Thick Versus Thin Libertarianism: Which One Should You Choose?

The other day I wrote about what libertarianism is: Thick versus thin. Today, I’d like to continue the discussion with a consideration of what libertarianism ought to be.

The nature of a discussion like this is fraught with sidebar considerations about what one hopes to get out of which part of their moral code. I’d like to start with that, so let me explain what I mean.

I think it’s safe and uncontroversial to say that most of us don’t have an all-encompassing and airtight moral philosophy underpinning every thought that they have. Even those who think they do have a hard time living up to the one that they have, and of those few who attempt to do so to the greatest extent possible, only a small fraction relate absolutely every thought that occurs to them back to their moral philosophy. This is probably a good thing. Someone so obsessed with moral philosophy that they cannot have a normal thought without related it to their moral code would be mentally unhealthy. We also encounter a wide array of morally neutral situations all the time, like choosing which socks to wear and decided whether to step with your right or your left leg first when walking up a flight of stairs.

In other words, at the extreme end of the spectrum, you have obsessive people who cannot encounter any stimulus without moralizing it. I take on assumption that this is bad behavior. On the other extreme, you have people who refuse to relate anything to any sort of moral code anywhere. These are uninteresting (and possibly non-existent) cases. In the middle, there is a whole spectrum of real people who apply one moral code to most of their decisions, no moral code to some of their decisions, a different moral code to some other decisions, and in special cases, apply multiple moral codes to a few of their decisions.

That’s life. That’s what it’s like. While we all strive to be perfectly philosophically consistent and well-behaved, the truth of the matter is that no one yet has invented a philosophy so complete and so perfect that every situation is addressed by it. We humans, being the resourceful creatures that we are, like to supplement an inevitably incomplete moral philosophy with something else sometimes, be it a lesson from some other philosophy, or a good rule of thumb, or a gut instinct, or whatever else it might be.

I hope you can see where I’m going with this. “Thin” libertarianism, being the contextually limited set of ideas that it is, works well as a partial philosophy, a set of recommendations for a limited set of philosophical questions. If we venture beyond that limited set of questions, we exhaust the capabilities of “thin” libertarianism, and when we encounter a problem it can’t address, we must rely on some other philosophy or set of ideas. By contrast, “thick” libertarianism aims to be a complete set of philosophical ideas, or at least a more complete set, capable of answering a wider set of questions.

So, one answer to the question of what libertarianism should be is, It depends on how much ethical work you want your libertarianism to accomplish. For some, libertarianism defines a relationship to government, and they have other ideas that govern non-governmental spheres of life. For others, libertarianism is how they approach everything, and thus they need their libertarianism to cover the ground that might be covered by, say, a thin libertarian’s religious system.

All that reading for kind of a dumb answer, right? “You get to choose which kind of libertarianism applies to you!” Of course you do. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is when a thin libertarian and a thick libertarian reach different conclusions on a given issue, and we then have to choose which solution is “more libertarian.” That’s what I’ll be discussing next time.


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.


A Driving Paradigm Shift

I know none of you ever feel frustrated on the road, but sometimes when I'm driving, believe it or not, my patience wears a little thin. But my commute is pretty long, and so I've had a lot of time to think about driving calmly, quickly, and efficiently - what works, and what doesn't.

Well, I've discovered two things and between the two of them they have completely revolutionized the way I think about driving. So I'm passing along the info in case you find it useful.

First: "Queue versus Flow"

I think most people view traffic as a queue. In fact, in the UK, they use the word "queue" in place of the phrase "traffic jam." The problem with conceiving of traffic as a queue, though, is that it biases you into believing (erroneously) that every car in front of you is delaying your arrival at your destination. 

Of course, that's silly. If you're traveling 45 mph down the road, you will travel 45 miles over the span of an hour whether there are 3 cars ahead of you or 300. 

Knowing this, I starting conceiving of traffic as a flow. What matters in a flow is not how many particles there are, but how fast they're all going, on average. Most traffic events that we all experience only set us back a total of, say, 2 or 3 minutes. It's tempting to lose your patience if someone cuts in front of you and slows you down, but this doesn't really impact your average speed in most cases. You might arrive a few seconds later, but if traffic is a flow and not a queue, then who cares? 

Second, my Eco Display

My car has a really cool feature called "Eco Display," which tracks how much energy you save based on the way you drive. It has three separate meters: One tracks energy savings captured by making light use of the accelerator; One tracks energy savings captured by how much you coast, rather than using the brake; And the third tracks energy savings captured by maintaining a relatively constant speed, rather than speeding up and slowing down repeatedly. 

