History/Culture, Politics/Economics

“Thick” Libertarianism Eviscerated: A Response to Charles Johnson

While reading Charles Johnson’s oddly impactful 2008 essay Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin, I was perplexed by the sheer weight of unnecessary confusion and blurring of the language.  It is a peculiar thing to see a political theory as clear and simple as libertarianism become suddenly and unnecessarily wrapped up in obscure and ambiguous language.  It was almost as if obscurity was the means by which he intentionally sought to redefine the libertarian doctrine.  After spending so much of my personal libertarian education deep in the clear and precise works of Hans Hoppe and Murray Rothbard, it was a shock to suffer through Charles Johnson’s muddled arguments.

Charles Johnson’s essay set out to consider four primary ways in which libertarianism could be considered a “thick” doctrine, rather than a “thin” one. Let me explain the problem here in no uncertain terms.  Everybody who has studied the libertarian literature knows that libertarian theory is centered around the idea of the “non-aggression principle” (NAP) and the Private Property Ethic from which it’s derived.  The Private Property Ethic states that all scarce goods are subject to private ownership, provided they are acquired via original appropriation or voluntary exchange.  The NAP states that the initiation of uninvited physical interference against the private property of others (whether against their physical bodies or external goods) or threats thereof is unjustified and criminal  (See Stephan Kinsella, What Libertarianism Is in Property, Freedom and Society: Essays in Honor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe).  Now then, is libertarianism just those principles and their logically deduced implications? Or is libertarianism something more (that is, does it speak to non-aggressive “religious, philosophical, social, or cultural commitments”)?  If the former is the case, then libertarianism is “thin.” If the latter, libertarianism is “thick.”  To be clear, this debate is not about whether libertarians can have preferences and beliefs and convictions outside of the NAP, for no one would disagree with this.  The debate is about the essence of libertarianism itself— namely, whether there is more to libertarianism qua libertarianism than just the Private Property Ethic and the NAP.

Johnson seeks to question the idea that the essence of libertarianism is simply the Private Property Ethic, the NAP, and their logically demanded implications.  He writes that obviously all libertarians agree that government should not act contrary to the non aggression principle (although these days there are self-described “libertarians” who have argued for all kinds of government activity— a subject for another time).  And then he goes beyond this obvious libertarian stance by asking:

But if coercive laws have been taken off the table, then what should libertarians say about other religious, philosophical, social, or cultural commitments that pursue their ends through non-coercive means, such as targeted moral agitation, mass education, artistic or literary propaganda, charity, mutual aid, public praise, ridicule, social ostracism, targeted boycotts, social investing, slowdowns and strikes in a particular shop, general strikes, or other forms of solidarity and coordinated action? Which social movements should they oppose, which should they support, and toward which should they counsel indifference?

Johnson seeks to take up his essay to consider the “different possible relationships between libertarianism and ‘thicker’ bundles of social, cultural, religious, or philosophical commitments, which might recommend integrating the two on some level or another.”  In other words, libertarianism “may need” to be integrated with “bundles” of extra-NAP “commitments.”  Here we can observe the obscurity interwoven throughout the essay.  For if libertarianism itself is separate and distinct from other extra-NAP commitments, then libertarianism itself is a thin doctrine.  However, if one needs to adopt extra-NAP commitments in order to be a more complete libertarian or a more pure libertarian, then libertarianism itself can be perfected by non-NAP ideas.  Stated another way, if there are non-NAP commitments that libertarians should promote qua libertarianism, then libertarianism cannot include into the camp those NAP-adherents who dissent from the non-NAP commitments.

Thus, the very definition of libertarianism is at stake.

In his essay Johnson gives four of the “different possible relationships.”  I will go through each of these, and his comments, one by one.

Thickness for Application

“Application Thickness” is the alleged idea that, in order to apply the NAP in a given situation —that is, in order to determine how the NAP applies— “commitments” outside of the NAP are needed.  On its face, this actually doesn’t address the issue of whether libertarianism is thin or thick.  For if extra-NAP commitments are needed to apply the doctrine, this does not itself alter the doctrine.  There is still a necessary distinction between the doctrine and its application, thereby preserving the “thinness” of the doctrine of libertarianism itself.

