Jul 282008

Yesterday, I got the following FaceBook message from Tom Stevens. (I’m reproducing it because it’s a form letter from someone wholly unknown to me.) It said:

I am the Objectivist Party Presidential Candidate and we need 9 registered Colorado voters to list as Presidential Electors. There is no obligation but if we do not get said registered voters, we will not be on the ballot.

If you could help by letting us list you, it would be appreciated.

In Liberty,

Dr. Tom Stevens
Presidential Candidate
Objectivist Party

I wrote up a quick reply, then realized that my comments might be of interest to NoodleFood readers. So I put a bit more work into it, so that I could post it here. (Be forewarned, I wrote the comments below before I realized that this guy is a Libertarian. More on that below.) Here’s my response:


I can’t grant your request. While I am a strong advocate of cultural and political activism, I think that attempting to change American culture via a third party is not just ineffective but downright counterproductive.

The problem with American politics today is not that Americans are looking for an Objectivist candidate but the major parties will only run statists. The majority of voters are reasonably satisfied with their choice between left-wing and right-wing statists on Election Day. Objectivists must work to change the culture toward secularism, reason, egoism, and individual rights. Only then can we expect better politicians to mount a credible campaign, let alone win elections.

That cultural change will be felt within the major parties — so long as Objectivists don’t sequester themselves into political irrelevance in their own unelectable political party. If Objectivists (and sympathizers) demand that the major parties court their vote, then political change for the better is possible.

The history of the political influence of the abolitionist movement bears out this analysis. Abolitionists created new political parties, some focused on the single issue of abolition and others broadly pro-liberty. All such parties failed to gather any significant votes; they had no positive impact. If anything, they had a negative impact, in that they siphoned off strong abolitionist voters that the fledgling Republican Party would have otherwise had to woo. Eventually, the Republican Party did adopt abolitionism — due to effective cultural activism, not those minor abolitionist parties. By uncompromising moral arguments, a small band of committed abolitionists changed American hearts and minds about the evils of slavery in just a few decades. (Brad Thompson discusses this fascinating political history in his excellent lecture course, American Slavery, American Freedom. Hopefully I’ve remembered it reasonably accurately.)

Today, if the small but growing number of Objectivists and sympathizers gravitate to an Objectivist political party, the Republicans and Democrats could safely ignore us for decades to come, knowing that they’ve already lost our vote. That’s a license for more statism, not less.

Objectivists should follow the same model as the abolitionists: change American hearts and minds, and the politicians will follow. Political advocacy can and should be a large part of those efforts to change the culture, as seen in the activities of the Ayn Rand Institute and Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine (FIRM). Unlike running wholly unelectable candidates for office, that kind of activism works. And that’s where Objectivists ought to be focusing their time and efforts.

After writing most of the above, I examined the web site of this proposed Objectivist Party in more detail. In my first look, I’d noticed a strongly anti-libertarian statement in the platform itself, in the form of this quote from Harry Binswanger:

The “libertarians”…plagiarize Ayn Rand’s principle that no man may initiate the use of physical force, and treat it as a mystically revealed, out-of-context absolute…In the philosophical battle for a free society, the one crucial connection to be upheld is that between capitalism and reason. The religious conservatives are seeking to tie capitalism to mysticism; the “libertarians” are tying capitalism to the whim-worshipping subjectivsim and chaos of anarchy. To cooperate with either group is to betray capitalism, reason, and one’s own future. (Harry Binswanger: “Q & A Department: Anarchism,” TOF, Aug. 1981, 12.)

So, I thought, however counterproductive the endeavor, it didn’t seem to be corrupt. That’s one reason why I was willing to write such a detailed reply to the request. However, on reading the biographical information on Tom Stevens, the founder and 2008 presidential candidate, it became perfectly clear that he’s a Big-L Libertarian in Objectivist clothing. See for yourself:

Dr. [Tom] Stevens is the Founder of the Objectivist Party. He was elected to the Judiciary Committee of the Libertarian Party in 2006 and re-elected in 2008. He served as a New York State Delegate to the Libertarian Party’s National Convention in Atlanta in 2004, Portland in 2006, and Denver in 2008. He currently serves as President of the Libertarian Freedom Council, a national organization of students, young professionals and entrepreneurs and also serves as a member of the LPNY State Committee. In the Republican Presidential Primary, he was a supporter of Ron Paul and served as Political Consultant and New York State Coordinator for the Paul For President Coalition.

(I might add that I find other aspects of the biography, particularly the range of college-level courses that he’s taught somewhere unspecified “during the past few years,” as suspect.)

So that makes clear to me the value of this endeavor so-called “Objectivist Party.” Libertarians are not allies in the struggle for liberty. So while I think that my comments above are worthwhile as general points about political and cultural activism, this request was not worth so many electrons.

Update: July 3rd, 2009: For all that you need to know about Tom Stevens’ view of Ayn Rand and Objectivism, see his blog post Farrah Fawcett’s E-Mail Reveals Ayn Rand Thought Their Sharing The Same Birth Date Had Significance. First, you’ve got to be kidding — only he’s not. And second, UGH.

Singleton on Libertarians

 Posted by on 12 June 2008 at 1:24 pm  Libertarianism
Jun 122008

Alex Singleton of the British Telegraph made the following interesting statement about the British Libertarian party:

What it will do, like the Libertarian Party has done in the United States, is to tarnish the libertarian brand, allowing the crazier aspects of libertarian thinking to come to the fore, and achieving nothing of any merit.

I don’t know anything about the UK Libertarian Party so I can’t comment on them. But there is the interesting issue (which Singleton did not pursue) of why the American LP has allowed the “crazier aspects” to dominate.

A good place to start is Ayn Rand’s own critiques of Libertarians here and here. Peter Schwartz has made similar comments here.

If a political party purports to defend “liberty”, but it takes the position that no proper philosophical grounding is necessary to defend that view, and hence it welcomes “supporters” who advocate all manner of good and bad philosophical views as equal allies in the cause of liberty, what will be the natural outcome?

Just as Gresham’s Law states that, “Bad money drives out the good”, the philosophical equivalent is that bad ideas will drive out the good whenever their respective adherents attempt to cooperate as a political party.

Over time, the inevitable demands to compromise will cause the better people to lose to the worse ones, and the crazier elements of the party will soon dominate. As Ayn Rand astutely noted:

“In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”

The same is true of compromise between those who trade in genuine currency and those who trade in counterfeit money. Or between genuine defenders of freedom and the faux defenders.

For further discussion on this interesting topic, I also recommend her thought-provoking essay, “The Anatomy of Compromise” from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Here’s one brief excerpt to whet your appetite:

The three rules listed below are by no means exhaustive; they are merely the first leads to the understanding of a vast subject.

1. In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.

2. In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.

3. When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.

Alex Epstein on Market Neutral

 Posted by on 11 March 2008 at 9:00 am  Libertarianism, Objectivism, Politics
Mar 112008

In this 35 minute “Market Neutral” podcast, Chip Hanlon interviews ARI’s Alex Epstein. The description reads: “Ayn Rand Institute analyst, Alex Epstein, discusses government’s proper role in ‘fixing’ the subprime mess. He also weighs in on Libertarians, with remarks that may surprise given the recent euphoria surrounding long-shot presidential candidate, Ron Paul.” (Via Mike)

I was able to listen to this podcast in early January. It was definitely interesting, particularly the comments on Ron Paul and libertarianism. I’m not sure that I agree with Alex’s analysis of libertarianism, but it was good food for thought.

