Politics & Media
Feb 22, 2016, 09:56AM

Thick Libertarians

Stop “improving” this philosophy.

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I resolve to stay “thin” this year. That’s the term from moral philosophy borrowed by libertarians to refer to a formulation of libertarianism that, roughly speaking, comes with no cultural baggage. If you can refrain from violating property rights, you’re good vis-à-vis libertarian rules, end of story.

That’s not to say there aren’t all kinds of moral and psychological suggestions we can make to each other simply as human beings—roughly speaking, “thick” conceptions of morality—just that they’re outside the scope of libertarianism proper (and deal with topics like art, music, etiquette, etc.). The temptation to get thick is immense, since property rights on their own seem dry and abstract, floating somewhere in space without moorings. I fully agree property rights-adherence isn’t something that just happens out of the blue, without people being reared in the habit and given cultural reinforcement.

The problem is that the instant you try to pin down what sort of thickness is required, it turns out that even libertarians, just like other human beings, split up into warring tribes with vastly different conceptions of the good life. I miss the Cold War sometimes, since the seeming division of the world into two massive camps, one pro-property rights and one anti-property rights, fostered the illusion that you could trust human beings to care intensely about that philosophical issue, certainly the libertarians.

However, since then, multiple bizarre (albeit mostly still-small) libertarian factions have proven that even libertarians will try to smuggle a narrow cultural agenda into the ostensibly-basic ground rules by which everyone is supposed to abide—rules upon which, in theory, everyone ought to be able to agree (not that universal agreement on anything ever really happens—watch YouTube videos presenting, say, the argument that gravity does not exist, if you don’t believe me).

Justin Raimondo of Antiwar.com has tweeted at me that he’s not a Trump supporter as it appeared, merely a Trump analyzer, but there are Trump-admiring and culturally far-right libertarians these days. There are certainly libertarians as well who add a milder paleoconservative flavor to their thinking or an almost centrist but pro-establishment neoconservative flavor (a willingness to tolerate the military or perhaps hold their noses and vote for Romney). That‘s three right-leaning libertarian factions, by my estimation.

In the middle of the political spectrum (crude as it is), leaning neither right nor left, are two more libertarian factions: the minarchists who simply want to keep government small and the anarcho-capitalists who want to eliminate it altogether. Neither of those two factions necessarily has much of a cultural agenda.

More troubling, to my thinking, three more left-leaning libertarian factions appear willing either to casually adopt elements of the welfare state in a Sanders-esque libertarian social democracy (so-called liberal-tarians), to rail against any outcomes in a free society that violate the patterns left-egalitarians such as feminists prefer (left-libertarians), or at the farthest-left libertarian extreme (sometimes calling themselves market anarchists) even to call for the abolition or significant watering-down of property rights, imposing 19th-century anarchist caveats that limit one’s right to be a mean boss, landlord, absentee owner, banker, or various other archetypes that anarchists dislike.

Just as some on the hard-right fringe seem convinced certain nations or ethnic groups will always be better suited for liberty than others, some on that leftmost market-anarchist fringe seem convinced liberty requires organic agriculture, polyamory, or living in the woods, if I even follow their thinking correctly.

That’s eight total libertarian camps for purposes of current analysis, by my count (and I’ll go into more detail in my April book, Libertarianism for Beginners).

The great crime of the very large, high-profile, relatively sane minarchist faction in the respectable middle, by my (anarcho-capitalist) standards is really their optimism. I know, it’s practically un-American to bash optimism, what with all our modern consumer electronics and sex options and everything, but when you’re pushing a philosophy of property rights yet your movement has nonetheless spawned three factions to your right and three more to your left who really seem to enjoy coming up with excuses to violate or modify property rights, maybe you’ve got a lot farther to slog in winning real converts than you thought you did.

You hoped the hard work was done back in those giddy 1990s days, right after the Cold War, when everyone relaxed and thought it was safe to be moderate and mushily non-ideological for a change, maybe kick back and whip up new philosophical rules the way one invents new songs, with no fear of doing harm. Turns out, no.

There’s been a failure from within. For philosophers as for politicians, deviations from property rights lead to more deviations from property rights, in a tragic, fragmentary downward spiral. 

Todd Seavey can be found on Twitter, Blogger, and Facebook and daily on Splice Today


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