Friday, February 02, 2007

Liberaltarianism

In the early 1980’s I considered myself a libertarian. I even voted for Ed Clark in 1980. The libertarians made arguments for the free market that, taken out of context of their other ideas and their lack of philosophic underpinning, made sense to me. As an Objectivist I knew Ayn Rand opposed them as anarchists and “hippies of the right,” but I didn’t hear actual libertarians such as Clark talk about anarchy. I didn’t understand the nature of principles. (Today the libertarians’ opposition to the war against totalitarian Islam makes their danger to liberty and the rule of law easier to see. It also, I believe, makes them more irrelevant and marginalized.)

I went to work for a libertarian bookstore. They had a lot of stuff I had not read, including a most enlightening pamphlet by Peter Schwartz called, “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty.” I quit the bookstore after two months.

A few times back in the old days I heard or read libertarians attempt to appeal to the left. I noticed that they downplayed economics and played up social issues – as if they could pull a fast one on the liberals by not talking about free market economics. There was also a moral relativist cast to their appeals, as if they were saying, “Hey, you leftists don’t have moral standards, and neither do we! We’re not stuffed shirts like those religious conservatives. Let’s live and let live together!”

I wondered who the libertarians were trying to kid. Love of the state is central to liberalism. (In America the word liberalism means socialism.) Liberals want the state to be your mommy, your daddy, your nanny, your psychotherapist, your nutritionist, your doctor, your lawyer, your conscience, your TV, your radio, your publisher, your employer, your climatologist, your insurer, your professor, the guardian of your morals and your jailer. Liberals are collectivists who fear and loathe individualism and want to use the state to force individuals to serve the collective. How can there be anything but a temporary ad hoc alliance between lovers of freedom and the lovers of power?

Liberals are never fooled into thinking libertarians are their allies, even though they agree on issues of spiritual values, such as abortion, euthanasia and censorship. As Ayn Rand noted, the left allows (some) freedom (for now) on these issues because it does not regard them as important. Socialists are materialists; to them, economics is important, and that is what they seek to control. Liberals understand that there are fundamental differences – differences of principle – between their statism and capitalism. You never hear liberals hoping to make an alliance with libertarians.

Moreover, liberals don’t need the libertarians. Socialists have been on the winning side for over a century now, and despite a few setbacks, the state has grown and continues to grow. Free market ideologues are still a small minority in America. Most Americans are happy with the welfare state, and the more they depend on handouts, the happier they are with the status quo. Why would liberals stop this highly successful program of advancing government into every aspect of our lives to compromise with a faction they think of as a right-wing fringe that is out of step with history?

Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute has made an earnest case for liberals and libertarians to unite in an article called Liberaltarianism. He describes the case against the Republicans well:

…runaway federal spending at a clip unmatched since Lyndon Johnson; the creation of a massive new prescription-drug entitlement with hardly any thought as to how to pay for it; expansion of federal control over education through the No Child Left Behind Act; a big run-up in farm subsidies; extremist assertions of executive power under cover of fighting terrorism; and, to top it all off, an atrociously bungled war in Iraq.

This woeful record cannot simply be blamed on politicians failing to live up to their conservative principles. Conservatism itself has changed markedly in recent years, forsaking the old fusionist synthesis in favor of a new and altogether unattractive species of populism. The old formulation defined conservatism as the desire to protect traditional values from the intrusion of big government; the new one seeks to promote traditional values through the intrusion of big government. Just look at the causes that have been generating the real energy in the conservative movement of late: building walls to keep out immigrants, amending the Constitution to keep gays from marrying, and imposing sectarian beliefs on medical researchers and families struggling with end-of-life decisions.

With this change in Conservatism, Lindsey sees an opportunity for the left to pick up libertarian votes:

The basic outlines of a viable compromise are clear enough. On the one hand, restrictions on competition and burdens on private initiative would be lifted to encourage vigorous economic growth and development. At the same time, some of the resulting wealth-creation would be used to improve safety-net policies that help those at the bottom and ameliorate the hardships inflicted by economic change. Translating such abstractions into workable policy doubtlessly would be contentious. But the most difficult thing here is not working out details--it is agreeing to try. And, as part of that, agreeing on how to make the attempt: namely, by treating economic policy issues as technical, empirical questions about what does and doesn't work, rather than as tests of ideological commitment.
Liberal blogger Kevin Drum gives an honest reply to Brink Lindsey. Drum’s bottom line:

Lindsey is better than most at diagnosing where the real differences lie, but those difference are core to the identities of both groups. It's hard to see the point of even trying to compromise on this stuff.
It is interesting that whereas the libertarian Lindsey is thinking in terms of political practicality (“empirical questions about what does and doesn’t work”), the liberal Drum thinks in principle. Drum zeros in on the economic issues Lindsey floats as areas of potential compromise, progressive taxation and entitlements. As Drum notes, these issues are fundamental to liberalism and no compromise is possible.