Update: I recalled what in particular I disagreed with in Alex’s analysis of libertarianism. It’s posted in the comments.

FDA Nonsense, Libertarian Nonsense

 Posted by on 15 August 2006 at 7:14 am  Libertarianism
Aug 152006

A recent press release from the Ayn Rand Institute, “Medieval Sexual Morality at the FDA,” says:

Irvine, CA–”The FDA must stop the stalling tactics that have prevented over-the-counter sale of the ‘morning-after pill,’” said Dr. Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute.

“There is no question about the safety of the drug. The FDA’s own advisory panel endorsed it three years ago for over-the-counter use. The delays are clearly an attempt by conservative FDA officials to impose their brand of medieval sexual morality on Americans. Such an egregious violation of the separation of church and state is unacceptable in a free country.”

Personally, I’m baffled as to why we have a system in which I need a prescription for birth control at all. I’ve been on the pill more-or-less continuously since I was a teenager. So why exactly do I need my doctor to authorize my taking it for yet another year? Oh right, it’s because government bureaucrats think me incompetent. Silly me, I forgot!

These days, religious conservatives are more than happy to use that regulatory structure to force their values down our throats. And liberals might scream and stamp their feet about some particular policy, but they’ll never entertain the idea that the FDA itself ought to be abolished. That’s because statists of all stripes are fundamentally allies. Sure, they’ll viciously fight for power — or for this rather than that concrete proposal. Yet they all agree upon the propriety — even necessity — of tangled masses of business regulations, paternalistic laws against vices, expensive welfare programs for the poor, elderly, and otherwise downtrodden, and so on. The only disputes are the form of these laws — if even that. Today, new programs are supported or not solely based upon party loyalties — as in the prescription drug benefit for the elderly. The power-lusters on both sides are well-aware that expansions of power by their opponents can be molded to serve their own ends once they regain power. So the liberals will use the power of the FDA to reign in those evil drug companies, while the conservatives will use it to control contraception.

To put the point another way, this simple example clearly illustrates the absurdity of Randy Barnett’s attempt in “The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism” to portray libertarianism as a second-best alternative for pragmatic statists, whether liberal or conservative. Here’s the abstract of his paper:

Libertarians no longer argue, as they once did in the 1970s, about whether libertarianism must be grounded on moral rights or on consequences; they no longer act as though they must choose between these two moral views. In this paper, I contend that libertarians need not choose between moral rights and consequences because theirs is a political, not a moral, philosophy; one that can be shown to be compatible with various moral theories, which is one source of its appeal.

Moral theories based on either moral rights or on consequentialism purport to be “comprehensive,” insofar as they apply to all moral questions to the exclusion of all other moral theories. Although the acceptance of one of these moral theories entails the rejection of all others, libertarian moral rights philosophers on the one hand, and utilitarians on the other, can embrace libertarian political theory with equal fervor. I explain how can this be and why it is a strength rather than a weakness of libertarian political theory.

Conservatives, neoconservatives, and those on the left who seek to impose by force their comprehensive conception of “the good” neglect the problem of power – an exacerbated instance of the twin fundamental social problems of knowledge and interest. For a comprehensive moralist of the right or left, using force to impose their morality on others might be their first choice among social arrangements. Having another’s comprehensive morality imposed upon them by force is their last choice. The libertarian minimalist approach of enforcing only the natural rights that define justice should be everyone’s second choice. A compromise, as it were, that makes civil society possible. And therein lies its imperative.

This abstract is overflowing with obvious disdain for the philosophic foundations of political theory: Philosophic debates between libertarians are of no significance today. Truth need not be considered, since opposing philosophic foundations can produce “equal fervor” for liberty. Liberals and conservatives should embrace libertarianism not for its truth, but for its capacity to optimize the satisfaction of their desires.

In fact, Randy Barnett’s pragmatism seems to run so deep that he’s unable to see the obvious fact that none of the many varieties of statists are fundamentally opposed to each other. Although statists often viciously fight for power, they share basic principles. That’s why they can and do build upon the “achievements” of the statists who come before them, of whatever stripe. That’s why both George Bush and Ted Kennedy are committed to government welfare programs: the only difference between them is the particular form of those welfare programs. Ted wants monolithic state control, while George demands the illusion of choice in which all options are helpfully pre-screened by the government. Yet somehow, in the rationalist dreams of a libertarian, both Ted and George might instead opt to totally eliminate government welfare so as to prevent themselves from being “oppressed” by the statism of the other.

Oh please. Will the pope have an abortion next week too?

If libertarians paid more attention to philosophical principles underlying political theory — particularly to the facts about human nature and about the world that make freedom necessary to human life — these rationalistic absurdities might be avoided. If Randy Barnett did that, he wouldn’t be able to trot out the standard contemporary divide between “moral rights” and consequences” as if an ironclad brute fact of nature, as he so often does. Nor could he think of politics merely in terms of the satisfaction of magically-given and unquestionable desires. Nor could he offer a string of abstractions wholly disconnected from the facts about the conflicts between statist politicians. And so on.

Don’t worry, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for such a change.

Jul 232006

Just in case anyone is still wondering whether Objectivists substantially differ from libertarians on matters of policy, just consider what Dr. Tom Palmer says about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. (Dr. Palmer is a Senior Fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute). On his blog, he writes:

With the rest of the world I have watched in horror at what is happening in Lebanon. Hezbollah, supported by the extremists in Tehran, has goaded Israel into striking, not only at Hezbollah, but at the innocent Lebanese, as well. The Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure throughout the country and the destruction of the lives of innocents are simply unconscionable.

I pray that the Israelis rethink their approach and stop the attacks.

Now consider the remarks of Dr. Onkar Ghate, Senior Fellow at the Objectivist Ayn Rand Institute, in a recent op-ed:

To achieve peace in the Middle East, as in any region, there is a necessary principle that every party must learn: the initiation of force is evil. And the indispensable means of teaching it is to ensure that the initiating side is defeated and punished. Decisive retaliatory force must be wielded against the aggressor. So long as one side has reason to think it will benefit from initiating force against its neighbors, war must result. Yet this is precisely what America’s immoral foreign policy gives the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Hezbollah reason to think.

Only when the initiators of force learn that their actions lead not to world sympathy and political power, but to their own deaths, will peace be possible in the Middle East.

Obviously, wars cannot be fought without harm to civilian populations. Governments and their militaries are do not exist in some separate dimension from civilians, such that they might be uniquely targeted by an invading force. Enemy governments are thoroughly integrated into the territory over which they rule, depending upon its wealth, hospitals, roads, factories, trains, farms, ports, industry, people, and more. That’s why quickly and decisively eliminating the threat posed by an enemy nation cannot but require the bombing of so-called “civilian” targets.

Moreover, without active support and/or tacit submission from a majority of the civilian population, no government could maintain its grip on power. That’s why the vast majority of the population of an aggressive enemy nation are not morally innocent bystanders. The sometimes-awful luck of genuine innocents in wartime, such as young children or active dissidents, is a terrible tragedy. However, the party responsible is not the nation defending itself but rather all those who made such a defense necessary, particularly the countrymen of the innocents complicit in or supportive of the aggression of their nation.

