Sunday, April 6, 2014

Thick Libertarians Leave Less Room in the Tent

By Bionic Mosquioto

Is there something in the water?  Are there an inordinate amount of articles recently slicing and dicing what it means to be a libertarian, or is it just that I am now noticing these?

I am not a philosopher; I am not a trained libertarian theorist.  On such matters, I am the first to admit that I am not very sophisticated.  Lew Rockwell addressed this topic of what libertarianism is and isn’t recently, and addressed it so well that I feel completely inadequate in writing anything further about it.  However, such a feeling has rarely stopped me before, so here goes….

Apparently it is not enough to simply embrace the non-aggression principle; to be libertarian requires much, much more.  Who knew?

Well, Jeffrey Tucker to start, with his, by now, infamous “Against Libertarian Brutalism,” which I very briefly commented on here.  Very briefly, because I have rarely read anything so convoluted on this topic from someone considered to be one of the better writers in the wide tent of libertarian thinking.  I used only about 50 words to describe it the first time, I will use none now.

Next came Max Borders, writing at FEE: “Libertarian Holism.”  He introduces a new slicing and dicing under the libertarian tent, as I wrote at the time:

In it, he introduces a new language to describe the holders of different views of libertarian / pseudo-libertarian thought:

I hesitate to introduce yet another dichotomy (thick or thin, brutalist or humanitarian)…

Yet he does so: holists and solipsists.

The holists accept that people come to libertarian thought in different ways – not just “a principle of non-harm.”  As I commented at the time, I guess using the common term of “non-aggression” is too much to expect.

In any case, what Borders never mentions is that – regardless of the how one came to value libertarian thought – one must at some point end with acceptance of the non-aggression principle; this seems rather fundamental, doesn’t it?  Again, from my earlier post:

This is the root of libertarian principle.  Without pointing to it always, there is no libertarian – there is just my opinion is better than your opinion.

Now it is Sheldon Richman, in a post entitled “TGIF: In Praise of “Thick” Libertarianism.” Mr. Richman is an accomplished writer and thinker on all thoughts libertarian, so I enter this post with some trepidation, kind of like standing at the top of a double-black-diamond slope at 3000 meters.  But here goes:

I continue to have trouble believing that the libertarian philosophy is concerned only with the proper and improper uses of force. According to this view, the philosophy sets out a prohibition on the initiation of force and otherwise has nothing to say about anything else.

As I see it, the libertarian view is necessarily associated with certain underlying values, and this association seems entirely natural. I can kick a rock, but not a person. What is it about persons that makes it improper for me to kick them (unless it’s in self-defense)?

As I mentioned, I consider Richman to be a very accomplished writer on libertarian matters, so I am willing to go along…but after this introduction, I already know it is going to be difficult.  Suffice it to say, I don’t even have to believe that man is created by God in His likeness to understand the difference. 

Frankly, I don’t see how to answer that question without reference to some fundamental ideas. Different libertarians will have different answers, but each will appeal to some underlying value.

They can answer the question however they want and appeal to whatever underlying value they choose, as long as at some point they have answered affirmatively: Yes, a man is different than a rock!  Because, if they come to the other answer (there is no difference between a man and a rock), we are ALL wasting a lot of time worrying about this libertarian nonsense.

(Bear with me for a few paragraphs; I have struggled with finding a simple way to deal with the following, and this is the best I have come up with…)

In fact, by suggesting that different libertarians come to the answer of that man-rock question through different means, is he not suggesting that achieving a uniform agreement of the means of how we each came to that answer (yes, in fact a man is different than a rock) is not important for libertarian theory to otherwise hold? 

In other words, as long as we all have agreed that a man is not a rock (thank God, or god, whichever you prefer), Richman is saying, paraphrasing: who cares how you got to that answer.  And if this is true, why look to the primordial ooze, the time before this epiphany, for something necessary for libertarian theory?  All we need is for all of us to agree that a man is not a rock. 

Yet, if a commonality of the means by which one reached this conclusion is not important for libertarian theory to hold, what does this suggest about the entire premise of this essay?  And if it isn’t important to the premise of the essay, why bring up this subject of men and rocks in the first place?

But I am getting way ahead of myself.  Richman himself ignores all of this and instead jumps right in:

Let’s get specific. Are there distinctly libertarian grounds for disapproving of racist conduct that does not involve the use of force? Some libertarians say no.

