Lew Rockwell, Thick and Thin libertarianism

dont-tread-on-neighbor300In attempting to explain what libertarianism is, we soon discover that there exists a divide in the movement.

There are the “thin” libertarians who see libertarianism as a simple thing, the nonaggression principle: thou shalt not initiate physical force against another.

Across the divide are the “thicks,” mostly–but not necessarily–left-libertarians, who have a broader agenda which they believe is essential to the success of libertarianism.

In the past year, I have sorted through some of this business in several posts (here, here, and here), but it was Jeffrey Tucker’s recent article “Against Libertarian Brutalism” in the The Freeman, that touched off a firestorm over “thick” and “thin” libertarianism.

Many words have been written since, but Lew Rockwell has done the best job yet in explaining what is at stake. It’s a short read and a good one. so give it a click:

The Future of Libertarianism, By Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.


The “vulgar libertarians” fight back

voluntaryThe term “vulgar libertarians” was coined by Kevin Carson in his Mutualist Blog to describe libertarians whom he views as cheerleaders for crony capitalism and big business, which exist to the detriment of consumers and workers.

Mutualist Carson is sometimes labeled a thick libertarian, along with other prefixed libertarians: Left-Libertarians, Bleeding Heart Libertarians and others who add to the libertarian non-aggression principle (NAP) their opposition to all oppression: sexism, racism, wage labor, religious hierarchy and other concerns (both real and imagined).

A new blog–the “VULGAR LIBERTARIANS“–proudly wears Carson’s name tag, apparently embracing the word “vulgar” in its primary dictionary meaning: “generally used, applied, or accepted.” These “vulgar” libertarians proclaim an unhyphenated libertarianism that sticks to the basics, i.e. the non-aggression principle. As this post notes: “The prefixed libertarians may claim that they have gone “beyond” libertarianism, we contend that they haven’t reached it yet.”

Thick and thin are not that far apart

My FreedomTo some extent, the thick and thin libertarians talk past one another. Both harbor suspicions that the other would use force to achieve their own goals. The truth is that thin libertarians really do believe in the NAP and would gladly strip away every vestige of crony capitalism: no more monopoly privileges, government licensing, bailouts or regulations. Such changes would create many opportunities, especially for the poor.

“Thick” libertarians are quite vocal about the importance of such changes, but a substantial portion of those view such changes as the natural results of liberty, not some private agenda they would see tacked on to the NAP.

These are good reasons for a clean unencumbered libertarianism which raises no barriers to those who have differing viewspoints.

Vulgar libertarians and property titles

We vulgar- thin- plain vanilla- libertarians need to keep in mind that the thick or left-libertarians have one issue that cannot be evaded once we achieve liberty. The issue is one of property titles.

If tomorrow there were no government to say who owned what, would we all agree that each person owns that property which he possesses at that moment? Or would it be fair to assume that each person would own whatever the (now-defunct) government would have said she owned the day before it was dissolved? This issue cannot be evaded. Murray Rothbard writes about the mythical kingdom of Ruritania on the eve of its overthrow by libertarian rebels:

KingThe king, seeing the revolt to be imminently successful, now employs a cunning stratagem. He proclaims his government to be dissolved, but just before doing so he arbitrarily parcels out the entire land area of his kingdom to the “ownership” of himself and his relatives. He then goes to the libertarian rebels and says: “all right, I have granted your wish, and have dissolved my rule; there is now no more violent intervention in private property. However, myself and my eleven relatives now each own one-twelfth of Ruritania, and if you disturb us in this ownership in any way, you shall be infringing upon the sanctity of the very fundamental principle that you profess: the inviolability of private property. Therefore, while we shall no longer be imposing ‘taxes,’ you must grant each of us the right to impose any ‘rents’ that we may wish upon our ‘tenants,’ or to regulate the lives of all the people who presume to live on ‘our’ property as we see fit.

~ Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, Chapter 9

Obviously, property titles will be up for grabs if those titles are known to be the result of theft. There will have to be some consensus regarding who shall own formerly-public property, which–with few exceptions–was acquired by theft.

Shall public schools be owned by the teachers? by the students? Perhaps the streets would be acquired by the adjacent property owners. Public utilities might end up as cooperatives owned by their customers, and so on. These matters can be worked out.

