Saturday, April 26, 2014

Thick... Thin... Or just LibertarianismPLUS?

This is going to be exceptionally long. It's an essay that has been floating around in my brain for several months, and I'd like this to be the only time I write a piece like this for a long, long time so I wanted to do it right.

I haven't submitted an official entry into the "Is libertarianism enough?" debate up to this point for a few reasons, but for the most part, I have simply been too busy to do it justice.

Mostly I've been busy making this:

Since January, I've produced multiple films, notably this new half-hour documentary for my project called "Locked Out"; I attended a film festival with "No Vans Land"; caught up on what's happening in entertainment at SXSW in Austin; I gave a talk about occupational licensing after a screening for law students in Illinois; and a whole lot more.

There are more important things going on than get into the latest bit of bickering about who is and who is not a qualified libertarian. To be honest, I wish everybody involved in this particular fight could, or would, say the same... But to my chagrin, these issues persist and at least in my social sphere, a lot of terrible ideas keep getting promoted and I suppose I should actually say something about it.

So.... As a quick overview for those who aren't totally familiar with what we're talking about:


There are many in the libertarian community who would suggest that "libertarianism", as a philosophy, does not offer enough guidance on how to be a good person, and they would like to enhance libertarian ethics with an additionally prescribed set of social preferences, behaviors, and in many cases - outcomes. Some might call this "thick libertarianism".

To explain what this means, I go to anarchist writer, Anthony Gregory, from a conversation I had with him about the topic:
"Thick libertarianism comes from Charles Johnson and Roderick Long. They are philosophers. Thickness is a concept in philosophy generally. It's been totally misunderstood by its critics. I don't understand why honestly.
All thick libertarianism means itself is that the philosophy is not totally reducible to the NAP (Non-Aggression Principle)."
To paraphrase a little bit, the idea of "thick" libertarianism in its raw form, is simply that "other values" beyond simply initiating force against others are important to libertarianism.

Unlike many people who are currently on board the "we should all be thick libertarians" train, Anthony views  "thick" libertarianism in a pretty broad way. It's not just about enhancing libertarianism with a specific set of social preferences (ie. liberal egalitarianism, feminism, leftover ideas from the dregs of critical theory, etc.). In our conversation, he explained that a person who claimed that Austrian economic theory is more a part of libertarianism than Chicago School economics would be every bit as "thick" a libertarian as someone who claimed that libertarians must also embrace feminism or care about "social justice", because in each case, the person is claiming that there is more to libertarianism than simply not initiating force against others.

Or... To quote Charles Johnson, one of the original users of the term in this context,
"...not only left libertarians defend the claim that libertarianism should be integrated into a comprehensive critique of prevailing social relations; so do paleolibertarians such as Gary North or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, when they make the equal but opposite claim that efforts to build a flourishing free society should be integrated with a rock-ribbed inegalitarian cultural and religious traditionalism."
In this conception of the word "thick", any set of concerns beyond freedom from government coercion that is greater than zero would be enough to label someone a "thick", or at least "thicker" libertarian.

Fair enough... I'm mostly fine with this definition, though it is pretty broad and rests on at least one dubious claim. The premise that libertarians are concerned with "aggression", or the initiation of force, only when it is carried out by the state is horribly flawed.

In fact, I would argue that that view explicitly confuses the philosophy in an extremely important way.

Libertarians believe that all human beings should be bound by the same ethical rules regarding the use of force, and it is because these ethical rules are considered to be universal that we reject initiations of force against innocent people by government actors as well. Whatever is unethical for the private individual - ie. theft, murder, kidnapping, etc. - remains unethical when that individual has put on a government uniform. This separates us from most other political philosophies, since most inconsistently grant special authorities to the political class because they treat ethics as conditional on a person's role in society.

As a primer, a few years ago Red Shift Media made this great animation to explain this idea:

Note both that the "NAP", such as it is, is a conclusion based on the premise of self-ownership, and that it starts with the private violations of liberty and proceeds to the more obfuscated state violations.

