March 18, 2014

Thick and Thin: The Libertarian Split

By In Articles, Philosophy, Political Theory

What is Libertarianism?  How should it be defined and how should it be presented? Walter Block once noted that if you get “ten libertarians in a room you will get eleven different views as to what libertarianism is.”  That is to say, before libertarianism is critiqued or supported, it must be defined.  Far too many critics of libertarianism only focus on widespread and pervasive caricatures.  Part of the reason for this is that libertarians themselves disagree about the nature of libertarianism.

One way to differentiate between our view of libertarianism and all others is to consider whether or not libertarianism is about the principle of nonaggression alone.  This has recently come to light as a debate between “thick” and “thin” libertarianism.  Tom Woods explains:

Some libertarians say the traditional libertarian principle of nonaggression is insufficient. That is merely “thin” libertarianism, they say. We also need to have left-liberal views on religion, sexual morality, feminism, etc., because reactionary beliefs among the public are also threats to liberty. This is “thick” libertarianism.

As a “thin” libertarian myself (or what in the past was simply called a libertarian), I reject the claims of the thickists. I see no good reason to expand the list of requirements people must meet in order to be admitted to our little group. If they support nonaggression, they are libertarians.

I, with Tom Woods (and Walter Block, Murray Rothbard, Hans Hoppe, Lew Rockwell, William Anderson, Ron Paul, Laurence Vance, Robert Wenzel, and many others associated with and the Mises Institute), am a “thin libertarian.”  I suppose have “rightist” views on culture, morality, religion, sociology, and the like.  Often, and increasingly so, we see “libertarians” who express frustration toward the social conservatism and religiosity of writers at Mises and  These writers are blamed by cultural progressives for being “racist,” “sexist,” and culturally authoritarian merely for expressing their worldview.  The thin libertarians, those who define libertarianism as the political philosophy in which the government is subject to the same moral laws as individuals, are under fire.  The assumption –and it is a false one– from the thin libertarian’s critics is that having non-progressive views on culture is inherently non-libertarian.

This thick vs. thin libertarian debate marks a coming split.  It was first seen with the popularization of the libertarian philosophy by Congressman Ron Paul.  Many appreciated Ron Paul’s efforts but were a small bit aggravated that Paul was outspoken about his personal conservative tendencies, his anti-abortionism, and the fact that he is a Christian.  I have heard many progressivist-leaning libertarians claim that Ron Paul, given that he does not use leftist phraseology such as “women’s rights,” “gay rights,” and “white privilege,” is not a real libertarian.  This is a profound misunderstanding of libertarianism.  Libertarianism should never be a stance on cultural issues, lifestyle preferences, or even economic theory (economic theory is value free). Libertarians asks one question: should the State intervene in situation X.  The answer, unless dealing with a person who has breached the property rights of another individual, is always “no” (and even here, the libertarian would point out that the state itself is kept alive by contradicting this rule).  That is libertarianism.

The “thick vs. thin” libertarian split was exacerbated last Wednesday when Jeffrey Tucker published his controversial statement “Against Libertarian Brutalism.”  Tucker makes a distinction between “humanitarian” libertarians and “brutalist” libertarians.  He divides them up like so:

The humanitarians are drawn to reasons such as the following. Liberty allows peaceful human cooperation. It inspires the creative service of others. It keeps violence at bay. It allows for capital formation and prosperity. It protects human rights of all against invasion. It allows human associations of all sorts to flourish on their own terms. It socializes people with rewards toward getting along rather than tearing each other apart, and leads to a world in which people are valued as ends in themselves rather than fodder in the central plan.

But they are not the only reasons that people support liberty. There is a segment of the population of self-described libertarians—described here as brutalists—who find all the above rather boring, broad, and excessively humanitarian. To them, what’s impressive about liberty is that it allows people to assert their individual preferences, to form homogeneous tribes, to work out their biases in action, to ostracize people based on “politically incorrect” standards, to hate to their heart’s content so long as no violence is used as a means, to shout down people based on their demographics or political opinions, to be openly racist and sexist, to exclude and isolate and be generally malcontented with modernity, and to reject civil standards of values and etiquette in favor of antisocial norms.

Let me rephrase: humanitarians are enlightened, tolerant, open, nice, desirous of human flourishing, and against judgmentalism and “old fashioned” moral standards.  Brutalists, on the other hand, are backwards thinking, judgmental, closed-minded, jerks, hateful elitists, and intolerant.

This narrative is impressively similar to the Progressivist storyline of cultural traditionalists vs. cultural liberals.  Tucker divides libertarians up so as to make it seem like those brutalists are somehow less than libertarians, or at least undeserving of the title.  But this relies on a dangerous redefining of what it means to be a libertarian.  Christopher Cantwell, who is one with whom I might have profound disagreements on religion, epistemology, and ethics (among other things), is admittedly right that Tucker destroys libertarianism with this article.  He writes:

In the ongoing conflict between leftist infiltrators who want to redefine libertarianism, and purists who wish to stay on message, yet another high profile libertarian has ditched principle for popularity, and condemned principled action as racist, and misogynist.

