David R. Henderson  

Richard Ebeling on "Thick Libertarianism"

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I have not engaged in the discussion of "thin" versus "thick" libertarianism. It took me a while even to grasp what people were talking about. Once I had understood the distinctions, I had thought I was a "thin" libertarian. But economist Richard Ebeling's recent piece, "The Case for Liberty, Through Thick and Thin," changed my mind.

Richard's piece is an excellent introduction to the subject. Rather than repeat his whole argument, let me give the 5 paragraphs that convinced me that, all along, I've been a thick libertarian.

Here they are:

The "thick" classical liberal or libertarian also argues that the principle of non-aggression in all human relationships is the core political value for all advocates and defenders of freedom. But they ask whether that principle alone would be able to establish and sustain a society of free people.

How likely is it that equal rights before the law will be respected and maintained in a society in which many take it for granted that some human beings are racially "superior" while others are "inferior"? Will women be sufficiently respected and free from the aggressive actions of predatory men in a world in which women are viewed by a large number of males as mere sexual objects to serve the "stronger" sex?

And can a free society be sufficiently free of intolerance and aggressive behavior when a large number of "straights" take the attitude that "queers" and "homos" are fair game for ridicule and even physical abuse?

In other words, the political principle of non-violence in all human affairs does not and cannot exist in a social vacuum. The case for freedom from political power and control requires it to be situated in a wider philosophical and ideological setting of the nature, sanctity and even sacredness of the individual human being,

Many advances in freeing people from political control and the establishment of a recognition of their possessing individual rights to their life, liberty and honestly acquired property first arose out of changing attitudes about human beings and what was right and just in the conduct of people towards each other.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Arthur_500 writes:

I would suggest that is the basis of the US Constitution in which defense of the nation is one of the paramount purposes of the government, along with laws to protect and keep on an even playing field the business opportunities. I could also add the Second Amendment.

President Obama started his Presidency with a call to have bullies quit being bullies. Mr. Putin and others are still laughing over that. Regretfully, humans are opportunistic and are all too willing to step on others to get what they want.

I remain an advocate of freedom even as I recognize the need to enforce that freedom. Would the media call me "thick," and would that be a compliment or an insult?

Philo writes:

"The case for freedom from political power and control requires it to be situated in a wider philosophical and ideological setting of the nature, sanctity and even sacredness of the individual human being." This is trivial; it amounts to saying that the argument for freedom (i.e., freedom for everyone) requires premises.

Quite distinct from the question, "What would an intellectually compelling argument for freedom look like?" is the question, "What social conditions are required to get most people to accept the conclusion?" There are lots of intellectually compelling arguments that are rejected or ignored by most people.

Philo writes:

Even the "thinnest" libertarian owes us an account of *just which organisms* belong in the sacred circle of those who deserve freedom. If they want to draw the line at the human species, they owe us an account of human nature that adequately distinguishes it from non-human.

By the way, it is perfectly possible to believe that some human beings are better than others while still attributing rights to all human beings and respecting those rights in practice.

John T. Kennedy writes:

David,

You quote: "How likely is it that equal rights before the law will be respected and maintained in a society in which many take it for granted that some human beings are racially "superior" while others are "inferior"?"

I take it for granted that some individuals are smarter than others, don't you? I also take it for granted that some individuals are stronger and faster than others. I don't find that this undermines my recognition that individuals have equal moral standing. It doesn't make me think that more intelligent individuals are justified in aggressing against less intelligent individuals, or vice versa.

The quote seems to require for libertarianism either that there are no group differences or that such differences cannot in any case be judged superior or inferior.

Neither of those alternatives strikes me as an a priori truth.

"And can a free society be sufficiently free of intolerance and aggressive behavior when a large number of "straights" take the attitude that "queers" and "homos" are fair game for ridicule and even physical abuse?"

In a free market people bear the costs of their own irrational biases, which I think is probably far more educational than moral lectures.

Should we welcome free markets in everything now, or wait until Man is morally perfected?

David R. Henderson writes:

@John T. Kennedy,
Those are thoughtful questions and comments. Those, plus some others from a friend on Facebook, have caused me to reflect further. I’m busy with my day job, but will likely be posting further on this.

