Thick vs. Thin Libertarianism
The difference between thick and thin libertarianism hinges on answering the question – is libertarianism only a political philosophy, or can it be, for instance, a moral philosophy as well? Does it only answer political questions, or moral questions as well? I advocate for thin libertarianism, a libertarianism that answers the question – what is the role of the state? It does not answer questions about our immortal souls.
During our study of liberal arts, we learned that one of the greatest errors made by modern day intellectuals is that of trying to answer theological questions with science, or scientific questions with politics, or otherwise misuse a field of study by assuming it can answer questions that are not appropriate to it. For me, libertarianism answers political/economic questions, and Catholicism answers moral questions. When determining your own religious and political preferences, it’s equally as essential to make sure those preferences are compatible as it is to recognize that they are completely different tool sets.
Also note that many libertarians recognize this political philosophy as most capable of protecting our rights to choose and act in accordance to our moral beliefs. This is because the pillar of this political philosophy is the insistence that state power should be minimal, since it is by nature coercive, and wherever coercive power exists, it can be used for good or evil depending on who happens to wield it on any given day. Libertarians are careful to avoid naivety, careful not to assume that such power will only be used for good. The same power that could, for instance, be used to force every citizen to practice Catholicism (or at least appear to practice Catholicism) could also be used to force every citizen to practice atheism, islam, or buddhism. I’d rather that no such power existed than wait for the day when it inevitably fell into the wrong hands.
Deontology vs. Consequentialism
A deontological libertarian will say that freedom is an end, not a means. Freedom is good in and of itself. A consequentialist libertarian will say that freedom is a means, not an end. He will say that “private property, free trade, and civil liberties are valuable as means to a happier, healthier, and more prosperous world.”1 I think one need not choose either a deontological or consequentialist view of freedom. A thing can be both an end and a means because the fact that is in an end does not prevent it from being a step among many steps to a different end.
Freedom is an end, a good in itself, because free is how God willed us to be. Coercion offends our dignity.
God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. ‘God willed that man should be left in the hand of his own counsel so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.CCC
It is also a means because it results in many other arguably good things like increased life expectancy, medicine, and decreased infant mortality. Obviously this is far, far from an exhaustive list. But as a result of free trade, we have the richest, healthiest society in human history. What Jonah Goldberg calls “the miracle” is empirically proven. In Suicide of the West he uses a thought experiment to illustrate “the miracle:”
Imagine you were an alien monitoring the progress of Homo sapiens on backwater Earth, visiting once every 10,000 years.
Starting 250,000 years ago, you would record the following:
Visit 1: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food.
Visit 2: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food. No change.
Visit 3: Bands of semi-hairless, upright, nomadic apes foraging and fighting for food. No change.
You’d write virtually the same thing roughly 23 times over 230,000 years, a few modestly interesting details about changes in migration, diet, and crude tools notwithstanding. On the 24th visit, you’d note some remarkable developments. Many scattered human populations have discovered basic agriculture and animal domestication. Some use metal for weapons and tools. Clay pottery has advanced considerably. Rudimentary mud and grass shelters dot some landscapes (introducing a fairly recent concept in human history: the home). But there are no roads, no stone buildings.
Still, an impressive advance in such a short time: merely 100 centuries.
Returning 10,000 years later, your spaceship would doubtless get spotted by NORAD. You might even arrive in time to see Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.
In short: Nearly all of humanity’s progress has transpired in the last 10,000 years.
A longer excerpt is available at the National Review, but I highly recommend reading the full book. It details the connection between “the miracle” and freedom, and specifically capitalism, while also entertaining.
To summarize, the breed of libertarianism for which I’m arguing is a minarchist, thin, deontological/consequentialist libertarianism. Next, I’ll address specifically whether this type of libertarianism offends or protects the “common good.”
1: Stephanie Slade