September 9, 2015

How I responded to questions regarding the Block/Long debate

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

I was asked by a friend of the site (and even though he and I don’t agree on this point, I still consider him an ally and a smart individual– I appreciate his challenges to me) what I thought about the recent Block/Long debate on thick vs. thin libertarianism (see my article on Charles Johnson and thick libertarianism here).  Here is what I wrote back:

Long claimed, when he made the body analogy, that one can cut off their arm and still remain the same person. This was analogy to say that one can leave the additions to the NAP off their libertarianism and still adhere to libertarianism itself. In this way, libertarianism was thin. However, he also stated that without the arm, the person was “defective or incomplete.” This is a contradiction. (of course, the analogy is imperfect because bodies are extended into space whereas the doctrines of libertarianism are intellectual). Long must choose whether one can or cannot be a libertarian without them. Adding in “defective” or “incomplete” obscures the issue. This supports my common frustration that the self-described thickists are confusing and ambiguous.

If Long wants to claim that libertarianism is the NAP itself, then he is a thin libertarian. But he cannot at the same time hold to this position and the one that Charles Johnson put forth in his darned essay that started this whole thing (and Sheldon Richman also points to this for his case as well). For as I wrote in my essay Johnson alludes and suggests that libertarians ought to, qua libertarianism, stand for things outside the NAP. If Long supports this, he is a thick libertarian. Therefore, again, Long was contradictory. He only seems to admit that libertarianism is NAP alone when pressed. And this is why Block is so frustrated… for why does he never come out and remain clear about this elsewhere?

But the point remains: Long is either a thinnist, in which case he disagrees with Johnson; or he is a thickist, in which case he disagrees with Block. He cannot be both a thinnist and agree with Johnson.

Long argues (a la Johnson, whom I rebutted already) that there are other things (outside NAP) libertarians should care about as a libertarian. But this either means that libertarians should care about strategy or it means that they are less perfect libertarians for not caring. He gives the example of a society which defers to authority (because as a leftist, Long thinks a general social attitude of deferring to authority is harmful) and therefore is more susceptible to statism in the long run. Now, as one who usually defers to authority and thinks (the right) authority is healthy for society (there are many authorities besides the state, especially in a private property order), would it be appropriate for Long to consider me a defective libertarian? If not, then Long is agreeing with the thinnists— and then there is no point of making that argument. If so, then he is agreeing with the thickists and disrupting the doctrine. The most he happened to argue regarding the possibility of a libertarian society with voluntarist Nazis was that it was a “little weird.” But that’s not an argument. That’s a preferential standpoint.

Now, one more set of thoughts. 1). I don’t think Block argued well at certain points, I don’t think he understood or addressed many of Long’s points, and I think he agreed with Long too much instead of forcing him to make a commitment on issues that Long would have to make a choice on to avoid the fallacy of the excluded middle. So don’t take my position as the pure Blockian one as presented. Although I do think he is right overall. 2). Long, as you stated in the above comment, is right to disagree with the bleeding heartists* and to oppose their much more clear and obvious disagreement with thin libertarianism. He is right to at least give NAP more respect and “core status” than these blatant “narrow tent” thickists.  

To finish up, I will again express my frustration with Long’s leftism. But this is an extra-NAP view and therefore is a criticism that stems from my cultural rightism and not from libertarianism qua libertarianism.

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*For instance, the “Bleeding Heart Libertarian” (ie liberaltarian) Matt “Government Guaranteed Income” Zwolinski writes things like:


“But does that mean that racism, nationalism, and a desire for cultural stasis sit just as well with the libertarian worldview as tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and cultural dynamism? I don’t think it does.”

“Even if such a person in no way violated the non-aggression principle, I would still say that they are not a libertarian in as full a sense as they could, and should, be.”

“In other words, even if we can sensibly talk about libertarianism in a “thin” sense, and even if there are virtues to doing so, we can nevertheless talk about a “thicker” kind of libertarianism as well. And we can hold, moreover, that the thicker form of libertarianism is a better, more fully consistent form of libertarianism. I borrow the term ‘thick libertarianism’ from this excellent essay by Charles Johnson (now available in hard copy in this excellent book).”

(http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2011/12/libertarianism-thick-and-thin/)

This is confusion and ambiguity plain and simple. And it certainly distorts the libertarian doctrine.

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