As those who have followed my work over the years realize, I was once active in the Libertarian Party and the broader libertarian movement, but I no longer regard myself as a libertarian. (See for example, my 2012 essay for the Objective Standard on the subject.) The basic problem with libertarianism is that it regards objective morality as inessential (or even worthless) for establishing liberty. To my mind, Craig Biddle has written the authoritative critique of libertarianism. But I remain friends with many libertarians and seek them out as allies for certain specific reforms.
Recently Biddle and Max Borders of the Foundation for Economic Education debated the moral foundations of liberty. Biddle argued that objective moral foundations are possible and necessary for establishing genuine liberty; Borders argued that morality is subjective.
Here’s one of Biddle’s key lines: “[I]f you want to defend your freedom to act on your judgment, you need to be able to defend the idea that it is moral for you to act on your judgment—that you have a moral right to act on your judgment, to keep and use the product of your effort, and to live your life as you see fit.”
And here are a couple of Borders’s key lines: “There ain’t no such thing [as rights]. Rights don’t grow on trees. They are socially constructed reality just like if I pulled out a dollar bill—which I can’t because I already spent it in the drink machine. I can hold up that dollar, and if I give it to you, we all agree in some sense that this dollar has value—intersubjectively we can agree to that. . . . I think that societies that value freedom and make it primary, make it primary through intersubjective agreement.”
It’s an interesting debate, and the entire transcript is offered at no charge.
I used to be a libertarian and active in the Libertarian Party. Now I’m not a libertarian. I advocate free markets and individual rights—but I don’t think those values are the essence of libertarianism. Instead, libertarianism is the belief that political liberty can be advocated with no moral foundation or (what amounts to the same thing) any moral foundation. In practice, libertarianism usually devolves to hostility toward government as such (although sometimes it devolves to Rawlsian welfare statism or some other form). In my view, Craig Biddle offers the single best critique of libertarianism in his “Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism.” I’ve also written on the subject.
And yet public interest in and discussion of libertarianism is a notable and potentially positive development. Here’s a run-down of some of that discussion.
Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived? New York Times, Robert Draper, August 7
“[T]oday, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side. An estimated 54 percent of Americans now favor extending marriage rights to gay couples. Decriminalizing marijuana has become a mainstream position, [as has] the drive to reduce sentences for minor drug offenders. . . . The appetite for foreign intervention is at low ebb, with calls by Republicans to rein in federal profligacy now increasingly extending to the once-sacrosanct military budget. And deep concern over government surveillance looms as one of the few bipartisan sentiments in Washington. . . .”
No, America Is Not Turning Libertarian New York, Jonathan Chait, August 7
“. . . The crucial difference lies in economics, where libertarians veer sharply right and young voters veer sharply left. This can be seen in specific instances, like health care, where young voters are far more likely than older ones to support an expanded government role. Like most Americans, they strongly support the maintenance of specific programs, such as Social Security. Unlike most Americans, they actually favor bigger government in the abstract. . . .”
The ‘Libertarian Moment’ Has Definitely Not Arrived Federalist, David Harsanyi, August 8
“. . . A libertarian—according to the dictionary, at least—is a person who ‘upholds the principles of individual liberty especially of thought and action.’ And there is simply no evidence that Americans are any more inclined to support policy that furthers individual freedom or shrinks government. . . .”
Phosphorus and Freedom New York Times, Paul Krugman, August 10
“. . . Is libertarian economics at all realistic? The answer is no. . . . Smart libertarians have always realized that there are problems free markets alone can’t solve — but their alternatives to government tend to be implausible. . . .”
Why the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Isn’t Really Happening Atlantic, David Frum, August 11
“. . . Young voters are not libertarian, nor even trending libertarian. Neither, for that matter, are older voters. The “libertarian moment” is not an event in American culture. It’s a phase in internal Republican Party factionalism. Libertarianism is not pushing Republicans forward to a more electable future. It’s pushing them sideways to the extremist margins. . . .”
Yes, the Libertarian Moment has Arrived Week, Damon Linker, August 13
“. . . America clearly is becoming more libertarian — it’s just that the transformation is happening in morality and culture, not in economic, tax, and regulatory policy. . . .”
Libertarians Can Be a Significant Force for Good in U.S. Politics Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, August 14
“. . . Important libertarian victories are happening right now. Consider drug prohibition, which is being challenged in multiple states, as are draconian sentencing rules. Like gay marriage, criminal-justice reform seems poised to sweep the nation within a generation. . . .”
As Reason reports, various libertarians continue to support the welfare state. Matt Zwolinsky supports the federal government giving people cash with absolutely no strings attached, meaning they could (for example) spend the entire wad on booze, at taxpayers’ expense. But what of people’s rights to control their wealth and live their lives as they see fit? There are no such rights, according to such libertarians. For more on this topic, see the following articles:
Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute offers a great analysis of why some libertarians hate America and Israel more than they hate Hamas and other totalitarian gangs:
I think that the libertarians who tend to be anti-Israel . . . tend to be anarchists. They tend to have a deep rooted hatred of government. And it’s interesting [because] they tend to hate free governments more than they hate totalitarian governments. They tend to focus their hatred much more on the American government [and] on the Israeli government than they do on Hamas. . . .
The Objective Standard has released my latest article, “Even with Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party Undermines Liberty.” My main argument is that the libertarian movement is overrun with moral subjectivism and anarchism, and Johnson will not be able to escape that association. My fear is that, to the extent Johnson gets any traction, that will only serve to link free markets with libertarian kookiness in public debate.
As I have argued before, while the ideology of the LP is the main problem, strictly on grounds of electoral strategy supporting Johnson makes little sense. See my previous two articles about that:
Now that I’ve dismissed the idea of Gary Johnson having much success as the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, another possibility occurs to me. It seems to me that, if you’re an LP supporter, the best-case scenario is that Ron Paul runs as the LP’s presidential candidate with Johnson in the veep slot. That, I confess, would be a formidable ticket.
(I actually think Johnson-Paul would be a stronger ticket, but I don’t think that’s likely given Paul’s relative level of support. However, if Paul takes seriously his “personhood” pledge, that might preclude him from running with pro-choice Johnson.)
But how would that play out in the election? I predict it would play out roughly as the last governor’s race in Colorado played out. Due to a fluke, the frontrunner GOP candidate lost the nomination (after getting caught up in plagiarism charges). The man left for the job was Dan Maes, an inexperienced, incompetent bungler. Thus, Tom Tancredo entered the race with the bizarre Constitution Party. (I reluctantly pulled the lever for Tancredo, but in retrospect I think that was a mistake.) What happened? Maes and Tancredo beat the crap out of each other, leaving John Hickenlooper (a decent Democrat) to easily walk away with over half of the popular vote.
I think roughly the same thing would happen if the LP candidate actually got any traction. The Republican candidate would of necessity start spending resources trashing the LP candidate, who would respond in turn. In a battle between the Libertarian and Republican candidates to convince voters that the other guy is a total bastard, both sides would win. Given Paul’s newsletters, his foreign policy statements, the bizarre figures of the LP, Romneycare, etcetera, there’s more than enough mud to go around!
The most likely outcome is that Obama would walk away with an easy victory, stronger than ever.
And, to the extent that the LP gained any traction, that would serve to convince most Americans that, on the whole, Libertarians are totally crazy.
Moreover, the fight between the LP and the GOP might cost the latter important seats in Congress, leaving Obama with relatively stronger support there. (I’ve suggested elsewhere that the least-bad possible outcome in 2012 might well be an Obama victory with a strong GOP in Congress.)
Again, elsewhere I will argue that the LP is not worth supporting simply because of the ideas it promotes, and that is the most important issue. But, just on the level of partisan political strategy, I just don’t see how promoting a strong LP ticket (if such is possible) could accomplish anything but destruction.
I will write about the ideological problems with supporting Gary Johnson’s run with the Libertarian Party elsewhere. Here, I concern myself with an easy question: does supporting Johnson’s LP run make strategic sense even on the basic level of partisan politics?
If you think Johnson has a serious chance of becoming president on the LP ticket, you are simply delusional. Any rational person can convince himself that is the case merely by answering the following questions.
1. How many current members of Congress won on the LP ticket?
2. How many members of Congress has the LP elected, ever?
3. How many governors has the LP elected, ever?
4. How many Libertarians currently serve in any state legislature?
5. How many LP presidential candidates have won more than one percent of the popular vote?
6. How many electoral votes has an LP presidential candidate received, ever?
Here are the answers:
5. One. In 1980, Ed Clark won 1.1 percent of the popular vote.
6. One. In 1972 John Hospers got a single electoral vote.
Ah, but some readers are thinking, Gary Johnson actually was a real politician; he served for eight years as governor of New Mexico. I agree that raises the possibility of him earning more votes as an LP candidate than previous candidates have earned. But he could earn many times the previous totals and still lose very badly.
