Liberty, Libertarianism

Political Libertarianism: Between Thick and Thin

I have weighed in on the thick-thin libertarian controversy before, but since the libertarian social media sphere has erupted over the matter over the last few months, I thought I’d say a few brief words about it (particularly in response to this really cool interview Gary Chartier did with Tom Woods). There are many distinctions at work in the debate, and one should read Charles Johnson’s original piece in order to get a feel for them. Fortunately, what I want to say doesn’t require appealing to a lot of jargon. My sense is that if I can state clearly a doctrine about the justification and motivation for libertarianism that much confusion will fall away and we can find a great deal of agreement.

Following John Rawls, I think of liberalism (classical in my case, not egalitarian) as a political liberalism, one whose justification depends on being the subject of an overlapping consensus of reasonable views about matters broader than politics (morality, theology, etc.). For me, then, libertarianism is a political libertarianism, in that there are multiple justificatory routes to libertarian views. But like Rawls, I also think some worldviews and philosophies are less conducive to liberalism than others and that some doctrines lack the resources to reach liberal conclusions altogether. For instance, worldviews on which persons are not naturally free and equal cannot reach liberal conclusions, at least not on any deep philosophical level.

Further, being a political liberal/libertarian means acknowledging multiple motivational routes to liberal principles and policies.  Christian libertarians can be driven by piety, whereas Objectivist libertarians can be driven by enlightened self-interest. People will synchronize their comprehensive doctrines and liberal principles and policies in very different ways and so will be driven to support liberty for different reasons. And even in cases where people support liberty for the same reasons, some will be more driven by some arguments than others. However, as with the justificatory route, there are some motivational routes that won’t get you to liberalism. If you think that some social or racial groups are naturally inferior to others, this is probably going to make your commitment to liberty either less consistent or unstable or lead you to endorse values (like racial segregation) that are themselves in practice inconsistent with liberty.

So suppose you’re a political libertarian like me. What are you to think about the thick-thin debate? The short answer is that both sides are given to opposing excesses.

Thick libertarians go too far when they insist there is only one or a very small set of justificatory and motivational routes to liberty. This is one reason I’m very hesitant to tie libertarianism to feminism too tightly. And one reason I disagree with the thick tendencies of many of my co-bloggers.

Thin libertarians go too far when they insist that any justificatory or motivational route to liberty is acceptable or fine. This is one reason I’m very keen to criticize libertarians friendly to racial discrimination and who cannot see that resisting racial discrimination is a corollary of libertarian commitments.

I prefer thick libertarians in part because they are fighting the good fight against the morally nastiest parts of the liberty movement. I agree with thick libertarians that some prominent libertarians ultimately frustrate the goals of the liberty movement by insisting on libertarianism’s radical neutrality, such that liberty is compatible with fundamentally “brutalist” impulses.

But the thin libertarians are right to stress that there are a great many routes to liberty and that one needs a very good reason to deny that a proposed justificatory or motivation route is impassible.

In sum, there are many good routes to liberty and there are many bad routes to liberty. I bet most libertarians agree with me. Most of us are neither very thick nor very thin. We’re somewhere in between.

  • martinbrock

    I’m a very thin libertarian here, i.e. in this forum, I adopt an extremely thin position for the sake of argument. This position is an academic thesis, not my personality or personal faith.

    So I genuinely have no problem with racists who discriminate based on race only through self-segregation. I feel the same way about religious discrimination. If someone wants to be a Trappist and to surround himself with Trappists and to avoid contact with anyone other than Trappists, I don’t see how he’s harming people who are not Trappists or anyone else.

    I wouldn’t take a vow of poverty or chastity or obedience to a Trappist abbot myself, but that’s irrelevant. I don’t want to live or eat or drink apart from non-caucasians either, but people segregating themselves from me based on my race are not harming me, so why would I care?

    • j r

      I don’t disagree with you, but your position essentially makes itself a non-entity. Maybe that’s the point. But are there really that many Trappist monks in danger of being dragged out of their monasteries and forced to assimilate?

      Issues about race and religion and class and etc. are almost never about people choosing to simply self-segregate. They are almost always about people trying to actively exclude the people that they don’t like from certain neighborhoods and institutions and they almost always entail the coercive force of law to make that happen.

      In the real world, people segregating themselves from other people has created all manner of actual harm.

      • martinbrock

        Trappists aren’t being dragged out of they monasteries, and they aren’t being forced to admit non-Trappists to their monasteries either, but racist rednecks in Mississippi are forced to admit blacks in their bars, in legal theory at least. I just don’t see the difference.

        If the rednecks were using the force of law to exclude blacks from other bars, regardless of the wishes of other bar owners and patrons, you’d have a point, but that’s definitely not happening.

        People using the state to impose segregation has caused actual harm, but I’m not discussing that, and ameliorating the harms of force segregation by forcing integration seems inconsistent with libertarian ends. If Kevin’s suggesting that it isn’t, I’m disagreeing with him.

        • Theresa Klein

          I think his point is that sometimes there’s a difficult balance between allowing racists to be racist, and preventing racists from exercising collective social power to exclude blacks from neighborhoods and insitutions.
          I’m generally ok with letting racists be racists as long as they are a marginalized minority, but at some point the percentage of racists reaches a tipping point and it starts to spill over into larger insitutions such as government. One could argue that that’s where we draw the line, but one could also argue that it’s impossible to really separate the government from those attitudes.

          • Why does the government get to decide what is racism and what is not? It has no such competence or moral authority. Without that all public policy trying to manage racism is invalid.

          • David

            Why should the government even exist? If someone thinks that it should, their libertarianism is on shakier ground than the racist anarcho-capitalist.

            I’m generally “big tent” enough to consider minarchists and people who are very close to being minarchists to be libertarians. I’m stretching the NAP and private property rights to do so, but I can live with it. If somebody supports the NAP in 95% of instances, they are way ahead of the average and I’m generally willing to iron out the kinks “in house” so to speak. I’m not going to consider someone non-libertarian because they make a handful of relatively minor policy mistakes (within reason, there are certain things, such as supporting the Iraq War or random searches, for instance, that would clearly cross the line even with a single issue). But, even with minarchy you have a genuine challenge to the NAP, whereas the racist ancap does not.

            Now, what I’m about to say below only applies to libertarian theory (in other words, I’m saying that this theoretically COULD happen in a truly libertarian society, not that it would or that I’d be OK with it morally, I only say that its theoretically possible while still being “libertarian” and that force shouldn’t be used to prevent it.) Say the private police companies in town A are all run by white supremacists. They don’t want black customers. THey refuse to investigate any cases involving black victims, or arrest white people who attack black people. Could this happen in a libertarian society? I say yes. Are the police companies unlibertarian? No. However, let’s say a black person can prove that his wife was raped by a black man. Since no court will take on his case, he goes out and kills this person. When he is brought before the court, he presents the evidence that this man he killed was a rapist. If the evidence is beyond reasonable doubt, the private police companies MUST let him go, they cannot rightly kidnap him for providing for his own justice. (I don’t really want to debate the death penalty here, and I understand that that’s debatable, my point is simply to say that “vigilante justice” is not incompatible with libertarianism if evidence can be provided and a libertarian court could not punish a person who justly inflicts vigilante justice.) Now, to be clear, I believe a justice that is in some sense backed up by the community is DESIRABLE (ie. I’d LIKE to see a variety of security/justice companies competing with each other on the free market that people generally trust much like one generally trusts that Walmart and target will be honest), but this is not necessary for libertarianism as long as nobody is aggressed against.

            Things get trickier in a minarchy. In a minarchy, there’s a government run police department that does not allow competition. So in that case (which is already imperfect, there’s already aggression involved with setting up such an entity). Since the minarchist entity is a legally enforced monopoly that prevents competition with itself and is (usually) funded by theft, it can be justified to prevent them from discriminating to the degree reasonably possible, because people cannot choose to avoid them the same way as an anarcho-capitalist private police company.

            So, when you’re talking about government-level racial discrimination, I think a libertarian could support that (note, “could” not “should”, I absolutely don’t think anyone SHOULD be happy about this idea) IF we are talking about a free-market company that does not force any non-aggressors to deal with them. But, if we’re talking about a State of any kind, even a minarchist one, things get a lot hairier, and I don’t see how a libertarian could be a fan of an organization that forces people to deal with them being allowed to discriminate unless they have a good practical reason for such discrimination. Even still, I might consider such a person a libertarian if his ultimate goal is abolition of government, but if someone WANTS a racist minarchy, that seems to me to be really pushing the limits, and I probably would not consider that person libertarian… this person is supporting aggression against minorities because they want to force them to use a service that does not treat them fairly.

          • martinbrock

            Private property is already a minarchist position, since a proprietor expects everyone else to respect his exclusive governance of a resource and only a state imposing this expectation on everyone else can realize it. The proprietor himself cannot imposed the expectation on everyone else. He can only combat others entitling themselves “proprietor” of the same resource, governing the resource only as long as he overpowers the other claimants.

            This governance of resources by the currently most powerful claimant is anarchy, but it’s not what people commonly call “property”. “Property” commonly describes a standard, like Lockean propriety, that everyone is expected to respect.

            Be that as it may, I don’t know any self-described “libertarians” who want a minarchy imposing racial segregation on anyone. Thin libertarians only oppose a state imposing integration on individuals preferring to segregate themselves, so the minarchist favors a state not imposing integration this way.

            Ideally, a minarchy imposes only free association. It doesn’t even impose a particular formulation of individual property rights. In a free association, only the terms of association bind members of the association, so only these terms of association formulate individual property rights.

          • David

            I’m not sure I understand.
            I don’t know of any minarchists who want to impose racial segregation either. I was simply trying to push the definition of “thin” libertarianism to its logical limit.
            I’m not sure how anarcho-capitalists are “nominal anarchists” but I don’t really care. I only describe myself as an anarchist or an anarcho-capitalist in libertarian circles where people would understand what I was talking about. I describe myself as voluntarist or even “anti-aggression” in other instances.
            I don’t think ancaps assume that everyone DOES respect property rights so much as that they SHOULD respect property rights. While its obvious to me that the police who drag someone away because he doesn’t pay taxes are acting in an aggressive manner, I’d have to appeal to scripture to explain why aggression is wrong.
            I’m not sure what an “association” is or what you mean. I’m all for permitting (I hate this word, bear with me) a group of people to join together and form a voluntary communistic group where people share resources in common and live without property distinctions. But ultimately, before we can even decide what property these people have a right to include in their association (ie. Mr. A could choose to share his house but not mine in common with everyone in the association) we have to start with property rights. Property rights stem from homesteading, which stems from self-ownership, which stems from the fact that God has forbidden men to pretend like they own other men. For me its really that simple. If you want to call that minarchy, that’s fine. But that’s not what most minarchists believe. Most minarchists want a minimal State, which generally includes some tax-base, and always includes an enforced monopoly on goods and services provided. This is a categorically different philosophy than anarcho-capitalism.

