Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin (PDF) by dfgh4bnmu


									             Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin
                                            BY CHARLES JOHNSON

                                                                   nected with other disputes concerning the specifics of

          o what extent should libertarians concern
          themselves with social commitments, practices,           libertarian rights theory or class analysis and the mech-
          projects, or movements that seek social out-             anisms of social power. To grasp what’s at stake, it will
comes beyond, or other than, the standard libertarian              be necessary to make the question more precise and to
commitment to expanding the scope of freedom from                  tease out the distinctions among some of the different
government coercion?                                               possible relationships between libertarianism and
    Clearly, a consistent and principled libertarian cannot        “thicker” bundles of social, cultural, religious, or philo-
support efforts or beliefs that are con-                                              sophical commitments, which might
trary to libertarian principles—such as                                               recommend integrating the two on
efforts to engineer social outcomes by
                                           If coercive laws have                      some level or another.
means of government intervention.          been taken off the                             The forms of “thickness” I am
But if coercive laws have been taken                                                  about to discuss should not be con-
off the table, then what should liber-     table, then what                           fused with two other kinds of com-
tarians say about other religious,         should libertarians say                    mitments, one tightly and one loosely
philosophical, social, or cultural com-                                               connected to libertarianism: those
mitments that pursue their ends            about other religious,                     logically entailed by the philosophy
through noncoercive means, such as         philosophical, social, or                  itself (what I call “thickness in entail-
targeted moral agitation, mass educa-                                                 ment”), such as opposition to private
tion, artistic or literary propaganda,     cultural commitments                       aggression, and those that relate sim-
charity, mutual aid, public praise,                                                   ply to being a good person (“thick-
ridicule, social ostracism, targeted boy-
                                           that pursue their                          ness in conjunction”), such as being a
cotts, social investing, slowdowns and     ends through                               loving parent. As an example of the
strikes in a particular shop, general                                                 first category, it might be argued that
strikes, or other forms of solidarity and  noncoercive means?                         libertarians ought to actively oppose
coordinated action? Which social                                                      certain traditional cultural practices
movements should they oppose, which should they sup-               that involve the systematic use of violence against
port, and toward which should they counsel indiffer-               peaceful people—such as East African customs of forc-
ence? And how do we tell the difference?                           ing clitoridectomy on unwilling girls or the American
    In other words, should libertarianism be seen as a             and European custom of judges and juries ignoring the
“thin” commitment, which can be happily joined to                  facts and the law to acquit or reduce the sentence for
absolutely any set of values and projects,“so long as it is        men who murdered unfaithful wives or their lovers.
peaceful,” or is it better to treat it as one strand among         Charles Johnson (, a third-generation Freeman
others in a “thick” bundle of intertwined social com-              contributor, is a research fellow at the Molinari Institute and author of the
mitments? Such disputes are often intimately con-                  Rad Geek People’s Daily ( weblog.

                                                              35                                                   J U LY / A U G U S T 2 0 0 8
  Charles Johnson

Principled libertarianism logically entails criticism of            libertarians, should also be feminists. Importantly, the
these social and cultural practices for the same reason             commitments that libertarians need to have here aren’t
that it entails criticism of government intervention:               just applications of general libertarian principle to a
because the nonaggression principle condemns any vio-               special case; the argument calls in resources other than
lence against individual rights to life, liberty, and prop-         the nonaggression principle to determine just where
erty, regardless of who commits it, and not just forms              and how the principle is properly applied. Thus the
that are officially practiced by government.                        thickness called for is thicker than logical entailment,
   Between the tightest and the loosest possible con-               but the cash value of the thick commitments is the
nections, at least four other kinds of connections might            direct contribution they make toward the complete
exist between libertarianism and further social commit-             application of the nonaggression principle.
ments, offering a number of important, but subtly dis-
tinct, avenues for thick libertarian analysis and criticism.        Thickness from Grounds

Thickness for Application                                           S   econd, libertarians have many different ideas about
                                                                        the theoretical foundation for the nonaggression

