Tom Woods’ Confusion On Thick Libertarianism

In the wake of the Duck Dynasty controversy, Tom Woods recently made a post connecting the matter to his grievances surrounding “thick libertarianism.”

Woods defines the distinction between “thin” and “thick” libertarians as follows:

Some libertarians say the traditional libertarian principle of nonaggression is insufficient. That is merely “thin” libertarianism, they say. We also need to have left-liberal views on religion, sexual morality, feminism, etc., because reactionary beliefs among the public are also threats to liberty. This is “thick” libertarianism.

This misrepresents the ideas of “thick” and “thin” libertarianism.  Thickness is not defined primarily in terms of “left-liberal views.” Rather, thickness is any broadening of libertarian concerns beyond overt aggression and state power to concern about what cultural and social conditions are most conducive to liberty. As such, right wing views as well as left wing ones can be thickness commitments. As Charles Johnson explains in his essay Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin:

it is important to keep in mind that the issue at hand in these discussions goes beyond the debate over left libertarianism specifically. The debate leads to some strange bedfellows: not only left libertarians defend the claim that libertarianism should be integrated into a comprehensive critique of prevailing social relations; so do paleolibertarians such as Gary North or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, when they make the equal but opposite claim that efforts to build a flourishing free society should be integrated with a rock-ribbed inegalitarian cultural and religious traditionalism. As do Randian Objectivists, when they argue that political freedom can only arise from a culture of secular romantic individualism and an intellectual milieu grounded in widespread, fairly specific agreement with the tenets of Objectivist metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology. Abstracting from the numerous, often mutually exclusive details of specific cultural projects that have been recommended or condemned in the name of libertarianism, the question of general principle has to do with whether libertarianism should be seen as a thin commitment, which can be happily joined to absolutely any non-coercive set of values and projects, or whether it should instead be seen as one strand among others in a thick bundle of intertwined social commitments. These disputes are often intimately connected with other disputes concerning the specifics of libertarian rights theory, or class analysis and the mechanisms of social power. In order to better get a grip on what’s at stake, it will be necessary to make the question more precise, and to tease out the distinctions between some of the different possible relationships between libertarianism and thicker bundles of social, cultural, religious, or philosophical commitments, which might recommend integrating the two on some level or another.

So Woods starts from a misunderstanding of the very meaning of thick libertarianism. From there, he actually goes on to unwittingly describe a way in which he is a thick libertarian. He asks ” if the thickists are concerned that certain cultural attitudes might be dangerous to liberty, why do I never hear them express concern that the hysteria of the cultural Left might be prejudicial to liberty?”

Woods goes on to argue that the “cultural Left” has created a climate in which people are afraid to express opinions, “lest they be banished from polite society by the opinion police.” This concern is an explicitly thick libertarian concern, given it’s a concern not about aggression, but about cultural norms that limit discussion and debate.

Woods expresses doubt that “thickists,” by which I presume he means left-libertarians, have expressed any concern about the issues he raises. In large part this may be because many left-libertarians correctly recognize that racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia have upheld systemic structural violence, and that using non-violent social pressure against those who promulgate these bigotries is therefore worthwhile. In a world where white supremacy has been the ideological basis for campaigns of lynching and terror, for racial profiling by police, for legally mandated exclusion and inequity, responding harshly to white supremacists is justified. In a world where transgender women are regularly murdered for who they are and outing can be a death sentence, we should make transphobia socially unacceptable. And I’ve already written at length about how slut shaming, victim blaming, and misogyny uphold violence and undermine liberty.

However, some of the problems Woods alludes to are real and serious. In particular, I share his concern about how the Southern Poverty Law Center has directly collaborated with and strengthened the police state under the guise of fighting bigotry, hate, and “extremism.” In my view, their collusion with the police state has hypocritically strengthened and provided liberal cover for one of the most racist and oppressive institutions on earth.  Left-libertarian Kevin Carson called out the Southern Poverty Law Center on other grounds in his article Why I Don’t Much Like Liberals.

Other left-libertarians who would generally be considered thick libertarians have also addressed the issues mentioned by Woods. Jeremy Weiland wrote an essay titled A Leftist Critique of Political Correctness. And Anthony Gregory wrote a rather nuanced piece back in 2007 titled Reassessing Political Correctness. So Dr. Woods is wrong to suggest that thick libertarians of a left-libertarian variety have never expressed concerns about how liberal social views can become culturally ingrained as dogma.

The key claim of thick libertarianism is this: culture matters in the fight for a free and peaceful society. I think Dr. Woods and I would probably agree that a culture which demands reverence for war mongers like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is destructive to liberty. I contend that a culture riddled with racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny is just as damaging to liberty.  Right libertarians should stop providing ideological cover for these oppressive norms and join us in fighting for a world conducive to liberty for all.

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