Wombatron’s “Why I Am A Left-Libertarian”

by Stephan Kinsella on December 1, 2009

in Uncategorized

Some of my friends think this is a great post: Matthew Dawson’s (aka Wombatron) Why I Am A Left-Libertarian. While I like ole Wombatron, and find some nuggets of wisdom here, and an admirable (for a leftie) attempt at being clear and explicit, I have to demur. First, Dawson starts out without defining leftism or left-libertarianism; he just assumes you know what it is, and why it’s assumed to be non-libertarian:

I am a left-libertarian. This is a position that seems contradictory to many, both libertarian and not; libertarianism is traditionally seen as being a movement of the Right, or even the farthest extreme of the Right, existing as an apologetic philosophy for corporatism and elitism.

So we don’t know what left means, yet. Still, I loosely agree with him so far, though I don’t think in my 25 or so years as a libertarian that I have ever thought of libertarianism as “a movement of the Right”–or even as a “movement,” really, since I don’t think it’s the same as politics or activism. It’s a political philosophy. But I will concede I for a while did believe, and it’s commonly believed, that we have more in common with some on the right. But even from the beginning, from Nolan Chart days, I thought of it as orthogonal to both left and right. Anyway, I’m harping on his lack of initial definition of “left” because of the way he then proceeds to implicitly define it–and in contradictory or groundless ways. I’ll get there in a second. He continues:

I believe that this is fundamentally mistaken. The Right, I think, is properly seen today as being the status quo of state-capitalism, dominated by an elite of bureaucrats and plutocrats, whose ends are power and authority at the expense of everyone else. Even modern day “liberals” and social democrats are rightist in this sense; merely reforming a fundamentally evil system is not enough, and the state-socialist means of compulsion and centralization contradict their declared “leftist” ends.

I largely agree with all this; it’s very good. Except for the last part: that state compulsion contradicts “declared ‘leftist’ ends.” What are these? And here we get to his first implicit “definition” of leftism:

Thus, the Left is properly conceived as being those whose ends are peace, justice, and prosperity, and whose means don’t conflict with those ends.

The Left is those who are for “peace, justice, and prosperity”? But that’s what libertarians are for (see my discussion of almost exactly this on p. 50 of my Knowledge, Calculation, Conflict, and Law, reviewing one of Randy Barnett’s libertarian books). I don’t agree that “leftists” are for prosperity, to be honest; or even for justice, unless you contort it to refer to “social justice” which is a misnomer; nor are they really for peace, since they are all breaking a few eggs to make an omelet. But this is just a semantical game at this point. If you define “Left” be include those for peace, prosperity, and justice, then all libertarians are left-libertarians, and the term loses its distinguishing capacity.

Anyway, later on Wombatron speaks of “the ‘leftist’ values of anti-authoritarianism, mutuality, and equality”: Now this sounds more like it. But this is not the same at all as being in favor of peace and prosperity. To favor peace, prosperity, and justice all you have to favor is private property rights and free markets. They do not imply these leftist values. So I’m a left-libertarian if left-means peace, prosperity…. but that does not mean I am necessarily for mutuality and equality and anti-authority. I think these “values” are frankly incompatible with libertarianism, and with peace, prosperity, and justice. Prosperity requires a free market and freedom to engage in capitalist acts among consenting adults. This leads to inequality (remember Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain inequality example). There is nothing wrong whatsoever with inequality. Now if they merely mean “equality before the law,” then this is trivial and collapses into justice; but this is not what they mean. Mutualism is also unlibertarian, in my view, as it supports the taking of property from valid owners by mere possessors (see my A Critique of Mutualist Occupancy). As for anti-authoritarianism: the left is not anti-authoritarian; they flock to the state to use it to impose their authority on society, to pay for others’ healthcare, and so on. And as for opposing natural authority: libertarianism does not compel this at all. If anything, the “thick” view would say that to have a thriving society we need natural authority, hierarchies, and so on–from families, respected thinkers and religious and business leaders, churches, culture, and so on–in the absence of the state (see, e.g., Hoppe’s Natural Elites, Intellectuals, and the State).

