Saturday, May 3, 2014

Sheldon Richman Takes Down Walter Block & Lew Rockwell?

By Bionic Mosquito

(Note: I am trying something suggested by Robert Wenzel in his post “Note to Libertarian Bloggers: How to Boost Traffic to Your Sites.”  I am going for a three-bagger with my title; the power hitter in the bunch should be pretty obvious.)

We have a new post from Sheldon Richman regarding thick libertarianism.  In this post, he contrasts his vision of libertarianism with that of Walter Block and Lew Rockwell, via recent posts by these two. 

His first couple of paragraphs are better left ignored.  I will start by offering Richman’s proposition:

The proposition on the table is that the most robust case for the libertarian philosophy (such as I articulated but of course did not originate) entails commitments not only to the Nonaggression Principle — or what I now call the Nonaggression Obligation — but also to other values that don’t directly relate to aggression (for example, opposition to even non-rights-violating forms of racism).

This is not a good start.  Do we really need to
change the term again?  Max Borders recently did the same thing, using as his term of obfuscation and confusion “non-harm.” “Nonaggression obligation” is even less visible on the internet (4 hits, two being Richman) than is non-harm (30 hits at last check).  Nonaggression principle?  13,000.

Why try to hide the absolute core of the foundation?  (Hint: because it must be hidden else the house built on this foundation of sand will come crumbling down.)

Richman brings some clarity to his view via his cite of Charles W. Johnson:

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 for endorsing libertarianism in the first place. (Emphasis added by Richman.)

Wenzel warned me (if I recall correctly) that the “thicks” are making a “should” argument, not a “must” argument.  This appears to be the case.  It doesn’t help their case, but it appears to be the case.

Why? I know this will put me squarely in the camp of dim-bulbs, but here goes: what happens to the foundation of a philosophy when the “shoulds” of the philosophy come into direct conflict with the “musts,” as they must in Richman’s case?  If the foundation contains such a contradiction, then what does it say about the structure built upon it? 

The contradiction?  In this post, Richman uses the term “property” only once, and this only when referring to a statement made by Block.  He cannot discuss property because to do so will destroy every “should” he wishes upon libertarians, or introduce so many “excepts” that the “shoulds” become meaningless

Richman then adds:

Note…that Johnson says that the sort of commitments he has in mind “could be rejected without contradicting the nonaggression principle per se.” In other words, he does not say that someone who rejects these commitments is not a libertarian. He says only that rejection of the commitments weakens the best case for libertarianism, which in turn could weaken a particular libertarian’s commitment to libertarianism itself.

It is curious: Block and Rockwell, who, according to Richman, are wrong on this and reject these commitments as foundational to libertarianism, don’t seem any less committed to libertarianism for it.

Again, citing Johnson:

Noncoercive authoritarianism [for example, patriarchy] may be consistent with libertarian principles, but it is hard to reasonably reconcile the two.

There is so much to unpack in this short sentence.  I will start with definitions.  To understand noncoercive authoritarianism, I will start with understanding authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism: Authoritarianism is a form of government. It is characterized by absolute or blind obedience to authority, as against individual freedom and related to the expectation of unquestioning obedience.

As Johnson’s term includes “noncoercive,” neither Johnson nor Richman must mean to suggest this definition – government and coercion go hand in hand; this must be true even for Richman.  Therefore “noncoercive” will not work with “government.”

…principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people.

We can ignore the government definition.  The first portion of the above adds some clarity.

Now for noncoercive.  Focusing on the “coercive” part will get us there:

Coercive: serving or tending to coerce.

That doesn’t help much.

Coerce: to compel by force, intimidation, or authority, especially without regard for individual desire or volition; to bring about through the use of force or other forms of compulsion; to dominate or control, especially by exploiting fear, anxiety, etc.

So, noncoercive would be the opposite of this.

Let’s put the two together, as do Johnson and Richman.

Noncoercive authoritarianism: I did a search for this term, in quotes.  I received three (yes,three) hits; I didn’t think getting only three hits for anything was possible on the internet. 

One was for Richman’s current post; one was for Johnson’s post from which Richman draws, in which the term appears only the one time.  The third was at a protected site, in which the phrase is apparently (I write apparently because I can only glean this from the search results) used to describe Putin’s Russia.

In other words, nowhere is the term properly explained or defined – for goodness’ sakes, nowhere is it even used!  Perhaps it is because the two words when put together (within the context used by Richman) are so contradictory as to be illogical (well, except for in Russia – a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.  That explains it.).

Patriarchy: …is a social system in which males are the primary authority figures central to social organization, occupying roles of political leadership, moral authority, and control of property, and where fathers hold authority over women and children. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination. Many patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage. The female equivalent is matriarchy.