Of course, all the same considerations apply to terrorist organizations allowed to operate by a nominal government unable or unwilling to control them.

Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear, upon what theory of war does libertarian Tom Palmer base his not-so-well-concealed pacifism? None other than just war theory. In the comments, he writes:

It is hardly a modern position that in war, no civilians must be hurt. Quite the contrary. The medieval rule was that, in general, noncombatants were not the legitimate targets of violence. It is the modern position (dating from the French Revolution), not the medieval consensus, that civilians are legitimate targets, since it is “nation against nation,” rather than ruler or dynasty against ruler or dynasty. I agree that sometimes war is necessary and justified, but I do not agree that it is legitimate to seek to attack the civilian population of a foreign state.

For the proper response to that whole Christian mess, I cannot do better than to point my readers to Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein’s article “Just War Theory” vs. American Self-Defense — yet again.

May 022006

DON’T STEAL THIS ARTICLE On the Libertarian Critique of Intellectual Property*

by Greg Perkins

Marxist scholars don’t have much interest in defending individual rights, private property, and free markets — so their antipathy to intellectual property rights in patent and copyright isn’t surprising. In contrast, there are a significant number of libertarian scholars who proclaim individual rights and free markets to be good and desirable, yet who share an antipathy to intellectual property. That is, they systematically defend material property rights while decrying intellectual property as a confused, destructive, and morally bankrupt idea that should be abolished for the protection of our true individual rights.

In making their case, these libertarian scholars1 cite a blizzard of puzzles and problems surrounding intellectual property. They see incoherency: how is it that, unlike all other rights, intellectual property rights should abruptly vanish after some set number of years? They see arbitrariness: why single out for reward the mental work behind the practical inventions of industry, but deny it for the mental effort behind the theoretical discoveries of science that make those inventions possible? Besides, they maintain, the line between invention and discovery is inherently vague and artificial. And they see a fundamental contradiction: inalienable rights cannot logically conflict with one another, but they find that intellectual property rights violate material property rights in an automatic and unchosen transfer of partial ownership to inventors and authors. Owners of paper and ink can use their property in certain ways only by permission of copyright holders; owners of metal and tools can use their property in certain ways only by permission of patent holders.

To resolve such issues, these libertarian scholars seek a theory of property that will firmly establish material property rights while excluding intellectual property.2 Stephan Kinsella explains its basis:

Let us take a step back and look afresh at the idea of property rights. Libertarians believe in property rights in tangible goods (resources). Why? What is it about tangible goods that makes them subjects for property rights? Why are tangible goods property?

A little reflection will show that it is these goods’ scarcity — the fact that there can be conflict over these goods by multiple human actors. The very possibility of conflict over a resource renders it scarce, giving rise to the need for ethical rules to govern its use. Thus, the fundamental social and ethical function of property rights is to prevent interpersonal conflict over scarce resources. …

Others [in addition to Hoppe] who recognize the importance of scarcity in defining what property is include Plant, Hume, Palmer, Rothbard, and Tucker.

Nature, then, contains things that are economically scarce. My use of such a thing conflicts with (excludes) your use of it, and vice versa. The function of property rights is to prevent interpersonal conflict over scarce resources, by allocating exclusive ownership of resources to specified individuals (owners).3

Thus Kinsella concludes that “[t]he problem with IP rights is that the ideal objects protected by IP rights are not scarce…” Property rights “are not applicable to things of infinite abundance, because there cannot be conflict over such things.”4 As our first patent examiner, Thomas Jefferson, put it: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”5

Finally, Kinsella points to the ironic twist that “IP laws create an artificial, unjustifiable scarcity” which “itself needs a justification.” On this last, he quotes Arnold Plant:

It is a peculiarity of property rights in patents (and copyrights) that they do not arise out of the scarcity of the objects which become appropriated. They are not a consequence of scarcity. They are the deliberate creation of statute law, and, whereas in general the institution of private property makes for the preservation of scarce goods, tending … to lead us “to make the most of them,” property rights in patents and copyrights make possible the creation of a scarcity of the products appropriated which could not otherwise be maintained.6

Other contemporary libertarian scholars echo the same ideas, and Tom Palmer’s analysis emphasizes the same essential points regarding the basis of property and our right to it:

The key to all of this is scarcity. … Tangible goods are clearly scarce in that there are conflicting uses. It is this scarcity that gives rise to property rights. Intellectual property rights, however, do not rest on a natural scarcity of goods, but on an ‘artificial, self created scarcity.’ That is to say, legislation or legal fiat limits the use of ideal objects in such a way as to create an artificial scarcity that, it is hoped, will generate greater revenues for innovators… But the attempt to generate profit opportunities by legislatively limiting access to certain ideal goods, and therefore to mimic the market processes governing the allocation of tangible goods, contains a fatal contradiction: It violates the rights to tangible goods, the very rights that provide the legal foundations with which markets begin.7

The above stands as the core theory offered in the libertarian case against intellectual property rights. What is particularly striking is that none of the contemporary heavyweights like Palmer and Kinsella grapple with the meaning of individual rights in general, nor their still-deeper basis in ethics, epistemology, and human nature. That is, their chief observation begs the question: is the splendid characteristic of conflict-prevention the central purpose of property rights, or merely a benefit — is it the cause or an effect? To determine this, we need to investigate the source of rights in general. These scholars seem hesitant to do so, but Ayn Rand wasn’t, and her perspective illuminates the central difficulty in their case: they have missed the essence of all rights.

* *
Rand noted that rights — including property rights — are ultimately based in the needs of man’s life: if a man is to live, he must be able to act to sustain his life. An objective morality defines the broad principles by which men must act to sustain their lives, and a proper government preserves the conditions required for men to do so when living among others. This is why Rand described a right as “a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”8 More broadly, she explained,

“Rights” are a moral concept — the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others — the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context — the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law… The principle of man’s individual rights represented the extension of morality into the social system — as a limitation on the power of the state, as man’s protection against the brute force of the collective, as the subordination of might to right

There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action — which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life.9

The immediate corollaries of the right to life are the rights to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Each flows from an essential aspect of the Objectivist ethics, which is itself rooted in epistemology and the nature of man.10 Consider liberty. Reason is our basic means of survival and so rationality is our primary virtue; in general, we must have the liberty to grasp the nature of the world and act accordingly to live. That is, the right to liberty flows from a recognition of our primary virtue of rationality. And consider happiness. It is our emotional reward for achieving values over time, the emotional experience of living. The right to life entails the right to pursue and achieve values to serve our individual lives — and the concomitant right to the pursuit of our individual happiness. That is, the right to the pursuit of happiness flows from a recognition of the individualistic, egoistic nature of life and morality.

Finally, consider property. While other animals adjust themselves to nature, man adjusts nature to his own needs by creating the values that sustain his life — everything from food and shelter, to transport systems and communication networks, to medical technologies and art. We need to produce, keep, use, and dispose of values to serve our lives, and productiveness is the virtue by which we do so. The right to property flows from a recognition of the cardinal virtue of productiveness. Rand singled out the right to property as having special significance in the implementation of all rights:

The right to life is the source of all rights — and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.11

This brief sketch of the Objectivist view of rights indicates why, contrary to the view of libertarians opposed to intellectual property, the essential basis of property is not scarcity — it is production. Their complaint that intellectual property is an oxymoron because ideas are not scarce in the same way as apples has no merit, for the concepts of property and ownership lie fundamentally in the need for men to produce and enjoy values in support of their lives — not merely in the narrower and subsidiary need to avoid conflict with one another in that enjoyment.