Jeff writes:

I am a bit torn on that quote you provide. I agree with Ebeling that widespread prejudice of any kind generally imperiles the rights of whomever is the target of those prejudices. One needn't look very hard for examples in recent history. However, it's easy to condemn ethereal, amorphous concept like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. But think for a second what racism and the like really are: they're a set of thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and feelings. Ergo, what he's really saying without actually stating it directly is that we as a free society simply cannot tolerate people thinking certain thoughts or holding certain opinions or attitudes. That is rather totalitarian in its own right, is it not? In order to preserve a free society, we need to control what people think and feel? What's libertarian or individualistic about that?

But again, the Jim Crow South still exists in the minds of many who were alive during that era. All I'm saying is that Ebeling needs to think about the real implications of the position he's taking.

John T. Kennedy writes:

" But they ask whether that principle alone would be able to establish and sustain a society of free people."

To establish and sustain a society of free people would also require agriculture, but this does not strike me as a reason to incorporate agriculture into libertarianism.

It's trivially true that libertarianism does not encompass all of life, or even all of moral life. It merely identifies the moral standard of justice wherein aggression is assumed to be unjustified in normal circumstances.

nl7 writes:

Virtually all libertarians are relatively "thick libertarian" on matters of economics. The libertarian world, particularly online, repeatedly talks about the value of things like profit motives, pricing signals, capital investment, business association, etc. But all those things are voluntary, and people in a laissez-faire environment could choose to live under anarcho-communism or maybe somehow draft themselves into indentured socialism.

So while active libertarians generally accept and endorse paeans to the free market (this anarcho-capitalist heartily included!), many of them adopt a strained neutrality toward certain social issues.

Libertarians have long decried those with antipathy towards markets and economic choices. There's nothing un-libertarian about decrying those with antipathy towards religious diversity or personal choices.

Carl writes:

@nl7

The problem is that "those with antipathy towards markets and economic choices" actually want to take your stuff.

NZ writes:

The reality is that one cannot just be tolerant to be considered "tolerant". One must be (or at least act) enthusiastic in their support for whatever the tolerated group is demanding, even if what they demand is unjust, immoral, and/or disutilitarian.

Examples of demands (and what you get called for opposing them):

  • gay marriage ("Homophobe! Fundie!")
  • affirmative action ("Racist! Bigot!")
  • increases in welfare ("Greedy capitalist!")
  • reparations ("Racist!")
  • amnesty for illegal immigrants ("Xenophobe! Throwback!")
  • the right of transsexuals to enter whatever public restroom or lockerroom they feel like ("Transphobe! Fossil!")
If you disagree with some of these, fine, but you can still see how the others illustrate my point.

So, one may be tolerant, but libertarianism does not explain how to stop others from declaring one intolerant by moving the goalposts of tolerance.

Julien Couvreur writes:

Thanks for sharing this thought provoking essay. But I still have some trouble with the thick view.

Thin libertarianism and thick libertarianism both condemn aggressive bigotry (borrowing from your examples: slave owner, woman owner, violent homophobe) and allow force in response, on the grounds of violation of individual rights.

The disagreement is most visible in the case of the passive bigot (who won't hire blacks, stares at women, won't serve a gay person) remains open. Should the libertarian condemn such a person? Did that person violate rights? Did that person violate the spirit of liberty and individualism? What actions are allowed or necessary in response?

Thin libertarians leave that unspecified, since there is no legal issue of property involved. The victim is allowed to speak out, but is not allowed force. And others don't have a positive obligation to intervene or speak out.

If I understood properly, you [Ebeling] argue a thicker view that such non-aggressive bigotry ought to be condemned, although still without force. There is a positive obligation to speak out and maintain a culture of individualism. You argue that absence of such condemnation is a crack in libertarian principles and culture, that weakens and erodes even the core of thin libertarian principles in practice. Peace and liberty would be compromised, because of lack of protection of legal property rights of individuals in those groups.

Although I see some appeal to the "thick" argument, I find this "soft" obligation (which cannot be enforced) troubling.
(0) A positive obligation to "society" violates freedom.
(1) It would imply a recursive positive obligation to speak out against those who don't speak out.
(2) Where does this positive obligation stop? How much speaking out is enough?
(3) It seems to rest on a collectivist view of protection and a monopolistic view of culture and society. But protection starts at the individual (and extends through voluntary delegation and service), and others only need to permit it. And there are many overlapping cultures and many overlapping associations/communities/societies.

