Libertarianism through Thick and Thin

By Johnson, Charles | Freeman, July/August 2008 | Go to article overview

Libertarianism through Thick and Thin


Johnson, Charles, Freeman


To what extent should libertarians concern themselves with social commitments, practices, projects, or movements that seek social outcomes beyond, or other than, the standard libertarian commitment to expanding the scope of freedom from government coercion?

Clearly, a consistent and principled libertarian cannot support efforts or beliefs that are contrary to libertarian principles-such as efforts to engineer social outcomes by means of government intervention. 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 noncoercive 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? And how do we tell the difference?

In other words, should libertarianism be seen as a "thin" commitment, which can be happily joined to absolutely any set of values and projects, "so long as it is peaceful," or is it better to treat it as one strand among others in a "thick" bundle of intertwined social commitments? Such disputes are often intimately connected with other disputes concerning the specifics of libertarian rights theory or class analysis and the mechanisms of social power. To grasp what's at stake, it will be necessary to make the question more precise and to tease out the distinctions among some of 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.

The forms of "thickness" I am about to discuss should not be confused with two other kinds of commitments, one tightly and one loosely connected to libertarianism: those logically entailed by the philosophy itself (what I call "thickness in entailment"), such as opposition to private aggression, and those that relate simply to being a good person ("thickness in conjunction"), such as being a loving parent. As an example of the first category, it might be argued that libertarians ought to actively oppose certain traditional cultural practices that involve the systematic use of violence against peaceful people-such as East African customs of forcing clitoridectomy on unwilling girls or the American and European custom of judges and juries ignoring the facts and the law to acquit or reduce the sentence for men who murdered unfaithful wives or their lovers. Principled libertarianism logically entails criticism of these social and cultural practices for the same reason that it entails criticism of government intervention: because the nonaggression principle condemns any violence against individual rights to life, liberty, and property, regardless of who commits it, and not just forms that are officially practiced by government.

Between the tightest and the loosest possible connections, at least four other kinds of connections might exist between libertarianism and further social commitments, offering a number of important, but subtly distinct, avenues for thick libertarian analysis and criticism.

Thickness for Application

First, there might be some commitments that a libertarian can reject without formally contradicting the nonaggression principle, but which she cannot reject without in fact interfering with its proper application. Principles beyond libertarianism alone may be necessary for determining where my rights end and yours begin, or for stripping away conceptual blinders that prevent certain violations of liberty from being recognized as such.

Consider the way in which garden-variety political collectivism prevents many nonlibertarians from even recognizing taxation or legislation by a democratic government as being forms of coercion in the first place. …

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