He even helpfully points out that:

This isn’t Jeffrey Tucker’s first flirtation with leftists, he co-authored an article with Cathy Reisenwitz making Ludwig von Mises out to be a feminist. He wrote of a “new libertarianism” which “should embrace the ideals of feminism in the same way we embrace the anti-slavery cause“. He has praised Cathy Reisenwitz’s “proto-socialism”.

The so-called humanitarians are perhaps in their worst form at the website “Bleeding Heart Libertarians.”  They love progressivist themes like “egalitarianism” and “humanitarian” and “same sex marriage.”  They think the wealth is a sign of systematic “privilege,” call any disparity in racial statistics as “racist,” any disparity in gender statistics as “sexist,” and consider religion to be the antithesis of libertarianism.  Further, they advocate for profoundly unlibertarian welfarist economic policy measures such as a Basic Income Guarantee.  They have fought hard to redefine libertarianism.

Contrary to the opinions of the self-described humanitarians, libertarians should not see “egalitarianism,” cultural acceptance, and approval of every lifestyle, as the libertarian program.  The libertarian program is a path toward less State intervention on every issue.  Everything else is superfluous in regards to libertarianism.  If we want to debate culture, philosophy, ethical standards, and religion, I am all for it.  But libertarianism has nothing to do with it.  And to characterize those who define libertarianism in a radically narrow way as brutalists is misleading, unhelpful, and simply worrisome.

To conclude, the blogger Bionic Mosquito, who has done well at defending traditional Rothbardian libertarianism over the years, wrote: “Some Libertarians are Not Nice People.” He then says, a bit sarcastically:

It’s true.  Jeffrey Tucker just wrote about 2350 words to prove it.

He calls these not-nice libertarians “brutalists.”  The nice ones are “humanitarian.”

Basically, brutalists are libertarians that do not have the same open-arm, embrace-all world-view as Jeffrey Tucker.  He is a humanitarian.

The brutalists insist on core principle.  The humanitarians see where sticking to principle can get in the way of the world in which they prefer to live.

There, now you have saved yourself about 2300 words.

Call this my public service, in the interest of humanity.

In the comments section an anonymous commenter wrote: “Call me cynical but if this isn’t the beginning of an attempted purge then what is? Won’t be too long until the Tuckers, the Reisenwitzes, the Milequetoastarians and Technocrats start marginalising [sic] and disawowing those who don’t tow the line of the culture-warring left.”

Bionic Mosquito responded: “It is not the beginning of a purge, it is the continuation of the (attempted) purge of Rothbard with a tangential chapter being the (attempted) purge of Ron Paul.”

Many Christians who are hesitant about libertarianism are hesitant precisely because of this purge, this war.  They need to realize that one can be a social conservative, hold a view of ethics that is Biblically based, while at the same time being a strong libertarian.  But in order to do that, they must define libertarianism correctly; they have to stand in the tradition of Murray Rothbard, Tom Woods, and the good folks at the Mises Institute.  You know, the folks that the self-proclaimed humanitarians and egalitarians are annoyed with.  There are many different flavors of libertarianism.  Those who identify with the Mises Institute and Lew Rockwell are quickly becoming the minority in favor of militant libertines.

I stand in the paleolibertarian tradition of the Rothbardians. This puts me even further in the minority.  Who wants to join the club?  It’s a lovely, lonely group of us.

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
  • Tucker always bothered me

    • hxc323

      his books and speeches and such are great (such as “how government is unraveling society by force”) but he has too much hippie b.s. implanted in his brain imo.

  • bionic mosquito

    “Our King reigns forever. Who wants to join the club?”
    I’m all in, and thank you for the note!

    • cjayengel

      Thanks for dropping by! I’m honored.

  • David

    This excellent article brings to mind a question that I’ve been grappling with as a Reformed libertarian, is our “small little group” in any sense just “Christianity”?

    Now, of course not even all libertarians agree on every issue, and I’m not suggesting that one must agree with every libertarian tenant to be a Christian, but there are a lot of professing Christians who will justify blatant drone murder in other countries for some “greater good” or another.

    Is it legitimate for us to fellowship with these types of people, or consider them saved? if it is legitimate, would your answer be the same if a professing Christian said that homosexuality or adultery was OK? to what extent, if any, are “political ethics” less important than “personal ethics” as you will (I dislike this distinction, which is the basis for my question.)

    Thanks in advance.

    • cjayengel

      This is a good question. And something that we should approach cautiously. After all, we are not saved by consistency of theological belief and application (thanks be to God for amazing grace). Rather, we are saved by believing the gospel.

