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Am I a "Thick" or "Thin" Libertarian?

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.

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new article by Rockwell

An informal debate taking place among libertarians these days, regarding whether people ought to be “thick” or “thin” libertarians, is of a different character. It strikes at the very heart of what libertarianism is.

The “thin” libertarian believes in the nonaggression principle, that one may not initiate physical force against anyone else. The thin libertarian thinks of himself simply as a libertarian, without labels. Most “thick” libertarians likewise believe in the nonaggression principle, but they believe that for the struggle for liberty to be coherent, libertarians must be committed to a slate of other views as well.


Thanks for re-posting the

Thanks for re-posting the article.

I agree with Rothbard that libertarianism is a "political philosophy," and therefore its devotees claim a set of standards about how they believe large and enforced collectives -- or governments -- should be formed and operated.

I find myself disagreeing that libertarianism has no moral philosophy on which it broods.

It seems apparent to me that it broods on the idea that freedom is the highest order of morality. I say "highest," but it could probably well be argued that freedom is the necessary first order for morality to exist.

Without freedom, we quite simply can't be moral. We are amoral -- without the capacity for morality. Morality needs freedom.

So I see libertarianism as a champion of morality. It's insistence on freedom as fundamental is the both the root and the aim of morality. (That may be stretching it, but it sounds good to my ear.)

I would say that this thin-thick business sounds more like a confusion between the realm of government and the realm of our individual power. A squishy line in a republic or democracy, granted. Yet, I think we can draw some hard lines (and the devotion to ferreting out the philosophically defensible ones is what's both fun about being a libertarian and what makes it kinda honest, at its heart).

Let's take gay marriage. My L political philosophy says freedom is the highest aim of government. So I'm for no governmental restrictions that would curtail such couples' freedom. My religious philosophy says marriage is a special kind of relationship; it has ripples in the spiritual realm. So I'm opposed to gay people getting married. I can work on all sorts of levels to deter such unions. I can not use government -- the big Force, the capital F. To do so would mean that I don't understand the very nature of morality as being predicated on choice/freedom.

I'm kinda thinking that there will be a constant leaning from thin to thick. We all have our pet projects -- our moral issues that are so high value it's okay, just this time, just on this issue to smudge the edges of freedom. Right? That's kind of our nature with things we care about. We grasp for utilitarian solutions.

Liberty. Freedom. Yeah, awesome...but look what we could get done...look at the atrocity we could put an end to. Just this once...and then we'll sunset it.

Freedom is scary enough when we exercise it for ourselves; it's terrifying when we let just anyone have it.

We're caught in a dynamic that pulls. And it's supposed to, I'm thinking. That's the nature of freedom. There's no promise of utopia. It's just a slog. A slog of the highest order. Right?

(That's part of the reason I'm distrustful of anarchists, who so often go Utopian. Freedom isn't easy and there will always be individuals ready to ease our labors. And those individuals will find cohorts. And those cohorts will seek legitimacy. And that legitimate cohort will be government.)

On just the issue of L not having an underlying philosophy, I can see that, but personally, as a Christian, it fits most perfectly with my understand of God's relationship with man. Freedom was more important to God than morality right from the start. All the bad stuff in our natures and in the world were because God valued choice -- freedom -- above all. It is the highest and the most basic order of God's morality. And, now that I think about it, I can't see how that's not true for any spiritual tradition. Freedom, axiomatically, proceeds morality.

We can't have it the other way. No matter how hard we try. As libertarians we take God's position. Freedom is worth all the suffering in the world. (Haven't thought that through, but it would make a supercool ending if I hadn't messed it up with this.)

Successful philosophers are the true rulers of the world...

Just observe all the Marxists around - but now seem to be shrinking in number, thankfully.

this is very relevant to this discussion:


"All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind." - Khalil Gibran
"The Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame." - Chuang Tzu

From the article in your

From the article in your link:

Anarchy has a different problem (a problem that plagues minarchy as well), which is that no political framework OF ANY KIND, including elimination of the State, is sufficient to create and sustain a healthy, workable, free and compassionate society.

