A Reply to Stephan Kinsella
My humble blog post on why I’m a left-libertarian drew the attention of the always-insightful Stephan Kinsella, who replied to me here. He catches me in a couple of errors (one of these days I’m going to start proofreading), and gives a good case for his view. I’m going to reply to the points that I think are important to the thrust of my post.
Still, I loosely agree with him so far, though I don’t think in my 25 or so years as a libertarian that I have ever thought of libertarianism as “a movement of the Right”–or even as a “movement,” really, since I don’t think it’s the same as politics or activism. It’s a political philosophy. But I will concede I for a while did believe, and it’s commonly believed, that we have more in common with some on the right. But even from the beginning, from Nolan Chart days, I thought of it as orthogonal to both left and right.
What I meant was that libertarianism appears, in my eyes, to be seen as a philosophy or movement of the Right to many, both libertarian and otherwise. For example, the Cato Institute and Ludwig von Mises Institute are often included in lists of “right-wing think tanks”, and many libertarian positions, such as being anti-tax, are seen as being “extreme right”. On a personal note, many social liberal acquaintances of mine hold the same view; that libertarianism is an inherently conservative or rightist position. All of this is rather secondary, though.
The Left is those who are for “peace, justice, and prosperity”? But that’s what libertarians are for (see my discussion of almost exactly this on p. 50 of my Knowledge, Calculation, Conflict, and Law, reviewing one of Randy Barnett’s libertarian books). I don’t agree that “leftists” are for prosperity, to be honest; or even for justice, unless you contort it to refer to “social justice” which is a misnomer; nor are they really for peace, since they are all breaking a few eggs to make an omelet. But this is just a semantical game at this point. If you define “Left” be include those for peace, prosperity, and justice, then all libertarians are left-libertarians, and the term loses its distinguishing capacity.
Here, Kinsella does catch me in a mistake. In my original post, I conflated 2 senses of “left”; the original sense that emerged in 18th Century France, and the sense in which libertarian socialists and the revolutionary Left uses it. In the first, “left” referred to the classical liberal and socialist elements that were opposed to the Ancien Regime, and “right” referred to royalists and conservatives (this is the sense used by Rothbard in his excellent “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty”. In the second, “left” refers to an admittedly fuzzy group of values, a rough list of which would include opposition to patriarchy, racism, and economic exploitation, and an emphasis on mutual aid and working outside of electoral politics. I think that the 2 senses are ultimately related, but they are distinct.
I don’t think this changes the thrust of my argument, though. Using left in the first sense, I was trying to illustrate that libertarianism should be seen as a leftist philosophy; in the second, I am saying that libertarians should advocate leftist norms and values. I see modern day libertarianism and leftism (2nd sense, although I think that there is at least some to be learned from mainstream social liberalism, in addition to the radical leftists) as being 2 parts of a unified “Left” philosophy that were separated by historical accident, and I think that both libertarians and leftists have a lot to learn from each other.
Anyway, later on Wombatron speaks of “the ‘leftist’ values of anti-authoritarianism, mutuality, and equality”: Now this sounds more like it. But this is not the same at all as being in favor of peace and prosperity. To favor peace, prosperity, and justice all you have to favor is private property rights and free markets. They do not imply these leftist values. So I’m a left-libertarian if left-means peace, prosperity…. but that does not mean I am necessarily for mutuality and equality and anti-authority. I think these “values” are frankly incompatible with libertarianism, and with peace, prosperity, and justice. Prosperity requires a free market and freedom to engage in capitalist acts among consenting adults. This leads to inequality (remember Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain inequality example). There is nothing wrong whatsoever with inequality. Now if they merely mean “equality before the law,” then this is trivial and collapses into justice; but this is not what they mean.
What I mean by “equality” (and I think I speak for most LLs here) is “equality of authority”, as expounded by Roderick T. Long in “Equality: The Unknown Ideal”.
Mutualism is also unlibertarian, in my view, as it supports the taking of property from valid owners by mere possessors (see my A Critique of Mutualist Occupancy).
I see mutualist and Lockean property rules as being on a spectrum of possibilities, rather than being mutually exclusive, but this argument has been had before, and isn’t essential to the discussion at hand.
As for anti-authoritarianism: the left is not anti-authoritarian; they flock to the state to use it to impose their authority on society, to pay for others’ healthcare, and so on.
The mainstream left is definitely statist, as well as the Marxists and other state-socialists. The same can’t be said of libertarian socialism or classical social anarchism; these philosophies are anti-authoritarian. Even if they aren’t entirely consistent in their views, the same can be said of many libertarians (say, Objectivists or minarchists).
And as for opposing natural authority: libertarianism does not compel this at all. If anything, the “thick” view would say that to have a thriving society we need natural authority, hierarchies, and so on–from families, respected thinkers and religious and business leaders, churches, culture, and so on–in the absence of the state (see, e.g., Hoppe’s Natural Elites, Intellectuals, and the State).
