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Libertarianism: An Objective Evaluation
Which side in this debate should a rational person favor? If objectivity is the guide, the answer is neither.
Organized Objectivism's False DichotomyThe moralizers follow the "official" Objectivist movement, led by Ayn Rand's designated "intellectual heir" Leonard Peikoff and his cohorts at the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI). The view of libertarianism as inherently evil was not articulated by Ayn Rand herself, but by ARI chairman of the board Peter Schwartz in his now infamous article "Libertarianism: the Perversion of Liberty."
According to Schwartz, there is no need to judge libertarians as individuals because, he alleges, evil is "inherent" in libertarianism itself. Schwartz's anti-individualistic approach serves only one purpose: to fuel his and ARI's incensive attacks on libertarians.
Viewing the ARI hierarchy's moralizing as "the behavior of religious zealots,"(ii) former ARI scholar David Kelley, who was formally denounced by Peikoff in 1989 for speaking to a group of libertarians, strives to promote a more open and "tolerant" brand of Objectivism.
Kelley's The Objectivist Center (TOC) goes out of its way to distance itself from ARI. TOC not only tolerates libertarians, but regards them as allies. TOC officials even welcome anarchists and occasionally invite them to be speakers at TOC events.
In rejecting ARI's blanket condemnations of libertarians, TOC has become unwilling to criticize even those libertarians who advocate blatantly irrational ideas. This is not surprising given Kelley's conviction that ideas as such cannot be morally judged.(iii>
Organized Objectivism's battle over libertarianism centers on a philosophical dispute between those who believe ideas fall outside the realm of morality and those who believe that moral judgments inhere within ideas themselves. What's missing from both TOC and ARI is objectivity, the commitment to pursuing truth and forming moral judgments that are warranted by the context.
Identifying LibertarianismWhat, objectively, is libertarianism?
Etymologically, "libertarian" comes from "liberty," which has its roots in the Latin term "liber" (free). Etymology, however, offers but a clue to a word's true meaning.
Words acquire various associations and connotations over time that can alter and sometimes completely transform their original definitions. Consider what happened to "liberal." Carrying the same etymological roots as "libertarian," "liberal" originally referred to advocates of individual freedom. But by the twentieth century, "liberal" had become co-opted by statists, who projected onto "liberal" their inclinations toward government activism.
The modern vernacular came to accept the statist, rather than the classical, definition of "liberal." Thus, by the mid-twentieth century, classical liberals found themselves in need of a new word to describe their political views. "Libertarian" began to fill that need.
Today, what libertarianism actually stands for is disputed. But the relevant question is quite simple: What fundamental principle unites all libertarians?
Is it a belief in individual liberty? Most libertarians would certainly like to think of themselves as advocates of liberty. But "liberty" has a specific meaning - the condition under which individuals are free from the threat or initiation of force -and a specific requirement for its preservation: a government that defends individual rights to life, liberty, and property. While some self-styled libertarians support the rule of law necessary for individual freedom, others desire the abolition of law and (wittingly or unwittingly) the destruction of liberty.
Libertarianism's inconsistency leads Peter Schwartz to conjecture that libertarianism is inherently subjective and therefore doesn't really stand for anything. He goes so far as to assert that the essence of libertarianism is nihilism - the negation of all values.(iv)
Schwartz tries to back up this fantastic assertion by launching a blitzkrieg of equally fantastic claims: that libertarians embrace communism and Nazism(v) as well as "bomb throwers" and "baby killers"(vi) ; that "the goal of libertarians is to topple the state's power elite through armed struggle" in "the streets and the back alleys" (vii); and that a libertarian system would cause "widespread death."(viii) Schwartz stops short of accusing libertarians of wanting to destroy the entire universe, but couldn't resist remarking, "it is from the universe as such that Libertarians wish to be 'liberated.'"(ix)
Schwartz's wild attempts to discredit libertarianism are so riddled with hyperbole, non-sequiturs, and outright distortions as to suggest systematic intellectual dishonesty. As an especially blatant case in point, he introduces a libertarian organization's statement that individuals "have a natural right to do their own thing, providing that they do not physically harm or coercively restrict another individual's life, liberty or property [emphasis added]" and ignores the statement's qualification, inexplicably concluding in the very next sentence, "the libertarian interprets liberty to mean the license to do whatever he feels like doing to him, any obstacle in the path of people's whims is undesirable." (x) This is not merely an exaggeration on Schwartz's part, but a deliberate misrepresentation - a perversion of objectivity.