I was active in the Colorado LP for several years. I served on the state LP board. I attended national LP conventions. I even ran as a candidate once. My experience suggests there are two types of LP candidates for mid- to high-level positions. Realistic ones whose reasons for running do not include winning, and delusional ones who think that this time, by golly, they’re going to take it all the way. A couple candidates I knew spent ridiculous amounts of their own money running. And guess what. They still got blown out of the water come election day. You have a far better chance earning your first million through Amway than you do winning a major election as a Libertarian candidate.
Ah, but others are thinking, even if Johnson doesn’t win, voting for him will lodge a protest. As I will argue elsewhere, lodging a protest vote that promotes the LP is incredibly counterproductive from the standpoint of advancing a rights-protecting government. But let’s table that matter for the moment and just talk electoral tactics.
If you want to register a protest vote, an undervote is nearly as effective as a third-party vote. I simply did not vote in the last presidential election, and I may do the same in 2012, depending on the GOP nominee. (I absolutely will not vote for Paul, Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, or Bachmann.) If a vote for the LP candidate were merely a protest vote (which, I emphasize, is not the case), then the strategic advantage of voting LP versus voting for nobody (or a write-in) would be negligible.
And actually spending any time or money promoting Johnson’s campaign, given all the alternate ways one could spend time and money, would be at best practically worthless.
But of course one’s broader political strategies must account for ideology. It’s not like anybody who might support Johnson might instead support an overt Communist as a “protest vote.” Clearly promoting the right ideas is the paramount strategic concern. I grant that, if you think that supporting Johnson as an LP candidate would advance the right ideas, then supporting him might offer some minuscule strategic advantage. At this point, I encourage readers merely to contemplate the possibility that supporting Johnson as a Libertarian would instead promote very bad ideas, a case I intend to make elsewhere.
For example, Coulter argues, Ron Paul is wrong to think that government can simply get out of marriage. What about adoption, child custody, health decisions, and inheritance, she sensibly wonders. Back in 2007 I argued that marriage is a sort of contract, and the government properly recognizes it for all couples.
However (and inevitably), Coulter errs in writing:
Most libertarians are cowering frauds too afraid to upset anyone to take a stand on some of the most important cultural issues of our time. So they dodge the tough questions when it suits their purposes by pretending to be Randian purists, but are perfectly comfortable issuing politically expedient answers when it comes to the taxpayers’ obligations under Medicare and Social Security.
Coulter is correct about libertarians; often (but not in every case) they hedge on abortion, misconstrue the significance of the marriage contract, and decline to take a moral stand on things like prostitution and heavy recreational drug use.
But Rand rejected libertarianism, and certainly Rand took tough positions on social issues, as Coulter must know.
Given my past activism with the Libertarian Party of Colorado, it is no surprise that lots of people still think of me as a libertarian. At the same time, libertarians think it odd that I disclaim the title. So I thought I’d make another attempt to address the issue; I delivered the following talk May 7 at Liberty Toastmasters.
For more, readers can check out my 2007 article largely on the same topic, which contains links to older writings.
After I delivered my talk, I read Shea Levy’s post, “Objectivists are Libertarians.” Because that post and my speech appear at roughly the same time, I thought I’d expand my point by briefly responding to Levy’s arguments.
Levy argues that, just as it is proper to categorize “Joseph Stalin, Christopher Hitchens, and Ayn Rand” as atheists, despite their vast differences, so it is proper to categorize “John Stossel, Radley Balko, and Ayn Rand” as libertarians.
Levy’s argument quickly falls apart when we look at Levy’s own “definition” of libertarianism: “the vast majority of activities between consenting adults should be legal and that the current US government acts far out of the bounds of the proper scope of a government.”
First, what constitutes “consent?” That very much depends on one’s philosophical commitments. Many libertarians argue that “consent” includes things like pirating music, and some hold it includes having sex with children. Throwing together advocates of a Constitutionally limited government that protects individual rights with advocates of copyright violations and child rape is rather less than helpful. Also included in this motley crew, by the way, are neo-Confederates and racist “militia” groups.
Second, defining one’s political beliefs as wanting a less-aggressive government makes absolutely no sense. That includes advocates of Constitutionally limited government as well as right-anarchists and left-anarchists. If we can trust the Wikipedia entry on libertarianism, in its origins (as a political term) it derives from anarcho-socialism.
Consider, for instance, this telling quote from Colin Ward: “For a century, anarchists have used the word ‘libertarian’ as a synonym for ‘anarchist’, both as a noun and an adjective. The celebrated anarchist journal Le Libertaire was founded in 1896. However, much more recently the word has been appropriated by various American free-market philosophers…”
As I mention in the talk embedded here, and as I have argued previously, libertarianism is fundamentally a reactionary movement, in that it is motivated by an anti-government sentiment.
“Smaller government” simply cannot be a defining characteristic of any valid concept, as it includes radically different political commitments, ranging from anarcho-socialism to anarcho-capitalism to Ronald Reagan. Whereas atheism coherently describes people who disbelieve in a god, the comparable concept for people who disbelieve in government is anarchism. Rand certainly was no anarchist, and neither am I (thought I took the theory quite seriously for several years).
To clarify the point, I am not fundamentally for “smaller government.” I am for a government that protects people’s rights (in a sense broadly compatible with Lockean property rights). I can imagine a scenario in which I’d positively advocate government consuming the vast majority of national output: say, if a reconstituted Soviet Union joined forces with a newly aggressive China and the Islamist world to wage war on the U.S. The fundamental issue is the government’s purpose, not its size.
I think the basic conceptual problem with (American) libertarianism is that it tries to mesh two fundamentally incompatible concepts: anarchism and (Lockean) individual rights. I think that nicely explains why even self-proclaimed libertarians who claim to support government so often get caught up in bizarre movements ranging from neo-Confederacy to music piracy to Islamist apologetics.
Furthermore, I suggest that the better libertarians, such as the scholars at the Cato Institute and the writers at Reason, are only better because they don’t really take libertarianism all that seriously. That is, they just fling around this term “libertarian” without pinning down its meaning, or they use the term to mean roughly “what I happen to believe.”
I suppose people can just arbitrarily define “libertarian” to mean whatever they want, in the same way I could redefine “theist” to mean “one who rejects the supernatural realm.” But I really don’t see the point of torturing the language like that or causing such needless confusion.
Let me take a recent, local example. Colorado Representative Amy Stephens has spent much of this legislative session pushing through a politically-controlled health “exchange,” to comply with ObamaCare. Stephens is either dishonest or less than fully bright, as she has characterized this government-run monstrosity as “free market.” She also dishonestly castigates opponents of the bill as anarchists. Nevertheless, because so many libertarians are in fact avowed anarchists, and because libertarianism implies or at least openly accepts anarchism, Stephens’s slurs find some traction. In short, if you lie with dogs, you’ll probably get fleas.
So, again, I am not a libertarian.
Bryan commented May 9, 2011 at 11:00 AM
Reasonable people recognize that the use of certain words is therefore simply a starting point in the process of understanding what the other person means by them and what their beliefs truly might be. As a practical matter however the level of detail needed regarding someones beliefs varies drastically depending on the context, the time available and the reason for needing to know more.
You acknowledge the possibility of “redefining” the word libertarian to mean whatever you want but don’t see the reason to do so. I”d suggest its not “redefining” as much as simply acknowledging that many words are inherently going to be ambiguous, vague and ill defined with a broad range of possible meanings. “Conservative” and “liberal” (modern, classical, or whatever variety) suffer from the same trouble as does the word “rights”. You needed to write “rights (in a sense broadly compatible with Lockean property rights)” due to its ambiguity and even that of course is only the start of narrowing down exactly what your particular view of the concept of “rights” is.
Whatever definition you come up with for rights, libertarian, liberal, conservative, or other words is usually only going to be a starting point and so simply dismissing one potential guide point as being too broad and including views you disagree with doesn’t seem useful since almost everyone using any of those words or labels has that difficulty when using them.
As a practical issue when explaining our views to someone its often necessary to start with a general high level abstract but imperfect overview which we then proceed to refine and correct to varying degrees depending on the purpose of the interaction. Even if the initial sign post we are given like “liberal” or “libertarian” differs in our understanding of the term from the views of the person it applies to it at least provides a starting point for further dialogue using that merely as an initial guiding point to steer from.
Given that few people will know whatever word you might use to describe your set of political views, say Aritarianism, its useful to rely on a shorthand as a starting point and it confuses other people needlessly not to be willing to give them guideposts as starting points even if those guideposts aren’t exactly on the mark. Your approach I think will sow more confusion and waste more time than merely accepting the closest shorthand as an approximation and then proceeding from there. e.g. many people from suburbs of Denver when talking to people elsewhere in the country will accept the inaccurate initial shorthand that they are from Denver and only correct if necessary.
Shea Levy commented May 9, 2011 at 11:02 AM
Thanks for the post. I hope to get a chance to chew this more and maybe respond, but, just to clear things up: “the vast majority of activities between consenting adults should be legal and that the current US government acts far out of the bounds of the proper scope of a government.” wasn’t meant to be a definition of libertarianism. I was just pointing out two commonalities that occurred to me as I wrote the post. In the comments of the post, I take a shot at identifying some more fundamental common characteristics, and go a bit more in detail into what I see as the cognitive utility of the word.
