Monday, September 1, 2008

Through Thick and Thin

So it turns out that Charles Johnson has written a very good article on thick and thin libertarians. For the record, I agree with most of Johnson's personal views, but think he fails to make a case that libertarians should battle all of these other things along with statism.

He argues for a thick libertarianism that opposes

authoritarianism, not only as enforced by governments
but also as expressed in culture, business, the family, and
civil society

His argument is basically that libertarians should oppose all forms of authoritarianism, even those based on voluntary association, because they encourage statism.

Whatever reasons you may have for
rejecting the arrogant claims of power-hungry politicians
and bureaucrats—say, for example, the Jeffersonian
notion that all men and women are born equal in political
authority and that no one has a natural right to rule
or dominate other people’s affairs—probably serve just
as well for reasons to reject other kinds of authoritarian
pretension, even if they are not expressed by means of
coercive government action.

The problem I have with Johnson's argument is that without the use of threat or coercion, nobody really is being "ruled" or "dominated." If your "submission" to an authority figure is voluntary, then it ceases to be domination.

Should libertarians battle S&M sex games, along with the state? How about asshole football coaches (some of the most authoritarian people on the planet)? Should libertarians fight against teachers, parents, and sports referees? Should we lead the fight against online message board moderators?

Every job in a free market economy involves "submission" to a consumer or client. Should we battle that too, along with the state? Where does it end?

Even in a completely free
society, everyone could, in principle, still voluntarily
agree to bow and scrape and speak only when spoken
to in the presence of the (mutually agreed-on) town
chief, or unthinkingly agree to obey
whatever restrictions and regulations
he tells them to follow in their own
business or
personal lives, or agree to
give him as much in voluntary “taxes”
on their income or property as he
might ask. So long as the expectation

of submission and the demands for
wealth to be rendered were backed
up only by verbal harangues, cultural
glorifications of the wise and virtuous
authorities, social ostracism of
“unruly” dissenters, and so on,
demands would violate no one’s individual
rights to liberty or property.

He's right. They wouldn't (in fact, it sounds a lot like any arrangement with a landlord). So why does it matter? I'm an atheist, but I don't have any problem not going to church, despite the level of social pressure that exists. If you're not forced to participate, what's it to ya?

Will it make people more likely to accept statism/coercion? I don't see why it would, unless there is coercion involved. One can accept submission to someone else without accepting coercion (as Johnson himself admits). So why would it necessarily make people accept statism?

He asks us to

think of the feminist criticism of the traditional division
between the “private” and the “political” sphere, and of
those who divide the spheres in such a way that pervasive,
systemic violence and coercion within families turn
out to be justified, or excused, or simply ignored as
something “private” and therefore less than a serious
form of violent oppression.

Of course, no libertarian believes that violence in families is a "private" matter. It is aggression, obviously. So what's Johnson's point? Is this supposed to make thick libertarianism somehow different from ordinary libertarianism? Because it sounds a lot like plain libertarianism to me.

Now, I'm not against the idea that the non-aggression principle itself is insufficient to run society. For instance, I think that if everyone in a libertarian society decided to shoot heroin, throw orgies, and perform Satanic rituals with voluntary victims all day long, the society would become chaotic. It would also encourage people to create a nanny state to preserve order.

But without coercion as a guide, it is awfully vague what counts as an "authoritarian" institution, and Johnson's article seems to lead to the "modal libertarian" type of thinking discussed by Rothbard, in which one just blindly revolts against everyone and everything, while the state becomes less and less of a concern. This type of thinking is prevalent at sites like Infoshop and RevLeft.

Another problem is the more "thick" you make your libertarianism, the less people will come on board. Hell, just look at Objectivism. It's very thick, and it's a freakin' death cult as a result. 'Nuff said? You run the risk of alienating more people than you convert, which defeats the entire point of having a 'thick' libertarianism in the first place.

If it gets less people to accept libertarianism, how can it be a boon to libertarianism?

I am a big fan of Charles Johnson's work but ambivalent about this whole thick-libertarianism thing..

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