Property titles will always be questionable if they were granted as a government favor. Some commentators suggest that quasi-private institutions–largely or wholly funded by government–such as universities, hospitals or military arms manufacturers should be re-distributed. And it gets trickier.

Far-left-libertarians, looking to further the class struggle, believe that capital goods properly belong to whomever is occupying or using the property. It is difficult to imagine the workers taking ownership of every privately-owned factory; each renter claiming title to every house or apartment he occupies, and not encountering enormous resistance, even bloodshed.

These are issues that some “thick” libertarians present. They are worth thinking over, but they do not define libertarianism and should not limit the movement.


Let’s give a warm libertarian welcome to . . .

Anarcho-Ichthus-favIn may last post, I discussed some labels used by different libertarians. Shortly after writing that post, I was on-line in a Q&A session of Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom (check it out here), and I posted a question for Tom: “What is your take on Left-Libertarianism?” Here is what he had to say:

There are two aspects to [left-libertarianism] that would distinguish it from plain old libertarianism, maybe what you might call right-libertarianism of the sort that you see with somebody like Hans Hoppe . . .

WoodsIn some ways it’s just a matter of emphasis, . . .  They would say that we get so caught up focusing on defending capitalism that we forget that the system we have now is not really capitalism. It’s a crony system; and so half the time we are defending practices that we ought to be condemning or we are not sensitive enough to this; or we spend too much time allegedly talking about programs that benefit the poor and how we’ve got to get rid of those . . .

The left-libertarian will often be critical of corporations, which they believe are being given special privileges by the government, which I don’t actually think is the case . . . or they think that if it weren’t for various government interventions business firms would be a lot smaller . . .

They are trying to appeal to the left by saying . . . if you want to have smaller scale economy and not such an industrial concentration, then in a pure free market that is what you would have. I’m not so sure that is the case. Maybe it is; maybe it’s not. Peter Klein says there is a whole literature on this. It’s not generally referred to by the left-libertarians.

The other thing is they tend to subscribe to what they call “thick” libertarianism, as opposed to thin. Thin libertarianism would be to say that a libertarian believes in the non-aggression principle; that you shouldn’t initiate physical aggression against a peaceful person.

But the “thick” libertarian would say: OK, but that’s not enough though; we have to favor opposition to all types of oppression, so we have to be feminists, have to be anti-racists, we have to be all this laundry list of other things. There may be merits in all those other things. That’s not the point.

The point is: Is that necessary to make you a libertarian? They would say there are other forms of oppression out there in the world and these other forms of oppression feed into statism in one way or the other, so it’s not enough just to go after the state.

I’m a “thin” libertarian. Why should we increase barriers to libertarianism? As long as you believe in the non-aggression axiom, who cares what you believe in otherwise? As long as you are not going to use violence, THAT’S the thing.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in his preface to Mere Christianity, that “mere” Christianity, in contrast to its many varieties, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant:

 . . . is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.

Lewis’s “rooms” are the different Christian churches, but I believe his metaphor works better for libertarianism than it does for Christianity. “Mere” libertarianism (“thin” libertarianism) can be likened to Lewis’s great hallway. In the hallway, the non-aggression principle is accepted as the minimum standard of conduct necessary for a peaceful society. Of course there are many rooms off the hallway, beckoning to anyone who believes there is more to life than simply not-being-a-busybody. That would include just about everybody.

Left-libertarians have many admirable goals. There are people who want to encourage small, local or worker owned-businesses. There are back-to-the-land people, union people, religious people, atheists and socialists, and whatever, all of them wanting to live their lives–as best as they can–by the light that they have, united and limited by a common desire for peace.

In this sense, we are all “thick” libertarians in that we believe we are here for something more than just being “left alone,” but if we are forced to agree on the “thick” part, then we are doomed before we start.

As Tom Woods says, “Why should we increase barriers to libertarianism? As long as you believe in the non-aggression axiom, who cares what you believe in otherwise? As long as you are not going to use violence, THAT’S the thing.”

Let’s not turn anyone away from the great hallway. And then, as C.S. Lewis appealed: “When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall.”