Ari commented May 9, 2011 at 11:03 AM
Bryan, If I were to call myself a “libertarian,” I’d immediately need to distance myself from anarchism etc. If I call myself a “free-market advocate,” I convey all the positive meaning I want with none of the serious baggage. -Ari
Ari commented May 9, 2011 at 11:08 AM
Shea, My point was that the very meaning and motivation of “libertarianism” is tied up with an anti-government agenda, and your comments feed that view, even if not intended as a definition. I’m not anti-government. Moreover, for reasons indicated, something like “less government” simply encompasses too many fundamentally contradictory viewpoints to serve as a useful political framework. It’s just not an essential characteristic of anyone’s political views. -Ari
Bryan commented May 9, 2011 at 11:23 AM
I’d agree that the “better libertarians” do what you say regarding making using the term as roughly “what I happen to believe”. So I guess my point is to suggest that is both natural and less confusing than trying to avoid potentially being misunderstood by trying to disavow use of the term for the views of those who are closer to “libertarian” than “conservative” or (modern) “liberal”.
If you try to disassociate yourself from the “libertarian” label then I’d suggest that as you’ve found others will likely not remove from their conception of you as one despite your protests unless you professed believes too far from that general vague description (such as e.g. suffering a head injury and coming out in favor of Obamacare ), i.e. accept reality and work with it.
If not “libertarian”, if you object too strongly to the description others will simply try to find a different initial word to use when referring to you such as conservative or objectivist or some other term which may have its own inaccuracies. Most language is inherently approximate and imperfect regardless of any intention for it not to be so. I’d suggest its better to simply be ready with shorthand ways to refer to what sort of “libertarian” you are in either a phrase or by hoping your own descriptive label like “Lockean” or “Aritarian” might become widely enough known as a school of thought to eventually take over from the libertarian label you wish to disown
You seem to be concerned about being tarred and feathered by negative preconceptions people may have regarding those who describe themselves using the same term, “libertarian”. I’d suggest reasonable people will begin to understand that is simply a starting point when describing a set of views (just as “conservative” is) and not
to be too caught up in worrying about that. Those who tar and feather
for superficial reasons will simply find other ways of doing so and its not too useful to let them guide our use of shorthand language.
I’d suggest that your view of “so many libertarians” being anarchists is likely skewed by those you hang around with and that among American libertarians as a whole most are “minarchists” of some fashion or other and that is the more common view of the general public when they hear the term.
I’d suggest perhaps your view of it as being “lying down with dogs” (your own negative conception of anarcho-capitalists) to accept that as an initial approximation is giving in too easily to those who rely on superficial mud slinging rather than rational argument and allowing them to dictate your use of language.
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 12:44 PM
What is your view of the terms “Classical Liberal” or “Market Liberal” or “Laissez-faire Liberal”? I use these terms frequently. I never use the term libertarian unless I say “Minarchist libertarian” and then I explain what minarchist means.
Rand referred to herself as a radical for capitalism. I often wonder if we need a poli-sci term that refers to laissez-faire in the context of limited government. We really don’t have a term for that.
Ari commented May 9, 2011 at 12:49 PM
I think I’m most partial to “market liberal.” I’m not keen on the term “minarchist” because, first, it sounds odd and hardly anybody knows what it means, and, second, it deals in non-fundamentals. I’m not fundamentally for a government of minimal size; I’m for a government that protects individual rights, at whatever size that requires. But I agree there’s not an awesome term to describe my political views. I’m okay with “market liberal,” “individual rights advocate,” or, in more of an economic context, “capitalist.” -Ari
James commented May 9, 2011 at 1:17 PM
You say, “they are against something – the state, and not for individual rights and the system required to protect them” to which the obvious counter is, “No, we aren’t for building up a system to protect individual rights. We believe that emergent order will lead to individual rights.”
I don’t think anyone believes that the hard right will be convinced not to legislate against abortion, just that in a voluntary society people could enter into communities where abortion was not allowed. I’ve literally never heard the argument, “In a voluntary society..you could PERSUADE people to not get abortions…” that’s totally made up. Never heard it, not once. You can of course persuade people to not get abortions in a statist society as well. The argument is that the only way to stop people from having abortions is to persuade them against it, not that this will actually bring the hard right over to the libertarian POV. I’ve also never heard anyone say that children shouldn’t be protected from adult sexual predators, though I can imagine people making the argument that government shouldn’t be the one to police those rules.
The IP commentary, “government does it, so it must be bad…” is such a simplification. The point is that those protected by patents and copyrights are protecting their IP with stolen money. If society wanted to all pitch in to protect IP(and it very well might, in a voluntary society – we have a lot of examples of people respecting artists and giving them patronage for original works) it would be totally different. Right now, we have other members of society being forced to protect other people’s intellectual property, which they may very well not want to do.
And of COURSE libertarianism is reactionary!!! How could it not be? You could never be a libertarian if there were no government – it’d be like being anti-Klingon or anti-telekinesis. It’s perfectly logical to be against a bad thing. Being against something doesn’t necessarily make the movement wrong.
You say, libertarianism is not for individual rights AND the system to protect them – you are right, but he has lumped two things together unnecessarily. You imply that individual rights DEMAND a government system in place to protect them, and I would say the burden of proof is on you from that perspective. Of course, if you ever tried to assume that burden of proof you would fail, so it’s much easier to just state as fact that individual rights “require a system to protect them.”
It’s funny, too, because I don’t call myself a libertarian because I DO believe there is unnecessary baggage around the term. I just go by voluntaryist – which sums up everything nicely without the connotation. But your arguments certainly seemed aimed at an audience prone to status quo bias, and it’s altogether quite sad because he lends authority to these sweeping generalizations with the old “I used to be one of them, so you can trust me here!!!” trick.
James commented May 9, 2011 at 1:25 PM
Apologies for pronoun issues – I originally typed that email to a friend who linked me here and when I changed the format for this post I left a few “he”s that should now be “you”s. Sorry for any confusion!
Diana Hsieh commented May 9, 2011 at 2:35 PM
Thanks much for this post, Ari. A while back, Greg Perkins made some similar arguments about the fundamentality of individual rights to politics — and why wanting “less government” (including zero government) is not a proper basis for political classifications:
Today, many people use the term “libertarian” to mean that they’re on the right economically, but not religious right or socially conservative. In other words, the term doesn’t mean adhering to the non-initiation of force principle as an axiom, nor regarding all defenders of “liberty” (including anarchists and pedophiles) as a political allies.
In essence, the term “libertarian” has become as vague and broad as “liberal” or “conservative.” For many people, that’s a reasonably apt description of their views, in part because they’re in the process of working through difficult philosophic issues. Often, such people are sincerely interested in and friendly to Ayn Rand’s ideas. Often, they understand that liberty means respect for and protection of individual rights by government. Often, they clearly reject anarchism and pacifism, support abortion rights and intellectual property, and so on. But because the term is so broad, you have no idea what they think until you ask!
Hence, I’m not going to waste my time quibbling with someone’s use of the term “libertarian”: I’d rather argue with them on some substantive points, to help bring them closer to my own Objectivist views. However, I persist in thinking that Objectivists should not use the term “libertarian” to describe their politics. Objectivists can — and ought — to describe their politics as “Objectivist” — or, more generally “free market” or “laissez faire” or “pro-capitalist” or “classical liberal.”
Happily, more and more people know the basic meaning of advocating Objectivism in politics — as distinct from libertarianism. That’s because more of us are using that term — while interacting with the confused mess of quasi-free market people that make up the tea parties and other local groups.
That’s real progress, I think.
Ari commented May 9, 2011 at 3:31 PM
I think that’s basically right, Diana, but I hasten to note that even “mainstream” libertarians tend to characterize their views as wanting “less government.” Thus, the general tendency toward opposing government persists, and they really cannot in principle distinguish their views from those of anarchists, who want the least amount of government. -Ari
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 6:08 PM
@Diana, the problem with the terms you suggest (aside from, obviously, “Objectivist”) is that they all emphasize economic matters and are silent on issues of legislating morality. I wish there were a better term, because I think there are a lot of people (including me, and some “libertarians”) who largely agree with an Objectivist politics even though they are not Objectivists.
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 7:30 PM
Age of consent laws are perfectly compatible with Libertarianism and recommended.
A more mature child can petition a judge for emancipation if he or she thinks they are ready to make their own decision prior to 18 or other agreed upon consent age.
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 7:34 PM
Libertarianism is a simple.
Live and let live.
Every person who is not a collectivist is a Libertarian by default.
A government whose major purpose is to protect and honor the non-aggression axiom will be more than adequate.
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 7:38 PM
Objectively explain why collectivism is preferred to liberty? Also please explain how using force to accomplish ones desires is moral?
Anonymous commented May 9, 2011 at 7:57 PM
What are “objectivist” politics? Sounds rather subjective, no?
As soon as your objective politics are contrary to my objective politics, you will be faced with 2 simple choices. Ask me to cooperate voluntary or garner my cooperation via the guns of government.
