September 3, 2014

Walter Block Misunderstands Hans Hoppe: In Defense of Hoppe

By In Articles, Philosophy, Political Theory

Libertarianism is a “thin” political theory.  This means that it is centered around one doctrine, often helpfully summarized by the so-called Non-Agression Principle (NAP). The implications of this doctrine can be deduced from the Principle.  It is not like Christianity, which is “thick” because it is a worldview.

As has been discussed here before, there are some who consider libertarianism to be a thick doctrine.  That is to say, they think that libertarianism requires a set of beliefs outside of the NAP.  In other words, if you hold to NAP, but not these other beliefs, you cannot be a libertarian in good standing.  Therefore, the debate is over this question: “what is required in order to be a libertarian?”

Now, among the thin libertarians (of which I am certainly one), is Walter Block, who likes to call thin libertarianism “plumb line libertarianism.”  He has taken a solid stance against the libertarian progressives who think that their progressivism should be a necessary part of libertarianism.  He has also written a lengthy essay criticizing one of my personal favorites, Hans Hoppe for advocating a thick libertarianism which couples libertarianism with conservatism.  Recently in a video (21:45), Block stated the following about Hoppe: “Hans Hoppe said that to be a libertarian you have to be a conservative.”  Is Block right when he says this about Hoppe?  To consider this, let’s look at Block’s original essay.  Block writes:

According to Hoppe (2001, p. 189): “conservatives today must be antistatist libertarians and equally important,… libertarians must be conservatives.”

Block has no frustration with the first half of the statement. He does, however, object to the second statement. But does this statement equal Block’s summary of the Hoppe’s position in the video (“Hoppe said that to be a libertarian you have to be a conservative.”)?  Only by ripping Hoppe out of his context and misunderstanding the sense in which Hoppe was speaking.  Interestingly, the statement by Hoppe that Block has no problem with interprets the second half of the quote.  Hoppe is expressing the fact that if conservatives want to achieve their goals, because the State is by its very character opposed to the natural order (which conservatives should stand for), it would be most beneficial for them to take on the libertarian political philosophy.  The conservatism here in this context is social and ethical, not political in nature.  Social conservatives will not accomplish their goals is they use the State for reach their ends.

Thus, by this summary of Hoppe’s first statement, we can interpret his second one as well.  It is simply the reverse.  If libertarians want to reach their goals of absolute private property rights and a consistent legal framework applicable to all members of society in the same way, it would be practically beneficial to adopt conservative principles.  What are the conservative principles here?  Hoppe explains in this same book, writing that conservatism focuses on “families, authority, communities, and social ranks.”  Since liberalism trends against these things, or at least defines them quite differently, conservatism is the most helpful in aiding the libertarian to reach his goals.

Now, here is an important point: since libertarianism is thin, a plumb line philosophy, this means that it is strictly a political theory, and nothing more.  But if libertarianism is this thin, then the social preferences and outlook of the conservative are outside of libertarianism.  Thus, Hoppe’s appreciation for conservatism does not seek to redefine the nature of libertarianism, but rather, offers the program needed to attain the goals or ends of the libertarians order.  Further, if Hoppe is not seeking to redefine the nature of libertarianism, then Block’s claim is wrong when he says that Hoppe believes “that to be a libertarian you have to be a conservative.”  For Block’s summary of Hoppe gives the impression that Hoppe believes that one is not a libertarian unless he is a conservative.  This is a misinterpretation.

What would have made Block’s summary statement more accurate, is if he stated: “Hans Hoppe said that in order to reach the libertarian ideal, libertarians must be conservative.”  This is a more accurate reflection of Hoppe in context.

In conclusion, I wish to note that Block should understand all this quite well.  For example, a recent email exchange took place between Block and a curious questioner who assumed that Murray Rothbard was a thick libertarian because he held to positions outside the NAP.  Block defends Rothbard as a “thinnist” by pointing out that Rothbard spoke on other topics besides libertarianism.  Block said about Rothbard:

But Murray was far more than merely a libertarian. He was also an Austrian economist, a philosopher, an ethicist, a historian, a strategist for libertarianism (this is different than being a libertarian; the former asks how liberty can best most efficaciously [sic] be promoted, the latter is limited to deductions from the non aggression principle) and much more.  If Murray said any of these things QUA libertarian, I would agree with you. Murray would then be a thickster libertarian. But I don’t agree that Murray spoke as a libertarian on any of the points you make.

Here is an example of one of the “points” the questioner made.  It is important for our discussion on Hoppe.  (Bold is the questioner, regular is Block’s response.)

A position opposed to initiatory aggression was not enough for Rothbard when he wrote that David Friedman’s anarchism was not good enough because he did not “hate” the State. This is an extra-libertarian preference.

Yes, this is “an extra-libertarian preference.” But note, Murray didn’t say that David was not a libertarian. Only that he didn’t like that viewpoint, in effect. So, Murray is not speaking here as a libertarian. He would have been had he said that since David didn’t hate the state, David wasn’t a libertarian. But Murray didn’t say this.

This is a great rebuttal.  And I will use the same argument in defense of Hoppe, using Block’s own phrase above. In the quoted statement, Hoppe was not speaking as a libertarian (which “is limited to deductions from the non aggression principle”), but as a “strategist for libertarianism,” (which “asks how liberty can best… be promoted.”)

Hoppe is a thinnist, because he defines libertarianism the same way Block does: with the NAP.

But a thin libertarian must often speak of political strategy and other things as well.  Block is a great guy and great libertarian, but he gets Hoppe wrong.

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