I am one of those libertarians.  To the extent I am an otherwise nice or open-minded person I attribute to philosophies and beliefs outside of those associated with libertarian thinking and the non-aggression principle that is its foundation.

On the other hand, libertarians often quote Ayn Rand on the issue, even if they wouldn’t quote her on much else:

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement.  However, I do not understand why Richman leans on Rand for his defense of thick libertarianism, or why we are supposed to believe that just because some libertarians quote it, the statement is automatically “libertarian.” 

Rand has been clear she is no libertarian (to my understanding, she despised us), and her writing, while wonderful in many respects and effective in leading many to libertarian thought, are often on topics well outside of the boundaries of libertarian thought.  Just ask her (figuratively, of course).  She will agree with me.

The freedom philosophy is intimately related to ethical, political, and methodological individualism. Therefore, the philosophy should be expected to detest any kind of collectivism — and particularly its “lowest, most crudely primitive form” — even in its nonviolent manifestations.

This is a bit difficult for me to understand.  Let’s assume both things are true: on the one hand, libertarianism is concerned with the initiation of force; on the other hand, libertarianism (according to Mr. Richman) should also be concerned with how people decide with whom to share their time and their property.

How can these two supposedly true statements be reconciled?  Is Richman suggesting that libertarian thought rejects the initiation of force except for those instances where we want to force you to think in a certain way?  Or is it that libertarian thought is clear about the inviolability of your property except when you want to exclude others from access to it based on grounds with which we don’t agree?

To put it more concretely, if a libertarian observed a growing propensity to embrace (nonviolent) racism, that person, qua libertarian, ought to be concerned. Why? Because that attitude and resulting conduct can be expected to eat away at the values conducive to libertarianism. It’s the same sort of reason that a libertarian would be concerned by, say, a growing acceptance of Keynesian ideas, even though merely holding and advocating those ideas does not require the use of force.

The distinction between these two examples is so obvious to me, I am wondering if my sanity has been lost while staring down that double-black-diamond precipice….

Non-violent racism: I choose to exclude others from my property for racial reasons.  I might even convince a few others to do so with their property.  We form an all-(let’s safely call it) Martian neighborhood in our libertarian community; people from Venus need not apply.  Only those who join us in this crusade will suffer the consequences, if any, of our biases. 

Of course, those we discriminate against will also suffer.  What of the suffering by those on the receiving end, those whom we have excluded from our property for race-based reasons?  Is there some positive right that should be granted?  This would be consistent with libertarian thinking how?

Conversely, the Keynesian.  Keynesianism can only be achieved by government force, imposed upon me without my agreement.  As the only way to make manifest the Keynesian viewpoint is through government force, the conversation ends quickly.  A Keynesian is arguing that everyone must be party to his agreement, whether they want to agree or not.

The racist libertarian, even if successful in promoting his views, cannot force me to live as a racist; the Keynesian, by definition, forces me to live as he wishes. 

From the point of view of the one being discriminated against, one could argue that he is being “forced” in the same way Keynesianism is forced upon us all.  Is this what Richman suggests?  Does he want to open the door for positive rights in libertarian theory?  This will be the end of libertarianism as we know it.

Further, I can make arguments against the Keynesian position based completely on the non-aggression principle.  Try doing that for arguments against racism.

It is true that carrying out Keynesian ideas requires the use of force (taxation, monopoly central banking, and state “socialization of investment”), while one can imagine a racist society in which no force is used.

That’s what I just said.

But although a society of racist pacifists is not a logical impossibility, it strikes me as highly unlikely.

“Not a logical impossibility” and “highly unlikely” suggest two things: 1) that it isn’t necessarily so, and 2) it hasn’t happened yet. 

In its denial of dignity to individuals merely by virtue of their membership in a racial group, there is a potential for violence implicit in racism that is too strong for libertarians to ignore.

A “potential for violence.”  The use of racism does not necessarily result in violence.  Does libertarian theory offer some justification for forced, pre-emptive intervention?

Of course, it does not.  So speak out against racism, but don’t look for justifications in libertarian theory for this position.  If racism is a pre-curser to violence “too strong for libertarians to ignore,” what other thoughts could be saddled with this concern?  Where would Richman draw the bright red line?  Is it only race?  Why?

