In praise of ‘thin’ Libertarianism

Sheldon Richman, the vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation, wrote a recent column titled “In Praise of ‘Thick Libertarianism.” In it, Richman makes a similar argument for broadening the definition of libertarianism that several other notable libertarians have, including Jeffrey Tucker. The premise of their argument is that libertarianism cannot merely concern itself with the initiation of force or aggression. It must also promote tolerance and the acceptance of certain moral values.

This is the result of a rift in libertarianism between “thinists” and “thickists.” Thin libertarians differentiate between the moral and political. Thick libertarians do not.

For example, from a political perspective, I believe prostitution should be legalized, because it involves purely voluntary interactions – when it’s not voluntary it is called rape and should be criminalized.

However, from a moral perspective, I believe prostitution is immoral and should not be condoned, encouraged, promoted, or participated in and I say so when given the opportunity. (I also believe, from a moral perspective, that far more romantic relationships fit the definition of prostitution than most people will dare to admit).

My moral beliefs and political beliefs are not aligned, because they are separate.

In his column, Richman doesn’t quite state the thickist beliefs as directly as Tucker did in his column. Instead he addresses a specific topic – racism – and raises the question of whether libertarians can remain neutral on the issue of racism, even if it does not involve coercion or violence.

Richman writes:

To put it more concretely, if a libertarian observed a growing propensity to embrace (nonviolent) racism, that person, qua libertarian, ought to be concerned. Why? Because that attitude and resulting conduct can be expected to eat away at the values conducive to libertarianism. It’s the same sort of reason that a libertarian would be concerned by, say, a growing acceptance of Keynesian ideas, even though merely holding and advocating those ideas does not require the use of force.

To put it succintly, I would be concerned if I saw this occur, but not because I am a libertarian. I would be concerned because I hold moral and religious views that state, whether or not violence and coercion are employed against innocent people, that racism is morally wrong. This has nothing to do with being a libertarian.

Maybe I’m not reading this correctly, but I’m not sure I get his point. Libertarianism deals with force and coercion. As far as racism is concerned, libertarianism has no more a moral stance on it than it does premarital sex, because it is a political philosophy.

Richman  concludes with:

Libertarians should have no trouble condemning racism in terms of their political philosophy while emphasizing that nonviolent racism can and, under appropriate circumstances, should be met only by nonviolent — and specifically, nonstate — countermeasures.

Again, I’m not sure what he is arguing here. Does he mean to say libertarians should oppose racism? I would agree with him, but my reasons for doing so would be moral, not political. Again, the difference is key.

Or he is saying that racism – even that which does not involve violating anyone’s rights – is incompatible with libertarianism?

I have a problem with the use of the word “racism,” much in the same way  Inigo Montoya had a problem with Vizzini using the word “inconceivable” – I do not think it means what people think it means because of the way they employ it.

Racism is treating people differently based solely on the color of their skin or race regardless of their personal character or behavior. Morally, I find it reprehensible, but I think the word is used far too often in situations that have little to do with race and more to do with peoples’ character.

If Richman and others like him are arguing that libertarians should oppose racism, I agree, but not as libertarians. We should criticize it because we hold moral, cultural, religious or ethical views that contradict it.

Richman doesn’t make argue this point, but on a related note, I have a problem with the unspoken belief that the worst thing in the world you can be is a racist. Politicians can steal, expropriate, bribe, lie, cheat on their spouses, fund immoral and undeclared wars overseas, support the use of predator drone strikes on innocent civilians in foreign countries. None of this will cost them the election. But make a politically incorrect remark about certain racial or ethnic groups, and it’s all over.

Obviously I don’t condone the latter, but I find the former far more morally appalling, as well as the idea that somehow it’s less of a sin to be a murderer than a racist.

One has to ask if our priorities are configured correctly. Libertarianism adheres to the Non-Aggression Principle. Our priority, then, should be addressing beliefs that support and encourage the initiation of violence and coercion, even if the moral stance taken is correct.

An example of this is the War on Drugs. Morally, I believe drugs are wrong and should not be consumed. Politically, however, I see drug users are a less of a problem than those who believe we should engage in a war that strips us of our civil liberties and rights to prevent people from engaging in a non-violent act that is within their rights to do.

Let me ask this: Who is the real racist, someone who dislikes other people for superficial reasons, but adheres to the Non-Aggression Principle and respects the rights of the people they don’t like, or the morally upright and “tolerant” person who embraces diversity but supports the War on Drugs, search-and-frisk, NSA surveillance, the TSA, gun control laws, and all other forms of government intrusion and violence that negatively impact minorities?

I ask because I’m wondering if this argument is theoretical and not actual. How many people who truly embrace the Non-Aggression Principle also hold actual racist views as properly defined?

I’m curious what prompted Richman to write about the topic of racism in regard to libertarianism. Of all the moral topics libertarian disagree with, why pick this one? The tacit implication seems to be that libertarianism has a racist streak running through it that no one wishes to point out because it require a moral judgement. Since I don’t know Richman’s intentions, as he didn’t prefix his column with an example of such or a link to a column arguing that it is, it would be extremely presumptuous of me to theorize one.

I guess the question that must be raised then is what makes a person a libertarian? What views must they hold? Traditional libertarians like myself have a specific definition. Anyone who believes and practices the Non-Aggression Principle is a libertarian.

Those who argue otherwise need to come up with a concrete definition and explain why they chose it.

Richman doesn’t mention the topic in his column, which deals specifically and only with racism, but one issue that does come up often within libertarian circles is gay marriage. What’s interesting isn’t that we disagree on the role of the State – all concur that the State should not be involved at all. Where the debate occurs is whether one must hold a certain moral view on gay mariage in order to be a true libertarian.

Thin libertarians believe the answer is no, you can think gay marriage is immoral or morally acceptable. Either one is fine. Thick libertarians, however, refuse to differentiate the moral with the political. If you think something should be legalized, they argue, it’s because it is morally acceptable.

Historian and libertarian writer Tom Woods has a good summary of their core principles, as well as the double-standard inherent in it:

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.

But if the thickists are concerned that certain cultural attitudes might be dangerous to liberty, why do I never hear them express concern that the hysteria of the cultural Left might be prejudicial to liberty? Why is it only the traditional moral ideas of the bourgeoisie that are supposed to be so threatening? Could this be yet another double standard?

Thin libertarianism – which is to say libertarianism as properly understood – is the most inclusive political philosophy. People can come from a variety of religious, cultural, moral and ethnic backgrounds and yet share the same political philosophy.

I get the impression that many people want to turn libertarianism into a cultural movement. Unfortunately, what this does is require certain moral and cultural values to be imposed on everyone belonging to the movement. Additionally, who gets to decide which moral values will be promoted within libertarianism and which views will not?

The fact is racism is morally wrong, but as far as a political matter, what someone thinks of other people is irrelevant. If he respects their rights in spite of his dislike for them, in my opinion he is morally superior to the millions of “tolerant” people who have no qualms using violence to get what they want from other people they pretend to care about.

Our priority should be criticizing those who use or support the use of violence before we criticize those who don’t. When we have successfully converted those who support violence, then we can critique the personal opinions of those who at the very least have the moral conviction necessary to respect other people’s natural rights, even if they don’t like them.

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6 Responses to In praise of ‘thin’ Libertarianism

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