Thick libertarianism and bigotry and public shaming

May 5, 2014 – 11:45 pm by John

This is an email I sent to Sheldon Richman on May 3:

Dear Mr. Richman,

I had a few thoughts about your recent TGIF column "Libertarianism Rightly Conceived" and how thick and thin libertarianism might be applied to some recent news stories, and I hoped you could share your perspective. I don't think I belong squarely in the "thick" or "thin" camp—just libertarian—but I certainly used to lean strongly "thin".

The news stories I refer to are Mozilla's Brendan Eich being forced to resign over a supposedly bigoted political donation, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling being suspended for life and fined by the NBA, and (much less newsworthy) game developer Josh Olin being fired from Turtle Rock Studios for Tweeting, "Here's an unpopular opinion: Donald Sterling has the right as an American to be an old bigot in the security of his own home. He's a victim." One reason I thought it'd be helpful to explore how thick libertarianism applies to those news stories is that your aforementioned column is more about argumentation and the philosophical reasons thick libertarianism is better than thin, and not about how thick libertarians would address any specific goings-on in the world today. I think people would be better able to judge the merits of thick and thin libertarianism if they saw how each would manifest in day-to-day situations. A second reason is that all three of those news stories are notably devoid of any government action or First Amendment issues, and the main way in which thick and thin libertarianism seem to differ, at least in practice, is how they would handle non-governmental, not-directly-rights-violating, social and labor issues.

One widespread objection to the Brendan Eich episode is that only a few years ago, presidential candidate Barack Obama expressed the very belief that got Eich run out of town, and in the same year in which Eich's donation occurred (2008). Another politician who I assume is popular among the left-liberal Mozilla employees who demanded Eich's resignation, Hillary Clinton, only publicly embraced gay marriage in 2012 or 2013. So the point is that Eich donated money to a politician running on an anti-gay-marriage platform at a time when the majority of Californians, the majority of Americans, and, indeed, those outraged employees' darling presidential candidate agreed with Eich. But suddenly, now that the tide of popular opinion has currently (and probably permanently) swayed to their side, everyone who doesn't conform must be eliminated immediately. There was no hint that Eich had ever or would ever treat any Mozilla employee (or, indeed, anyone else) with unfairness or disrespect.

One of the main differences between Eich's toxic political donation and the (illegal) tape-recording that got Donald Sterling ousted is time: If Sterling had made similar comments publicly, even at an official NBA (or NFL or MLB) event in, say, 1950, he would almost certainly not have been punished in any way. That doesn't change how wrong and harmful racism and bigotry are, but it does highlight that the way in which society handles these types of social issues depends on the times and on majority opinion. Maybe it shouldn't depend on the tide of popular opinion and feelings, but it does.

There has been less objection to Sterling's ouster than Eich's because racism has long been recognized as hateful and harmful by almost all Americans, whereas equality in marriage rights has only recently tilted in that direction. (There has also been less objection to Sterling's ouster because of his ostensibly racist actions, not just words, in his real estate dealings. Yet another reason, possibly the best one, that few object to Sterling's ouster is that the voluntarily agreed upon "NBA Constitution" supposedly allows it.)

But libertarians have always been on the right side of both gay-rights and race issues, not just recently. Whether a libertarian limits his notion of libertarianism to issues of government and coercion or expands it to include various issues of social justice such as racism and patriarchy, libertarians have always advocated equal rights and equal laws for all individuals and championed the belief that all individuals are equal in both a moral and a legal sense. Before the NBA and other sports leagues were this politically correct, before Silicon Valley programmers were so "enlightened" by left-liberalism, before game development companies were so sensitive to PR crises caused by any hint of political incorrectness, libertarians recognized and championed the rights of all people to be treated equally, at least under the law. So should libertarians have been demanding the ostracization of homophobic, racist, sexist, misogynist, etc. employees, owners, CEOs, managers, sports figures, and anyone else all along? Should thick libertarians?

If thick libertarians don't demand that others see the light on such social issues or else hit the highway, then how are they different from thin libertarians? Only in the things they write and advocate, and not in the actions they perform and the policies they recommend? Am I wrong in even using these racism/bigotry/free speech/PR examples to try to distinguish between thick and thin libertarianism? They seem perfectly apt for discerning any important distinctions that exist.

It is important to note that even though no government was involved in any of those stories, the issue of free speech (or maybe I should just say speech) was. Does thick libertarianism say that the answer to abhorrent speech is more speech, or does it say that the answer is some form of socially administered punishment in the economic/financial/employment realm? If the former, then it doesn't seem to differ in practice from thin libertarianism. If the latter, then I think thick libertarians could run afoul of exactly what Lew Rockwell worried about but you dismissed in your TGIF column: mob-enforced thuggery that will be hard to restrict to the "right" issues and the "right" cases.

I use the word "thuggery" because I have seen it applied to the recent spate of free speech violations on college campuses, and I think it applies in at least Brendan Eich's case. In Sterling's case, if anyone is the thug, it is Sterling, and I understand that the NBA has a right (indeed, a need) to manage its public perception according to its own interests. In Turtle Rock Studios' case, the trigger-happy way in which Josh Olin was fired seems more like hyper-PC overreaction by executives than mob-enforced thuggery or anything like that. But I think my point remains: If thick libertarianism demands social justice in non-coercion-related, non-government-related ways, then I worry that it rests on a slippery slope that can lead to such thuggery as demanding that hateful speakers not be allowed to give speeches on college campuses and that very good, even brilliant, executives be fired for suddenly minority opinions.

