April 16, 2014

More Thoughts on Thin Libertarianism

By In Articles, Philosophy, Political Theory

We need to nail down the precise meaning of thick and thin libertarianism!

Already the “thickers” are redefining their terms; turning libertarian thickism into something else.  When I refer to the split, here is what I mean: thin libertarians believe that adhering to the Non-Aggression Principle makes one a libertarian.  Thick libertarians believe that the libertarian must adhere to the Non-Aggression Principle and also hold to more progressive –or enlightened– cultural views.  Roughly speaking of course.

What is not being debated?  Well, no one is debating the question of whether or not libertarians have views and beliefs and convictions outside of the Non-Aggression Principle.  We all do.  The debate is over the question of the nature of the minimum requirement for libertarian belief.  There have been some libertarians who say: actually, everyone is necessarily a thick libertarian because everyone has views outside of NAP.  This is an improper representation of thick libertarianism.  Thick libertarianism says: “NAP is not enough, NAP is not the only requirement to be libertarian.”  The thin libertarian says: “those who believe that no person is allowed to ‘initiate or threaten to initiate physical force against others and their property’ is a libertarian.  That is the only requirement.”  Thin libertarianism is libertarianism; thick libertarianism is a distortion.

Sheldon Richman wrote (and I commented here) that he has “trouble believing that the libertarian philosophy is concerned only with the proper and improper uses of force.”  Contrary to Richman, I do not have this trouble.  Why? Because the “libertarian philosophy” doesn’t inform me of very much at all.  I do have a philosophy that covers many other things: Christianity.  Libertarian theory does not tell me that racism is wrong.  But my Christianity does.  The point, though, is that libertarianism is limited in scope and was never intended to answer “all of life’s questions.”  Libertarianism is not a failed doctrine because it doesn’t tell you what food to eat for dinner! Everything has its place.

Why all this talk of thick and thin? Because there are many who are trying to redefine the libertarian creed.  And in their effort to do so, they are defining myself, and the libertarian bloggers at this site, and many others, right out of the movement.  Christian Libertarian blogger Mitchell Thompson expressed his concern here.  A good example of the effort toward redefinition can be seen in Jeffrey Tucker: As quoted by Robert Wenzel (thin libertarian) at Economic Policy Journal, Tucker wrote:

I see within Students for Liberty the emergence of a new form of libertarianism—something more intellectually and strategically sophisticated than forms from the last century… here are some non-negotiables, and they aren’t only about the ban on the use of power. As an extension of the above point, this generation puts a premium on civilized thinking and behaving that includes absolute exclusion of bigotry in all its forms. Racist, sexist, and anti-gay attitudes are not only tacky, but embody the opposite of the tolerance that old liberalism identified as a main bulwark against State oppression. This necessarily means a special identity with groups that have been victims of State oppression and remain so in many parts if the world.

[…]

If we love capitalism, we must remember that it alone has done more to bring about that empowerment than any political change. For this reason, we should embrace the ideals of feminism in the same way we embrace the anti-slavery cause. It is our cause, our banner, our history, our movement. We should never give this up to the oppressor class.

Wenzel, being a thin libertarian, recognizes this as a dangerous and absurd attempt at redefinition and libertarian purification.  We don’t need strategically sophisticated.  We need strategically simple: don’t coerce. That’s called crime.

If thin libertarians do not get ahead of this, libertarian as a label will have gone the same way as (political) “liberal,” which actually referred to being liberated from big government.  Now liberal refers to all sorts of socialist interventionism into civilization.  The word “Liberalism” (in the political sense) was taken over.

Will libertarianism be captured and taken hostage?

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Zach

    Great article! Wenzel should consider posting this.

  • David

    The big question is: what are “traditional values” exactly? And “proper authorities.”

    Traditional values and proper authorities could very easily be something that should be supported or opposed, depending on what one means.

    I assume by traditional values you have in mind primarily respect for parents, pastors, our elders, other family members, the community, and so forth. Voluntaristic, or in the case of children, natural, authority figures. I take no issue with this, and in fact I would agree with you.

    But most conservatives, particularly political conservatives, go beyond this. Most of them think of “traditional values” and “proper authorities” as including respect for the US flag, respect for police, respect for soldiers, respect for government and “the law” (no matter what the content of these laws) and so forth. These “traditions” more often than not resemble fascism, not liberty. I don’t see how a libertarian could really support these things. Yet to many conservatives, these kinds of POWER structures, built upon aggression, fall under what many people consider to be “traditional values and proper authorities.”

    Its this type of “tradition” that’s gotten us into so much trouble.