It looks like this:
Image result for Mercedes Eco Display

In light of the fact that I see traffic as a "flow" now, I make really good use of the Eco Display. I accelerate slowly and leave lots of space between myself and the next car, so that I can minimize use of the brake pedal and maintain as close to a constant average speed as possible, given traffic conditions. 

It's amazing to see how many cars will angrily pass me as I accelerate, only to slam on their brakes a few seconds later as they catch up to the next car, and then within seconds I've caught up to them. And since I have more space in front of me to see traffic, I can usually anticipate slow-downs, change lanes, keep my constant average speed, and pass the people who thought they were passing me.

It's like a whole new paradigm. It's totally changed the way I drive. I love it.


The Steve Vai Trick

Here's a quick guitar lesson I recorded over the weekend. Nothing fancy, just an explication of one of Steve Vai's signature licks. I hope you enjoy it.


Movie Review - Don't Rush To Judge "Jab Harry Met Sejal." It's Phenomenal.

Jab Harry Met Sejal might be the most misunderstood Bollywood film of all time. Critics have called it an “epic failure,” and have panned it for being too derivative, for being too light on plot, for being all flash and no substance.

The critics could not be more wrong.

Ostensibly, Jab Harry Met Sejal tells the story of a young woman, Sejal (Anushka Sharma), who loses her engagement ring during a month-long holiday in Europe, and so enlists the help of her tour guide, Harry (Shah Rukh Khan), to retrace her steps and relocate the ring. Hijinks ensure, romance blossoms, and Bollywood takes its usual course.

I say “ostensibly,” because if this is all one manages to extract from the film – and I suspect most of the critics and a good proportion of the film’s audience thus far have extracted only that much from the movie – then one has understood almost nothing about the film. (More on that a little later.)

Here’s how I’d synopsize the plot instead:

Jab Harry Met Sejal tells the story of a man who believes he is unworthy of love, and so rejects it whenever it presents itself, and a woman whose only dream in life is to be desired with raw, real, immutable passion, but who has never met anyone who felt that way about her. They meet, and instantly fall in love at first sight – and this is an important element of the plot that none of the film critics have managed to spot, because there is no slow-motion, spell-it-out-for-you, melodramatic falling-in-love scene. It happens in the film’s first major scene of dialogue, and if you’re expecting the typical send of Bollywood sugar, you’ll miss it. But there it is.

Having instantly fallen in love with each other, Harry and Sejal proceed to engage in their own respective forms of denial. In Harry’s case, this means convincing himself that Sejal is only making his life difficult, ordering him around like a rich, spoiled tourist, foisting her agenda upon him merely because that’s the kind of person he is: unworthy of better treatment. (N.B: This is how Harry sees himself.) In Sejal’s case, she convinces herself that Harry only sees her as a “nice, sweet, sister-type,” someone he would never desire, much less love. (N.B.: This is how Sejal sees herself.)

From there, scene by scene, Harry and Sejal dare each other to think otherwise of each other. This plays itself out in subtle ways. When Harry explains to Sejal that he has a reputation for being a playboy and so she should hire someone else to take her around Europe, Sejal deliberately draws the opposite conclusion, and asks Harry if he means that he wants to fool around with her. A superficial audience will interpret this as the same kind of aggressive banter that most Bollywood films begin with, but really it’s a dare. She’s daring him to think of her as sexy.

She does it again and again throughout the film, dressing sexy and following Harry into seedy night clubs in an effort to ignite his passions. Instead, Harry reacts in a confusing way. Although his character as a cad is well-established in the film, Harry sees Sejal’s behavior and reacts protectively, insisting that she keep herself out of trouble and urging her to stay out of harm’s way. He steps in to save her whenever she needs saving, he’s always there for her.

And so the film proceeds along these lines. The events in the story keep upping the ante for the characters. Sejal becomes ever-bolder with Harry, declaring that he can call her his girlfriend, falling asleep in his arms, nursing his wounds, following him everywhere. Harry becomes ever sweeter and more protective of Sejal.

At the apex of every moment, the characters pause to reflect, revealing the great source of tension and conflict within the film. In the very moments where other Bollywood movies would have the characters acknowledge reality and consummate it with a passionate kiss, Harry and Sejal instead dare each other to say what neither of them is prepared to say. Harry won’t admit that he’s worthy of Sejal’s love; Sejal won’t admit that she’s ready to leave her fiancée for Harry. They’ll act on it, they’ll behave accordingly, but neither one of them will say it, and both of them are waiting to hear it.

