Friday, August 20, 2004

Libertarianism and Objectivism - the old saw

Also written (mostly) at work today:

I had a thought today regarding one of the oldest debates in Objectivism, being fought anew at Diana Hsieh's blog, amongst other places: the relationship with Libertarianism.

As I understand it, Rand's own intellectual development didn't start from grasping the axioms, going through metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, ironing those all out. If anything, she started with politics. And if you notice, that was how her novels progressed. We the Living was primarily political, though ethics were certainly there in the background. The Fountainhead was primarily ethical. It wasn't until Atlas Shrugged that she began to formulate her metaphysical and epistemological system, so arguably she didn't deal politics in the philosophically systematic method ARI partisans champion today.

So turning to Libertarians. Given Rand's own intellectual development, wouldn't it be more fair and accurate to view them at more or less the same stage as Rand herself in the late 30's? At that time, to the extent that she had a fleshed out system informing her politics, it was a thoroughly Nietzschean ethics.

Yes, there are Libertarians out there who either regard philosophy as unimportant or derive their libertarianism from whacked-out irrational foundations. But there are many who are where Rand was in the 30's, and even closer to what Objectivism ultimately became. Moreover, if there is a father to Libertarianism, it's not, as Peter Schwartz contends, Murray Rothbard. For every one Rothbardian Libertarian, there are easily ten or twenty times as many who perhaps just read Atlas Shrugged or other Rand novels, and never studied philosophy further. It seems to me that if Objectivists want to make headway as a cultural and political movement, they've got to start somewhere. And Libertarians are the logical place to start.

Two other brief observations.

1. It's been argued that the subjectivist, postmodernist, and religionist Libertarians are not really Libertarians. Objectivism, according to this argument, is Libertarianism, and it's the anti-Objectivist branches that fail to offer the rigorous defense of liberty that Objectivism alone offers.

2. Imagine if you will - something like a Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance. Yes, I know, dreadful example, but work with me. Imagine some differences from Rawls - you get a choice of where you want to be born, and you're already an Objectivist. So, in this Pre-Existence, where do you want to go? One could look at the USA, Switzerland and New Zealand - purportedly the freest countries on Earth - and point out all the deficiencies. Mixed economies, compromised civil liberties, and irrational tendencies in the cultures. So... where else do you go? Russia? France? China?

The point could probably be put more eloquently, but the idea here is that we have a set context. We have to work with what we have. It would be self-defeating, I contend, to drop out entirely like the Jehovah's Witnesses, shunning any political activism. The Libertarians offer a place to start. And it is a starting place, so it would be surprising if it wasn't going to be a gradual project. But Objectivists are up to challenge. And it should prove far simpler than trying to turn Republicans away from religion, or Democrats away from the equally narcotic statism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


It's true that many so-called libertarians might just be "underdeveloped" or "potential" Objectivists, but the point at issue is that *Libertarianism*, qua ideology, is *not* in any way compatible with Objectivism. Its fundamental principles are the opposite of Objectivism.

To offer an analogy: There may be many good, honest, decent people mixed up with the environmental movement, who just want to try to reduce pollution, to make life better for mankind. But that doesn't change the fact that *Environmentalism*, qua *ideology*, is entirely anti-man and fully evil.


Saturday, August 21, 2004 7:55:00 AM  
Blogger Moon God said...

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Saturday, August 21, 2004 10:55:00 AM  
Blogger Moon God said...

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Saturday, August 21, 2004 10:57:00 AM  
Blogger Moon God said...

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Saturday, August 21, 2004 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Moon God said...

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Saturday, August 21, 2004 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger Moon God said...

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Saturday, August 21, 2004 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger Moon God said...

I don't know which "libertarian" ideology to which you refer. As I understand the term, as it's used by political philosophers and political scientists, the ideology of libertarianism holds that the primary function of the state is to protect the individual rights of its people.

Even better, I'll quote Wikipedia:

"Libertarianism is a political philosophy which advocates individual rights and a limited government. Libertarians believe that individuals should be free to do anything they want, so long as they do not infringe upon what they believe to be the equal rights of others. In this respect they agree with many other modern political ideologies. The difference arises from the definition of "rights". For libertarians, there are no "positive rights" (such as to food or shelter or health care), only "negative rights" (such as to not be assaulted, abused, robbed or censored), including the right to personal property. Libertarians further believe that the only legitimate use of force, whether public or private, is to protect these rights."