          • martinbrock

            Anarcho-capitalists are only nominal “anarchists” in my way of thinking, because they’re really radical minarchists rather than anarchists. An an-cap could argue for an organization of resources in which the most powerful individual defending a resource holds the resource until a more powerful claimant overpowers him, with no more central authority intervening to favor the contender with the stronger Lockean claim for example, but most an-caps don’t really argue this way.

            An-caps simply assume that their “private property rights enforcement agencies” will enforce Lockean (or Rothbardian) standards without explaining why agencies enforcing these standards necessarily prevail over other agencies enforcing other standards. They only think that people should respect Rothbardian standards, but they assume that all police will enforce these standards, and that’s where they sneak a state into their system.

            I’m not criticizing the anarcho-capitalist system here, only questioning its semantics. I’m a minarchist myself, so disputing an an-cap’s “anarchism” is more an expression of agreement than of disagreement. I don’t simply want the most powerful warlord, however independent of more central authority, dictating the organization of resources either, so I must assume a higher (more central) authority. My ideal minarchy imposes fewer constraints on social organization than anarcho-capitalism, but it permits anarcho-capitalism as a special case, i.e. an-caps can establish a community in which respect for Rothbardian property rights is a requirement of membership.

            An association is a group of people all agreeing to respect specified terms governing their interaction, including their respect for particular property rights formulated in the terms of association. The parties to a contract are an association. An association’s charter might specify exclusive, individual rights to resources based on homesteading, but other terms of association are also possible. A group of Christian monastics forming a monastery on a frontier need not divide land into individual homesteads for example.

          • David

            I think the Rothbardian is more inclined to assume that all the police SHOULD enforce Rothbardian/Lockean property standards, not that they actually will. I mean, its self-evident that the American police do not enforce Rothbardian property rights or law. Theoretically a free market police system could act very much like the American police. The hope is that other private police would stop them. If they don’t, well, then you get what we have now.

            This is a possibility no matter what you believe. You mention the hypothetical possibility of “the most powerful individual… no further centralization of authority.:” So, say you try to take property I control and which Rothbardian private property rights say is mine. I decide to pay my friend to kill you in order to prevent you from taking what you think is mine. Is there some higher authority that’s going to hold either of us accountable? If so, is this a “state?” Do you own yourself? If you say yes, isn’t that making a statement about property rights?

            At the end of the day, “law” of some kind needs to exist, at least IMO. If that’s “minarchism” than I guess I’m a minarchist. But most actual anarchists want more than that. They don’t just want laws which everyone plays by and is held accountable to (as the Rothbardians do.) They want a monopoly controlled legal system, police system, and military, usually paid for by compulsory taxation. I don’t mean to portray minarchism as being ALL bad, its certainly a step in the right direction, but its definitely nowhere near what Rothbardians believe.

          • martinbrock

            You may be right about some Rothbardians and even Rothbard himself, but I don’t hear most Rothbardians talk this way. They rather say that the world will be a better place when their vision of “anarchy” prevails, and their vision of “anarchy” is a system of Rothbardian property rights and many, independent security agencies competing to enforce these rights.

            If a “free market security agency” acts like a state police force, then it rules out competing agencies, because a state monopolizes the power of police by definition. If a security agency enforces particular rules, then it necessarily overpowers any competing agency enforcing contradictory rules. Agency B, enforcing rules contradicting the rules enforced by agency A, is a criminal gang according to agency A.

            Hoping for the dominance of police enforcing Rothbardian property rights is just hoping for a Rothbardian state, and that’s my point. I’m not saying that a Rothbardian state is a terrible thing. I’m only saying that it’s a minarchy rather than anarchy.

            The choice is not between a Rothbardian system and what we have now. That’s the fallacy of the excluded middle. Countless alternatives to what we have now are conceivable. A Rothbardian system is only one alternative.

            The minarchy that I imagine does not favor a Rothbardian system over alternatives. Individuals are free to form a community, contractually, requiring respect for any set of rules (the community’s standards), except rules preventing an individual from exiting a community and its rules at will.

            Community standards include rights exclusively to govern resources and corresponding obligations to respect these rights. Different communities may have different systems of property and may have nothing that you’d call “individual property” at all.

        • That’s almost certainly false. As soon as the Trappists decide a female to male transsexual cannot be a monk, or sell baked goods to engaged couples but don’t provide them for gay weddings, they will be forced to submit. And like all of us, they will soon be forced to pay for other people’s sex reassignment surgery, either via taxation or insurance mandates, because sex assignment is a civil right of trans people.

          • martinbrock

            I’m sure that that no monastery can be forced to accept a transsexual as a monk in the U.S. at this time, but I’m not sure that monasteries generally, or Trappist monasteries specifically, would reject a transsexual as long as s/he accepts the vow of chastity and the rest. I’m less certain of cakes for gay weddings if the monastery sells cakes to the general public, but I certainly don’t want anyone forced to bake anyone else a cake.

            I can’t imagine why a gay couple would want a homophobe baking their cake. The idea is absurd. I’d worry about the baker spitting in the cake. How could I possibly police the baking process well enough to prevent it?

          • But clearly gay lobbyists do want to force people to bake them cakes, and raise funds and issue regulations and acquire power. The logic of the conventional civil rights paradigm is that you would install surveillance and have stepped up inspections and fines for bakers who were judged to have discriminated. Perhaps you would force them to hire gay bakers.

          • martinbrock

            As a practical matter, these lobbyists will never achieve more than token decisions from regulatory bureaucrats (including judges). If we worry about this sort of thing, we might as well shoot ourselves now. If you’re ever forced to bake a cake for a gay wedding, even if your adore the couple and have no problem with their ceremony at all, go ahead and spit in it anyway. You have my blessing, and I’ve probably sucked more dick than your wife.

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        I am not sure that you can make a good point that much harm has been created by self segregation. (as opposed to de jure segregation). And in that I would include all forms of segregation even the nerds and jocks who prefer each others company in high school.. It seems to me that much more strife and harm comes when groups are forced to come together by some outside entity.

        • j r

          My point is that most of what we tend to believe is self-segregation is, in fact, de jure segregation. See Plessy v. Ferguson. See the history of housing segregation. The reality isn’t about people just deciding they want to go live over here with similar people. The reality is people using the force of law to actively exclude people from public accommodations and services, to actively constrain how other private citizens dispose of their property, and to give themselves unfair advantages over others.

          My basic belief is that libertarians ought to affirm classically liberal values or at the least ought to stick up for a classically liberal political order. Classical liberalism generally has two simultaneously encroaching dangers. From the left, there are progressives, who want to achieve ostensibly liberal outcomes, but who will resort to illiberal means to achieve those outcomes. And from the right, are conservatives who have reactionary aims, but who cloak themselves in the language of classical liberalism.

          If you spend all your time railing against the progressive threat, but completely ignore the reactionary threat to liberty, I don’t think that you’re being a very good libertarian.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            Ok, Yeah, I don’t like racism, but where is this law enforced segregation you are talking about today? I have not seen it since I was about seven years old. If you are talking about hidden housing codes and such, that is illegal and there are remedies for it. It is more likely that people who do not really share any culture will be thrown together than pulled apart by people who wield authority.

          • good_in_theory

            Why would restrictive covenants be illegal in a libertarian world? Don’t people have a right to dispose of their property as they see fit?

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            Perhaps but I was describing what we have now, not a libertarian society.

          • They do.

          • DJF


            The reality is people using the force of law to actively exclude people from public accommodations and services, to actively constrain how other private citizens dispose of their property, and to give themselves unfair advantages over others.”””’

            The laws today are opposite of what you describe

            We did have laws which prevented people from integrating, but now we have laws which require people to integrate. We went from one system where the government ordered people around to another system where the government ordered people around without any intervening period.

            So the so-called “progressives” have won and you won’t fight them because you don’t want to be called a racist.

            The laws today are opposite of what you describe

            We did have laws which prevented people from integrating, but now we have laws which require people to integrate. We went from one system where the government ordered people around to another system where the government ordered people around without any intervening period.

            So the so-called “progressives” have won and you won’t fight them because you don’t want to be called a racist.

          • The civil rights regime progressives created is a fraud, papier mâché that covers over and does not address real problems of race and poverty. I think straight white males and others should begin actively filing law suits against all exclusive groups progressives favor, from gay cruise lines like Olivia and Atlantis, to black sororities and fraternities, to the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, just to show them what it means in practice.

          • Sean II

            “The reality isn’t about people just deciding they want to go live over here with similar people.”

            So wrong I don’t even have a word to capture the wrongness.

            For evidence, I suggest you go visit the cafeteria or lunchroom of any large organization with a serious affirmative action policy. Try colleges, hospitals, state and local government offices, etc.

            There you will see black tables and white tables, with just enough crossover to make things not quite painfully obvious. The hospitals are often a bit better than the government offices, but the colleges are usually the worst. It’s tough to miss the way self-segregation sets in and hardens after sophomore year.

          • timtimee

            Re self-segregation in colleges, I wonder how much administrations effectively increase the rate of self-segregation thanks to their commitment to diversity. At my alma mater blacks and Hispanics, many from underprivileged backgrounds, had a special summer-long orientation program leading up to the start of freshman year. By the time the rest of the student body got to school, most blacks and Hispanics already had solid friend groups comprised of–surprise–blacks and Hispanics that changed little over the next four years.

            There was some crossover–the reason I even knew this was going on was a friend of mine had gone through the program–but the school had effectively segregated minorities from the rest of the population without waiting for the self-segregation effect.

            Then again, this alacrity to segregate probably didn’t make any great difference at the end. The hundreds of Chinese kids never interacted with anyone but themselves.

          • j r

            I think the reason that you are at a loss for the word is because you are not actually addressing my point. Yes, people self-segregate in all sorts of little micro ways when left alone. People also freely mix with other groups when left alone as well. As a libertarian, I’m agnostic about which people choose and have no desire to coerce or cajole people in either direction.

            And that’s why I wrote “live” and not “sit.” What I am talking about is this country’s very real history of housing segregation and regulations that use the coercive social and political force to keep people in one place or another and allow those with money and influence to keep out those they deem undesirable.

            These forces are equal parts reactionaries trying to hold together the traditional social and political order and progressives cluelessly trying to remake the world
            If one is to claim a belief in classical liberal beliefs, then one ought to equally resist the incursions of both sides. I would think that should be a non-controversial statement. However, for some reason there is a strain of conservative victimhood that holds that all the injustices of the past have been rectified and no longer matter and the only real victims now are straight white Christian males. And for some reason, there are a number of Libertarians who buy into that world view.

          • Sean II

            So let me get this straight: you concede that people like to self-segregate at lunch tables, bars, movie theaters, etc…but you’re sure they’d just to love to buy houses next to each other, if only they weren’t stopped from doing so? That, my friend, makes no sense.

            Don’t distract yourself with that crap about conservative victimhood and straight white Christian males, etc. That has nothing to do with anything. The issue here is: do people self-segregate, do they generally prefer the company of similar people? And the answer is “Yes, they do…even when the similarity they prefer is race and whatever usually goes along with it.”

            Just look where you are right now – on a message board that, as far as we know, has zero black commenters and maybe even zero black readers. Much as we might like to, we can’t decently blame that on some redlining mortgage broker.