* *
Studying the most challenging puzzles and problems raised by libertarian scholars against intellectual property will help us to better understand the requirements of man’s life as the basis of rights in general, production as the basis of property in particular, and the role of the mind throughout. In each case we will dive below the surface to appreciate the implications of essential facts from ethics, epistemology, and the nature of man to enrich our understanding of intellectual property and reinforce the principles at play.

Consider the issue of recognizing inventions as intellectual property while excluding discoveries. Kinsella discusses how “the distinction between the protectable and the unprotectable is necessarily arbitrary” in his view:

[P]atents can be obtained only for so-called “practical applications” of ideas, but not for more abstract or theoretical ideas… But the distinction between creation and discovery is not clearcut or rigorous. Nor is it clear why such a distinction, even if clear, is ethically relevant in defining property rights… [I]t is arbitrary and unfair to reward more practical inventors and entertainment providers, such as the engineer and songwriter, and to leave more theoretical science and math researchers and philosophers unrewarded. The distinction is inherently vague, arbitrary, and unjust.12

To gain some purchase on this issue it is helpful to distinguish between wealth and other things we value in markets. Carefully drawing this contrast, economist George Reisman describes wealth as specifically material economic goods.13 Goods, as beneficial and life-preserving rather than merely any object; economic goods as against “free goods,” which are benefits that do not need to be created (such as air and sunlight); material economic goods as existing benefits to men’s lives — rather than potential economic goods, or mere proxies (like stocks and money) or means (like labor) or preconditions (like ideas). Labor and ideas are valued as economic goods, not because they are themselves wealth, but because they are the indispensable means to wealth.

The distinction between wealth and its preconditions lets us clarify the ethical significance of inventions: inventors use their understanding of nature (often involving discoveries made by scientists) to solve specific problems in human welfare. Inventors are not recognizing some general fact about reality, but creating a recipe for producing wealth, thereby enabling the production of specific life-serving objects which would not have existed without their mental work. The crucial distinction between discovery and invention lies in their object: facts of nature are what they are and exist waiting to be discovered, while inventions are objects which would not exist without a creator. So intellectual property rights are a recognition of a crucial precondition of the life-serving creation of wealth — and they are not, contrary to this complaint, a general reward for mental effort that is arbitrarily denied for some classes of thought.

Moreover, a failure to distinguish between practical invention and theoretical discovery in intellectual property protection would work directly against the very purpose of individual rights. It would be unjust and contrary to the requirements of man’s life to protect discoveries as intellectual property, by making possible the demand that people ignore facts and act on known falsehoods in lieu of paying for the privilege of living. It would mean people being prohibited from acting in accordance with a fact once it is known — including barring their taking life-sustaining actions and using that knowledge to create new, life-serving objects. In contrast, there is no injustice when inventors or artists peacefully withhold the use of their recipes for manufacturing things that could not otherwise exist. Indeed, injustice would lie in denying creators the right to set their terms for providing the necessary means to life-serving wealth.

* *
This brings us to the central problem cited by libertarians opposed to intellectual property: that intellectual property rights conflict with material property rights. Palmer introduces the issue this way:

Arguments such as Spooner’s and Rand’s encounter a fundamental problem. While they pay homage to the right of self-ownership, they restrict others’ uses of their own bodies in conjunction with resources to which they have full moral and legal rights.14

And I’ll let Kinsella flesh it out with his explanation of the exact nature of the alleged “taking” involved in intellectual property rights:

Let us recall that IP rights give to pattern-creators partial rights of control — ownership — over the tangible property of everyone else. The pattern-creator has partial ownership of others’ property, by virtue of his IP right, because he can prohibit them from performing certain actions with their own property. Author X, for example, can prohibit a third party, Y, from inscribing a certain pattern of words on Y‘s own blank pages with Y‘s own ink.

That is, by merely authoring an original expression of ideas, by merely thinking of and recording some original pattern of information, or by finding a new way to use his own property (recipe), the IP creator instantly, magically becomes a partial owner of others’ property. He has some say over how third parties can use their property. IP rights change the status quo by redistributing property from individuals of one class (tangible-property owners) to individuals of another (authors and inventors). Prima facie, therefore, IP law trespasses against or “takes” the property of tangible property owners, by transferring partial ownership to authors and inventors. It is this invasion and redistribution of property that must be justified in order for IP rights to be valid.15

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.

* *
Finally, we turn to the subtlest issue we will explore: time limits. Libertarians opposed to intellectual property see unprincipled arbitrariness in protecting it for some given number of years; for if intellectual property is legitimate, why wouldn’t we provide unlimited protection as with material property? But they also note that if there were no time limits, then people would become mired in impossible record-keeping, drained by endless royalties, paralyzed in innovation. In the face of both limited and unlimited protection seeming unprincipled and heinously impractical, they reject intellectual property protection altogether — and this is further justified in light of their scarcity-based theory of property.

Certainly the practical point about the crushing burden of endless royalties and record-keeping is a useful sign that unlimited patent and copyright protection is a bad idea we should reject. But that alone does not constitute the full case against the idea; we also need to look to the nature of man’s life to identify what is wrong with unlimited intellectual property rights. Further, in seeing the trouble there, we can identify what gives rise to the need for time limits in the first place — and we can identify principles to guide us in the delicate challenge of determining just intellectual property durations which are not arbitrary.

Our starting point is the examination of what would be entailed in owners enjoying both material and intellectual property in perpetuity. First, recall that in discussing wealth as material economic goods we carefully distinguished it from its essential means (ideas, labor). In the present point, this distinction appears again in understanding material property rights as a claim on a specific amount of existing wealth, where intellectual property rights are a claim on limitless potential future wealth in the application of an idea.16

Regarding the former, Rand observed that material property “can be left to heirs, but it cannot remain in their effortless possession in perpetuity: the heirs can consume it or must earn its continued possession by their own productive work.”17 Value evaporates if a farmer neglects his land, an apartment owner neglects his building, or the owner of a business neglects its operation. Even a trust-fund baby must manage his investments lest they wither or be lost due to mismanagement — consider the recurring story of lottery winners who quickly find themselves back where they were before winning. People may enjoy a lucky “leg up” in accumulating wealth, but they must be productive to maintain and grow that value, or suffer its disappearance. That is, they must earn its continued possession by their own productive work. Even under such favorable circumstances, the specific basis in ethics of the right to property — the cardinal virtue of productiveness — continues to stand as a broad requirement.

