Remarks on Jan Narveson’s Libertarianism: the Thick and the Thin

Read as comments in reply to Jan Narveson's presentation at the second annual meeting of the Molinari Society (28 December 2005), during the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division conference in New York City.

Jan Narveson ably defends a conception of libertarianism as what he describes as a thinly moral doctrine. In order to do so he clears the ground with a hefty bundle of clarificatory remarks about thinness, thickness, morality, politics, culture, and where libertarianism properly locates itself within the conceptual regions marked out by these signposts. (¶ 1)

Narveson begins by questioning the formulation of the distinction betweeen thick and thin in terms of an opposition between broader cultural values and a narrowly political doctrine, identifying politics with the business of governments (as when he characterizes an inherently political problem as one whose solution necessarily requires that we erect governments to deal with it). Instead, he suggests that libertarianism is a specifically moral doctrine, concerned with the nature of justice, and that if thin libertarianism means only criticism of force and fraud as practiced by governments, then it needs to be thickened up; but not thickened any, or at least much, further than generalizing it to a moral condemnation of all forms of force and fraud, whatever uniform the jerk doing it is — or isn’t — wearing. Thus far I think the only question that needs to be asked is a definitional question about the use of the word politics. Narveson clearly means it as a synonym for government work; but aren’t there also uses of the word on offer that might pick out some broader range of concerns? For example, the range of claims settled by appeals to individual rights (which would make the domain of politics coextensive with the domain of justice as Narveson defines it), or with some even broader set of questions about the best way for people to go about living together in polities. For the purposes of Narveson’s paper this may be pretty easily consigned to lexicography — we can just distinguish politics-1 from politics-2 and politics-3, make it clear which we refer to in any given case (as Narveson effectively has) and move on from there. But if equivocating between narrow conceptions of politics and broad conceptions has tended, historically, to interfere with libertarians’ ability to appreciate the possible relationships between their own principles and the social and cultural values of other movements — for example, because those other movements described their goals in terms of politics, and libertarians took them to be focused on control over government policy when they meant something broader — and if those misunderstandings have, historically, misled libertarians into thinner versions of libertarianism in order to avoid such political commitments, then it may be worth marking this point for future reference. (¶ 2)

Narveson continues to flesh out some grounds for a libertarian theory of justice, construed as respect for rights. Libertarianism on his account provides a particular answer to a more general question: what sort of rules ought to govern our lives together, how we relate to each other when living in groups? One aspect of the question is the question of what sort of rules ought to govern the use of force; libertarianism, Narveson suggests, provides the most socially efficient formula for this task, a ban on the use of violence to initiate force against others. Viewed this way, it seems clear that libertarianism sets some sharp and important limits on the kinds of social and cultural projects we can pursue — Narveson points out, for example, that applying libertarianism logically entails giving up on some forms of environmentalism (or broadly, any social or cultural projects that accept initiatory force as a means). But he suoggests that libertarianism does no more than rule out comprehensive doctrines that logically conflict with the application of the Non-Aggression Principle; it has no further spinoffs for, and is properly compatible with, feminism, antifeminism, racial separatism, antiracism, labor organizing, pro-business organizing, environmentalism, secular humanism, Christianity, Jainism, etc. as long as the version of each of these social or cultural programs that’s on offer is one that refuses to make use of initiatory violence as a means. He suggests that expecting libertarianism to do more than this limited task is to make it over into a comprehensive doctrine in itself, and so to lose part of its essential value: that libertarianism leaves people to their own ideas about how to live, imposing only the constraint that in so doing they are not to inflict harm, damage, or more generally loss of freedom on others. (¶ 3)