So, as for leftism: this is a semantics issue. I agree that we should not identify with, maybe not even ally with, the right. I agree the right is corrupt. I agree there is a bit too much vulgar libertarian worship of modern Capitalism which is really more corporatist-statist than the ideal Galtian hero the libertarian has in mind. I agree we should absolutely embrace the values of peace, prosperity, and justice.

What, then, of Wombatron’s discussion of “thickism”? I find this is fraught with confusion, as are almost all attempts to make some big deal out of thickism. He writes:

For libertarians reading this, it will probably help if I explain why I am a “thick” libertarian first, as opposed to “thin” libertarianism. Thin libertarianism is the position that politics is the ethics of the use of force; nothing more and nothing less.

To be honest I am not sure what this even means. I am not sure that anyone is or can be a “thin” libertarian; and thus it is a mystery what it adds to call yourself a “thick” libertarian. It seems to me to be nothing but stating trite and obvious things and giving it a label, as if this is some significant, systematic, rigorous new field of study. We are not “only” libertarians. Yeah. Yawn. We do not live in isolation. Check. Ideas of libertarianism are interrelated with other ideas. Duh. You know, there are relations between philosophy and mathematics, but they are still distinct disciplines. As far as I can tell, “thickism” just names the obvious, and then acts as if it’s more profound than it is. Yes, to have a successful libertarian society, or to reach it, there are various preconditions: you would need a tolerant, educated people; they would have to be economically literate, in my view; etc. But education and tolerance and economics are not the same as libertarianism. Yes, the libertarian who wants liberty, of course has a reason to value necessary means to this end, such as, say, widespread tolerance, rationalism, individualism, benevolence, economic literacy. And they must also have language–after all how can you have a libertarian society if people can’t communicate? But of course, libertarianism is not language either. But I suppose if you are a libertarian and value freedom, and human life, and society, you also have a good reason to value language, and restaurants, and food, and education, and culture, and so on. Yes. So what. We know this. We don’t yammer about this because it is so obvious and it is so unenlightening. It’s not surprise to us that we have many facets to our lives and ideas; that there are connections. We live in a connected world. Things touch each other. We learn things from different angles, and in different ways. Fine. Yes. We don’t need “leftists” to tell us this.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy defined by our opposition to the use of aggression in social interaction. I personally think the values of libertarianism are shared by libertarians (and by most people, to some extent) because they empathize with others, and value peace and prosperity and generally oppose interpersonal violence (see my What Libertarianism Is, including note 14).  But the libertarian view is simply a view about when violence is permissible. Do people that have this view tend to share other views and values? Sure.

Wombie continues:

Political philosophy doesn’t and can’t have anything to say about society, other than that aggression is wrong.

I think this is just confusing semantics. It depends how you define “political philosophy”. Surely to understand a subject one should have a wide education. Knowledge of psychology, history, art, culture, math, science, medicine, education, economics, philosophy, are all valuable, probably essential (we do not learn in a vacuum; ideas that are only functionally or logically related might have to develop in a certain way chronologically), to having a sound view of things. We do not always limit ourselves in a field of inquiry to just the bare walls of that discipline. Those studying political philosophy might also find relevant, say, history, legal systems, economics, strategy, etc. Those living in an imperfect world who want a better one, might tend to have an interest not only in knowing what the end goal should be, but in practical methods for activism–for trying to move toward it. Is strategy the same as political philosophy? No. Are they related? Yep. Does a libertarian have a good reason “qua libertarian” to have an interest in, say, strategy? I guess so. Does an honest person, “qua honest person,” have an interest in being a libertarian? I think so.

Any set of social and cultural norms is seen as being compatible with the political philosophy of liberty, as long as they are non-coercive.

