Make Libertarianism Thin Again


The political battles of 2017 are about culture. Over the last decade or so, the left-right paradigm has been moving away from matters of political economy and more towards the dichotomy between opposing cultural values and lifestyles.

For those of us who think economically, it’s mystifying to see the people of both left and right pledge their support so strongly to one side over another. Speaking purely from an economic point of view, the leading candidates in the latest major elections have been similar: all represent the assumption of a mixed economy. They ostensibly believe in the market, but argue for large state interventions in one sector or another, and for a welfare state.

Why would anybody claim that one particular candidate has the potential to either save or destroy, western civilization itself? They’re basically the same on the economic front.

Others have picked up on it too. In Vox’s article remarking on the alt-right’s support for single-payer health care, a traditionally left-wing policy:

“Insofar as the alt-right, and the Trump-supporting right more generally, has a coherent economic agenda, it’s a vehement rejection of the free market ideology crucial to post-World War II American conservatism. While Paul Ryan reportedly makes all his interns read Atlas Shrugged, figures like Cernovich, Spencer, and Derbyshire are trying to build an American right where race and identity are more central and laissez-faire economics is ignored or actively avoided”.

In Britain too, what we think of as “right-wing” expressly rejects free enterprise and individualism. Theresa May’s manifesto reads as if she’s centre-left. For many on the right side of the economic spectrum:

“…her talk of workers’ rights and energy price caps represents an alarming deviation from good sense – to the point where she is starting to seem more Miliband than Maggie.”

The Corbynite’s caricature of May as Thatcher on steroids doesn’t hold up. This election is more like Old Labour vs. New Labour.

The differences are nothing to do with economics. For the Trumpistas, the Donald represents a repudiation of what they see as the creeping specter of cultural Marxism, moral relativism, a rejection of traditional and family values, universalism and internationalism. Trump is the strongman, who will “drain the swamp” of degenerates and restore greatness, and most importantly, a sense of pride and identity to the United States.

The eventual Trump voters were tired of the imposition of guilt for their supposed prejudices. They apparently bear the original sin of being white, straight and cis-gendered. Trump gives them and the burgeoning alt-right movement a precedent for a pushback against leftist assumptions. They’re playing the same identity game as the left, but putting the shoe on the other foot – they don’t just say “we’re not racists”, they say, “We are white and proud”.

And what was the left’s main counter-attack to Trump and the alt-right? They called him a racist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, a sexist, i.e. the very tactic that gave him the platform, to begin with. Trump’s win was a spiritual doomsday for the left. Despairingly, they’ve responded by doubling down on their intransigent virtue-signalling.

The momentum of the national conversation has led the libertarian movement into a crisis point: for lack of a unified message and a strong leader, libertarians feel compelled to jump on one of the cultural bandwagons. The bipartisan injustices of the last two administrations allowed people of different cultural prejudices to find common value in libertarianism. Now collective opinion seems to be that libertarians must pledge allegiance to one side or the other, lest society itself is doomed.

We’re seeing certain sub-groups of libertarians insist that the only way the movement can have any sway is by adopting all of the cultural assumptions of their side. The alt-right libertarians argue that leftism is so dangerous to the cause of liberty that we must ally ourselves with the conservatives. The left side of libertarianism says we must show solidarity with leftist social justice causes. Well, we obviously can’t do both, so what’s the right answer?

This tendency to claim that libertarianism must be more than the strict commitment to the traditional libertarian plank (property rights and the non-aggression principle) has been around for a while. It’s often referred to as “thick” libertarianism. The thickists argue that along with arguing against coercion, libertarians must also commit to other principles that are not strictly concerned with coercion. The counter position is called “thin” libertarianism, that is, the argument that the only thing libertarians should be concerned with, qua libertarian, is violations of the NAP.

Thick libertarianism is having its moment, on both the left and the right.

A recent paper published on C4SS (Centre for a Stateless Society) exemplifies the left “thick” libertarianism that’s endemic in the younger, University-educated generation of freedom lovers. It concerns the hot topic of the moment: transgender rights.

Novak makes a convoluted argument, but let me try and translate it into English:

Libertarians argue for the spontaneous order that arises from free association and enterprise.
This spontaneous order may result, given current prejudices, in people having anti-transgender views and discriminate against them, restricting their freedoms.
Therefore, libertarians must support transgender rights now.

This is a “thick” argument because it doesn’t necessarily concern coercion. When someone has anti-transgender views or doesn’t allow transgender bathrooms on their property, they are not strictly coercing anybody. They are not violating anyone’s person or property. Under the strict libertarian theory, the owner of the property can make any rules he or she likes pertaining to that property, and nobody has an obligation to patronize that person’s property if they don’t agree with the rules.

However, the left side of the liberty movement believe that prejudicial views that come from traditional values can and do result in restrictions of freedom to sexual minorities, albeit in the positive sense, and so libertarians must be activists on behalf of those minorities.

On the other hand, one of the political success stories over the past 18 months has been the rise of the alt-right, a broad range of generally conservative-leaning activists. They are reactionaries. They’re the counter-culture backlash to the social justice warriors.

Among this group are both current and former libertarians. They say libertarians ought to shift from their emphasis on state power, per se, to what they see as the “real” threat to liberty: the left. We should do this by playing the same identity politics game as the left, but taking the other side, expressing pride for one’s own race, gender, sexuality, etc, along with supporting political candidates that aren’t the purest ideologically, but take an aggressive stance against immigration and other culturally leftist policies.

