April 6, 2014

Libertarianism is a Political Theory, Not a Holistic Philosophy

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

Sheldon Richman “continue[s] to have trouble believing that the libertarian philosophy is concerned only with the proper and improper uses of force.”  This is important.  What does this imply? Well, it implies that libertarian philosophy should be concerned with more than the proper and improper uses force.  And what, pray tell, is the “more?”

Richman mentions the need for fundamental ideas.  Indeed, there is a need for fundamentals. But fundamentals are used to justify the libertarian thesis.  They are not added to the libertarian thesis.  Here is the thing: if I assent to the proposition “no person should violate the life and property of another human being unless that other human being has first violated the life and property of another,” and I define the libertarian as any person who assents to that proposition, than it is tautological that I am a libertarian.  I have written on this often enough: there are differing reasons for being a libertarian.  That is, differing fundamentals are used. Some use the Bible and others rely on Thomas Aquinas’ Natural Law.  Still others are utilitarians at their base.  Is one of these less libertarian?  Not if we are taking the so-called “thin libertarian” approach.  My claim here is not all paths to the libertarian conclusion are logically justified –only that libertarianism itself is a narrow definition.  Which is why we can have a great deal of fun discussing philosophy inside of the libertarian umbrella.

But Richman seeks to praise “thick” libertarianism.  He wants to persuade his readers that thin libertarianism is too stripped-down.  But, in adding criteria to the libertarian political philosophy, he is going to eventually give way for others to define people like us bloggers at the Reformed Libertarian right out of the movement.  Mitchell Thompson mentioned that here.  Bionic Mosquito was on-target, in my estimation, when he noted that “Thick Libertarians Leave Less Room in the Tent.”  We might even say that thick libertarians have put up the big tent for sale in hopes of acquiring a smaller tent. Less maintenance I suppose.

At any rate, Richman argues the following:

Let’s get specific. Are there distinctly libertarian grounds for disapproving of racist conduct that does not involve the use of force? Some libertarians say no. They might hasten to add that while libertarians, as human beings, ought to disapprove of racism, they cannot do so as libertarians, because their political philosophy only speaks to the proper and improper uses of force.

After quoting Ayn Rand, who (rightly) noted that racism relied on collectivist thinking, Richman continued to say:

The freedom philosophy is intimately related to ethical, political, and methodological individualism. Therefore, the philosophy should be expected to detest any kind of collectivism — and particularly its “lowest, most crudely primitive form” [referring to racism –CJE] — even in its nonviolent manifestations.

His point is this: libertarianism must be more than the thin libertarians say it is because it necessarily contradicts certain other beliefs and convictions.  One of which is racism.  Therefore, racists cannot be good libertarians because they reject individualism at least at one point.  Now, it is my conviction that Richman makes a crucial mistake here. As one who is not a racist, I believe I am objective here, that is, I am not making this counter-argument in an effort to vindicate my own racism.  Richman’s mistake is that he fails to consider that libertarianism is strictly a political philosophy.  At least, that is how most libertarians, before there was such a “thick/thin” split, employ it.  Libertarianism is not a moral system or standard. It is not holistic, it is narrow, thin, if you will.  Racism is wrong indeed, but it does not rely on State intervention and therefore it is not judged to be wrong by virtue of any rejection of the non-aggression principle.

It is true that anti-collectivists cannot consistently be racists, but implying that racists cannot adhere to the non-aggression principle in society is a categorical mistake of dangerous proportions. The thick/thin split, which I touched on here, is a debate over whether or not the philosophy is strictly limited to political theory.  If it does not strictly refer to political theory, then it can indeed exclude non-individualists like those who believe that certain races, whatever they may be, sit at a lower moral standing than other races (racists).  Racists are misguided, but libertarianism, a theory of politics, does not address it.

I’m curious too why racism seems to be a recent theme in defenses of “thick” (as opposed to “thin”) or “humanitarian” (as opposed to “brutalist“) libertarianism.  If these folks see racism as a growing threat in the libertarian movement, I think this is mistaken.  I don’t see it at all. I do see, however, a Progressivist media that loves to associate libertarian concepts like secession, nullification, property rights, and laissez-faire economics with keywords and popular smear-labels like “racism,” sexism,” and “homophobe.”  It seems that many thick libertarians believe that these are cultural problems that needs to be addressed.  The thick libertarians, by working tirelessly to rid the world of these things, actually give credibility to the media-driven social themes.

It’s a Progressivist world out there.  I expect more of the same.  Traditional libertarians like me, considering libertarianism to be a political philosophy and sticking hard and fast to Christian doctrine, traditional views of marriage (which don’t require State-affirmation), and an anti-abortionism, are already in the minority.  We need more rigorous defenses of the label “libertarian.”  The thick libertarians mean no harm, perhaps.  Much of what they say is decent enough.  But if they seek to make the tent smaller by redefining the terms, I better buy a rain coat.  It’s a dark and stormy world out there.

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
  • oicu812a

    Terrific write-up. Bend-but-don’t-break libertarians, I call them. Of course they’ve already caved to the “progressive” hive-mind and its conceptions of “social justice.”