I think Wombie here means “non-aggressive” (see my The Problem with “Coercion”), but let that pass. I don’t know what he means by this–compatible? Well, any social norms that are not aggressive are, well, not aggressive, and do not violate rights. But you can imagine any number of possible societies and associated norms that would not be good “from the libertarian point of view”–say, one dominated by ignoramuses or (private) censorship–after all, libertarianism is based on ideas discerned by reason; most people who are libertarian would be stultified and not lead a good life in such a society. And we could not expect it to last long either, because liberty does require reason to be free to defend it. But this does not mean that libertarianism–the idea that aggression is unjustified–automatically says anything about any given set of cultural norms. Not that this is not a field worth studying: meta-libertarianism, or libertarians with outside or related interests, might well want to study not only want interpersonal force-related norms are justifiable, but what societal preconditions are necessary to preserve it or likely to accompany it, just as others might specialize in researching tactics and strategy–just as some lawyers specialize in knowing an area of law really well, while others study legal theory itself.

Thick libertarianism, on the other hand, is the position that liberty is fundamentally intertwined with other concerns.

This is a problem I have with leftism: it uses vague, nonrigorous statements like this–which are okay as far as they go–and then builds on them as if they are rigorous, operationa, and profound. They are not. They are just fairly obvious, unenlightening observations. Sure, liberty is “fundamentally intertwined” with other “concerns”. I guess. My libertarianism is fundamentally intertwined with the concern of clear and concise communication, but maybe that’s just me. So if this statement is construed in a normal way, it doesn’t say that much, and once again, “thick” adds nothing since by this uncontroversial standard all libertarians are “thick.” What libertarian can deny that liberty (I assume he doesn’t mean liberty itself, but rather libertarian philsophy, or libertarians themselves?) is “fundamentally intertwined with other concerns”?

I think what happens is we have a disagreement over what those concerns are. The leftists get frustrated that libertarians dismiss their incessant, vague complaining about “hierarchies” and so on, so they try to argue something like this: look, Mr. Libertarian, surely you don’t deny that we should, “qua libertarian,” hold “other values,” do you? Answer: “uh, no, I guess not–after all I think honesty is important; if I didn’t believe in honesty I would not be a libertarian.” Right. And you don’t like aggression do you? Because it’s wrong to push people around, right? “Uh, okayyy”. So, you see that we are really not about aggression, but we are “against pushing people around.” But there’s many ways to push people around, right? You don’t think it’s nice to be abusive to your employees, do you? Isn’t that pushing them around, hmm? Isn’t that liek aggression, then, really? So if you are a libertarian, you should be against bossing people around. Libertarianism is about so much more than just opposing mere crime, silly!

I think this is very slippery and disingenuous. Look, the leftists should argue like this, in my view. If they are talking to a libertarian, and you want to persuade him to oppose (in some moral sense?) a given institution like … wage slavery or “pushing people around” or whatever, just come up with a reason. Appeal to shared values. Analogize it to common libertarian ones. Fine. Try to find mutual shared values you are likely to (or even necessarily) hold by virtue of being a libertarian. There is nothing wrong with this. But it doesn’t require any goofy appeal to something officially labeled “thick libertarianism” (or “thick humanism”) or pretending that all these other things are “really part of” libertarianism. I might argue against some racism I detect in a the private views of a libertarian friend, say, by observing that racism is incompatible with individualism, fairness, decency, “due process,” whatever–some of which I know he holds because he pretty much has to hold them to be a libertarian. In other words: we are complex humans, with a variety of interactions, relationships, interests, activities, and values. And we interact with each other. Newsflash.

Politics is broader than statements about the permissible use of force, and justice is more than non-aggression.

Well if justice is “more than” non-aggression, then we are talking about justice in a broader sense than justice in terms of rights. Now we are going with some idea of unfairness or immorality or wrongness, where aggression is just a subset of this. But libertarians have from time immemorial recognized that just because you have a right to do something, it does not mean you should do it or that it is moral to do it. This is implied by our view that the only way to violate rights is to use force. To try to blur this opens the door to the use of force against not only aggression, but other forms of “injustice” or unfairness. That is the statist view of things. Not the libertarian one.