Seems to me, the only objective choice would be the voluntary path. Nobody dies.
If you are willing to support the guns of government view point, the burden of proof is upon you to objectively rationalize murder or imprisonment albeit under the guise of State and citizenship, i.e. the imaginary social contract.
Ari commented May 9, 2011 at 8:38 PM
Wow, Jeff; You’re simply assigning beliefs to Diana and me that we do not in fact hold. If you want to make some arguments to advance your case, great; but that’s the last of the smears I’ll let through from you. -Ari
Jim May commented May 9, 2011 at 10:00 PM
I often wonder if we need a poli-sci term that refers to laissez-faire in the context of limited government. We really don’t have a term for that.
I call that “liberty”.
As far as the need for a “poli-sci” term is concerned, I think that we need an actual political science before we deal with the issue of particular terms within it. The entire realm of political “science” as it is known today exists solely for the purpose of preventing rational thought about politics.
Diana Hsieh commented May 9, 2011 at 10:06 PM
Sheesh, Jeff. The “Objectivist politics” is the politics of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. You can read Ayn Rand’s core political essays here:
Resuna commented May 10, 2011 at 11:18 AM
I’m a “civil libertarian”. Or that should be written “civil-libert”-arian, perhaps? I don’t trust authority, whether that authority is corporate, governmental, or originating in any other institutional structure. On the other hand I believe it’s necessary. I don’t believe the idealistic “non coercive” libertarian state can exist, because people will accumulate different amounts of power and people will need, at the very least, organizations to enforce “voluntary contracts”… and these organizations will end up being governments and (short of Iain Banks’ transcendently powerful benign AIs making work unnecessary) almost everyone will end up subject yo contracts that are only nominally voluntary.
Anonymous commented May 19, 2011 at 6:53 AM
Here is a video that may cause some to rethink IP.
Here is an audio that may give you second thought.
Ari commented May 19, 2011 at 10:40 AM
And here you can find Greg Perkins’s refutation of the video linked above: http://blog.dianahsieh.com/2009/12/objectivist-recants-on-ip.shtml
Also check out Adam Mossoff’s work on IP: http://www.law.gmu.edu/faculty/directory/fulltime/mossoff_adam
Craig commented May 23, 2011 at 4:03 PM
I’m not sure I agree with abandoning the term “libertarian” over it, but I do feel the pain of people prejudicing themselves against anything else I might say (regardless of content or merit) after I identify myself as such. Diana’s comment is one of the two general examples that really irk me:
“Today, many people use the term ‘libertarian’ to mean that they’re on the right economically, but not religious right or socially conservative.”
I’m a very conservative Christian and like the two libertarians currently running for president (Paul, Johnson) was raised Lutheran (and like Paul I considered going to seminary but decided on another profession). With or without these anecdotes, the quoted is an incorrect application of the term. Libertarianism is a political philosophy – theology and personal practices (aggression towards another is not personal) are outside its scope. I happen to have arrived at libertarianism via application of Christian principles…go figure. None of this changes, however, the use of the term in this way…and the resulting negative connotation.
The other example is that some now believe libertarian = tea party = republican. So, I have friends who identify with team blue whose ears close when they hear the little-l word.
So, maybe the term is thoroughly trashed…but if two of the 10 people who have commented on this post don’t know what Objectivism is (hasn’t even made it into Chrome’s spell-checker, BTW)…I doubt I’m going to get far calling myself a “classical liberal.”
OK, thread winner goes to Ari for this (it describes the issue with shallow general understanding and misapplication of these labels well):
“The entire realm of political ‘science’ as it is known today exists solely for the purpose of preventing rational thought about politics.”
russj commented September 26, 2011 at 3:31 PM
Nice post Ari!
Your reasoning is very reminiscent of Heyek’s famous “Why I am not a conservative” article, from which I assume you got the title.
I also recall the famous line from “South Pacific: “I know what you’re against! What are you for?”
You would rather stand for a set of principles, than oppose those which you despise.
Let’s continue to support human rights, and their foundation, natural law.
Some readers may have noticed that my blog posts feed into the People’s Press Collective. How this process works is a mystery to me, and I’m not even sure whether my posts automatically feed into it or whether they must pass through a human gatekeeper. At any rate, I think it’s a useful site, and I like all the contributers I know. That said, I disagree with the occasional post there.
Longo’s main point is that radio host Mike Rosen often compromises free-market principles in the name of “reality.” I can attest this is true. Rosen often has expressed a belief that what’s good in theory may not work in practice. Therefore, he often jettisons principles for the sake of pragmatism. For example, Longo notes, Rosen supported the TARP “stimulus” corporate welfare. As Longo paraphrases, Rosen is “still reluctantly for TARP because doing nothing would have been far worse.”
Longo is correct that Rosen’s position violates free-market principles. Moreover, Rosen is simply wrong: “doing nothing” would have been far better than forcibly transferring wealth from the productive economy to political boondoggles. Robert Higgs makes this case.
The more fundamental point that Rosen misses is that restoring a truly free market would be a lot better than “doing nothing.” Advocates of free markets are not for the status quo: we are for replacing today’s mixed economy with liberty. As my dad and I reviewed, politicians caused the mortgage meltdown. Since then they have been worsening the recession and delaying recovery through massive wealth transfers, new and capricious economic controls, and continuous threats of more of the same.
As Longo reviews, Rosen believes that free market reforms today are “not on the table.” What Rosen neglects to notice is that what’s on the table is what we put on the table. Free market reforms are not on the table today because practically all Republicans have busily renounced free markets in favor of more political controls. But that’s not quite true; despite the Republican war on free markets, some free market reforms are on the table thanks to the efforts of a small but dedicated few devoted to liberty, such as the idea to expand Health Savings Accounts. (This reform appears to be hidden under a napkin, but at least it’s on the table.)
True, cultural changes can be long and arduous. But we can’t achieve positive change unless we fight for it. Just look at what the abolitionists achieved in a span of years. Rosen creates a self-fulfilling prophesy by presuming that free market reforms are off the table. Pragmatists content themselves to gnaw on the scraps tossed to them by those with the ambition to take a seat at the table.
Yet Longo’s deeper critique of Rosen illustrates precisely what’s wrong with the libertarian movement. Rosen plays the “pragmatic libertarian” to Longo’s “dogmatic libertarian.” This is precisely the problem I observed in the Libertarian Party a few years ago — and the reason I left the party and no longer count myself a libertarian.
Longo’s argument is worth examining:
If stopping an employee from negotiating a mutually agreeable wage with an employer is wrong because third parties do not have the right to infringe on voluntary transactions, then one conclusion we can draw is that the minimum wage is immoral. Now take that principle and apply it universally, to all parties, at all times, and to all contracts, decisions, and transactions. Think about it. Do you not like the outcomes you get in some scenarios? Too bad. Those are the consequences you must deal with when principles are applied universally.
Is it wrong to kidnap another human being against their will? Yes? Okay, now apply that principle to all parties, at all times, ever in history? Oh no! You mean we cannot conscript soldiers during war? You mean we can’t force people to sit on juries they don’t want to? Too bad. Those are the consequences you must deal with in order to claim you are principled.
I realize that applying basic principles universally is scary, as some of the outcomes we reach are sometimes outcomes we are uncomfortable with. However, applying principles universally is an important thought experiment that allows us to see whether we really believe in something or we don’t.
Let me close by suggesting just two principles I live by and apply universally. You are more than welcome to run millions of thought experiments in order to reach as many conclusions as possible with these two — warning: some outcomes will scare you.
First principle: You own yourself. No one else has a higher claim on you than you do.
Second principle: It is ALWAYS wrong to initiate force on someone else. (notice the use of the word initiate. Self-defense is absolutely moral).
As you can see, the second principle is really just a logical extension of the first principle. In my view, all we need is the first principle, as everything else is logically deduced from principle one.
Please apply my two principles universally — to all people at all times, ever in history. You will then see why I believe what I believe and how I reached my own conclusions over the years.
To Longo, it is simply “too bad” if libertarian theory, say, causes a death or the destruction of the planet. But obviously he doesn’t really believe that “principles” should be completely detached from consequences; he suggests in his final line that, on net, looking at “all people at all times, ever in history,” the principles he favors achieve the best results. Is that not why he believes what he believes?
The problem is that Longo’s principles aren’t principles at all; they are statements of dogma. A principle is a guide to action integrating vast knowledge about the real world. If a principle doesn’t work in the real world, that means it’s false. Contra Rosen, a principle is such precisely because it is tied to the real world. There is no split between theory and practice — provided that one’s theory is grounded in reality and one’s practice follows sound principles.
Longo claims that “everything else is logically deduced from principle one,” which is, “You own yourself. No one else has a higher claim on you than you do.”
Not only can very little be “deduced” from this claim, but the claim itself is, without principled grounding, completely arbitrary and implausible.
If we look at the course of human history, practically everyone has flat-our rejected the notion that “no one else has a higher claim on you than you do.” Most people have accepted the authority of a king, a priest or deity, a democracy, or some proclaimed moral leader.