In the Sterling case, he was unwittingly recorded in the privacy of his own home, with no one but his mistress around. I don't know if any political philosophy should have anything to say about how we should treat such a recording, but it just doesn't feel right to lay such a huge, permanent punishment on someone, even a powerful, actually racist billionaire, based on a private and illegal recording, without any type of hearing or defense or investigation. It also doesn't seem right to base any fine or suspension on the supposedly racist things Sterling did in his real estate business, which have no relation to his status as an NBA owner. (I doubt the NBA did take his supposed real-estate racism into account, but many supporters of the NBA's decision have. I also think the NBA almost certainly made the best decision for its own interests.) How do you think thick and thin libertarianism would differ in addressing these two facets of the Sterling case? Punishing people for privately expressed thoughts that were surreptitiously recorded seems awfully Orwellian, but should we be thankful that those thoughts were recorded in this case? If combatting and eliminating racism and bigotry are a central tenet of the thick libertarian philosophy, then it seems that thick libertarians would be much less conflicted about this whole case than thin libertarians, but I think some intellectual and moral conflict is warranted here.

Regarding Josh Olin's case, which obviously resulted from a Sterling-related tweet, do you think libertarianism of any stripe should have anything to say? Olin expressed sympathy for someone who he thought was wronged by a sensationalist media, by an overreactive, overly sensitive NBA commissioner, and by an unfair process (all the way from the secret recording to the swift, harsh punishment). Olin opposes racism and bigotry, but he committed the PC crime of sort-of supporting a racist billionaire, or at least a racist billionaire's rights. But Donald Sterling wasn't punished for actually doing anything racist, only saying something racist privately. Sterling apparently isn't a raging, frothing racist, as his mistress is mixed-race and he apparently doesn't have much problem with her sleeping with black people (!), only with her bringing them to Clippers games. Trying to put the NBA's need to look after its own PR image and finances aside, is there anything really different, in principle, between the NBA ousting someone who merely said something and Turtle Rock Studios firing someone who merely Tweeted something? Both the NBA and Turtle Rock are within their contractual rights. Both needed to look after their own financial interests. Both got rid of someone for saying something that's somewhere between unpopular and abhorrent. But I think Olin was clearly wronged by his higher-ups, Sterling not so much.

Does thick or thin libertarianism have anything to say about whether Turtle Rock should have fired Olin? Whether they overreacted? Whether someone who defends Sterling's rights is on the wrong side of social justice? Whether there is a stark difference between the Sterling and Olin cases? If it was right (again, morally right in a social-justice way, disregarding the NBA's need to maintain PR and revenue) to ban Sterling from the NBA, then isn't it wrong (i.e., counter to the social-justice fight) to oppose that ban? If it was right (morally) to ban Sterling from the NBA, is it also right to ban all players who think like he does? Why or why not? Is it right for the NBA (or owners, or their lawyers, or private eyes) to entrap others in surreptitious recordings of hateful speech and then ban them for life? If it was right for the NBA to use this private recording that fell into its lap, is it that much more wrong to actively engage in such recordings?

Again, if thick libertarians dislike Olin's firing, then in this case they seem to agree with the thin libertarians; but if they don't think it's so bad, then I think they're on that slippery slope to PC thuggery. If thick libertarians think the NBA made the best decision for its own interests but don't necessarily think Sterling's ouster was right or necessary in the libertarian fight for social justice, then again I think they side with some/all thin libertarians.

In general, would thick libertarians simply boycott the bigoted companies or sports teams and not demand that anyone resign or be fired? But thin libertarians have no problem with doing that or in others doing that, either. Would thick libertarians say it depends on the intricacies of the private contracts signed by all involved? So would thin libertarians. (And many self-described thin libertarians even decry various types of oppressive contracts, such as homeowners' associations, end-user license agreements, purchase agreements that prohibit the purchaser from publishing negative reviews, employment contracts that prohibit employees from publishing certain opinions, etc.) Would thick libertarians say they can only decide whether and how racism (etc.) should be punished on a case-by-case basis? Then the social-justice aspects of thick libertarianism don't seem like staunch principles but rather personal preferences, which don't rank as tenets of a philosophy, to me.

I think I'd better end this email now because it's already longer than I anticipated. Thank you for your time,

John Petrie

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  1. 2 Responses to “Thick libertarianism and bigotry and public shaming”

  2. I won't be surprised or offended in any way if he doesn't respond. It was kind of a long and rambling email, and he surely has many better things to do. I wish I had had more time to organize and present my points better, and thereby shorten the email without losing any content.

    Basically, my points were (1) if thick libertarianism adopts certain social-justice issues as tenets or foundations of its philosophy, then it must regard counteractions to those tenets or foundations as injustices—wrongs against a specific individual(s) that must be righted, with action, i.e., some kind of punishment; (2) if they demand not just words but actual action against opponents or hinderers of thick-libertarian social justice, then they put themselves on a slippery slope to PC thuggery in which only complete conformity with dogma can be tolerated; but (3) if those counteractions to thick-libertarian social justice don't demand an actual action (punishment, ostracism, etc.), then the social-justice aspects aren't actually tenets or foundations of a philosophy but rather good-feeling (and often perfectly valid and desirable) dressing thrown on top of the thin libertarian philosophy based on personal preference.

    I am very open to being swayed against those impressions, as they are inchoate and possibly ill-informed.

    I'm starting to suspect that those three news stories might not be all that great to differentiate between thick and thin libertarianism. If anyone can explain why, such as by producing better, real-life examples, I'd love to hear it.

    By John on May 6, 2014

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