Many liberals think that they’re smarter, more compassionate, and more sophisticated than conservatives — and they prance around as if they’re something special.

Many conservatives think that they’re more righteous, more upright, and more educated on economics than liberals — and they prance around as if they’re something special.

As as outsider, let me say, (1) such attitudes might make you feel warm and fuzzy, but they just seem silly and offensive to people outside your in-group and (2) you need to get out more, because political views don’t predict a person’s decency or honesty or intellect or knowledge.

Of course, many libertarians and Objectivists are guilty of the same kinds of offenses, including myself on occasion. Still, I try to avoid being smug just because I hold political beliefs that I regard as right. That way, I hope to actually reach people — to convince them to rethink their assumptions. And in return, I’ll check my own assumptions in face of a good argument or new evidence. The process is — or should be — a two-way street.

Mostly though, *le sigh*

P.S. This message was inspired by Greg Proops. Paul and I attended the live taping of his “Proopscast” last night. (That was accidental: we wanted to hear him do stand-up comedy.) The episode isn’t yet posted, but it will be soon, I imagine. Parts were funny, but the smug liberal shined through a bit too brightly at times.


On May 2nd, John McCaskey emailed me the following awesome bit of news:

Tonight in Manhattan, I went to hear Brad Thompson speak at NYC Junto. There were announcements before he spoke. A woman got up to alert the audience to a new development in libertarianism, the moral shift from Rand to Hayek and Rawls. She spoke for only a minute or two and then handed out copies of this:

Awesome, no? If you’ve not yet heard my interview with John P. McCaskey about “Libertarianism’s Moral Shift” from 10 April 2013… don’t miss out!

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.


Bob Levy, the Chairman of Cato’s Board, comes out in favor of background checks in the New York Times: A Libertarian Case for Expanding Gun Background Checks.

Extending background checks to unlicensed sellers shouldn’t be cause for alarm. Background checks are already required for purchases from federally licensed dealers, whether at stores or gun shows, over the Internet or by mail. Moreover, gun buyers would be exempt from background checks if they had a carry permit issued within the last five years.

That’s all the argument that he gives on that point, which shows a remarkable lack of concern for the well-grounded fears that background checks lead to registration, bans on sales, and then confiscation. On the other hand, we have this compelling argument:

Gun-rights advocates should use this interval to refine their priorities and support this measure, with a few modest changes. If they don’t, they will be opening themselves to accusations from President Obama and others that they are merely obstructionists, zealots who will not agree to common-sense gun legislation.


Granted, many Objectivist intellectuals have been lukewarm on gun rights, and they’ve said far worse. Still, I think that libertarians like Bob Levy know better — and that’s what makes this kind of aggressive compromise-peddling so worrisome to me. Based on my interview with John McCaskey on libertarianism’s moral shift, I have to think that we’ll see even more such calls for compromise in future.

Apr 222010

On FormSpring, someone asked me whether I agreed with the following quote:

Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights.

Unfortunately, FormSpring managed to delete the question and my reply. Or so I thought for a while: it was actually just delayed in posting. In any case, here’s a slightly edited version of my FormSpring answer:

Oh my god, no no no. That’s horrid libertarian drivel. (I wrote that, then I googled the quote. I was right: it’s from Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty.)

Parents are obliged to care for any child brought willingly into existence (i.e. not aborted) and then brought home (i.e. not adopted). By doing so, the parents create a creature with a right to life, yet utterly dependent on themselves, and they exclude others from caring for it. To do that, then withhold the food, clothing, or education that the child needs to survive in order to become a self-supporting adult — that would be a monstrous violation of that child’s rights.

Parents are obliged to care for their children for the basic reason that the owner of sailboat cannot simply leave a passenger swimming in the middle of the ocean. Contrary to concrete-bound libertarian nonsense, to do that would be an initiation of force and a violation of rights. That’s because the captain has assumed responsibility for safely transporting the swimmer, knowing that the swimmer’s life depends on his doing so. The swimmer has a right to be returned to land, where he can fend for himself. To leave him in the ocean would be murder.

The child is like the swimmer, except without the benefit of consenting to the journey. His parents created him as a dependent being, and they are obliged to nurture him in some very basic ways (e.g. food, clothing, shelter, basic education) until he can fend for himself. Or they must find someone else willing and able to assume that responsibility.