So where does Longo’s “first principle” come from? It is certainly not intuitively obvious, it is not written in our genes, it is not written in the heavens.
For libertarians, this “first principle” — this fundamental dogma — is pulled out of nowhere. And that is the most basic problem with libertarianism.
Now, I certainly agree with the principle that a person properly directs the course of his own life. But this is a moral proposition that can only be grounded in the facts of human life and the nature of social interaction. One must prove it and determine its context, not just invoke it as some magical formula. (Proving it takes a lot of hard work that I am not prepared to undertake here, though I will note that in my view Ayn Rand made the most progress in developing the principle.)
But the statement “you own yourself” is not some sort of axiom. Indeed, it cannot possibly be an axiom. Ownership arises, conceptually, in the context of property, which arises only in a social setting. One could not even reach the idea of owning one’s self without the idea of owning some bit of property (a tool, a bowl of food, whatever). Why should I think that I own the stone ax that I made? What if the tribal leader thanks me for creating the ax for the tribe and graciously hands it over to the canoe carver? A lot has to go on conceptually to get to the point where I can think about owning some piece of property. And, as I’ve noted in brief, Leonard “Peikoff argues that ownership properly applies to external objects, and that ownership of one’s self doesn’t make sense.”
But let’s assume that we’ve developed some idea of self-ownership. What deductively follows from that? Practically nothing.
Consider. If I “own myself,” and “no one else has a higher claim” on me, doesn’t that mean I get to control my own actions? Fine. I want that nice-looking TV in the window, so I smash the window and take the TV. The libertarian will reply that the owner of the TV also owns himself, so I have violated his rights. But why should I give a rip about that, if self-ownership is the highest axiom? Go ahead and go own yourself; all I’m doing is taking is taking this TV. To get anywhere with this, we need a complex theory of property rights, and this is not a matter of spinning out deductions from some alleged axiom. We have to say something about why property rights are necessary for human flourishing and why we should adopt one particular theory of property rights instead of some alternative one (such as one in which a king decides who controls what property).
“Second principle: It is ALWAYS wrong to initiate force on someone else.”
Children who willingly participate in sexual acts have the right to make that decision as well, even if it’s distasteful to us personally. Some children will make poor choices just as some adults do in smoking and drinking to excess. When we outlaw child pornography, the prices paid for child performers rise, increasing the incentives for parents to use children against their will.
In fact, some libertarians have argued that children have a “self-ownership” right to have sex with adults, which is absolutely abhorrent. The quote above seems to sanction child pornography, which is disgusting and despicable. With “principles” like this, who can blame those who “pragmatically” stray from the “principles?”
The general problem is that what counts as force, and what counts as the initiation of force, depends entirely upon our theory of property rights, which again depends on complex moral and legal theories.
Saner libertarians argue that parents may, after all, use force in some contexts when it comes to their children. For instance, if Johnny is playing in the street and refuses to move, a parent may properly pick Johnny up and put him in a safer place. Unquestionably this is the use of force. Whether it is the “initiation of force” depends on which ad hoc rationalization the libertarian confuses for a deduction.
To hint at the real solution, the concept of rights (including property rights) arises in a particular context: the context of rational (as opposed to insane) adults capable of peaceful interaction with others. But again this is the end result of a complex chain of theoretical knowledge, not some first “principle” pulled out of the sky.
Let us extend another of Longo’s examples. He argues that employers and employees should be able to voluntarily agree to a wage, and I quite agree in the normal context. But what if somebody decides to sell himself into lifelong slavery for a supply of drugs or a sum of money? Must we refrain from intervening in that transaction?
The sane libertarian will reply that contract law depends on certain conditions, and that selling one’s self into lifelong slavery could not possibly meet those conditions. Regardless, the conclusion does not simply spin itself out deductively. Principles must integrate a wide range of facts about the human condition, and they can only be applied by examining the particular facts of the case at hand in light of the broader facts identified by the principle.
Ultimately Rosen and Longo make the same error of detaching principles from practice. Rosen abandons principles to achieve what allegedly works. Longo says we must stick to “principles” even when they are scary in practice. However you flip the libertarian coin, you get ungrounded theory on one side and unguided practice on the other. The dogmatists and the pragmatists clash as codependents.
Where I think Longo is headed is that consistently applying principles can create short-term and narrowly defined problems. But the far more important insight is that properly derived principles are absolutely essential for a person’s success in life. Exercise might be momentarily unpleasant, but it contributes to general health. That union of theory and practice cannot come from libertarian dogma disguised as “first principles.” Obviously it cannot come from the pragmatic rejection of principles. It can come only from a proper understanding of what principles are, why sound principles necessarily work, and why successful action must be guided by principles.
I’ve spent significant time criticizing Thomas E. Woods (here and here), a conservative-libertarian author of several books and a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Woods will speak this evening at the University of Colorado and tomorrow in Colorado Springs. In response to several anonymous postings, I’ll extend my comments here.
Woods’s older articles — published by the racist and theocratic League of the South — condemned the abolitionists and the Declaration of Independence while praising the “social harmony and adherence to tradition that characterized the South.” These older writings are repugnant and wrong.
I hasten to point out that some that Woods’s newer ideas — the ones he still promotes — are also disturbing and wrong, though not grotesque as were his older writings.
As I pointed out, even Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, a libertarian favorite, writes for the Ludwig von Mises Institute in a review of Woods’s Politically Incorrect Guide to American History — a book published in 2004 that Woods actively promotes on his web page as of this morning– “Woods clearly wants to tender a neo-Confederate interpretation, in which slavery is shunted into the background as a motive for southern secession.”
As I reviewed yesterday, Woods’s essay on 9/11 puts him squarely in the “blame America first” camp (along with Ron Paul and many other libertarians) and further reveals his view that American policy should be rooted in theology. So, even discounting Woods’s writings for the League of the South, Woods clearly advocates states’ rights even when individual rights take a back seat, criticizes American support of legitimate allies such as Israel, and endorses faith-based politics over the separation of church and state. (To take another example of this last point, Woods calls abortion “intrinsically immoral” based on Catholic doctrine.) So even discounting all of Woods’s older writings, he has provided plenty of reasons to distrust his agenda.
I granted that Woods may have changed his mind about his older writings. I’ve also written some things in my younger days that I would not today endorse (though nothing so nasty as what Woods wrote.) The onus is on Woods to demonstrate that that he has repudiated his older writings. Yet, in a 2005 essay, Woods writes that, though he “had an intermittent membership in the League [of the South] over the years,” “I have nothing to apologize for.”
Really? Woods is not going to apologize for calling the Declaration of Independence a “polluted source,” for condemning its statement “that all men are created equal,” or for calling the abolitionists “reprehensible agitators?” Readers may peruse Woods’s 2005 essay and evaluate for themselves the extent that Woods’s views have changed.
I am not alone in questioning Woods’s commitment to liberty. In a review of Woods’s Politically Incorrect Guide, Cathy Young writes for Reason:
Much of the book’s first half is an apologia for the antebellum South and its cause in the War Between the States (Woods’ preferred term). …
[R]eaders will search The Politically Incorrect Guide in vain for any moral outrage at a brutal system that allowed some human beings to own others. The best Woods can do is suggest that without the war, slavery could have been phased out peacefully, a stance that is speculative at best. …
In a 1997 article titled “Christendom’s Last Stand,” ["Removed by request of the author" but available on archive] Woods proclaims the Confederacy’s defeat “the real watershed from which we can trace many of the destructive trends that continue to ravage our civilization today.” …
Woods complains when critics quote his older essays. But when I contacted him to ask if he now rejected any part of those writings, he replied, “I don’t so much object to their use of old quotations, much of which I’m sure I still stand by; I was simply taken aback at the lengths to which some have gone to avoid discussing my book.” Woods claimed his views had evolved in a more libertarian direction. But he still spoke sympathetically of the defenders of the Southern order, telling me that “certain strains of abolitionist argument, Southerners feared, could corrode all kinds of human relations” since they challenged the principles of authority and subordination. …
This book provides quick ammunition to those for whom “the abolitionists were the bad guys” and “FDR didn’t save the country from the Great Depression” are equally outlandish ideas.
In that last cited paragraph, Young gets to the heart of what’s wrong with Woods. By packaging free-market economics with theology-based neo-Confederatism, Woods discredits the free market. Thus, I must correct my previous statement that Woods “is as dangerous an enemy of liberty as any leftist.” Woods is the far more dangerous enemy.
This morning an anonymous poster (I assume it’s the same person, though I wonder why that person didn’t state his or her name), send in three comments within a two-minute span. I am happy to respond to those comments:
Here’s a thought: given that Woods’ article on abolitionism is no longer available online, such that you have to use a gimmick to find it, is it possible that he changed his mind over the past 15 years? Especially since he’s on record as saying that the slaves had the right to kill their masters and take their property? Why, apart from your hatred of reason, would you focus only on an article Woods obviously wanted taken down, rather than his easily available archive of articles that makes your interpretation of his work look ridiculous?
