Wherein I refute a charge of libertarian nastiness, then ramble about the thick-thin debate

Last month at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Kevin Vallier took a measured view of the thick versus thin libertarianism debate. In a reasonable and mostly fair piece, he points out that both sides take their arguments a step too far:

Thick libertarians go too far when they insist there is only one or a very small set of justificatory and motivational routes to liberty. This is one reason I’m very hesitant to tie libertarianism to feminism too tightly. And one reason I disagree with the thick tendencies of many of my co-bloggers.

Thin libertarians go too far when they insist that any justificatory or motivational route to liberty is acceptable or fine. This is one reason I’m very keen to criticize libertarians friendly to racial discrimination and who cannot see that resisting racial discrimination is a corollary of libertarian commitments.

I would offer another way each side goes too far. Where some thick libertarians, as Vallier says, become too sure of their preferred route to liberty, some thin libertarians go too far in the opposite direction–they are so dedicated (and rightly so) to the non-aggression principle that they argue from NAP even regarding purely moral, non-political questions. That is, their worldview is liberty and they try to answer non-political questions politically. I have in mind not seasoned philosophers or writers, but simply the typical libertarian-in-the-street here, so this is not a criticism of the good people at LewRockwell.com or the Mises Institute.

A way in which thick libertarians go too far is demonstrated in Vallier’s following paragraph:

I prefer thick libertarians in part because they are fighting the good fight against the morally nastiest parts of the liberty movement. I agree with thick libertarians that some prominent libertarians ultimately frustrate the goals of the liberty movement by insisting on libertarianism’s radical neutrality, such that liberty is compatible with fundamentally “brutalist” impulses.

The Jeffrey Tucker link notwithstanding, this paragraph unintentionally shows Vallier’s cards and commits the same assumptive error as his thick colleagues. The assertion about moral nastiness in the liberty movement is itself unfair and, as Christopher Cantwell argued, an evidence-free myth. Sex and the State blogger Cathy Reisenwitz, whom I criticized a couple posts (i.e. many months) ago, infamously perpetuated this myth and was forced to apologize for doing so recently after people called her out. It is frustrating that left-libertarians like Vallier innocently criticize more radical libertarians for their supposed “nastiness” and in the same breath admit that these libertarians are “radically neutral.” If we radical libertarians are radically neutral, then we can’t possibly be nasty, at least not qua libertarians. At worst, we radical libertarians refuse to define actual nastiness out of a political philosophy that has nothing to say about nastiness. That may make Vallier, fellow BHLers and Tucker uncomfortable, but it doesn’t make us nasty.

On Tucker’s controversial “humanitarian” versus “brutalist” piece and think versus thin more generally: the argument that classical political liberalism is conducive to social non-political liberalism (or vice-versa) is appealing but short-sighted. While Tucker’s vision of a “beautiful anarchy” is inspiring and thoughtful and probably true, it does not follow that a free world has no place for illiberal social and moral conventions. He writes about “brutalists”:

To them, what’s impressive about liberty is that it allows people to assert their individual preferences, to form homogeneous tribes, to work out their biases in action, to ostracize people based on “politically incorrect” standards, to hate to their heart’s content so long as no violence is used as a means, to shout down people based on their demographics or political opinions, to be openly racist and sexist, to exclude and isolate and be generally malcontented with modernity, and to reject civil standards of values and etiquette in favor of antisocial norms.

This is a narrow view of the “radically neutral” libertarian, but even accepting this account, Tucker betrays his own vision for liberty. Is there no room in his “beautiful anarchy” for the market to experiment with socially harsh, even bigoted or demeaning customs, as well as more progressive and inclusive ones? Is there no room in his “beautiful anarchy” for the market to test traditions like chastity and even slut-shaming in one community, while forward-thinking free spirits and floozies openly craft a community of promiscuity and open sexuality? To the contrary, what is beautiful about anarchy is the idea that there is room for everyone; the difference being that we have rid ourselves of the institution whereby some small number of people among us claims massive power and authority to commit violence against the rest of us. Just as respect for freedom of speech requires that we accept and even encourage the expression of unpopular–even hateful–speech, to truly respect a system of anarchy means we must be open to the possibility that everything we know about morality and society is wrong. As long as we have the freedom to challenge differing ideas, this possibility should not scare us.

There have been both thick and thin arguments conflating the sphere of politics with the spheres of social mores and morality. On the former side, we have heard that liberty leads to feminism and racial equality and acceptance of homosexuality; on the latter side, we have heard that it is okay to slut-shame or libel or borrow copyrighted work without attribution, just because these things do not violate the non-aggression principle. Libertarians should recognize that the question of aggression, i.e. who may rightfully initiate force, is a political question and should be limited to the political sphere. There are at least thousands of interesting questions that libertarians–and non-libertarians–might find interesting, and as thinking individuals, they should pursue the answers to those questions. But when they do so, they should be honest and pursue this knowledge not as a libertarian, but as something separate.

The list of things I would change about people to make my world more beautiful–and, I humbly suggest, more free–include much better taste in music, more car color choices, less glorification of the alpha male in school, and less small-talk among new acquaintances. However, I would never claim that a good libertarian has a profound appreciation for the Coen brothers or can effortlessly strike up a conversation with a total stranger. While my preferences appear to me obviously conducive to freedom, others almost certainly disagree, and it would be arrogant of me to claim that my vision of the beautiful society captures best the thrust of the purpose of liberty, as Tucker claims “humanitarianism” does. It might be a little depressing to consider that anarchy might have room for racism, evangelical Christians with little tolerance for homosexuality, and people for the unethical treatment of animals. In fact, a free society initially might appear little different than the current state society, besides being much more prosperous, peaceful and efficient. The only attribute a libertarian can confidently claim about a free society is its lack of tolerance for the state and other forms of aggressive violence between persons. That does not mean that we should not care about racism, heterosexism, poaching and global warming. We probably should, but unless aggression against property rights is concerned, we should not claim these issues as important to the political philosophy of libertarianism. It is a philosophy with limited scope, but that does not limit the philosopher’s scope.


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