I am a decidedly thin libertarian, even thinner than most libertarians defending Thinness in fashionable debates with Thick libertarians. In my way of thinking, practically all standards of propriety, other than self-ownership, including individual property in natural resources, even property in products of an individual’s labor, are terms of free association. Self-ownership and non-aggression do not imply individual property in the land, based on Lockean standards, in every community any more than these principles imply racial integration or gender equality.1

On the other hand, I understand Charles Johnson’s point and will address it forthrightly here. The point is lost in too many veils of abstraction, so I’ll focus on specific questions raised by thin formulations of libertarian justice including the formulation I defend.

Libertarian theory often stumbles on the rights of children and corresponding obligations of parents. We want society organized by individual choice and free association, not by elite, central authorities formulating and imposing rules on everyone everywhere, but children are not the sovereign individuals we imagine ourselves in a free society. We can’t simply ask an infant or toddler where and how it chooses to live or expect it to bargain for its daily bread by offering fruits of its labor.

In The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard famously (or notoriously) follows the logic of his thin formulation of the free society to the absurd conclusion that parents, free of any necessary obligation to support their children, may allow a child to die of neglect without violating any necessary standard of justice. He goes on to argue that parents would not do so. He suggests that a parent unable or unwilling to support a child would, as the child’s proper authority, find surrogate parents in an adoption market; however, very few libertarians find comfort in this reasoning. Tom Woods, a notable admirer of Rothbard, rejects it, and I suppose most self-described libertarians do.

In Rothbard’s formulation of libertarian rights, a mother may forcibly exclude me from a house in which she starves her child, but no one may force her to feed the child or forcibly take the child from her. I admire Rothbard’s willingness to follow his logic to its least palatable conclusions, but few people follow it with him. Why would we enforce only the former? Why should we?

In the thinner formulation of libertarian rights that I defend, a mother may exclude others from her house only within bounds of propriety established by a covenant community, even if she built the house entirely with her own labor on land never before occupied by humanity; therefore, respect for her individual ownership of the house may be contingent upon a proper relationship with her child.

Furthermore, in my way of thinking, an individual’s inalienable right to life rules out fatal neglect. This right constrains a free community’s standards and thus rules out standards entitling a parent to starve a child to death. It even rules out a community executing its most notorious criminal. It rules out expelling a criminal from the community knowing that the criminal cannot surivive without the community. Some libertarians will not go so far with me, but I defend this position.

On the other hand, while I can hardly imagine a sustainable community enacting individual property in the land while not enacting rights of children beyond Rothbard’s formulation, the thinner formulation does not protect a child from corporal punishment and similar impositions. It only leaves the formulation of children’s rights, as well as individual property rights beyond self-ownership, to local communities rather than a more central authority. Is either formulation of a child’s rights thick enough?

Imagine a covenant community enacting traditionally patriarchal standards. Specifically, imagine that a husband stands between his wife and any enforcement of the community’s standards, like imprisonment or a public lashing for theft, i.e. if a wife commits a crime in the home or outside of the home in the presence of her husband, the community imposes any penalty for the violation on the husband, and a husband may impose certain penalties on his wife to discourage her violations of the community’s standards.2

This patriarchy seems barbaric to me personally, and I wouldn’t join the community, but a thin formulation of libertarian rights permits this community as long as husbands and wives in the community agree unanimously to follow these rules. If a single husband or wife objects strongly enough, he or she must be meaningfully free3 to leave the community to find or found another community governed more to his or her liking. This constraint on community standards seems sufficient to call a community “free”, but I confess reservations.

How does a child born in this community affect the balance of power between husbands and wives or men and women more generally? Suppose this patriarchal community awards custody of children preferentially to fathers when a marriage dissolves, and suppose a mother’s right to exit the community does not include a right to take her child with her. How free is a mother to leave this community? Requiring her to leave the community without a house she has built, if she would no longer respect the community’s standards, is acceptable to me, but a child is not a house.

When Charles Johnson suggests that libertarianism must oppose the force of tradition, including patriarchal tradition, as well as statutory force, he refers to this sort of dilemma, and I sympathize. I don’t for a moment suggest a fundamental difference between the rights of men and women here. A matriarchial community similarly requiring fathers to choose between their children and subjection to a community’s standards disturbs me every bit as much. Treating children like alienable property, like a homesteader’s land and house, is not a satisfying resolution of these dilemmas, and leaving the resolution entirely to community standards is not much more satisfying. The question is: what’s the alternative?

Libertarians of my sort do not advocate any rigidly legalistic system of individual property rights, including parental rights, as much as we oppose a central authority imposing standards of propriety on everyone everywhere. Much as we may fear a community imposing standards offensive to us on its members, even if the community imposes these standards only by threatening alienable rights, we fear a central authority imposing these standards on all communities even more.

Why expect a monopoly of these standards to impose less offensive standards? We expect a monopoly to serve its own interests, and a state incorporating feminist theory into its systematic impositions may treat men as cruelly as its predecessor treated women. Many states, particularly states in the English tradition, already move in this direction, and some have crossed the line.

A network of meaningfully free communities offers no guarantee of perfect justice for women or for men or for members of any other group subject to the divide and conquer tactics of statesmen. Libertarianism is not utopian, quite the contrary. A libertarian society has all of the warts that free people exhibit, and free people will always offend one another, but we need not enslave one another.

Why assume that our family, friends and neighbors are more inclined to enslave us than self-appointed champions of “justice” in the remote capitol of some nation-state? We might as well imagine our freedom in a life after death. We can expect it from a powerful state no sooner, but we might expect it sooner from a thinner formulation of the free society than many libertarians now accept, rather a thicker one.


1Lockean property rights, beyond self-ownership, are a choice of Lockeans establishing a community and agreeing within this community to respect these standards. Community members impose their standards on the land (not on each other) by excluding from the community persons unwilling to respect the standards. Libertarianism permits this forcible imposition as long as the persons excluded are meaningfully free to find or found another community, with other resources, satisfying their own subjective preferences.

I expect most free communities to enact individual property rights in some form, but liberty per se does not imply these rights. A strictly egalitarian, income sharing community owning all land and other resources in common is as free as any other as long as the community respects the inalienable rights of its members. This community might be poorer than other communities. Economic science could imply this poverty, but libertarianism does not require people to choose wealth over poverty.

2These traditional rights and obligations of husbands and wives, though hardly gender neutral, are much less one-sided than feminist history often presents. In English law, though a husband could lawfully administer chastisement to his wife, the force he could lawfully exercise was much less than force the state could exercise when applying the same law to him. I don’t defend or advocate any of this tradition, but its fashionable misrepresentation merits correction.

3Meaningfully free” implies the Lockean proviso. Established communities may not monopolize resources so completely that new communities are effectively ruled out. The proviso arguably requires a less productive community governing many resources to surrender some resources to persons who would govern the resources more productively. This necessity is a consequence of the scarcity of resources and the right of individuals to life and free association.

Libertarianism is not conservative. An established community with a long history of governing particular land and other resources may not always exclude individuals from these resources. A shrinking community must lose resources as its membership declines, and more productive norms must govern resources as population grows.

Hunter-gatherers, having long obtained their nourishment over a large territory, may not always exclude a more productive, agricultural community incorporating more individual property rights and more specialization and trade from this large territory; however, the latter individuals may impose their standards on land previously claimed by the hunter-gatherers only to the extent that the hunter-gatherers’ monopolization of the land effectively threatens the inalienable rights of newcomers. I’m certainly not defending the trail of tears here.