Eliminating the systematic coercion of the State is not enough, because freedom alone cannot do the job. Freedom is necessary but not sufficient. There is another element without which no society can long remain free…that necessary element is love, or compassion, or respect, or connection to others, or emotional health, or whatever you want to call it.

Without love, anarchy won't work, nor will minarchy, monarchy, fascism, socialism, Communism, democracy, or any other approach.

To paraphrase the article -- if most people resort to violence in their daily interactions, then no social system will work.

And conversely, the more that people are disposed to being peaceful and not aggress against their neighbors, the more successful will be ANY social system.

Rothbard said: "The anarchist view holds that, given the nature of man, given the degree of goodness or badness at any point in time, anarchism will maximize the opportunities for the good and minimize the channels for the bad... By eliminating the living example and the social legitimacy of the massive legalized crime of the state, anarchism will to a large extent promote peaceful values in the minds of the public."

Very well written

But it's like arguing over whether to go with the Stuarts or the Tudors.

You can have them both a split the difference, and get nowhere in the bargain, neither group is within five miles of reality on a 6 mile map.

view from here

... conservative Catholic preacher from Idaho and a pot-smoking California hipster...

Aren't those the same thing?

Sheep of Liberty?

The total lack of recognition concerning the power of deception is alarming to me.

When someone like Rothbard does such a meticulous job of exposing the main culprits of deception and then Rothbard himself resorts to deception when covering up such valuable work as the works done by Lysander Spooner, Josiah Warren, Stephen Pearl Andrews, and Jeffrey Tucker, then it may be a good idea to realize the power of deception in a more accurately accountable way: as opposed to remaining ignorant of it.


Those bound together as fellow deceivers.

Those bound together as fellow friends of accurate accounting so as to defend our common Liberty.



In theory, there are two possible solutions, neither of which has any possibility of being implemented in my lifetime or yours.

One solution is free banking. This was Ludwig von Mises' suggestion. There would be no bank regulation, no central bank monopolies, no bank licensing, and no legal barriers to entry. Let the most efficient banks win! In other words, the solution is a free market in money.

Another solution is 100% reserve banking. Banks would not be allowed to issue more receipts for gold or silver than they have on deposit. Anything else is fraud. There would be regulation and supervision to make sure deposits matched loans. This was Murray Rothbard's solution. The question is: Regulation by whom? With what authority?

There would be no government-issued money. There would be no government mint. There would be no legal tender laws. There would be no barriers to entry into coin production.

There would also be no free services. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Rothbard was obviously working at maintaining the money monopoly fraud and extortion power.

Evidence B:

Thus, a system of free banking, such as envisioned by
Spooner and Tucker, far from leading to an indefinite
increase of the supply of money and a disappearance of inter-
est, would lead to a far “harder” and more restricted money

Note: Rothbard employes a stealthy method of claiming to know what Spooner and Tucker advocated, as if Rothbard could speak for them, instead of allowing them to speak for themselves.

Here is a sampling of Spooner:

That offer has nothing to do with what Rothbard claims, since Spooner offered a far different approach to offering competitive money systems (on a free market) than Tucker, so grouping Spooner with Tucker, and then making up a story about what they did advocate, is far from an accurate accounting since Spooner and Tucker were themselves far different in their accounts on free market money competition.

Here is a sampling of Tucker (whose ideas were derived mainly from the work of Josiah Warren):


"First in the importance of its evil influence they considered the money monopoly, which consists of the privilege given by the government to certain individuals, or to individuals holding certain kinds of property, of issuing the circulating medium, a privilege which is now enforced in this country by a national tax of ten per cent., upon all other persons who attempt to furnish a circulating medium, and by State laws making it a criminal offense to issue notes as currency. It is claimed that the holders of this privilege control the rate of interest, the rate of rent of houses and buildings, and the prices of goods, – the first directly, and the second and third indirectly. For, say Proudhon and Warren, if the business of banking were made free to all, more and more persons would enter into it until the competition should become sharp enough to reduce the price of lending money to the labor cost, which statistics show to be less than three-fourths of once per cent. In that case the thousands of people who are now deterred from going into business by the ruinously high rates which they must pay for capital with which to start and carry on business will find their difficulties removed. If they have property which they do not desire to convert into money by sale, a bank will take it as collateral for a loan of a certain proportion of its market value at less than one per cent. discount. If they have no property, but are industrious, honest, and capable, they will generally be able to get their individual notes endorsed by a sufficient number of known and solvent parties; and on such business paper they will be able to get a loan at a bank on similarly favorable terms. Thus interest will fall at a blow. The banks will really not be lending capital at all, but will be doing business on the capital of their customers, the business consisting in an exchange of the known and widely available credits of the banks for the unknown and unavailable, but equality good, credits of the customers and a charge therefor of less than one per cent., not as interest for the use of capital, but as pay for the labor of running the banks. This facility of acquiring capital will give an unheard of impetus to business, and consequently create an unprecedented demand for labor, – a demand which will always be in excess of the supply, directly to the contrary of the present condition of the labor market. Then will be seen an exemplification of the words of Richard Cobden that, when two laborers are after one employer, wages fall, but when two employers are after one laborer, wages rise. Labor will then be in a position to dictate its wages, and will thus secure its natural wage, its entire product. Thus the same blow that strikes interest down will send wages up. But this is not all. Down will go profits also. For merchants, instead of buying at high prices on credit, will borrow money of the banks at less than one per cent., buy at low prices for cash, and correspondingly reduce the prices of their goods to their customers. And with the rest will go house-rent. For no one who can borrow capital at one per cent. with which to build a house of his own will consent to pay rent to a landlord at a higher rate than that. Such is the vast claim made by Proudhon and Warren as to the results of the simple abolition of the money monopoly.

Note the care taken by Tucker to elucidate the specific advantages of a fully free market concerning the reversal of roles when workers are as free to compete in a free market as are any so called employers.

In this phrase:

"when two laborers are after one employer, wages fall, but when two employers are after one laborer, wages rise"

The aim of the money monopolists are obviously targeting the free market advantage to be gained by average people who offer their economic power onto the same level playing field (not "subsidized" by fraud and extortion in the form of public/private banking monopoly power).

So returning to the Austrian Economist Gary North there is an obvious divide among the so called Librarians along the lines of those who advocate monopoly banking power and those who advocate full liberty including the free market banking market place.


I'm nothing more...

than a work in progress~

Daughter of 1776 American Revolutionists

a good way to summarize my current thoughts on this:

General acceptance of the NAP is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for a healthy society.

"All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind." - Khalil Gibran
"The Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame." - Chuang Tzu

libertarianism begins and ends with the NAP

So you would support the enforcement of the NAP.

But what about the other conditions for a healthy society, would you support the enforcement of those things as well?

Not if you're a libertarian.

That's why libertarianism is limited to the NAP and nothing else, because libertarians do not support the enforcement of anything other than the NAP.

where did I say enforcement?

If I support the NAP, it doesn't matter what I else I promote. It goes without saying that whatever else I promote is not going to contradict the NAP, doesn't it? It doesn't matter how many things you add to the NAP, as long as the NAP is in effect. The NAP is immune to additions, if it remains the supreme principle.

"All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind." - Khalil Gibran
"The Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame." - Chuang Tzu

As a libertarian you won't

As a libertarian you won't enforce things which you think are necessary for a healthy society. But you will enforce the NAP.

That's what makes you a libertarian -- the fact that the only thing you will enforce is the NAP.

You can't force...