I am a left-libertarian, because I am a thick libertarian who sees that the “leftist” values of anti-authoritarianism, mutuality, and equality are fundamentally entailed by the same principles that make me anti-statist. A society built on authority and hierarchy, where social evils such as patriarchy and xenophobia are widely accepted cultural norms, is not a just society, even if it is non-coercive. A just society is one where every individual’s flourishing is not subject to the arbitrary whims of others, one where people are not held back by society, but instead encouraged to become the best person that they can be.

If you want to argue against “patriarchy” and “being subject to the arbitrary whims of others” (whatever that means), you are going to have to do more than just assert that if you are for peace, you already favor these things. You need to carefully define these things, and offer coherent reasons for them. I think that’s what traditional leftists have tried to do, and they have failed–in part, because they mix these things in with statist-socialist means, so corrupt their message. I do not doubt that a libertarian, with clean politics, and with a better understanding of sound economics, can make a far more coherent argument for why decent people, and those interested in liberty, should be opposed to patriarchy etc. But just make it. Don’t be so frustrated by your failure to win adherents to leftism that you try to pretend that it’s all a built-in, natural part of libertarianism, to try to twist liberarians’ arms to make them come along. This type of approach or strategy reminds me a bit of a couple things. First, the way gays try to use gay marriage in part to force conventional society to see them as legitimate. This is wrong, in my view (I support gay marriage for other reasons). Second, the phenomenon whereby artists and reporters tend to be leftists. Why is this? I think it’s in part because they naturally tend to value civil liberties, being in the expression trade; but they accept the conventional package deal that says you are either a liberal, favoring personal but opposing economic liberties; or a conservative. So the figure well, I’m on the liberal side. Of course, we libertarians reject that whole package deal: we’ll take both types of liberties, thanks. But I view the thickers, esp. the left-thickers, as trying to do a similar trick: trying to dress up the trite idea of thickism as some profound, rigorous, well-developed insight, to use it to lump together libertarian ideas with leftist ones, so as to try to get libertarians to think they should glom onto the leftist stuff to be full or complete libertarians.

Just make your case for your opposition to, say, bossism. Appeal to commonly shared values and reason. Carefully define “bossism.” Explain in what sense you oppose it. And if more conservative minded types want to make similar arguments for why natural authority, etc., is good–fine. Let’s hear them.

***

Dawson replied to me here: A Reply to Stephan Kinsella. I replied there, and paste it below:

Matt, Thanks for the interesting reply. Let me try to respond to some of your comments.

NSK:  “…even from the beginning, from Nolan Chart days, I thought of it as orthogonal to both left and right.”

What I meant was that libertarianism appears, in my eyes, to be seen as a philosophy or movement of the Right to many, both libertarian and otherwise. For example, the Cato Institute and Ludwig von Mises Institute are often included in lists of “right-wing think tanks”, and many libertarian positions, such as being anti-tax, are seen as being “extreme right”. On a personal note, many social liberal acquaintances of mine hold the same view; that libertarianism is an inherently conservative or rightist position. All of this is rather secondary, though.

Yes. I agree that we are often called this. I simply want to make clear that I think this is wrong. We are not of the right, and I have never thought we were. We are not conservative or right at all. The grain of truth in your comment is that there has been for decades a strong intertwining of libertarianism with advocacy of “capitalism” (commerce, trade, industry) and an associated almost exaltation of the heroic Galtian titan of industry, and an accompanying downplaying of their unfortunate corporatist involvement with the state. So yes we need to be aware that modern day “big business” is not pure; it’s too in bed with the state (as Rothbard, say, recognized long ago in criticizing Rand’s bemoaning of Big Business as being America’s most persecuted minority). But I do disagree with the left-libertarian, and certainly with the mutualist, ideas that in a legitimate private society you would have some kind of localist, non-wage-slave coops and communes. So I do think the world of commerce and industry we have today is a good indication of how a free society would be–only it would be even bigger and more prosperous, and sans the statist entanglements and distortions.