Nearly everyone of any libertarian persuasion - as a foundational tenet of the philosophy - abhors coercive or rights-violating behavior wherever it is found, and in over 15 years of participating in this community, I have not met a single person who believes that it is the exclusive domain of the state.

Have you ever met a libertarian who criticizes police brutality, but thinks that private domestic abuse is totally fine? Have you ever met a libertarian who thinks that taxation is unethical, but stealing someone's car is totally cool?

I sure haven't.

So I think it is a critical error to define libertarianism's core as being only - or even chiefly - concerned with "state" violence. It may be true that libertarians tend to spend more time talking about the state than private actors, but this certainly doesn't mean libertarians don't care about private coercion, it merely reflects a reality that the state is vastly more of a threat than random acts of private violence against people & property.

The vast majority of libertarians I've ever met - even the thinnest of the thin - still don't support private acts of aggression as a matter of principle. And everybody has concerns beyond the issue of aggression, because we're all actually multi-faceted individuals.

Without biasing the results, I would bet quite a lot that if you got together a bunch of self-identifying libertarians and surveyed them with questions like...
  • Do you believe that certain kinds of social behaviors are more or less conducive to political freedom?
  • Do you believe that government is the only institution that can be coercive?
  • Do you oppose the initiation of force or coercion in social interactions as well as interactions with the state?
  • Even if non-aggression is the only thing that matters to make a society "libertarian", is that the only concern that you have when considering what makes a society that you want to live in?
  • Is child abuse wrong?
...their answers, in order, would almost uniformly be:
  • Of course.
  • No. 
  • Absolutely.
  • Duh.
  • Yes!
I believe this would be true of the overwhelming majority of libertarians regardless of whether or not they considered themselves thick, thin, or mesomorph.

Everybody has preferences. And everybody I have ever met as a libertarian who has spent more than five minutes thinking about society realizes that there are numerous types of additional, non-coercive, behaviors which are broadly helpful to encouraging more freedom, yet which have nothing to do with libertarianism directly.

Here is a relevant example.
Assume that Society A and Society B share the same legal protections on freedom of speech. You will not be arrested, prosecuted, or thrown in jail for anything that you say in either society.

Society A is inviting of debate and civil discussion, and does not shout down opposing or unpopular viewpoints. People in Society A seem to genuinely enjoy boisterous and sometimes vigorous conversation, even when people's opinions are oppositional.

Society B is hostile towards contentious discussion & debate, but the people do not support their disapproval with legal or social coercion. If you say something the people of Society B dislike, they will not threaten or act aggressively toward you, your family, or property. They will avoid you, tell you to shut up, and wherever possible make you feel unwelcome.
Given the above scenario, I would argue that the overwhelming majority of libertarians would say that they would both prefer to live in Society A, and that Society A seems more conducive to keeping speech free over the long term than does Society B.

I would also argue, however, that while Society A is preferable for many reasons, it is not "more libertarian" than Society B in any meaningful sense.

Neither society condones coercion at the state or societal level. So the preference of A over B isn't a preference built around a "libertarian" concern, but around extra-libertarian concerns which are - in some ways - tangential, but non-essential to defining the philosophy. Tons of behaviors and traits can be positive or negative for an individual or (arguably) a society without having anything at all to do with libertarianism.

Practically speaking, this distinction matters a great deal, and not only do I think this separation of concepts is okay, I think it's good.

More on that later, but first, a brief interlude:


Since it's caused a massive amount of confusion to many people lately... Coercion is a specific term referring to a specific type of behavior. In short, I'm happy with the following definition:
:: the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats.
However, since this definition was recently perplexing to someone I was talking to, let me follow this up by further defining that force in this context clearly means:
:: strength or power exerted upon an object; physical coercion; violence: to use force to open the window; to use force on a person.
And... The word, threat refers specifically to:
:: a statement of an intention to inflict pain, injury, damage, or other hostile action on someone in retribution for something done or not done.
I am defining these terms not to invite even more debate over what they "actually" mean, but because quite frequently I have found that it is entirely impossible to have a discussion with a certain group of people wherein I use the word "coercion" and they don't conflate that concept with a million other - sometimes totally contradictory - ideas.