My example for this side comes from conspiracy theory hub turned alt-right blog Red Ice Creations. They recently shared an article called ‘The Problem With Individualism’:

These kinds of analyses are “thick” because it requires a conflation of libertarian core principles for an esoteric goal. According to the alt-right libertarians, in order to be competitive on the identity politics playing field, the racial/cultural affiliation must come first. Once we have won this war, they say, we can go back to more mundane policy concerns.

Why Be a Thin Libertarian?

Thin libertarianism has its detractors. It comes across as cold. The stereotypical thinnist is the robotic economics professor, dryly laying out the implications of the NAP, divorced of any emotional commitment to any of the issues involved. Academic libertarians can flippantly discuss whether selling your child to pimps is compatible with property rights as if they were talking about calculus. Thin libertarians are accused of being naive to the real, actually existing world, consisting of human beings with innumerable other values than those concerned with aggression.

The truth is that libertarianism as a philosophy has nothing to say about those values extra to the NAP. All are equal in the eyes of the libertarian qua libertarian. Social justice warrior or bigot, angel or devil, family man or polyamorist, capitalist or communalist; not aggressing against any person or their property? Then all is permitted.

Thick libertarianism comes from a perfectly reasonable perception that real life human beings are more than their opinion on the proper uses of force. Everyone has their values concerning every aspect of human life.

Newly converted libertarians often make a mistake of philosophical interpretation that lends itself to ridicule. They will respond to criticism of non-aggressive, but nevertheless bad behavior by saying, “Well they’re not violating the NAP, why are you even commenting on this?”. Their error is by assuming that to commit to the libertarian philosophy is to close yourself off to every other moral judgment. On the contrary, it is perfectly fine, in fact normal, to hold other moral points of view in conjunction with the non-aggression principle.

Libertarianism is not moral indifference. Nor is morality strictly concerned with whether aggression is occurring or not. It would be strange if any person had no moral sense beyond thinking that the state is a gang of thieves writ large. It’s not unreasonable to think beyond libertarianism and hold many other moral and social concerns.

Nonetheless, thin libertarianism is necessary, and you can be a strict thinnest whilst holding any view on the culture war, albeit separately from your capacity as a libertarian. Here’s the case:

The philosophy is at risk of being obscured and conflated if it is bundled with other concerns that aren’t specifically about reducing aggression in society.

Thickism makes the task of advancing the cause of liberty ten times more difficult.

Imagine a “thick” veganism movement. The thickest vegans say: not only should people be vegan, but veganism implies a number of other moral commitments, such as to environmentalism (meat-eating contributes to climate change), feminism (the capitalist system that teaches us to abuse animals also teaches us to abuse women), transgender rights (you can’t argue for the rights of people who identify as vegans if you don’t also defend the rights of people who identify as a different gender, or something), and trainspotters rights (because, why the heck not?). If you don’t get on board with all of those extra values, you cannot consider yourself a proper vegan.

Vegans will tell you they're vegan right away

This would clearly be ridiculous and suicidal. Firstly, veganism as a philosophy has little to nothing to say about any of those other subjects. A vegan is simply someone who refrains from consuming animal products. It’s preposterous to say that someone who does this but is a non-feminist, is not actually a vegan. Anyone knew to the philosophy would be deeply confused.

Now, it is true that the vegan movement does ally itself with others, especially the environmentalist movement, but plenty of environmentalists are not vegans, and vice-versa.

A thick veganism would also be drastically impractical. Not only do you have to get over the hurdle of persuading someone not to consume animal products, but you also have to convince them of adopting environmentalist, feminist, transgenderist and train-spotting values. This would condemn veganism to obscurity forever.

This is why the recent phenomena of intersectionalism are the best thing that ever happened to the anti-SJWs. Now that it is impossible to be a feminist without also supporting Black Lives Matter and transgender bathrooms, it creates conflict within the wider leftist bloc and makes it more difficult for them to form a united front against the alt-right.

The same goes for thick libertarianism. It makes it difficult for outsiders to comprehend what we’re actually talking about if the term is improperly defined. If libertarianism isn’t just about aggression and is either about wider social justice or traditional values, then what’s the point of it? Why not just argue for social justice, or on the other side, bog-standard conservatism? Thickism perpetuates these strawmen and stereotypes that have been with libertarianism since its inception: to the right, “political hedonism”, and to the left, “high-brow justification for bigotry and greed”.

No, our unique and powerful message is that aggression is unjustifiable, whether it’s by the private individual or by the state. This is a beautiful principle on its own. It doesn’t need all this extra baggage. Let’s have confidence in our credo.

Plus, let’s not make more work for ourselves as liberty proponents. It’s difficult enough to get people to see that taxation might be a little bit too high, or that criminalizing cannabis creates more problems than it solves, let alone converting them to proper libertarianism. On top of that, the thickists want us to convince them to adopt a whole host of other views.

The left-libertarians think we should approach the conservative and say “Not only have you been wrong about foreign intervention, but you also need to drop your traditional values and celebrate Caitlin Jenner”. The right-libertarians think we should approach the liberal and say “Not only is socialism a disastrous idea, but you’re a degenerate and need Jesus Christ”. Somehow I’m skeptical that either of these approaches would go down well.

It’s not that we ought not to talk about these things and persuade people, but this all or nothing approach is bound for failure.

Our best approach to evangelisation is by emphasizing the fact that you don’t need to adopt any particular cultural worldview in order to support the libertarian ideal. All you need is a recognition of an individual’s right to person and property.

You can read more by James Smith on Think Liberty here.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here