Reisman, Richman, and Schiff are all supporters of Woods.
Is it possible that Woods has changed his mind over the years? Why don’t you dig up his old articles praising the Persian Gulf War, too?
I’ve dealt adequately with the “change” in Woods’s views. It is hardly a “gimmick” to see what Woods actually wrote. I will ignore Anonymous’s ad hominem attacks. If Anonymous wishes to cite particular articles of Woods that make my “interpretation of his work look ridiculous,” Anonymous is free to do so. Otherwise I will treat Anonymous’s claim as just another ad hominem and baseless attack. Woods’s old articles “praising the Persian Gulf War” are not relevant to my criticisms of Woods. (If Anonymous thinks they are, Anonymous is free to cite some particular article and explain its relevance.)
The reference to Reisman, Richman, and Schiff pertains to this exchange (which I assume is with the same anonymous poster):
“There are plenty of other credible people explaining the economic crisis.”
Really… Name three…
John Allison, Yaron Brook, Richard Salsman, Peter Schiff, George Reisman, Sheldon Richman…
It occurred to me at the time that I was opening myself up for this criticism, but it’s not much of a criticism. Absent any citation from Anonymous, I don’t have much else to say about the matter. Do they endorse (or even know about) the views of Woods that I have criticized? Woods does not gain credibility by a favorable mention by somebody else; the person making the favorable mention loses credibility.
I have saved the important issue for last. Woods has written “that the slaves had the natural right to rise up and kill their masters and confiscate their property.” Does this excuse his defense of the pro-slavery South or his condemnation of the abolitionists? Hardly.
Woods claim is that slaves, who were horribly oppressed, physically beaten and restrained, and often forcibly prevented from gaining an education, had the “natural right to rise up.” No doubt. But all this position allows Woods to do is abstain from committing himself to governmental action to abolish slavery. How magnanimous of Woods, to grant slaves the “right” to “rise up” and be slaughtered! What is relevant in this discussion is not the rights of slaves to rise up, but the rights of slaves to enjoy protection by the government from the slave-holders. But those are precisely the rights that Woods with his neo-Confederate views fails to uphold.
Yesterday I briefly reviewed some of the views of Thomas E. Woods, who will speak at the University of Colorado tomorrow and in Colorado Springs on Saturday. Largely I drew on an article by Eric Muller, who, as I suggested, is not automatically wrong about Woods simply because Muller is a leftist.
I thought it was an interesting irony, given that a jury will soon decide whether the University of Colorado owes Ward Churchill restitution for firing him for academic fraud, that Muller attacked Woods for his Churchillesque foreign policy. (Churchill, you may recall, argued that American foreign policy was to blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.) Muller blasts “Dr. Woods’s memorable insistence that the September 11 attacks were ‘bound to’ happen to us because of ‘the barbarism of recent American foreign policy’ in ‘attempt[ing] the hubristic enterprise of running the world -– and not even on Christian principles.'”
I will get to Woods’s essay on foreign policy in due course. But first I want to review another essay by Woods (also cited by Muller) published by the League of the South. The two essays are ideologically connected, it turns out.
Woods’s article, “Dispelling Myths… The Abolitionists,” is no longer available directly through DixieNet.org, the web page of the League of the South (which is a racist, theocratic outfit, as I pointed out yesterday). However, it remains available through Archive.org. The biography with the article states, “Mr. Woods, a graduate student at Columbia University, holds a B.A.in history from Harvard and is a SL Founding member.”
Woods condemned not only the abolitionists but the principles of the Declaration of Independence:
Charles Sumner had equally mischievous plans for postbellum society: to elevate the Declaration of Independence that it might “stand side by side with the Constitution, and enjoy with it coequal authority.” “Full well . . . I know that in other days, when Slavery prevailed . . . there was a different rule of interpretation,” Sumner conceded. This “different rule of interpretation,” which it pleased our Fathers to call “constitutionalism,” was far too restrictive to allow the kind of innovations of which the scheming Sumner dreamed.
The war, he claimed, had established “a new rule of interpretation by which the institutions of our country are dedicated forevermore to Human Rights, and the Declaration of Independenceis made a living letter instead of a promise.” Thus the statement that “all men are created equal,” condemned by John Randolph of Roanoke as a “most pernicious falsehood,” was to become the central organizing principle for the republic. It is to this polluted source that we may trace the scores of crusaders for Equality from forced busing to affirmative action which have been visited upon us ever since. …
Any civilized man must recognize in the abolitionists not noble crusaders whose one flaw was a tendency toward extremism, but utterly reprehensible agitators who put metaphysical abstractions ahead of prudence, charity, and rationality. Indeed, with heroes like this, who needs villains?
Woods argued, first, that some abolitionists were mean, and, second, “that an abstract commitment to Equality and human rights has a way of degenerating into totalitarianism and mass murder.” In essence, Woods argued that the sins of the French condemn human rights as such.
But Woods omitted a couple of key facts. First, whereas some abolitionists may have erred on occasion, the abolitionists accomplished the magnificent goal of abolishing slavery. Shouldn’t that bare fact at some point factor into our evaluation of the abolitionists?
Second, Woods ignored the critical distinctions between the American and French revolutions. The American Founders — those loyal to the Declaration — advocated legal equality — equality before the law — and individual rights for all. This is a far different ideal than egalitarianism, though Woods conflated the two.
I don’t know how Woods’s views have evolved since his years as a graduate student. But Woods’s old essay is profoundly disturbing.
Some will argue that it’s not fair to dredge up Wood’s old writings. However, his more recent writings, while different in substance, share many of the same basic flaws.
In an article published by Pravda (yes, Pravda), Woods discusses the 9/11 attacks.
Woods mocks the view that “the terrorists must hate ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy'” — despite the fact that they have stated as much. He writes, “Pat Buchanan was the only person who warned that the barbarism of recent American foreign policy was bound to lead to a terrorist catastrophe on American soil.” It is American military intrusions, he argues, that “invite terrorist attacks on our citizens and country.” The answer is “extricating the United States from ethnic, religious and historical quarrels that are not ours and which we cannot resolve with any finality.”
To his credit — and this is what distinguishes Woods from Churchill — Woods writes, “I am obviously not suggesting that past U.S. actions somehow justified these unknown savages in their kamikaze attacks on innocent Americans.” Still, Woods is squarely in the “blame America first” camp.
Woods also emphasizes the theological roots of his ideology; he suggests U.S. foreign policy should manifest the “spirit of Catholicism.” He concludes, “God hates the proud. Our leaders have attempted the hubristic enterprise of running the world –- and not even on Christian principles, but on a combination of simple greed and Enlightenment philosophy. That cannot go on forever.”
Woods also approving quotes another professor critical of America’s “Israeli proxy.”
Again Woods ignores the key facts.
First, though U.S. interventionism is a contributer to terrorist activity, the primary cause of Islamic terrorism is the Islamist ideology of theocratic conquest.
Second, while I quite agree that the United States should cease its altruistic military actions around the globe, the United States also needs to protect critical allies, particularly Israel, in the name of American defense. While Israel is hardly a consistently free nation, compared to its neighbors it is a bastion of liberty. Israel has every right to defend itself against its aggressive neighbors, and the United States has every right to help.
Third, trying to resolve some ethnic conflict is hardly the same thing as, say, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Fourth, as Bush made clear, his foreign policy proceeded on Christian principles as he understood them, which promote the sort of altruistic actions that Woods condemns.
Though the subject is different, Woods makes the same basic error in both essays: he condemns state action as such (particularly if the state in question is the United States), regardless of the standard of individual rights. Despite Woods’s arguments, the abolitionists were right, and the south was wrong, because slavery is morally monstrous. Southern states had no right to maintain slavery, and the south is responsible for the primary evil. Likewise, United States responses to totalitarian aggression and to state sponsored terror are not remotely comparable to that aggression and terror. In both cases, Woods makes a crude “moral equivalency” argument — the abolitionists made some mistakes, therefore they were worse than southern slave holders; the United States government errs in many of its foreign policy decisions and is therefore to blame for Islamist terror.
Woods’s antistate fervor causes him to condemn the abolitionists and the Americans and to downplay or overlook the evil of slave states and Islamic totalitarians. In other words, Woods is the quintessential libertarian.
I was excited when I first heard that Young Americans for Liberty had invited Thomas E. Woods to speak at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I figured that Woods, author of Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse, would have some interesting things to say about the economic crisis. I agree with his general thesis that federal policies caused the crisis and that “bailouts will make things worse.”
Woods will also speak on Saturday, April 4, in Colorado Springs at an event sponsored by the Limited Government Forum. The event will feature other speakers associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
But then a friend pointed me to an article by Eric Muller blasting Woods as a “founding member” of the League of the South. Through archive.org, I found the web page that includes this claim in a biographical note. (I only wish this were an April Fool’s joke.)
