What’s Wrong with Dave Rubin’s “Classical Liberal” Infomercial

July 12, 2018 by  

In a new, two minute infomercial, Dave Rubin provides his viewers with an answer to the question “What is a Classical Liberal?”. Sadly, the bright and affable host of The Rubin Report gives his viewers an answer that deliberately strips away so much distinguishing philosophy as to leave the term “classical liberal” little more than a term used to refer to a desired but elusive big, inclusive collective of unprincipled and intellectually disarmed dreamers.

Rubin tells us that things like one’s religion and party affiliation do not “matter”. His litmus test for having “a little classical liberal in you” is this: “you wish to live as a free person in a free society, based on your own ideas and actions”. In short: to wish is to be. If that is the essence of what it is to be a classical liberal, then to be a classical liberal is essentially to be nothing that is of any value to the achievement of a free society.

Rubin’s approach is one that is constantly used also by libertarians, and it is one easily understood by analogy to eating. The goal is to attract people to a relatively new restaurant – one that bills itself as building on the legacy of long-dead but famous chefs – by promising to serve up a dish with the deliberately vague name “tasty meal”. Here’s the standard dialogue:

Question: “What does tasty mean, specifically?”

Answer: “Well, we patrons differ in our opinions on that, but we all share the same wish for a tasty meal, and that’s what matters.”

Question: “But, what are the ingredients that will make this restaurant’s “tasty meal” tasty?”

Answer: “At the end of the day, that doesn’t matter, does it? I mean, if it ends up being tasty, who cares how it’s made? When I go into a restaurant, I don’t buy a list of ingredients, I buy a meal.”

Question: “What about these long-dead famous chefs? Why are they famous?”

Answer: “Because they made meals back in a more gastronomically enlightened age, everyone’s heard of them, and everyone agrees they were great chefs, that’s why.”

Question: “But, what makes you so sure that if this restaurant’s meal is made according to the recipe and methods of one of these famous chefs – each of whom had lots of ideas championed by the tasteless meal movement – the meal will end up being tasty?”

Answer: “Look! You’re over-intellectualizing this. I can’t claim to be an expert in how those chefs made tasty meals, but they are widely-regarded – by those of us who wish for a tasty meal – as the leading lights of the tasty meal. You’re free to read their recipe books, if you want to get all egg-headed about it. The important thing is that we all have in common a sincere wish for a tasty meal and that we all patronize this restaurant, because it’s committed to producing a tasty meal.”

Question: “Has it ever produced a tasty meal?”.

Answer: “Well, no. But, in theory, it could.”

Question: “Which theory?”.

Answer: “You know, you’re the kind of person who divides this group and prevents us from achieving the glory that could be that tasty meal! Good bye!!”

The recipe of this argument is: downplay any substantive disputes about what makes a tasty meal tasty so that we can avoid creating divisions among those who wish for a tasty meal, and thereby improve the likelihood that the restaurant will get enough patronage eventually to have the means somehow to produce something that at least some wishers-for-a-tasty-meal will consider a tasty meal.

The preceding analogy/dialogue is not an exaggeration. Rubin’s “tasty meal” is living “as a free person in a free society, based on your own ideas and action”. Yet, according to Rubin, a “free” society is one in which happiness is “taken”. Surely, however, the attempt to take happiness is the problem today. Surely, in a free society, one’s own happiness – and ones own misery – is earned. Yes, Rubin was probably using the word “taken” loosely but, in a war of ideas, loose talk is friendly fire.

Rubin’s long-dead famous chefs are John Locke (who, with his causal and representative theories of perception, gave David Hume and Immanuel Kant the keys to lock us out of perceiving reality or having knowledge), Adam Smith (whose Labour Theory of Value gave us communism, according to proto-communist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon), John Stuart Mill (the self-described “socialist”, anti-capitalist utilitarian), and Thomas Jefferson (about whom I’ll here speak no ill). It is no coincidence that those all are authors who the libertarians claim were “great libertarian thinkers”. When “classical propertarian” becomes the next attempted big tent movement, I have little doubt that the poor fellas then will be cited as the “great minds of classical propertarianism”.

My point here is not to pick on Rubin. I think he and his show are great values. And, if his 2 minute short asked “What is a classical liberal?”, and encouraged people to watch his show to listen to people debating that question, that could be a good thing.

However, to promote an ism – whether it be libertarianism or classical liberalism – whose cited “great minds” are the philosophical and economic mish-mash that paved the way for every form of collectivism is to argue implicitly that there really is no justification for individualism or freedom. Put another way, it is to promote the joining of a political team, not to promote the achievement of individual freedom and a free society.

If individual freedom is to be achieved, it’s not enough to “tinker” with a mixed collection of facts and values that make it possible or impossible. You cannot achieve capitalism by promoting the Labour Theory of Value. You cannot achieve a free society by promoting utilitarianism or socialism. You cannot justify the pursuit of ones own happiness by promoting the altruism propounded by virtually every religion on earth. You cannot prove the value of individual freedom – or of anything else – by promoting a “wish”. You cannot defend your life in this natural world by telling those who want to expropriate, enslave, rape or murder you that the rights you propound are god-given, and that for those who reject this world as inherently evil and flawed, there very well may soon be an eternity of effortless bliss in a supernatural afterlife: contrary to what Rubin claims, religion does matter, if “classical liberalism” is to be a force or plan for individual freedom.

I am not here complaining that Rubin has misrepresented classical liberalism, or done a bad job of promoting it. In fact, the term “classical liberal” is given so many definitions and associations that it is arguable he has done an excellent job of exposing it for what it is (and isn’t). Rather, I am saying that the only thing worse than a good argument against individual freedom is a bad argument in favour of individual freedom.

My advice to Dave, if he’s reading this, is to challenge his audience to take the philosophical underpinnings of individual freedom and a free society – the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics that give the case for individual freedom its power – seriously. Never suggest or imply that those underpinnings don’t matter: they are indispensable, and cannot be replaced with a “wish” for freedom. If you are attempting to fight for freedom, drop the inclusion schtick. Be prepared to tell people that their deeply held beliefs and heroes might actually be the sorts of things that hand the victory to the enemies of freedom. Be not only willing to dialogue about ideas, but prepared to condemn them, and to identify those who continue to defend those bad ideas as people who are actually bolstering the case for a collectivist and tyrannical world.


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