F    irst, there might be some com-
     mitments that a libertarian can
reject without formally contradicting
                                            If feminists are right
                                                                                       principle—that is, about the best rea-
                                                                                       sons for being a libertarian. But what-
                                                                                       ever general foundational beliefs a
the nonaggression principle, but            about the way in                           given libertarian has, those beliefs may
which she cannot reject without in                                                     have some logical implications other
fact interfering with its proper appli-
                                            which sexist political                     than libertarianism alone. Thus there
cation. Principles beyond libertarian-      theories protect or                        may be cases in which certain beliefs
ism alone may be necessary for                                                         or commitments could be rejected
determining where my rights end and
                                            excuse systematic                          without contradicting the nonaggres-
yours begin, or for stripping away          violence against                           sion principle per se, but could not be
conceptual blinders that prevent cer-                                                  rejected without logically undermin-
tain violations of liberty from being       women, there is an                         ing the deeper reasons that justify the
recognized as such.                         important sense in                         nonaggression principle. Although
    Consider the way in which gar-                                                     you could consistently accept libertari-
den-variety political collectivism pre-     which libertarians,                        anism without accepting these com-
vents many nonlibertarians from even                                                   mitments or beliefs, you could not do
recognizing taxation or legislation by
                                            because they are                           so reasonably: rejecting the commit-
a democratic government as being            libertarians, should                       ments means rejecting the proper
forms of coercion in the first place.                                                  grounds for libertarianism.
(After all, didn’t “we” consent to it?)
                                            also be feminists.                            Consider the conceptual reasons
Or, perhaps more controversially,                                                      that libertarians have to oppose
think of the feminist criticism of the traditional division         authoritarianism, not only as enforced by governments
between the “private” and the “political” sphere, and of            but also as expressed in culture, business, the family, and
those who divide the spheres in such a way that perva-              civil society. Social systems of status and authority
sive, systemic violence and coercion within families turn           include not only exercises of coercive power by the
out to be justified, or excused, or simply ignored as               government, but also a knot of ideas, practices, and
something “private” and therefore less than a serious               institutions based on deference to traditionally consti-
form of violent oppression. If feminists are right about            tuted authority. In politics these patterns of deference
the way in which sexist political theories protect or               show up most clearly in the honorary titles, submissive
excuse systematic violence against women, there is an               etiquette, and unquestioning obedience traditionally
important sense in which libertarians, because they are             expected by, and willingly extended to, heads of state,

THE FREEMAN: Ideas on Liberty                                  36
                                                                     Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin

judges, police, and other visible representatives of gov-         coercive government action. While no one should be
ernment “law and order.” Although these rituals and               forced as a matter of policy to treat her fellows with the
habits of obedience exist against the backdrop of statist         respect due to equals, or to cultivate independent
coercion and intimidation, they are also often practiced          thinking and contempt for the arrogance of power, lib-
voluntarily. Similar kinds of deference are often                 ertarians certainly can—and should—criticize those
demanded from workers by bosses, or from children by              who do not, and exhort our fellows not to rely on
parents or teachers. Submission to traditionally consti-          authoritarian social institutions, for much the same rea-
tuted authorities is reinforced not only through vio-             sons that we have for endorsing libertarianism in the
lence and threats, but also through art, humor, sermons,          first place.
written history, journalism, child-rearing, and so on.
    Although political coercion is the most distinctive           Strategic Thickness—the Causes of Liberty
expression of political inequality, you could—in princi-
ple—have a consistently authoritarian social order
without any use of force. Even in a completely free
                                                                  T     hird, there also may be cases in which certain
                                                                        ideas, practices, or projects are entailed by neither
                                                                  the nonaggression principle nor the best reasons for it,
society, everyone could, in principle, still voluntarily          and are not logically necessary for its correct applica-
agree to bow and scrape and speak only when spoken                tion, either, but are preconditions for implementing the
to in the presence of the (mutually agreed-on) town               nonaggression principle in the real world. Although
chief, or unthinkingly agree to obey                                                  rejecting these ideas, practices, or
whatever restrictions and regulations                                                 projects would be logically compatible
he tells them to follow in their own
                                           Libertarians have                          with libertarianism, their success
business or personal lives, or agree to    genuine reasons to                         might be important or even neces-
give him as much in voluntary “taxes”                                                 sary for libertarianism to get much
on their income or property as he
                                           be concerned about                         purchase in an existing statist society,
might ask. So long as the expectation      large inequalities                         or for a future free society to emerge
of submission and the demands for                                                     from statism without widespread
wealth to be rendered were backed          of wealth or large                         poverty or social conflict, or for a
up only by verbal harangues, cultural      numbers of people                          future free society to sustain itself
glorifications of the wise and virtu-                                                 against aggressive statist neighbors,
ous authorities, social ostracism of       living in absolute                         the threat of civil war, or an internal
“unruly” dissenters, and so on, these                                                 collapse back into statism.
demands would violate no one’s indi-
                                           poverty.                                       To the extent that other ideas,
vidual rights to liberty or property.                                                 practices, or projects are precondi-
    But while there’s nothing logically inconsistent              tions for a flourishing free society, libertarians have
about a libertarian envisioning—or even champi-                   strategic reasons to endorse them, even if they are con-
oning—this sort of social order, it would certainly be            ceptually independent of libertarian principles.
weird. Noncoercive authoritarianism may be consistent                 Thus, for example, left-libertarians such as Roderick
with libertarian principles, but it is hard to reasonably         Long have argued that libertarians have genuine reasons
reconcile the two. Whatever reasons you may have for              to be concerned about large inequalities of wealth or
rejecting the arrogant claims of power-hungry politi-             large numbers of people living in absolute poverty, and
cians and bureaucrats—say, for example, the Jeffersonian          to support voluntary associations, such as mutual-aid
notion that all men and women are born equal in polit-            societies and voluntary charity. Not because free market
ical authority and that no one has a natural right to rule        principles somehow logically mandate some particular
or dominate other people’s affairs—probably serve just            socioeconomic outcome; and not merely because char-
as well for reasons to reject other kinds of authoritarian        ity and widespread material well-being are worth pur-
pretension, even if they are not expressed by means of            suing for their own sake (which they may be). Rather,