            Face it: we have every reason to believe that residential segregation is largely a product of spontaneous order. It flourishes about equally well with racist laws, and without them. Hell, it persists even when there are laws specially designed to prevent it. It thrives in upstream New York and backwater New Orleans, and everywhere else too. It’s probably the least changed variable to do with race since 1945.

          • Residential racial segregation is driven by government schools. People buy in the best school district where they can afford a sufficiently large dwelling. People are segregating by class. This is why suburbs and exurbs are not white, they are white and Asian with a small number of middle class Hispanics and blacks. Underclass families, mainly racial minorities, are left behind in the worst school districts. So the public school system is responsible for segregating people who might otherwise live closer together. The results are that businesses, jobs, opportunities follow the higher income people and leave the lower income areas, and that the lower income areas have more crime and dysfunctional “social services” since the people in them have no money to donate to candidates and hence less political influence.

          • Sean II

            That’s just the sort of thing I would have said 10 years ago.

            Problem is, you’ve got the river of causality flowing backwards. Those inner city schools don’t just happen to suck as some sort of floating first cause from the dawn of the universe.

            They suck for a reason.

          • Actually the causality isn’t as linear as a river. Suburban schools are superior in part because the children in them aren’t learning everything at schools. They live in homes with books and with parents who are more educated than the teachers. But you are still thinking the schools are bad because the students are poor (even though those schools spend more per pupil than the suburban schools in some cases). What makes the suburban schools better is that they are chosen – that the middle class incomes of the parents partially negates the existence of the government school monopoly by allowing the family the freedom to buy and sell homes, or choose what to rent, and still make different government schools monopolies compete for them. Urban schools are bad not because the families of their students are poor, but because their poverty means they can’t exit the local state monopoly and still have choices.

            Once the state monopolies exist they generate residential segregation, which then reinforces the differences in wealth and human capital of the different groups by actually physically separating them.

          • Sean II

            No, I don’t think the schools are bad because the students are poor. Indeed, I’m sorry to reach this moment because you’re pretty much gonna hate me from now on.

            I think the bad schools are mostly bad because the students in them are not very bright to begin with. I can tell from your comment (“they live in homes with books …human capital, etc”) that you’re more or less a practicing blank-slater, whereas…here again, I’m saying you have it backwards.

            Bourgeois homes have books in them because the people who live there were born clever, and therefore like books. Putting books in the prole homes won’t make the prole children cleverer, nor indeed will even the finest schools.

          • My hatred is indeed a fearsome thing. I’m willing to believe some cleverness is congenital, but it’s also true students improve with charters schools and vouchers.

          • Sean II

            “I’m willing to believe some cleverness is congenital, but it’s also true students improve with charters schools and vouchers.”

            Sorry man, but it’s not some, it’s most. A responsible estimate at this point would be that intelligence is 60% to 80% heritable…with the proviso that IQ is much easier to damage than improve.

            Sorry again about the charter schools. Most of what you see there is either: a) a selection effect – i.e., the better kids are the ones getting in and staying in the charter schools, and/or b) a temporary boost in performance that won’t even last until its time for those kids to take the SAT.

            Look, I’m all for the abolition of public schools, but you’re making a terrible mistake here promising what no one can deliver.

            Mark my words, if we ever get our way on vouchers, it will be a calamity for the libertarian movement. We will have promised a big change in “inner city” test scores, and we won’t get it, and for all our trouble, we’ll look like complete idiots.

          • DC actually has charters now, which are not unlike vouchers. (It has vouchers too but its a smaller program.) they are enormously popular – 45% of the students have left traditional public schools and more leave every year. Hardly a disaster for libertarianism since it means educrat cartels, a major funding source for statist parties, will shrink. And people will be socialized to think of themselves of individuals that get to make choices, instead of being wards of the state.

            I don’t disagree with you about heritability. But why would you assume dullard sheeple we see around us, or even just cashiers who can’t add, and people on the bus who can’t speak grammatically or who listen to (only) lame music, are at the peak of what they have inherited. I suspect most people, and certainly most poor people, have been robbed of their futures and their potentials by soul and brain destroying educational bureaucracies. I think there is a lot of empirical evidence for this. Reporters who interview truants students in bad schools actually see students who go to the good class with the interesting teacher and then leave because they think the next period is a worthless class with a boring teacher.

          • jdkolassa

            Yeah. I tried to make friends with blacks in college but I eventually stopped because of the self-segregation effect. And I am a bit bothered by that. :/

          • Sean II

            Me too. Had a few black friends in my late teens/early 20s – the drug scene turns out to be a good growing environment for diversity. But even that couldn’t last.

            At 19 it was: “Let’s do an insanely huge bong hit and then watch Scarface for the 57th time, doing a line every time Manolo says ‘aw, mang’!” That was a vision capable of bringing the races together.

            But at 23 it was: “Let’s do a reasonably-sized bong hit and take 1.5 Percocet and then watch Barry Lyndon, talking about the central importance of class in European history every time the film hits you on the nose with a lesson about the central importance of class in European history.

            Somehow, between the first point and the second, all my black friends disappeared.

            Now it’s like this: I have many black friends through work, and exactly none outside of it. As far as I can tell, this bothers me just a little and them not at all.

          • I had a best friend who was black for many years in the late 80s and early 90s. We were both gay (never involved physically), and were in different graduate schools at the same university. We would occasionally attempt to torture wait staff by asking them if they thought we were a cute couple. Back then he and I agreed that if we saw a black man and a white man together outside of work, at a restaurant or movie etc., there were always only three possibilities: they went to the same church, they played on a sports team together, or they were lovers. Although we actually didn’t fit any of those three.

          • Sean II

            Funny you should mention: in the late 80s I was on a trip to buy weed with a black de-seg student friend and, lacking other options, we ventured into the ‘hood.

            We got pulled over almost immediately. The cop said, “I’d like to search your car.” My friend said “No.” The cop said, “You’re a funny guy,” then searched it anyway. They found nothing, but of course hauled us in anyway.

            Later, waiting for my dad to come get me at the station , the cop says: “We see a white guy and a black guy together, it’s just automatic. Best case they’re smokin’ rope. Worst case they’re smokin’ pole. Either way…”

            I was so horrified by the suggestion, I almost confessed right there.

            Here’s what’s funny: in the quarter century since then, cops are no longer allowed (or required) to chase suspected gays, and now they at least have to lie about racial profiling. But weed is still considered a perfectly good reason to make someone’s rights disappear!

        • Satori

          > am not sure that you can make a good point that much harm has been created by self segregation

          Are you seriously arguing that blacks were not harmed by discriminatory business practices prior to the civil rights movement? Really?

          This is why people think libertarians are racist even though libertarianism itself is not a racist ideology.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            No I am seriously saying you are an unobservant fanatic who is putting words in my mouth and harping upon something that happened in the past. I specifically said SELF segregation, not DE JURE’ segregation. Meaning, people who like to be with people of their own race or culture, NOT something embeded in law like it was before the civil rights era.

          • Satori

            Self-segregation was huge in the Old South, and in the North for that matter. If your contention is that it did not seriously hurt African Americans you are a deluded fool whose opinions should be disregarded. This idea that the evil nanny state was the only reason blacks suffered during that era is a childish libertarian fantasy.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            Well I tried being nice, you are a dolt with an ax to grind. I was of course speaking of the modern day while you want to bring up the last century. Well even there you are WRONG! It was racism placed into law which actually hurt people. People forming their own free associations without using the government to screw others is not harmful. Black people, if there had never been slavery, would have been immigrants just like every other type and would have succeeded just like every other group you racist.

          • Actually segregation was mainly enforced by governments. For example, free blacks, whites, fugitive slaves and ex slaves cooperated in John Brown’s radical abolitionist conspiracy to liberate weapons from federal armories and use them to free slaves in one county who would then free the slaves in the next county, etc. The federal government executed a John Brown. So the federal government probably made slavery last longer than it would have otherwise, contrary to the popular view that it ended slavery.

          • Sean II

            “This idea that the evil nanny state was the only reason blacks suffered during that era is a childish libertarian fantasy.”

            I’m happy to agree with you. Racial segregation was clearly a case of spontaneous order, in which society led and the state merely followed.

            It really is the worst kind of libertarian fairy tale – beloved by both thick and thin – to say that racial apartheid in America was a product of statism. Hell, we have a pretty decent historical experiment on that, and the results are bracing: segregation flourished both down South, where it was backed by law, and up North, where the law was mostly silent. It flourishes now, even as the law is clearly against it.

            Even more compelling is the economic angle. When you look at the costs whites voluntarily endured to get away from blacks – heirloom homes sold for chump change or abandoned, a work routine shaped by hours of miserable highway commuting that continues still today – it couldn’t be clearer that they were acting on their own from passionately felt motives.

            I don’t get how any libertarian can promise with a straight face that racism and segregation would disappear in libertopia.

          • Libertymike

            “where the law was mostly silent”. No, not really. How about the “black codes” of Illinois (vehemently defended and supported by one of the nastiest racists of all time, the patron saint of progressivism, one of the men most admired by Adolph Hitler) and other northern states?
            What about the enforcement of the fugitive slave laws? The same were most vigorously enforced in the North. They were consistently upheld by judges in the northern states over constitutional objections.
            Look at the George Latimer story. Not the finest hour for Joseph Story (one of the most cited “experts” on the constitution by the mainstream in the legal academy and an inveterate nationalist more committed to state than liberty) or Lemuel Shaw.

          • Sean II

            Did you just Godwin-by-proxy?

          • Libertymike

            By proxy and by prologue and by precursor and p makes for the best of alliteration.

          • Satori

            I think the problem is that most people are not really comfortable with the idea of ethical tradeoffs. It’s perfectly reasonable to be a libertarian and think that it will cause some bad things to happen provided that you think the good created by libertarianism outweighs the bad (either for consequentialist reasons or because it protects “ights). Most people aren’t really comfortable with that though. They wouldn’t want to say that “yes, the free market sometimes does horrible things but that is no reason to reject libertarianism” because that is not how most human being operate. Our minds aren’t programmed for that kind of analysis.

          • Discriminatory business practices were usually supported by laws against competitors offering “integrated” services or employment.

      • That seems to me to be false. What discussions of race in this country are usually mainly about is trying to get the sanction of the victim for expanded tax serfdom of large groups of people by getting them to agree that they have some original sin because of past injustices like slavery. And the people who use this rhetoric reduce opportunists for poor people and racial minorities through government intervention, and round up poor black and brown kids and sell them to educrat cartels in exchange for donations to Democratic candidates. At this point the word “racism” means nothing other than – “you are my moral and political inferior and I have the right to rule you.”

  • Roderick T. long

    Kevin, the position you define here IS thick libertarianism. It may not be as thick as ours, but while thickness comes in degrees, the difference between thick and thin is all-or-nothing rather than a matter of degree.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I’m afraid the use of the terms has gotten away from your original, careful use. Such is the price of success! I think there are now people who think of themselves as thin libertarians who do not think that any old justificatory or motivational route to liberty is OK. It was Tom Woods and Gary Chartier’s radio show discussion that led me to write the post, and even Tom was prepared to say that some stuff goes better with liberty than other stuff (without explicitly endorsing paleo-thickness).