If people want to know why I recoil from the term “libertarian,” the fact that views like Rothbard’s on parental obligations are standard fare should be a clue. Sure, he might talk about rights and free markets, but clearly, his whole understanding of those topics is warped by concrete-bound rationalism about initiating force. If implemented, the practical result of his ideas would be a monstrously barbaric society. I don’t support that, and I won’t tolerate it. I oppose it!

The people who advocate views like Rothbard’s — or tolerate them from their political allies — are not my political allies, except perhaps on some very narrow, concrete issues. And I don’t wish to make common cause with them, nor be included among their number. The mere thought of Rothbard’s views in practice turns my stomach, and I hope that other lovers of liberty have the same reaction.

Dec 092009

Over at the anarchist-libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute, intellectual property lawyer Stephan Kinsella posted “An Objectivist Recants on IP.” The posting describes how someone named Bala was mixing it up in their discussion threads and eventually came to conclude that “An Objectivist cannot and should not support the notion of Intellectual Property because it violates fundamental Objectivist principles.”

Unsurprisingly, the culmination of Bala’s odyssey and the central point that cemented the illegitimacy of intellectual property in his mind is a common one voiced by libertarians opposed to intellectual property: the notion that intellectual property rights inherently conflict with material property rights.

Ideas and patterns, on the other hand, presented a problem when I tried to treat them as “property”. While there is no denying the value of ideas in human advancement, exclusion of other individuals from an idea or pattern necessarily involves the initiation of force. For instance, how else is A to prevent B from incorporating A’s idea in his B’s product other than to force himself upon B’s property and coerce B to prevent him from doing so, thus violating B’s Liberty? In effect, recognising ideas and patterns as property is tantamount to saying that A has a moral right to initiate force against B simply because he has coined an idea. Thus, as an Objectivist, classifying ideas and patterns as “property” takes me into dangerous territory where I am ready to label the initiation of force as legitimate.

This is ultimately based on confusion about which kinds of ideas do and don’t properly count as intellectual property, as well as confusion about what does and doesn’t constitute a rights-violation. I addressed this (and more) a few years back in “Don’t Steal This Article!“, an analysis of the strongest libertarian arguments I could find against the legitimacy of intellectual property:

The first thing to note is the plain fact that people are routinely prevented from using their material property when it would violate any right — so the protection of intellectual property rights would not be unique in so “controlling” other people in their use of their material property. For example, my neighbor’s person and property rights are not violated when he is not allowed to spontaneously whack me in the head with his fully-owned two-by-four. His rights are not violated in preventing him from using his tangible truck to pull up to my house and drive off with my entertainment center. We are all restricted from using our persons and property to violate the rights of others, and such restrictions do not themselves constitute an infringement of rights because nobody has the right to violate rights.

It is bad enough that these libertarian scholars ignore such an obvious point, but the evasion reaches full bloom in Kinsella’s explanation of the alleged “taking” caused by the appearance of intellectual property. The charge is that, as intellectual property comes into existence, liberty is lost in a magical transfer of partial ownership from the owners of material property to an author or inventor, thereby unjustly preventing them from doing something they were otherwise free to do with their own property. But in no sense is any ability, permission, or liberty lost. Recall that intellectual property rights protect the manufacture of creations — objects which did not and would not otherwise exist. Before a novel has been written, absolutely nobody has the power to publish it, so its being authored cannot remove any liberty previously enjoyed by printers. And before some better mousetrap is invented, nobody has the power to produce it — so its being invented cannot deny manufacturers any previously enjoyed freedom.

Indeed, far from losing any power or liberty, the options available to owners of material property only increase with the appearance of intellectual property: they are presented with at least the potential to use their property in the production of new, life-serving objects in collaboration with an inventor or artist.

Bala’s friends there at LvMI are definitely not helping him out. How many of the other issues with his account of Objectivism and IP can you see and (constructively) address?


The Cato Institute recently hosted a book forum with the authors of the two new Rand biographies, Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller, and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns. Cato’s David Boaz ran the forum, setting the context, introducing the authors, and running the Q&A.

I am interested in the two books, so I wanted to hear the authors as they presented some of their thoughts and showed their mettle in the back-and-forth. The bottom line? Burns seems honest in her scholarship and sincere in her engagement. She said a lot of interesting things, and I want to hear more from her despite some weaknesses due to a lack of grounding in Rand’s system of thought. Heller didn’t come across nearly as well, which left me much less interested in her work. And then there’s Boaz.

