"If you want freedom…" Q&A: Libertarianism
January 16, 2008 by Paul McKeever
“What’s your gripe with libertarians? A libertarian is, by definition, a person who believes that the only action that may properly be banned in a free society is the initiation of force…”
The only thing wrong with libertarians is their libertarianism.
The essential characteristic of libertarianism is that it regards Rand’s non-aggression principle to be axiomatic.
Does existence exist? “If we all just refrain from violating the non-aggression axiom, metaphysics is irrelevant to achieving freedom…metaphysical squabbles are unnecessary among libertarians, and can only divide us and undermine our effort to achieve freedom”, replies libertarianism.
How does a man discover knowledge, such as knowledge of a proper code of ethics? “If we all just refrain from violating the non-aggression axiom, epistemology is irrelevant to achieving freedom…epistemological squabbles are unnecessary among libertarians, and can only divide us and undermine our effort to achieve freedom”, replies libertarianism.
Is rationality a virtue or a vice? Is obedience (for example, to the alleged will of an alleged supernatural being) a virtue or a vice? Is doing what feels good a virtue, or a vice? Is it right to sacrifice of oneself? “If we all just refrain from violating the non-aggression axiom, ethics is irrelevant to achieving freedom…ethical squabbles are unnecessary among libertarians, and can only divide us and undermine our effort to achieve freedom”, replies libertarianism.
Why should we all refrain from violating the non-aggression “axiom”? “That doesn’t matter” answers libertarianism.
If it doesn’t matter why we should all refrain from violating the non-aggression “axiom”, what do I say to someone who tells me it doesn’t matter why we should all violate the non-aggression “axiom”? “Ask him why he makes that claim”.
What if he doesn’t have an answer? “Then, clearly, lacking an answer, he’s lost the debate. Tell him he’s wrong” says the libertarian.
But what will I do if he doesn’t agree? “Agree to disagree”, comes the ultimate reply.
Well, then what? What if he and his ilk, seeing no reason not to violate peoples life, liberty and property, keep violating those things? “Well, that’s when it’s time to break out the guns” or “Well, that’s what the ballot box is for”.
Ultimately, libertarianism confronts irrational opposition to freedom not with reason, but with force. It has to: asserting that its position is axiomatic, it has denied itself a rational defence of its position. All that is left is bullets and ballots.
Should a parent pimp out his 8-year-old to a pedophile so as to have the money needed to feed the child? Should your country’s government ever order a pre-emptive military strike in a country that has not yet actually attacked your country? Is land for peace a good policy? Will more publicly funded basketball courts prevent poor kids from turning into gangland murderers? Does poverty and boredom turn one into a murderer? Is anarchism ideal? Raise questions like this among libertarians and the shite will hit the fan. There will be a flurry of allegations that “that’s not the libertarian view” or “you don’t speak for all libertarians”, or “it depends”, or “you think too much”, or a host of ill-fated analyses that start with things like “Well, let me see…if my freedom ends at the point of your nose, then…hmm, how does that relate to appeasement, or the age of majority, or land for peace or…well, I’m not sure, but I’m sure that libertarianism has an answer and I’m sure it was stated by one of the great libertarians like Locke, or Jefferson, or Paine, or Mill, or Bentham, or Hume, or Smith, or Rothbard, or…”.
This will be followed, in the “Libertarian Party”, with a decision such as “Anarchist libertarians can be members, but don’t have the right to vote”.
Ask a typical libertarian: What, exactly, are rights? “Well, they’re things you possess.” Like a screw-driver? “No, more like a deed”. Where do they come from? “Well, they’re self-evident, but there are good arguments that they serve the greater good, that most people want them, or that god gave them to us”. Can you violate a right? “Sure, by not respecting it”. Why is it bad not to respect a right? “Because they’re inviolable, or inalienable, or…well, because they’re absolute”. Ah. So the violation of inviolable or absolute things is morally wrong? Why? “Well, would you want someone to violate your rights? Of course not. Obviously, its wrong”. Ah.
Libertarianism is not a philosophy. It is a “big tent” electoral strategy to try to pull together as many people who – for whatever reason – believe that they love and want “liberty” – however they might personally conceive of it – into a political party that will advocate “freedom”. Visit any libertarian function (well, don’t actually do it), and you’ll find an assortment of mystics and moral relativists, some of whom have even read Rand but who clearly either missed her meaning or disagreed with her. You’ll also typically find, interspersed among them, other people who claim to be libertarians for various reasons: the “pro-free speech” crypto-nazi, because – he explains – the laws of his country punish him for saying that Aryans should live separately from blacks (he’s usually really good at quoting Voltaire…poorly); the constitutional originalist who loves Jefferson and Paine, says that constitution was not properly changed to incorporate the power to tax income, and is sure that the constitution doesn’t prohibit the government from banning abortions; the NAMBLA member who says he is defending every 8-year-old child’s choice to make decisions for himself concerning his or her sex life…etc.
And, just try being an advocate of reality and reason in a group of libertarians. Freedom Party’s biggest detractors? Not Liberals. Not socialists. Not Conservatives. Libertarians. Why? Because we want a single, rational legal system, common to all, designed for the sole purpose of preventing people from engaging in irrational conduct that interferes with the rational pursuit, by others, of their own happiness. Because we refuse to try using non-essential arguments to justify capitalism. Because we expressly condemn non-essential arguments for capitalism (and, sometimes, those who use them), especially and most harshly when they are presented by people who claim to be advocates of reality, reason, morality, individualism, consent or capitalism (or of “freedom” or “liberty”).
Libertarianism is ‘freedom’ for dummies, mystics, hedonists and moral relativists. It appeals to people who don’t care why freedom is good for man; to people who are okay with just agreeing with the non-aggression “axiom”, for whatever reason; to people who will cherry pick quotes from a mish-mash of philosophers and economists whose philosophies or economic views are/were in many ways conflicting, and call them all “great libertarian thinkers in history”; to people who would call Jesus a “libertarian” because he was reportedly unhappy with a dude who buried his talents of gold for safe-keeping instead of investing them and getting a return on his investment; etc.
Libertarianism’s utter disregard (even scorn) for the role of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics in achieving freedom, together with its erroneous claim to represent those who want freedom, render it a high-profiled failure, and a continuous source of evidence for the falsehood that reality, reason, rational egoism, individualism, freedom and capitalism are indefensible.
As Rand said:
…the guiltiest men are not the collectivists; the guiltiest men are those who, lacking the courage to challenge mysticism or altruism, attempt to bypass the issues of reason and morality and to defend the only rational and moral system in mankind’s history – capitalism – on any grounds other than rational and moral. (from “What is Capitalism”, in Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal).
Mark Hubbard wrote:
..I have always assumed that Libertarianism is informed by Objectivism as its philosophy…
I think that the most accurate assumption, in this regard, is that Murray Rothbard (the father of libertarianism) thought the non-aggression principle – if somehow obeyed – to be something that rendered the underlying metaphysics, epistemology and ethics non-essential. I think that Rand’s reaction to his mystical wife ticked him off sufficiently that he actually spent time writing papers/books alleging that those who agreed with Rand – having rejected mysticism, and having demanded that capitalism be justified only rationally – were “cultists”, that Rand was a witch who didn’t live up to her own philosophy, and various other smears that persist to this day (with the assistance of eager, if desperate, Humeans, Kantians, and the like). I think that libertarianism is Rothbard’s legacy: a stillborn, consistently and routinely failed effort to prove Rand wrong about her assertion that freedom and capitalism could be justified only on rational and moral grounds.