But it doesn’t end there. I can think of another reason for libertarians to be concerned about racism, namely,

it all too easily metamorphoses from subtle intimidation into outright violence.

When confronting what I find to be racially-charged statements, I often have suggested (sometimes strongly) that one considers the possibility that such thoughts are only the first step toward genocide.  I do so not from any libertarian viewpoint, but from my ethical upbringing and understanding of history.

With the above statement, Richman offers a similar viewpoint but finds through it a shortcoming of thin libertarians.  That racism is at the root of genocide is true, but, given the infinite incidents of racism in this world, it is worth noting that genocide has rarely, thankfully, been the final result.  For this, we must for some reason, be pre-emptive?

Further: most human beings hold some less-than-all-embracing view about many subjects, including gender, traditional marriage, lesbians and gays, and religion.  Some of these – especially the last – have led to violence, a violence as strong as any rooted in racism.  Are religious beliefs – not violence based on religion, but merely beliefs – next on Richman’s list, as racism is today? 

If one aggresses, deal with the aggression.  Isn’t this enough? 

So I’m puzzled by the pushback whenever someone explicitly associates the libertarian philosophy with values like tolerance and inclusion.

And I am puzzled when an otherwise staunch defender of liberty so strongly suggests that I must believe and act in (or avoid acting in) certain (in-and-of-themselves non-violent) ways.

Why are so many libertarians placing qualifications on what it means to be a libertarian?
·        In order to come into the libertarian tent, you must be tolerant.
·        In order to come into the libertarian tent, you must be inclusive.
·        In order to come into the libertarian tent, you must be humanitarian.
·        In order to come into the libertarian tent, you must be a holist.

This is what it means to be a thick libertarian.  Pretty soon, these libertarians are going to disqualify pretty much all of the human race from entry into the club.

Keep in mind, thin libertarians leave more room in the tent for a larger party; the thicker the libertarian, the less room there is for others to join us.

Be a thin libertarian.  I prefer to have room for more under the tent.

The above originally appeared at Bionic Mosquito.


  1. @Bionic

    You are far too modest although it is entirely in character
    This was a brilliant dissection, especially of the assumptions involved in the opening statements of Mr Richman's piece that undermine the rest of it.

    However, I disagree with this:
    "That racism is at the root of genocide is true,"

    I don't think this is true at all in the way Richman puts it. But it would take too long a comment to rebut...

    1. Lila, thank you very much.

      If you ever write something (or have written something) on the topic (roots of genocide), please send me the link.

    2. However, I disagree with this:
      "That racism is at the root of genocide is true,"

      Same here. That's just more PC bullshit. Stalin murdered people regardless of their race. Result? over 25 million dead. Mao? Same thing. Result? 40-70 million dead. Power and money are THE biggest reasons for genocide.

      The parasites of the Left have so infected people's weak minds that they'll spout leftist bullshit without even realizing it. Grow some balls people and have enough guts to DROP the PC crap. It's OLD.

    3. "Same here. That's just more PC bullshit."

      Mike, I didn't realize I was spewing PC BS.

      I recognize there are other causes of genocide. However, having some personal experience with this subject, I can attest to the fact that racism also plays a role.

      In order to drum up general support for such acts, sometimes an enemy is made of the "other" - often based on a different race or religion.

      This does not exclude other possibilities. But it also doesn't make genocide based on race a BS statement, does it?

    4. "Mike, I didn't realize I was spewing PC BS."

      Now you do.

    5. "In order to drum up general support for such acts, sometimes an enemy is made of the "other" - often based on a different race or religion."

      But in that case, isn't race merely the excuse, rather than the actual reason?
      Either animosity toward "the other" is reason for wanting to murder them, or one wants to murder them and comes up with the excuse that they are "other".

      In one case, racism may be at the root of that particular genocide (but not all genocides), and in the other case, it is another reason that is at the root of it, and race is merely the justification.
      In the Rwandan genocide, perpetrators and victims were both black Africans.

      It is true that cultural, racial, class, political or religious differences are often exploited in order to commit genocide, but isn't it a quest for maintaining or keeping power that is the root of genocide?

    6. Stalin was very much racist towards certain groups like the Ukrainians. I have a friend who was a product of the commie athletic system and he says they were extremely anti Jewish. I have read a number of reports about how Castro was anti black with his policies and views.