Boaz began by speaking of the enduring influence of Rand, especially on libertarians and conservatives, and about the recent surge in interest in her and her work. He agreed with a Liberty magazine review of Heller’s book, saying that “There can be no question about the fact that Rand remains America’s most influential libertarian, with the possible exception of Milton Friedman, and America’s most influential novelist of ideas.” Extending this, Boaz characterized Atlas Shrugged as a libertarian book, and Rand as a libertarian who has done more than anybody in our time to introduce people to libertarian ideas.

What got my attention was Boaz’s treatment of the elephant in the room: he chuckled that many listening may wince at his talking that way, that indeed Rand would have disagreed with being classified as a libertarian (this would be an understatement) and that “many of her fans maintain that point even now.” He dismissed all of this, saying in effect that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. You see, “anybody who believes in individual rights, free enterprise, and strictly limited government is a libertarian. And Ayn Rand certainly did.” QED. Yet, he informs us, somehow this impeccable logic is lost on the “high priests” of Rand’s estate, who refused to let any of her material appear in his book, The Libertarian Reader.

As an Objectivist, I see a different puzzle here: Many people, libertarians in particular, clearly admire and profit from Rand’s ability to analyze and integrate, to identify widespread and longstanding false alternatives and package deals time and again, and to then offer something better. So I find it odd that when they see Rand apparently ignoring the incredibly straightforward point that she fits their definition, that they don’t pause to consider whether there might be some more basic reason for her balking so.

And of course there is. Here’s a hint: it’s an epistemology thing.

Concepts are important. They are how we organize our knowledge of the world so we can act in service to our lives. Good concepts are immensely helpful (see the basic ideas that ushered in the fruits of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution), and bad ones can really hurt us. What if, for example, your moral system left you seeing the bully and the victim who fights back as morally indistinguishable? As we’ve seen with pacifism, the result of such thinking is unjust and destructive to all concerned, both personally and socially: victims are morally if not legally discouraged from defending themselves, predators are only emboldened, and this view naturally translates to unjust and destructive cultural sentiments, laws, and policies like those against simply “violence”. So it makes all the difference to distinguish sharply between aggressive and defensive use of force because these are in fact morally opposite things with existentially opposite effects on human lives. Examples abound, but the general point to appreciate is that Objectivists are methodologically careful about this sort of thing because they grasp that accepting any concept which treats essentially identical things as opposites, or opposite things as essentially identical, ultimately means inviting difficulty if not disaster in our efforts to successfully navigate reality.

Now consider the libertarian way of thinking about political classification. Rejecting the generally useless left-right spectrum, they offer a two-dimensional approach based on degrees of personal and economic freedom which is often shared via their educational and recruiting tool, the Nolan Chart. In this view, libertarianism is neither left nor right, and it stands fundamentally opposed to totalitarianism. This sets up the natural axis of size or extent of government as their key normative criterion, which is pretty easy to pick out in their policies and rhetoric and reactions to world events. This is also why libertarians have always had influential anarchists in their ranks: even those who might be wary of the “extreme” of anarchism have no principled objection to it because, in their own basic way of thinking, anarchism is the natural full opposite of the evil of totalitarianism — indeed, they have framed it as the pinnacle of libertarianism.

We can now appreciate what Rand was signaling with her outrage at being grouped or associated in any way with anarchists in particular and libertarians in general: she was refusing the mental, personal, and social chaos that flows from a fundamentally flawed way of seeing things. Rand understood that the essential concept in politics is individual rights, and so she identified totalitarianism and anarchism as indistinguishable in what’s important: their complete lack of an objective recognition and systematic protection of man’s rights. In contrast, as noted above, the libertarian way of thinking mis-classifies totalitarianism and anarchism as moral opposites by focusing on the inessential characteristic of size. If the purpose of politics is to sort out and enact the conditions required for people to successfully live among one another, this kind of confusion is about as disastrous as it gets — even while self-consciously seeking the good, the conceptual lens of libertarianism will drive you to its opposite.

