Thick Libertarianism: When Leftism Trumps Libertarianism

Bionic Mosquito’s rebuttal of Sherman Richman‘s piece on why libertarians should cheer the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage really gets to the heart of the problem with “thick” libertarianism. In addition to highlighting the same indifference to the property rights of people who don’t share Richman’s views as I did in my critique, BM points out Richman’s underlying belief is this: When his cultural views conflict with someone’s property rights, his views trump their rights.

Richman does not care about the baker’s or photographer’s property rights in such circumstances. He has written often that libertarian philosophy should embrace treating others respectfully (including to not insult or condescend), see here and here – please take a few seconds (it won’t take more) to consider his arguments in the context of gay couples and bakers of wedding cakes.

This is the foundational principle behind what is known as “thick libertarianism.”

Richman (and other left-libs), insist that it is necessary to integrate culture into libertarian theory when it is the culture of which they approve: no matter the behavior, don’t condescend, don’t insult, don’t exercise property rights in a discriminatory (racist, sexist, whatever) manner. Ask them how they feel about integrating a more traditional Judeo-Christian culture into the libertarian philosophy – I bet you will find it has no place in their libertarian world.

BM’s comment gets to the heart of the matter. “Thick” libertarianism is a continuation of the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” view, except it places libertarianism and the NAP as secondary, optional belief in favor of cultural values.

As BM remarked, they are a libertarian as long as it fits their vision. Once it does not, however, the NAP is tossed aside amid a great deal of rationalization.

If someone wants to promote socially liberal values, they are free to do so. But there is no libertarian stance, per se. One is wearing a different hat when they promote it.

What thick libertarianism is trying to do is create an all-encompassing theory of how society should be organized, yet without using the violence of the state, something that is about as likely to happen as Edward Snowden being granted the presidential medal of freedom tomorrow before breakfast.

Why is this important to know? Because when push comes to shove, when it comes down to the wire, it tells you which “libertarians” are going to take your side when your views become subject to the wrath of the state, or when what you do becomes socially unpopular. There are fake libertarians who will, if the opportunity and moment arrives, cheer and support state violence against other people because it is promoting their vision of society.

It’s important to know who you can count on if and when things get ugly; that means watching and listening to what people do and say. The most dangerous enemy is not one who openly declares their opposition to you; it is the capricious ally whose loyalty changes with each new opportunity, the misguided fanatic, and the charlatan – people who claim to be friends but will turn on you when they are most needed.

As Michael Corleone said, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

At this point, I do believe the topic has been exhausted.

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11 Responses to Thick Libertarianism: When Leftism Trumps Libertarianism

  1. You (and Bionic Mosquito) are mixing two different things here. “Thick” versus “thin” isn’t the same thing as “left” versus “right.” There are “thick right-libertarians” and “thin left-libertarians.”

    I’m not sure whether BM is dishonest or just too lazy to spend 30 seconds Googling “Sheldon Richman,” “cake” and “gay,” but he (and by extension, you) gets this part completely wrong:

    “nowhere have I read that Richman advocates for the property rights of bakers who refuse service to gay couples, or of bartenders who refuse service to (insert your favorite protected class here). In fact, he often writes what could easily be interpreted as the opposite – and even calls it libertarian.”

    Here’s the top result from that 30-second Google expedition:


    • The Question says:

      Thomas, if there is something you disagree with BM on which he said (not me) feel free to post it on his blog. I did not quote that statement of his concerning Richman in my post, so no, by extension, I did not say that and refuse to defend things I’m not arguing.

      What I did agree with is that Richman’s dismissal of the persecution of private individuals by the state through same-sex marriage laws was incredibly indifferent.

      Here is the quote he said (bold emphasis added).

      Similarly, the prospect of the government’s compelling bakers and photographers to participate in same-sex weddings hardly constitutes a reason to ban same-sex marriages. Let’s target the actual rights violators and leave the innocent alone.

      The prospect of government’s compelling bakers and photographers to participate in same-sex weddings? It’s already happening right now. Do you or anyone else deny this?

      This is basically saying that the Supreme Court giving same-sex couples the privilege of applying for government marriage licenses is worth the loss of private property rights of people who do not support gay marriage and who are already being persecuted as a result. People are being persecuted right now by the state because they do not wish to participate in these weddings, and yet he’s writing as though it’s some hypothetical possibility that might not ever happen.

      What conclusion is a person supposed to draw from this?


      • “What conclusion is a person supposed to draw from this?”

        The conclusion that you need a remedial reading class, since you’re reading Richman as saying exactly the opposite of what he says?


      • The Question says:

        I’m going simply repost exactly what I just wrote.

        People are being persecuted right now by the state because they do not wish to participate in these weddings, and yet he’s writing as though it’s some hypothetical possibility that might not ever happen.

        What conclusion is a person supposed to draw from this?

        Explain how I misread him. He referred to the “prospect” of people being persecuted by the state for refusing to participate in same-sex weddings. It is already happening, as anyone with an Internet connection should know. People who did not violate any else’s rights are having their livelihoods destroyed as we speak over this issue, and yet he refers to its as “prospect,” like it hasn’t happened yet.

        Did he not know this was going on when he wrote it? Or did he just not care?


      • “Did he not know this was going on when he wrote it? Or did he just not care?”

        Neither. He was was writing about something specific, and alluded to something tangentially related to what he was writing about.

        You have to work what he wrote over with a crowbar to reach any conclusion other than the obvious, which is that he agrees that bakers and photographers have every right to choose who they will and will not do business with, for any reasons they happen to think sufficient.

        Especially since when he wrote about THAT issue, he was quite clear in saying so, as you can see for yourself at the link I included in my initial comment.


      • The Question says:

        Richman’s argument in his piece I criticized was that there was no “solid libertarian argument for why the Supreme Court should not have struck down state bans on same-sex marriage (SSM).” He has to deal with the fact that this Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage will absolutely and definitely lead to gross violation of people’s rights at the hands of the state, but he refers to it as a “prospect,” rather than an inevitable aspect of this ruling, and writes as though the Court only had the option of either legalizing same-sex marriage or maintaining the traditional definition rather than, say, striking down state marriage licenses altogether or leaving it to the states, where some are already looking to abolish their marriage licensing. Unlike this ruling, states abolishing marriage licenses in favor of contracts is not zero-sum game; it does not lead to violation of people’s rights.

        Richman then writes that we should “target the actual rights violators” – neither that article nor the one you linked to addresses how to go about doing this, and this is the indifference I speak of. For some, this is rather important, because their livelihoods might be destroyed due to state authority granted through this ruling. If Richman is going to claim there is no libertarian argument against legalizing same-sex marriage, when everyone knows that this legalization will also result in the violation of other people’s rights as a consequence, he has to dedicate more than a brief paragraph to rationalizing why the violation of one group of people’s rights is necessary in order to allow other people to have equal access to government-issued marriage licenses, because it makes up the majority of the reason for why libertarians would oppose it.

        Look at this from the perspective of a person whose property rights are violated as a result of this ruling. He would definitely have a libertarian argument for opposing it. How would Richman’s statement about that “prospect” of him losing his business, and the proposed solution, come across to him? The fact that Richman has defended his rights in a previous article would be of little consolation, now that the state violence is literally knocking on his front door.


      • You seem to be drawing a much more direct connection between the court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges on the one hand and violations of rights by the “I’m gay so you owe me a wedding cake” brigade on the other hand than the facts warrant.

        The “I’m gay so you owe me a cake” thing started before the ruling. The ruling has precisely zero to do with it.

        By analogy, let’s say that you go to court to evict a squatter from a house you have a valid claim to ownership of, in a bad neighborhood that has lots of home invasion burglaries accompanied by murder, intending to move back into the house yourself.

        Using your logic, the court should rule against your valid ownership claim because ruling for you would increase the possibility that you’ll get killed by a burglar.


      • The Question says:

        Thomas, the analogy does not compare. If you moving into your own home also gave you the ability to use state violence to evict other people from their property or violate their rights, then there needs to be another solution that doesn’t involve one group giving up their rights in exchange for others gaining theirs. The fact that in your scenario I might get killed by a burglar is not a violation of my rights and thus the court has no authority to keep me from entering it.

        Are you arguing that the Supreme Court decision will not be successfully used in the future to violate the rights of other people? Even Richman doesn’t dispute that.

        BTW: I see that for whatever reason you haven’t commented on BM’s blog post with the link to Richman’s other article. I consider your criticism on what BM said specifically in the context of his article – which you quoted in your first comment – to be worth investigating, so I will be posting it there myself. Why did you choose to bring it up here and not there, where it was actually written?


      • “Are you arguing that the Supreme Court decision will not be successfully used in the future to violate the rights of other people?”

        I am arguing that there’s nothing in the Supreme Court decision that could rationally be used to justify violation of the rights of other people.

        Might it be twisted to violate the rights of other people? Sure — just like the discrimination-in-licensing rule it overturned was used to violate the rights of other people for more than 180 years. Statists gonna state. There’s no ruling they WOULDN’T have abused like that.

        I guess my big problems with this piece are two-fold:

        First, I’ve known Sheldon for years and consider him an ideological and editorial mentor. He doesn’t support use of state licensing schemes to justify forcing people to bake cakes, cater wedding receptions, photograph weddings, etc. He specifically opposes that, and nothing in his writing that I’ve ever seen indicates anything other than that holding.

        Secondly, based on previous readings of BM’s stuff, I don’t believe that BM’s tortured attempt to wrestle Sheldon into such a position was innocent. Sheldon himself was somewhat amused by BM’s piece insofar as Sheldon interpreted BM’s approach as itself being “thick libertarian.” I do assume that you were innocent in following BM down that dead-end trail, but BM has a history of going “thick” with arguments that libertarianism necessarily entails a social conservative basis or outcome — while at the same time condemning “thick” libertarianism and conflating it with left-libertarianism (“thick” versus “thin” and “left” versus “right” are two entirely different arguments — I’m an ultra-thin paleo-left libertarian myself).

        I don’t like to run around the Internet spamming links to my own material, but I think we’ve been conversing long enough for me to throw in my own writings on the marriage thing without it just being a drive-by. If you disagree, I won’t be offended if you delete the comment (or just remove this paragraph the URLs from it). There are four of them:

        “It’s Not About Religious Freedom. It’s About Freedom.”

        “For Religious Freedom, Separate Marriage and State”

        “Marriage: How to De-Politicize the Culture War”

        “Life After Obergefell: Survival Tips for the Dismayed”


      • The Question says:

        I have no problem with people posting links to their own work here, provided its relevant to the discussion at hand and/or an argument being made.


  2. Pingback: Thick Libertarianism Redux | The Anarchist Notebook | Libertarian Anarchy

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