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America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Welfare State Brings Out the Thickness in Thin Libertarians

There are libertarians who apparently feel they must protect the movement from the thick libertarianism that I and others espouse. (It's also been called "humanitarian libertarianism.") Thickness denotes the idea that the same principles which commit us to  nonaggression also necessarily commit us to other values not directly related to nonaggression.

However, some thin libertarians display a surprising thickness from time to time.

Take the welfare state. Libertarians who shun thick libertarianism seem to have no trouble damning the welfare state for its corrupting effects on its recipients. I understand that some thins have even defended Cliven Bundy's "analysis" of the welfare state's harm to black people.

But that is not how consistent thin libertarians should talk about the welfare state -- unless they declare that for this purpose they are taking off their libertarian hats. Why do I say this? Because no one is forced to accept welfare, food stamps, or any other government handout. Being a welfare-state client is entirely voluntary and thus in itself has no thin-libertarian implications. If libertarianism is only about force, as thin libertarians insist, then they should have nothing to say about any bad effects on welfare-state clients. All thins can and should object to is the taxation that produces the revenue distributed to recipients.

Look at it this way. If the welfare state did not harm its recipients, libertarians would still oppose it because it relies on the aggression of taxation. So why do thin libertarians focus so much attention on what they should regard, respecting libertarianism, as an irrelevant feature?

Maybe the thins are thick after all, at least when it suits them.


Skyler J. Collins said...

Do they claim to be speaking as libertarians or as merely concerned human beings? A clue: Do they say anything along the lines of "receiving payment makes you dependent and that violates such and such libertarian principle"?

Sheldon Richman said...

They certainly leave the implication that they are speaking as libertarians because I never hear them say otherwise. Isn't it incumbent on them to make clear that they are taking off their libertarian hats?

Eric Hanneken said...

To be inconsistent, the thin libertarians you're talking about would have to declare that their objection to the effects of welfare on recipients follows from libertarian principles. Being a libertarian doesn't mean you're just a libertarian, and nothing else. We all have other beliefs and opinions.

I think I prefer the conceptual clarity of a brutal definition of libertarianism. The downside is that sometimes I have to explain to lazy non-libertarians that I don't agree with every opinion of every other libertarian. If we stuff more content into the term libertarianism that may redefine some unsavory people out of the group, but I don't know where to draw the line.

Sheldon Richman said...

If you were right, thins would emphasize that they are not speaking as libertarians. Note how they insist that thicks announce that when they condemn racism, they also declare they are not speaking as libertarians.

My article laid out a limiting principle. It's about treating people as ends and not merely as means.

Anonymous said...

I have to say this: Thick libertarianism and what has been called as humanitarian libertarianism is not the same.
Also, everyone is thick about something.

Skyler J. Collins said...

My column today is on this, and on the difference between the "thick vs thin" and "humanitarian vs brutalist" debates, imo. here: http://www.everything-voluntary.com/2014/04/intolerance-and-voluntaryism.html

Eric Hanneken said...

I favor the thin definition of libertarianism, but when I condemn racism I'm never careful to say, as postscript, "The preceding was not libertarianism." I don't believe anyone else is obligated to do that either. I do believe that the thick definition is idiosyncratic, so if someone says, "Racism in any form is inconsistent with libertarianism," he ought to explain his terms to avoid being misunderstood.

"Treat people as ends, not merely as means," sounds like a translation of Kant's second formulation of his categorical imperative. Was Kant a libertarian? (No Randian sneer intended; it's not a rhetorical question.) Many of his followers have drawn different conclusions about what that rule implies for personal conduct or government laws. Are they all, nonetheless, libertarians? Or is belief in treating people as ends necessary, but not sufficient, to being a libertarian?

Sheldon Richman said...

To be precise, the claim is not that racism is inconsistent with libertarianism. One can be a nonviolent racist. The problem is that the collectivism of racism introduces an element in one's thinking that conflicts with the most robust foundation of libertarianism. Charles Johnson explains this in the article that I link to.

This broader notion of libertarianism is much closer to the original liberalism.

Sheldon Richman said...

You may favor the thin definition, but I've made arguments in favor of the thick conception. Shouldn't someone try to counter those arguments? This isn't just a matter of taste.

Younes Megrini said...

The "welfare harms welfare recipients" observation is not a libertarian concern per se since, as you noted, no one is forced to receive welfare (although when the State just broke your knees, refusing the clutches is not exactly an option). The "welfare harms welfare recipients" is an attempt to convince the people who are in favor of welfare, because they believe it benefits welfare recipients, on their own terms (that ends justify means). I don't think making said observation is an indication of a "thick" conception of libertarianism.

DissidentRight said...

What is it with libertarians bashing racism? What is racism, after all?

Of course many statistics have strong racial correlations. Murder, rape, assault, theft. Wages. Grades. Illegitimacy. Abortion. IQ.

So if people are judged by their actions, as of course they should be, disparate impact is inevitable. So from the left's new definition of racism, libertarianism is indisputably racist.

What about the stronger form of racism: some degree of pre-judgement, based on race? Well, do statistics have racial correlations, or don't they? The SAT correlates very strongly to academic performance in college, which justifies colleges in refusing to accept people without actually confirming their ability to handle college-level material. Racial correlations are a lot weaker than that, but they are still much stronger than random guessing. So, some level of racial pre-judgement is definitely warranted.

The question is, how much.

And the real question is whether the vast majority of racial prejudice can be reasonably justified on the basis of (lately well documented, previously anecdotal) statistical racial correlations--especially prejudice that takes into account the person's manner of speech, manner of dress, and location. I say: absolutely yes.

Sheldon Richman said...

Are you saying that I should presume that the next black person to happen along is probably a murderer, rapist, thief, etc. merely because of race and that I should act as if that were the case?

DissidentRight said...

Racial correlations are a lot weaker than that, but they are still much stronger than random guessing. So, some level of racial pre-judgement is definitely warranted.

The question is, how much--especially prejudice that takes into account the person's manner of speech, manner of dress, and location.

No, shooting all black people you happen upon is out of the question. I'm glad that's out of the way.

However, merely clutching your purse and/or crossing the street because you happen along a black man dressed like a thug in a somewhat seedy part of town is way more than enough to make you a racist (and therefore apparently deserving of unlimited social disapproval). Or retailers hiring blacks teens at a reduced wage to compensate for lower productivity, risk of shoplifting, etc.

That's more where I was going, because that's what real racism actually looks like.

Sheldon Richman said...

Sounds like you're judging by clothing and part of town, not race.

Kevin Carson said...

Racism isn't just about "prejudging." It's about historic power imbalances. And I think most historically dispossessed, enslaved or otherwise marginalized peoples probably have disproportionately negative social statistics of that sort. Such negative social indicators are, commonly, disproportionately ascribed to American blacks, Indians on reservations, and Australian Aborigines. What do they have in common? DUH.

Black people have suffered centuries of all-out war on their civil society, for the sake of exploitation. Piven and Cloward, in Regulating the Poor, made a good case that all the negative social indicators Olasky pointed to stemmed, not from the Great Society, but from the large-scale postwar northward migration of black sharecroppers who'd been tractored off their land.

Dissident Right is an example of why so much of mainstream libertarianism is a bunch of white 20-something males dismissing women and racial minorities as inherently statist -- meanwhile quoting "Isaiah's Job" and whining about how things are going to hell in a handbasket.

DissidentRight said...


Retailers refusing to hire black teens at the same wage as white teens constitutes "judging by clothing and part of town, not race"? How do you figure?

Do you have a response to the charge of disparate impact, which of course is the de jure standard for racism these days? It's all very well and good to tell a racist libertarian that libertarians can't very well be racist, but how you going to explain that to Leftists who love the State?


It's gotten to the point where I feel embarrassed asking fellow libertarians these questions, since both left and right suddenly become tighter-lipped than someone who signed a confidentiality agreement. But we really do need to talk about these things and come up with a coherent story, if there is ever to be victory against the State.

It's been 50 years since Civil Rights. The black-asian gap remains as big as ever. Appeals to historical oppression wane thinner than ever. (Because the vast majority of Chinese in China haven't been oppressed, enslaved, and marginalized up until the present day…?)

When are libertarians (of any stripe) going to get around to acknowledging that given racist statistics, a libertarian society would have just as much disparate impact (if not more) as our Statist one--except that all the educators and hiring managers would be open about it instead of lying through their teeth?

When are they going to get around to admitting that racist statistics justify some level of race-based pre-judgement?

Racist libertarians are also extremely interested in hearing how left-libertarians plan to succeed in uplifting blacks where left-statists failed. Because from where we're sitting, the statists did a pretty impressive job: for crying out loud, compare blacks in America to blacks in Africa! (Meanwhile, Chinese in China only do slightly worse--gradewise--than Chinese in America.)

"Dissident Right is an example of why so much of mainstream libertarianism is a bunch of white 20-something males"

So you noticed it too! :-) Just what the heck is it about libertarianism that it basically only appeals to angry young white guys who feel like they are being exploited by the government?

Anonymous said...

I think one can criticize the effects of the welfare state, more than solely the taxation by which it is funded, based on the non-aggression principle: