Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin

Email Print

Recently, there has been much talk among libertarians about whether commitment to the non-aggression principle either stems from or leads to other commitments as well. In a very useful discussion, Charles Johnson talks about “thickness from grounds.” Johnson says, “Thus there may be cases in which certain beliefs or commitments could be rejected without contradicting the nonaggression principle per se, but could not be rejected without logically undermining the deeper reasons that justify the nonaggression principle. Although you could consistently accept libertarianism without accepting these commitments or beliefs, you could not do so reasonably: rejecting the commitments means rejecting the proper grounds for libertarianism.”

He seems to me right that such cases are conceivable; but the example he gives strikes me as unconvincing. He suggests that opposition to initiating force stems from a more general opposition to authority and hierarchy in civil society, business, and the family. He thinks that it is logically possible for someone to favor a hierarchical society, in which people in lower ranks treat those above them with deference, and at the same time accept the non-aggression principle, so long as the hierarchical arrangements are voluntarily acknowledged.  He thinks, though, that it would be weird to hold this combination of views. Whatever reason you have for rejecting the imposition of force by some on others should lead you to reject hierarchy and authority as well.

The force of this contention escapes me entirely. Isn’t it a sufficient foundation for libertarian rights that you hold that everyone, regardless of his social status, is entitled to respect? Everyone has the same libertarian rights, but how does this suggest, let alone entail, anything about where people stand in a social hierarchy? The impression of “weirdness” that Johnson finds in a libertarian view that supports social hierarchy stems from his first embedding libertarianism in a wider egalitarian commitment. If you do not accept this commitment, the weirdness disappears.


1:21 pm on April 6, 2014
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts