Thick Libertarianism Redux

This is a follow-up to my post on thick libertarianism. There, I had an exchange with a commenter about what Richman meant when he wrote his piece on the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. While he and I ended the conversation without coming to an agreement, I felt the need to touch on this further.

The commenter posted a link to one of Richman’s articles last year in which he states that business owners have the freedom of disassociation, i.e. the freedom to refuse to serve people based on race, sexual orientation, etc. This was posted on my site in response to a comment made by Bionic Mosquito in his post (I did not quote it when linking to his), in which BM made the following remark.

Yet 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.

The article in question would seem at first to prove BM wrong, but let’s see what Richman actually wrote (emphasis added).

Should the government coercively sanction business owners who, out of apparent religious conviction, refuse to serve particular customers?

While such behavior is repugnant, the refusal to serve someone because of his or her race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is nevertheless an exercise of self-ownership and freedom of nonassociation. It is both nonviolent and nonviolative of other people’s rights. If we are truly to embrace freedom of association, logically we must also embrace freedom of nonassociation. The test of one’s commitment to freedom of association, like freedom of speech, is whether one sticks by it even when the content repulses.

Richman is correct, at least when it comes to freedom of disassociation.

But here’s the thing. That business owners have the right to discriminate is not the central point of the article. While Richman acknowledges the freedom of disassociation for business owners, he is not advocating for their property rights.

Advocating means “to speak or write in favor of; support or urge by argument; recommend publicly,” while acknowledging means “admit, confess agree in the idea of declaring something to be true.”

Clearly Richman is acknowledging the rights of “bigoted business owners” in that passage, not advocating for them.  Instead, he is advocating  voluntary, non-coercive solutions for dealing with these people, whose behavior does not conform to his standards of moral conduct or decency.

The title of the article summarizes this sentiment well: “We Can Oppose Bigotry without the Politicians.”

Richman writes (emphasis mine).

Does this mean that private individuals may not peacefully sanction businesses that invidiously discriminate against would-be customers?

No! They may, and they should. Boycotts, publicity, ostracism, and other noncoercive measures are also constituents of freedom of association.

In response to the question ““So a business should be allowed to refuse service to someone because the person is black or gay?” Richman writes (emphasis added).

To which I would say, No, the business should not be allowed to do that. But by “not be allowed,” I mean that the rest of us should nonviolently impose costs on those who offend decency by humiliating persons by the refusal of service. As noted, this would include boycotts, publicity, and ostracism. The state should not be seen as a remedy, and considering that its essence is violence, it certainly should not punish  nonviolent conduct, however objectionable.

This is thick libertarianism thinking neatly summarized. What Richman is advocating conforms to the NAP, but what he is advocating also goes beyond libertarianism by attaching moral judgments to people’s behavior and declaring what we as libertarians  should do in response (that conforms to the NAP), rather than leaving it for us to decide for ourselves based on our own values.

If libertarians are going to share the same views on these matters, then they have to conform to a similar moral philosophy. This is outside the scope of (thin) libertarianism.

For example, Richman labels certain people’s behavior as “repugnant.” He may find such behavior repugnant, but that may not be the case with other libertarians. What of those who would engage in such behavior or at least support it?

Are they not libertarians anymore? If they are, then libertarianism is not about intolerance and bigotry. If not, then libertarianism is about more than the NAP (which down below Richman explores ambivalently) and it is not enough to be peaceful.

Richman believes libertarians should combat bigotry, but who gets to decide what constitutes bigotry?

Also, does he think his specific stance on certain behavior is the libertarian stance?

And this is where Richman gets confusing.

Only two months after writing his article on how to combat “bigotry” without violating the NAP, Richman wrote the following in his article “In Praise of Thick Libertarianism” (emphasis added).

I continue to have trouble believing that the libertarian philosophy is concerned only with the proper and improper uses of force. According to this view, the philosophy sets out a prohibition on the initiation of force and otherwise has nothing to say about anything else….

He later goes on to write (emphasis added).

….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.

Libertarianism is not a complete moral theory and does not claim to be one. One is free, and in fact encouraged, to believe things that go beyond the NAP. But they are not definitively libertarian beliefs, so when one professes certain beliefs, it is not within the context of being a libertarian.

Richman goes on to write (emphasis added):

So I’m puzzled by the pushback whenever someone explicitly associates the libertarian philosophy with values like tolerance and inclusion. We don’t care only about force and its improper uses. We care about individual persons. So we properly have concerns about any preferences that tend to erode the principle that initiating force is wrong.