In contrast, intellectual property cannot be so consumed and requires no productive effort on the part of its holder to maintain its value. No work would be demanded of an heir to intellectual property: he may continue to apply the idea to produce wealth, but he could just as well sit back and soak up royalties from others who use the idea to produce wealth. The owner of intellectual property need not earn its continued possession. Seeing the implications of this, Rand commented that if intellectual property were held in perpetuity, “it would lead to the opposite of the very principle on which it is based: it would lead, not to the earned reward of achievement, but to the unearned support of parasitism.”18 That is, a distant heir would effortlessly enjoy a share of the wealth being produced by others who alone are keeping the idea alive, embodying it in new life-serving goods. In the role of mere heir to intellectual property, one could not earn any part of that wealth. This follows from Rand’s point that

Intellectual achievement, in fact, cannot be transferred, just as intelligence, ability, or any other personal virtue cannot be transferred. All that can be transferred is the material results of an achievement, in the form of actually produced wealth. By the very nature of the right on which intellectual property is based — a man’s right to the product of his mind — that right ends with him. He cannot dispose of that which he cannot know or judge: the yet-unproduced, indirect, potential results of his achievement four generations — or four centuries — later.19

Thus by looking further into the meaning and purpose of property, we see how unlimited protection of intellectual property rights would not be analogous to unlimited material rights protection and would in fact be the very opposite in important ways.

Regarding the delicate challenge of determining specific limits for the protection of various classes of intellectual property, the scope of “fair use,” and so on: as with the above issues surrounding intellectual property, legal philosophers must look to politics, ethics, and the nature of man for the appropriate guiding principles to develop just implementations — not interfering with the freedom of creators to profit by their creations while at the same time not enabling parasites to burden the productive.

* *

Lest we be driven by the difficulty of that challenge into entirely abandoning intellectual property protection, we should note that just as unlimited intellectual property protection would encourage destructive parasitism in future heirs, the absence of intellectual property protection would encourage destructive parasitism in present manufacturers.

Abandoning intellectual property protection is saying that the author who invests thirteen years in writing a bestseller has no more right to profit from its sale than anybody else. It is saying the studio that risks $100 million on producing a blockbuster movie has no right to set the terms of its use to enjoy blockbuster profits, even though it retains the sole right to suffer the losses of a flop. The same is true for the labs that invest billions in developing mechanical, electronic, and virtual tools and toys that improve peoples’ lives. It is saying that biotech companies who risk vast fortunes and decades of sweat in striving to create life-saving drugs and population-sustaining crops should simply give away the benefits of their risk, toil, and dedicated genius.

It is true that the sudden abandonment of intellectual property rights would be a boon for manufacturers and customers, instigating a burst of wealth-creation as they deployed formerly protected ideas more freely. But this would be short-lived and stagnation would soon follow as those who might have risked, invested, toiled, and dedicated their genius to the next opportunity simply shrug. Creators would stand aside and not bother, or they would spend their minds on developing those (much more limited) things which aren’t easily copied and imitated. Having killed the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs, countless life-serving creations would come more slowly or not at all. Why risk a billion dollars and half a lifetime attempting to develop a cure for cancer if others can profit by that achievement any way they see fit? Then decline would follow stagnation as shifting conditions in populations and resource availability bring new challenges that will go unmet.20

But again, disastrous practical results alone are not a full justification; they are only a (very strong) hint that there is a deeper explanation we must appreciate, an important fact we need to respect. In this case, the numbingly unjust and destructive results are ultimately caused by the denial of the crucial role of ideas in wealth-creation. Rand summarized it this way:

Every type of productive work involves a combination of mental and physical effort: of thought and of physical action to translate that thought into a material form. The proportion of these two elements varies in different types of work. At the lowest end of the scale, the mental effort required to perform unskilled manual labor is minimal. At the other end, what the patent and copyright laws acknowledge is the paramount role of mental effort in the production of material values; these laws protect the mind’s contribution in its purest form: the origination of an idea.21

* *
Looking below the surface to understand the role of reason in man’s life and its connection to property rights is essential to grasping the importance of intellectual property — and to achieving its proper implementation. But this is precisely what has gone missing in the accounts of libertarians against intellectual property. In a telling aside, Kinsella writes:

Even Rand once elevated patents over mere property rights in tangible goods, in her bizarre notion that “patents are the heart and core of property rights.”22 Can we really believe that there were no property rights respected before the 1800s, when patent rights became systematized?23

Consider: people employed reason before Aristotle systematized logic; they used geometry before Euclid organized the field; they lobbed rocks with catapults before Newton formulated the scientific principles by which missiles fly. There are countless cases where an implicit or partial understanding of a deep truth developed before some thinker explained and systematized it. Rand often commented that it was the advent of the Industrial Revolution that made it possible to fully appreciate the central role of reason in man’s life: it was there all along, but hard to see in such stark relief until that point in history. The crucial role of reason in production was not fully recognized until then, and so the essential role of the mind — of ideas — in wealth-creation was not yet fully grasped, either.

As the Industrial Revolution unfolded and it became easier to publish information and mass-produce objects for wide distribution, people began to grasp more fully the fundamental role of ideas in wealth-creation. They began attempting to protect the interests of the creators of ideas — in fits and starts, justified by troubled appeals to utilitarianism in the US24 and mystical appeals to extension of personality in Europe.25 But problematic justifications and inconsistent implementations do not invalidate the reality of intellectual property.

Now as we enjoy the rise of the information age, the critical role of reason in the life of man is more prominent than ever, and facing the implications squarely is paramount. So it can be no accident that in addressing a reader’s query about intellectual property, Rand opened her essay with an integrative statement reflecting this fundamental fact and inviting us to appreciate its fuller meaning. “Patents and copyrights are the legal implementation of the base of all property rights: a man’s right to the product of his mind.”26

Notes [*] After stumbling across yet another libertarian slamming the idea of intellectual property (one who was specifically taking Rand to task for her defense of IP in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal), Axiomatic Magazine editor Don Watkins invited me to investigate the phenomenon. The following is the result of immersing myself in the strongest arguments I could find against the legitimacy of IP. [1] In this article I will rely on two noted contemporary scholars to speak for libertarians opposed to intellectual property: Tom G. Palmer and N. Stephan Kinsella. Each has produced an extensive survey covering the subject, drawing on the thoughts of a long line of historic libertarian thinkers. [2] Tom G. Palmer, “Are Patents and Copyrights Morally Justified?: The Philosophy of Property Rights and Ideal Objects,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, vol. 13, no. 3 (Summer 1990): 817-865, available online at http://tomgpalmer.com/wp-content/uploads/papers/palmer-morallyjustified-harvard-v13n3.pdf, 855. [3]Stephan Kinsella, “Against Intellectual Property,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 15, no.2 (Spring 2001):1-53, available online at http://www.mises.org/journals/jls/15_2/15_2_1.pdf, 19-20. [4] Kinsella, 22. [5] Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, Monticello, August 13, 1813, letter, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 13, ed. A.A. Lipscomb and A.E. Bergh (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), pp. 326-38. [6] Kinsella, 23, from Arnold Plant, “The Economic Theory Concerning Patents for Inventions,” Selected Economic Essays and Addresses (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 36. [7] Palmer, 864. [8] Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1986), 321. Essay available online at http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=arc_ayn_rand_man_rights. [9] Rand, “Man’s Rights,” 320-321. [10] Much in these two paragraphs is paraphrased from Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Plume, 1993), 354. [11] Rand, “Man’s Rights,” 322. [12] Kinsella, 15. [13] George Reisman, “Wealth and Goods,” Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Jameson Books, 1996), viewable online at http://capitalism.net/Capitalism/CAPITALISM%20Internet.pdf, 39-41. [14] Palmer, 827. [15] Kinsella, 25. [16] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 132. [17] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 131. [18] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 131. [19] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 132. [20] Reisman, “Diminishing Returns and the Need for Economic Progress,” 70-71. [21] Rand, “Copyrights and Patents,” 130. [22] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 133. [23] Kinsella, 18. [24] The Constitution of the United States of America, available online at http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/constitution/, Article I Section 8. [25] Palmer, 835, 843, 862. [26] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 130.