Even if Schwartz had offered evidence of nihilism infusing the libertarian movement, it would not logically follow that nihilism forms the essence of libertarianism. A proper definition situates a term in its appropriate context and then differentiates it from other concepts within that context. Nihilism, like Christianity and Objectivism, is a philosophy complete with metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical tenets. Libertarianism is not a philosophy. Like socialism and conservatism, libertarianism refers to a political ideology. It is only within that context that libertarianism could legitimately be defined.
The planks of the Libertarian Party platform, the articles written in libertarian journals, and the postings on libertarian internet forums indicate that libertarians, while holding to a wide-range of goals and philosophies as individuals, share a common, essential political belief. It was articulated by two-time Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne as he pleaded for votes in 2000: "The most important political question you can ask yourself is simply this: Do you want smaller government?" (xi)
Students of Objectivism (excepting some militantly "tolerant" TOC supporters) generally dissociate themselves from wrongheaded statements such as Browne's. "Smaller government" is only one ingredient in a free society, and only if that smaller government protects individual rights. Unfortunately, as Browne's campaign slogan reveals, not all libertarians understand this.
Some Objectivist thinkers want "libertarianism" to be a better term than libertarians themselves have made it to be. Robert White, for one, asserts that libertarianism is based on "a single, unifying principle: thou shalt not initiate the use of physical force." (xii) Perhaps this is true among New Zealand's Libertarianz. In the United States and most of the rest of the world, however, "libertarian" remains a much looser term.
Libertarian "consequentialists" reject the non-initiation of force principle entirely, preferring to defend libertarianism on grounds of its social utility. These amoral libertarians prove the point that libertarianism's unifying principle is nothing more than minimizing government.
A Pair of Flawed PhilosophiesThe point is lost on tolerationists, who say there's nothing wrong with libertarianism, and on moralizers, who insist everything is wrong with it. That's because both situate libertarianism within their own flawed philosophical frameworks.
Tolerationists hold, in essence, that one should practice moral neutrality toward individuals with whom one disagrees philosophically. After all, one can never really be sure of anyone else's inner motivations. An anarchist might genuinely believe his views to be honest and moral, so, according to tolerationists, one must refrain from judging. In other words, the facts of reality, and one's integration of them, must yield to the unknowable thoughts, intentions, and feelings of others.
Epistemological scepticism and moral subjectivism are the twin pillars of tolerationism. Accordingly, TOC regards libertarians as allies simply because they claim to be advocates of liberty and also tolerates explicit opponents of liberty on the premise that such toleration is virtuous.
Toleration is not a virtue in itself, ARI supporters correctly point out. But neither is intolerance, which is the ARI alternative.
ARI mouthpieces insist that libertarianism has certain inherent characteristics that define the term even if no libertarians actually hold the views allegedly subsumed under "libertarianism"! ARI's notion of "libertarianism" is a floating abstraction detached from actual referents in reality.
When faced with examples of libertarians who do, in fact, advocate limited government, individual rights, and the other prerequisites for liberty, ARI moralizers revert to their declaration that libertarianism is evil and deduce that all libertarians are evil by definition. This is intrinsicism, the belief that moral judgments are somehow self-evident and can be cast in spite of, or in direct contradiction to, empirical evidence. Intrinsicism naturally leads to dogmatism because the instinsicist has placed adherence to fixed conclusions above the very process by which valid conclusions can be reached.
Both intrinsicist "Objectivists" and subjectivist "Objectivists" fail to grasp that the primary virtue involved in any moral evaluation is objectivity.
