Libertarianism: Thick and Thin

Article by Matt Zwolinksi.

A fairly balanced discussion of “thick vs thin” libertarianism from a generally “thin” perspective.


A few months back, there arose a bit of a kerfuffle in the libertarian blogosphere over David Gordon’s reviewof Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch’s Declaration of IndependentsFor those who haven’t read it, that book is something of a freewheeling celebration of the spirit of liberty and independence in American culture – and a call for us to extend that spirit to the realm of politics. Among other things, the book celebrates the explosion of American microbreweries, the Velvet Underground, the X-Men, and Tiger Woods’ Cablinasianism.

To David Gordon, this was all very puzzling. After all, according to its subtitle, Gillespie and Welch’s book is supposed to be about “how libertarian politics can fix what’s wrong with America.” But for Gordon, following in the footsteps of Muray Rothbard, libertarianism is about one thing and one thing only: the proper use of force. Libertarianism is not a comprehensive ethical theory. It does not try to tell us what ideals we should aspire to in our personal lives, nor does it tell us much about the way that we should interact with other people. The only thing libertarianism has to say about our interpersonal relations is that it is wrong to aggress upon their person or property.

Thus while Gillespie and Welch see the rise of interracial marriages as something libertarians should celebrate, David Gordon is unimpressed.  ”What do you think of interracial marriage? It would be hard, offhand, to think of a question less relevant to libertarianism, as usually understood. Of course, no one has the right forcibly to prevent such marriages. What more need a libertarian say about this issue?” And similarly:

 Their celebration of variety and change leads them on issue after issue to miss the essence of libertarianism, the use or threat of force. They support the free market and oppose government regulation of the economy, but this is not enough for them. Opposition to government intervention for them takes its place as part of a larger movement toward individual choice of certain kinds. “It is worth lingering a moment to marvel at the velocity of career change not available to those working in the media (and elsewhere)” (p.107). What if your ideal in life is to get a stable job and remain in it through retirement? Are you less of a libertarian than someone continually on the move?

I am reminded of Gordon’s review by some of the reactions to our recent discussion of the Ron Paul newsletters. One reaction in particular (see here for an example), was that even if the racist rhetoric of the newsletters could be attributed to Rothbard, Rockwell, or Paul himself, this does nothing to undermine the libertarian credentials of these individuals for the simple reason that there is no inconsistency between racism and libertarianism. If being a libertarian just means being committed to the non-aggression principle, then one’s beliefs about the intelligence, criminality, or even basic moral status of members of other races simply isn’t an issue. So long as one is committed to opposing the initiation of force against all persons, one has met the one and only necessary and sufficient condition for membership in Club Libertarian.


Personally, I think the Rothbardian emphasis on the non-aggression principle as definitive of libertarianism is unwarranted. And his argument for it certainly leaves much to be desired. But I do think there’s something to be said for understanding libertarianism as a kind of “thin” political commitment. We libertarians are united by a (rough) agreement on the proper role of the state in society, but we can agree on that point while vigorously disagreeing with each other about a host of other moral, religious, and cultural issues. Tolerance of such disagreement arguably makes for a more effective political coalition. And, after all, part of the appeal of libertarian political institutions is that they allow for people to believe in and live according to a diverse set of norms.

But does that mean that racism, nationalism, and a desire for cultural stasis sit just as well with the libertarian worldview as tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and cultural dynamism? I don’t think it does. However we define libertarianism, and whatever our reasons for endorsing it, we are libertarians for some reason. And the reasons we have to endorse libertarianism will often be reasons for endorsing other values, projects, or cultural practices as well. Imagine someone who endorsed the non-aggression principle because they believed it reflected the fundamental equality of persons, for example, but who simultaneously believed that white Americans were the moral superior of every other person on the planet, and who expressed that belief through a variety of derogatory and marginalizing practices. Even if such a person in no way violated the non-aggression principle, I would still say that they are not a libertarian in as full a sense as they could, and should, be. The reason is not just that they have beliefs and practices that I find objectionable. It is that they have beliefs and practices that are incompatible with the very moral foundation on which libertarianism rests.

In other words, even if we can sensibly talk about libertarianism in a “thin” sense, and even if there are virtues to doing so, we can nevertheless talk about a “thicker” kind of libertarianism as well. And we can hold, moreover, that the thicker form of libertarianism is a better, more fully consistent form of libertarianism. I borrow the term ‘thick libertarianism’ from this excellent essay by Charles Johnson (now available in hard copy in this excellent book). Here’s how Johnson describes the particular kind of thickness I’m referring to:

Libertarians have many different ideas about the theoretical foundations for the non-aggression principle – that is to say, about the best reasons for being a libertarian. But whatever general foundational beliefs a given libertarian has, those beliefs may have some logical implications other than libertarianism alone.

The idea is related to, but distinct, from Bryan Caplan’s idea of a “Libertarian Penumbra.” My point isn’t just that there are some things that libertarians simply happen to believe or like more than other people (science fiction, perhaps?), but that there are things that libertarians ought to believe or like more than others, given their foundational commitments.

Two quick caveats, in conclusion:

  1. My main point here is to defend the idea of thick libertarianism, not to explain what I think the correct substance of thick libertarianism ought to be. My own commitment to libertarianism rests on more foundational beliefs about  individualism, tolerance, skepticism about power, respect for spontaneous order, and  belief in the importance of property rights. And I think these beliefs commit me not just to libertarianism but to a certain kind of feminism and  cultural dynamism, to name just two. But that’s an argument for another day.
  2. I’m not arguing that “thin” libertarians aren’t “real” libertarians. Labels don’t interest me much. And my own choice of labels probably shouldn’t interest you much either. The point isn’t about how to use the word “libertarian.” The point is about the logic of the moral and empirical commitments on which libertarianism rests. I think those commitments have implications other than libertarianism. And that we therefore have reason – qua libertarians – to take those commitments seriously. What we choose to call people who endorse or fail to endorse those commitments is a separate issue, and one of relatively minor import.

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