I’m puzzled why this puzzles him. There’s pushback because not everyone shares his moral/cultural/religious beliefs.

One might believe in letting business owners not provide services in instances where it violates their religious beliefs without resorting to noncoercive means of injuring their business in order to compel them to violate their religious beliefs. Richman, however, believes that such businesses should be boycotted and that this is the the de facto libertarian stance. Is it intolerant of him to not allow businesses to operate as they please without resorting to a boycott or social ostracizing? Should libertarians who disagree with him boycott and ostracize him in response?

You see where I’m going with this.

Outside of coercion and aggression, these are matters that have to be left for everyone to decide on their own, but Richman wants everyone to share the same moral beliefs on certain issues.

He can certainly promote his moral, cultural, and religious convictions, but he can’t say it is the libertarian view.

Another thing I could not help but notice in Richman’s article is that while he is quick to label nonviolent people’s behavior as “repugnant,” his words toward those who violate the NAP – the core of libertarianism – by using violence against these businesses, is relatively mild and restrained in comparison.

So why do many people assume that the only remedy for anything bad — including bads that involve no physical force — is state action, which always entails the threat of violence? Are we really so powerless to deal with repulsive but nonviolent conduct unless politicians act on our behalf?

Which is worse? Discriminating with your own property, or using state violence against innocent people or their property?

Is not the latter much more “repulsive” to a libertarian?

Curious what BM thought of Richman’s article within the context of his remarks, I posted the link on his blog and requested comment.

In his response, BM compared the quotes found in the two articles, written back to back within months of each other, and concluded with the following remarks (emphasis mine).

So, how are these two reconciled? How can libertarianism include the freedom of non-association and at the same time be associated with tolerance and inclusion? A philosophy cannot so directly contradict itself without being considered bankrupt.

If you want to advocate tolerance and inclusion, feel free; just don’t include it as a desire to expand the meaning of libertarian philosophy – as Richman does.

I suspect that I write as much as any libertarian about cultural and ethical topics. I try to never make these a part of my statements about libertarian theory, property, and the NAP. Richman does. He is wrong to do so, and he is helping to corrupt the message.

People can and should espouse beliefs beyond libertarianism, as long as A) It doesn’t violate the NAP and B) They acknowledge other libertarians do not have to agree with them on the issue in order to be a libertarian.

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6 Responses to Thick Libertarianism Redux

  1. Good stuff. I always enjoy reading your posts. I think I figured out your handle “The Question”. It comes from an article written by Eugene Genovese for Dissent Magazine, where a lifelong communist and university professor (was every communist awarded a teaching position?) comes to terms with the glaring inadequacies and gruesome atrocities associated with the ideology, and of course his trepidation of having to answer the question: what did you know and when did you know it?

    Great read. I heard of the article through the Tom Woods show. On target?


    • The Question says:

      Thank you! I have actually read Eugene Genovese’s work; interestingly, his scholarship was not impacted by his Marxism.

      I like the connection with my own handle (I might even incorporate it somehow), but I actually used to go by my real name and face before I decided that it might get me into trouble someday. I chose The Question based on the DC comic book character. I grew up watching the animated TV show and saw a lot of myself in his idiosyncratic behavior – I’m also a reporter, so I thought it fit.

      Ironically, my photo is that of Rorschach from The Watchmen, who was based off of The Question. I’m thinking of changing it at some point.

      Also, I liked the name The Question because it fits with how I tend to discuss libertarian ideas with people, by asking them questions about what they believe. I feel it is more effective sometimes because it stirs things up in their head; I let their reasoning, if there is any in them, take over.

      If I ever did a podcast of some kind, I would end it with the line: “And that, my friends, is The Question.”


  2. I’ve never heard of the DC character before. I only scratched the surface of the comic world. I liked Wolverine and Spawn. I hadn’t even heard of the Watchmen until the movie came out. Just goes to show you there’s so much out there to explore and enjoy.

    I understand your apprehension about using your real name, but sometimes I wonder if political dissidents like you and I would be safer if we were more open with our identity. I’m not convinced though and I still don’t use my name either. I don’t advocate violence against the state, and I don’t have much of a platform, so I’m sure I’m low on their “watchlist” if I’ve registered at all. But you never really know. Stay safe buddy.


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