The Case for Liberty, Through Thick and Thin

by Richard Ebeling One of the most important issues before […]

Richard Ebeling_coby Richard Ebeling

One of the most important issues before those who care about the advancement of liberty is how the case for freedom can best be made, and what it should include. A controversy has recently arisen among some friends of freedom about whether the case for liberty should be “thick” or “thin.” This may seem esoteric or removed from everyday political issues. But, in fact, it is very important for the long-run success of classical liberalism and a free society.

“Thin” Libertarianism and Non-Aggression

The advocates of the “thin” version of a defense of liberty argue that the primary and essential issue concerns the principle and logic of “non-aggression.” That is, the classical liberal or libertarian basically should be concerned with one, and only one, issue: the moral and practical case for the abolition of coercion from all interpersonal relationships to the greatest extent possible in human affairs.

The “thin” libertarian should not be concerned, per se, with how and on what basis individuals act and behave in their personal life and in their private and voluntary relations with others.

It does not matter, it is argued, whether that private individual is a racist who thinks some ethic groups are “inferior,” or who views the proper place for women to be in the home “bare foot and pregnant,” or who expresses negative views about any sexual orientation that is not heterosexual and that does not involve the “missionary” position.

All that classical liberals or libertarians should be concerned with and focused on is the abolition of all political and governmental intervention, control, and regulation over the peaceful and voluntary affairs of the citizenry.

On all other issues concerning human actions and associations the classical liberal or libertarian may have his own “subjective” values and preferences about how people should act in their private lives and in their social interactions, but these are outside the domain of the case for freedom and the free society.

A Presumed Slippery Slope Toward Paternalism

On all such matters the advocates of liberty must be “agnostic” in viewing and judging the actions of others. Who are we to praise or condemn the beliefs, conduct and choices of others, because to do so threatens to put the camel’s nose of government intervention into the tent of political discourse?

First you challenge the racist or anti-feminist, or sexual views of others, and before you know it, the classical liberal or libertarian has entered upon the “slippery slope” of opening the door to others who argue for government intervention, regulation and control to coercively impose the preferred values and human relationships through the power of the State.

Is this not how the older classical liberalism became transformed into the more modern version of liberalism under which the government takes on the role of political paternalist attempting to “engineer” the social and economic arrangements under which people are to act and interact?

First you condemn racist ideas and before you know it you have compulsory affirmative action and coerced integration. You challenge the traditional view of women in the household and soon you see regulations banning “men’s only” clubs and insistences on so many women being appointed to positions on corporate boards of directors. You question the exclusivity of heterosexual relationships and in no time “straight” professional photographers are mandated to take the pictures at “gay” marriages.

It is argued that limited government liberalism is step-by-step transformed into big government liberalism with its compulsory arms enveloping every nook and cranny of human existence. Is this not how political individualism becomes mutated into social collectivism?

“Thick” Libertarianism and Respectful Individualism

The “thick” classical liberal or libertarian also argues that the principle of non-aggression in all human relationships is the core political value for all advocates and defenders of freedom. But they ask whether that principle alone would be able to establish and sustain a society of free people.

How likely is it that equal rights before the law will be respected and maintained in a society in which many take it for granted that some human beings are racially “superior” while others are “inferior”? Will women be sufficiently respected and free from the aggressive actions of predatory men in a world in which women are viewed by a large number of males as mere sexual objects to serve the “stronger” sex?

And can a free society be sufficiently free of intolerance and aggressive behavior when a large number of “straights” take the attitude that “queers” and “homos” are fair game for ridicule and even physical abuse?

In other words, the political principle of non-violence in all human affairs does not and cannot exist in a social vacuum. The case for freedom from political power and control requires it to be situated in a wider philosophical and ideological setting of the nature, sanctity and even sacredness of the individual human being,

Many advances in freeing people from political control and the establishment of a recognition of their possessing individual rights to their life, liberty and honestly acquired property first arose out of changing attitudes about human beings and what was right and just in the conduct of people towards each other.