Beyond this, however, Johnson does not at all explain why exactly one needs extra-NAP commitments to determine how the NAP applies to a given situation.  He gives the example of feminism which offers

“criticism of the traditional division between the ‘private’ and the ‘political’ sphere, and of those who divide the spheres in such a way that pervasive, systemic violence and coercion within families turn out to be justified, or excused, or simply ignored as something “private” and therefore less than a serious form of violent oppression.”

He continues to write:

If feminists are right about the way in which sexist political theories protect or excuse systematic violence against women, there is an important sense in which libertarians, because they are libertarians, should also be feminists.

Consider the first paragraph as a perfect example of the intentional confusion that Johnson injects into the issue.  Who, exactly, is dividing up the “spheres in such a way” so as to ignore violence and coercion within the family? Certainly not the libertarian. Perhaps there are some isolated individuals in this world who seek to allow or promote actual aggression in the privacy of the home. But libertarianism is the doctrine that aggression by one person against another is criminal.  So therefore libertarians as such do not need an extra-NAP commitment to ridicule such a division, as stated above.

Which of course makes the second quoted sentence that much more absurd. Just because feminists oppose violence against women does not make all “opposers of violence against women” feminists. I wonder if Johnson, because he would oppose violence against Christians, as do Christians, would therefore argue that “there is an important sense in which libertarians, because they are libertarians, should also be” Christians. A curious argument to be sure.

He writes: “Importantly, the commitments that libertarians need to have here aren’t just applications of general libertarian principle to a special case….”  Actually, that is exactly what they are, at least in his example.  Aggression against another individual is criminal. Women are individuals. Therefore, aggression against women is criminal. All according to the implications of NAP. What has feminism got to do with it?

Johnson’s confusion here, it seems to me, rests on his misunderstanding of the actual claims of the NAP’s defenders. It appears that Johnson does no realize that the NAP does not simply speak to what the government itself can and cannot do.  Rather, it is the rubric by which all human action in a given society is to be considered criminal.  In this way, it does not matter whether one aggresses against private property in the “public” sphere or in the private household.  In fact, the most precise advocates of the NAP– including Hans Hoppe and Murray Rothbard– conceive of an entirely privatized society in which all “spheres” are private.  Their criticism of the state’s NAP-breaching activity is merely an application of their legal theory.

Thickness from Grounds

In this section, Johnson argues that there are certain ideas which, technically, can be logically held while also and at the same assenting to the NAP, but these ideas are “hard to reasonably reconcile” with the NAP.  In other words, while NAP may not logically contradict some other “commitments,” it is difficult, in Johnson’s estimation, to hold both at the same time based on the “deeper reasons” that justify the non-agression principle.  Now, in going through this section, I anticipated the argument to be that one needs a foundation that logically justifies the NAP, and therefore the NAP is not the only aspect of libertarianism.  But Johnson doesn’t really make this argument exactly.  And therefore—to my disappointment— I will postpone commenting on that exact argument until another time.  (For a rational justification of the Private Property Ethic and NAP click here)

Johnson essentially argues that libertarians need to have a position on commitments beyond the NAP on the basis that there are non-NAP commitments that “undermin[e] the deeper reasons that justify the nonaggression principle.”  His example is “authoritarianism.”  He writes:

Consider the conceptual reasons that libertarians have to oppose authoritarianism, not only as enforced by governments but also as expressed in culture, business, the family, and civil society. Social systems of status and authority include not only exercises of coercive power by the government, but also a knot of ideas, practices, and institutions based on deference to traditionally constituted authority.

This is a tremendously misleading example for the very reason that he is using his extra-NAP understanding of libertarianism to make his case. In other words, he is merely asserting the conclusion that he should be trying to prove.  Libertarianism as summarized by the NAP does not speak to “culture, business, the family, and civil society,” except insomuch as aggression may take place in those spheres.  “Deference to traditional constituted authority” has nothing to do with aggression and therefore the libertarian in his capacity as a libertarian does not denounce it.  Now, perhaps one generally and honestly has a good argument against “authoritarian” habits in various social circles.  He may very well stand in opposition to these things (the present writer thinks this is a bit silly as an end in itself), but he does not stand in opposition on the basis of his libertarianism.  He stands in opposition for other reasons entirely.