                                                             37                                       J U LY / A U G U S T 2 0 0 8
  Charles Johnson

the point is that there may be a significant causal rela-          economic power. Otherwise we will find ourselves try-
tionship between economic outcomes and the material                ing to fight with slingshots while freedom’s enemies fire
prospects for sustaining a free society.                           back with bazookas.
    Even a totally free society in which large numbers of
people are desperately poor is likely to be in great dan-          Thickness from Consequences—
ger of collapsing into civil war. A totally free society in        The Effects of Liberty
which a small class of tycoons owns 99 percent of the
property and the vast majority of the population own
almost nothing is unlikely to remain free for long if the
                                                                   F    inally, there may be social practices or outcomes
                                                                        that libertarians should (in some sense) be commit-
                                                                   ted to opposing, even though they are not themselves
tycoons should decide to use their wealth to purchase              coercive, because 1) government coercion is a precon-
coercive legal privileges against the unpropertied                 dition for them and 2) there are independent reasons for
majority—simply because they have a lot of resources               regarding them as social evils. If aggression is morally
to attack with and the majority hasn’t                                                 illegitimate, then libertarians are enti-
got the material resources to defend       If aggression is                            tled not only to condemn it, but also
themselves.                                                                            to condemn the destructive results
    Now, to the extent that persistent,    morally illegitimate,                       that flow from it—even if those
severe poverty, and large-scale            then libertarians are                       results are, in some important sense,
inequalities of wealth are almost                                                      external to the actual coercion.
always the result of government inter-     entitled not only to                            Thus, for example, left-libertarians
vention, it’s unlikely that totally free                                               such as Kevin Carson and Matt
societies would face such dire situa-
                                           condemn it, but also                        MacKenzie have argued forcefully for
tions. Over time, many if not most of      to condemn the                              libertarian criticism of certain busi-
these problems would likely sort                                                       ness practices—such as low-wage
themselves out spontaneously through       destructive results that                    sweatshop labor—as exploitative.
free-market processes, even without        flow from it—even if                        Throughout the twentieth century
conscious anti-poverty activism.                                                       most libertarians rushed to the
    But problems of poverty or eco-        those results are, in                       defense of such practices on the
nomic inequality are still likely to be    some important                              grounds that they result from market
extremely pressing for societies like                                                  processes and are often the best eco-
ours, which are not currently free, but    sense, external to the                      nomic options for extremely poor
which libertarians hope to help                                                        people in developing countries. The
become free. Certainly in our unfree
                                           actual coercion.                            state-socialist solution of expansive
market there are widespread poverty                                                    government regulation of wages and
and large-scale inequalities of wealth, most of it created         conditions would, it is argued, distort the market, vio-
by the heavy hand of government intervention in the                late the rights of workers and bosses to freely negotiate
form of direct subsidies and the creation of rigged or             the terms of labor, and harm the very workers that the
captive markets. Those who now enjoy the fruit of                  regulators professed to help.
those privileges will continue to exercise some of the                 The problem with trying to use free market eco-
tremendous advantage they enjoy in material resources              nomic principles in the defense of such labor practices
and political pull to pressure government into perpetu-            is that those practices arose in markets that are far from
ating or expanding the interventions from which they               being free. In Carson’s and MacKenzie’s view, while
benefit. Since libertarians aim to abolish those inter-            twentieth-century libertarians were right to claim that
ventions, it may well make good strategic sense for them           existing modes of production should not be even further
to support voluntary, nongovernmental efforts that                 distorted by expanded government regimentation, too
work to undermine or bypass consolidated political-                many believed that those modes would be the natural