The End to Slavery Began with Changed Views of Man

For all of recorded history one of the oldest and most enduring of human institutions was slavery. The presumption of the right of one human being to own, use and even abuse another person was taken for granted in practically every culture and civilization around the world. That only began to change in the eighteenth century in Great Britain when men deeply conscious of their Christian faith formed an anti-slavery movement to abolish this institution, a social and political effort that finally triumphed with the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1834 by an act of Parliament.

They argued that all men are creations of God, made in His image, and all equal in His eyes. Surely it was a sin, an abomination in the eyes of God for mere mortal men to presume to lord over other human beings and play God in the form of slavery when there is only one Lord in heaven, and only He owns us all and has jurisdiction over our fates.

This, in turn, had grown out of the early philosophical explanations and defenses of the idea that every individual human being has a “natural right” to his own life and liberty, given to man by God and also demonstrable by reason if man was to have the ability to sustain his life and prosper.

Every human being as a unique and distinct individual, therefore, should be treated with respect and dignity, and not regarded as a mere “object” to be coercively used as the “means” to some slave owner’s ends.

It is difficult to imagine how our especially American tradition of individualism and political ideal of individual rights, which is the foundation of the principle of non-aggression in human relationships, could have ever emerged if this wider conception of man, his nature, and his requirements to survive and prosper had not first begun to take hold over the minds of people concerning their fellow human beings.

Racism is Inconsistent with the Spirit of Freedom

Racist attitudes and beliefs are anathema to any philosophy of individual freedom. It is to claim that the individual does not exist separate from the biological and genetic traits of a collective group to which he belongs. That he has no meaning or identity distinct from these tribal characteristics, and any “rights” or “privileges” he may possess are based on this collective or group position and status in society.

In a free society, are individuals at liberty to believe in and hold any views about human beings they choose, without political oppression or mistreatment? Of course, they are, including racist ones.

But the friend of individualism and classical liberalism should neither condone nor acquiesce in such views. A classical liberal or libertarian is not true to his own principles and their defense, if he remains silent in the face, for instance, of a Nazi arguing the inferiority of Jews, blacks or Slavs, and that as “sub-humans” they should be enslaved or eradicated for the good of some “master race.”

Equal Rights for Women Began with Commercial Freedom

Again, for most of human history women across many civilizations and societies were viewed as the property of their fathers to be transferred to a husband through arranged marriages to serve some presume benefit for the family as a collective unit.

A women often could not own or inherit property; she could not enter into contracts or undertake an employment outside the household without the father’s or husband’s consent and permission; and all that was her’s was really owned by the male authority.

Only the emergence of commercial capitalism in the late eighteenth and early decades of the nineteenth centuries began to change this. Employment opportunities in developing manufacturing centers gave women the first real chance to break free from this legal male domination. The new industrialists and enterprisers were only interested in finding willing employees to man the machines and production processes in the growing number of factories and market-oriented places of business.

Like many men, women left the rural areas of society and flocked to the cities and expanding urban communities to find better paying work in more attractive conditions than outdoor farming from dawn to dusk in the harsh physical elements.

Over time, women were found, as a practical everyday matter, to be as hardworking, reliable and industrious as men in many avenues of employment. Earning their own way, they had income to spend, save or invest. Regardless of legal niceties they began to enter into contracts, acquire property and leave money and other wealth to their loved ones.

This changing practical circumstance of women in modern commercial and industrial society slowly began to transform people’s attitudes toward them. In an increasing number of ways women were seen to be equal to men, and this led to reflections on the reasonableness and logic of extending equal individual legal and political rights to women, as well.

Thus, for example, the great nineteenth century British classical liberal, Herbert Spencer, in his 1851 book defending liberty, Social Statics, devoted a chapter to “The Rights of Women.” He pointed out that given their nature, qualities, characteristics, and potentials as human beings it was only reasonable and just that society formally recognize this by extending the same individual rights to women as increasingly men were enjoying.

Changing social attitudes and views concerning women in society and in relation to men, led to the more equal status of women before the law. With this came the accompanying attitudes over time that women should no more be abused or molested than a man should be.

Why? Because having “natural rights,” a woman, just as a man, “owned” herself and had a private property in her own mind and body, and had an accompanying right to the fruits of her own labor.

Disrespect for Women is Inconsistent with Individualism

Now, even in enlightened Western countries it has taken a long time for this to be fully recognized, respected and enforced. But the legal and political extension of equal individual rights to women would have be far more difficult or impossible if commercial and market-oriented societies had not emerged giving opportunities to women to escape from the traditional order of things in which they were the property of their fathers and husbands.

In a free society, men, of course, may personally hold any attitudes towards the “fairer sex” they may choose, and they may have any voluntary and consensual relationship they desire with a member of the opposite sex.

But a friend of freedom, I would suggest, shows a disrespect and disregard for the dignity of the female half of the human population, a disrespect and disregard for them as individual human beings, if they pass in silence when another refers to them in degrading and vulgar and near animalistic sexual terms.

How can the idea of non-aggression toward other human beings be maintained when some men voice and express their view of a woman in a dog or cow-like conception of their use and abuse for another’s pleasure, without dissent or outspoken disagreement?

Up until this point, I would hope that many if not most readers will have either agreed or at least been sympathetic with the idea that a politically free society in which non-aggression is a paramount principle relies upon the complementary and wider philosophical and social individualism that sees that liberty cannot be sustained in a cultural collectivist setting of widely-held racist and vulgar sexist conceptions of some members of society.

Sexual Orientation in Society

The issue of sexual orientation and its legal recognition is likely to be seen by some in a less sympathetic light. It is too new of a social and political issue to be thought about in the same dispassionate and reasonable way as slavery or a denial of equal individual rights for women.

It is an undeniable biological fact that the human species, like virtually all other developed life forms on earth, are divided into two sexes, the intimate association between which is necessary for procreation. The heterosexual relationship, therefore, has logically seemed to be the “natural” one for human existence.

But it is also the fact that for some percentage of the human species, for all of recorded history, there have been homosexual attractions. Whether due to “nature” or “nurture” or some quantitatively immeasurable combination of the two, it has been as present in the human circumstance as the male-female relationship.

The deeply religious person may be certain that God has made man and woman for a distinct purpose that makes the homosexual relationship “unnatural,” or a secularist may be firmly convinced that cultural stability and continuity requires the predominately heterosexual family structure in society.

Sexual Orientation and the Free Society

But as a friend of freedom, the classical liberal and libertarian, true to philosophical individualism upon which his principle of non-aggression is based, should be politely respectful and tolerant of the free choices that others make concerning their choice of intimate partners.

This does not require “acceptance” or “agreement” with another’s choice in this matter. We take it for granted that the strong Christian believer may be absolutely certain that the Buddhist or the Jew, by not accepting Jesus as his Lord and Savior, may be facing damnation or separation from God in another life.

But in the free society we expect that that Christian will respect the peaceful and non-coerced decision of that other person to find his own other way. Any Christian friend of freedom should expect from himself the courage and determination to speak out against any attempt to forcibly deny an individual the liberty to choose his own way in this fundamental matter, even if the choice made is not the Christian one.

In the same manner, the friend of freedom may personally believe strongly on religious or societal-cultural grounds the value and importance of the heterosexual relationship. But if he is an advocate of liberty he should respect and defend the right of any individual to make his or her sexual choice without an environment of rudeness, cruelty or physical aggressiveness.

In a free society, anyone is at liberty to be rude, crude, and cruel in his words and demeanor, as long as he does not violate the right of any other person to his or her life, liberty and property. But the friend of freedom should be no more tolerant or silent in the face such behavior when it is expressed about a person’s chosen sexual orientation than when spoken by a racist to humiliate and belittle a member of some ethic or racial group.

The Spirit of Individualism for Preservation of Freedom

The “thick” classical liberal or libertarian understands, let me suggest, that the preservation of individual rights and the principle of non-aggression in human affairs rests on and can only succeed and be sustained in the long run in a social setting in which people believe in, respect, and practice the culture and spirit of individualism in all walks and aspects of life.

Unlike some “thin” classical liberals or libertarians, the “thick” classical liberal or libertarian does not fear that expressing “value judgments” about the type of conduct and attitudes we have been discussing will lead to the feared “slippery slope” of paternalistic modern liberalism.

This happened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries due to the peculiar turn from the idea of “natural rights” to a particular utilitarianism under which some asserted that certain desirable “social” outcomes were to take precedence for the good of “the society as a whole” over the rights of the individual. And as such, it was considered acceptable to abridge various individual freedoms in the name of this “higher” collective good.

Any friend of freedom who remains anchored and true to the idea of inalienable rights that belong to the individual, as the American Founding Father reasoned, need not fear that he will fall into the trap of a presumed “social good” coming before the good and rights of the individual human being.

Natural Rights and Natural Liberty

This idea and spirit of individual liberty and rights was expressed clearly and succinctly by the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), who taught at the University of Glasgow and was the teacher of Adam Smith.

In his System of Moral Philosophy (1737), Hutcheson explained the concept and meaning of a “natural rights,” when he said,

“The following natural rights of each individual seem of the perfect sort: A right to life, and to that perfection of the body which nature has given, belongs to every man . . . This right is violated by unjust assaults, maiming, and murder.

“As nature has implanted in each man a desire of his own happiness . . . tis plain that each one has a natural right to exert his powers, according to his own judgment and inclination, for these purposes, in all such industry, labor, or amusements, as are not hurtful to others in their persons or goods . . .

“This right we call natural liberty. Every man has a sense of this right, and a sense of the evil or cruelty in interrupting this joyful liberty of others . . .”

But do not other men sometimes follow courses of action and ways of living that may be considered unwise, wrongheaded and possibly harmful to them? Hutcheson readily admits this.

But if each person is to be secure in his natural rights in this social system of natural liberty, then what avenue is open to those who wish to assist such misguided individuals to redirect themselves into more enlightened and betters ways?

Hutcheson states that the only course open that is consistent with respect of other people’s individual rights is reason and persuasion. Said Hutcheson:

“Let men instruct, teach, and convince their fellows as far as they can about the proper use of their natural powers, or persuade them to submit voluntarily to some wise plans of civil power where their important interests shall be secure. But till this is done, men must enjoy their natural liberty as long as they are not injurious [by violating the individual rights of others].

“This right of natural liberty is not only suggested by the selfish parts of our own constitution but by many generous affections . . . as the grand dignity and perfection of our nature.”

The pinnacle of social morality, therefore, in Hutcheson’s view, is to respect each individual to live his life as he peacefully chooses, without private or political molestation as long as he respects the equal rights of all others. And the proper ethical principle in advancing conceptions of a better life to others is the use of reason, persuasion, and the example of one’s own life.

Hutcheson concluded that, “The natural equality of men consists chiefly in this, that these natural rights belong equally to all . . . The laws of God and nature . . . prohibit the greatest and wisest of mankind to inflict any misery on the meanest, or to deprive them of any of their natural rights, or innocent acquisitions, when no public interest requires it [due to the violation of another’s rights].”

A “Thicker” Foundation for Liberty

The world and America has been drifting away from the political principle of non-aggression in all aspects of human affairs, because we have been losing our understanding, appreciation and practice of that wider philosophically grounded classical liberal individualism in our thinking, attitudes and actions in everyday life as well as in politics.

Without this “thicker” foundation to our arguments and defenses for freedom, a merely “thin” libertarianism may not be enough to resist and prevent the continuing creeping spread of political and social collectivism.

A philosophically reasoned defense of individual rights and an accompanying culture and spirit of individualism in our attitudes and actions in all our doings in society are, perhaps, the best basis and hope for the restoring and bettering of the classical liberal social order that gave us whatever liberty that was hard won in the past.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

Do you like the article?

We are glad you do! Please consider donating if you want to read more articles like this one.


Share this article!
Join our community and stay updated!