It’s astounding to see so many libertarians confused about its relationship to extra-libertarian fields of study, including and especially culture and sociology. Typically, the confusion lands in one of two ways. On hand are those who believe that libertarianism entails an opinion or demeanor related to a litany of social and culture topics outside the strict bounds of the question of the use of coercion. For instance, those who suffer from this confusion believe that to fully be libertarian, or to be a libertarian in good standing, one must hold socially progressive attitudes toward sexuality, drug use, sexism, LGBT communities, religion, and so on. Their fundamental mistake is broadening or thickening the scope of libertarianism outside the bounds of its role as a legal/political theory, which of course strictly has to do with the legitimacy of the use of coercion in society. We can call this camp “thick libertarians.”
On the other hand, there are those who believe that libertarians cannot take a position on social issues, or cannot investigate and express concern over culture, the family unit, social habits and norms, and so on. Note that I am not describing this mistake as the conservative version of the first mistake, but rather describing this second confusion as making the mistake of assuming that one is betraying his libertarianism by being interested in the empirical world around us.
To correct these two confusions, the answer is very simple: libertarianism is “thin” in that it specifically addresses the use of coercion in society. In this way, libertarianism is a specific formulation of property rights which logically lead into the nature of aggression, criminality, justice, and so on. Thus, libertarianism is a legal theory (because it speaks to what is lawful and what is unlawful action, based on property ownership), with political ramifications (our theory of the state is a result of our more general theory of rights and interpersonal conflict). But as Stephan Kinsella argues in what is, in my opinion, the best introductory essay to the meaning of libertarianism, libertarianism is not made unique by property rights, but by “its particular property assignment rules.” This is crucial. Let me quote the passage at large:
What of property rights, then? Is this what differentiates libertarianism from other political philosophies—that we favor property rights, and all others do not? Surely such a claim is untenable. After all, a property right is simply the exclusive right to control a scarce resource. Property rights specify which persons own—have the right to control—various scarce resources in a given region or jurisdiction. Yet everyone and every political theory advances some theory of property.
None of the various forms of socialism deny property rights; each socialism will specify an owner for every scarce resource. If the state nationalizes an industry, it is asserting ownership of these means of production. If the state taxes you, it is implicitly asserting ownership of the funds taken. If my land is transferred to a private developer by eminent domain statutes, the developer is now the owner. If the law allows a recipient of racial discrimination to sue his employer for a sum of money—he is the owner of the money.
Protection of and respect for property rights is thus not unique to libertarianism. What is distinctive about libertarianism is its particular property assignment rules—its view as to who is the owner of each contestable resource, and how to determine this.
As an aside, this is what I have tried to constantly remind people about, say, Marxism– especially in its more academic and philosophical circles. Marxism doesn’t deny property rights; what they deny is the property assignment rules of capitalism. They instead see the capitalist system as itself theft. It is theft because it is a deviation from their own formulation of property assignment rules! The libertarian therefore must go much deeper into the foundations of the theory, into the questions relating to the origination of property and so on, in order to best develop his holistic theory that can adequately counter the claims of statists and even non-statists of far left traditions.
Kinsella later connects the property assignment rules to the issue of aggression:
libertarians are consistently opposed to aggression, defined in terms of invasion of property borders, where property rights are understood to be assigned on the basis of selfownership, in the case of bodies; and on the basis of prior possession or homesteading and contractual transfer of title, in the case of other things.
Thus, those that argue for a sort of “thick libertarianism” deviate from the above “thin” and more Rothbardian-Hoppean framework strictly bound by issues relating to coercion. Issues like the embrace of homosexuality, the criticisms of traditional norms, concerns about equality and an “authoritarian” corporate structure are all outside the bounds of libertarianism. Libertarianism is not a stance or position on progressivist social ideals inasmuch as such ideals do not concern aggression and, subsequently, the state. Those who confuse libertarianism with various passions about social issues are the ones that suffer from the first confusion — even if their passion is of the conservative flavor.
However, it does not follow from libertarianism’s thinness that one can never have opinions or place importance on social issues. This would be the second confusion. So long as one adheres to the principle of non-aggression, he is a libertarian in good standing; but as human beings, as people who constantly interpret and interact with the empirical world, we most certainly are allowed to have interests. That is, our libertarianism does not put some sort of theoretical restriction on our interest in the world and culture and society that surrounds us. This is true whether one is a cultural rightist or a cultural leftist.
The Place of Sociology and Culture
Since libertarianism does not speak to issues outside the boundaries of aggression and property rights, when we speak of these things we are expressing our values and interests on topics that are not per se libertarianism. We do not, to use an easy example, extend the boundaries when we libertarians discuss music or food (to the extent that we are discussing these things in a way that does not related to aggression in terms of property rights).
Thus, as for the general mood and demeanor of the editors of this site and its print publication our own tendency tends to be biased toward rightism and social conservatism. This of course does not alter our libertarianism, since it exists beyond the reach of libertarianism, strictly speaking. Therefore, one can make claims about which understanding of culture and society best comports with libertarianism, without actually altering libertarian theory. There are some libertarians who believe a social tolerance and an accepting of alternative lifestyles best comports with libertarianism; these same libertarians who have sort of a cultural leftist sway might also say that tradition, religion, and social hierarchies are unhealthy. But if they understand libertarianism correctly, they should admit that libertarians are allowed to take opposing positions on these issues.
Now, it is the opinion of the present author that having a rightist demeanor on culture, tradition, hierarchy, sexuality, religion, and so on, is preferable. This is said, not to repeat myself ad nauseam, as an addition to my libertarian position on the nature of rights and property. The relationship to this “conservative” demeanor on society and culture was best expressed by Hans Hoppe. There is of course debate over whether the following is an accurate interpretation of his thought (Walter Block disagrees with me) but for me, here is how Hoppe brings two different fields of studies together as a unified, though distinct, set of principles.
It’s important to note that conservatism is best thought of as a mood or instinct. It is not theory, it is not ideological. In this way, it is not meant to be as precise as ideologies such as libertarianism or, more broadly, Christianity as a philosophical worldview. And just because conservatism has in the past, at one time or another, though not consistently, leveraged the state to accomplish its desires, does not mean it must do so. If conservatism is more holistic than just a strict political theory (which concentrates only on the State), then it cannot be fundamentally at odds with libertarianism which is indeed a strict political theory. That would be, as the saying goes, comparing apples and oranges.
Hoppe’s thesis is that libertarianism needs cultural conservatism and that the only way to save the west and its civilization is to embrace it, contrary to the claims of (most) libertarians who would prefer to embrace cultural progressivism in the name of libertarianism. But to reiterate what I had stated above, the advocacy and defense of cultural conservatism should not be seen as adding to libertarianism’s narrow definition. The position that conservatism alters the libertarian creed is unnecessary. To reiterate, we are not making libertarianism into a “thick” philosophy, but rather pointing out the benefits of a voluntary social embracing of certain historical and cultural norms. That is why, for example, Hoppe and others like him, deride cultural marxism, even if purportedly voluntary.
Hoppe understands that conservatism can mean different things and can be taken in different senses. He mentions two in Democracy: the God that Failed: “someone who generally supports the status quo” and “someone who believes in the existence of a natural order, a natural state of affairs.” The first sense is discarded for the purposes of his chapter and the present argument. The implication here of the second sense, in the context of the book as a whole, is that the democratic State necessarily and harmfully intervenes into the natural state of things. That is, the democratic State breaks down and destroys an order of private property, natural authority, societal structure, and capital production in pursuit of things like egalitarianism, affirmative action, and subsidization of public “bads.”
The conservative, natural order of things, recognizes the necessity of social units that that the progressives do not; namely, “families (fathers, mothers, children, grandchildren) and households based on private property and in cooperation with a community of other households as the most fundamental, natural, essential, ancient, and indispensible social units.” The libertarian views his definition as true for all time and ethically applicable to all people. That is, the principle is not a modern convention, a result of evolving humanity. Hoppe says it like so: “[L]ibertarians are convinced that the principles of justice are eternally and universally valid (and hence, must have been essentially known to mankind since its very beginnings). That is, the libertarian [principle] is not new and revolutionary, but old and conservative.”
Thus, since the State intervenes in the Natural Order, those who are conservative and do appreciate the Natural Order of things, should be libertarians.
Beyond this, Hoppe points out that conservatism (which tends to be “empiricistic, sociological, and descriptive”) focuses on “families, authority, communities, and social ranks” while libertarianism (which is“rationalistic, philosophical, logical, and constructivist”) focuses on the “concepts of property, production, exchange, and contract.” And therefore the former is the “concretization” of the latter. Conservatism needs a theory and libertarianism has practical expressions –that is, a natural and physical order.If conservatism desires to return to a “moral and cultural normalcy,” it needs libertarianism’s consistent and defensible antistatism.
The Costs of the Enlightenment
The relationship between conservatism and libertarianism is a fascinating one; and I was brought back to this subject by the well-received speech at AERC this year by Mises Institute board member Daniel Ajamian. I will leave a more robust interaction with the content of the speech for the future, but one of the thinks that Ajamian pointed out was that libertarianism, or freedom based on property rights, does not per se demand the social embrace of the Enlightenment and the accomplishments that are so often attributed to it. In so many ways, a private property order might, in fact, fit better within the social arrangements of community and religious oriented life– where themes like responsibility, hierarchy, variance of skills and abilities, and so on are emphasized, not avoided. As it happens, I have spoken to Danny on themes similar to this over the years and one thing that he has always emphasized, and I agree, is that there’s so much more to life and civilization than just “economic efficiency” and the ability to do what you want on your property. These are important, perhaps even fundamental.
But as human beings, not just libertarians, perhaps we should think more deeply about the meaning of life, about the community and culture and tradition. These things to not alter the libertarian creed, but put it in context. It’s hard to get the common man to fight for the “property assignment rules.” But perhaps they will fight for a legacy to leave and a life of meaning. And what better social arrangement to fight for these things than liberty from the strong arm of the state?