Thick vs. Thin Libertarianism

A few days ago, I touched on the schism within the liberty movement between pragmatists and radicals. As important as this split is, it really is more of an internal Libertarian Party issue. The more relevant split in the liberty movement at large is between thick and thin libertarians.

To understand what a thick libertarian, is it helps to know what a thin libertarian is. A thin libertarian is one who believes in the NAP (Non-Aggression Principle) and the private property norm. That’s it.
On the other hand, a thick libertarian, is one who, in addition to the NAP and private property norm, usually seeks to add extra conditions to libertarianism, such as social justice ideals and egalitarianism. It isn’t enough to simply agree with the NAP and private property norm, to be libertarian means you also must be anti-racism, anti-discrimination, etc. At first this sounds great, after all, who could be against those things? The problem comes when you think through the consequences of enforcing those ideals.

With thick libertarianism, it is inevitable that individual rights will come into conflict. For example, who’s rights prevail when a Christian baker refuses to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple? To a thin libertarian, the baker’s rights win out as the baker owns his shop and his labor (due to the NAP and private property norms). For a thick libertarian, though, the gay couple’s rights prevail due to their ideal of anti-discrimination, effectively negating both the NAP and private property norms, as force must be used against the baker to enforce the rights of the gay couple. Both in practice and theory, any ideology where basic rights conflict becomes arbitrary. It is literally self-defeating.

Here it is important to make clear what libertarianism is, as well as what libertarianism isn’t. Properly understood, libertarianism answers the question of when it is necessary to use force. It is fundamentally a political and ethical philosophy, not a moral philosophy. Neither the NAP or private property norm say anything about what one should do, only what one shouldn’t do. Thus, so long as an action doesn’t violate the NAP or private property norms, it’s acceptable. That is a different question than whether something is moral or immoral. That’s a cultural question, not a political one. We cannot expect to remain principled if we fail to understand that distinction.


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