      • Libertymike

        You are risking your reputation with Jason Brennan and a certain portion of the commentariat by admitting that you listen to such a notorious Hooligan in Tom Woods.

        • Kevin Vallier

          Eh, Tom’s an old friend (I’ve known him since 2002), J’s a relatively newer friend (I’ve known him since 2005). There’s no need to choose.

          • Libertymike

            Why does Jason besmirch Tom? Jealousy?

          • Kevin Vallier

            When? Where?

          • Libertymike

            On this here little corner of the intertubes. He called Tom a cowboy libertarian.

          • Kevin Vallier


    • Irfan Khawaja

      I’d agree with Roderick and add that the idea of “multiple justificatory routes” is more obscure than anyone in this discussion seems to be letting on.

      Suppose that you want to justify some proposition p, and both q and r will do the trick. Then q justifies p, r justifies p, and (q or r) justifies p. Now suppose, on grounds of coherence, that you want an account for why it is that (q or r) will justify p. Call that account U, where U explains why the whole disjunction is justificatory, not just each disjunct taken separately. Now that you have theoretical unification, you face a problem of individuation. What happened to the multiplicity of the justificatory routes? In unifying them, you got rid of the multiplicity in any but a Pickwickian sense. Qua unified, you now lack “multiple routes.” What you really have is a single multiple-lane highway, not two routes. And obviously, the routes have to be susceptible of unification at some level for U to obtain at all. You can’t just join (conjoin or disjoin) random contents and say that they’re theoretically unified. They somehow have to be unifiable. In other words, they were distinct in a sense but unifiable in another, in the way e.g., that evolutionary theory and molecular genetics are.

      If you don’t unify, you’re left with a lack of coherence and a consequent mystery: why would propositions with totally unrelated content justify one and the same proposition? What logical relation would they bear that would do the trick?

      Put less formally: why would a particular brand of theism, say, Sunni Islam, and Randian Objectivism justify the very same conception of freedom, justice, property rights, and the rest? The Qur’an doesn’t sound very much like Atlas Shrugged (trust me). So why think that adherence to the Qur’an is a “route” to the same destination as Galt’s Speech? Why think that adherence to Benthamite act-utilitarianism is a route to Nozick’s entitlement theory? No need to answer that. The questions just illustrate the mystery created by the appeal to “multiple routes.”

      The reason why I-95 and Route 1 will both take you to the same destination is that they’re both pointing the same way. It makes no sense to say that I-95 and I-80 will do that, unless you insist that Florida and California are identical with one another. Once you grant the theoretical analogue of the preceding point, you’ve granted everything that thick theorists want. Only a proper subset of the full roster of theories will justify the right conception of, say, liberty (whether libertarian or not)–and the proper subset has to consist of theories that are fundamentally similar in content to one another. Otherwise, it’s really not clear what “multiple justificatory routes” is supposed to mean (and contrary to your comment to Ron Jawls below, your links don’t clarify the essential point).

      The remaining question is how many theories fit that description. You say thick libertarians go “too far,” but as Roderick suggests, all they really need is your rejection of thin libertarianism to claim victory–ie your rejection of the claim that any and all justificatory routes are fine. Once you reject the “any and all routes” thesis, you’re granting the essential thick-lib point–that the nature of justification sets constraints on the possible theoretical routes open for purposes of justification. Once you grant that, you’re a thick libertarian haggling with the others about width.

      This issue is why I found your previous post on neutrality so annoying (from January):

      You: “So I’m speculating that many people who oppose liberal neutrality hold their position because they want to impose their ideology on unwilling and dissenting others. And that includes some, but by no means all, libertarians.”

      The speculation misses the fact that thick libertarians might reject neutrality because they espouse a moralized conception of freedom, and regard a mcf as incompatible with neutrality. You mention the invidious reasons for holding the anti-neutrality view (“impose ideology” blah blah blah), but not the legitimate ones. Annoying. Consider that anyone who holds some version of the Lockean Proviso might want to write it into law and enforce it. But since the LP presupposes a conception of value (“enough and as good”), enforcing the LP arguably runs afoul of neutralism and presupposes some version of thick theory. is that really a problem? Does it mean that those who reject the LP and/or slim down their theory win by default because they’re the nice, thin, neutral guys? (Answers: no, no.)

      One of the best and earliest contributions to this debate is David Kelley’s now forgotten “Life, Liberty, and Property,” in Social Philosophy and Policy (1984), vol. 1. It precedes the entire trend of discussing this issue in terms of volumetric Rawls- or Williams-derived metaphors, and manages to anticipate a lot of BHL theorizing to boot

      • Irfan Khawaja

        Sorry, I meant the preceding to respond to Kevin Vallier, not Roderick Long.

      • David Gordon

        I think there is a possible escape from your theoretical unification argument against “multiple justificatory routes.” You need U only if you think the both q and r actually do justify p. But suppose you think that q justifies p and that people who accept r are mistaken, However, you also hold that r is “reasonable”, in Rawls’s sense. Further, you think that if someone were, mistakenly but not unreasonably, to accept r, then he would arrive at p. If you counted this state of affairs as sufficient for there being multiple justificatory routes, then you wouldn’t need U. You would at most need some account of why q and r both qualify as reasonable even though q is correct and r isn’t. (A problem with the position I’m suggesting is that Rawls’s notion of “reasonable” isn’t pellucidly clear, to say the least).

        • Irfan Khawaja

          That’s a fair point, but your parenthetical at the end suggests the problem with the strategy. Is the “escape” mentioned in the first sentence really possible if the notion of “reasonability” involved in making the escape is so unclear? I don’t think so. In a way, the whole point of my post was to force clarity on that very issue. I’ve been reading Rawls and Rawlsians on public reason for 20+ years and so far they haven’t made any sense to me.

          Suppose you think that q justifies p but that those who accept r are mistaken while believing r reasonably. Then, as you say: “You would…need some account of why q and r both qualify as reasonable though q is correct and r isn’t.”

          Yes, you would need that–at a minimum. But if coherence is your aim (and I think it ought to be–as does Rawls), you’d need more than that. You need to explain what justificatory bearing r has on p, even if you have to invent a new conception of justification* to do the job. In other words, what you really need is some account why q and r justify* p, or else some account of why (q justifies p ^ r justifies* p), or something in the neighborhood. It’s not enough to say that r is reasonable and leave it at that: r’s reasonability has to play some broadly justificatory role vis-a-vis p, even if it’s not the very same role as that played by q. If that can’t be explained, what exactly does “reasonability” mean? And why take r’s reasonability to be “sufficient for multiple *justificatory* routes” to p if r’s reasonability has no clear connection to justification? Why not say that what’s sufficient for justification is just…justification? In that case, it’s p that’s sufficient.

          However “broad” the justificatory role involved, we can’t literally be using “justification” in a flat-out equivocal way with respect to q’s role and r’s role. Feel free to say that q justifies p, and that r justifies* p. These may be two different conceptions of justification, but they can’t literally be two different concepts altogether. If they were, we’d be forced to say that when S reasonably holds r, his doing so has no justificatory bearing on p (in any clear or intelligible sense of “justification”). In that case, the invocation of “reasonability” just looks like an ad hoc move designed to deflect the unification objection while leaving a mystery about the status of r.

          Bottom line: I would just insist that it’s not reasonable (in the ordinary sense) to regard “mistaken but reasonable belief in r” as sufficient to justify anything unless more is said about r’s justificatory relation to p. You can invent a whole new vocabulary a la Rawls, but that doesn’t really address the underlying issue.

          If the preceding is right, I’d say that mutatis mutandis, the same “unification” problem arises for the escape strategy you outline as arose in the first place.

          Incidentally, has anyone ever seen a worked-out version of multiple justificatory routes to any robust political conception? That’s a literal question, not a rhetorical one. In the one case that I’ve half-followed–Islamic liberalisms–it’s obvious that you don’t have multiple justificatory routes to the same political conclusion but rather, totally different projects bearing loose resemblance relations to one another:

          The other case that I half-follow is Zionism. I think it’s amusing to imagine that Islamic and Zionist liberalisms are leading to the same place. If only they knew.

          • David Gordon

            Thanks very much for this. I’m not a supporter of Rawlsian public reason—I’ve criticized it myself—so if Rawls’s notion of “reasonable” belief can be clarified, I’m not the one to do it.

            I don’t think, though, that the Rawlsian would need a new conception of justification to explain how r, a reasonable but false belief, justifies p. I think that Rawls’s notion of justification is univocal but relative to persons: S is justified in accepting p if p follows from what S reasonably believes. If you think that r is false, then for you, there is no “justificatory relation” between r and p. But this doesn’t prevent you from recognizing that, if S reasonably believes r, then he is justified in accepting p. It may well be that this isn’t a good way to look at justification; but if it’s what Rawls has in mind, he doesn’t seem to face the problem about justification you raise.

            One question about your skepticism regarding “multiple justificatory routes.” If I’ve understood you correctly, you think there is a very close connection between a political conception and the considerations used to arrive at it. (E.g., there are Hegelian arguments for “freedom”, but the notion of freedom is very different from what libertarians would mean by this.) My question is, do you intend this as another way of stating your coherence argument, or is this a separate argument?

          • Kevin Vallier

            David, I just wanted to second your read of Rawls here. The idea of the “reasonable” isn’t clear, but if you strip out the moral aspect for now and just include recognition of the burdens of judgment, all you really have to do is be willing to acknowledge that other people can have a high degree of epistemic justification for beliefs you think are false (with a high degree of epistemic justification). Gaus has worked this standard out in both Justificatory Liberalism and The Order of Public Reason. I’ve worked on it too. I have some stuff in the fourth and fifth chapters of my forthcoming book. So yes, I’d say you could argue that there are other justificatory routes to a position for which individuals have a high degree of epistemic, but that you yourself reject.

          • Roderick T. long

            And my worry, of course, is that a) there’s no sufficiently non-arbitrary way to choose a particular standard of reasonableness over other standards that are either more or less exacting; and b) even if there were, no one is obligated to surrender their right of self-defense against people with reasonable but mistaken views about rights.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Re (a): yeah.

            Re (b): yeah.

            Here’s a case where double affirmation doesn’t entail negation.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            I have to do this quickly, because I’m traveling and on a public terminal with limited time, but two points about the issue in your second paragraph:

            First, I don’t think that a conception of justification that is relative to persons really makes sense (as you yourself suspect). Something can follow deductively from what you believe, but in that case what’s justified is the inference, not the set of beliefs. Inferring q from p may be justified, but not the belief that p, in which case we’re right back at the drawing board: S’s reasonable belief that p is doing no clear epistemic work.

