to have specific philosophies, stances, positions and ideas on certain problems within society. To not have a specific set of ideas that gives us reasons to disapprove of something that may be outside of our purview is to ignore a lot of the problems that happen in society that don’t just happen because people initiated violence against others.

“Utilitarians, Objectivists, anarchists, and others who share a belief in the non-aggression principle all ought to develop their philosophical and moral beliefs and debate them. However, libertarianism is a platform where they all may intersect. To claim that libertarianism ought to adopt a certain moral or philosophical belief would be to miss the generalization, and is tantamount to claiming that, for instance, objectivism is libertarianism. Such thinking not only unnecessarily fractures the movement but more importantly denies the obvious truth that these highly different philosophies do in fact have commonality in the non-aggression principle.”

Well again, you’re just conflating libertarianism with a specific commitment to a certain kind of relation that lacks force in it. I’d say that’s a pretty thin way of looking at social relations and not very conducive towards achieving a free society if we are seriously interested in that. And I say this because relations can go wrong or be illegitimate for more reasons than just having force in them.

On another note I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of whether Ankur actually got some of Johnson’s points or is just skipping over them at this point.

“One objection to this broad definition of libertarianism that many raise is that it is theoretically possible to be a libertarian and a racist. To this I have several things to say: First, this is only a problem if you assume that the existence of racist libertarians would make libertarianism itself racist, but that assumption goes against the very definition of libertarianism. As stated, libertarianism is no more than a group of individuals with widely varying beliefs that agree that the government is not the answer to the resolution of our differences of opinion.”

Well I don’t think libertarians can be racists. For one thing a lot of the things racists seem to support is a lack of security and safety that other people may want or need. And this may lead to them being more easily aggressed against. And I just point that out because I know aggression is the first thing you’ll understand and not because I think that’s the only point to be made here.

And again, systematic forms of oppression can take place outside the realm of governmental action. This was after all one of Johnson’s major points that you don’t seem to grasp and that really makes your libertarianism still incredibly thin. If you want to be opposing racism, especially anyone who claims to be a libertarian and support things like the drug war, the borders, minimum wage, etc. etc. then you need to treat them like they’re acting, an authoritarian in libertarian’s clothing.

This not only makes them feel unwelcome within libertarian circles insofar as they’re unwilling to change their outlook on the races but it also makes libertarians seem more committed to the benefit of all sorts of people and not the perception that libertariansm is just for whiny middle class white kids complaining about “paying money to gubernmint”..

“Second, I doubt whether any racist that believes in the non-aggression principle could reconcile the two philosophically.”

I agree with this as I said above.

“Third, even if a racist libertarian reaches a tenuous reconciliation, his philosophy would likely not survive in a free society. If two businessmen, one racist and one not, are competing in a free market, the racist’s business would most likely fail because he is refusing to meet demand for his product and the non-racist is not refusing to do so. Because the market is neutral towards race, the racist will have to either abandon his racism or be marginalized out of society.”

But see this is the problem right here you are admitting the market is neutral towards race which actually isn’t true to begin with. Why? Well the market place is just an area of particular social relations like the state is and religion is and so on. If the people within the social relations of the market place are neutral to races and racism than so will the overarching system. However, if instead they’re a bunch of racists or at least some of them are then it doesn’t look like the market will be no neutral to me.

And even if the market was neutral or somehow could be, people aren’t inherently neutral and have opinions of their own and so that won’t last for long. And so I think it’s important to make sure there’s a fairly strong anti-racist sentiment within the libertarian community. There should be cultural perceptions such as anti-racism, colonialism, sexism, etc. that are built in within a free society if it is to stay free.

Ankur had a bit more on racism,

“I will be the first to oppose racism and other such backwards philosophies. However, I oppose racism not as a libertarian but rather as an individual that believes in the equal dignity and natural rights of all humans.”

Well here you’re again mistaking that libertarianism doesn’t have normative opposition to racism qua libertarianism and I think that’s wrong. Racism inherently de-individualizes people, makes them more susceptible to unequal power relations and both of these things I think go against libertarian’s obvious plea for more liberty in society.

“Here’s the crucial distinction: it is absolutely true that it is these same beliefs that also motivate my derivation of the non-aggression principle, making me a libertarian, but the principle of non-aggression itself does not motivate my opposition to intolerance.”

Well why not? Doesn’t intolerance often breed violence in of itself? And sure, intolerance doesn’t always breed violence if it’s just a fringe group or something that can easily be phased out but such is not always the case within society. I’ve also written a bit about tolerance at my blog here if you or anyone else is interested.

Ankur tries then to advocate thick libertarianism but not any meaningful way,

“When we tie the platform of libertarianism itself to progressive or conservative morals, it is mistaken to be a branch of the progressive or conservative movements, when it is actually separate from both.”

I’d argue this isn’t the case because a lot of the ideas of progressives in general like social justice, egalitarianism, less economic inequality and opposition to corporate welfare, etc. are all strategically and consequently good things to aim for, especially insofar as we as libertarians mean that we are anarchists.

“It is in fact this value-neutral aspect of libertarianism that makes it so philosophically appealing.”

Perhaps for you.

“What unites us as libertarians is our belief that the best social order will be most likely reached if we rely on the market as opposed to government intervention.”

Actually for me it’s the idea that if we rely on liberty, equality and solidarity more than we rely on the things that stop those ideas we will have the best social order possible until it grows better and better. It will be pluralistic but not relativistic, it will have a freed market but also a gift economy and many bartering networks and many other forms of social relations that evolve out and do not oppress either the people within the community or outside of it.

Thick libertarianism is the way we as libertarians or rather as anarchists can decide what is better and what is worse based on a more developed analysis of social and power relations in general.

Finally Ankur finishes by saying,

“With all this having been said, it is clear that the term “thick libertarianism” is simply unnecessary, because it merely points out the obvious fact that there is no libertarian whose only belief is the non-aggression principle.”

Actually what is clear is that you have missed many of Johnson’s points within the essay and the larger points about being more aware of the oppression that happen in the world. I’ll be frank with you: You don’t favor thick libertarianism and I very much doubt you have any thickness yourself. I see almost no reasons that you give for what thick libertarianism even qua being an individual and how that best suits them (the basic function of thickness) is good. Nor do you give much credit to Johnson’s ideas in general it seems to me or recognize that just because something comes “naturally from the market” doesn’t mean it’s good. That sounds like a real thin analysis to me.

Conveniently enough throughout this whole blog post you’ve just reinforced for me and hopefully for others as well why thick libertarianism is so necessary for libertarians everywhere. For if you’re going to just half-assedly apply it like Ankur does you quite easily become an apologist for huge disparities in the market place just because it “naturally” happened. Instead, as Johnson says, we should support efforts to make sure people are more equal in their economic relations so more equal and hence just relations between individuals can exist in a truly freed society.

Libertarians certainly have more beliefs than NAP qua individuals but libertarianism qua libertarianism certainly has a hell of a lot more to say about the world than the fact that the initiation of force is wrong. If it doesn’t then count me out of your libertarianism.