[updates: corrected broken links, removed distracting 'reader exercise' and moved intro/publication-credits to footnote.]

Libertarian Detection

 Posted by on 18 December 2005 at 10:23 pm  Libertarianism
Dec 182005

In early December, Paul and I attended a free, day-long seminar held in Denver by the Foundation for Economic Education (aka FEE). Before attending, I wasn’t super-familiar with FEE, although I certainly knew them as a libertarian organization. I decided to attend in order to see my old friend Sheldon Richman (who spoke on education), to hear the talk on the Soviet Union by Anna Ebeling (a former citizen), and to generally to engage in some philosophic detection (about libertarianism).

Purely for the pleasure to seeing Sheldon, I’m glad I attended. Sheldon’s talk was very good, and our chat during Doug Bandow’s talk and then lunch fantastically fun. We talked about environmentalism, the Objectivist meta-ethics, James Valliant’s The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, my criticisms of TOC, education, feminism, and so much more. Poor Paul couldn’t get a word in edgewise!

Anna Ebeling’s talk on the Soviet Union was good, although I was very familiar with almost all the facts presented in it. (That was kind of nice actually, as sign of all that I’ve learned!) Some parts of it were a bit confused, but she did generally focus on the role of collectivist ideology in the establishment and maintenance of the Soviet Union. In the course of her talk, she did mention that thousands of American POWs in Germany “liberated” by the advancing Red Army were sent to the Gulag — solely due to their Slavic surnames. If I ran across that in my prior readings on the Soviet Union, it didn’t stick in my memory. I certainly want to read up on the issue, as it promises to provide an rather unique perspective on the Soviet Union. The book she recommended was Soldiers of Misfortune: Washington’s Secret Betrayal of American Pow’s in the Soviet Union, which I’ll surely read. She also highly recommended Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes, as I do.

As for the exercise in philosophic detection about libertarianism, I’d say that it was quite fruitful. Paul and I had to leave early, so we missed perhaps the most revealing bit, but we got a good report from Ari Armstrong, who also attended the seminar. (Ari has since written up a detailed summary and evaluation of the conference.)

Paul and I were pleasantly surprised by the first talk by FEE president Richard Ebeling on “Liberty, Morality, and the Market.” He explicitly argued for the need for a moral defense of free markets to counter the critics of capitalism. He said that nothing is more moral than a system based upon respect for the dignity of each person as an end-in-himself with dreams and aspirations of his own, not just as some cog in the social machine. That sounded somewhat promising, although not nearly deep or clear enough.

I was rather worried by Ebeling’s altruistic characterization of trade, however. He began by observing that capitalism, unlike other systems, does not divide people into classes of masters and servants. That’s true enough. Instead, he claimed, we call act in mutually interdependent roles as both master and servant in capitalism. As producers, we serve our fellow man, whereas as consumers, others serve us. He strongly characterized this system as noble and beautiful. In contrast, Ayn Rand utterly rejected that altruistic model of master and servant. She understood that traders in a free market are, by law, independent and equal creatures voluntarily exchanging values to mutual advantage.

Paul and I both wondered about the further depths of Ebeling’s “freedom philosophy,” particularly whether it was religious or Kantian or altruistic or whatnot. Since the session started a bit late, it didn’t have a Q&A, so we didn’t have an opportunity to ask.

Since I had no desire to listen to a talk by an evangelical Christian like Doug Bandow, we skipped his talk to chat with Sheldon. As an aside, I knew of Bandow’s strong evangelical Christianity from my days as an intern at Cato, although I never interacted with him much. I was revolted by it even then. (My e-mail archive confirms it!) At one point during my internship, I was unexpectedly assigned to do research for what became his article on “Christianity’s Parallel Universe.” I was unwilling to work on such a project, so I asked to be reassigned. Thankfully, I was. Just as I expected, the article was quite positive about the then-nascent but fast-growing trend toward under-the-mainstream-radar Christian institutions such as media outfits, think tanks, universities, literature, bookstores, and political groups. In the conclusion, Bandow merely worried that that subterranean approach “may have a serious downside, weakening Christian influence in the broader culture.” Blech. (After this scandal, I wonder whether Bandow will be speaking at FEE events in the future.)

Ari summarized Bandow’s FEE talk for me in e-mail as follows:

Bandow argued that one must pragmatically (my word, not his) “balance” (his word) free markets with governmental regulations in such cases as air quality. Now I grant that air pollution is a difficult case, but the answer is not just to throw up one’s hands and prescribe some kind of vague solution in “balance.” Bandow’s case, then, was all about cost-benefit analysis, not individual rights.

I suppose that I can now add “environmental regulations” to the long list of concrete issues about which respectable, in-crowd libertarians disagree. Very soon now, every political issue will be up for grabs in libertarian circles. At that point, how will libertarians justify their political alliances with each other? Actually, I’m sure that those remaining in the movement will continue to claim that any and all such differences are minor and insignificant, even though they concern matters of principle. So perhaps we’ll also hear more about the necessity of compromise in the ugly reality of the real world.

As already mentioned, Paul and I left before Richard Ebeling’s second talk, “Reclaiming the Spirit of Americanism,” as we had to get home to prepare for a dinner that evening. Based upon Ari’s report, we missed the most revealing bits of the whole day. I’ve consolidated some paragraphs in his report. Also, he warned me that he included only the “lowlights” in his e-mail. That being said, here’s what Ari wrote:

You guys missed the “best” part!

After Ebeling’s final talk, a guy in the audience asked him how important the “Creator” of the Declaration of Independence is. Ebeling said the following: “Whether one is religious or not, one has to understand the tradition… of liberty” would not have arisen in the West “but for the Judeo-Christian heritage.” Judaism gave us the idea that there is a “higher law than man’s law,” and “that is crucially important.” Christianity brought us the idea that “salvation is for the individual,” which leads to a “respect of the right of the individual to pursue his life as he sees best.” Jesus asked people to voluntarily follow him; he did not try to have people arrested. Christianity requires “individual choice and acceptance.” These two ideas gave us the “Western notion of liberty.”

To summarize, the state should not be all-powerful, and individual choice is paramount. The “Europeans have lost that.” They “no longer believe in absolutes… [or] a higher authority.” Americans better-understand that the ideas described constitute the “source and profound basis of liberty.”

Earlier, while describing Hayek’s views on the division of knowledge, Ebeling said, “Why is freedom so important? It’s the ignorance of all of us.” To be generous, that’s a rather poor way to summarize Hayek’s point.

Or, to paraphrase one vocal critic of religion, “Oh, brother.”

Indeed! In his official write-up, Ari offers some more detailed criticisms under the heading of “FEE and Religion.” He begins by saying, “The central problem with FEE, from my view as influenced by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, is that its leaders try to tie economic liberty to religion.” He then describes Ebling’s comments on the religious foundations of liberty, as quoted above. I’m going to quote the rest of his comments in this section in full, as I think they highlight some of the serious problems with the attempt to justify liberty by reference to Christianity.

Ebeling’s theory is false, and it leads to a number of serious problems.

The main problem is that Ebeling is unable to offer a convincing case for the morality of economic liberty. His case is basically Smithian in nature. We “appeal to our neighbor’s self-love” in trade, and in doing so “we are both master and servant.” Part of the “nobility and justice” of the free-market system is that, as individuals, we serve others through peaceful transactions. There is an important truth to Ebeling’s case: as participants in the market economy, we must indeed offer people things they want in order to trade for things that we want. But, in grounding the morality of the system (at least significantly) on service, Ebeling opens wide the door to service with a little legislative help.

Ebeling makes the standard Public Choice arguments about government action, but ultimately moral views trump arguments about incentives.

While Ebeling talked about reducing what government does, he didn’t offer a positive case for the proper functions of government; namely, to protect individual rights. The reason for this oversight, I think, is that, in failing to offer a good moral foundation for economic liberalism, Ebeling’s case takes on an element of reactionism, treating government in negative terms because power corrupts and the incentives are bad.

Ebeling’s reasoning for why the Judeo-Christian heritage is the basis of liberty is flawed. Let us take his first point, that this heritage established a law higher than man’s law. Ebeling conflates this view with the view that the state is not all-powerful, but the two notions are distinct. The more common interpretation of the idea that God’s law trumps is that man’s law should reflect God’s law. This is the view taken by many American Christians both right-wing and left, and, to a greater degree, by many Middle Eastern Muslims.

A quick glance at Exodus, chapters 21 and 22, confirms the theocratic, not the libertarian, interpretation of “higher law.” The ordinances described there include the following (Oxford Annotated):

  • “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years…”
  • “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.”
  • “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.”
  • “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.”
  • “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money.”
  • “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned…”
  • “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”
  • “Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the LORD only, shall be utterly destroyed.”

    That’s not exactly the sort of libertarian world that Ebeling endorses.

    What of Ebeling’s claim that Christianity requires “individual choice?” At most, the principle requires free choice only with respect to one’s own salvation. Forcing people to give money to the poor is no violation of the principle, so long as the point is to help the poor, not help the soul of the donor. According to Matthew 22:15-21, the Pharisees tried to bait Jesus by asking him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” He replied, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That’s hardly a strong criticism of taxation. The Israelites levied taxes foreign and domestic. Oxford’s Companion to the Bible states (779-80), “In the biblical portrayal of Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land, the defeated peoples are annihilated when possible in holy war… When the Canaanites managed a negotiated settlement, the obligation was not tribute but forced labor… David… carved out a small empire that brought a flow of booty and tribute to the new capital at Jerusalem… David’s new dynasty not only brought Israel great wealth but building projects, a standing army, and a palace bureaucracy, all of which required support by internal taxation along with the foreign revenue.”

    During the Inquisition, Crusades, witch burnings, and intimidation and murder of various “heretics” and scientists, various Christian leaders failed to see the connection between the “individual choice” allegedly demanded by their religion and a libertarian order such as Ebeling prescribes.

    Today, many Christians attempt to justify political controls on pornography, homosexuality, drug use, and so on, in order to prevent the free choices of “deviants” from corrupting others.

    Objectivists see the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence basically as a proxy for natural law. Leonard Peikoff writes in The Ominous Parallels, “It has been said… that the belief in God is at the base of the American system, and that the United States is a product of Christian piety. In fact, the religious mentality was not the source of this country’s distinctive institutions, but the fundamental obstacle to their emergence” (106).

    Interestingly, Ebeling himself noted that the Pilgrims established a collectivist society for religious reasons, but then they instituted private property to keep from starving to death.

    Peikoff attributes the American Revolution to the Enlightenment principles of science, reason, and human happiness on Earth. He continues (110-11): “The leaders of the American Enlightenment did not reject the idea of the supernatural completely. Characteristically, they were deists, who believed that God exists as nature’s remote, impersonal creator… [but] God thereafter retires into the role of a passive, disinterested spectator. This view… is a remnant of medievalism, in process of fading out. It is in the nature of a vestigial afterthought, whose actual influence on the period is minimal… The result of the Enlightenment ideas… was a surging sense of liberation.” Peikoff suggests the Declaration of Independence is fundamentally a product of Aristotelian philosophy, not Christianity.

    Ebeling heads an organization devoted to “economic education.” Yet he realizes that liberty cannot live by economics alone. And so he tries to make a moral argument for liberty based on Christianity. In that attempt, he fails.

Although I know a bit about Christianity, I’ve never made any serious study of it. From what I do know, I expect that I’ll be more than a bit amazed that so many attempt use it as a philosophical foundation.

Doug Bandow, Bought and Sold Libertarian

 Posted by on 16 December 2005 at 10:27 pm  Libertarianism
Dec 162005

I have a few words to say on Doug Bandow’s Christian libertarianism in a forthcoming post, but this breaking story about how he sold his soul for a few gold coins was just too astonishing for delay. In essence, Bandow wrote various op-eds in praise of the Indian gaming clients of Jack Abramoff for until-now undisclosed payments of up to $2000. Bandow failed to mention the financial connection in his op-eds, and he never even told his employer, the Cato Institute. He resigned from Cato yesterday, December 15th.

Since Bandow was willing to ever-so-quietly accept money to write op-eds in praise of special interests in these now-revealed cases, his readers must now wonder how often his judgment was swayed by such irrelevant factors in his other writings. How often did he fudge or twist or duck some pertinent facts, even if barely consciously, for the sake of a check? We have no idea.

Given the moral subjectivism common in the libertarian movement, I suspect that at least some of Doug Bandow’s fellow travelers will accept, if not defend his actions. After all, what’s wrong with making a bit of extra dough? In fact, a public intellectual cannot claim to advocate some substantive ideology on principle while also accepting payment to promote some special interest or other. It creates too obvious a conflict of interest — and casts doubt upon his honesty as a public intellectual.

I’ll be very interested to watch the libertarian response to this scandal. I suspect that it will be seriously downplayed.

Christian Libertarians

 Posted by on 21 November 2005 at 10:26 am  Libertarianism, Religion
Nov 212005

A while back, Ari Armstrong sent me to no-longer-available blog post of more horrifying quotes from Christian libertarians than I could possibly stomach.

For example, consider Jacob Hornberger’s reply to this question: “It has always bothered me that so many individuals who purport to be followers of the libertarian philosophy have the notion that liberty and religion are mutually exclusive. What’s your view on that?”

It’s a ridiculous notion. I’m a born-again Christian and a libertarian. To me, the two are entirely consistent, and I cannot see why anybody would find it inconsistent, except if they’re saying that you’re not free because you are subject to the dictates of the Pope, or God. But that is a voluntary choice.

For instance, there is nothing wrong with anybody entering into a voluntary contract for employment — even if it’s long-term — which may therefore interfere with your “freedom.” And there’s no reason why people cannot exercise their free choices to pursue God, and to obey God, and to live your life the way you want. God says, “Thou shalt not steal,” which is entirely consistent with the moral case for liberty. He gives us free will, which argues that people should be free to do what they want with their lives as long as their conduct is peaceful. So the area of peaceful sin would therefore be taken out of the hands of the state. How can any of that be inconsistent with libertarianism?

