Thin Libertarianism is a Vulgar Libertarianism


To begin with, let me define my terms here. By “thin” libertarianism I refer to the treatment of the non-aggression principle as a groundless axoim, and as the only value that is relevant to libertarianism, beyond which point all other values are treated as either irrelevant or equal in a relativistic manner. That is, “thin” libertarianism is essentially the notion that so long as the non-aggression principle is respected, all social arrangements (whether they be based on racial separatism, fundamentalist religion, patriarchy, sexism, etc.) are equally valid starting points for a free society and that one is effectively bound to be neutral towards them. From this perspective, the non-aggression principle is basically the sole value. This attitude is actually fairly common in libertarian circles.

“Vulgar” libertarianism was a term put into practice by Kevin Carson, primarily referring to the use (or misuse) of free market economics and various libertarian concepts to defend or promote corporatism, classism and bossism. However, while the concept was initially put foreward in the context of economics, I think that it applies to culture and the “social” sphere as well, which is to say that free market economics and various libertarian concepts can be and have been used to defend or promote all of the things that “thin” libertarianism tends to sanction or be neutral towards. Hence, what I am proposing is that “vulgarity” be recognized beyond the economic realm, and more as a general matter. Left-libertarians generally “get it” with respect to economics, but don’t always “get it” as much with respect to culture.

A confused reaction to the rejection of “thin” and “vulgar” libertarianism is to assume that it implies abandoning the non-aggression principle and free market economics, but this misses what the point is completely. “Thick” libertarians are not saying that the non-aggression principle is a problem, but that its treatment in a vacuum, detached from any sort of fundamental grounding and without any sort of broader social context, is a problem. And non-“vulgar” libertarians (in the strictly economic sense of “vulgarism”) are not objecting to free market economics, but to using it out of context to defend things that either do not necessarily follow from it or which can be objected to for independent reasons. Part of the point is that questions of physical violence do not constitute the entirety of social philosophy and free market economics does not inherently imply the normative premises and institutions of currently existing and traditional economic arrangements.

The fact of the matter is that “thin” libertarianism functions as a defacto sanction for every questionable ideology and social arrangement under the sun, and the more explicit it is in this sanction the more “vulgar” that it is. On one hand, there are those who do not explicitly favor such things, but nonetheless express neutrality towards them. On the other hand, there are those who do explicitly favor such things, and only use the non-aggression principle and free market economics as a tool to legitimize their own preferred forms of authoritarianism. With the former group, part of the problem is an inability or unwillingness to recognize social problems outside of explicit physical violence, and hence a dismissal of all concerns about “oppression” in a more general sense and negative social conditions. With the latter group, the problem is even uglier, in that they are deliberately using libertarianism as a tool to sugar-coat their authoritarian ideology.

It is in this sense that appeals to non-aggression and free market economics can be rather superficial and hollow sometimes, in the sense that they are used in a way that is divorced from consequences, context and a broader understanding of society. In fact, sometimes these appeals are self-detonating, in that the consequences of the positive beliefs and social arrangements that some people promote under the banner of libertarianism ultimately do reduce to some kind of aggression in practise, or they may be dependant on a degree of state intervention in a way that makes appeals to “the free market” rather hypocritical. One way in which this is manifested is as a tendency of some people to treat anti-statism in a purely negativistic sense to be the only goal, while the content and consequences of certain positive beliefs end up devolving into a defacto state in implemenation, or when certain ideological premises end up being an apt pretext for people who believe in them being lead to endorse authoritarianism.

For example, consider a society that largely accepts a communitarian and traditionalist ideology in which obedience to tradition and majoritarianism is stressed as the most important value. Not only are the masses of people who believe in this ideology easy pickins to be exploited by people with power, that their belief is an easy means for others obtaining power over them, but those who are marginal within such a society are effectively mince meat. While such a society could theoretically be nominally free, it is not likely to be free and even if it is initially free it is not likely to remain free for long. The structure and outcome of a society cannot reasonably be divorced from the values of the people within it, and it is in this sense that “thin” libertarianism is unstable as an ideology, in that it does not take a stand on values beyond a vague commitment to non-aggression (which splinters into multiple interpretations as it is), and this is precisely why it could be said to inherently lead to “vulgarity”.

2009-07-24 1:46 PM

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