So thick libertarians are afraid that mere thin libertarianism devolves into violence against some sub-groups. Thin libertarians are afraid that thick libertarianism devolves into collectivism (protection and speaking out are positive obligations in society).
This deserves more refining.

trent steele writes:

@David Henderson

I read your writing often and you have become one of my favorites, BUT, I urge you to reconsider this. (I also hold Dr. Ebeling in high regard, so this hurts doubly)

I am busy, so I'll just point out one thing that ought to be enough to show that his thinking on "thick" libertarianism falls flat on its face.

"take the attitude that "queers" and "homos" are fair game for ridicule and even physical abuse?"

I mean, seriously? So, upholding the NAP means allowing people to be physically abused??? And eating ice cream means not eating ice cream?

I'm sorry, but I would expect this from Salon or HuffPo, but here? And from both Ebeling AND you? Ugh. SMH

David R. Henderson writes:

@trent steele,
Good catch. Thanks.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Yesterday Bryan posted the following on FB:

"Mencken via Donald J. Boudreaux: "If the young are to be instructed at all, it seems to me that they ought to be instructed in the high human value of this toleration. They should be taught what they learn by experience in the school yard: that human beings differ enormously, one from the other, and that it is stupid and imprudent for A to try to change B. They should be taught that mutual confidence and good will are worth all the laws ever heard of, ghostly or secular, and that one man who minds his own business is more valuable to the world than 10,000 cocksure moralists.""

I think toleration is the proper attitude toward peaceful behavior, even when you disapprove of the behavior, and peaceful behavior is the sole proper goal of libertarianism.

This doesn't mean you can't properly have other social goals, it just means they're not part of the libertarian project.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Trent,

I assume Ebeling was saying there are many people who will never practice non-aggression until they give up certain irrational biases,

I say tolerate their peaceful behavior and don't tolerate their aggressive behavior. The price of aggressive behavior should be hig enough to discourage it. There is usually already a natural price to peaceful irrational behavior, and that price should normally be sufficient. For example: If you discriminate irrationally you leave profit on the table.

John T. Kennedy writes:

"The case for freedom from political power and control requires it to be situated in a wider philosophical and ideological setting of the nature, sanctity and even sacredness of the individual human being"

I don't think so. As Michael Huemer points out, the everyday morality that almost all people apply to interactions between individuals is entirely sufficient for libertarianism - all that needs to be corrected is the assumption that government is exempt from this morality, or can somehow satisfy it.

Let me point out three prominent individuals recently excoriated for bigotry: Paula Deen, Phil Robertson, and Donald Sterling. Do Deen and Sterling think it is moral to aggress against blacks? Does Robertson think it's moral to aggress against gays? Does any of these three think it's moral to steal from blacks or gays, or beat them up? I don't see evidence of that. Regardless of irrational views they may have about groups I think these three bigots still recognize the basic morality we all do, and that is already sufficient for libertarian purposes.

Thomas Boyle writes:

David,

When opening a discussion about a topic you admit was obscure to you until recently, it would be helpful to the rest of us, for whom it is still obscure, if you would offer a brief description, or a link to one.

What are "thick" and "thin" libertarianism?

Thanks!

Thomas Boyle writes:

David,

You did post a link. My bad!

NZ writes:

My earlier point was lost, mainly due to the "thick" way I wrote it. Here's another shot:

  1. Homosexual relations in private = peaceful behavior.

    If that is the extent of it, this harms no unwilling 3rd parties. Tolerate it.

  2. Insisting that the government recognize homosexual relationships as "marriages" = aggressive behavior.
  3. This is aggressive towards a sacred institution that is a keystone of any functioning society. To not tolerate it in no way qualifies you as "intolerant".

Notice that the goalposts of "tolerance" have been moved from 1 to 2 over time.

You can be as tolerant as you like, but you cannot count on others to recognize you as tolerant.

John T. Kennedy writes:

@Thomas Boyle,

I believe the original argument for Thick Libertarianism was "Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin" by Charles Johnson.

http://radgeek.com/gt/2008/10/03/libertarianism_through/

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