As I understand him, Narveson suspects that the desire to thicken libertarianism beyond the simple goal of non-aggression comes about because of loose usage of two important terms — the thick-thin distinction, on the one hand, and the term moral, on the other. If the thick-thin distinction is drawn along lines of applying comprehensively vs. applying to a narrow range of questions, Narveson suggests that libertarianism is naturally counted as thin — since it applies only to the range of questions having to do with the use of force and not with peaceful disagreements. If, on the other hand, it is drawn along lines of a doctrine with both moral and political import, or a doctrine with narrowly political import, then it ought to be counted as thick, since there is nothing special about political questions (defining them, as Narveson does, as questions of government policy) that set them apart from other moral questions concerned with justice. So perhaps thickeners, rightly seeing that libertarianism is not narrowly political, wrongly take that to mean that it must have something to say about everything that morality in a broad sense speaks on, when instead they should be thickening libertarianism to line up with morality in its narrow sense but not further. (¶ 4)

It does seem to me that Narveson is, as he claims, offering something thicker than some versions of thin libertarianism and thinner than most versions of thick libertarianism. But it also seems that, given the way people usually draw these lines, the position is clearly on the thin side of the ledger for most versions of the thick-thin distinction. It’s true that there are many libertarians who, in their worse moments, tend to talk as if only aggression by government officials mattered, and to write off freelance coercion as, in some way, unimportant from the standpoint of libertarian theory or practice. That’s a sort of thinness that your libertarianism might have, and it’s subject to precisely the objections that Narveson raises against it. But meaning being use, I think it’s important to note that most people who would put themselves on the thin side of a thick-thin distinction, don’t seem concerned to mark off so intensely thin a concern as the only example of thinness. If politics can mean something broader than government work, then so can narrowly political doctrine; and if the former distinction is worth marking, it’s probably worth marking this latter distinction too. (If thin has been used too loosely in the past, we can always distinguish between the narrower thin libertarianism that Narveson is criticizing and the broader thin libertarianism he endorses — you could say emaciated libertarianism and sleek libertarianism, if it helps, leaving thick libertarianism as an outlier to both.) (¶ 5)

I’m not sure, though, that Narveson’s disentangling the distinction of narrow anti-statism from thoroughgoing non-aggression, on the one hand, and the distinction of limited scope from comprehensive doctrine, on the other, fully explains the grounds that thick libertarians give for concern with the thicker bundles of commitments and practices that we put libertarianism into. There seem to me to be at least four levels on which you might claim that libertarianism ought to go along with some thicker bundle of social and cultural commitments, practices, or projects — each with different upshots between the bundle and libertarianism. (¶ 6)

  1. The bundle might just be the application of libertarian principle to some special case — imagine an Aztec libertarian, who urged -- Of course libertarianism has upshots for religious beliefs! It means you have to give up human sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli. Here the bundle goes along with non-aggression simply in light of non-contradiction. Call this entailment thickness. (¶ 7)

  2. There might be cases in which the bundle could be rejected without a formal contradiction to the non-aggression principle, but not without in fact interfering with its application. There are cases in which people disagree over the line where my rights end and yours begin; and libertarians might argue that some thick bundles need to be preferred over others in order to avoid conceptual blinders against certain rights or forms of aggression. Think of the feminist criticism of the traditional division between the private and the political sphere and those who draw it in such a way that systematic violence and coercion within families are justified, or excused, or ignored, as something private and therefore less than a serious form of violent oppression. Or the way in which garden-variety collectivism prevents many non-libertarians from even recognizing taxation or legislation by a democratic government as a form of coercion in the first place. Here the bundle of commitments that libertarians need to have isn’t just a special application of libertarian principle; the argument calls in resources other than the non-aggression principle to determine just where and how the principle is properly applied. In that sense the thickness called for is thicker than entailment thickness; but the cash value of the thick commitments is still the direct contribution they make towards the full and complete application of the non-aggression principle. Call this application thickness. (¶ 8)

  3. There might be cases in which a bundle is neither strictly entailed by the non-aggression principle, nor necessary for its correct application, but may be a causal precondition for implementing the non-aggression principle in the real world. Thick libertarians might suggest cases in which it’s difficult or even impossible for a free society to emerge, or survive over the long term, or flourish, without the right bundle of commitments, because the wrong bundle (say, blind obedience to traditional authority), without logically conflicting with libertarianism, might still make it very hard for libertarian ideas to get much purchase in our actual society, or for a future free society to resist a collapse into statism or civil war. Since this offers instrumental grounds for, say, individualist self-reliance to be bundled along with libertarianism, call this instrumental thickness. (¶ 9)