NSK: “The Left is those who are for “peace, justice, and prosperity”? But that’s what libertarians are for (see my discussion of almost exactly this on p. 50 of my Knowledge, Calculation, Conflict, and Law, reviewing one of Randy Barnett’s libertarian books). I don’t agree that “leftists” are for prosperity, to be honest; or even for justice, unless you contort it to refer to “social justice” which is a misnomer; nor are they really for peace, since they are all breaking a few eggs to make an omelet. But this is just a semantical game at this point. If you define “Left” be include those for peace, prosperity, and justice, then all libertarians are left-libertarians, and the term loses its distinguishing capacity.”

Here, Kinsella does catch me in a mistake. In my original post, I conflated 2 senses of “left”; the original sense that emerged in 18th Century France, and the sense in which libertarian socialists and the revolutionary Left uses it. In the first, “left” referred to the classical liberal and socialist elements that were opposed to the Ancien Regime, and “right” referred to royalists and conservatives (this is the sense used by Rothbard in his excellent “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty”. In the second, “left” refers to an admittedly fuzzy group of values, a rough list of which would include opposition to patriarchy, racism, and economic exploitation, and an emphasis on mutual aid and working outside of electoral politics. I think that the 2 senses are ultimately related, but they are distinct.

Fine; this can be argued. But if it’s merely asserted, I don’t agree.

I don’t think this changes the thrust of my argument, though. Using left in the first sense, I was trying to illustrate that libertarianism should be seen as a leftist philosophy;

But this assumes leftism is about peace and prosperity. I don’t think it is. In any event, at this point it’s mostly semantic. But I think “left” semantically refers to more collectivist, anti-individualism, anti-economic freedom, pro-statism/socialism views, that are actually evil and unlibertarian.

in the second, I am saying that libertarians should advocate leftist norms and values.

More semantics. If you mean peace, prosperity, justice: sure, but we do this qua libertarians already. If you mean, we should be in favor of “wildcat unionism,” “coops,” “localism,” anti-racism, etc….. well, make your case. What does it mean that we should advocate them, anyway? I am genuinely curious. Advocate… that people voluntarily adopt these values or engage in these activities? Okay. Anyway, if so, just make your case. You can appeal to some values your libertarian audience holds as libertarians, but it’s not really a libertarian thing, as I see it. Consider: you are saying “libertarians should advocate leftist norms and values”. Why just libertarians? Don’t you think everyone “should advocate leftist norms and values”??

I see modern day libertarianism and leftism (2nd sense, although I think that there is at least some to be learned from mainstream social liberalism, in addition to the radical leftists) as being 2 parts of a unified “Left” philosophy that were separated by historical accident, and I think that both libertarians and leftists have a lot to learn from each other.

This could well be, but I think you, like a lot of left-libertarians, think of libertarianism in far more strategic and activist terms than is warranted. Just because there is a role for tactics, strategy, etc., does not mean it devolves into this. In fact this is somewhat contrary to your emphasis on “working outside of electoral politics”–I tend to agree with this because I see activism as more peripheral. My point here is that any historical accidents of separation are really irrelevant. Pedigree is irrelevant. Truth is all that matters. Libertarianism is a coherent, cohesive set of political values and ideas. Even if they developed historically and were entangled with leftism does not mean there is any reason to “link” them now. To argue this way is to place too much emphasis on historical narrative, to view everything as a battle or ideological “struggle”–this is putting weight on the stategical, activist side of our lives as libertarians. It is also akin to the issue of logical versus chronological priority emphasized by both Rand and Mises/Hoppe in epistemology. For example if the Misesian claims we can know a given proposition “a priori” it does not mean we can know it without any experience at all. As a chronological and developmental matter, you could never recognize the apriori aspects of human action, say, without first growing as a baby, learning things empirically, etc. So you can’t know something “before” or unless you have empirical knowledge; but the idea of apriori truths is that you can demonstrate something is true logically without having to experimentally test it because it is not possible falsifiable by experience. I think Rand had some similar explanations of whether reality or reason were more basic–it depended on whether you were talking about metaphysics or epistemology (something like this). To understand all this you have to keep logical versus chronological priority straight in your mind, to avoid confusion. Likewise, do not confuse the essence and validity and content of our libertarian ideas, with some historical narrative.