Another archived page notes that the League of the South “seeks to protect the historic Anglo-Celtic core culture of the South” and keep that culture from being displaced. The current web page notes that the group “reveres the tenets of our historic Christian faith and acknowledges its supremacy over man-made laws and opinions.” The League “upholds the ontological or spiritual equality of all men before God and the bar of justice, while recognizing and rejoicing in the fact that is has neither been the will of God Almighty nor within the power of human legislation to make any two men mechanically equal.” The group further believes that Southern culture is “structured upon the Biblical notion of hierarchy” and the “natural societal order of superiors and subordinates.” The League of the South is thus racist and theocratic.
Woods wrote to one blogger, “I am in fact not a member of the League of the South, though I did attend a meeting in 1994 when a decentralist organization was said to be forming. I was 21 at that time.” Muller offers several facts indicating the relationship went beyond the attendance of a meeting.
In a review essay for the Mises Institute, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel writes:
Some of the critics [of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History] have laced their denunciations with ad hominem attacks on Woods. Going beyond his book’s content, they have dredged up what they consider either guilty associations with the League of the South or unconscionable past writings in The Southern Partisan. [Actually it's the Southern Patriot.] The most egregious offender is Eric Muller. Although Muller in no way qualifies as either a libertarian or conservative, his venomous assaults, descending to the low of Klan baiting, have been frequently referenced by other critics of the book.
Obviously Muller has his own ideological ax to grind, but that doesn’t automatically invalidate his criticisms of Woods. In fact Woods was associated with the League of the South, however loosely. But Muller’s criticisms hardly end with that fact. Hummel himself writes, “Woods clearly wants to tender a neo-Confederate interpretation, in which slavery is shunted into the background as a motive for southern secession.”
So Woods is not a member of the racist and theocratic League of the South, he is only a neo-Confederate who argues the South had the right to secede. How comforting.
Muller points to an article of Woods published by the League of the South; the archived article remains available. Woods wrote that “hard-core northern conservatives have admired Southern society for remaining socially and theologically sound long after John Winthrop’s ‘city on a hill’ had descended into a nightmare of Christian heresies and secular crusading.” He praised the “social harmony and adherence to tradition that characterized the South.” The South, he wrote, “remained stubbornly orthodox in it’s Judeo-Christianity further undermined the myth that the two sections constituted a single nation.” He denounced the Fourteenth Amendment as “incompatible with a federal system.”
I’m all for federalism, but only as a means to individual rights. States do not have “rights” in the fundamental sense of the term. No state that systematically and massively violates individual rights has any “right” to secede from a broader government.
Even disregarding Woods’s past associations, he clearly believes that liberty has its roots in theology and is defined by theology. Thus, it is no surprise that Ron Paul, who has vacillated between a state’s-rights argument against abortion and a federal amendment laying the grounds for outlawing abortion, wrote the foreword to Woods’s latest book.
I do not doubt that Woods has many insights into the financial meltdown. Nor do I doubt that, ultimately, he is as dangerous an enemy of liberty as any leftist.
Bob Barr was the most logical choice for the Libertarian Party (LP), so I was surprised that the Libertarians chose him. They almost didn’t; Barr beat out rival Mary Ruwart only after joining forces with Wayne Allyn Root, who joined Barr’s ticket after dropping out of the presidential run. David Weigel reviews the story for Reason.
But was the Libertarian Party the logical choice for Barr? I might have checked into an independent candidate (though Barr’s record on abortion is worrisome), but I can’t vote for a Libertarian Barr, because the Libertarian Party is such a disaster. Nevertheless, I do think that Barr is Barack Obama’s only hope to win. (I plan to vote for Obama as the best way to register my disgust with McCain.) I don’t think that Barr will make any difference — I predict that Obama is such a weak candidate that McCain will Dukakisize him. Yet Barr could actually make the difference in some states, though I doubt it.
Early in the balloting on Sunday [May 25], Barr’s strategists — and the candidate himself — thought the Radical Caucus might have beaten them. … The 25 percent Barr scored on the first ballot was lower than everyone expected. … Barr didn’t steamroll, instead grinding out a series of ties with radical favorite Mary Ruwart before the Las Vegas businessman Root dropped out and sent his support Barr’s way, wrapping up the nomination.
One problem with anarchist Libertarianism (and party anarchists are inherently peculiar) is that it tends toward anti-state reaction, as I’ve argued. For example, the Radical Caucus favors “Radical Abolitionism.” What is it that they want to abolish? Government. “[T]he outright removal of the injustice and interference of the State is our ultimate goal. … The Libertarian Party is the only political party that traditionally advocates for real freedom from government interference.”
This is untenable. When somebody is trying to mug me, I’d really like some “government interference.” Likewise, if a hostile foreign power tries to kill me or invade my country, I’d like the government to take strong military action.
In general, the proper and necessary function of government is to protect individual rights. While the Radical Caucus mentions rights, it establishes no means to protect them. (I understand the anarchist conception of competing defense agencies, and I toyed with the notion for several years, but the anarchist view ultimately is incoherent and unworkable). Abolishing the government is hardly the same thing as protecting individual rights, and in fact contradicts it.
Ruwart’s anarchism led her to some outrageous positions, which were exploited by Barr’s supporters. As Weigel reviews, Ruwart writes in her book Short Answers to the Tough Questions:
Children who willingly participate in sexual acts have the right to make that decision as well, even if it’s distasteful to us personally. Some children will make poor choices just as some adults do in smoking and drinking to excess. When we outlaw child pornography, the prices paid for child performers rise, increasing the incentives for parents to use children against their will.
Ruwart’s position is ridiculous and abhorrent, yet it is typical of anti-state reactionaries. To them, arresting child pornographers is “government interference.” While some anarchists may argue that competing defense agencies might defend children from pornographers, often the reactionary element wins out, as it has with Ruwart in this case.
Ruwart’s position is wrong, first, because children do not acquire their full rights till adulthood (because not fully rational), and thus they do not have the right to make every decision that an adult can make. While it might be true that the prohibition of child pornography increases prices, the same can be said about the prohibition of murder for hire. The argument about prices is a useful side-issue in the drug-war debate, but that’s only because producing and consuming drugs do not inherently violate rights. Murder and child pornography do inherently violate rights. If Ruwart has since revised her position, I have not read about it.
So Bob Barr’s claim to fame now is that he barely beat an anarchist who defended the legality of child pornography. Barr may have lent the Libertarian Party his credibility, but the Libertarian Party has lent Barr its insanity. In this election, a vote for Bob Barr is a vote for the Libertarian Party, and that is not an organization that I wish to promote. (I learned my lesson thoroughly after working for the state LP a few years ago.)
In his May 31 column, Dave Kopel reviews the media coverage of the party’s convention. Unfortunately, he fails to get to the heart of the debate within the LP:
One piece [by Cara DeGette] detailed the fight between Libertarian pragmatists and fundamentalists; the former wanted a platform that could appeal to the 16 percent of the U.S. population that is generally libertarian in outlook, while the latter wanted a platform that set forth maximal Libertarian goals. For example, the pragmatists wanted a platform promising to abolish the federal income tax and the Internal Revenue Service, while the fundamentalists wanted a platform demanding an end to all taxation.
Yet the problem with the anarchists is not that they are interested in fundamentals; it is that their fundamentals are wrong. The pragmatists are thus only reacting to the anti-state reactionaries. The result is that one wing endorses untenable principles, while the other wing eschews principles.
Kopel also conflates the debate over principles with the debate over strategy. Ultimately, I too believe that civil society should ban the initiation of force, of which taxation is an instance. But that doesn’t mean that I do not also advocate the repeal of the income tax. Incrementalism is compatible with radicalism. I would be thrilled to live in a society in which a progressive income tax topped out at four percent. Hell, I’d be thrilled if we could merely phase out the Social Security tax, which devastates the working poor and lower-middle class, even if the income tax remained untouched. I am not against taking a bite of liberty merely because I cannot now have the whole enchilada. If politics is the art of the possible, the goal of the radical is to expand what’s possible by influencing cultural debate at the deepest level.
Unfortunately, by allying himself with a party that tends toward reaction against government at the cost of individual rights, Barr has set himself up to possibly influence the election without improving the long-term prospects for liberty.
Ironically, after spending many years as a libertarian who flirted with “anarcho-capitalism,” I was recently criticized in a letter to the Rocky Mountain News by a libertarian anarchist. I’ll take that as a sign of my progress. John Chamberlain of Longmont writes for a letter dated February 14:
It’s a shame when someone gets so close the truth without quite reaching it.
Ari Armstrong (“Loading the dice against responsibility,” Speakout, Jan. 18) scores many good points against Rocky Mountain News columnist Paul Campos, especially in explaining how government activism actually hurts the poor.
But he also writes, “Government can be effective when it sticks to protecting people’s rights – that is, preventing crime and protecting people and their property from violence.” The problem is that governments, in their current form, depend on taking people’s property by violence for their very existence. They are self-contradictory. Their acts of theft (which are euphemized as “taxation”) are considered crimes if anyone else does them.
Furthermore, modern governments prevent anyone else from competing against them within the same geographic area.
