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 sp