NSK: “There is nothing wrong whatsoever with inequality. Now if they merely mean “equality before the law,” then this is trivial and collapses into justice; but this is not what they mean.”

What I mean by “equality” (and I think I speak for most LLs here) is “equality of authority”, as expounded by Roderick T. Long in “Equality: The Unknown Ideal”.

I haven’t read this in a while and haven’t time now. Long usually has perceptive insights. But my view of libertarianism is that this idea of “equality” is not that important to articulating our view of what rights we have, of what justice is.

NSK: “Mutualism is also unlibertarian, in my view, as it supports the taking of property from valid owners by mere possessors (see my A Critique of Mutualist Occupancy).”

I see mutualist and Lockean property rules as being on a spectrum of possibilities, rather than being mutually exclusive, but this argument has been had before, and isn’t essential to the discussion at hand.

I disagree with this spectrum idea, but agree with your latter point. I will say that in a free society I suppose mutualists are try to make their society work, and I predict they would be quickly weeded out by progress, unless they remained some kind of odd enclave like the Amish in Pennsylvania.

NSK: “As for anti-authoritarianism: the left is not anti-authoritarian; they flock to the state to use it to impose their authority on society, to pay for others’ healthcare, and so on.”

The mainstream left is definitely statist, as well as the Marxists and other state-socialists. The same can’t be said of libertarian socialism or classical social anarchism; these philosophies are anti-authoritarian. Even if they aren’t entirely consistent in their views, the same can be said of many libertarians (say, Objectivists or minarchists).

There is a grain of truth in this, but not much. The minarchist is a statist, barely, but they only want the state to do a few, narrow, legitimate things, like stop private criminal aggression. The statism espoused by classical leftists, and even by the inconsistent libertarian socialists, is much more systematically worse than that espoused by minarchists. As a libertarian, I’d take a minarchist state (barely a state at all) over the states necessary to impose various leftist programs any day.

Here we are using 2 different senses of the word authority. In the way that Kinsella and Hoppe uses it, I would agree, although I think the idea of hereditary natural elites is flawed and a rightist deviation. I think this Bakunin quote is a good demonstration of this view:

“Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such an individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.

“If I bow before the authority of the specialists and avow my readiness to follow, to a certain extent and as long as may seem to me necessary, their indications and even their directions, it is because their authority is imposed on me by no one, neither by men nor by God. Otherwise I would repel them with horror, and bid the devil take their counsels, their directions, and their services, certain that they would make me pay, by the loss of my liberty and self-respect, for such scraps of truth, wrapped in a multitude of lies, as they might give me.

“I bow before the authority of special men because it is imposed on me by my own reason. I am conscious of my own inability to grasp, in all its detail, and positive development, any very large portion of human knowledge. The greatest intelligence would not be equal to a comprehension of the whole. Thence results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of the division and association of labour. I receive and I give – such is human life. Each directs and is directed in his turn. Therefore there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination.”

Then we are quibbling. The idea of authority you recognize is similar in structure to the natural authority Hoppe and anarcho-libertarians talk about. So either you guys are being imprecise when you say you are against authority (because you’re not); or you are attacking a straw man when you say anarcho-libertarians favor too much authority (they don’t); or you are being a bit disingenuous in trying to just assume that some of the sources of natural authority we recognize (family? church? whatever) are not natural authority at all but are types of bad, “oppressive” or “state-like” authority. I mean you need an argument, and I doubt a clear one is coming because all these sweeping, vague generalizations are just vague.

One more comment: the idea of hereditary natural elites as being a rightist deviation: I’d say this. In Hoppe’s work he is exploring the structure and workings of a monarchist society to contrast it to modern democracy. I think his emphasis on these hereditary natural elites is a consequence of this contrast; and I think there is some truth to it. If you have to have a state, there are reasons why a monarchy is superior in many respects to a modern democratic state. The idea of hereditary natural elites as a type of the natural authority apparently even your leftists recognize, helps explain why a monarchy would be better in some ways than democracy. But if the state is completely abolished, as Hoppe urges, there would be no monarchy and I think the vision of natural authority in society would perhaps not contain much of this “hereditary natural elite” since it makes little sense absent a monarchy (though one could envision a remnant of this idea in the nobless oblige or large, rich dynasties).

I have no problem with “authority” in this sense of the word. What I have a problem with is when authority is used in an elitist sense; when someone presumes to know how someone else should live their lives, without it being the person’s decision.

But this is fuzzy, outside the context of aggression. If you talk about “oppression” it’s not clear what it is. If parents impose limits on a young teenager’s night-time carousing, that might feel oppressive to the teen, but it might make sense. If society stigmatizes out of wedlock birth, that might seem harsh and oppressive, but it’s easy to see why this stigma might arise and be a good thing. If someone organizes a workforce in a certain way maybe it seems “oppressive” to some, but maybe it makes economic sense. Life has tradeoffs. There is opportunity cost. The idea of oppression as aggression is clear, and this is what libertarianism is about. The idea of oppression beyong mere aggression is not so clear. It’s more vague, and now we move from the domain of rights violations, to the domain of immorality. I agree with the “thin” libertarian idea that libertarianism strictly speaking is about what constitutes rights violations. I also agree with the common sense “thick” observation that people–including libertarians–ought to be concerned with morality. If you can demonstrate that non-aggressive oppression is immoral, then any decent person should of course “oppose” it–but then you need to make an argument, and the argument is explicitly not a libertarian one.

This includes aggression, but also other forms of hierarchy and oppression, variously propped up by the state and/or irrational collectivism.

Here is where the leftists start to get fuzzy and confused, or at least less rigorous. One reason is that you are now leaving behind libertarianism in your rejection of aggression as the criteria. That’s fine, but now we are outside libertarianism. Hierarchy is not bad in and of itself, so you have to explain further, and qualify and speak contingently and hypothetically. I will say that if you are pointing to hierarchies and policies and practices that seem to clearly be the result of the state’s interferences, this does tie in with the libertarian focus on aggression. This is where libertarianism is directly involved. But this is a special case: it is a case of a hierarchy etc., that is a distortion in society resulting from the state–from aggression. But you leftists are not opposed only to that kind of hierarchy, so this is a bit disingenuous. You admitted above you are not against natural authority (similar to us anarchos). You say you are against hierarchies imposed by state interference–so are we libertarians, because we oppose aggression and its consequences. So what is left? In the middle there is some amorphous domain of hierarchies and authority structures that are (a) not aggression; and (b) not imposed by state aggression. You and we apparently recognize that some of these hierarchies and authority structures are okay–since you admit some natural authority is fine (and even a “coop” has a hierarchical authority structure). We libertarians would admit there could be some remaining authority structures, hierarchies, social practices, etc., in this domain, that are immoral or inefficient. If they are inefficient (like racism in business) the marked will penalize them. And some of them can be criticized on moral grounds–but note, this is not what libertarianism specializes in. Yes, I am anti-racist and anti-sexist. As a moral human, not as a libertarian. I think everyone should be against racism–not just libertarians. Don’t you? We libertarians don’t pretend to be experts on defining exactly what subsets of this non-aggression, non-state-caused hierarchy domain are moral or efficient, or immoral or inefficient, because there may be no scientific way to do this, and certainly not merely by using the libertarian ideal of the non-aggression principle. You leftists are free, as humans, as moralists, as whatever, to make a case for the immorality of a given social practice. You might even be right in a given case. But it has little to do with libertarianism.