If you don't like my definition... Fine. But for the purposes of the discussion I'm trying to have right now, I will be using the word frequently, and I want to be absolutely clear about what I mean.

Coercion is physical violence, and threats of pain, injury, or other damage through the means of physical violence.

We could theoretically have a more nuanced conversation about the specific point at which non-force or indirectly forceful behaviors become harassment and coercion, but these are special situations which describe a small subset of human interaction and which often need to be addressed case by case. They are the gray area, but it's not as much area or as complicated to define as many people think.

The important thing is that coercion does not encompass other concepts like "shaming", "ostracism", "seduction", "encouragement", "enticement" or any of the other ways in which people try to influence behavior without resorting to violence or threats of violence.


Now that that's out of the way, here's why my side-note matters:

Libertarianism as an ethical philosophy is highly concerned with the concept of coercion, so we need to be clear about what that means. There are many varieties of libertarian thought that extend from numerous philosophical traditions, so there are a lot of premises one could rely on to reach the same conclusions, but fundamentally, the essence of it was summed up by John Locke four-hundred years ago:
"All mankind... being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions."
Or as I like to say it.... Libertarians hold a pretty basic ethic: "Don't hurt people, and don't take their stuff." 

Alternatively, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes libertarianism broadly as a philosophy predicated on the idea that people are self-owners, and:
"...that each agent has a right to maximum equal empirical negative liberty, where empirical negative liberty is the absence of forcible interference from other agents when one attempts to do things."
This is the core.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that deals rather specifically with the appropriate role of violence against individuals and their legitimate property in society. It outlines how people should interact with each other in very broad terms, and says - in essence - that the only ethical interactions between people are voluntary.

American Libertarianism is a negative rights tradition... It's not merely the support of "liberty", whatever that means to whomever is using the term.

The dividing line is coercion: Harming someone or threatening them in order to get them to do what you want is, therefore, anti-libertarian.

The Non-Aggression Principle is really just a shorthand for this concept.

This is often misunderstood, I think... Both by people who like and dislike the idea of the NAP. The Non-Aggression Principle is not a premise or an axiom (although it can be axiomatic). It is a conclusion about what's ethically best for humans. And really, it's a paraphrasing of many conclusions.

And honestly, it's not even my favorite description of the libertarian ethic, but as shorthand goes, I think it's fine.

You can be a libertarian and believe an enormous variety of other things about life and the pursuit of happiness. The only thing you cannot do is advocate for the use of coercion in order to support your other goals.

And this brings us back to "thick" vs. "thin" libertarianism.

The position I support, as outlined above, is what most people would refer to as a fairly "thin" philosophical position... I have no other concerns beyond a person's use of force when I am considering libertarianism qua libertarianism. As I will explain in a second, I think that this broadness and openness to a multitude of personal preferences is what makes it a good and robust political philosophy.

But for many people, a thin libertarianism just isn't enough. Which brings me to...


In one of the most prominent recent essays on this topic, Will Moyer's "The Limits of Libertarianism", Moyer sums up his point as follows:
"While eliminating the state is a massive multi-generational project, it is in many ways only the first step. Human flourishing is the ultimate goal. And if libertarians think they can dust off their hands and head home just because the state is in ashes, they’re wrong. The state is the most obvious and brutal source of power and hierarchy, but it’s far from the only one. The state is a giant engine for deforming human culture, and what’s left over once it’s smashed isn’t a foregone conclusion. It will be up to humans to reshape and remake culture and society in the way that suits us best. This will have to include examinations of race, class, gender, sexuality, relationships, religion, social institutions, and traditions in the absence of the state apparatus. It will have to include disassembling other forms of hierarchy – both violent and non-violent."
In cartoon form, Moyer is basically saying this:

It's a whole other blog post to explain why this is wrong, but lets start with the obvious: The state is the great amplifier of bigotry and poverty. Don't believe me? Go back up to the top of this and watch "Locked Out".
Here we have the essence of what I think most people think modern "thick libertarians" actually believe, and where I think the real problems come in.