Ayn Rand and LibertarianismIn contrast to TOC's blind-eye tolerationism and ARI's doctrinaire moralizing, Ayn Rand objectively identified libertarianism's relationship to Objectivism. When asked once if there were any "conservatives" who offered a rational justification for capitalism, Rand responded as follows:
Oh, yes, there are some. They are usually called libertarians. …They are defenders of capitalism on a non-mystical, scientific base. …When it comes to their philosophical frame of reference, it varies from men to men, and we're usually in disagreement with their philosophical framework but in agreement with most of their economic theories. (xiii)
Rand acknowledged the overlap between libertarian and Objectivist politics. She also distinguished her philosophy from philosophies commonly held by libertarians without casting a blanket moral judgment on all libertarians. Although Rand became more hostile toward libertarianism in later years, often associating it with anarchism, she never fell into intrinsicism. She emphasized that, while politics derives from metaphysical, epistemological, and moral premises, "one cannot expect, nor is it necessary, to agree with a candidate's total philosophy. …It is not a Philosopher-King that we are electing, but an executive for a specific, delimited job. It is only political consistency that we can demand of him." (xiv)
On Using "Libertarian"ARI loyalists insist that political consistency resides in "capitalism." But "capitalism" carries many of the same problems as "libertarianism." Surprisingly enough, Leonard Peikoff agrees. "As a rule," Peikoff states, "the defenders of capitalism have been worse - more openly irrational - than its attackers." (xv) (And who could Peikoff's "openly irrational" capitalists be, if not libertarians?) That one can be irrational and still be a capitalist is a stunning admission because it contradicts the premise behind Schwartz's attack on libertarianism - namely, that a political movement can be condemned for having "irrational" followers.
Of course, the mere existence of "anarcho-capitalists," drug-dealing capitalists, and even nihilistic capitalists does not render capitalism an immoral system. The same principle should apply to libertarianism.
Peikoff would undoubtedly protest that libertarianism and capitalism are two distinct concepts. Indeed, they are, but they overlap. Capitalism is the broader concept, referring to the political/economic system of private property and free enterprise. "Libertarian" carries more of an ideological connotation, referring to the political movement that seeks to dramatically reduce government - a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for capitalism.
One could offer rational reasons for choosing to refer to himself as a "libertarian" or a "capitalist" or both, depending on the context. There is no moral high ground to claim in exclusively using one term over the other.
However, "libertarian" is, at present, too loose a word to stand by itself in most situations. If left unmodified, "libertarian" can connote a host of viewpoints, ranging from anarchy to "civil liberties" statism. Therefore, anyone using "libertarian" with the hope of connoting liberty must also provide the context of individual rights and limited government.
In the future, things may change. If individualists infuse the libertarian movement with rationality, then perhaps "libertarian" could one day stand on its own and require no further clarification. If, on the other hand, "libertarian" becomes hijacked by anarchists, it may suffer a fate similar to "liberal" and come to mean the opposite of liberty.
ConclusionOne thing is certain: neither TOC tolerationists nor ARI moralizers are prepared to deal with libertarians objectively. Objectivity means respecting the individuality of others (and of oneself) by judging individuals based on their own consciously chosen actions and ideas. Those who fail to judge are as guilty as those who judge without warrant.
Libertarians are not inherent enemies (or friends) of Objectivism. Most libertarians believe, in a general sense, in individual sovereignty and individual rights. Most understand, on a basic level, that initiating force is wrong. Therefore, they should be regarded as potential allies who could become Objectivists if offered some philosophical guidance.
Where are they going to find help in turning their inclinations into principles and integrating those principles within a comprehensive philosophy of life? Not at TOC, which condescendingly assures libertarians - anarchists included - that they will be "tolerated" no matter how irrational their beliefs. And surely not at ARI, which automatically brands them as "evil."
Until a new organization comes along to transcend the false dichotomies represented by TOC and ARI, those of us who value what Objectivism truly stands for must set the record straight.
(i) Peter Schwartz, "On Moral Sanctions" ( http://www.aynrand.org/objectivism.sanctions.html).
(ii) David Kelley, "Introduction to Truth and Toleration" ( http://www.objectivistcenter.org/pubs/excerpt2.asp).
(iii) See Kelley, "A Question of Sanction."
(iv) Schwartz, "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty," in Leonard Peikoff, ed., The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (Meridian, 1989), 328.
(v) Schwartz, "Libertarianism," 313.
(vi) Schwartz, "On Moral Sanctions."
(vii) Schwartz, "Libertarianism," 318.
(viii) Schwartz, "On Moral Sanctions."
(ix) Schwartz, "Libertarianism," 329
(x) Schwartz, "Libertarianism," 323.
(xi) "Harry Browne - Libertarian for President" (http://www.harrybrowne2000.org).
(xii) Robert White, "The Feminist Interpretations Debate, Concluded," TFR #41.
(xiii) "Conservatism vs. Objectivism: An Interview with Ayn Rand" (Second Renaissance Books, 1964), audiocassette.
(xiv) Ayn Rand, "How to Judge a Political Candidate," The Objectivist Newsletter (March, 1964).
(xv) Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Meridian, 1993), 405.
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