...people to love their neighbor as themselves; but without that, the NAP and libertarianism is not enough to keep a society from descending into strife and chaos. Liberty is just a blank slate; it can be used for the highest law, Love, or not.

Love is a matter of self-regulation, beyond the bare bones of merely recognizing others' ownership rights. Love is dethroning Self and voluntarily becoming a servant.

Liberty without Love is ultimately dead. In fact it isn't really Liberty in the deepest sense -- it's just slavery to selfish ambition, inner decay.

Sounds like a self serving article clothed in neutrality.

As usual it's the "white racist" and the non existent "homophobes" that are the subject of your attention. You try to align yourself with the, as you defined, "thin" side but the words you use show you really are on the, as you defined, "thick" side. This makes you sound deceptive.

Your societal conclusion is also false because it is contradictory. Non aggression will not end rejection of homosexuality but will liberate people to reject it since it is the use of force that has thrust acceptance of homosexuality upon us. Non aggression will not end racial divides either since it is use of force that has thrust multiculturalism upon us.

Also your definition of appropriate use of force is vague. You list "violation of individual rights." Who's individual rights? That's a deep rabbit hole since everyone has a different opinion of what rights they should have. But I really don't want to go down that hole.


I think you are reading too much into the completely random examples I chose to illustrate my point. I was merely using common themes that I often hear touted and associated with libertarianism in the context of the thick/thin debate.

"Non aggression will not end rejection of homosexuality but will liberate people to reject it since it is the use of force that has thrust acceptance of homosexuality upon us. Non aggression will not end racial divides either since it is use of force that has thrust multiculturalism upon us."

No where do I imply that non aggression will "end" the rejection of homosexuality, nor that non-aggression will "end" racial divides. As you point out, my point is that it is the coercion inherent in the present system that has made these into issues in the first place.

"Also your definition of appropriate use of force is vague. You list "violation of individual rights." Who's individual rights? That's a deep rabbit hole since everyone has a different opinion of what rights they should have. But I really don't want to go down that hole."

True enough; I have written about individual rights in the past and it was not the intention of this post to delve deeply into that issue. I am a believer in natural rights. I agree many people have different thoughts about what a "right" is, but I do not believe in subjective rights. I believe man can objectively state the natural rights of non-interference / non-aggression. Anything falling outside those bounds is not a "right."

Thanks for reading.

*Advancing the Ideas of Liberty Daily*

Well I'm just commenting on what you wrote.

Don't take this as a mean attack but you said:

"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."

"...Punish or marginalize those with racist or "homophobic" views."

Sorry sir but that statement contradicts your response to my stated observation and the offensive slur "homophobic" (a made up word) is used to demean and your casual use indicates acceptance of it.

I do, however, agree with your statement "... my point is that it is the coercion inherent in the present system that has made these into issues in the first place." And I would like to point out that coercion and deception are forms of aggression.

I also agree with "natural rights" but that is also something that can be subjective although I believe they are directly tied to the natural order and are synonymous with our God given rights.

Again, I don't want you to take offense and if I read more into your words than what was there then I apologize.

no offense!

oh believe me, I don't take offense to any of the stuff that goes on here ;)

I can see how this statement "...Punish or marginalize those with racist or "homophobic" views" could be taken the wrong way, but the fact is that "racism" and "homophobia" are the accepted terms in our society for those who use derogatory language towards those of a different race or sexual preference.

It's certainly a fair point to debate the legitimacy of the words, but that isn't the purpose of my essay.

To be clear, when I say "punish", I merely mean that public perception of these individuals will influence many other aspects of their life, such as social stigma, business boycotts, etc. This is merely the market responding to prevailing cultural views, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it, regardless of the legitimacy of the words used to describe those cultural views.

I'm not quite clear on what you see as the contradiction but I'd be happy to address it further if you could be more specific.