And regardless of whether or not you consider Moyer's to be the only type of "thick" libertarianism (it's obviously not), it's certainly the only one anybody is really talking about right now. Perhaps you live a very different experience than I do, but loads of people talk to me on a daily basis about importing leftist egalitarian social values (and embarrassingly poor economics) into libertarianism... But literally no one talks to me about Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

So this is where we have to shift focus.

The issue is no longer simply about whether or not "thick" libertarianism in general makes sense - and I really think it doesn't - now we have to talk about a specific iteration of thick libertarianism... The type advocated by the Will Moyers of the world.

I would describe it as follows:

In this iteration, it's not enough to oppose the initiation of force or the coercion (which again, yes, "coercion" does mean something specific!) of people into doing things we wish them to do against their will and allow the world to be whatever it ends up being through voluntary means. To be better people, we must all also push for a world to conform to Moyer's specific view of what is best - which means "disassembling" all forms of "hierarchy"... Or in the parlance of "left-libertarian" high priest, Kevin Carson, "No Masters, No Bosses".

But here's the thing... What is "best" for society is unknown, highly debatable, and hotly debated.

For me, it's a good thing that libertarianism is not a prescriptive philosophy beyond rejecting the use of coercion and initiating violence!

It doesn't tell you what religion you have to be, what you have to think about global warming, or whether or not you should spend your time gardening and hiking in the woods or playing video games in your air conditioned man-cave. It doesn't dictate to people what types of ends they should be using their freedom to pursue, merely that everyone should always be free to pursue the ends of their choosing - provided that they don't inhibit anyone else's freedom to do the same.

What's so great about this is that it's the one political philosophy where Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindi's, Atheists... Hell, even Raelians, can come together and choose their own versions of what makes a fully-realized human, and pursue those independent philosophical ends.

I think this is libertarianism's biggest strength, not a weakness.

All this talk of what libertarians "should" believe beyond the idea that their interactions with others should be voluntary, only serves to divide what is otherwise the biggest tent imaginable - the ideal of human freedom. 

So, circling back to the "No Masters, No Bosses" idea and the elimination of hierarchies, not to mention the infusion of tragically collectivist feminism, intersectionality, critical theory, and all the other leftist claptrap that is currently en vogue in some parts of the libertarian community is a little troubling to me.

Can you be a libertarian and hate hierarchies? Of course.
Can you be a libertarian and a feminist? Yep.
Can you be a libertarian and spend all day talking about privilege? Sure.
Can you be a libertarian and think that racism is the defining issue of our time? Absolutely.

"Should you" be a libertarian and all of those things? Wellllllllllllllllllllll........ I'm not so sure.

One of the things that makes libertarian ideas more robust when actually applied in societies is that freedom and individualism leads to - in Nassem Taleb's words - a kind of "anti-fragility".

This is an extremely Hayekian sort of a point, but in short, the fact that a free society is one in which everyone is pursuing their own values and goals and where different people are experimenting with different models of entrepreneurship, financial arrangements, marital & personal relationships, different types of social communities, and applying their own unique twists on every other aspect of life is good, precisely because none of us knows perfectly what is "best" for ourselves and certainly not for others.

We're all pursuing different aims, and the aggregate of different people's actions is what we call "culture", "the economy", and rather importantly: "society". And what is beautiful about the libertarian political philosophy is that it opens the door to millions - billions, even - of individual experiments on how best to live life.

Since the only unifying trait libertarians - to be libertarians - must share in common, is a commitment to allowing voluntary interactions between people to take place unabated, everyone who does not impose their will on others by force or threats of force can be rightly considered "libertarians" and exist under the tent together.

 But this doesn't, and indeed, probably cannot mean that we all actually agree with each other on what "best" looks like.

Libertarianism is - contrary to its detractors' claims - NOT a utopian philosophy.

Unity, equality of outcomes and status, and other egalitarian concerns really only come from the barrel of a gun.

A free society is a diverse society. Sorry.