I agree that it is probably impossible to be a consistent thin libertarian; if I recall correctly, even Walter Block, its greatest exponent, has since backed off from the position. However, I think that it is still useful to talk about thick libertarianism, because the connections between liberty and other values is often not explored.

There is nothing wrong with exploring them; we are not just libertarians. But you guys don’t have a monopoly on this. We all do this. This is no big newsflash. All this meta-talk about it is fairly pointless. Go ahead and do the damn exploring. Show that X, Y, Z are immoral, or should be opposed, whether or not your arguments draw upon some shared libertarian insights or not. And then we can discuss that, on its own merits. Don’t cheat or confuse or distract by forcing a meta-argument about whether this is all really “part of” libertarianism, or how libertarianism should be considered, etc.

NSK: “Well, any social norms that are not aggressive are, well, not aggressive, and do not violate rights. But you can imagine any number of possible societies and associated norms that would not be good “from the libertarian point of view”–say, one dominated by ignoramuses or (private) censorship–after all, libertarianism is based on ideas discerned by reason; most people who are libertarian would be stultified and not lead a good life in such a society. And we could not expect it to last long either, because liberty does require reason to be free to defend it. But this does not mean that libertarianism–the idea that aggression is unjustified–automatically says anything about any given set of cultural norms. Not that this is not a field worth studying: meta-libertarianism, or libertarians with outside or related interests, might well want to study not only want interpersonal force-related norms are justifiable, but what societal preconditions are necessary to preserve it or likely to accompany it, just as others might specialize in researching tactics and strategy–just as some lawyers specialize in knowing an area of law really well, while others study legal theory itself.”

Here I disagree; I think that the social preconditions for a free society are an essential part of libertarianism.

Sure, I do too–a natural thing for libertarians to study and be interested in.

I think that thick libertarianism is a useful term because the intertwining of concerns isn’t always as obvious or trivial as the communication example Kinsella gives. It is not necessarily obvious that libertarians should also be feminists or anti-racists, for example, but upon further examination, one might indeed (and I do) conclude so.

Why should libertarians be “feminists” (whatever that means)? Why don’t you just say people should be feminists? Surely you don’t think only libertarians should be feminists, and democrats and republicans should be misogynists? What does it add to your moral hortation to focus it on libertarians?

Share

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete December 1, 2009 at 6:21 pm

You are a true hero. You just made me freer.

Reply

DixieFlatline December 2, 2009 at 1:40 am

Unfortunately, Rod Long seems to encourage this stuff (thickism, leftism, bossism) as he is the patron-saint of left-libertarianism, dare I say, much more so than Spangler and Carson combined.

Shame no one of your stature has the inclination to take Long to task the same way you took Wombatron to school. Get along so we can go along I suppose.

Reply

t w v December 4, 2009 at 1:24 am

As I replied to Dawson on Facebook, the problem with “left-libertarianism” is not its alleged “thickness” (worst metaphor ever, by the way) but the fact that professed “left-libertarians” emphasize only half of the extra-political virtues and viewpoints necessary to maintain a free society. Take “responsibility.” It’s not something you hear much about from the left. You do, from the right, of course. It’s part of the tension of the modern political spectrum. But responsibility is absolutely key to understanding how freedom would gain purchase and make sense in society. That the left-libertarians do not talk about a culture of responsibility suggests to me that leftism is just another adolescent pose, a rebellion against responsibility. Well, it’s a suggestion, not a complete tip of the hand.

Reply

Stephan Kinsella December 7, 2009 at 1:46 am

Leave a Comment

{ 3 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: