Am I a "Thick" or "Thin" Libertarian?Submitted by Marc Clair on Mon, 04/28/2014 - 12:22
As any political movement expands and attracts more attention, it is bound to see divisions within it’s ever-growing ranks, and the liberty movement is no exception. Many people will deride the concept of “in-fighting” as inherently bad and to be avoided, but there is nothing wrong with in-fighting per se. If a political movement is to gain any ground, it is essential that it’s members come to a general agreement on the prevailing philosophy underlying the movement. Again, the liberty movement is no exception, and what many deride as needless in-fighting can often prove to be a valuable step in coming to a philosophical consensus.
The latest round of in-fighting in the liberty movement centers around the concept of “thick” vs “thin” libertarians. The “thin” libertarians – including Lew Rockwell, Robert Wenzel, and Bionic Mosquito - believe that libertarianism should be exclusively about strict adherence to the non-aggression principle. The “thick” libertarians, among whom we can count Jeffrey Tucker, Cathy Reisenwitz, and many of those associated with the “Bleeding Heart Libertarians”, believe that the non-aggression principle is not enough. They believe that libertarianism should be expanded to include stances on feminism, gay marriage, racial tolerance, and other social issues. (This may be an oversimplification of the conversation, and I apologize to any “thicks” or “thins” who feel their position is not fully represented in the above paragraph.)
Murray Rothbard once wrote that:
…there are libertarians who are indeed hedonists and devotees of alternative lifestyles, and that there are also libertarians who are firm adherents of “bourgeois” conventional or religious morality. There are libertarian libertines and there are libertarians who cleave firmly to the disciplines of natural or religious law. There are other libertarians who have no moral theory at all apart from the imperative of non-violation of rights. That is because libertarianism per se has no general or personal moral theory.
Libertarianism does not offer a way of life; it offers liberty, so that each person is free to adopt and act upon his own values and moral principles. Libertarians agree with Lord Acton that “liberty is the highest political end” — not necessarily the highest end on everyone’s personal scale of values.
Rothbard makes an important point that libertarianism is not a complete moral world view, nor is it meant to be. It is simply a political philosophy, and as with any political philosophy its purpose is to determine the proper use of violence on other human beings. Under the generally-accepted libertarian non-aggression principle, the only acceptable use of violence in society would be in self-defense of one’s body or property, or in response to the violation of one’s individual rights.
As I discussed in my recent interview with U.S. Senate Candidate Derrick Grayson, the great thing about liberty is that it is not for any one “type” of person – the libertarian philosophy is one that need not take into account one’s background, religious beliefs, or other personal views they might have. A conservative Catholic preacher from Idaho and a pot-smoking California hipster may have nothing in common whatsoever in their personal lives, all the while coming to complete agreement that violence should not be initiated upon other people.
In this sense, Rothbard and I probably both lean towards the “thin” libertarian camp, but that’s not to say that criticism of the “thin” position is not without merit. The non-aggression principle, while one I hold strong agreement with, does not tell us everything about libertarianism or about human interaction in general. It doesn’t give us insight into the true nature of man, nor does it provide the moral imperative of why one should be opposed to violent interference with the lives of their fellow, peaceful man. For this we need to delve further into human philosophy.
This is also not to say that many in the “thick” camp do not make valid points regarding race, class warfare, and many of the social structures in place in our society. I believe many of these problems can largely be traced back to the coercion inherent in the political system that most people in our society accept without a second thought. While it’s true that the political philosophy known as libertarianism does not on its own entail a position on how one must feel about two men getting married, or whether the racist white owner of a restaurant should serve black customers, the philosophy of liberty certainly presents the most moral solutions to dealing with these issues.
A society in which people reject the aggressive use of violence upon others is one that will naturally create the best conditions for voluntary relationships between individuals, as well as best punish and marginalize those with racist or homophobic views.
I believe the thick vs. thin debate to largely be a distraction that tends to miss what should be the main focus of those serious about advancing a libertarian agenda – the realm of philosophy. Only when we can properly explain the “why” behind the non-aggression principle can we effectively advocate for a voluntary society. Whether “thick” or “thin”, libertarians of all types would do well to focus more on this question, and less on the semantical arguments which will stem from the implications of the answer.
This article was originally published at Lions of Liberty.