by Executive Board Member Ankur Chawla

In a post on thick libertarianism that I co-authored with my good friend Christopher Eager [i], I claimed that the thick versus thin distinction within libertarianism is not a good one, because self-proclaimed libertarians each have their own specific philosophy or set of values that are the basis for their advocacy of political libertarianism, and thus every libertarian is “thick” in their own way.  In this post, I will expand what this assertion means in the context of sociological theories within a libertarian philosophical framework.

Removing the thick versus thin dichotomy entails that libertarians are not encumbered by some specific set of social values that are somehow supposed to be objectively correct [ii].  But if that is the case, the question remains of how libertarianism as a philosophy ought to address the world outside of politics (i.e., the relevant world).  Libertarians base their theory on certain assumptions about how things will change absent political coercion, but these assumptions are often taken for granted.  Thus, libertarianism needs sociological theories that expand on these assumptions.

According to the common definition, “Sociology is the development of systematic knowledge about social life, the way it is organized, how it changes, its creation in social action, and its disruption and renewal in social conflict.”  Broadly speaking, libertarianism advocates the establishment of non-coercive voluntary associations as alternatives to coercive political institutions.  Political non-interference, however, does not entail the disappearance of perceived social disparities for many people.  If one values race or gender equality, for instance, they may be hard-pressed to see how “the market” will benefit them.

If you took offense to that last sentence, please, allow me to make your critique for you.  “Of course political freedom addresses equality, for the market views everyone as individuals.  Indeed, the market is blind to racism and sexism and class discrimination and whatever other made-up collectivist nonsense you believe exists.  Libertarianism, methodologically, treats everybody as an individual actor, and in this way achieves equality under the law; stop wasting my time.”  The libertarian that makes this all-encompassing rejection of social group dynamics reveals a sort of tunnel vision, a narrow-mindedness that gives rise to blind faith in an entity called the “the market.”  More embarrassingly, it highlights what seems to be a severe inability to understand the nature of those very market forces that are supposed to be viable alternatives to political coercion!

To be clear, it is true that the state has exacerbated the oppression of certain groups in a big way.  However, it has been well-documented by many scholars (here and here) that group oppression is most often a result of social norms and conformities, which over time become reaffirmed through political coercion [iii].  In other words, the social subjugation of groups in society does not disappear without political coercion.  It is for this reason that libertarians should both learn the nature of social change within a market framework and understand how to apply it to specific social sciences.

One motivation for my own advocacy of libertarianism is my commitment to social justice broadly, and economic and class inequalities specifically.  I am particularly interested in political liberty as a step towards my conception of social justice.  This being something that I highly value, I am interested in understanding how economic and class equality will be better achieved through civil institutions, hopefully developing a libertarian sociological theory in the process.  Similarly, libertarians who value theories on equality, theories on rights, theories on association, theories on utility, or whatever else makes them advocate liberty should, through the creation of competing sociological theories, strive to understand how their values specifically would be served by the market.

There is room within methodological individualism for social theories.  Groups may be constructs for individuals to rally around shared values, but this does not make them any less real.  This also does not make the perceived power relations that develop between groups any less important to understand.  The libertarian that rejects these social paradigms becomes blind to the values of the individuals within these groups [iv].  It is also important to note that libertarian social theories are not nonexistent by any means.  I would actually characterize Adam Smith, a seminal thinker in the classical liberal tradition, as the preeminent “libertarian” social theorist for his writing of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (I call him libertarian because his writing in TMS on civil association seemed to be motivated by a methodologically individualist attempt to prove that human beings do not require traditional, coercive forms of authority to flourish) [v].  Contemporary libertarian philosophers like Roderick Long have also been discussing libertarian feminist theory, class theory, and more for years.  But what has me really excited is the number of blogs, rejoinders, and articles involving libertarian sociological theories that have been popping up in rapid succession recently (including some blog posts on this website!).

Attempting to understand how social values and group dynamics and theoretical market frameworks all come together is not easy.  I applaud the effort of those libertarians that are trying to harmonize these questions, rather than rejecting their relevance.  I hope that others join them in a pursuit towards libertarian theories on sociology that will only make the philosophy of liberty more robust.

A special thanks to Dr. Matt Zwolinski for his edits and feedback for this post.


[i] I do not speak for Christopher when I address our article.
[ii] The “objective correctness” of certain social values is something I find highly suspect, but this is perhaps a topic for another post.
[iii] James Padilioni Jr. makes a similar argument in his brilliant post on libertarian race theory.
[iv] It is a positive feedback loop: libertarians ignore the specific claims of the socially oppressed group, the group looks to political institutions to promote its values, disgusted libertarians further separate themselves from the values associated with the group, and so on.  Perhaps this partially explains why some libertarians have such a visceral reaction against feminists, class theorists, etc.
[v] According to Dr. Fonna Forman-Barzilai of the University of California, San Diego: “A foundational assumption in my own interpretation of (Adam) Smith is that he was a quintessentially modern thinker, primarily preoccupied with social order, with identifying the cement, the foundation, of modern society in the wake of declining forms of authority that had situated lives in times long past. The Theory of Moral Sentiments presented a lighter, freer, self-regulating description of social coordination perfectly suited to modern commercial people. Sympathy was a social practice for Smith, through which people who share physical space participate together in exchanges of approbation and shame, and through infinite repetitions over time learn to become social, learn to adjust their passions to a pitch commensurate with living in a society with others, without ideological or religious foundations, and without being coerced.”