Monday, August 09, 2004

Lengthy Response to Diana Hsieh

I wrote this reply to Diana Hsieh's posting about TOC's upcoming debate about objectivism vs subjectivism as it relates to libertarianism, and whether it's appropriate to associate with subjectivist libertarians for purposes of a debate. It's a bit too lengthy for a comment section, so I'm parking it here for people who might find the topic (or my pontification) of interest.



If I misunderstood your claims, I'm sorry, though I remain unclear on how I did so.

In your reply to my post, you wrote: “He said "I don't see why you take issue with the idea of debating with non-Objectivist libertarians." I never said that; my objection was to debating an explicit subjectivist skeptical libertarian, particularly under the banner of "we're all friends of liberty here." Nor did I say or imply that to debate someone is to make common cause with them, another view which Kraorh attributes to me; whether a debate constitutes sanction depends upon certain critical details.”

Here is what you said that led me to believe that your claim was that, in fact, such debate should be discouraged, in part because engaging in such debates is tantamount to making common cause with non-Objectivists: “Just remember folks, we're all "friends of liberty"! And we all "agree on the goals of individual liberty, free markets and limited governments in a society in which individuals deal with one another based on mutual consent rather than the initiation of force." We just want to know on what moral grounds we can defend liberty. Sheesh. What ever happened to the idea of not making common cause with the so-called "subjectivist wing" of the libertarian movement?!?”

Your sarcasm, above, perhaps obscured your real point. As I understand the terms, there are no differences in terms of actual political platform between the libertarian and the Objectivist. It all reads basically the same: pro-choice, pro-gun rights, pro-liberty all around. So in that sense, it is literally true that plain jane libertarians, even subjectivists, are all “friends of liberty,” in the same way that all socialists are friends of socialism.

But not all friends are alike, and many would-be friends are actually very bad, undesirable friends. In this context, that is because mere platform is not the same as ideology, which all of us – you, me, David Kelley, Will Thomas and (I assume) Ed Hudgins all agree. You claim here, in your reply, that a debate is not necessarily an instance of making “common cause.” You allow that the “critical details” could make a difference here whether it was “common cause” or not, but as a prima facie matter, I would assume that such a debate wouldn't even happen unless there was some very important difference of opinion that you sought to highlight contra your opponent. Such a debate could hold the potential not only to sway other minds with reason and well-articulated facts, but even on a more basic level to earn publicity for one's ideas.

Returning then to the substance of your clarification, you state that your objection is to debating an explicit subjectivist libertarian, particularly under the banner of “we're all friends here.” You don't state why it would be wrong for an Objectivist to debate such a libertarian, though why debating other libertarians may be alright. As for “we're all friends here,” I'm assuming, first, that as a general matter any formal debate should be held in a spirit of cordiality and friendliness. This is just good manners. It doesn't mean that we have to kiss anyone's ass, or feign chumminess a la Kerry & Edwards. But cordiality should be the order of the day unless you have some damn good evidence that the person is immoral, beyond hope of being redeemed, and that acting badly to them really is in your best interest, because it often isn't, even when those other conditions have been filled.

Finally, you also write, “And nor did I deny, either implicitly or explicitly, as Kraorh claims I did, "the possibility of winning converts to Objectivism from non-modernist cultural backgrounds"; my claim was that, contra Kelley, such people cannot be "allies or converts" to the *political* cause of liberty without a radical change of worldview.”

The claim that this is “contra” Kelley is false, unless you have something other than this quotation from the “Party of Modernity.” You had to read that position into a paragraph where he makes the opposite claim – that modernist values are the “natural” home of liberty. Allies and converts to Objectivism are, of course, most likely to be found amongst modernist thinkers. As for the hypothetical non-modernist libertarian, presumably one could not become a convert or ally to Objectivism from a non-modernist background without a “radical change” of worldview – the same thing I said before (and that I experienced personally on my gradual conversion to Objectivism). Presumably, one wouldn't even have such a debate unless the issue under consideration was a) important and b) divisive. But such a debate, in this context, is likely intended to lay the groundwork for the “radical change of worldview” you mention.

Will it be effective? I don't know, and I certainly have my reservations. Even if it isn't, it would hardly be a failure of morality, and certainly not a “new low” for TOC. There is a difference, after all, between the well-motivated attempt to persuade people about the importance of principle, and the blase indifference to principle that is the hallmark of most political movements, built as they are on arbitrary marriages of convience. Give TOC credit for at least taking a stab at making the libertarians exceptions to that rule.

I have the perception that we are largely talking past one another, which is a shame, because I'm not sure that you and I really disagree about the more fundamental issue of the necessary role of philosophical foundation in political discourse. But as I understand your position, you are wrong that a) TOC, Kelley or Hudgins have abandoned that position, or that b) debating a subjectivist libertarian is a compromise of that position. At the very least, you haven't supported that claim here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for a well thought out post.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004 4:05:00 PM  

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