*Advancing the Ideas of Liberty Daily*

great article as always, Marc, on a much needed topic

Here is my understanding of people like Tucker. I could be wrong. I don't think Tucker would ever advocate any kind of government intervention. Therefore, he is a libertarian. Case closed.

Whatever else he says is an expression of his moral values. And as we all agree, libertarianism is not a complete moral system. I don't think he is trying to re-define libertarianism. I think he is trying to say that libertarians should adopt certain moral stances that are in the spirit of libertarianism.

Yes, you can be a collectivist (e.g., racist) and be a libertarian, but is that really in in the spirit of our movement? Isn't this all about celebrating the individual? How are we going to convince others if we do not also offer an appealing moral vision? Would you want to live in a free society without government, where everyone is an asshole trying to insult or scam you?

I am still trying to wrap my head around these things. I think Tucker raises some interesting points that warrant further thought.

"All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind." - Khalil Gibran
"The Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame." - Chuang Tzu

I agree with Rockwell


I see within Students for Liberty the emergence of a new form of libertarianism—something more intellectually and strategically sophisticated than forms from the last century... here are some non-negotiables, and they aren’t only about the ban on the use of power. As an extension of the above point, this generation puts a premium on civilized thinking and behaving that includes absolute exclusion of bigotry in all its forms. Racist, sexist, and anti-gay attitudes are not only tacky, but embody the opposite of the tolerance that old liberalism identified as a main bulwark against State oppression.


But if we expect to trick people into becoming libertarians, we will fail. And if we think libertarian flirtation with egalitarianism is a good idea, we have already failed.

Libertarianism is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all. It is not anything else. It is not feminism. It is not egalitarianism. It has nothing to say about aesthetics. It has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation.

Let me repeat: the only “privilege” that matters to a libertarian qua libertarian is the kind that comes from the barrel of the state’s gun. Disagree with this statement if you like, but in that case you will have to substitute some word other than libertarian to describe your philosophy.


Debate on the Constitutionality of any government action is easily decided by applying the NAP.

Must FORCE be initiated for this government action to work? If the answer is yes, then, the government action is Unconstitutional and must be opposed, Any system of governing that relies on initiating FORCE to do “good” for the people is doomed to corrupt and fail.

The NAP is a “short-hand” method of deciding Constitutional or Unconstitutional law. It is easily understood and powerful to use in defending Liberty. In a debate you may ask: “Your plan requires government to initiate FORCE. Initiating FORCE must entail violating Individual Rights and that is unconstitutional my friend. You need to think of another way to solve pressing social problems than to use the heavy-hand of government to terrorize the people into compliance with your subjective solutions”.

The NAP is necessary and sufficient to win the day for Truth, Love and Freedom..

If government is barred from initiating FORCE to solve problems then government will have to resort to Reason, Love and Freedom for the resolution of social problems.

The “Natural Law” is: Initiating FORCE to do “good” is the source of evil. It is the source of unequal taxes, stiffling regulations, brutal prohibitions and never-ending interventionist wars.These are the primary examples of governments initiating FORCE to do “good” and, ironically, creating evil as an unintinded consequense of initiating FORCE to do anything.

The NAP is the founding principle of the Libertarian Party: No individual, or group of individuals, has the right to initiate force for personnal or political goals.

The NAP is necessary, sufficient, creative and beautiful.

Michael Nystrom's picture

Good work Marc

Thank you for the explanation, and the article.



libwaps and modals

Robert Wenzel calls them libwaps - libertarians with appendages.


Karen DeCoster also identified other phony libertarians whom Murray called modal libertarians:

Libertarian guru Murray Rothbard called them "modal libertarians.” They are an assemblage of leftover Marxists, 60s-70s drug users, cultural leftists, assorted members of the Arts-and-Croissant crowd, and Christian-hating atheists. They latch onto the libertarian name because, somehow, they think “libertarian” means “do-whatever-the-heck-you-want” in the name of freedom.