Thin Versus Thick Libertarianism; Which Culture Is Best?

Hello Dr. Block: I’m a longtime fan and follower, and I’ve been a libertarian for over 18 years now, and I’m pretty well educated in the literature. I have a question and just wanted to send it to you, if you have some time, I’d be happy if you could reply. Lately, especially since the Brutalist Tucker article, which at the time seemed really laughable to me but actually I think has blown open a huge wide debate throughout the Libertarian world about Thick vs. Thin libertarianism. I’ve watched your debates with Sheldon Richman and Roderick Long, and I’ve also listened to Long on the Tom Woods Show. I haven’t read the Charles Johnson book about this yet but I intend to. I’ve also read the Bionic Mosquito article on Lew Rockwell’s site:

He makes the following claim: A common culture – and a culture beyond merely the NAP – is necessary if we are ever to move closer to a libertarian society. Asks the rhetorical: What is aggression? What is proper punishment? How is it determined when the age of minority ends and majority begins? What is property? Then answers by saying there would actually be many different answers to these questions that could be compatible with the NAP. This seems contradictory to his original statement about a common culture, but I think this is where most Thick libertarians want to go, namely to make some claim about cultural superiority or that one culture is incompatible with libertarianism. The important question raised is, how useful is the NAP if aggression can’t easily be determined, and how useful is a political philosophy that can’t tell you simple things about crime and punishment, thus the case for Thickism.

My view is the following: Something like proper punishment will always be subjective, because there is no testable, quantifiable substance called “right” that can be measured out with each punishment. If the answer, as stated by BM, is that whatever the local culture determines as the punishment is more likely to be accepted as right, and this is not necessarily determined by majority rule but by established custom, I would contend that this, while perhaps being true in practice, doesn’t make one punishment more right than another. Either custom or law is based on man’s own practices, so we can’t even say if custom or a statist legal framework is more right or has a higher authority,

In all debates, the answer to this question seems to be insufficient. Is this just a semantic debate, where we all accept the NAP as libertarian, but then others are needlessly complicating it? Or must we also accept that there is a requirement for something beyond an NAP, and that one or another scenario could work out to be more compatible and claim some kind of privileged position among libertarians (and of course I’m sure the claim would be that Western Civilization would be superior).

Sorry for the long email, any articles or further debates or thoughts you have would be very helpful. thank you for your time. I

Dear I: I’ve written a bit about thin and thick libertarianism, see below. As far as I’m concerned, some cultures might well be more compatible with libertarianism than others. I’m not enough of a sociologist or historian to say which is which though, although I have my guesses. The point I would leave you with it that this is an entirely different issue than what does libertarianism consist of? As far as this latter issue goes, I’m a thinnist: that is, this issue is entirely outside the realm of what is libertarianism. Suppose it could be definitively proven that chess playing is more compatible with liberty than is checker playing (or the reverse, it matters not). Would this change by one iota what libertarianism IS? I answer No. It would still be the NAP and private property rights. Ditto for other types of cultures.

Williamson, Kenn and Walter E. Block. Forthcoming, 2017. “Is libertarianism thick or thin? Thin!” The Italian Law Journal. Volume 3, Issue 1, July

Block, Walter E. 2015. “Thin and thick libertarianism” Political Dialogues: Journal of Political Theory. Issue 19, pp. 11-20;

Block, Walter E. 2014A. “Pure libertarianism.” May 17;;;;

Block, Walter E. 2014B. “Was Murray Rothbard a Thick Libertarian?” May 23;;;

Block, Walter E. 2014C. “Was Murray Rothbard a Thick Libertarian? Part II” May 23;

Montgomery, Stephen and Walter E. Block. 2016. “Animal torture and thick libertarianism.” Review of Social and Economic Issues (RSEI), Vol 1, No. 3, Spring, pp. 105-116.


3:10 pm on February 19, 2017