Thick Versus Thin Libertarianism: A Brief Primer

For quite some time now, there has been a mild debate about “thick” versus “thin” libertarianism. “Thin” libertarianism is the belief that libertarianism at its essence only defines humankind’s relationship to the state, nothing more. “Thick” libertarianism is a belief system that aims to extend libertarian thought to non-state situations. I’d like to explore these concepts a little bit, but before I do, let’s make sure we understand the difference between thick and thin.

Consider the issue of feminism, since it highlights the difference quite nicely. A thin libertarian believes that the state ought to treat people of all genders equally under the law. And that’s it. A thick libertarian, by contrast, believes that equal treatment under the law is only part of the story. Meanwhile, women may face coercive non-state pressure from the “Patriarchy” more broadly, and that libertarianism ought to respond to this pressure in some way. For example, a young woman might experience unwanted pressure from family members or religious community members to marry and have children. While a thin libertarian has no specific comment on this, since the coercive pressure isn’t coming from the government, a thick libertarian wants to be this young woman’s ally. A thick libertarian wants to articulate philosophical reasons why this woman shouldn’t be coerced into a lifestyle she might not choose. A thick libertarian believes that such coercive social pressure limits a woman’s freedom even though there is no state involvement; and thus, if we’re “truly” concerned about liberty, we ought to advocate against this sort of coercive social pressure in addition to coercive pressure against the state.

A thin libertarian might agree with the thick libertarian in theory. That is, the thin libertarian might agree that such social pressure is bad. But the thin libertarian draws a line between political and non-political life. A thin libertarian might say something like this: “As a libertarian, I have no comment on such social pressure, but as a feminist it offends me and I believe it is wrong.”

On the other hand, a thin libertarian also has the flexibility to say something like this, “Young women ought to get married and have children, but as long as the state does not coerce her, it is not a libertarian issue.”

From this, we ought to be able to understand a major source of libertarian infighting. Thin libertarianism allows libertarians to engage in private coercive behavior that would be abhorrent (to libertarians) if/when conducted by the state. Thick libertarianism is opposed to that same behavior, no matter who is doing it. This has given rise to situations in which people with bigoted or possibly-bigoted views gravitate toward thin libertarianism because it enables them to maintain their bigotry, so long as it is confined to private matters, while thick libertarians accuse thin libertarians of “harboring” or “enabling” that same bigotry.

If you’re with me so far, then you now understand much of what the libertarian community has been arguing about for the past year or so, especially in light of the recent protests in Charleston and elsewhere.

Now that we know what libertarianism is, we’ll next consider what libertarianism ought to be.