And conversely, the libertarian framework fails to capture crucial differences. Consider a powerful government that performs all and only its proper functions in the defense of man’s rights, and one that happens to have all the same laws and institutions but also has, say, conscription on the books just in case war breaks out. These two governments are all but indistinguishable (and neither is smiled on) in the libertarians’ basic classification scheme based on size. But Objectivists see these two as moral opposites because one is committed to the essential task of the defense of man’s rights and the other is not. Even though not currently violating any rights, the government with conscription laws clearly rejects the key principle of the field. It has no principled defense against the slippery slope to serfdom we’ve seen play out in history all too many times.

The politics of liberty that Objectivism advocates really does depend on a particular philosophical foundation. The Libertarian movement might be in a better position to understand this if they weren’t so eager to set aside the fact that fundamental ideas are critically important.

While scholarly leaders like Boaz should surely know better, there are plenty of people who innocently adopt the libertarian way of thinking about government because it seems to line up reasonably well with fundamental American values like strictly limited government, respect for rights, and capitalism. (Indeed, I was just such a person.) But even innocent use doesn’t mitigate the very real problems and dangers discussed above. So Objectivists will continue to pointedly reject the libertarian label and its conceptual basis in the interests of moving our culture toward one that genuinely values liberty.


Paul and I just finished four lovely days of hiking in Acadia, Maine. (I’ll blog some about that later today, if I can.) We’ve had not-so-great internet access, however, so I’m a bit behind on some internet-dependent tasks, including blogging. However, tomorrow I’ll start a daily (but short) blog post on OCON.

However, I want to mention that Dr. Tom Stevens — of the so-called Objectivist Party has written the most absurdly offensive blog post possible: Farrah Fawcett’s E-Mail Reveals Ayn Rand Thought Their Sharing The Same Birth Date Had Significance. I won’t pain you by quoting the pompous blog post, but basically he accuses Ayn Rand of relying faith, superstition, and mysticism because she apparently made an offhand remark to Farrah Fawcett about them sharing a birthday.


A Taste of Libertarianism

 Posted by on 5 December 2008 at 12:01 am  Libertarianism, Politics, WTF
Dec 052008

Well, here’s a little integration that caught my google-alerted eye: “John Galt Republican.”

A libertarian columnist at coined the term for himself, and now lays it out for the rest of us:

I submit, to a candid world, my explicit definition of what it means to be a ‘John Galt Republican’. And since Ayn Rand was agnostic with regards to political parties during her life, I’ve also realized that you can prefix your own political party affiliation with ‘John Galt’, if you agree with the items of definition, below.

These three of the 14(!) elements pretty much say it all:

1) You’ve read one or more of Ayn Rand’s works, and by doing so, your world views have either been changed or strengthened to a positive degree.

5) You do not care to talk about Ayn Rand’s (or anyone else’s) metaphysical views.

13) OPTIONAL: You have an affinity for laissez faire capitalism.

Good grief, what a mess. Capitalism as optional?? And in a political context, no less?
Rand/Galt advocates an integrated system of philosophy — each element is essential and intertwined with the rest. As I commented there,

This part of a candid world can only say: Rand understood that her politics flowed from her metaphysics, and she showed how capitalism was its only valid expression. I know who John Galt is, and he would have nothing to do with the vast majority of those meeting this confused “definition.”

What’s the point of adding that Galt qualifier if it doesn’t really mean anything? Sheesh.

Dec 022008

Do we need a reminder of even how some of the better elements of the libertarian movement can be hostile to Ayn Rand? Perhaps not, but here’s one that ran across my inbox a little while ago. It’s a tidbit from a December 2008 Reason article on the origins of their magazine:

[Tibor] Machan: Manny [Klausner] was never an Objectivist, and even Bob [Poole] was more mild-mannered about it. I was the philosophically grounded one, but I stylistically repudiated the atmospherics of the Objectivist world. I was excommunicated back in 1963 from the Rand thing. [Oh whatever, Tibor.]

[Bob] Poole: We wanted a magazine for thinking people, not Randians. As time went on and various marketing strategies were tried it became clear that Rand was some people’s cup of tea and not others’, and if we wanted to be influential being an explicitly Objectivist magazine was not the recipe for doing that. [Emphasis added.]

Bob Poole’s first comment is offensive as stated, but I’m willing to be generous, given that this was an “oral history.” Perhaps he meant that he wanted a magazine for all thinking people, not just Randians. (I’ve seen Poole speak a few times; he never struck me as hostile to Objectivists. However, my memory might not be what it should on that score.)

