Thursday, September 3, 2015

Walter Block vs. Roderick Long on Thick vs. Thin Libertarianism

(ht David Gordon)


  1. Did anyone catch when Long very briefly made the following statement (just before 34:00 in) "part of the reason for being libertarian is your against pushing people around; force is one way of pushing people around but not the only one."

    Boy, I can't believe that one slid by Block. It seems soooo ripe for exploration. Especially because if I understand it right he made that statement in the context of "bossism"(I'm not sure what that is).

    Is Long talking about threats of force? Or is he suggesting that the boss/employee relationship is not a voluntary one? Even if he was talking about a "threat of force", he suggested there was "many" ways of forcing people to do things "without force". That really seems like coming dangerously close to something other than the NAP to me.

    Along those lines, Long expresses concern over the world view of those he might disagree with even if they accept the NAP because people might violate the NAP if they hold views he finds objectionable or prone to leading them down the path of NAP violation(Nazi's, chauvinists, etc.)....I wonder if he ever considered how that way of thinking might apply to a libertarians view of left libertarians.

    1. Great question, Nick. I wish Block would have pressed the issue. May be they can discuss it in a follow up debate, because I think they just scratched the surface. IMHO, this is really a thickness in application question. More specifically, it is a question of "what is aggression"? Another way of stating that is "Which torts are valid torts with respect to the NAP"? Some are obvious, such as any trespass to persons (threats, assault, battery, etc.). Some are less obvious, especially those dealing with property. For example, take unsolicited bulk email. While it may not seem as an instance of aggression at first look, the courts have ruled that as an instance of a trespass to goods tort. What about intellectual property? Whether violations of IP are torts is going to depend on your theory of property. What about causing someone emotional damage? The Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress has been recognized in common law since 1897. What about negligence? What about economic torts, such as restraint of trade?

      This is why I prefer a polycentric law approach based on common law, rather than some law by decree based on someone's idea of objective morals or natural law. All these torts have evolved in common law courts over time based on actual situations that were encountered and that nobody anticipated. We definitely need guiding principles, and that is where the NAP comes in. But the NAP is not going to be able to directly tell you what qualifies as aggression and what doesn't.

  2. That was a great debate. I thoroughly enjoyed watching these two brilliant minds exchange ideas. I wish Long would have pushed Block a little more on the value he uses to determine what qualifies as a person under the NAP, because this would have driven the point home (rather than the long digression into feminism).

    Let's assume that Block accepts Rothbard's criterion: Someone qualifies as a person with respect to the NAP if they are able to demand rights. Let's forget for a second that this seems like a terrible criterion, because it excludes fetuses, children, people in a coma, or any sentient being that is unable to communicate their wishes. This criterion is necessary to properly apply the NAP, but how is it entailed or derived from the NAP? It's not. Suppose I claim that a better criterion is the mirror self-reflection test. We are going to have very different interpretations of the NAP. Who is right? The NAP does not tell us. Yet we are unable to properly apply the NAP without bringing in other values in order to arrive at a consistent interpretation. This is thickness for application.

    I actually think thickness for application is rather uncontroversial. I think the thin libertarians will have to concede, sooner or later, that other values, not directly entailed by the NAP, are required to apply the NAP. At least for this reason, there are no really thin libertarians.

    An even better example is that if we want the extend the NAP from persons to their property, we need a theory of property. This is another example of thickness for application. For how are we to decide what is justly acquired property and what is not? The NAP does not tell us this. For example, even the principle of self-ownership is not directly entailed by the NAP. It's a separate principle. What about a homesteading principle? The NAP does not tell us which is the best homesteading principle. Other values come into play. Furthermore, in order to come up with the best theory of property, I think we are going to have to make use of the other kinds of thicknesses: thickness from grounds and strategic thickness. I will have to think about this some more.

    I think thickness from grounds is going to turn up to be the most interesting and, also, the most controversial. I have a feeling that tolerance and the NAP are logically linked, but I have not thought this out thoroughly. I also have a feeling that this will have something to do with thickness from grounds.

    In any case, I am glad that libertarian philosophy is growing and getting more developed. I think this is good and healthy for the movement.

    1. Once again I like your comment, I'm not sure I agree with it(or don't), but I like it because it's exploratory.

      I'm not sure conceding that "other values" are required to apply the NAP makes the case for "thin libertarianism"- in fact I think I'm not sure "other values" is quite the same as how we perceive the world(which determines how you might apply the NAP), which to me is the question surrounding how the NAP functions- I have to think about it some more.

      I have to contemplate the notion of whether perception="other values"(beyond the NAP) or not.

    2. Nick, thank you for the kind words. I think I understand your point. You are asking, is there an objective (e.g., scientific, deductive, etc.) way to determine who qualifies a person? Or is it a value judgment? Personally, I think it is going to turn out to be a value judgment, because the term "person" is a legal concept, and legal concepts are necessarily normative. This is opposed to, say, the term "human being," which is a biological concept. Now, it could turn out that eventually we will have a generally accepted scientific test for sentience. But then again, I am pretty sure that fetuses are not sentient, yet there is a strong moral intuitive sentiment that at least third trimester fetuses are pretty close to being persons So, again, I think it will come down to a value judgment.

  3. Left-libertarians are henceforth to be called liberaltarians.

  4. In a grossly distorted, non-free market situation, the boss-employee relationship can be decidedly one sided, as the employee may seek to keep his job at nearly all costs. In lieu of physical force and intimidation, there are the social means of force, beyond persuasion, that would include various forms of non-association, ostracism, shaming, etc. Such non-physical forms are not proscribed by the NAP.

    1. "In a grossly distorted, non-free market situation, the boss-employee relationship can be decidedly one sided, as the employee may seek to keep his job at nearly all costs."

      While I agree that the US economic system is gross distorted, it doesn't change the nature of the boss/employee relationship as it stands today, being voluntary.

      If you don't like working for your boss you can always leave. When you work for a boss, the understanding is you are under his direction voluntarily. You can end that at any time.

      A boss voluntarily gave you a job, you can voluntarily quite at any time. Might there be ramifications for the employee if he does that? Of course, but it never changes the fact that BOTH parties are engaged in a voluntary agreement that either party should be able to voluntarily terminate(within any such agreements of employ if they exist).

      "In lieu of physical force and intimidation, there are the social means of force, beyond persuasion, that would include various forms of non-association, ostracism, shaming, etc."

      So you view non-association, ostrcism, & shaming as a NAP violation?

  5. Nick. Great point. If libertarians come the the conclusion some people are such a threat to the NAP that they need to be silenced its becomes a slippery slope. Whats the old saying,,,,you end up becoming the thing you despise.