      Even in places like Rwanda, the two tribes may appear to both be black to us, but they view themselves as radically different and in fact two different races - by our standards, anyway.

      The key is without the monopoly power of the state, this hatred and racism would not amount to much. And in the rare times it did, the people would not be disarmed and defenseless as they were by all the tyrants in the last century.

  2. I think the state is at the root of (most) genocide.

  3. @bionic

    Richman makes a large error is in using the word racism in a loose sense, without defining it.

    If he means people who advocate legal and physical sanctions against others purely on the grounds of their race or their genetic material, then of course that is racist in the true sense.

    And since libertarians are by definition those against the use of the state/force, they cannot by definition be racists of that sort.

    But, by that measure, Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood are racist, because they are inextricably linked to the desire to reduce or eliminate the population of undesirables, as they regarded them.

    Secondly, by that definition, those who support affirmative action, reparations, and redistribution to protected classes, ARE also racists.

    But I am quite sure that most "humanitarian" libertarians are on the side of this kind of racism, right?

    1. Agreed about Sanger being a racist - just as LBJ and all those who set up the welfare state are. Or all the politicians who set up laws banning minorities from owning firearms in America - some are still on the books in various states, too.

      Racism and the nation state work hand in hand and always have. Take away the state and what power is there to engage in genocide?

  4. I think there is a yearning for libertarianism to be more than it is. I recognize, for example, that the implication of a purely libertarian, private property society, can allow, for example, a person to be completely shunned from every other person's property and thus, forced to die. Of course, a private property society would most likely not allow that to happen. Someone would have charity for this person. But it is possible. This makes some of us, myself included, uneasy.

    This is where the adoption of a positive moral theory is important for me. I don't confuse it with libertarianism. I can say "my political and economic philosophy is rooted in private property anarchism but my moral philosophy is humanism (minus the reliance on the state)."

    The problem is that I can't get from libertarianism to humanism, utilitarianism or the Categorial Imperative.

    A very similar conversation is taking place within the so-called atheist community. Atheism is a negative position on one single question "Do you believe that gods exist?" If you answer no, you're an atheist. If yes, you're a theist.

    Some atheists want to attach positive positions to their atheism, such as feminism. There is a group of atheists calling themselves "AtheistPlus" that subscribe to human rights theories, feminism, democracy, etc. This has caused a sharp divide within the atheist community. The parallel to what is going on in libertarianism is striking.

  5. "Is there something in the water? Are there an inordinate amount of articles recently slicing and dicing what it means to be a libertarian, or is it just that I am now noticing these?"

    What has happened is that libertarianism has become much more popular and well known in the mainstream. The co-option to claim libertarianism for politically correct, liberal-lite ends is picking up steam because, for them, the time is NOW. But this is not a thing particular to the left. At the height of the Tea Party movement, conservatives tried the same thing. As a matter of fact, they are still trying to pretend that to be a libertarian is to be a conservative. And Rand Paul is a clear example of how someone that is not a libertarian, can still be held by some to be a champion for the liberty-minded. Both the left AND the right are trying to co-opt libertarianism *pure* and turn it into their conservative or liberal brand of it. Not by attacking the NAP, but by insisting that something more, something conservative/liberal needs to inform libertarian values.

    Having said that...

    Thick libertarians are as "tolerant" as liberals are. That is to say, not at all, for they exclude everyone not thinking like them or coming to the same conclusions as them. Take a good look at the "tolerance" of most college campuses where intellectual diversity is precisely the kind of diversity they detest.

    Thin libertarians leave room for everybody, but everybody MUST respect freedom of association.
    Thick libertarians say: "If you're not thick, you don't belong." In order to be libertarian politically, you must be a liberal socially.

    Which is the more inclusive?

    "But it doesn’t end there. I can think of another reason for libertarians to be concerned about racism, namely, it all too easily metamorphoses from subtle intimidation into outright violence."

    Drinking one too many beers also all too easily metamorphoses into outright violence. Should libertarians also reject the desire and freedom of individuals to get drunk? Should an anti-drunkenness stance be a libertarian position?

    Thick libertarians, simply put, are already contemplating a desire to form a de facto thought police to survey and judge thoughts or actions that MAY, potentially, possibly, lead to violence and therefore regard those thoughts or actions as "un-libertarian".

    Can you smell the "thick" liberty already?

  6. "Secondly, by that definition, those who support affirmative action, reparations, and redistribution to protected classes, ARE also racists.

    But I am quite sure that most "humanitarian" libertarians are on the side of this kind of racism, right?"

    To be fair to "humanitarian libertarians", whom i have no intellectual love for, i don't think they support affirmative action, reparations, or redistribution schemes. While i find their political correctness and "social justice" egalitarianism moronic, i do not see them advocate use of the state to these ends.

  7. "In its denial of dignity to individuals merely by virtue of their membership in a racial group, there is a potential for violence implicit in racism that is too strong for libertarians to ignore."

    Mr. Richman quotes himself writing that racism requires deferential behavior by the subordinate group.

    In libertopia there wouldn't be a "subordinate group". There would be simply people who exclude others from their property/company for whatever reasons they themselves have. The Venusians aren't "subordinate" unless they're forced to live with the Martians. Isn't the problem then the whole "forced" thing?

    1. "In its denial of dignity to individuals merely by virtue of their membership in a racial group, there is a potential for violence implicit in racism that is too strong for libertarians to ignore."

      Er, who is "denying dignity" and how do they do it? If someone says Indian streets are filthy, is this a denial of dignity to Indians?

      If someone even says, Indians are dirty people, am I supposed to stay awake at night figuring out how to destroy his career and ostracize him? Why?

      Obviously it's a broad generalization and obviously many Indians are very clean, but if that's the critic's general perception, he's free to have it.

      What is unlibertarian or racist about such a statement? It's either overly general and inaccurate, which most casual statements are, including Richman's, or it's accurate.

      If inaccurate, it can be refuted. If accurate, no foul.

      If my feelings get hurt, I can always get on my blog and point out the high rates of crime and sexual disease in the US. Or obesity. Or pornography. Or cybercrime. The critic will pipe down.

      No need for anyone to intervene, shame, coerce, isolate on my behalf.
      No need for a bunch of white guys to use "non-white" protection as the pretext for policing political dissent. It gets to be insufferable and it will be non-white immigrants who will get kicked, in the backlash, not the high priests of political correctness who like to use people like us as pawns in their quest for mandarinhood.

      In point of fact, it was Mr. Tucker who denied dignity to anyone who doesn't subscribe to his beliefs -

      1. The dogma of radical egalitarianism
      2. The dogma that only certain groups in history were oppressed (what is oppression, first of all, and when does history start in this account?)
      3. The dogma of tolerance for everyone except those who doesn't subscribe to the two tenets above

      This is simply the left-liberal consensus, without the honesty or consistency of the statists to recommend it.

      But you can't decry "slut-shaming" and then pursue bigot-shaming.
      If you do, then it's not an intellectual argument, but a call to arms to the liberal-left to ostracize traditionalists.

      If it is a call to arms, the trads will respond in kind.
      The result won't be pretty and eventually the net will be censored.
      But maybe that's the point.

  8. Mr Bionic & Lila

    Please take note of the following developments in the universe

    This is what the future of libertarian "nudging" looks like (as Mr. Briggs prophesies it). It's extremely ugly.

    More importantly, it is headed to a logically inconsistent state. This is the end of libertarianism as a coherent and consistent philosophy.

  9. Libertarianism doesn't lose converts from the non-aggression principle. Everyone loves that part with an 'oh, of course!' The problem is you need a consistent definition of property rights in order to define aggression. Even good libertarians can't always agree on a single definition of property rights (intellectual property for one). The public at large could never be convinced to accept a libertarian definition of property rights in large enough numbers; it will always be 'oh that first part sounds nice... but not the rest of it.'

  10. " it will always be 'oh that first part sounds nice... but not the rest of it.'"

    And this is why most will remain stupid. Spouting without thinking. Rationalization hamster will be spinning at 15000 RPM.

  11. @bionic

    Genocide that no one talks about. 5 million dead. Indirectly from US corporate meddling abroad, and support for dictators.

    Sure racism played a part - in the black-on-black violence.

    But also, indifference, vendettas,
    But greed played a greater part; media indifference; inability to be interested in anything outside insular issues.

    Thus, a genocide no one heard of.

    So it is complex. Which is precisely why genuine political expression (even if it offends) must not be censored.