THE FREEMAN: Ideas on Liberty                                 38
                                                                                    Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin

outcome of an undistorted market. Against these confu-                              Thus to the extent that sweatshop conditions and
sions, Carson and MacKenzie have revived an argument                            starvation wages are sustained, and alternative arrange-
drawn from the tradition of nineteenth-century free-                            ments like workers’ co-ops suppressed, through dra-
market individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker,                           matic restrictions on property rights throughout the
who maintained that prevailing government privileges                            developing world—restrictions exploited by oppor-
for business—monopoly, regulatory cartelization of                              tunistic corporations that often collaborate with
banking, manipulation of the currency, legal restrictions                       authoritarian governments—libertarians, as libertarians,
and military violence against union strikers, politicized                       have good reasons to condemn the social evils that arise
distribution of land to connected speculators and devel-                        from these labor practices.Thus libertarians should sup-
opers, and more—distorted markets in such a way as to                           port voluntary, state-free forms of solidarity—such as
systematically push workers into precarious and impov-                          private “fair trade” certification, wildcat unionism, or
erishing economic arrangements and to force them,                               mutual-aid societies—that work to undermine
against the backdrop of the unfree market in land and                           exploitative practices and build a new society within
capital, to make ends meet by entering a “free” job                             the shell of the old.There is every reason to believe that
market on the bosses’ terms.                                                    in a truly free market the conditions of ordinary labor-
    On Tucker’s view, as on Carson’s and MacKenzie’s,                           ers, even those who are very poor, would be quite dif-
this sort of systemic concentration of wealth and “mar-                         ferent and much better.
ket” power can only persist as long as the government                               I should make it clear, if it is not yet clear, that I have
intervenes to sustain it. Free-market competition would                         not attempted to provide a detailed justification for the
free workers to better their own lives outside traditional                      specific claims I have made on behalf of “thick” commit-
corporate channels and would allow entrepreneurs to                             ments. Just which social and cultural projects libertarians,
tear down top-heavy corporate behemoths through                                 as libertarians, should incorporate into theory and prac-
vigorous competition for land, labor, and capital.                              tice remains to be hashed out in a detailed debate.

                                    Economic Sophisms
                                    By Frédéric Bastiat
                                    Introduction by Henry Hazlitt

                                    Although written 150 years ago, Bastiat’s devastatingly accurate attacks on the illogical,
                                    self-serving arguments of protectionists remain both relevant and entertaining.
                                    Among the gems in Sophisms are “The Negative Railroad,” “Petition of the
                                    Candlemakers,” and “The Physiology of Plunder.”

                                    Perhaps the best recommendation for Sophisms comes from renowned journalist and
                                    FEE founding trustee Henry Hazlitt. In his introduction to the book, Hazlitt declares:

          We could use more Bastiats today.We have, in fact, desperate need of them. But we do, thank Heaven, have Bastiat
          himself, . . . and the reader of these pages will not only still find them, as Cobden did, “as amusing as a novel,” but
          astonishingly modern, for the sophisms he answers are still making their appearance, in the same form and almost in
          the same words, in nearly every issue of today’s newspapers.
   Published by the Foundation for Economic Education                                                                     328 pages, paperback
   To order, visit our online store at, or call 800-960-4FEE. Please add $3.00 per copy for standard postage and handling.

                                                                           39                                                J U LY / A U G U S T 2 0 0 8

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