So some people may very well hate hierarchies and want to earn their living working in a communal cooperative, horizontally-structured, worker-owned business. But then, many others do like hierarchies... The bosses bear the risk, reap most of the rewards, and are responsible for tough decisions, while the employees are rewarded less financially, but often earn a comfortable living without the stress of management or the huge risk of failure.

Some businesses may function best horizontally - the folks at Zappos seem to think so. But many others don't, because they need fewer cooks in their management kitchen.

To demand that everyone must abandon all hierarchies - even voluntarily - is to miss the Hayekian lesson at play here.

The same problem exists when "left-libertarians" start telling everyone that they must take up metaphorical arms against the so-called "Patriarchy", or adopt feminism and critical race theory into their world-view. Apart from the fact that most of the arguments presented from those schools of thought feature more holes than the best block of Jarlsberg, telling other people what they "should" believe in order to be better - or "thicker" - libertarians is still kind of ridiculous.

Social preferences also vary widely.

Some people want to be monogamous, some polygamous, some gay, some straight, some bisexual or pansexual, some people are asexual. Some people like guns, others like sports, some like the ballet and art museums, some people like to surf, others like to sit at home and play video-games...

In the immortal words of Hoban Washburne:
"Some people juggle geese!"
And that's ok!

But here's the real shocker... It's even ok when you think other people's preferences are negative. Individuals have just as much right to believe that certain behaviors in themselves and others are wrong as they do to believe some are right. And as long as they don't use violence to impose their views on other people, they can voice their opinions and advocate for their version of the kind of society they want to see.

That is, this is how people behave in a peaceful society... And I'm a libertarian because I don't want any other kind.

Decentralization is good. Humility is good. We don't all know what's best.

Thick-libertarians to everyone else... Who needs friends?
Demanding that all "libertarians" suddenly adopt a single set of additional, non-essential, preferences in order to conform to one vision is really missing the point of what it means to be free individuals and is pointlessly divisive within an already fractional and marginalized community.

This doesn't mean that self-identified left-libertarians can't comment on other people's lives, or that they can't have an opinion on what's good or bad for other people to do. Of course they can, and I think should, advocate for the world they want to see.

Without employing violence, or threats of violence, everyone is still left with a myriad number of ways to get people to come around to their preferences. Enticing people into liking what you like is great. Persuasion & seduction are totally fine. But so too are the non-coercive forms of negative reinforcement - like shaming and mockery, even ostracism in some cases.

So Will Moyer can rail against heirarchies. My former partner can spend her days misinforming people with the latest fact-free Tumblr slacktivism crusade. But this should be separate from the issue of libertarianism. Creating a new "Libertarianism+" as I'd like to call it just doesn't make any sense. In case you miss the reference, I'm comparing this newfound left-libertarian "thickness" to Atheism+ the PZ Myers-led infusion of lefty progressivism into Atheism, as if a lack of belief in a god requires someone to agree with specifically progressive ideas on tax-policy.

As a atheist and a libertarian, I think such ideas are completely idiotic.

Thus I also think it's idiotic to believe libertarians should also retain a set of leftist egalitarian social values. It ruins everything robust and anti-fragile about the philosophy while polarizing people into factions, creating enmity, and sowing discord.

And on top of that, many of the ideas most of those folks are supporting are absurd to boot.

Personally, I think you're a much better person if you are nice to people, and don't treat anyone any differently on the basis of anything other than traits like honesty, generosity, intelligence, and kindness.

But if you choose another set of values to live by, and by which to judge your relationships with others, as long as you don't impose those values on everyone else by force, you can still be a libertarian... Yes, even if you have beliefs I think are incredibly stupid, or even mean.

Just don't threaten violence, injury, pain, harm, torture, imprisonment, etc., or actually carry out those threats in order to get people do what you want them to do, and you get to be a part of the libertarian tent.

It's that simple.


Ok. One more thing.

Now that I've established that I think "thick" libertarianism of any kind is kind of a mistake, depending on how broadly you view that idea; and now that I've explained why I think that the type of thickness most people are advocating for right now tends to be especially absurd, I want to make a couple points about marketing.