  4. Some bundles might be consistent with the non-aggression principle, but might undermine or contradict the deeper reasons that justify libertarian principles in the first place. Here it would be claimed that the you could accept libertarianism without the thicker bundle consistently, but that you couldn’t do so reasonably, because rejecting the bundle means rejecting the grounds for your libertarianism. Call this grounds thickness. (¶ 10)

  5. Finally, it might be held that a thicker bundle should be adopted because it has its own reasons, independent of libertarian considerations, for being considered right; in this case, nothing more is being asserted than that you ought to be a libertarian (for whatever reason), and, as it happens, you also ought to accept some futher set of commitments (for independent reasons). Since no deeper relationship between the two is being asserted here, call this kind of thickness conjunction thickness. (¶ 11)

Conjunction thickness seems something Narveson obviously wants to reject as something outside the scope of libertarianism. In any case, it’s unclear that it amounts to anything stronger than the claim that a libertarian should also be a good person. True, that, but it’s unclear how libertarianism could play any special role for the other commitments in the bundle, or the other commitments could have any impact on the libertarian theory, without becoming an instance of some more robust sort of thickness. Entailment thickness, on the other hand, is — as Narveson points out, referring to the duty that libertarians have to abandon coercive forms of environmentalism — one obvious way in which libertarianism has something to say about our other cultural and social commitments, but it’s dubious how far this counts as thickness at all. In extremis, the position seems quite clear. (¶ 12)

But I am not sure which other forms of thickness he is or is not willing to sign onto. Does his thin libertarianism involve application thickness as well? I’d hope so, since application thinness would simply exile virtually any debate over hard problems such as abortion, intellectual property, children’s rights, the status of the family, land use, etc. from the structure of libertarian theory, and would seem to drive a wedge between having a principle and being able to apply that principle in a way that is not logically sustainable. (¶ 13)

Does Narveson’s case for a thinner libertarianism allow for instrumental thickness? His brief discussion of the practical problem for libertarians, and the breadth that may creep in … due to the complexities of life seems like a natural place for instrumental thickness to enter the discussion; but Narveson suggests that instrumental thickness is, because a practical question due to the complexities of life, a separate issue from the structure of our theory. I’m not sure why. Is that true of any purely causal connection between libertarianism and instrumentally thick commitments? If so, what’s special about causal connections that take them out of the realm of what theory should account for? (¶ 14)

Quite interestingly, Narveson suggests, and seems to endorse, a sort of grounds thickness in his discussion of voluntary charity, suggesting that valuing others for their own sake would seem to ground both libertarianism and a commitment to (voluntary) charity. I think that’s almost certainly right; but I simply don’t see how that doesn’t commit Narveson, on this point, to a very thick sort of thick libertarianism — if the reasons for libertarianism are also reasons for charity then libertarians can’t reasonably be stingy, even if it would be perfectly consistent with the non-aggression principle to do so. Any number of things — racism, sexism, feminism, labor strikes, strike breaking, monotheism, atheism, homophobia, homosexuality, etc. have all, at one time or another, been alleged to conflict with the sort of generalized respect for persons that Narveson seems to draw on in order to connect libertarianism with voluntary charity; and if any of those cases can be made, then it seems like Narveson has allowed for a very thick set of thick commitments. Is this a problem for Narveson (and thus a reason to reconsider what he says about charity), or an opportunity (and thus a reason to reconsider what he says about thickness), or have I simply failed to grasp a distinction that he wants to draw? (¶ 15)

Broadly speaking, I’d be interested to know what Narveson takes to be problematic in versions of libertarianism that urge a pretty robust set of commitments beyond pure and simple non-aggression. Is it a general problem in principle with some of the kinds of thickness discussed, or is it merely a specific problem in fact with the particular programs he’s seen suggested as companion pieces to libertarianism? (After all, he does seem to accept a pretty thick variety of thickness when he discusses the virtue of charity.) If libertarianism needs to slim down, which specific varieties of thickness does it need to avoid—and what’s the health benefit to doing so? (¶ 16)