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Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin BY CHARLES JOHNSON nected with other disputes concerning the specifics of T 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 (email@example.com), 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 (http://radgeek.com/) 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 $11.00 To order, visit our online store at www.fee.org, 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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