More important, issues such as progressive taxation and entitlements are moral issues to liberals. They support these policies because altruism demands that the strong serve the weak. People don’t compromise on moral principles, at least not as a matter of proud, explicit policy. Hypocrisy is done in the dark and is rationalized in evasive excuses, not in a party platform.

Lindsey senses the need for more than just political pragmatism:

If a new kind of fusionism is to have any chance for success, it must aim beyond the specifics of particular, present-day controversies. It must be based on a real intellectual movement, with intellectual coherence. A movement that, at the philosophical level, seeks some kind of reconciliation between Hayek and Rawls.
Rawls is liberalism’s most important theorist of egalitarianism. Hayek defends spontaneous order and tradition. Neither defends reason. Perhaps a reconciliation between these two is possible, but it would result in some form of welfare state, certainly not laissez-faire capitalism. So what is the point of such a reconciliation if it just means more of the same? And again, why do the liberals even need to bother?

Lindsey’s piece shows the futility of libertarianism. The movement is a hodge-podge of small factions that oppose the state on various grounds. Libertarianism itself lacks intellectual coherence because it is not a movement for individual rights and capitalism supported by a philosophy of reason.

Any movement that tries to work out some political compromise with liberalism without attacking the left’s morality of altruism will fail to make any meaningful change in the welfare state. They will merely become the left’s useful idiots. The left might compromise on marginal issues out of political necessity, but if their principles go unchallenged, these pragmatic compromises only serve to give socialism legitimacy and help it in the long run. But right now there isn’t the political necessity to force the left to do anything but laugh at the libertarians.

UPDATE: Slight revision.

8 comments:

Dismuke said...

myrhaf wrote:

"Lindsey’s piece shows the futility of libertarianism. The movement is a hodge-podge of small factions that oppose the state on various grounds. Libertarianism itself lacks intellectual coherence because it is not a movement for individual rights and capitalism supported by a philosophy of reason."

If you want an illustration of this - along with a good laugh to go with it - check out this website.

When I stumbled across it several years back, I laughed so hard as my first thought was that it was some sort of parody that perhaps an Objectivist had put up poking fun of the various constituencies of the discontented that comprise the Libertarian "umbrella." But no - this is actually a serious, real-life organization. And it is actually a pretty accurate illustration of exactly what the result would be of any genuine compromise between the hard Left and the hard Right would look like. There IS common ground between both camps - and it ain't pretty and doesn't have anything at all to do with individual rights or liberty.

Myrhaf said...

That website is hard to believe. That is just creepy.

Dismuke said...

Well....I think they are a bit behind the times with the various constituencies they have under their umbrella. They need to expand their horizons and seek common ground with a very significant percentage of the world's population. They could modify their platform a bit and change their name to the Libertarian National Socialist Green Party Under Allah!

madmax said...

There are some Objectivists who argue that the libertarian movement is not inherently corrupt, that it is possible to infuse libertarianism with a rational philosophical system by reaching out to the Lockean, natural-rights based libertarians. Those who argue this are usually Objectivists from New Zealand or Australia where, from what I here, the libertarian party is far more "normal".

I wonder if this is true or if intellectual corruption and thus some version of altruism is mandated because of the philosophical subjectivism at the core of the entire libertarian framework. My guess is that libertarians here or anywhere will out of necessity descend into some version of the "Libertarian National Socialist Green Party Under Allah". The libertarian movement has done incalculable damage to individual rights and capitalism. Dr. Peikoff in his DIM course labeled libertarians as D2s, ie the most toxic of disintegrators, and an intellectual movement that was the equivalent of political nihilism. I cant help but agree with him.

Dismuke said...

madmax -

I suppose it is possible that in Australia and New Zealand the term might be applied to a different lot of people than it is here in the USA. There is really nothing wrong with the word itself - except for its deep association with the movement that uses it.

Take the following with a grain of salt unless you have heard it yourself from a decent source (I heard it a few years back and, unfortunately, cannot remember where and from whom - thus I say take it with a grain of salt) but I recall hearing somewhere that when Ayn Rand needed to come up with a name for her philosophy, one term that she though would be appropriate was "existentialism" because the primacy of existence as opposed to the primacy of consciousness is so central to her philosophy. But, of course, that term had already been taken by a movement very much at odds with hers and for her to use it as well would only create confusion.

A similar problem exists with the term "Libertarian" - it has been way too corrupted for it to be used by a better, more rational movement that may come along in the future. One does come across people, however, who do use it to describe themselves who I think are much better than the movement. Walter Williams is one who, I suspect, would fall into that category.

