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.