Libertarian Layer Cake

libertarian layer cake

As another way of expressing the idea of “thick libertarianism,” Gary Chartier draws a nice distinction between the libertarian principle and the libertarian ideal:

A libertarian, I take it, is someone who is for liberty and against aggression. The libertarian doesn&#146lt like to be pushed around, and doesn’t like to see other people pushed around, either. The libertarian will likely affirm some version of what I will call the libertarian principle, and will have good reason as well to embrace the libertarian ideal.

In its strongest form, the libertarian principle holds that someone may rightly use force against the person or property of another only to prevent or end an unjust attack or to secure compensation for the damage done by such an attack. On weaker versions, the initiation of force, while infrequently permissible, must meet very demanding requirements.

The libertarian ideal calls for real freedom in all aspects of life. The libertarian need not, and likely will not, suppose that just any action that does not involve the misuse of force is morally reasonable. Conduct that is not aggressive can, and frequently does, amount to the mistreatment of others. Often, this mistreatment will reduce their freedom to make choices about their own lives. Someone motivated by the libertarian ideal will challenge such mistreatment even while granting that it may be narrowly consistent with the libertarian principle and may not reasonably be met with the use of force.

Tolle, lege.


9 Responses to Libertarian Layer Cake

  1. Shawn Huckabay December 14, 2009 at 11:49 am #

    I think the portion you included in your post does an amazing job of highlighting the difference between a “true libertarian” and someone who simply assumes the label. Many libertarians seem committed to the “letter of the law” but not the spirit of it.

    People can say what they want about Ayn Rand (for example, I would be critical of her unwillingness to embrace anarchism and her occasional willingness to support war), but she in particular did an amazing job of establishing norms and ideals that ground liberty in something beyond simply the non-aggression principle.

    What is interesting to me is how many so-called libertarians don’t seem to be above bullying people around verbally and socially despite their adherence to the non-aggression principle, or the backlash that I get from some people when I don’t tolerate or sanction that sort of behavior.

    I wonder if it might be good to formulate some kind of “social non-aggression principle,” where you shouldn’t treat people with disrespect/disdain/etc. unless you see them doing it first.

    • JOR December 14, 2009 at 3:04 pm #

      Well, since I can say what I want about Ayn Rand, I think it’s clear that the norms and ideals she did such an amazing job of establishing do not ground anything like liberty. Those Objectivists with the clearest and most admirable commitments to fairness, intellectual honesty, clarity, decency, liberty, and individual dignity are despised heretics, and have a habit of getting excommunicated by those Randians who truly do carry on Rand’s philosophy as she intended it to be carried.

      There’s nothing more poisonous to individualism than egoism.

      • Aster December 14, 2009 at 5:46 pm #

        (suppresses gag reflex)

  2. steven December 14, 2009 at 2:19 pm #

    I see the difference between aggressive and non-aggressive conduct that amounts to the mistreatment of others in terms of the proper range of responses to the conduct. Aggressive conduct may be responded to with violence if necessary, but non-aggressive conduct should be responded to with non-violent sanctions such as boycotts or other forms of ostracization.

  3. Richard Garner December 14, 2009 at 5:56 pm #

    Incidentally, on this sort of issue, did you see the recent debate in Reason, between Kerry Howely and others?

    • Aster December 14, 2009 at 8:26 pm #

      Yes. Kerry Howley’s says everything precisely as I would wish.

      But she’s casting pearls for less than pork chops. She’s a very kind woman, but kind words don’t change systems of oppression. In the last analysis libertarianism doesn’t change because it doesn’t want to. Asking for social justice from Murray Rothbard is like asking for individualism from Marx; many smitten intellectuals have tried to somehow make a magnificent but inhuman system work, but the problem is that the original system is a rationalism which elaborates its constructs from too narrow an understanding of the human condition. Marx slighted everything which wouldn’t fit into class collective liberation and created an excuse for Leninism. Rothbard slighted everything which wouldn’t fit into property rights and created an excuse for Hoppeanism.

      I don’t think libertarianism can be fixed. And Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature suggests that the lethal side effects of libertarianism’s social theories were actually part of the design.

      I hope I’m wrong, but I think Ms. Howley has given herself an impossible task where her good intentions will not be rewarded.

  4. Neil December 14, 2009 at 6:43 pm #

    Well, if disrespect is justified at all, then it ought only be in accordance with that mean between excess and deficiency. Many libertarians get off on their assumed self-righteousness since they happen to have comparatively accurate political beliefs. We wouldn’t want someone purposely engage in behavior that we would like to prevent just to spite us for our arrogance.

    Forum elitists have a tendency to do more damage than good.

  5. Dr. Q December 15, 2009 at 2:33 pm #

    Thanks, Roderick. This particular passage caught my eye as well.

  6. Gary Chartier December 16, 2009 at 9:30 am #

    Thanks a lot for highlighting the piece, Roderick. I’ve wondered whether the ideal/principle pair—I was looking for a simple way of talking about a somewhat complex difference—embodied just what I wanted to say: after all, I believe not pushing other people around is a matter of principle (it seems to me that Steven plausibly identifies the kinds of remedies available for violations as the locus of the sort of distinction we need here).

    I found Howley’s piece really good—it’s hard to think of a clearer nod to left-lib ideas in the circles in which she runs—but I was disappointed that she didn’t include workplace inequities among her examples. Carson was right, too, I think, to note that her example of factory labor as liberating for girls in China skated past the issue of the background conditions responsible for making particular working conditions relatively unavoidable.

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