You compare libertarianism to environmentalism. But I don't see anything in this description of libertarianism that contradicts Objectivism, whereas conflicts with Objectivist understandings of value and justice will certainly conflict with much of environmentalism.

Saturday, August 21, 2004 11:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't know who posted that to Wikipedia (which is open for anyone to voluntarily post entries), but "individual rights" is most definitely not an agreed upon tenet of Libertarianism. Non-initiation of force, yes; but not individual rights (which is a moral/political concept springing from one particular philosophical viewpoint). Yet those Libertarians who do believe in individual rights have no qualms associating with those who don't believe there is such a thing as a "right" -- and treat them as allies in the cause for "liberty".

The fundamental premise of Libertarianism (qua political movement) is that a concept called "liberty" can be yanked out from any ideological or philosophical structure and considered as an isolated, standalone concept. It does not need any particular philosophical or moral base (and, in their view, is compatible with *any* philosophical or moral base.) This turns "liberty" into a "floating concept" (if you're familiar with Rand's views on the hierarchical nature of concepts) with no tie to reality -- and thus effectively annihilates the concept.

As a result of becoming a floating concept, "liberty" then ceases to have any clear meaning on its own. It becomes too "abstract" and "vague", so instead, Libertarians turn to focus on a perceptual-level issue they *can* deal with: the government. It's pretty clear to me from their writings that Libertarians are not pro-liberty. They are only virulently anti-government (and anti-State). The reductio of being anti-government and anti-State is anarchism, which Libertarianism is only too happy to embrace as allies.

Does this mean I condemn those who might be new to political and philosophical thinking, for associating with Libertarianism? No. But it does mean that I want to make clear to them in no uncertain terms the true nature of Libertarianism's (anti-)ideology.

(p.s.: have you ever read Peter Schwartz's analysis of Libertarianism?)

Saturday, August 21, 2004 5:10:00 PM  
Blogger Jason Kuznicki said...

Anonymous has claimed that "'individual rights' is most definitely not an agreed upon tenet of Libertarianism. Non-initiation of force, yes; but not individual rights (which is a moral/political concept springing from one particular philosophical viewpoint)."

This is demonstrably false, and five seconds' consultation of the LP platform would have proven it. I quote:

"We believe that respect for individual rights is the essential precondition for a free and prosperous world..."

Now, I do have other issues with the Libertarian Party, issues that I hope to address more fully in a substantial blog post sometime before the November election. The failure to mention individual rights isn't one of them.

Sunday, August 22, 2004 2:12:00 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

I wonder if you have seen Rand's comments on libertarians and the LP? Some pretty harsh words...

Still, I think Rand very much influenced libertarian thought, whether she liked the idea of having done so or not.

Sunday, August 22, 2004 8:56:00 PM  
Blogger Moon God said...

RT and Adam,

Oddly enough, I have read Schwartz on Libertarianism, which is why I had the reference to him in my original post. And I can say that, quite honestly, Schwartz's essay had to be one of the worst-reasoned, intellectualy dishonest things I've ever read, particularly considering that he wrote it as a representative of Objectivism, and that like a good second-hander who couldn't get his work published under his own name, had to add his essay to an Ayn Rand book (he, of course, did the same thing to an even worse degree to _The New Left_).

Others have critiqued the hell out of Schwartz - one of the best is Ari Armstrong>, but there is also this, this, and this. His chief inconsistency is that he claim that libertarians lack and claim to need no core philosophy, yet he goes on to critique what he derives as the "essence" of libertarianism. He cites quotations from literature that was never taken seriously within libertarian circles in the first place to represent what libertarianism, which is was also quite egregious. Schwartz's errors there are almost on the order of those who lump Ayn Rand with conservativism, simply because she supported Goldwater in 1964 wrote favorably of the free market.

As for Rand's comments on the matter, if you look at the essays linked above, you'll find dueling quotations. It's important to keep in mind what motivates her claims, too. She doesn't make those claims having done extensive research on libertarian literature, and concluded that libertarianism itself is worthless. At that time, Murray Rothbard was the principle spokesperson for libertarianism, and his followers very much matched the way Rand described libertarians. (It's also worth noting that Rand and Rothbard used to be friends, but had a personal falling out, with both figures saying things about the other that were not terribly complimentary).

But Rothbard is quickly becoming a forgotten figure, whereas Rand is as vital as ever in libertarian circles. My very rough estimate is that for every one Rothbardian in the movement or party today, there are at least 10 who came to libertarianism via Atlas Shrugged.

Monday, August 23, 2004 11:07:00 PM  

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