Thickness For Me But Not For Thee

Lew Rockwell, 1990: Lew Rockwell, 2014:
The Conservatives Are Right: Freedom Isn’t Enough
Conservatives have always argued that political freedom is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the good society, and they’re right. Neither is it sufficient for the free society. We also need social institutions and standards that encourage public virtue, and protect the individual from the State. …

The family, the free market, the dignity of the individual, private property rights, the very concept of freedom – all are products of our religious culture. … The traditional family – which grows out of natural law – is the basic unit of a civilized and free society. The family promotes values necessary for the preservation of a free society such as parental love, self-discipline, patience, cooperation, respect for elders, and self-sacrifice. Families encourage moral behavior and provide for proper child rearing and thus the continuation of the race. …

“Question Authority!” says a leftist bumper sticker popular in libertarian circles. But libertarians are wrong to blur the distinction between State authority and social authority, for a free society is buttressed by social authority. Every business requires a hierarchy of command and every employer has the right to expect obedience within his proper sphere of authority. It is no different within the family, the church, the classroom; or even the Rotary or the Boy Scouts. … Authority will always be necessary in society. Natural authority arises from voluntary social structures; unnatural authority is imposed by the State. …

A critic might point out that libertarianism is a political doctrine with nothing to say about these matters. … But no political philosophy exists in a cultural vacuum, and for most people political identity is only an abstraction from a broader cultural view. The two are separate only at the theoretical level; in practice, they are inextricably linked. It is thus understandable and desirable that libertarianism have a cultural tone, but not that it be anti-religious, modernist, morally relativist, and egalitarian ….

The only way to sever libertarianism’s link with libertinism is with a cleansing debate. … [W]e must adopt a new orientation. … In the new movement, libertarians who personify the present corruption will sink to their natural level, as will the Libertarian Party, which has been their diabolic pulpit. Some will find this painful; I’m looking forward to it. Let the cleansing process begin – it is long past due.

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. …

We have been told by some libertarians in recent months that yes, yes, libertarianism is about nonaggression and private property and all that, but that it is really part of a larger project opposed to all forms of oppression, whether state-imposed or not. …

To claim that it is not enough for the libertarian to oppose aggression is to fall into the trap that destroyed classical liberalism the first time, and transformed it into modern liberalism. …

Attacking the state is not enough, we hear. We must attack “patriarchy,” hierarchy, inequality, and so on. Thick libertarians may disagree among themselves as to what additional commitments libertarianism entails, but they are all agreed that libertarianism cannot simply be dedicated to eradicating the initiation of physical force.

If some libertarians wish to hope for or work toward a society that conforms to their ideological preferences, they are of course free to do so. But it is wrong for them – especially given their insistence on a big tent within libertarianism – to impose on other libertarians whatever idiosyncratic spin they happen to have placed on our venerable tradition, to imply that people who do not share these other ideologies can’t be real libertarians, or to suggest that it would be “highly unlikely” that anyone who fails to hold them could really be a libertarian. That these are the same people who complain about “intolerance” is only the most glaring of the ironies. …

The danger is that thick libertarianism will import its other concerns, which by their own admission do not involve the initiation of physical force, into libertarianism itself, thereby transforming it into something quite different from the straightforward and elegant moral and social system we have been defending for generations. …

All of these additional claims are a distraction from the central principle: if you oppose the initiation of physical force, you are a libertarian. Period. Now how hard was that?

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10 Responses to Thickness For Me But Not For Thee

  1. Dan September 18, 2014 at 11:05 am #

    Extremely difficult to read on mobile phone.

  2. Scott Bieser September 18, 2014 at 11:35 am #

    Noting the 24-year span between the two quotes, a charitable interpretation could be that Lew’s views have “evolved” or “matured” or whatever term one might wish to use for “honestly changed.” A less charitable view is implied by your headline, that his view of the thick-thin issue varies depending on whose ox is being gored, and the fact that a lot of younger people with “lefty” sentiments have recently entered the movement (thanks, ironically enough, to the Ron Paul phenomenon).

    Have you asked Lew to explain the discrepancy?

    • Roderick September 18, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

      Well, here’s a piece chronologically halfway between the two (2002) where he describes the “bourgeois virtues” as the “cultural foundations of our civilization,” and urges that “our conception of what constitutes proper behavior and culture generally” has “a strong bearing on the rise and decline of freedom.” It seems to me that he has the same view throughout all three pieces: conservative values are good for liberty, lefty values are bad for liberty.

      And it’s not just about Rockwell. I see this among right-libertarians generally — a tendency to conflate right-wing versions of thickness with thinness.

  3. Joshua Katz September 18, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    I’ve often said that if you scratch a thin libertarian, you’ll usually find a thick-right-libertarian. That said, Lew Rockwell also hosted a prominent left-libertarian to give a week long seminar on thick-libertarianism 8 years ago at Mises, so it seems unfair to say he’s unfair to left-libertarians.

    • Roderick September 18, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

      Of course that was a) during a Republican administration, and b) pre-C4SS.

  4. Emil September 18, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    This is very common among right-wing libertarians in Sweden as well; everything that is relevant is freedom, the non-aggression principle. But when you’re in a discussion with them it becomes clear that labor unions are an enemy of liberty, that the feminist movement is an enemy of liberty, that hierarchies in corporations are natural and shouldn’t really be messed with, that social inequality is good for a society and breeds the “competition” so central to liberty, etc. Pretty much conservatives CLAIMING to be without preferences, only caring about sweet liberty.

    The relevant difference in “thickness” between a “thin” right-wing libertarian and a “thick” left-wing libertarian has pretty much nothing to do with thickness, but with how honest you are about it.

  5. Joe September 18, 2014 at 8:21 pm #

    I wonder to what extent the 1990 essay was influenced, directly or indirectly, by Mr. Libertarian, who was still alive at the time.

    Also, I’m surprised about the use in the 2014 essay of “impose on other libertarians” which implies some modicum of force or heavy persuasion, and wonder if that is mere exaggeration or whether Lew had someone or some particular writing in mind.

  6. Juan September 19, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    ” the very concept of freedom – all are products of our religious culture”

    Conservative theocrats pretending to be ‘libertarians’. What a sick joke.

  7. thombrogan September 22, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    The Mr. Libertarian of today; the Peikoff to Rothbard’s Rand; has, on the site; attacked libertarian writers such as Wendy McElroy and Hans-Hermann Hoppe (as opposed to all the other H Hoppes…) for explicitly supporting voting for Ron Paul (or anyone at all for that matter). McElroy’s “credentials” were raked over the coals and Hoppe was derided as a supporter of Pat Buchanan (amusing given Hoppe’s anti-Buchanan writings and Rothbard’s pro-Buchanan writings). good times


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