Monday, April 7, 2014

Thoughts on "Thick" Libertarianism: Part 1 - Is Libertarianism More Than Anti-Statism?

There has been a recent controversy in the libertarian movement over the issue of "thin" vs. "thick" libertarianism. Some have argued that libertarianism shouldn't be "thick" while others (particularly of a more leftish inclination) argued that "thick" libertarianism is a necessary and a good thing.

So I have decided to give my few cents on this issue, from both a libertarian and a Christian standpoint.

In one article, left-libertarian Cory Massimino argued that libertarianism is more than just anti-statism and Sheldon Richman (a great writer, BTW) argued in favor of "thick libertarianism." However, many others have argued convincingly that libertarianism doesn't require being "thick" to be a good and that libertarianism, as a political philosophy, doesn't need any "thickness" added to it.

And now, I intend to give some of my thoughts on the "thick-libertarian" phenomenon, and why I think it is wrong-headed not only personally but also for the liberty movement in general.

I will also note that this will not be in-depth, for many great articles have been written on this subject, all of which can be found by a simple search on the Internet.

Is Libertarianism More Than Anti-Statism?

The great Catholic anarcho-capitalist writer Lew Rockwell wrote a column defining libertarianism and explaining what it both was and wasn't. Many libertarians took it to heart and agreed. However, left-libertarian Cory Massimino argued that libertarianism shouldn't be just anti-statism. It should be a holistically leftist movement committed to the non-aggression principle plus the leftist ideals of anti-racism, anti-homophobia, and feminism, all as essential to libertarianism.

First, Massimino argues this:
The reason I concern myself with violations of peoples’ liberty that don’t owe their origin to the state is explained by Rockwell when he writes, “Our position is not merely that the state is a moral evil, but that human liberty is a tremendous moral good.” Exactly! I am against authoritarianism, domination, and believe in equality of authority. That is why I am opposed to statism. But it’s also why I am for a world free of institutional oppression in the form of patriarchy, racism, gay and trans shaming, and autonomy-destroying, hierarchical workplaces.
At the onset of the tone, it is clear that Massimino wants to infuse leftist ideals and concepts into libertarianism, thus imbibing certain leftist narratives and attempting to combine libertarian opposition to statism with opposition to all authority. But libertarianism, in its commitment to the non-aggression principle and it's recognition of voluntary organization and cooperation, allows for authority of various kinds, provided it is not gained through the use of force and an attaining of monopoly over a parcel of territory, like the State does. That means that gay and trans shaming, patriarchy, racism, and yes, hierarchical workplaces would exist in the libertarian society. They may not be as abundant or as widely-accepted as some right-wing libertarians would wish, but they would definitely exist. And discrimination (ah, that bogeyman of the left) will surely exist.
Later, Massimino says:
Rothbard’s argument shows how liberty is needed for each person to find their own purpose and achieve their own good. This goes beyond the actions of the state. Repressive cultural norms and domineering social customs also prevent people from flourishing. They, too, lessen people’s liberty. A black person can’t flourish if he lives in a staunchly racist community with employers and businesses who refuse him service. They wouldn’t be violating his rights, but they would certainly be diminishing his ability to achieve his own good. He would hardly be considered free in such an oppressive society. 
Rothbard continues, “Libertarians agree with Lord Acton that “liberty is the highest political end” – not necessarily the highest end on everyone’s personal scale of values.” While this is an excellent quote by Lord Action, it doesn’t go far enough. Why would liberty only be relevant in the political sphere? It is certainly affected by various other factors. There is no reason to end our concern for human freedom at the doorstep of the capitol building. In order to remain consistent, we ought to extend that concern to all human interactions.

It is true that these types of relationships Massimino describes may be a horrible thing and a very sad one too. Liberty, however, means being free from the tentacles of being aggressed against, meaning that this freedom is a "negative" freedom. While libertarians may share admirations for other types of freedom, the "negative" ideal of freedom (not interfering with people's rights) is the primary political end. Other freedoms (freedom from sin, freedom from want, etc.) can occur safely within the bounds of negative freedom and are reconcileable with it, but they should not require the violation of other people's rights to provide for those rights. For example, "freedom from want," at least as interpreted by progressive activists, would require taking people's money against their will (taxation) to give to others. However, the freedom to take an unowned parcel of land and mix your labor with it does not violate another's rights, for that does not require the use of aggressive force and/or violence in doing so. So while repressive cultural norms and social customs may be restrictive of freedom in other senses, as long as there is no exploitation and initiation of force involved, then these social customs do not violate "negative" liberty. Also, since the Austrian economic theory teaches us that value is subjective, what defines "repressive" and "domineering"? Some may find the "repressive" traditions (no sex outside of marriage, no homosexuality, no adultery, etc.) to be not so repressive and in many ways liberating in their own way.

As for the example Massimino uses, the black person can then find another place where he can flourish, either by taking unowned land and mixing his labor with it (making it his property) and/or through voluntary exchange and market forces. The beauty of the libertarian society is that it offers options, and in such a society there will be options that don't always require the "crushing" of "repressive" norms, leaving almost no one's rights violated in the process. 

And is "liberty" be relevant only in the political sphere? In a way, that answer is not exactly yes or no. "No" in the sense that libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a holistic one, so the liberty that libertarianism advocates is a negative freedom to not have one's rights violated. Extensions to all human interactions will exist, but even then, as human interactions will become freer, there is not as big a need to make libertarianism holistic as Massimino and others would argue.
Later on, Massimino argues that making libertarianism "thick" is only a small branching out of core libertarian principles rather than extrapolating and adding to them. However, when one argues that libertarianism's foundations requires leftist principles and social constructs, then it is hard to consider this anything but adding onto libertarianism. And personally, I think the whole "pizza" comparison is a little offbase.