The Ducking Hypocrisy of Thick Libertarians

Visiting any libertarian page or discussion group recently, a reader would be struck by the tension and frequent (rather heated!) arguments between, for lack of better terms, “thick” and “thin” libertarianism. This debate would seem to cut to the very core of what contemporary libertarianism is: is it a doctrine limited to the size and scope of government, or, as the personal is political, is it far broader in scope than that?

Whereas thin libertarianism typically remains limited to more traditional libertarian notions of reducing the size of government, thick-libertarianism seeks to go beyond this.

In a manner reminiscent of the essentially-now-failed to the AtheistPlus movement, thick-libertarianism argues that there must be something more than applying the Non Aggression Principle to governments: As Nathan Goodman has argued, “thickness is any broadening of libertarian concerns beyond overt aggression and state power to concern about what cultural and social conditions are most conducive to liberty”

Critically, however, it is a movement associated not with the FS Meyer or Nesbitt schools of thought, which, drawing from the ideas of Burke, argued that in order for a libertarian society to flourish, a civil society based on traditional values must endure, but quite the opposite. The contemporary thick-libertarian mandate is, in the most part, for libertarians to oppose any and all forms of traditional and social pressures. For if social pressures are coercion, then it is the responsibility of libertarians to oppose them, what ever they may be.

Most often, this presents itself as an imperative for libertarians to oppose social coercion just as vehemently as they do state coercion, often focussing on social pressures as they occur in regards to “slut shaming”, drug use, and racism. To use one of Mr Goodman’s examples “we should vigorously oppose slut shaming and victim blaming in the same way we should oppose any excuses offered for state violence”.

At the core of this philosophy is the notion that “individuals and groups threaten people who “misbehave” as well, with criticism, ridicule, shame, and sometimes complete ostracization” and that this is indistinguishable from state violence. As Cathy Reisenwitz notes in a post that perhaps best exemplifies the thick-libertarian mindset entitled “Shaming Others Is Unjustifiable Coercion”:

“Somewhere we’ve decided that the tools the state uses to influence behavior are “coercion” while the tools non-state actors use are cooperation. Where is the justification for this? I didn’t sign a contract with slut-shamers any more than I did with my government. I may find complete ostracism much more oppressive than a small fine. In fact, there are studies which indicate that social exclusion is far more psychologically damaging than property crime.…And how is this private coercion any better than public coercion? It is safe to say that those who would criticize, ridicule, shame or ostracize me do not have all of the information I have about my environment and behaviour. The same knowledge problem which makes state planning inferior to markets makes other people shaming me into certain behavior inferior to me making decisions separate from that outside threat of shame.

It is critical to note that for this particular strain of thick-libertarianism, that any sort of social coercion or stigmatisation is identical to state coercion, and must be opposed by libertarians as the antithesis of freedom. Drugs and slut-shaming may be used as an example, but they are examples only – the notion applies to all things.

With this context, allow me to present a thought experiment.

An individual – let’s call him Phil – has made some lifestyle choices that are not exactly popular in large segments of contemporary society. Phil is viewed as repugnant, his views unacceptable. While he has never called for the government to enforce his views onto others, he maintains his beliefs, and, despite widespread condemnation of his views, he speaks out about them.

In response, society shuns, coerced and ostracises him. He is forced out of his job. He is told his lifestyle choice is unacceptable in contemporary society and that it must be “de-normalised”. His freedom of speech is curtailed, if not by the state, then by coercion of society.

On the face of it, this societal coercion is exactly of the sort that thick-libertarians such as Ms Reisenwitz should condemn. After all, it is certainly the use of social coercion, and social coercion – always – is just as morally repugnant as coercion by the state.

Hence it would be not just the right, but the moral imperative, of a libertarian to oppose it.

Or is it?

Because the case of Phil Is not just one I made up, it just happened.

If you have not gathered by now, I am referring to the case of Phil Robertson who was ‘indefinitely suspended” from the A&E Reality TV show for stating his beliefs regarding his faith, particularly the opposition he, and those who follow his lifestyle, have to homosexuality. An opposition that, once again, did not call for government action, but rather, was the statement of a private moral belief.

And where were the thick-libertarians?

The campaign to suspend Mr Robertson bore every hallmark of unjustifiable social coercion by Ms Reisenwitz’s definition: there was criticism, ridicule, shame, and ostracization: he even got suspended from his job for it!

And yet… these very thick-libertarians, rather than condemning the anti-Robertson mob, were, for the most part, celebrating it.

The argument put forward was simple: a homophobe was punished, not through the coercive power of the state, but rather through voluntary interaction. Civil society works!

This is, of course, quite correct. However the glaring omission is obvious: if all social coercion is bad, then how can any libertarian celebrate the social coercion that lead to Mr Robertson’s suspension?

After all, this is a sentiment I certainly can understand – if it were not for the direct conflict with the thick libertarian creed opposing any and all forms of social coercion.

Granted, some libertarians saw beyond this hypocrisy. Reason Magazine’s Brian Doherty wrote thatL:  “The idea that that people should be punished with boycott or losing their jobs over having wrong beliefs hobbles the flowering of tolerant classical liberal market cosmopolitanism … while censuring unpopular speech through social ostracism and economic boycott may not be un-libertarian, it’s deeply illiberal and contrary to the spirit of tolerance that makes society flourish.

Indeed, there is something profoundly disquieting about the particularly vicious nature of the lynch-mob mentality that gleefully bayed for Mr Roberton’s blood. This can not be denied.

Yet, I think all would find it an unsatisfactory defence that social coercion is bad – except when it agrees with the morals of the author.

The thick-libertarian movement can not have it both ways: either social coercion – whether it be slut-shaming or duck-dynasty boycotting – is identical to state coercion and as such anathema to libertarians, or, in the alternate, it is a critical check on person’s behaviour to ensure a better society.

It is difficult, as such, to see anything other than rank hypocrisy in the actions of thick-libertarians who would run to the barricades to protest social pressure they personally disapprove of, yet engage in social pressure to alter behaviour that is not to their liking. You can not have it both ways.

Either you accept social pressure as a valid use of coercion, or you do not. There is no middle way, you can not argue consistently that “social pressure is good when I agree with it, and bad when I do not”. Granted, you can oppose specific uses of social pressure, but the concept of social pressure as “unjustified coercion” you can not attack.

As such, it would seem that the entire anti-shame libertarian movement is no more than a house of cards, based on the personal preferences o its exponents. They would criticise shame as a concept when it is levelled at their personal preferences (sex, drugs, and rock and roll), and yet be its standard bearers when directed at those they disagree with.  This is, in my mind, ethically reprehensible: to treat individual cases on how they affect you personal moral whims is deeply libertarian.

Either accept that shame, societal pressure, and the coercion of society is a critical function of any small government society, or, give up your support for the anti-Phil Robertson crusade. It really is as simple as that.

If certain libertarians gave up their abject hypocrisy, and took a stand, one side of the other, the movement would be a lot stronger as a result.

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