Johnson continues to give a hypothetical example in which there is

a consistently authoritarian social order without any use of force. Even in a completely free society, everyone could, in principle, still voluntarily agree to bow and scrape and speak only when spoken to in the presence of the (mutually agreed-on) town chief, or unthinkingly agree to obey whatever restrictions and regulations he tells them to follow in their own business or personal lives, or agree to give him as much in voluntary “taxes” on their income or property as he might ask.

It is astounding that Johnson literally just stated that a voluntary society could be authoritarian.  Does this word have no meaning?  Authoritarianism emphasizes obedience to authority at the expense of one’s liberty.  But voluntary action presupposes liberty.  Thus, Johnson’s hypothetical is, to be frank, nonsensical.  In any case, the point here is that, since the hypothetical society does not require aggression to maintain, it does not breach the NAP and is therefore perfectly libertarian.  Johnson admits that “there’s nothing logically inconsistent about a libertarian envisioning… this sort of social order.”  However, he writes, “it would certainly be weird.”  What kind of argument is this? It is one that rejects precision and logic in favor of gut reaction and simple preference.  Something being weird does not constitute a demand that the libertarian reject it.

Strategic Thickness

Here is where things become more pertinent to the modern libertarian movement.  Johnson argues that, when it comes to the strategies that need to be pursued in order to articulate the political theory to the masses, there are clearly non-NAP commitments that should be held.  Or, even more important, if we are to make the implementation of a libertarian society successful, we need a strategy that will prepare the setting for the application of libertarianism.  The problem with this argument is blatantly obvious: Johnson confuses the strategy with the doctrine itself.  He confuses the categories of “practice” and “philosophy.” He confuses the theory with the question of “how should we persuade others to recognize and abide by this theory?” These are two categorically different conversations.

In the 1990’s, much to the aggravation of the left-libertarians, those libertarians associated with Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, and the Mises Institute decided to employ a strategy with the Rightist political circles in order to permeate the ideas of liberty and free markets to as many people as possible.  But this strategy was not intended to define libertarianism as a Rightist cause per se.  Rather, they opined that the cultural context in the ‘90s was such that the political right was a more natural ally at the time than the political and cultural left.  There is a distinction between strategy and theory.

When one is reflecting on the proper things on which to focus in preparing the preconditions for a libertarian society, he is acting in the capacity of a strategist, not a libertarian (i.e. one who subscribes to the libertarian philosophy). Strategy, being beyond the boundaries of the NAP (except that it precludes any strategy from involving aggression), exists apart from the question of whether one actually adheres to libertarian ideas.

While the present writer is certainly an advocate of a libertarianism that is coupled with rightist cultural preferences and goals (see Bionic Mosquito’s favorable interaction with Hoppe’s “realistic libertarianism”), it is quite obvious that the libertarianism itself is not necessarily “right” nor “left” (although the fundamental libertarian principle of private property is an element of the right).  They are held together and at the same time, completely non-contradictory, but they are different; and only one is libertarianism itself.

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This brings up the phenomenon of the “right-libertarian” and “left-libertarian.” Are these unlibertarian? Do they confuse libertarianism? In my estimation, it depends entirely on the meaning. For instance if the definition of right libertarianism is that they believe that one must hold “rightist cultural views” in order to be a consistent libertarian, then this would be thickist libertarianism, and it should be criticized. If the definition of a right libertarian is that they believe that libertarianism is a thin doctrine (centered around the Private Property Ethic and the NAP), plus they believe in “rightist cultural views” in addition to their libertarianism, then this would be thin libertarianism. (Let it be said that if I ever call myself a right libertarian in my writings, I am speaking in the latter sense of the phrase). The same goes for the leftist cultural preferences.  The question is whether the “right” and “left” describes the person as being a libertarian who also agrees with extra private property/NAP X cultural ideas, or a libertarian who wrongly thinks that libertarianism needs X cultural views in order to be “more libertarian.”

But the relevant point is that one is not “more libertarian” or “less libertarian” because he has certain extra private property/NAP cultural preferences.  Libertarianism is about private property and the NAP; the proper use of force in society, to use Rothbard’s phraseology.  Nothing more, nothing less. Does it work better with cultural conservatism? Perhaps, but that is a separate conversation from whether one is a libertarian.

Therefore, “strategic thickness” confuses the nature of libertarianism itself.

Thickness from Consequences

In this last section, Johnson writes:

“Finally, there may be social practices or outcomes that libertarians should (in some sense) be committed to opposing, even though they are not themselves coercive, because 1) government coercion is a precondition for them and 2) there are independent reasons for regarding them as social evils.

Fogginess and obscurity.  Why the qualifier “in some sense”? What is meant by this?

Again, the problem here is that libertarianism does not have the necessary equipment to oppose non-coercive activity because libertarianism simply states that aggression is inappropriate.  And therefore, libertarianism has nothing within itself to oppose something that should be opposed for non-NAP reasons, regardless of whether they’re “social evils.”  Number “2” then is to be dismissed without hesitation.  Johnson here reaches his low and the true nature of thick libertarianism is made apparent.  For no apparent reason, Johnson simply asserts that libertarians as libertarians ought to oppose “social practices” for reasons outside of libertarianism (“independent reasons”)!  This is what Robert Wenzel has come to term the “libwap” (libertarians with appendages) perspective. That is, if libertarians do not all stand in uniform agreement on a variety of “social practices,” the implication is that they are somehow less than libertarian. It is hard to understand exactly what is being argued here because of the ambiguous language, especially the parenthetical phrase “in some sense.”

The more important argument made here is number “1.”  This argument is most popular amongst self described “left-libertarians” such as Kevin Carson, who (having at root a Marxist view of the world), opposes things like sweat shops because they allegedly could not exist without government coercion also existing in the world.  One would think that the proper libertarian perspective here is to oppose the State’s intervention in the economy, not the human action that seeks to do what it can with the liberty it has to promote exchange and seek profit by improving the lives of others.  The present essay is not intended to defend sweat shops (although such a defense would be worthy of an entire essay), but to point out that the libertarian reaches beyond the bounds of his own theory if he wants to criticize various non-aggressive action.

Johnson spends the rest of this section– of course!– in favorably summarizing the Marxist “exploitation” understanding of business in our present environment as promoted by “left-libertarians” such as Kevin Carson and Matt MacKenzie.  See Walter Block’s analysis of Kevin Carson and his Marxist economic views as well as this essay on “The Cancer Of Left-Libertarian Economics“.

Johnson here is not merely arguing that we should be frustrated with the results of statism, as we certainly all are. Rather, he is arguing that libertarians as libertarians ought to condemn the non-aggressive action taken up by individuals who are trying to pursue profit in an environment that is not ideal due to the State’s intervention.  Aside from the problem articulated above (that libertarianism only addresses aggression in society), there is also the problem of the correct non-aggressive practices that need condemning.  For instance, in my own view, the LGBT movement is detrimental to the idea of a society based on the strong presence of the traditional nuclear family.  And due to state subsidies, state-driven education, state-manipulated media, affirmative action legislation, and so forth, we have a society in which the homosexual movement continues to gain speed and push out conservative voices from the “Canons of Socially Approvable Opinion” (the goal of PCism).  So therefore, does it seem reasonable that the libertarian qua libertarian should oppose homosexuality? Johnson, Carson, Sheldon Richman, Roderick Long, and all the other left-libertarians out there would surely disagree.  So why do they get to pick the “social practices” that libertarians “ought to condemn”?

All these problems of “who the True Libertarian is” can be rectified by simply returning to the NAP. Conversations like strategy and cultural preferences can rightly be seen as conversations that are allowed to take place within the tent.  That is, libertarianism is properly thin and is centered around whether or not one assents to the principle of non-aggression and its logically deduced implications.  To promote a different understanding of libertarianism by calling it “thick” threatens the future of the liberty movement itself, and abrogates all the stunning gains made by libertarian theorists such as Murray Rothbard to precisely and succinctly articulate the libertarian doctrine.  Seeking to redefine this theory will only serve to shatter the movement.

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