Here we are using 2 different senses of the word authority. In the way that Kinsella and Hoppe uses it, I would agree, although I think the idea of hereditary natural elites is flawed and a rightist deviation. I think this Bakunin quote is a good demonstration of this view:
Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such an individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.
If I bow before the authority of the specialists and avow my readiness to follow, to a certain extent and as long as may seem to me necessary, their indications and even their directions, it is because their authority is imposed on me by no one, neither by men nor by God. Otherwise I would repel them with horror, and bid the devil take their counsels, their directions, and their services, certain that they would make me pay, by the loss of my liberty and self-respect, for such scraps of truth, wrapped in a multitude of lies, as they might give me.
I bow before the authority of special men because it is imposed on me by my own reason. I am conscious of my own inability to grasp, in all its detail, and positive development, any very large portion of human knowledge. The greatest intelligence would not be equal to a comprehension of the whole. Thence results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of the division and association of labour. I receive and I give – such is human life. Each directs and is directed in his turn. Therefore there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination.
I have no problem with “authority” in this sense of the word. What I have a problem with is when authority is used in an elitist sense; when someone presumes to know how someone else should live their lives, without it being the person’s decision. This includes aggression, but also other forms of hierarchy and oppression, variously propped up by the state and/or irrational collectivism. In his dissertation, Geoffrey Plauche distinguishes between different forms of autonomy, all of which are constitutive of an individual’s flourishing. Political autonomy, which corresponds to the libertarian and classical liberal idea of “liberty” is one; social autonomy, the freedom from constraints imposed by others in ways other than the use or the threat of the use of force:
There are any number of social influences that can lead a person astray from the life
appropriate for him. Some social influences are more pervasive and powerful than others. Some
such influences are in and of themselves malignant, but others are for the most part neutral or
benign. Among the more malignant are certain sorts of behaviors and institutions that discourage
or actively seek to suppress rationality, individuality, self-responsibility, productivity, and other
virtues. Cultures that encourage unquestioning obedience to authority and subordination of the
individual to the collective are prime examples. Other problematic cultural institutions are
paternalism, racism, and sexism.
I take a more leftist view than Plauche, but my approach is essentially the same. Authority, even voluntary authority, is not necessarily a neutral thing.
To be honest I am not sure what this even means. I am not sure that anyone is or can be a “thin” libertarian; and thus it is a mystery what it adds to call yourself a “thick” libertarian. It seems to me to be nothing but stating trite and obvious things and giving it a label, as if this is some significant, systematic, rigorous new field of study. We are not “only” libertarians. Yeah. Yawn. We do not live in isolation. Check. Ideas of libertarianism are interrelated with other ideas. Duh. You know, there are relations between philosophy and mathematics, but they are still distinct disciplines. As far as I can tell, “thickism” just names the obvious, and then acts as if it’s more profound than it is
I agree that it is probably impossible to be a consistent thin libertarian; if I recall correctly, even Walter Block, its greatest exponent, has since backed off from the position. However, I think that it is still useful to talk about thick libertarianism, because the connections between liberty and other values is often not explored.
Well, any social norms that are not aggressive are, well, not aggressive, and do not violate rights. But you can imagine any number of possible societies and associated norms that would not be good “from the libertarian point of view”–say, one dominated by ignoramuses or (private) censorship–after all, libertarianism is based on ideas discerned by reason; most people who are libertarian would be stultified and not lead a good life in such a society. And we could not expect it to last long either, because liberty does require reason to be free to defend it. But this does not mean that libertarianism–the idea that aggression is unjustified–automatically says anything about any given set of cultural norms. Not that this is not a field worth studying: meta-libertarianism, or libertarians with outside or related interests, might well want to study not only want interpersonal force-related norms are justifiable, but what societal preconditions are necessary to preserve it or likely to accompany it, just as others might specialize in researching tactics and strategy–just as some lawyers specialize in knowing an area of law really well, while others study legal theory itself.
Here I disagree; I think that the social preconditions for a free society are an essential part of libertarianism. Perhaps we are just using libertarianism in different ways; while Kinsella is calling libertarianism a “political philosophy defined by our opposition to the use of aggression in social interaction”, I see it as being my complete political philosophy. We may even be using “political philosophy” in a different way: fundamentally, I think that politics is the joint pursuit of eudaimonia by equals (to use Plauche’s phrasing). Liberty is not my highest political value; flourishing is. Should this view be called “libertarianism”, then? I am not sure. It is definitely “libertarian”, though.
This is a problem I have with leftism: it uses vague, nonrigorous statements like this–which are okay as far as they go–and then builds on them as if they are rigorous, operationa, and profound. They are not. They are just fairly obvious, unenlightening observations. Sure, liberty is “fundamentally intertwined” with other “concerns”. I guess. My libertarianism is fundamentally intertwined with the concern of clear and concise communication, but maybe that’s just me. So if this statement is construed in a normal way, it doesn’t say that much, and once again, “thick” adds nothing since by this uncontroversial standard all libertarians are “thick.” What libertarian can deny that liberty (I assume he doesn’t mean liberty itself, but rather libertarian philsophy, or libertarians themselves?) is “fundamentally intertwined with other concerns”?
I think that thick libertarianism is a useful term because the intertwining of concerns isn’t always as obvious or trivial as the communication example Kinsella gives. It is not necessarily obvious that libertarians should also be feminists or anti-racists, for example, but upon further examination, one might indeed (and I do) conclude so.
I think what happens is we have a disagreement over what those concerns are. The leftists get frustrated that libertarians dismiss their incessant, vague complaining about “hierarchies” and so on, so they try to argue something like this: look, Mr. Libertarian, surely you don’t deny that we should, “qua libertarian,” hold “other values,” do you? Answer: “uh, no, I guess not–after all I think honesty is important; if I didn’t believe in honesty I would not be a libertarian.” Right. And you don’t like aggression do you? Because it’s wrong to push people around, right? “Uh, okayyy”. So, you see that we are really not about aggression, but we are “against pushing people around.” But there’s many ways to push people around, right? You don’t think it’s nice to be abusive to your employees, do you? Isn’t that pushing them around, hmm? Isn’t that liek aggression, then, really? So if you are a libertarian, you should be against bossing people around. Libertarianism is about so much more than just opposing mere crime, silly!
I think this is very slippery and disingenuous. Look, the leftists should argue like this, in my view. If they are talking to a libertarian, and you want to persuade him to oppose (in some moral sense?) a given institution like … wage slavery or “pushing people around” or whatever, just come up with a reason. Appeal to shared values. Analogize it to common libertarian ones. Fine. Try to find mutual shared values you are likely to (or even necessarily) hold by virtue of being a libertarian. There is nothing wrong with this. But it doesn’t require any goofy appeal to something officially labeled “thick libertarianism” (or “thick humanism”) or pretending that all these other things are “really part of” libertarianism. I might argue against some racism I detect in a the private views of a libertarian friend, say, by observing that racism is incompatible with individualism, fairness, decency, “due process,” whatever–some of which I know he holds because he pretty much has to hold them to be a libertarian. In other words: we are complex humans, with a variety of interactions, relationships, interests, activities, and values. And we interact with each other. Newsflash.
I think that Kinsella is essentially arguing the thick libertarian case for me, without calling it “thick libertarianism”. The values that he mentions (individualism, fairness, decency) are indeed essential to a successful free and just society, which I think should be of vast concern to libertarians qua libertarians. As Kinsella stated earlier, we don’t live a vacuum. Our political philosophy should not be disconnected from the rest of our lives, or from the real world. Charles Johnson argues at length the case for thick libertarianism, as well as distinguishing between different kinds of thickness, in Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin. Instead of quoting him, I will just refer anyone who wants to see a deeper and more rigorous case for thick libertarianism to him.
Well if justice is “more than” non-aggression, then we are talking about justice in a broader sense than justice in terms of rights. Now we are going with some idea of unfairness or immorality or wrongness, where aggression is just a subset of this. But libertarians have from time immemorial recognized that just because you have a right to do something, it does not mean you should do it or that it is moral to do it. This is implied by our view that the only way to violate rights is to use force. To try to blur this opens the door to the use of force against not only aggression, but other forms of “injustice” or unfairness. That is the statist view of things. Not the libertarian one.
I am talking about justice in a broader sense than in terms of rights. By justice, I mean the sum of the expressions of the virtue of justice, which is, roughly, given everyone what they are due, whether in a legal sense or a more personal moral sense. Now, rights are the only norms that can be backed by legitimate force. But that does not mean that other norms are not associated with justice.
If you want to argue against “patriarchy” and “being subject to the arbitrary whims of others” (whatever that means), you are going to have to do more than just assert that if you are for peace, you already favor these things. You need to carefully define these things, and offer coherent reasons for them. I think that’s what traditional leftists have tried to do, and they have failed–in part, because they mix these things in with statist-socialist means, so corrupt their message. I do not doubt that a libertarian, with clean politics, and with a better understanding of sound economics, can make a far more coherent argument for why decent people, and those interested in liberty, should be opposed to patriarchy etc. But just make it. Don’t be so frustrated by your failure to win adherents to leftism that you try to pretend that it’s all a built-in, natural part of libertarianism, to try to twist liberarians’ arms to make them come along.
I found this passage especially interesting. To a point, I agree. However, I see various other concerns as being logically implied by libertarianism. Similar to Hoppe’s claim that ideal argumentation implies that one is committed to a libertarian view of rights, on pain of contradiction, I think that libertarians are committed to opposition to forms of oppression other than aggression.
I think that Kinsella made some good points. But, I still think it is useful to talk about thick libertarianism, and that a libertarian qua libertarian should recognize that various norms and values that are thought of as “leftist” are essential to libertarianism.