Interesting that Richman provides patriarchy as his example.  I guess the father should not have authority over his household.  As I doubt Richman means to suggest that someone outside of the family should have authority over the family (he certainly can’t mean one of the children either, can he?), one can only conclude that there “should” be no social authority of any kind in Richman’s world.

I also guess that Richman doesn’t see that such a social structure can be deemed to offer benefits, on net, to each member within the social structure.

This is the “should” that is the foundation of libertarianism, according to Richman.  There should be no social authority.

You know, many of us anarcho-capitalists are often hit with the supposedly unanswerable “give me one example where anarchy worked.”  Besides the example offered by much of our daily lives, I have found and written about a few such societies – while not perfect anarchies, nonetheless close enough to be meaningful.

I have not found a single example anywhere of a functioning society where there is no form of hierarchy whatsoever – where there is no authority other than each individual having authority over himself.  None.  Anywhere.

Anarchy, in both principle and in the real world can and has and does work.  A world with no social structure or authority?  It is impossible.

Now that Richman has successfully included the impossible within the definition of libertarianism, he goes on to rebut certain statements of Block and Rockwell. 

In my article I defended the proposition that we owe other individuals nonaggression because we owe them respect as ends in themselves. (Block never says why we owe anyone nonaggression. Does he ever ask that question?)

“Owe” is such a terrible word to use in defense of libertarianism, isn’t it?  It sounds so, I don’t know, “should.”

I don’t know Block’s answer, but I offer mine – and I offer advance warning, simpleton me needs no other answer.  Nonaggression is appropriate for governing man’s relationship with man (hopefully we are past the man / rock thing) because the violation of this (and the violation of property) leads to death.  And absent life, I guess I don’t know what the point is to any of this.

Yeah, I know.  It isn’t Ph.D. level stuff.  I warned you.  You want to construct something more complicated, have at it.

An interesting example: after suggesting that Rockwell’s article amounts to not much more than “I know you are, but what am I?,” he states:

But [Rockwell] does a bit more: he makes an argument from authority by citing Murray Rothbard (of whom I was a long-time friend, informal student, and admirer).

I guess quoting Rothbard is bad, but attempting to build credibility by saying you once breathed the same air that Rothbard breathed is good?

Rockwell’s comparison of the degradation of “liberal” as a good template for the degradation of “libertarian” if the thick version takes hold is faulty, according to Richman.

Yet, we see this degradation of libertarianism even before our eyes; a quick visit with the Students for Liberty will disabuse Richman of the notion that ideas don’t have consequences.  The self-described “…most libertarian generation that has ever existed…” has fully embraced the “shoulds” as “musts.”

Our foundations also mean opposing cultural repression, societal intolerance, and authoritarian relationships and supporting feminism, gay and trans liberation, anti-racism, and worker empowerment, which are the other set of conclusions wemust embrace….

We “must” embrace.  It seems Richman’s “shoulds” have already been turned into the “most libertarian generations” “musts.” Perhaps Richman should focus his attention on disabusing the students of this very un-libertarian notion.

Returning to Richman:

[Johnson] says only that rejection of the commitments weakens the best case for libertarianism….

The best case for libertarianism lies in the simplest and broadest – opposition to the initiation of aggression.  “Shoulds” have a nasty habit of turning into “musts” (see immediately above).

And in Richman’s case, “shoulds” are in direct contradiction to the most important (and only) “must.”

There is still no reconciliation offered of the “should” of thick with the “must” of property (and therefore life).  There isn’t because there cannot be.

A foundation built on sand.  This is Mr. Richman’s libertarian vision.

The above originally appeared at Bionic Mosquito.


  1. BM, you are right, Richman with his "new" branch of supposed libertarianism is now extending his "should" argument with the word "owe".

    It's why he's referring to his nonsense as an "obligation" instead of the word "principle".

    If you adhere to a principle, it's choice, an obligation assumes NO choice.


    "an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment."

    When one accepts a principle, it's based on logic. That's not necessarily the case for obligations as they have the subjective element of morals, which are not uniform.

    Hence Richman has set the stage now for a positive rights philosophy while trying to claim it is 'libertarian'.

    I can convince someone that it is in their mutual interest to to accept a principle(like the NAP),and they still make the choice voluntarily to do so or not.

    But, If I feel they have an obligation from a moral perspective and hold that philosophy above the NAP, I can now justify violence against them to "make them do the right thing". That folks, is one of the major arguments by statists for government.

    This isn't a new branch of libertarianism that Richman is proposing, because a new branch doesn't attack the trunk from which is stems. He just wants the power of the word 'libertarian', just like many others right now.