However, it’s his second comment — that “Rand was some people’s cup of tea and not others’” — that’s just so very libertarian. Reason couldn’t possibly insist that their writers agree on any fundamental principles, like respect for reason, right? No way! That might alienate some people, namely people whose “cup of tea” is supernaturalism, mysticism, and altruism. So anything goes — and the result is today’s often disgustingly postmodern Reason. (Or rather, that’s what it became after the departure of the sensible and interesting Virginia Postrel some years ago. I’ve paid it very little attention since that decline.)

The libertarian movement took so many ideas from Ayn Rand, while often spitting in her face in a manner worthy of James Taggart. If only they’d learned her most basic lesson — that philosophy matters because it’s the fundamental motor of human life — the history of the last 50 years might be different.

A False Friend of Liberty

 Posted by on 5 November 2008 at 12:06 am  Election, Libertarianism
Nov 052008

Note: I meant to post this some weeks ago, but the bailout derailed that plan. While it pertains to the just-past election, it’s still relevant.

The absurdity that Ron Paul is a defender of liberty should now be at an end, given his endorsement of the worst possible candidate for president, Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin.

The Constitution Party seeks to impose Biblical law on America. I was going to quote some relevant sections of their platform, but the Preamble says it all:

The Constitution Party gratefully acknowledges the blessing of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as Creator, Preserver and Ruler of the Universe and of these United States. We hereby appeal to Him for mercy, aid, comfort, guidance and the protection of His Providence as we work to restore and preserve these United States.

This great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been and are afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.

The goal of the Constitution Party is to restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations and to limit the federal government to its Constitutional boundaries.

Let’s consider what that would mean in practice.

On abortion:

The pre-born child, whose life begins at fertilization, is a human being created in God’s image. The first duty of the law is to prevent the shedding of innocent blood. It is, therefore, the duty of all civil governments to secure and to safeguard the lives of the pre-born. …

We affirm the God-given legal personhood of all unborn human beings, without exception. As to matters of rape and incest, it is unconscionable to take the life of an innocent child for the crimes of his father.

No government may legalize the taking of the unalienable right to life without justification, including the life of the pre-born; abortion may not be declared lawful by any institution of state or local government – legislative, judicial, or executive. The right to life should not be made dependent upon a vote of a majority of any legislative body. …

In addition, we oppose the funding and legalization of bio-research involving human embryonic or pre-embryonic cells.

Finally, we also oppose all government “legalization” of euthanasia, infanticide and suicide.

On drugs:

The Constitution Party will uphold the right of states and localities to restrict access to drugs and to enforce such restrictions. We support legislation to stop the flow of illegal drugs into these United States from foreign sources. As a matter of self-defense, retaliatory policies including embargoes, sanctions, and tariffs, should be considered.

On marriage:

The law of our Creator defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman. The marriage covenant is the foundation of the family, and the family is fundamental in the maintenance of a stable, healthy and prosperous social order. No government may legitimately authorize or define marriage or family relations contrary to what God has instituted.

… Finally, we oppose any legal recognition of homosexual unions.

… We affirm the value of the father and the mother in the home, and we oppose efforts to legalize adoption of children by homosexual singles or couples.


Gambling promotes an increase in crime, destruction of family values, and a decline in the moral fiber of our country. We are opposed to government sponsorship, involvement in, or promotion of gambling, such as lotteries, or subsidization of Native American casinos in the name of economic development. We call for the repeal of federal legislation that usurps state and local authority regarding authorization and regulation of tribal casinos in the states.

On immigration:

We favor a moratorium on immigration to these United States, except in extreme hardship cases or in other individual special circumstances, until the availability of all federal subsidies and assistance be discontinued, and proper security procedures have been instituted to protect against terrorist infiltration.

On the judiciary:

We commend Former Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court for his defense of the display of the Ten Commandments, and condemn those who persecuted him and removed him from office for his morally and legally just stand.

On statehood:

We acknowledge that each state’s membership in the Union is voluntary.

By endorsing a candidate from the Constitution Party, Ron Paul has clearly shown that he’s no friend of liberty. Instead, he’s endorsed a theocratic government in which Christians would force everyone to comply with the demands of their faith at the point of a gun.

The fact that Ron Paul is still regarded as a defender of liberty within libertarian circles shows — yet again — the effects of rejecting any philosophical foundation for liberty. The word “liberty” loses all of its meaning, such that statists (and kooks) of all stripes are regarded as pro-liberty friends and allies.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha