Libertarianism Is Still About More Than Rejecting Aggression

Libertarian has a historical and philosophical association with ethical and political individualism


The debate on thick and thin libertarianism continues, and that's a good thing. Libertarians can only gain by the discussion. Often one comes to appreciate one's own philosophy more fully in the crucible of intellectual argument.

So I, for one, welcome the debate—so long as it is a real debate and not merely a series of unsupported denials of the proposition on the table. As Michael Palin of Monty Python pointed out in the brilliant sketch "Argument Clinic," "An argument is not the same as contradiction. An argument is a collected series of statements to establish a definite proposition. It isn't just contradiction. It isn't just saying 'No it isn't.'" (To which John Cleese responded, "Yes it is.") "Argument is an intellectual process," Palin continued. "Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says." (To which Cleese responded, "No it isn't.")

The proposition on the table is that the most robust case for the libertarian philosophy (such as I articulated but of course did not originate) entails commitments not only to the Nonaggression Principle—or what I now call the Nonaggression Obligation—but also to other values that don't directly relate to aggression (for example, opposition to even non-rights-violating forms of racism). Charles W. Johnson spells this out in some detail in "Libertarianism through Thick and Thin." What Johnson calls "thickness from grounds" is only one of the forms of thickness he has identified, but it's the one most relevant for this discussion. Here's how he puts it:

There may be cases in which certain beliefs or commitments could be rejected without contradicting the nonaggression principle per se, but could not be rejected without logically undermining the deeper reasons that justify the nonaggression principle. Although you could consistently accept libertarianism without accepting these commitments or beliefs, you could not do so reasonably: rejecting the commitments means rejecting the proper grounds for libertarianism.…

Noncoercive authoritarianism [for example, patriarchy] may be consistent with libertarian principles, but it is hard to reasonably reconcile the two. Whatever reasons you may have for rejecting the arrogant claims of power-hungry politicians and bureaucrats—say, for example, the Jeffersonian notion that all men and women are born equal in political authority and that no one has a natural right to rule or dominate other people's affairs—probably serve just as well for reasons to reject other kinds of authoritarian pretension, even if they are not expressed by means of coercive government action. While no one should be forced as a matter of policy to treat her fellows with the respect due to equals, or to cultivate independent thinking and contempt for the arrogance of power, libertarians certainly can—and should—criticize those who do not, and exhort our fellows not to rely on authoritarian social institutions, for much the same reasons that we have for endorsing libertarianism in the first place. [Emphasis added.]

The first thing this quotation does is refute the mistaken but common notion that advocates of thick libertarianism believe that force may properly be used for reasons other than to counter initiatory force. The second thing it refutes is the spurious claim that thick libertarians simply add their pet preferences onto libertarianism, like so many ornaments on a Christmas tree. To repeat Johnson's point, "rejecting the commitments means rejecting the proper grounds for libertarianism." There are no "add-ons."

Note also that Johnson says that the sort of commitments he has in mind "could be rejected without contradicting the nonaggression principle per se." In other words, he does not say that someone who rejects these commitments is not a libertarian. He says only that rejection of the commitments weakens the best case for libertarianism, which in turn could weaken a particular libertarian's commitment to libertarianism itself. Despite what you may have heard, there is no attempt here to read anyone out of the movement (as though someone could actually do that).

Let's look at some counterclaims made recently in this discussion. Unfortunately, I've seen little more than the sort of unsupported contradictions about which the dissatisfied Argument Clinic customer complained. I hope someone will take up the challenge of presenting a contrary case for the Nonaggression Obligation that does not reasonably entail commitment to values not directly related to the use of force.

In a recent lecture, libertarian economist Walter Block rebutted the case for thick libertarianism, particularly my rendition, by insisting that libertarianism is only about nonaggression combined with property rights acquired through homesteading. But insistence is not argument.

He went on to rebut my proposition that libertarianism is intimately associated with individualism. Surprisingly, he denied this is the case, no matter (he added) what his mentor Murray Rothbard and most modern libertarians have believed. While Block said he has no problem with methodological individualism, he sees no connection between libertarianism and political individualism. (I had in mind political and ethical individualism: the individual is the basic unit morally and politically precisely because only individuals act.) According to Block, libertarianism is entirely compatible with collectivism as long as it is voluntary, such as in a free commune.

Of course, Block is right about that compatibility, but that in no way refutes my claim about the historical and philosophical association of libertarianism with ethical/political individualism. In my article I defended the proposition that we owe other individuals nonaggression because we owe them respect as ends in themselves. (Block never says why we owe anyone nonaggression. Does he ever ask that question?) That is why we respect a person's choice to join a commune. Thus, Block's "voluntary collectivism" cannot refute individualist libertarianism. Where Block goes wrong is in conflating ethical/political individualism, which is based on the idea of the human being as a social animal, with what we might call lifestyle, or atomistic, individualism, which I never claimed was the essence of libertarianism. To see the absurdity of Block's position, note that in his lecture he said my notion of libertarianism should logically lead to the rejection of team sports! Symphony orchestras and jazz bands too, I presume.

Another critique is provided by Lew Rockwell. (For the convenience of the reader, his article is here.) In response to my claim that libertarianism must be about more than force, Rockwell in effect parrots John Cleese: "No it mustn't." But he does a bit more: he makes an argument from authority by citing Murray Rothbard (of whom I was a long-time friend, informal student, and admirer). He quotes Rothbard thus: "Libertarianism per se has no general or personal moral theory. Libertarianism does not offer a way of life." That's not an argument either, but of course the thick libertarianism that Rockwell is criticizing makes no such claim. Reread Johnson's passage and see for yourself.

Rockwell then warns that thick libertarianism threatens to repeat a tragic episode in the history of classical liberalism:

To claim that it is not enough for the libertarian to oppose aggression is to fall into the trap that destroyed classical liberalism the first time, and transformed it into modern liberalism. How, after all, did the classical liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries become the state-obsessed liberalism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? How did the once-venerable wordliberalism become perverted in the first place? Precisely because of thickism.

This is flat wrong. Statist "liberalism" did not arise from the association of classical liberalism with broader values; many classical liberals in the early days associated political liberty with a broader social and ethical philosophy rooted in natural law; so did Rothbard. Instead, liberalism was corrupted by thinkers and activists who, contrary to liberalism, wanted to use the state to accomplish their ends. As Herbert Spencer, an eye witness to the transformation, wrote in "The New Toryism," which is included in his book The Man versus the State,

Passing now to our special question, we may understand the kind of confusion in which Liberalism has lost itself: and the origin of those mistaken classings of political measures which have misled it — classings, as we shall see, by conspicuous external traits instead of by internal natures. For what, in the popular apprehension and in the apprehension of those who effected them, were the changes made by Liberals in the past? They were abolitions of grievances suffered by the people, or by portions of them: this was the common trait they had which most impressed itself on men's minds. They were mitigations of evils which had directly or indirectly been felt by large classes of citizens, as causes to misery or as hindrances to happiness. And since, in the minds of most, a rectified evil is equivalent to an achieved good, these measures came to be thought of as so many positive benefits; and the welfare of the many came to be conceived alike by Liberal statesmen and Liberal voters as the aim of Liberalism. Hence the confusion. The gaining of a popular good, being the external conspicuous trait common to Liberal measures in earlier days (then in each case gained by a relaxation of restraints), it has happened that popular good has come to be sought by Liberals, not as an end to be indirectly gained by relaxations of restraints, but as the end to be directly gained. And seeking to gain it directly, they have used methods intrinsically opposed to those originally used.

In other words, classical liberalism sought to, and to an extent did, ameliorate the suffering of the masses indirectly by removing burdens imposed by the state and letting natural social and market forces do their work. In contrast, the New Tories sought to ameliorate suffering directly through affirmative state measures. Where are the self-styled thick libertarians who call for ameliorative  state measures or advocate the use of force except to counter aggressive force? There are none.

For this reason, Rockwell need not lose sleep worrying that these libertarians might choose some other value over other people's freedom. No one understands better than they that no rational value can be achieved by violating individuals' rights.

This column originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.