            Second, Rawls’s conception of justification is more complex and more problematic than we’re so far made explicit (and more complex/problematic than your characterization). In his response to Habermas (in PL), he distinguishes pro tanto and full justification, and describes the relations between them, etc. It would take too long to explain what I think has gone wrong there, but all things considered, I think it adds to Rawls’s problems rather than solving any of them. In a nutshell: I don’t think Rawls ever accurately characterizes the way that defenders of comprehensive doctrines actually conceive of justification, so that everything he says on the subject strikes me as systematically wrong. He writes as though you first accept a political conception as pro tanto justified, then “fill in” your comprehensive doctrine’s justification of that for full justification. I don’t think that’s the way defenders of comprehensive doctrines actually think of what they’re doing. I also don’t think Rawls has any good arguments for asserting that false normative beliefs can have a high degree of epistemic justification. That some delimited classes of belief can occasionally be false and epistemically justified is a truism, but it’s a stretch to think that a whole system of normative beliefs can satisfy that description.

            Re your third paragraph: I do think there is a close connection between a political conception and the considerations used to arrive at it (at least the justfiable considerations). I don’t think that’s identical to what I said about coherence, but they’re closely related considerations. Of course, on a view like mine, both points are (or would be) part of a single coherent conception or theory of justification. I agree with your parenthetical point about the Hegelian conception of freedom. I myself adopt a moralized conception of freedom that is different from the standard libertarian one–which is why I’m not a libertarian myself.

    • David Gordon

      Roderick, would a thin libertarian have to deny that any of the sorts of thickness Charles distinguishes exists to any extent at all?

      • Irfan Khawaja

        I don’t know the answer to your question, but since Vallier was discussing justification and motivation, I took the subject at hand to be what Charles Johnson calls “thickness from grounds.” My point (and I’m assuming, Roderick’s point) was that thin libertarians have to deny thickness from grounds. I realize that it now sounds like a dispute about coffee.

        • Roderick T. long

          I’m an espresso libertarian!

          • jdkolassa

            I hate coffee. I’m a cocoa libertarian.

        • jdkolassa

          Sounds like a great theme for a libertarian get together.

          “Aha, you are drinking coffee! You must be a thick libertarian then!”

          “…shut up Charles.”

      • Roderick T. long

        I think that follows from the original definitions. Not everyone’s using them that way though.

    • seanwmalone

      You’re defining away your intellectual opponents when you say stuff like this. There is virtually no one on the planet who doesn’t have goals and values that transcend merely “non-aggression”. Everybody has the baseline of non-aggression as the starting point, and on top of that everyone adds additional values – many of which have no relationship to “libertarianism” as a philosophy – that they consider to be essential for good people. And I’ve met no one who would disagree with the idea that there are some ideas that work better “with liberty” than others.

      So if that’s all it takes to be a “thick” libertarian, then congratulations. Every libertarian is “thick”. But then, that would mean the word serves no purpose at all as it has no defining or differentiating power what-so-ever.

      I consider myself – increasingly so, actually – to be a very thin libertarian, and I think I’m a much better person (and libertarian) for it. Yet I’m not a conservative of any stripe and I completely believe that there are a bunch of values which are important for people to adopt as good people, some of which stem from some of the same premises as my libertarianism. It saddens me that there are a bunch of people I think are terrible who are libertarians, because that makes it a lot harder to sell libertarian ideas to people who see them and think they’re representative of everyone.

      But that’s a marketing problem, not a philosophical problem.

      Bad people, people I personally dislike, racists, bigots, sexists, etc. can all be libertarian… Unless we start considering mere thoughts and beliefs acts of aggression. I’m not prepared to be a member of the thought police… But apparently many people are.

      • Roderick T. long

        But you’re misdescribing what the dispute is about. Thick libertarianism is NOT merely the view that there are other values besides libertarianism. It’s the view that being a libertarian gives you reason to accept certain other values besides libertarianism — in particular for grounds-thickness reasons, application-thickness reasons, and strategic-thickness reasons. As described and explained in Charles’ original piece.

        • seanwmalone

          I read Charle’s original piece. Two points.

          First, I am absolutely describing the dispute as the dispute is ACTUALLY being had, not solely the dispute you and Charles Johnson want to have.

          Secondly, while I don’t disagree that many of the premises that led me to become a libertarian and adopt a value of voluntaryism as a moral ethic also lead me to other, often related, conclusions about other values, I disagree that it is at all a *necessary* condition for libertarianism.

          Consider this. I believe in self-ownership in a somewhat axiomatic way. But this is built on a premise of self-determination, free will, and in my case, atheism. Many libertarians I’ve encountered over the years are religious, some are determinist and don’t really believe in free will, which would mean that on purely philosophical grounds at least a number of those might reject self-ownership as an axiom.

          Yet, they too believe that the only moral way to deal with others is voluntary.

          How can I possibly claim that other values are part of libertarianism because they arise from the same premises I used as the basis for my libertarianism when other people use totally different premises to arrive at the same conclusion?

          I don’t particularly care how you got to libertarianism. I don’t particularly care about what you think about the world. I care a great deal about how you act – and that, to me, is what defines you as a libertarian or not. If you interact with others in a voluntary manner as a matter of principle, and advocate that others do the same, you are. Even if you’re a curmudgeon or someone I don’t want representing me publicly.

          And again, if your only basis for calling people thick is that they accept other values beyond non-aggression which are built off of the same premises as non-aggression then you’ve thoroughly defined away your opponent and rendered the very idea of “thickness” as completely pointless as a concept.

          • Roderick T. long

            Your last comment reduces all thickness to grounds thickness. A point that’s being made more recently in the debate is that without application thickness the NAP has no implications at all.

            In any case, “thick” and “thin” aren’t primarily terms for individuals. See:

          • seanwmalone

            Ok, but yet again, you’ve completely defined away your opponent here and the very idea of “thickness” has no real explanatory power. So why all the fuss?

            I had this same conversation with Anthony Gregory a week or two ago. He, too, claimed that all libertarians were “thick” libertarians.

            But if that were true then there’s no room for debate.

            And perhaps you think there’s no real room for debate and all this controversy is silly. That would be reasonable if you think everyone is in some ways “thick” and in some ways “thin”. But then you’re missing the point of what people are actually debating about.

            People are not merely debating the specific usage of the term “thick” in the way you want it to be used. They’re debating the idea that you can still be a libertarian and have a wide array of personal values without being told you’re a bad libertarian or not a libertarian.

            Also, that ‘PSA’ is a weak explanation of anything and actually contradicts your assertion from earlier that I was misrepresenting the argument, as I clearly used a definition of “thick” in my first post that was nearly identical to the following quote:

            “…thick libertarianism is the additional beliefs that we add onto those in order to have a more full understanding of libertarianism.”

            This makes no explicit point that these added beliefs have to be derived from the same premises as support your libertarian conclusions, but could in fact be additional beliefs you have for any number of reasons – for example, because you might think that they support libertarianism tangentially, like Kevin said when he said:

            “If you think that some social or racial groups are naturally inferior to others, this is probably going to make your commitment to liberty either less consistent or unstable or lead you to endorse values (like racial segregation) that are themselves in practice inconsistent with liberty.”

            There is absolutely no reason to believe that a belief in the inferiority or superiority of some groups would ‘probably’ lead to a weak commitment to liberty based on any premises I’m aware of that people use to arrive at libertarianism. Observationally, this might be true (and even this is quite debatable), but it’s certainly not axiomatic or possible to deduce from a premise like self-ownership. Not without some amazing twists in logic anyway.

          • Roderick T. long

            They’re debating the idea that you can still be a libertarian and have a
            wide array of personal values without being told you’re a bad
            libertarian or not a libertarian.

            We won’t tell them they’re not a libertarian. Thickness isn’t about who counts as a libertarian. But if they hold values that clash with the appropriate thicknesses, then I would definitely say — not necessarily that they’re bad libertarians, but that their libertarianism is bad libertarianism, that it’s defective qua libertarian.

            There is absolutely no reason to believe that a belief in the
            inferiority or superiority of some groups would ‘probably’ lead to a
            weak commitment to liberty

            I think there’s pretty good empirical evidence.

          • seanwmalone

            Also, I reject entirely the idea that you need “thick” grounds to believe in the NAP… And more accurately, as I explained here (, the NAP is just a shorthand for voluntaryist conclusions based on premises, not a thing to believe in or not independent of anything.

            This quote from that PSA is wrong to assume a requirement of “thickness”:

            “Questions like animal rights and the details of children’s rights can’t be answered by literally only referencing the NAP by itself, so in order to determine whether or not a given action taken against a child or animal is a rights-violation, you have to have a thicker conception of libertarianism.”

            Animal rights and children’s rights are, of course, extremely complex philosophical issues, but this isn’t about being thick or thin. In order to come to the conclusion that voluntary interaction with others is morally right, we also need to understand what “voluntary” means. Understanding your premises is a pre-requisite for any conclusion, but once you have that conclusion, it doesn’t mean you’re adding anything to the idea of voluntary interaction.

            Defining what activities qualify as voluntary, and whether or not a child or an animal can actually consent to anything is not an add-on to the idea that the only thing that defines a libertarian is voluntary interaction. It’s actually just defining a more clear set of parameters on what that means.

          • Roderick T. long

            How can you choose between rival conceptions of “voluntary” without invoking any premises?

          • seanwmalone

            You can’t. But the NAP is a conclusion from premises as well, obviously. You can’t decide that voluntaryism is good and that force is bad without premises either… Or more accurately, you can decide anything you want without invoking premises, but we’d all agree that that makes for capricious and bad philosophy.

            So what?

            That still doesn’t make it an *addition* to the NAP to have an understanding of what the NAP actually covers. It’s not “more than” the NAP, it’s a part of the NAP.

            I used this example moments ago on the C4SS piece, but if I state a moral conclusion like, “It’s best if we don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff,” we have to recognize that any clarity of that phrase requires definitions of all the parts of the phrase. So yes, I have to define: “hurt”; “people”; “take” and “their stuff” if I want that phrase to mean something useful and clear. Otherwise it’s just meaningless gibberish without any definition.

            But… This is literally true of every single sentence any human being utters. It’s a prerequisite of communication to define one’s terms and to have those definitions be understood by the people you’re communicating with.

            This doesn’t make anyone a “thick” communicator. It just makes them a communicator.

            All this goes back to my broader point here, which is that if this is how you see the concept of “thickness” in philosophy, then it’s a completely pointless term as it is entirely unusable to distinguish any one person from any other.

          • seanwmalone

            So let me actually ask you a separate question.

            If the term “thick” covers everything from believing that libertarians must also necessarily be feminists, anti-racists, egalitarian, motivated to care about the poor, etc.; to believing that libertarians must also necessarily be Judeo-Christian moralists in order to preserve a “free society”; all the way down to encompassing the libertarian who defines his terms in a way that isn’t vague question begging and bare assertions about the NAP…

            If “thickness” covers that whole spectrum… In what way is it at all useful as a concept?

          • Roderick T. long

            The function of the terms “thin libertarianism” and “thick libertarianism” is not to sort people into different groups. It’s to help us understand the nature of libertarianism and its relation to other values. Showing that libertarianism is necessarily thick is a vindication of the concept, not an objection to it.

          • seanwmalone

            First, it isn’t “necessarily” thick.

            To the contrary, it is quite thin at root, and does not need to be infused with additional aspects beyond the general value of negative rights liberty to be complete as a political philosophy. I don’t need anyone to even agree that human beings are self-owners (as opposed to, for example, servants and property of a deity) for me to beleive they are libertarian in essence or in name. We simply must agree not to hurt people or take their stuff. They don’t need to also be antiracists, or feminists, or economists, or atheists, or anything else.

            As I have said many times recently, this diversity of premises and conclusions about what makes for the best world all bound together by a core agreement on libertarian ethics (basically NAP) is what makes our philosophy robust and anti-fragile. Freedom doesn’t require anyone to agree on anything beyond freedom for all.

            So not only do we not have to adopt ‘thick’ conclusions (ie. Paleoconservatism, feminism, etc.), let alone share those conclusions with all other libertarians, we don’t even have to have arrived at the base conclusion of libertarianism – that all people should be free from the initiation of force – through a single set of premises.

            The diversity of viewpoints coexisting under a big voluntaryist banner alone would be enough to render the idea that “thickness” is somehow intrinsic to libertarianism an absurd notion.

            If people can be libertarians without holding it as necessary to have views outside of the value of negative rights liberty, then clearly adding requirements on top of that either makes us “thin” folks not libertarian anymore (inherently divisive as you see here in reality), or it means that the thick additions aren’t necessary or intrinsic to the philosophy in any meaningful way.

            I vote the latter.

            Secondly, libertarianism cannot be so infused with other beliefs above the individual’s right to think and do as they please without necessarily sorting people into groups, and of course that’s exactly what happens everytime the ‘thick’ concept is introduced in a conversation.

            Are you ‘thick’ or ‘thin’? If you are thick, what kind of thick are you? Are you a left-libertarian? A right-libertarian? An Austrian-libertarian? A Chicago-libertarian? A ‘cosmotarian’?

            Etcetera, ad nauseum. Divisions upon divisions.

            There is no way in which these divisions vindicate the philosophy in any particular way, and I don’t see how the whole concept of necessary “thickness” can do anything but divide when no one can ever possibly come to any consensus on what type of thickness is the right one for everyone.

            I find it hard to grasp how this isn’t the obvious result of an idea that suggests libertarianism inherently includes beliefs that go beyond the basic libertarian ethic.

            Frankly, Roderick, this conversation has seriously strengthened my previously much weaker belief that the idea of “thickness” has nothing of value to add to libertarianism and is possibly doing a lot of damage by providing academic cover for counterproductive and pointless divisiveness.

        • David

          Here’s the question, are those “other values”, whatever they may be, actually necessary for one to be a libertarian, or simply logically more consistent with it?

          You might dislike certain beliefs of a consistent NAP advocate, but are any such people actually not libertarian? That’s the real issue.

          • Roderick T. long

            We have NEVER said that people with the wrong thicknesses aren’t libertarians. That’s not the issue.

      • Sometimes when I read the check your privilege/intersectionality libertarian kids, who regurgitate 25 year old flatulence they learn in college from queer theory etc etc, I do begin to have other values than the NAP, mainly ones involving the retaliatory and defensive uses of force. Public flogging of taxpayer supported academics before returning their assets to tax serfs and plowing their workplaces under and salting the earth are among my favorite plans for MY thickened libertarianism.

    • Perhaps it’s girth libertarianism.

    • How can a moderate dodge if the choice is a or b? Surely there’s a Thicker-Than-Thin-Libertarian, or Slightly-Thinner-Than-Thick Libertarian, or Thick-But-Thin-At-Times Libertarian, or…

    • Well, I don’t know about thin libertarian, but you have thin skin if you deleted my harmless, humorous comment.

  • murali284

    Actually, though it is somewhat a work in progress, I think we can thin out the notion of people being free and equal into something like being unwilling to cede moral authority to one another.

  • Ron Jawls

    This piece doesn’t explain what the thin/thick controversy is a controversy *about*. Nor does it state what each view claims. And what is a “route to liberty”?

    On these matters and many more, please see my 1971. In that work I am neither too thick nor too thin. My porridge is juuuuuust right.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Well, of course ole’ Jack wouldn’t be able to follow a controversy within the libertarian movement (as he couldn’t even be bothered to click on the relevant links where everything is defined). After all, he didn’t even think Nozick was worth more than a page or two and some footnotes!

      • Ron Jawls

        I am constitutionally unable to follow “Rad Geek People’s Daily.” I am a man of letters. Speaking of constitutions, I discuss some of their desirable aspects in my 1971.

        • Theresa Klein

          Don’t judge a blog by it’s title.

  • Ted_Levy

    KV: “If you think that some social or racial groups are naturally inferior to others, this is probably going to make your commitment to liberty either less consistent or unstable or lead you to endorse values (like racial segregation) that are themselves in practice inconsistent with liberty.”

    That is a claim certainly requiring justification, especially “probably” as opposed to “might” or “possibly.” I’m sure Kevin interacts every day with people who are inferior to him intellectually, yet that doesn’t lead him to make his commitment to liberty less consistent or unstable. So we would need a theory explaining why one’s response to “groups” would be different from one’s response to “a large mass of individuals.” We would also need to understand why the inferiority must be “natural” as opposed to a simple empirical fact.

    Is being a member of Mensa inconsistent with one’s commitment to liberty?

    • seanwmalone

      Judging by the anti-libertarian predilections of pretentious smart people, being a member of Mensa might very well be inconsistent with a commitment to liberty 😛

      • Pretentious allegedly smart people mainly currently seem to think it is ok for politicians, especially unprecedented politicians of color, to lie to the public. Is believing in honesty as a value for “public officials” a feature of thick libertarianism?

      • good_in_theory

        Except for all the pretentious smart people with libertarian predilections.

        • seanwmalone

          I was making a joke… But that said, where are all the pretentious smart people with libertarian predilections? Are they at Princeton? Harvard? Yale? NYU? Columbia? The New Yorker? The NY Times?

          Not saying there aren’t any, anywhere, as there are certainly a bunch who hang out right here at BHL… But they’re at best maybe 5% of the pretentious smart people in the world.

          • good_in_theory

            Making them pretty much 100% of the smart people within libertarianism.

    • Almost every possible group one can identify is in fact inferior to other groups at something, and superior to other groups at something else. Old people are superior at controlling their sexual impulses; young people are superior at having passionate sex. But individuals may or may not be good at things or bad at things whether their group is good or bad at them. And no one central authority gets to say which things are the important ones to be inferior or superior at.

      • oldoddjobs

        Right. I really don’t know what Kevin means when he talks about “some social or racial groups (being) naturally inferior to others”. Inferior in what respect? It is never explained. Just how many people are there who imagine their group (every single member?) to be superior in some ultimate, cosmic sense? Usually they imagine their group to be superior with regard to some particular virtue(s).

        Funny how libertarians talk about different groups of people forming their own communities on their own property….but then run away screaming when someone suggests what these communities might actually look like in the real world. What they actually imagine is bitcoin users banding together in sustainable communes or something, not ethnicities separating naturally.

        At this point the phrase “birds of a feather flock together” must be deemed “objectively” racist. To point out the tendency of people to marry people who look like them must be racist. To point out that certain ethnic groups perform better in certain fields must also be racist. Remember: It’s the noticing of these events which is racist, not the actions themselves.

        Thick libertarianism doesn’t require you to subscribe to any particular belief, apparently. But it helps if you’re a white male atheist academic obsessed with equality, racism, bigotry and sexism.

  • Hume22

    Hi Kevin, I was wondering if you address the internal/external issue in your up-coming book. Thanks.

    • Kevin Vallier

      It depends on which one, but if you mean about reasons and epistemic justification, then yes, there’s a lot of discussion.

      • Hume22

        My fault. I meant the internal vs. external conceptions of political liberalism (e.g., Quong chap. 5). (Considering that there is an “internalist vs. externalist” debate in just about every domain of philosophy these days, I certainly should have clarified; sorry about that).

        • Kevin Vallier

          No problem. I have an entire paper criticizing Quong’s view (if you like I can email it to you). I don’t get into his stuff in the book, though I initially included much more criticizing him. The next book, however, will contain some criticisms of his view.

          • Hume22

            That would be great, thanks. I’ll shoot you an email.

  • Ivan

    I have a couple of simple questions for “thick” libertarians that could hopefully serve to clarify the debate which is usually very muddled:

    1) Do you support the title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits the private racial discrimination?

    2) Do you support the government mandated “affirmative action”, i.e. racial discrimination?
    3) Do you support government-mandated school “busing” in order to meet the racial quotas?

    if your reposnse is YES to any of these questions, then you are advocating the use of force against the free choices of people that do not involve violence and aggression, and thus you are in opposition to libertarianism. If all your answers are NO, then how exactly do you differ from the thin libertarians?

    • murali284

      The difference would be that private discrimination would be genuine grounds for moral criticism. Presumably, really thin libertarians like Seavey would just say that there is nothing further to be said. That is to say, a thick libertarian should be committed to (for example) gender equality such that whether his child is male or female does not influence whether he pays for their university education. A thin libertarian may be reluctant to criticise a man who pays for his son’s college but not his daughter’s or who raises her to believe that she must submit to her husband in all things. A thick libertarian wants to criticise some of these as going against the spirit of libertarianism even though neither will advocate state intervention in any of these cases.


        Why can’t a thin libertarian criticize other libertarians for being bad people, as opposed to being bad libertarians? In other words, a libertarian who discriminates against his daughters may be a good (consistent) libertarian, but also a nasty person, and can be called out on this basis. I don’t believe that libertarians have any monopoly on moral virtue (or vice) generally, and thus I don’t see why their sins need to be characterized as failures of libertarianism, as opposed to their personal flaws. If an egalitarian is guilty of the same sins, is he/she therefore a “thin” egalitarian?

        • Libertymike

          Yes, the flaws of an individual libertarian should not be viewed as a failure of libertarianism. Good point.
          However, I know that libertarians are fundamentally better people than statists. One who chooses to generate one’s income by consensual means is, by definition, morally superior to those who choose to generate their income by violence.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Well, as a fellow libertarian, I naturally think we are morally superior with respect to our theory of rights. But a libertarian who callously walks by a toddler downing in a shallow pond (to use a famous example) is a horrible person, full stop. Certainly worse than an egalitarian who would risk his life under similar circumstances.

          • Actually we would probably view someone who did that as not actually human. Which is why such a scene is depicted in the current science fiction film “Under the Skin.”

          • Libertymike

            The libertarian who walks by a toddler drowning in a shallow pond and knows that the toddler is drowning is a horrible person, but the conscript who kills another in the latter’s homeland is far worse.

          • David

            I think the fact that you said “conscript” makes this a really interesting debate. I’m not going to jump in though, because I just want to make a point. That one should not murder (which a conscript who kills another in his homeland does, however we weigh the mitigating factors that he was threatened, likely ignorant, etc.) is a libertarian concept. That one shouldn’t walk by a toddler as he’s drowning is not. I actually view the guy who walks by the toddler as morally worse than the conscript who murders in ignorance, since the guy who walks by the toddler KNOWS what he’s doing is wrong. But, a libertarian could theoretically say its perfectly fine to walk by a toddler who is drowning… he’d be a horrible person but still libertarian.