Behind each character’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of the situation is an important backstory. Harry has a specific reason why he not only believes he is unworthy of love, but also seemingly unworthy of putting down roots and building a home. Sejal’s backstory is made less obvious, but there are hints of it everywhere, especially in light of the fact that her fiancée called off their wedding after learning that Sejal had lost her ring. This is no throwaway point to buy the characters some time. Even in Sejal’s “real world,” those who profess to love her are moved to passion over lost trinkets and heirlooms, not over Sejal herself. Thus, when NDTV’s Saibal Chatterjee asks, “The screenplay would have us believe that she is a confident, no-nonsense girl who knows exactly where to draw the line. Why, then, is she in constant need of endorsement, of being told that she is worth lusting for?” he’s simply overlooked the information contained in the movie’s dialogue.

The film is masterfully written and executed, and every moment within the film’s two and a half hours is dedicated to exploring the theme of Harry, who believes himself unlovable, and Sejal, who believes herself unable to inspire passion. Later in the film, we meet Gas, a purveyor of fake rings, and Natassja, a purveyor of fake lust, whose relationship reflects Harry and Sejal in reverse-image. One reviewer asks why these characters were included. Indeed, why?

To be sure, filmgoers who expect a lot of action, slow motion camera work, and plots that unfold through action sequences rather than dialogue, are sure to be disappointed by Jab Harry Met Sejal. This is a deeply introspective movie about thoughts and feelings. One has to pay attention to the dialogue. Among a filmgoing audience that so often prefers the likes of Chennai Express, Sultan, and Ek Tha Tiger, it is no surprise that a soft-hearted and introverted film like Jab Harry Met Sejal would win few converts on opening weekend.

Perhaps this is why Shah Rukh Khan was quoted as saying, “It’s a new trick. Maybe just the newness of it is going to take some time for people to understand the magic of the film.”

The new trick is depth. For the first time in a long time I’ve found a movie that is capable of expressing a pure artistic idea, minute by minute, across an entire film. Imtiaz Ali has compromised nothing in his vision with this film. Not a moment is wasted, not a line of dialogue is extraneous, every facial expression and gesture from the actors serves the underlying story of a man who finds his home again and a woman who finds her passion.

No, this is not a story about a lost ring and a trip through Europe. This is a story of two wounded people finding their soul mates in spite of themselves. I loved it. I loved every second of it.


When I Go


At one point, a few years back, I was following dozens of blogs. Each morning, over a hundred new posts would be flagged in my Google Reader, and I would diligently make my way down through them. When the spirit moved me, I would click from Reader into the blog’s actual website and post a comment. Many people did the same. It was a rich environment that provided instant feedback to bloggers and a stimulating environment for the commentariat. It was hard to keep up the pace after Google Reader was discontinued. Eventually I stopped following all but my favorite blogs. Stationary Waves, along with all the other blogs I read, has suffered from lack of good content ever since.

Through that process, though, I was able to discover a few important bloggers who have made an extremely positive impression on me. These people exemplify what I believe to be an ideal mix of sharp thinking, humble inquisitiveness, commitment to discursive ethics (or, as I loke to call it, good-faith discussion), and human decency. If, by the time I die, my own personal character is even a pale reflection of theirs, I will consider myself a successful human being.

I’m speaking of Robert Murphy, David R. Henderson, and Jason Kuznicki. All three offer slightly different “flavors” of economics-informed libertarianism, but more important than that, all three exemplify the traits described above and seem like really, really decent human beings. I admire them for that. They’ve all earned a lifelong fan in me.


I didn’t know Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, nor do I know anyone who did. I have never heard any account, secondhand or otherwise, of what kind of a person he might have been. In absence of any reason to conclude that he was a nefarious villain, I assume he was a good person.

The scandal surrounding Nancy MacLean’s book, which alleges that Buchanan’s ideas were part of a right-wing – and perhaps even a white supremacist – conspiracy against people of color and democracy itself, has had an interesting effect on me.

I say “effect on me” not because I think I’m relevant to the discussion of MacLean’s and Buchanan’s ideas, but because any time deeply held beliefs are hotly contested, I turn inward and examine my own feelings in light of what I’ve heard or read. You, the reader, need not care what effect the scandal has on me, but I’m bringing it up under the beliefs that (a) I still have readers (ha, ha), and (b) we can all learn something here. Similarly, you might not necessarily care how a professional athlete’s good sportsmanship affects your neighbor, but if your neighbor learns an important life lesson while watching an NBA game, you might benefit from hearing what he learned.

First, I’ll tell you what I haven’t learned from this row. I haven’t learned anything new about Public Choice economics. I haven’t learned anything new about the Koch brothers. I haven’t learned anything new about politics or about academia. I certainly haven’t learned anything new about democracy. If MacLean’s intention was to teach people like me – informed laypeople with a prior interest in the subject matter and a genuine desire to learn – something new about any of these things, she did not achieve her goal. The comments sections from the few blogs I still read also attest to this.

I hasten to add that Buchanan’s defenders have also not taught me anything new about ibid. In fact, the whole episode has done more harm than good to all involved, at least in my opinion. Rather than debating the merits of public choice theory and its alternatives, which I presume MacLean would rather I learn about, we’ve all been debating the merits of accusing a dead economist and political theorist of racism.

In hindsight, we all should have known that only harm could ever come of such a process.


This brings me to what I have learned instead.

Imagine that James Buchanan was a good man. Whatever else you might think of his ideas or his principles, imagine that he was essentially a good man. How sad for a good man who was a professional academic to have his whole intellectual legacy besmirched by a person whose primary motivation was to disagree with his politics.

I’m sensitive to the rebuttal there: It seems tone-deaf to pity a dead rich white guy who got called bad names when the victims of institutionalized racism in America have had to deal with much worse. I agree: it is far worse to contest with the cultural obstacles associated with being black in America than than it is to be a successful academic whose legacy was questioned by another successful, white academic. I don’t want to minimize this point, either. In the grand scheme of things, racism is a much bigger problem than the integrity of a couple of academics or the fact that they might be falsely accused of being bad people.

I’m not saying that it’s a shame that James Buchanan stands falsely accused of racism. I’m saying that it’s a shame that any good person would have to be raked over the coals, their words used against them, and possibly even twisted to mean the exact opposite of what that person stood for.

Robert Murphy, by virtue of his association with the Ludwig von Mises institute, has recently been accused of racism for his defense of a recent Jeff Deist speech. I think this is unfair for reasons of good sense, but that’s not really what bothers me about his having been called a racist. What really bothers me is that any stranger who makes a point to acquaint himself with the works and personal character of Robert Murphy can see that he is a genuinely good man. And, in his case, I am privy to people who know him, and they all attest to the goodness of this character. There is, in short, no available evidence suggesting that Murphy is a bad person, much less a racist. And furthermore, if there were such evidence, Murphy would be the first person to own up to it. That’s how good a person he seems to be.


So, all this stuff got me thinking.

We never know what we’ll be accused of at some future date. We’ll never know how our words and actions will be judged by people in the future. I’ve made a living working for insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies, and marketing organizations, and big data. A plausible argument could be made that I have helped contribute to much of the world’s evil. I don’t see it that way, but the argument could be made, and defended.

One day, someone might choose to see me that way, as a perpetrator of evil rather than a regular guy who made his living in data analysis. If I’m being honest, that future person might very well be my own child, in her teenage or early adult years, learning to assert her own values and question my worth as a man and a father. It’s certainly happened to many parents before me. It’s a real risk.

In fact, there may be even more reasons to vilify me. Am I polite enough? Am I an open enough communicator? Do I condescend too much? Am I rude? Obnoxious? Foul? Am I self-absorbed? Do I fail to contribute enough to charity, or to society? Am I too apt to allow my insecurities to discolor my view of other people? Do I drink too much, swear too much, scowl too much? Am I a wastrel? Am I a miser? Is my need for privacy too costly for others? Do I expect too much from other people? Am I too emotional? Not emotional enough?

There are, indeed, many ways I have failed, and one day they might all catch up to me. I may die and no one will feel any pain or sorrow at my loss. They may only show up to my funeral out of an awkward sense of obligation – if they show up at all!

Or I may simply prove inconsequential, never inspiring much of any thought to anyone.

All of this may happen. All I can do is endeavor to be the kind of good people I see in Murphy, and Henderson, and Kuznicki. All I can do is try to learn from their example – and examples set by many other people, of course – apply those lessons to my life, and hope that some day I will have done enough that my child will think, “My father was a good man.”

Then my tired bones can rest in peace.