Ron Paul: Thick or Thin?

At the Liberty Political Action Conference in Alexandria, Virginia, Ron Paul had a few words about libertarianism, the non-aggression principle and tolerance. He pointed out the two basic principles of liberty are non-aggression and tolerance, “we have to become quite tolerant of the way people use their liberty.” Much to the lament of self-identified “thin libertarians,” (not that that is even a valid concept) Paul is acknowledging there are values, which are complementary to, or even required by, a belief in liberty.

Paul went on to point out that many want to embrace liberty up to the point of allowing something they disapprove of. But this obviously isn’t the libertarian attitude that affirms liberty is a fundamental human right not up to debate. Each person deserves the freedom to choose – just because you disapprove of their practices, be it doing drugs or practicing a different religion, doesn’t give you the right to use force against them.

However this doesn’t imply some sort of cultural or moral relativism. “Just because you allow somebody to have a lifestyle you disapprove of doesn’t mean you have to endorse it,” Paul explains. So while I may not agree with your choice to do heroin everyday, I should let you be. I can’t let my moral preferences morph into rights violations. If everyone understood this and didn’t let their own opinions and biases lead to creating systems of coercion, the world would be a much freer place.

And what is underlying this respect for human rights? Paul rightfully says it’s tolerance, “…liberty is liberty and it’s your life and you have a right to use it as you see fit.” In other words, the driving factor of a belief in non-aggression is being tolerant of others’ choices.

Writing in 1929, Mises understood this well, “…only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace without which humanity must relapse into the barbarism and penury of centuries long past.”

Explaining why non-aggression necessarily involves other beliefs, Lew Rockwell writes, “…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.”

What Paul, Mises, and Rockwell understand is what Charles Johnson describes as “strategic thickness.” Strategic thickness is the view that certain ideas and values are useful for promoting, implementing, and maintaining the morality of non-aggression in the real world. After all, there are obviously going to be some ideas that are more complementary to non-aggression than others.

Sheldon Richman points out one of the values that complements non-aggression is anti-racism (Paul has done so as well), which is, after all, just a form of the tolerance that Paul and Mises refer to. I’ve gone even further and argued libertarians ought to be proponents of feminism, gay and trans liberation, and worker empowerment. Now even if these values, for one reason or another, turn out to not be complementary to non-aggression, the reason, if we are agreeing with Mises’ and Paul’s conception of liberty, it can’t be because the philosophy is only concerned with that single idea: for non-aggression is going to inevitably bring along other ideas with it.

For reasons that Paul, Mises, and Rockwell have shown, non-aggression can and does involve, even benefit from, complementary values. They have embraced “strategic thickness” and rightfully so.

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