            BTW: I don’t support “the troops” at all, and I occasionally mock those who do. I despise the soldier cult. And even if someone is drafted, that’s still only a mitigating factor, not an excuse. The same goes for those who sign up under the false belief that they are going to be defending the US.

          • Libertymike

            Yet, there is still that bright, demarcation called deliberate murder. No matter what else, one may be evil for not intervening, but the other, at the gloaming, is spiritually far worse for those who murder in the name of the state are just scummier than those who do not stop to prevent a toddler from drowning.
            The libertarian who allows the toddler to drown does not claim that he has the right to steal your money in order to finance his murderous killing spree. The conscript, who, has the option of standing up and acting upon principle and who has the opportunity to truly be a rugged individual, chooses, instead to be a pussy and one who would rather join the biggest, baddest gang of mass murderers.

          • Libertymike

            Let’s not forget to inject a little reality here:
            The libertarian who does nothing to prevent the toddler from drowning is a hypothetical prop; the conscript who rapes, murders and feeds at the public trough is REALITY.

      • David

        A “thin” libertarian” can absolutely comment on the cases involved here. He just doesn’t comment AS a libertarian. A thin libertarian may well hate sexism, racism, etc. Theoretically, he might even hate these things more than he hates coercion. For what its worth, my own libertarianism is a subset of what I believe to be a holistic Christian worldview, so I don’t consider promoting libertarianism to be as important as preaching the gospel. Even still, I’m “thin” because I recognize that LIBERTARIANISM is defined by a willingness to accept the NAP and property rights, period.

        Consider a chess club. The founders put two stipulations on joining. First, one must enioy the game of chess. Secondly, one must be good enough to win at least one game against a club member.

        Say you are a member of this club. Do you oppose racism? Do you oppose sexism? Do you oppose a wife being told to submit to her husband in absolutely all things? Do you have libertarian political views? Do you hold to a religious philosophy or lack thereof? Is at least one of those things more important to you than the chess club? I bet you’d answer all of those questions with “yes.” Would you be more bothered by a racist who likes chess than a non-racist who doesn’t? Probably. Are these feelings of yours something that would warrant kicking you outof the chess club? Nope. They have nothing to do with the prerequesites of getting into the club, specifically an enjoyment and basic proficiency in chess.

        This is how I feel about libertarianism. Should libertarians have positions that do not relate to the NAP or property rights? Yes, and its inevitable that everyone will end up having some. The “thin” libertarian does not say that every lifestyle choice that follows the NAP and private property rights is ethically equal or worthy of respect or whatever. The “thin” libertarian doesn’t say that its wrong to criticize other “thin” libertarians. All we’re saying is that; of the wide plethora of tasteful or distasteful views a libertarian can take on issues that don’t relate to the NAP Or private property rights, these issues are issues on which libertarrians (people in “the club”) can disagree on. That’s really it. The “thick” libertarian says that you need the NAP + property rights + at least one additional thing in order to be libertarian. That’s what us “thin” folks disagree with.

    • Theresa Klein

      No to all three. However, I believe in a kind of “two-layer” libertarianism. A “thin” layer that consists of actual law enfrorced by the state, and a “thick” layer of social norms that promotes tolerance and inclusivity.

      Of course, within a thin-libertarian state there is room for non-libertarian cultures that wish to self-segregate, but I think libertarianism ought to seek to promote a broadly libertarian culture within mainstream society.

      In other words, there’s room for a racist clan to get together and form a whites-only town, but the broader culture ought to make sure those groups are isolated and marginalized politically.

      • David

        What’s a libertarian culture? That expression doesn’t even make sense to me. I’d agree that people should use persuasion to establish certain cultural norms in a non-violent way (I personally support a Christianized culture but if you support something else you should still be able to follow my point) but this has nothing to do with libertarianism per say. You can support a completely secularized culture or even anti-religious culture and still be a libertarian as long as you support the NAP (which includes property rights), and I can support a Christian culture as long as I support the NAP. While our beliefs about culture are important to us, they have nothing to do with libertarianism per say. The racist who wants a racist culture is despicable but as long as he does it in a non-violent way and is opposed to using aggression, he’s still a libertarian whether you like him or not. That would be my point. If the whites-only people respect other people’s rights, they may be terrible people, but we call them such because of moral values that we hold that are not directly related to libertarianism.

    • Roderick T. long

      Thick libertarianism and left libertarianism aren’t the same thing. There are thicklibs who are anti-left (Hans Hoppe, for example) and leftlibs who are anti-thick (Tom Knapp, for example). Most left-libertarians do seem to embrace thickness, however, and i certainly do.

      I don’t know any left-libertarians who support any of those things in your list. Nearly all of us are anarchists; and most of us favour education, counter-economics, and grass-roots activism rather than electoral politics as a strategy.

      How do we (thick, left) differ from the thin libertarians? Well, nobody is consistently a thin libertarian (since thin libertarianism is an inconsistent position); but lots of people think they are thin libertarians. We differ from them in recognising the various thickness relationships (grounds, strategic, application, etc.) discussed in Charles’ original article.

      • Kevin Vallier

        Favour-with-a-u? 😉

        • adrianratnapala

          Well that’s my favourite spelling. Every other spelling is coloured by Americanised dishonour.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            We declared cultural war on the silent U. The silent U is divisive, It is restrictive, it is a tool of totalitarianism.

        • Roderick T. long

          Well, I’ve recently been accused of being a Tory, so I might as well go with the flow.

      • jdkolassa

        I think I’m something of a thick libertarian, but that’s because I see libertarianism as requiring a lot of thought and reason, and that then having a strong, natural place in society…so we all end up being atheists. And probably being very interested in technology and big buildings and creating Evangelions.

        It’s not thickness from grounds, I think, but it was one of Johnson’s other varieties of thickness.

        • David

          Who says having a lot of thought and reason makes one an atheist? That’s actually quite insulting. That statement lowers my opinion of you. I respect you less because of it. Yet, I still consider you a libertarian. THAT is what “thin” libertarianism is. I dislike your atheism, and even worse, your presumption that Christians are unintelligent. But my dislike of these statements of yours is not something I criticize on LIBERTARIAN grounds. One can agree or disagree with the statement “Jesus is the only way to get to heaven” and still be a libertarian. One can agree or disagree with the proposition that all Christians are idiots and still be a libertarian. Much like one can believe either of these things and join the chess club. That’s not to say all viewpoints thatfit under the “libertarian” umbrella are equally acceptable, it just means that “libertarian” is a term denoting a specific set of iedeas, and there are other moral ideas that are not directly related that a libertarian can either support or not. What peaceful result a libertarian wishes for when the nAP is implemented is irrelevant to his claim that he is a libertarian.

          (BTW: No hard feelings, I just wanted to make a point.)

          • jdkolassa

            I guess we can call you “extremely thin” then. No, but seriously, I couldn’t care less if you’re insulted or not.

            First, let me be clear: I am not talking about thickness from grounds. I am talking about “thickness from consequences–the effects of liberty”, which is different (and from Charles Johnson’s original essay) than what most thick/thin people seem to be arguing over. Basically, Christians *can* be libertarian, but the consequences of having a libertarian society is that people will have to rely on reason more often, and yes, that will lead to atheism.

            It won’t automatically make you an atheist, but there is an above average chance that using reason will lead one to atheism, for the obvious reasons that theism is patently absurd. Indeed, many atheists feel insulted that they must acquiesce views that we would only tolerate from children. As Sean II said elsewhere:

            ‘The first thing one should do with such people is tell them: “No. Stop that. And don’t complain about decorum. You’re the one being rude, because you’re the one demanding that other human beings ignore their own judgement to take seriously something you can offer them no reason to believe.”‘ ( via )

            I’m not in favor of the pointless fights over nativity scenes that American Atheists keep bringing up, but come on. If someone says they’re insulted that science disproves something they believe in, my reaction is to tell them to go sit at the children’s table.

            Also, nowhere did I say that Christians are unintelligent. There are many intelligent Christians. However, intelligent people also believe really dumb things. Look at global warming, stimulus, GMOs, vaccines, etc.

            TL;DR Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

      • seanwmalone

        How is thin libertarianism an “inconsistent position”, Roderick?

        It seems to me that it’s the only actually consistent position – given the very types of examples presented in Ivan’s original comment above. “Thick” libertarianism, particularly the thicker varieties, wind up being tremendously inconsistent. You cannot possibly claim to support liberty if you also claim that people must follow your specific set of morals for good living beyond the value (essentially, a negative rights, “NAP” type position) that allows people to choose their own moral paths.

        Just because there are other aspects of morality that go into being a good person (for example, acting to save a drowning child) doesn’t mean every one of those morals has to be a part of libertarianism.

        In my understanding, which I consider to be extremely thin, a libertarian is one who believes that the only morally acceptable interaction with others is voluntary. That’s obviously a very broad starting point, and I put no additional caveats on it. If you don’t want to interact with some people, no matter the reason, you should not be forced to do so. If you think terrible things about other people, those thoughts are yours to have.

        I feel sorry for people who are bigoted or are otherwise terrible people, and I don’t much like being around them, but if they are not initiating force against others and aren’t advocating doing so, they are still – for all their faults – libertarians.

        I have separate reasons for rejecting even non-aggressive bigotry as terrible and immoral, but those reasons aren’t related to libertarianism. Why do they need to be?

        • martinbrock

          While I can imagine a free community of persons who do not expect one another to save a drowning child without compensation, this imaginary community doesn’t seem very realistic to me. given my experience (both introspective and reflective) with human nature.

          My thin libertarianism doesn’t rule out a community organized by such a strictly egoistic standard, but I don’t expect many (or even any) free communities organized this way. I would not invade a community organized this way to impose a less zealously egoistic standard, but I do expect most (practically all) free people to flee such a community.

          But I don’t call these expectations “thickly libertarian”. I call them “communitarian”, and I see no contradiction between my libertarian politics and my communitarian preferences. Human beings are not, naturally, zealously individualistic, so free human choices do not lead to some caricature of “thin libertarianism”.

      • martinbrock

        People calling themselves “thin libertarians” without fear of contradiction clearly do not use this pair of words as you do, and if I write “thick libertarianism is an inconsistent position”, you may say the same of me.

        • Roderick T. long

          Well, Charles’ original piece is the one that popularised the term, and those of us who call ourselves thick libertarians generally follow that usage. Of course other people are free to use the term in other ways. But then they’re changing the subject.

          • Roderick T. long

            As for Chandran’s book, I haven’t read it yet, but I would be willing to bet that at some point he invokes some value other than liberty in order to justify, define, or apply liberty.

            Thin libertarianism is inconsistent because principles do not apply themselves.

          • martinbrock

            The usage of “thin” in this context is the issue, not the usage of “thick”. You claim that a “thin libertarian” thesis is fundamentally inconsistent. I make no similar claim about “thick libertarian”, so I am not changing this subject or even addressing it.

            Kukathas’ first, libertarian principle (not his last) is an individual right to exit a community. This principle does not apply itself. Its proponents apply it, and I’m not sure how it’s a value other than liberty. Every formal system has axiomatic assumptions. I only that suppose a “thick” libertarian system makes more assumptions than a “thin” one.