      Your final paragraph is important. And I have no ultimate answer. I suppose the best way to approach the question of fellowship is not whether our fellow Christians are right and wrong on a specific issue per se, but rather what they believe about the nature of their faith. Is the Holy Scripture infallible, inerrant, the very Word of God, and binding on Christian faith and practice? This must be the approach of one’s Christian community. There must be a mindset present.

      Frankly (think about it), the types of communities of people in the United States who treat the Bible well are the same types of communities who do not get upset at the drone murders. Why is this? What happened? I have no idea, besides the fact that the political Religious Right propagandized them. This is not a logical analysis, but more of a statistical one. And similarly, the same communities of people in the US who treat the nature of the Bible poorly, do not like doctrine, and do not consider Scripture inerrant or authoritative, are the same types of communities that are more likely to be soft on homosexuality and the like.

      Therefore, we have fellowship with others not based on the fact that we agree with people on everything but rather based on the mindset and the approach to Christianity of the people there. How do they define Christianity, faith, the Kingdom of God, Scripture, truth, the trinity.

      This means that we need to speak truth about these political realities while at the same time being sensitive to who they are and where they have come from. I didn’t give up my neocon ways by being yelled at. But rather by applying the doctrines of God’s word to the present situation.

      • David

        Yes, I find the fact that the people who don’t seem to care so much about the drone murders are more likely to have a high view of scripture (Admittedly, many of these people are dispensational Arminian, which to me shows a poor grasp of scripture at best and repressing what one knows to be true at worst, perhaps there is a connection here.) Whereas, I doubt you’ll find many people who will be like “yeah, the Bible is completely infallible and inerrant, yet I somehow interpret it to mean homosexuality is OK.” For some reason or another, you do get that with war.

        I was a neocon just a few short years ago too, so I definitely remember being completely brainwashed.

        I just thought of a somewhat bizarre issue that might be applicable… polygamy. Unlike homosexuality, there’s no passage that flat out and straight up says “Thou shall not do it.” It seems obvious to me that scriptures like Genesis 2:24 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7 imply monogamy. But still, there’s no passage that straight up says it. So its conceivable that someone could read the Bible through a bizarre lens and come to the conclusion that polygamy is OK. Would you fellowship with such a person, if his gospel doctrine was orthodox? And if so, where do we draw the line? Do we just trust that there will never be a person who outwardly confesses to and seems to believe the gospel (note that I do not say he actually believes the gospel, and I am certainly skeptical of whether an immoral person actually believes the gospel). Or is there a certain point where you have to say “OK, you claim to believe the scripture is infallible but you interpret it completely wrong on this basic moral issue so we have to separate from you.” And if there is any such issue, I’m not sure how murder could not be the one. Of course, there’s a LOT of brainwashing on this issue, and I wonder whether even libertarians are brainwashed into thinking statism should be tolerated more than it is. Until a couple months ago statists frequently told me I was “arrogant” regarding political issues (I’ve calmed down a little since then, though still strongly opinionated.) They don’t understand that their “difference of opinion” is literally a desire to threaten us or something else.

        I don’t have the answer either, hence why I asked the question. But I think its a question that at the very least deserves to be asked more often.

  • David

    Where is Cantwell wrong on ethics? I have no doubt this is true (what atheist isn’t?) but I am curious what you had in mind.

    • cjayengel

      I just mean his ethical system is different than mine, almost by definition. My ethics are sourced in the propositional Word of God: the Bible. He is an atheist, therefore, his ethical system is somewhere else.

      • David

        Yeah, I’m with you. That would be true for any atheist though, I suppose. I was curious if you had in mind in particular his thoughts on violence as an acceptable solution to statism. I’m still not sure where I stand on that, I definitely don’t think its something to be taken lightly, but I do believe that violence could potentially be justified if it were defensive in nature. I’m still somewhat divided on the subject of vigilante justice against people who could not be touched by any non-vigilante form of justice, I’m open to hearing your thoughts on that. For consideration would be the OT instance in which an Israelite judge did assassinate a tyrant (no, I don’t think this should be normative, I’m not even certain if its possible to do ethically in the NT. I’m also not sure if you want to touch this topic with a 10ft pole, and I would not blame you if you didn’t want to.)

    • cjayengel

      I’ve also decided to stay away from Cantwell.

      • David

        Why have you decided to “stay away from” Cantwell?

        I don’t always agree with him, sometimes he’s extreme, even more so than I am:) but what little I’ve read of him I have found to be thought provoking.

        That said, even as far as atheist libertarians goes, I prefer Larken Rose over Cantwell. And I’d definitely not recommend that any non-libertarian read Cantwell. It would offend them to an unnecessary degree, and I don’t say that lightly.

        But he still has some decent things to say, IMO.