Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Feeling Thinner


Among modifiers to the descriptor "libertarian," the distinction between "thin" and "thick" libertarians seems to have made itself a permanent part of the vocabulary.

I consider myself a "thin" libertarian (and hey, my weight dipped below 230 pounds recently, so it could happen!), and lately I've ended up in several protracted discussions on the meaning and import of the thin/thick dichotomy with some of the "thick" libertarians I work with at the Center for a Stateless Society. After those discussions, it feels like a worthwhile task to publicly set down my own views on the subject.

Advance disclaimer: These are my own views, and they're actually not meant to be argumentative per se. I understand that words mean things. I also understand that sometimes a word will mean different things to different people and that that's okay. The "marketplace of ideas" tends to result in some definitions becoming more or less popular and having more or less staying power. So this post is really descriptive of what I think and why I think it, and not intended to say that what someone else thinks is wrong.

I'm not going to write a long essay on thickness itself. Charles Johnson (the real Charles Johnson, aka Rad Geek, not that chartreuse sports object guy) has already done so. Instead, what I'm going to do is describe my version of libertarianism, which is very thin, and then explain how I think "thickness" relates to it.

So, plain and simple, I define libertarianism solely in terms of the non-aggression principle. I've seen that principle stated in various forms and formats, but the version enunciated by protagonist John Galt in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged will do for purposes of this conversation:

Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate -- do you hear me? no man may start -- the use of physical force against others.

There are a lot of ways to get to the non-aggression principle (the Wikipedia article above lists six).

There are also reasonable arguments as to how it applies to this or that situation (and the existence of argument and counter-argument on any given application tends to refer to different understandings either of the facts or of underlying definitions/holdings that precede the principle itself).

But when I refer to a "libertarian," I mean someone who either uses the non-aggression principle as the starting point and non-negotiable criterion for analyzing and resolving political (and interpersonal -- see below about that) conflicts and claims (a "pure" or "strict" or "conscientious" libertarian), or someone whose approach to analyzing and resolving such claims tends -- probably asymptotically -- toward non-aggression (someone who, probably viscerally, "leans libertarian" but who for whatever reason is "working the problem backwards").

To me, that's the beginning and end of libertarianism.

But keep in mind, I do not expect libertarianism to answer every question.

The non-aggression principle doesn't tell me whether to prefer vanilla ice cream or pistachio. It doesn't tell me whether homosexuality is just part of the normal range of human behavior or an aberration. It doesn't tell me whether I should take a cosmopolitan attitude toward personal interactions or avoid cocktail parties where I might meet people of other races, religions, etc.

All it tells me is that I don't get to initiate force: I don't get to force you to eat pistachio ice cream, or to buy ice cream for me. I don't get to throw you in jail for being romantically/sexually attracted to the "wrong" sex. I don't get to tell the person throwing the cocktail party that he can't have a mixed guest list of black and white, Protestant or Catholic, etc.

Now, to "thickness."

The first thing I'm going to do is write off "entailment thickness" as not being "thickness" at all. "Entailment thickness" involves opposing the initiation of force even if the entity initiating force is not the state. In my view, "entailment thickness" is just, well, libertarianism. Yes, most libertarians publicly express their support for libertarianism in the realm of politics, but they would also hold that the non-aggression principle prohibits beating your spouse, mugging passersby, etc. As Johnson puts it in the article linked above, "in the end, it is dubious how far thickness in entailment really counts as a form of 'thickness' at all, since at bottom it amounts only to the claim that libertarians really ought to be committed to libertarianism all the time."

The other forms of thickness Johnson describes -- conjunction, application, grounds, strategic and and consequential thickness -- I do not consider to be essential to, or part of the definition of, libertarianism, because they neither follow necessarily from, nor are required by, the non-aggression principle.

Rather I consider such "thicknesses" to be accessories or add-ons to libertarianism. And just like if you are a person, you are a person whether you are wearing a tie-dye, shorts and a beret or a double-breasted suit and homburg, if you are a libertarian you are a libertarian whether or not you adopt any particular "thick" prescriptions at all.

Now, as it happens, I adopt a number of "thick" prescriptions, and those prescriptions happen to mostly match the "thickness" of most of my comrades at C4SS. The difference between us is that they consider their thicknesses to be part of their libertarianism, while I consider my thicknesses to be a collections of things that are compatible with, but do not constitute part of,  my libertarianism.

One reason for that is that "thickness" can go in various directions.

As an example -- which kicked off the latest email round-robin on "thickness" -- check out this essay, copied from Italy's Canada's Ludwig von Mises Institute site (NOT affiliated with the LvMI most Americans are familiar with!) to the author's personal blog.

The essay, whether you agree with its general point or not, is libertarian. That is, it eschews the initiation of force, instead calling for shunning and public disapproval of a behavior. It is a "thick" paleo essay. The author has added his preference for a specific standard of public behavior to his libertarianism. That preference is "conjunction thickness." Johnson again:

[W]e might consider the extent to which there are social or cultural commitments that libertarians ought to adopt because they are worth adopting for their own sakes, independent of libertarian considerations. For example, it may be worthwhile for libertarians to all be kind to their children, because (among other things) being kind to your children is a worthwhile thing to do in its own right. You might call this "thickness in conjunction," since the only relationship it asserts between libertarianism and some other social commitment (here, kindness to children), is that you ought to accept the one (for whatever reason), and also, as it happens, you ought to accept the other (for reasons that are independent of libertarianism).

The author of the piece would prefer, for principled but not specifically libertarian reasons, to live in a society where Miley Cyrus doesn't "twerk" Robin Thicke in public. He thinks that the whole incident was sick and wrong. But since the "twerking" wasn't an initiation of force, he doesn't seek to e.g. put Cyrus in stocks and have a letter branded on her forehead; that would be anti-libertarian. Instead, he recommends that she be "slut-shamed" and "shunned."

There are "thick libertarians" of other stripes who, for principled but not specifically libertarian reasons, oppose "slut-shaming," and probably some who actively approve of Cyrus's performance. Those "thick libertarians" are libertarians because they oppose initiating force against Cyrus, not because they oppose shaming or shunning her, or because they think "twerking" is cool.

I have my own thoughts on Miley Cyrus and "twerking," but don't feel the need to share them. My purpose in bringing up the incident and the blog post is to illustrate that different kinds of "thicknesses" produce radically different opinions ... but that the people expressing such "thicknesses" can all be libertarians.

One analogy I used in the email discussion was to cattle. Libertarians displaying different kinds of "thickness" are not, in my opinion, analogous to different breeds of cattle -- Hereford, Angus, etc. Rather they are analogous to a cow wearing a tricorn hat, a cow wearing a tutu, and so forth. That is, their thicknesses are optional  and variable characteristics which have no bearing at all on the cows' identities as cattle.

Among my interlocutors/debate counterparts on this whole thing are Professor Roderick Long, head of the Molinari Institute/C4SS. I have not reproduced his arguments in this piece for two reasons: First, the post is getting too long, and second, I am not sure I grasp his arguments well enough to reproduce them in a way that doesn't distort them. I hope he'll show up to make those arguments in comments.

So anyway, there you have it -- my post on thin vs. thick libertarianism.

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