Governments performs many useful services, but they shouldn’t be monopolies. Why would anyone support monopoly? Government should be a voluntary subscription service. Let’s take “government by the consent of the governed” seriously!
I am quite familiar with the notion of competing defense agencies, having read the works of Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, and others. (I’ve also written about Randy Barnett’s “polycentric” legal system.)
I essentially agree with Ayn Rand (who, by the way, does not conflate the issues of taxation and geographic monopoly), that competing defense agencies would devolve into violence. Rand writes:
[S]uppose Mr. Smith, a customer of Government A, suspects that his next-door neighbor, Mr. Jones, a customer of Government B, has robbed him; a squad of Police A proceeds to Mr. Jones’ house and is met at the door by a squad of Police B, who declare that they do not accept the validity of Mr. Smith’s complaint and do not recognize the authority of Government A. What happens then? You take it from there.
The typical response is that the two defense agencies will seek arbitration and reach a peaceable solution. But there are two problems with such a reply. First, it manifest a typical libertarian failing of assuming universal rationality in motives. (This is the same failing that leads many libertarians to conclude that Islamic terrorists would become peaceable if only the United States did not antagonize them.) Yet, as world history demonstrates, people do not always reach peaceable solutions that would be in their “rational self-interests;” quite the opposite.
Second, if the competing defense agencies all agree to binding arbitration, then they have formed the very sort of “monopoly” that motivated the criticism in the first place. (I think this is basically along the lines of what Robert Nozick had to say on the matter.) To make such cooperation work, defense agencies would necessarily have to subject themselves to a monopoly power. And if a “competing” agency tried to defy those rules, its members would be arrested and thrown into jail. Sort of like what happens today. As “anarcho-capitalists” are fond of pointing out, today most peace officers are privately hired. Yet they are subject — and quite properly so — to the government’s rules. Once “competing” agents of force agree to create and obey a central authority, they are no longer “competing” in the relevant sense. And, once they make this move, they must consider the optimal structure of government — for which no better alternative has been found than a constitutional republic.
Craig Bolton left a comment beneath my post, “Recovering from Rationalism.” While Bolton claims to defend libertarianism, his claims actually demonstrate what is wrong with libertarianism.
I do not wish to address Bolton’s bizarre claim that “there is no such thing as ‘induction’.” I don’t even know what he could possibly mean by such a statement. So let’s move on to his politics.
Bolton wishes to separate voluntarist society from politics and political ideology. Opposed to “society” is government, which “is essentially about coercive force,” even though government “may be useful” in suppressing violent individuals.
Thus, Bolton affirms that libertarianism is precisely what Objectivists say it is: a political or social goal explicitly detached from a moral theory.
However, it is impossible to define what properly falls within the bounds of voluntarism without a political ideology that flows from a moral ideology. Following are just a few examples.
* If a 10 year old boy “voluntarily” agrees to have sex with a 40 year old man, is that okay with libertarians? This issue has in fact been seriously debated in libertarian circles. Yet, apart from political and moral theory, libertarians have no way to resolve the issue. Objectivists, though, have a ready response that is consistent with the common view: the concept of voluntarism rests on the rationality of adult people. A child has not yet developed into a fully rational person. Therefore, a child is not in the position to consent to certain things, such as sex, marriage, business contracts, and the purchase of dangerous objects. The extent to which libertarians answer the question (in a non-crazy way) is the extent to which they abandon libertarianism.
* Let us say that you are throwing a barbecue party in your back yard, and either there is no fence or the gate is open. Then an uninvited religious nut comes into the yard and starts delivering a sermon. Is this “voluntary?” Did the nut initiate any force? If so, how? All he did is go on a walk and start talking. Where’s the force? Is the answer property rights? But “Libertarianism is not about… asserting that ‘people have rights’.” A theory of property rights requires an overarching political theory that rests on a moral theory as to why people have a right to their property. And any reasonable person will call the police — agents of the government — if the nut refuses to leave.
* What about people who “voluntarily” offer copyrighted music for “free” downloading? The legitimacy of copyright is often debated among libertarians.
* Does abortion limit the voluntary behavior of an embryo, or does a ban on abortion limit the voluntary behavior of the mother? Libertarianism has no answer.
Bolton also shows that libertarianism, as I’ve argued, tends to descend into anti-state reactionism. For Bolton, coercive government is fundamentally at odds with voluntary society, even though he thinks that government can be useful. Because libertarians dismiss moral theory as the foundation for politics, they assume that everything would be fine, if only nasty government would leave people alone. Yet libertarians are inconsistent about this, because most of them realize at some level that we need a government to protect our rights, and that we do need a moral and political theory of rights. The reactionism of libertarianism manifests in a variety of ways, from conspiracy theories about 9/11 to anarchism. Libertarians who do not hate government tend to become pragmatists, for they have already dismissed moral principles as the basis for politics.
I understand that this post is brief, so any reader who does not follow my arguments here is encouraged to read my lengthier critiques, starting with “More Libertarians Against Liberty,” which in turn links to additional articles.
A condensed version of Peter Schwartz’s essay, “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty,” is published in Ayn Rand’s The Voice of Reason.
I am a recovering rationalist. I thought I was pretty smart, back in 1992 (it must have been), when I first got my copy of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. I read it, understood it, and was even ready to start correcting it. Or so I thought. In fact, I did not understand Objectivism, at all. Or, rather, I understood only a few of its tenets, and those poorly. I was certainly not prepared to apply Objectivist principles consistently in my own life. My main problem was rationalism. I understood the philosophy as an interconnected system of ideas, but I did not understand how those ideas were related to the real world.
Take, for instance, my (lack of) understanding of “life” as the standard of value. I wrote thousands of words over the internet explaining the problems with that position. For example, how is one to choose between length of life and strength of life? I created long, rationalistic chains of arguments that (I thought) demonstrated the absurdities of holding “life” as the standard. Of course, what I was not doing is looking at what life really is. I was not drawing the principles from the facts; I was trying to derive principles from floating deductions.
Another example may be found in my interaction with libertarianism. Within a few years, I went from enthusiastically promoting libertarianism to denouncing libertarianism. In 2002, I was still defending libertarianism, though I was starting to pay more attention to certain of its problems. I made two basic arguments in defense of libertarianism. First, “If libertarianism is roughly wanting government only to protect property rights, then Objectivism is a type of libertarianism…” In other words, I was starting with (dubious) definitions and then proceeding deductively, rather than looking at the content of libertarianism. Second, I argued that the Objectivist case against libertarianism makes little sense, because Objectivists interact with others who are not principled. I was attempting a reductio ad absurdum, rather than looking at the relevant facts about libertarianism.
I revisited the issue in 2004. I was becoming much more aware of the problems within the libertarian movement, but I still tied myself to libertarianism using rationalistic arguments. I again tried to point out the internal contradictions of criticisms of libertarianism, to reduce those criticisms to absurdity. And I remained stuck on definitions as a starting point: “a single term can[not] be used to name only a single concept. … [W]e frequently assign the same word to multiple concepts, and we rely upon context and explicit definitions to make clear our meaning.” In short, I thought I could re-define libertarianism into respectability. A bit later I wrote of “two libertarianisms” and declared that, by the correct “definition, I am a libertarian, I have been a libertarian for many years, and I anticipate I will always be a libertarian.”
By 2005, I was deeply alarmed by goings on in the libertarian movement, and I was beginning to look at what libertarianism is, rather than attempt to reconstruct it according to my prior definition. A month later, I declared, “I am not a libertarian.” I summarized my reasons: “For I do not want to be lumped together with the pragmatists, reactionaries, tribalists, nihilists, hedonists, rationalists, subjectivists, idealists (of the Platonic variety), propagandists, utopians, and kooks of the libertarian movement.” This was a big development for me. I had finally beat my head against enough concrete problems to begin to abandon my rationalistic view of libertarianism. However, I did not at that point explicitly understand that what I was starting to do is replace rationalism with an inductive approach. I continue to struggle with overcoming rationalism.
Unfortunately, the best Objectivist material about using induction to learn philosophy is not easy to access. A lecture by Darryl Wright helped me to understand the ethical significance of “life.” (Unfortunately, I cannot at this point recall the title of that lecture.) Far and away the most helpful material for me has been Leonard Peikoff’s “Understanding Objectivism” lectures. This outstanding material explicitly deals with the problems of rationalism. It is quite expensive; those who have a problem with the cost might consider finding a loaner copy or buying a copy to share. I’ve started Peikoff’s “Objectivism Through Induction,” which so far is also quite good. He discusses how to inductively approach issues such as causality, reason as man’s means of survival, egoism, and other critical topics.
I am thrilled that Peikoff is making available on his web page a podcast in which he answers questions. He has not so far dealt explicitly with the topic of rationalism versus induction in philosophy, but his answers explode the rationalistic premises of various questions. For example, in his new podcast, he explains why the possibility of human instincts cannot be derived from evolutionary history. Instead, he suggests, we should look to see whether people in fact have instincts. So those trying to overcome rationalistic tendencies can listen to Peikoff’s answers at the level of how they treat rationalism versus induction.