This is not a point about libertarian philosophy. It's a point about how people perceive libertarians and what we can do to affect that perception.

I've been talking about this issue publicly for over 5 years. In 2009, on this blog, I wrote about why "It's Time for Free Marketer's to Learn About Advertising!" and I have been putting my money where my mouth is ever since.

This is NOT a philosophical point about
libertarianism. It's a practical point about
marketing libertarian ideas.
The kind of person you are and the way you carry yourself in your interactions with others matters, and the fact is, most people do not judge a philosophy of any type by it's content. They judge it based on the actions and words of its adherents, and by their interactions with the people who fit the philosophy's label.

If people's primary association with libertarians leads them to believe that we are a bunch of obnoxious, rude, mean, bigoted jerks who lack empathy or concern for others, they will assume that this is a product of our philosophy. If the majority of libertarians they meet believe in conspiracy theories, they'll assume our philosophy is the province of conspiracy loons.

So purely as a point of marketing, there are some people I wish were more prevalent and vocal about libertarian ideas, and many people I wish would not talk about it with anybody.

For better or worse, if you're a libertarian, you're a part of our community and you're contributing to community culture. We are not separate from culture. We are culture. What we do defines it. And as a part of our community, you're representing everyone - not just yourself - every time you talk to people about it. So just take some time and think about what you say and how you say it.

Here are a few do's & don'ts from my perspective.

  • Try to be polite, kind, and patient
  • Present your ideas positively, offering solutions and benefits instead just talking about problems
  • Be welcoming of all people and conversations
  • Have a high threshold for stress and frustration
  • Pay attention to pop-culture and current events
  • Have fun and maintain a sense of humor
  • Make friends, not enemies
  • Be angry, unnecessarily spiteful, or rude
  • Say unnecessarily offensive things
  • Generalize based on race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation
  • Promote conspiracy theories and tenuous connections between events and people
  • Be overly negative or condescending
  • Lie or build your case on fallacies or false evidence
None of us will ever be perfect about any of this, but being concerned with the experiences of others is valuable, and if you want to support any set of ideas publicly, you must be credible. And while my Do's & Don'ts won't make you better at being a libertarian, I think they will make you a better advocate for libertarianism.

The "customer" is the one you want to buy your ideas.
Please, do consider the things you believe and the way you act, especially if you want to increase human liberty broadly. The goal shouldn't just be to get as many people riled up as possible... The goal should be to get new people curious and interested in your ideas without - wherever possible - alienating anyone. That's how we get net gains... and net gains are the goal.

Red-meat rallying cries and polemic bromides may get some people excited, but they turn other people off just as quickly. This is as true for radical feminists as it is for conservative Christians.

In short... Just try to be cool, guys.

Finally, the last piece of advice I have ties everything back to the beginning of this post. There is one more thing that I desperately wish everyone would start doing and really take to heart.

To be blunt, nearly everyone who currently spends most of their time telling other libertarians what they "should be doing" to promote freedom in society has absolutely no credibility.

There's an epidemic of people seriously lacking in money-mouth.

People who don't have any experience working with, talking to, or presenting ideas publicly to people who aren't already in the club without alienating 50% of their audiences and creating enemies have absolutely no business telling other libertarians how it's done. Until these folks stop exclusively criticizing their allies from inside the bubble, and actually start trying to present ideas to the unconverted in a meaningful way, there's just no reason to take most of these people seriously.

Internal challenge and debate is important, but remember that the point of the whole thing is about engendering a free society and to do that people across the political and philosophical spectrum need to be convinced to become more libertarian. That doesn't happen if all we do is bitch at each other.

If you spend all your time writing essays (like this one, ironically enough) analyzing "the movement" and telling other people in our own community what they're doing wrong, you're not spending that time actually making a case for freedom to the people who matter - the people who don't already understand and agree with the core ideas.

Don't just keep bickering with your friends. Make a movie, write a book, do a podcast or a radio show, learn an academic discipline and teach a class, do some original reporting...

Do something, and do it for non-libertarian audiences.

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