As for whether it is possible to "infuse libertarianism with a rational philosophical system by reaching out to the Lockean, natural-rights based libertarians." My thought is no, it is not even remotely possible.

What I very much do think is possible, however, is reaching out to rational, Lockean, natural-rights based libertarians and convincing at least some of them to give very serious consideration to Ayn Rand and Objectivism. But I agree with Peter Schwartz in that such "reaching out" should take the form of strongly emphasizing what is wrong with Libertarianism rather than drawing a confusing and distracting focus on those areas where there might be superficial "common ground" on narrow, out of context political issues and suggesting that any such agreement is somehow significant.

Like Myrhaf I, too, came to Objectivism after a period of considering myself to be a Libertarian. When I was in high school, I came across the works of Libertarian author Robert J. Ringer. Everything he said was so logical and made so much sense - and for the first time ever, I became interested in and passionate about ideas and started to take them seriously. No matter what his flaws or what he might write in the future, I will forever be grateful to him for sparking that "intellectual awakening" in me. As far as Libertarians go, Ringer, at least during that era (I have no idea what he has been up to in recent years), was very much one of the more reality oriented and sane ones.

During the period I considered myself a Libertarian, I never actually met any politically active Libertarians in person and I immediately dismissed and never finished reading the one book I picked up by an author from the movement's anarchist wing.

I look back and regard it as a very good thing that circumstances made it impossible for me to meet up with and become active with the movement - something that I very much wanted to do at the time. I think my discovery that a very large percentage of the movement's hard core, grass roots activist types (the sort that I would have ended up meeting) tend to be pot-smoking hippie types - well, I think that would have been profoundly disappointing to me.

Ever since childhood I have had a thorough and intense sense-of-life revulsion against anything that is in any way associated with the 1960s counterculture. Discovering that the Libertarian movement is dominated by people who are very much children of the counterculture - well, I have no doubt I would have become very quickly disillusioned with the movement and, very possibly, have never even bothered to check out Ayn Rand who was one of many people often quoted in Libertarian writings that I had not yet read. Since I already regarded the Left as Enemy Number One in that they were a bunch of power lusting statist thugs who were the ones who were trying to shove the counterculture down everyone's throats, it is very possible that I might have become so disillusioned that I might have turned my back on ideas in general and ended up being some sort of anti-intellectual type who votes Republican by rote on grounds that nothing better is possible or practical. This was all back in the days before there was widespread Internet access and finding alternative points of view, especially about movements which were already small and obscure to begin with, was quite difficult. (I remember when I discovered Ayn Rand I had to make a trip to the local public library to find out whether or not I would be able to subscribe to her magazine The Objectivist which had closed decades earlier and learned that she was no longer alive.)

Happily, I eventually discovered Ayn Rand who was able to help me make sense of why hippies behaved the way that they do and what it was that made it possible for the counterculture to take root in the first place. When I discovered Ayn Rand, I still considered myself to be a Libertarian and I recall being puzzled by some of the very negative things that the first real-life Ayn Rand fans I knew had to say against the Libertarian movement.

Had things been different and I ended up joining up with my local Libertarian Party chapter - well, the last thing I would have needed to hear is how I ought to read some author named Ayn Rand who I had not yet bothered to read but who is supposed to be a "fellow traveler." Maybe I would have checked it out - and maybe I wouldn't have. What I would have desperately needed is something like Peter Schwartz's pamphlet explaining in stark terms what was wrong with the movement I had become involved with based on what were, in fact, very decent, honorable and rational motives.

Oddly enough, because I never did become active in the movement and had little first hand experience with it, for several years, I actually thought Peter Shwartz's piece, while definitely full of valid points, was overstated to the point of coming very close to being an unjust hatchet job against a movement that I still considered to be mixed and which I thought had an active wing which was decent and well-intentioned, albeit misinformed and misguided. It wasn't until I started interacting with Libertarian types on Internet discussion groups and reading Libertarian websites that I began to realize that Peter Shwartz was 100% correct about the movement. The movement is corrupt to the core - but since it does, if taken totally out of context, make valid enough points on particular issues from time to time, it is always possible for decent people who don't know any better to become caught up in it.

So my view is the best approach towards the rational, Lockean types who have found themselves in the Libertarian movement is to recognize that such people do exist and to let them know in no uncertain terms exactly why that movement is not worthy of their support and sanction.

madmax said...

Dismuke,

I really appreciate that you describe your experiences with Objectivism in such detail. It helps me place my experiences into a wider context. I have had similar encounters with libertarians on various message boards. But the clincher for me on the validity of Schwartz's essay was after I spent some time at Lew Rockwell's site. After that I completely understood every negative thing an Objectivist has ever said about libertarianism. The word "libertarian" is indeed beyond redemption.

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