  2. "I guess the father should not have authority over his household. As I doubt Richman means to suggest that someone outside of the family should have authority over the family (he certainly can’t mean one of the children either, can he?), one can only conclude that there “should” be no social authority of any kind in Richman’s world."

    You've committed the either / or fallacy here. There is another alternative. Namely, that the husband or wife (or partners in a same-sex relationship) could share authority over their household.

    1. I spotted that as well. However, I think the broader point still stands: it seems highly implausible that society can function without some sort of hierarchy. Richman is reaching out of political philosophy here into another field of ethics entirely. One can argue about the merits of hierarchy per se, but this is not political philosophy. Remember, political philosophy is merely one branch of moral philosophy.

    2. "Namely, that the husband or wife (or partners in a same-sex relationship) could share authority over their household."

      This is an interesting concept; perhaps you can explain what happens when they cannot come to an agreement on a particular topic or event?

    3. Count me out of all this drivel.

      Authoritarianism is not authority.
      What is wrong with authority, tell me..

      If I accumulate expertise on something, I become an authority on it. My opinion will carry authority, whereas yours will not.

      Meanwhile, while inveighing and confusing authority and authoritarianism, Richman himself is acting as an authority and telling other self-identified libertarians how they ought to think.

      Funny how that works.

  3. Our foundations also mean opposing cultural repression, societal intolerance, and authoritarian relationships and supporting masculinity, straight and natural-gender liberation, anti-anti-racism, and employer empowerment, which are the *other* set of conclusions we must embrace….

  4. NAP libertarians can be proud that our name for ourselves is now being stolen by morons who aren't getting enough attention and realize that calling themselves libertarians will cause the spot light to swing onto them and their prejudices.

  5. By the way, I disagree with Sheldon's entire premise. Promoting gay marriage equality did not get me to be a libertarian, the pure anti war message pulled me in and the logical consistency of the NAP played out in all other aspects turned me. He wants to say promotion of equality is the best underpinning instead of the NAP. He is dead wrong, that is the democrat slogan anyway. Ron Paul, lobertarianisms best recruiter, proves him wrong. The NAP is the best way to spread the message, not equality.

    What is more compelling? Thou shall not kill, or thou shall not discriminate.

  6. Perhaps this whole thing is jut a charade to get us debating equality rather than Ukraine and antiwar. Oh yeah, the thick l"ibertarians" support intervention in foreign lands....

    1. Highly unlikely, given that Richman is thoroughly antiwar and has written extensively against US intervention in Ukraine.

      I suppose there might be a "thick" libertarian out there who "supports intervention in foreign lands," but I haven't run into one yet.

    2. There is, they're on the board of Students for Liberty.

      Try and keep up.

    3. JFF, that is what I was relating to.

      I guess if he put libertarian in quotes instead of thick he could
      Have gotten it right, as libertarians in favor of intervention is an impossibility. To me thickness has equated a rejection of the NAP, muddying of the meaning, and intervention sense I was introduced to it

  7. Another going nowhere ideology. Personal psychology trumps principle and ideology yet again. I for one am becoming convinced of the pre-enlightenment view of the nature of man and the human condition.

  8. NAP is too brief and boring. How are we bloggers and pundits supposed to retain our audience if we can't start complicating and confusing everything. Remember, getting attention is what counts, not simple liberty and peace.

  9. @JH

    To do these guys justice, I don't think they are saying this to get more of an audience. I think that might be Tucker's motives for LFB, but not likely for Richman. In any case, there is nothing wrong with their seeking an audience. It is natural and right for writers to do that.

    Also, there really is a lot of question-begging in libertarian theory.
    That is why I'll just stick to being a garden-variety small government type.

    I also don't see why libs need to bow to Rothbard every time they want to say something...any more than anyone has to bow to Richman to be a libertarian.

    There seems to be a lot more going on here on both sides in all these repeated internecine squabbles.

    I agree with paleo-libs most often, but to be honest, I don't see the state as the root cause of all evil. That belief would be in conflict with my own religious understanding and would play into the hands of the oligarchs.

    But that said, just as a matter of accurate knowledge, it is a fact that the NAP is sufficient to American libertarianism, as canonical American libertarians have taught. For them, as Bob Roddis keeps repeating in these comments, "thickness" would be come from voluntary associations.

    Richman knows that. He probably also knows that really voluntary associations in the US, minus state and media intervention, would probably tend toward the traditionalist and the religious, because Americans, minus their elites, are actually a fairly religious people.

    So in my opinion, it's not that Richman wants more of an audience.

    It's that he wants traditionalists - who oppose leftist social mores - to have less of one.

    (I might be doing him wrong, in which case I apologize).