            In the present discussion, Christian libertarians may be driven by piety, and Objectivists may be driven by enlightened self-interest, and neither of these motivations is illiberal (in a Kukathas’ thin sense) so long as neither group prevents imposes its broader conclusions outside of the group or prevents one of its own from exiting the group while remaining a “libertarian”.

            A racist group is not thinly illiberal either, as long as it does not impose racist preferences (a prohibition on interracial marriage for example) outside of its group. Similarly, a prohibition on interfaith marriage among Orthodox Jews is not thinly illiberal either. An individual may choose to marry a person of the same race or faith without violating any libertarian value, so a group of people sharing this preference and choosing to associate exclusively with one another is not violating any libertarian value either.

            How does this analysis invoke a value other than liberty, rather than defining “liberty” narrowly as this right to exit a community and leaving other principles of social organization in the realm of “preference”?

      • David

        Hoppe’s thick? I didn’t know that.

        I’m still not sure you understand the thin libertarian’s claims:

        We don’t claim that every NAP supporting position is “fine”

        We don’t claim every epistemalogical basis for libertarianism is “fine”

        We don’t claim that our only morals are contained in the NAP

        We don’t claim that our only morals can be adequetely described with the temr “libertarian.”

        I consider everyone who believes in the NAP and private property to be a libertarian. That doesn’t mean I like everyone who is a libertarian, or that I believe all libertarians are moral.

        • Roderick T. long

          Right. But none of the things you describe are what thick libertarians are disputing.

          • David

            Then what is this debate over, and why is it even going on?
            I’ve never heard any self-described “thin” libertarians say that libertarians should not comment on racism, sexism, feminism, or whatever other issues. Nor have I ever heard them say that they have no reasons for believing in libertarianism that are external to libertarianism. All I’ve heard them saying is that those things are not what makes them libertarian.
            Let me put it this way. I’m a Christian. I believe the only prospect for a free society, long term, is a society that accepts Jesus as Savior and Lord. I believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. The Bible is the foundation for everything I believe.
            I could go on and on, but the point is, above I post things that not only are extremely important to me, but also directly relate to why I am a libertarian. Yet, these things are not related to libertarianism per say. Someone could have completely different beliefs on all of these issues and that wouldn’t make them non-libertarian.
            If this isn’t what the thinnists are claiming, what are they claiming?

    • Sergio Méndez


      1) No
      2) No
      3) No

      Now I have question for you…why do you seem to believe that thick libertarians are only left libertarians (or libertarians associated with the values of the left)?

    • I suspect many don’t want to talk about those issues as they simply want to suck up to so called progressives and are too cowardly to question the conventional civil rights paradigm.

  • Theresa Klein

    I think I lean towards “thick” libertarianism, but sometimes it’s hard to know *which* attitudes are actually the more genuinely “libertarian”.

    For instance, would a libertarian society promote tolerance towards non-libertarian value systems, or would it promote ostracism of non-libertarian values? Depending on the issue, the answer seems to be different. When it comes to racism, libertarians are quick to say “free market in action” when people are ostracized for expressing racist beliefs. But then when the same thing happens to someone for (say) donating to an anti-gay political cause, most libertarians feel it’s intolerant to ostracize someone for that belief.

    One could say the same thing about (say) a community of conservative muslims. Would the libertarian position be religious tolerance, or would it be ostracizing and boycotting them until they let their women stop wearing hijabs?

    I’ll also mention that these same tactics are often deployed by progressives (not so much libertarians) against people whose *political* views they disagree with. See boycotts directed at Whole Foods, and various companies owned by the Koch brothers. At some point this sort of thing becomes oppressive and narrow-minded, and bigoted in it’s own right.

    There seems to me to be a deep tension between the concept of tolerance of diverse beliefs, the open society, freedom of thought and freedom of conscience, and the use of social norms as a mechanism to promote such, precisely because social norms exert corecive power over people (which is the whole point of using them). At what point does mass boycotting of people with offensive beliefs become it’s own form of bigotry?

    • David

      I have no problem, in theory, with social ostracization of people who openly support the use of aggressive force after they have been confronted with the aggression they support and refuse to change their minds. Personally, I don’t think we should do this NOW, and I wouldn’t do it to someone who does not claim to be a Christian (see 1 Corinthians 5:11.) But I’d love to see a day where advocating statism in church was seen as being just as shameful as advocating homosexuality in the church. I don’t envision this, and my emotions are not clear on this, but logically speaking there’s no real difference.

      Note that I did not say “non-libertarians”. I said “those who support the use of aggressive force.” That’s because to me, the issue isn’t really over a political ideology. The real issue is whether you think its OK to threaten peaceful people who disagree with you. If you do think its OK, I only see two real possibilities, either you haven’t thought the issues through that much, or you have serious character flaws. I suspect the latter is true more often than the former.

      I don’t really see this as comparable to the stupid political fights progressives have with conservatives… neither side is principled and BOTH sides support aggressive force. There’s no way you could convince me that either side truly has any moral ground to stand on at all. Its a debate between two different violent systems. Its really rather like a child rapist refusing to do businesss with a murderer because of the murderers actions. Heck, for the more principled conservatives (say the paleocons) maybe its like a thief refusing to do business with a murder. Its still one aggressor pretending to be morally outraged at the other one who goes just a little bit further. This, to me, is fundamentally different in my mind than a libertarian who truly rejects all aggression (what else he believes is mostly irrelevant at this point) being righyly outraged at everyone who supports any aggression.

      In the real world, I’m usually relatively nice, but I’ve never been as nice or humble as Ron Paul. Maybe that’s a character flaw on my part. Occasionally I start to sound cocky. Its hard not to do that though when you know just how wicked what the other person is saying is. the question is, do THEY know how wicked it is. They often don’t. But sometimes they do, or at the very least, have more than enough proof that they should know. Its hard to deal with people like that when its someone you genuinely care about. I’m not particularly consistent about this issue either.

      And, for what its worth, I’m pretty sure you could disagree with every single comment in this post and still be a libertarian. I strongly believe all of the above, but those beliefs are not per say “libertarian”… at least in the sense that a libertarian must accept them.

      • Steve

        “The real issue is whether you think its OK to threaten peaceful people who disagree with you. If you do think its OK, I only see two real possibilities, either you haven’t thought the issues through that much, or you have serious character flaws.”

        I’m curious if you think God sends anyone to hell or threatens to send anyone to hell. If so, do you think it is morally okay/permissible for him to do so? If so, what is the relevant difference?

  • Roderick T. long

    As I’ve put it before, thick libertarianism advocates “a combination of generic universalism with specific pluralism:

    Though I do think there’s a lot more content to the generic universalism than Kevin does.

  • I want to be a thin libertarian, but I just can’t give up carbs.

  • David

    I don’t think the thin libertarians are saying that any philosophical route to non-aggression is morally acceptable or that letting someone into the libertarian camp means that one will necessarily respect or associate with the person in question. I have close fellowship with Christians who are not libertarians (I do believe statism could get to a point where it would need being discipline and correction from the church, but that’s a different issue) and I think more highly of some such people than I do atheist libertarians. I think any non-Christian foundation for philosophy is terrible. But, what does that have to do with libertarianism?

    Let’s look at a hypothetical racist. Let’s call him Mr. A. Mr. A is a white-supremacist. He supports the NAP, but his motivation for supporting it is that he “knows” that white people will outperform black people on the market place, and thus be socially superior. He hates non-whites and wants no contact with them at all, but he believes it would be morally wrong to use aggression against them. When asked, he wholeheartedly agrees that if it turned out a black person succeeded on the free market that this would not justify aggressing against him. Is he a libertarian?

    I say yes. He’s not someone I want any kind of kinship with. I’d preach the gospel to him like I would anyone else, but he’s not the kind of guy I’d like to sit down and have a stimulating discussion with or would want to have hang out at my house. I would not LIKE such a person. But he’s still a libertarian. He supports liberty for awful reasons, but he still supports it, so I consider him a libertarian. Because, to me, that’s what libertarianism is, its a rejection of aggression. That doesn’t mean that we should respect this guy more than an honest conservative or whoever else, but as far as I’m concerened, he’s peaceful both in theory and practice… he affirms the essential components of libertarianism. In fact, while I’d much rather hang out with a decent minarchist, this guy is technically more libertarian than the minarchist. The minarchist, after all, supports a small amount of aggression, and this guy does not.

    Similarly, there are some liberal libertarians who believe “gay is the new black” and despise those of us who believe homosexuality is a sin but nonetheless affirm libertarian principles of non-aggressipn and private property. I’d say whether someone despises people who believe like I do or not is irrelevant, the bottom line is that I believe in non-aggression, not only will I never initiate or threaten force, but I believe to do so is immoral, even if the person is a government official.

    Ultimately, this is a terminological issue. What IS a libertarian? I don’t really care if you want to call me one or not. The Bible is the foundation for what I believe. I believe the Bible teaches support for peace, the non-aggression principle, and private property rights. I think any non-Biblical foundation for these same principles is doomed to fail, but I’d still consider the people who hold to them to be libertarian.

    What does libertarianism mean? Where’s the line. It seems like you guys have some kind of unspoken “if someone’s beliefs are absolutely repulsive.” But, that’s subjective, isn’t it? I agree that racism is repulsive, I don’t have any respect for anyone who is racist, but there’s no written rule that I can’t consider someone to be a libertarian and yet choose not to respect them.

    A libertarian can support or oppose racism, traditional family values, homosexuality, drug use, prostitution, sexual libertine-ism, Christianity, atheism, islam, verbal mockery of those who disagree with them, swearing, and a whole host of other things. I don’t see how support or opposition to any of the above has anything to do with LIBERTY, which is the root word of “libertarian.”

    The only way I can see justifying any level of “thickness” is if one believes that all who believe in X (let’s say white supremacy for the sake of argument) do not actually believe the NAP and are actually lying when they say they believe the NAP. That seems like a big leap in most cases.

    At the end of the day, though, use the terms how you like. If you want to say that libertarianism means endorsing the NAP and acceptance of all religious paths as equally valid, say, I’d simply say “fine, I guess I’m a non-libertarian who completely believes in the NAP, property rights, and the abolition of the State.” But, that type of definition seems silly and unnecessarily exclusionary to me.

    • Steve

      I’ve got a couple of questions. And don’t think I despise you or anything. I’m just curious. First, what would be your attitude towards someone who thinks being black is morally wrong? Also, what would be your attitude towards someone who thinks it is morally permissible to be black but morally wrong to engage in sexual intercourse if you’re black?

      Also, you say your justification for believing in libertarianism (meaning the NAP and whatever kind of property rights you believe in) is the bible. So does your main argument for libertarianism look something like this:
      (1) The bible says libertarianism is true.
      (2) The bible is true.
      (3) Therefore, libertarianism is true.

      If so, do you reject ethics as an a priori, philosophical discipline? Do you think the only way to be justified in believing ethical claims is reading them from the bible, or logically deducing them from other ethical claims read from the bible? Or do you think we can justify ethical beliefs any other way?