Hornberger is seriously confusing the fact of metaphysical freedom with the value of political freedom. More precisely, he is wrongly attempting to directly infer the value of political freedom from the fact of metaphysical freedom. That’s simply not possible. The fact that humans can freely choose their actions does not automatically imply that others ought to allow them to do so. That inference requires substantial intermediate steps, most notably: (1) free will as the choice to exercise reason or not, (2) life as the standard of value, (3) reason as man’s basic means of survival, and (4) coercion as the only means of preventing a man from acting by his reason. So political freedom is good because it protects a man’s capacity to act in accordance with the volitional exercise of his reason in pursuit of his life amongst other men by banning coercion.

Without those intermediate steps, the inference from metaphysical to political freedom is nothing but a straightforward example of the naturalistic fallacy: X is the case, so X ought to be the case. Significantly, none of them is even remotely supported by Christian theology. Most significantly, the proper end of Christians is not this life but the next, and the proper means to it is not reason but faith. As the story of Abraham and Isaac makes perfectly clear, the proper servant of God should be willing to do anything — even murder his own son — in obedience to God’s inscrutable will.

On a related point, Peter Schwartz has a nice discussion of why the devout Christian who refrains from killing because of God’s command “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is not actually opposed to murder in his lecture on “Contextual Knowledge.” Such a person is actually in favor of obeying God’s will; that’s the principle that governs his actions. So if God told him in a revelation to murder, he would do so. In refraining from killing other people, he is not acting upon any opposition to the moral evil of murder, but only upon his commitment to conform to God’s commandments. (By way of contrast, a more worldly Christian’s opposition to murder would be based upon common sense reasoning about the evil of destroying an innocent human life. So even if he believed that God commanded him to murder, he could not do so.) Obviously, the same applies to “Thou Shalt Not Steal” — and any other vaguely libertarian Biblical commandments.

If Christian libertarians like Hornberger cannot see the contradiction between religion and liberty, that’s his problem, not ours. It’s his failure to think seriously about the philosophical foundations of liberty.

I also love this bit from Cato Institute “Senior Fellow” Doug Bandow:

Is capitalism Christian? No. It neither advances existing human virtues nor corrects ingrained personal vices; it merely reflects them. But socialism is less consistent with several Biblical tenets for it exacerbates the worst of men’s flaws. By divorcing effort from reward, stirring up covetousness and envy, and destroying the freedom that is a necessary precondition for virtue, it tears at the just social fabric that Christians should seek to establish. A Christian must still work hard to shed even a little of God’s light in a capitalist society. But his task is likely to be much harder in a collectivist system.

Capitalism makes people rich — so let’s ignore Jesus’ statements about heaven’s hostility to rich men. Capitalism protects rights by retaliating against the initiators of force — so let’s say that Jesus was misquoted about the obligation to passively comply with compulsion and ignore Paul’s statements about the evil of resisting the powers that be. Capitalism’s justice rewards men according to their this-worldly competence — so we’ll just imagine that’s what God loves too.

Last but certainly not least, let’s consider this lengthy comment on Ayn Rand from Jacob Hornberger from a Full Context interview.

Q: On the topic of ethics, Ayn Rand maintained that self-sacrifice is wrong and destructive. The morality of most of America is the Judeo-Christian ethic, and self-sacrifice is one tenet. Rand maintains that the ethic of self-sacrifice is undercutting American Capitalism, giving the liberals the moral justification of the welfare-state, and leaving the conservatives morally helpless to argue against it. Because of this, we keep sliding further into socialism and our rights are continuing to be diminished. As a Christian and a Libertarian, how would you solve this dilemma?

Hornberger: I’ve concluded that this subject is so complex that not even the Randians understand it. For example, Randians would argue that Mother Theresa acted irrationally because she sacrificed her life for others. Yet, if a person donates all his earnings to an Objectivist foundation, Randians would say that he hasn’t sacrificed his life for Objectivists but simply placed a high value on feeling good over what the foundation did with his money. Well, why can’t we say that Mother Theresa put a high value on feeling good through helping others?

Or let’s say that a child is about to be run over by a bus. A 50-year-old Christian jumps in front of the bus, knowing that he will be killed but that the child will be pushed to safety. The Randian would say that the man has acted irrationally by sacrificing his life for another. But if the 50-year-old happens to be a Randian and the father of the child, the Randian will say that his act is rational because he places a high value on his child’s life. Well, why isn’t it possible for a Christian to put a high value on a child’s life who he doesn’t know?

Part of the problem, of course, is that Randians haven’t yet discovered that God really does exist, and therefore it is entirely rational for them to believe that those who have are acting irrationally. Moreover, Rand was not being logical in suggesting that simply because people in society like to help others, that that necessarily means that they’ll turn to the state to do so.

But what attracted me so much about Rand is the strong moral foundations she presented for a free society, even if the roots of her convictions are different from mine.

Actually, I believe that the failure to understand this supposedly complex subject lies solely with Jacob Hornberger. He cannot conceive of self-interest as anything more than the satisfaction of whatever subjective desires we happen to feel. The Objectivist conception of self-interest as defined by the actual facts about what promotes a person’s life is not even on his radar. That’s an understandable confusion for a typical college student. It’s inexcusable coming from a leading libertarian intellectual.

However, even that pales in comparison to his summary and criticism of Ayn Rand’s view that altruism in ethics (i.e. the moral obligation to sacrifice self to others) means collectivism in politics (i.e. the political obligation to sacrifice individuals to the group) as “Rand was not being logical in suggesting that simply because people in society like to help others, that that necessarily means that they’ll turn to the state to do so.”

I couldn’t make that up in a million years.

Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism

 Posted by on 23 August 2005 at 9:47 pm  Libertarianism
Aug 232005

Given the latest discussion here on libertarians and their views (or lack thereof) of moral philosophy, I thought I’d bring the readers’ attention to this recent article by Randy Barnett, entitled “The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism“.

For those who don’t know him, Randy Barnett is an extremely well-respected academic libertarian. He’s the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Law at the Boston University School of Law, specializing in constitutional law, contracts, and cyberlaw. He argued before the US Supreme court in the recent (2004) medical marijuana case Ashcroft vs. Raich.

And although he’s most definitely not an Objectivist, he has been a featured speaker at The Objectivist Center Summer Seminars in 1995 and 1999.

Both Diana and I have heard him lecture in the past, and he’s an very clear and compelling public speaker. He’s an extremely intelligent man, and one of the leading intellectuals of the modern libertarian movement.

Hence, it is with great interest that I read his recent 2004 article, “The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism“. I’d like to cite a few key passages below.

From the paper:

Libertarians need not choose between moral rights and consequences because theirs is a political, not a moral philosophy; one that can be shown to be compatible with various moral theories, which as we shall see is one source of its appeal. Moral theories based on either moral rights or on consequentialism purport to be “comprehensive,” insofar as they apply to all moral questions to the exclusion of all other moral theories. Although the acceptance of one of these moral theories entails the rejection of all others, libertarian moral rights philosphers such as Eric Mack, Loren Lomasky, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl on the one hand, and utilitarians such as Jan Narveson on the other can embrace libertarian political theory with equal fervor. (Page 6 of PDF file.)

This is as clear and explicit a severing of the link between ethics and politics as one can ask for. Of course, Objectivists will completely disagree with this approach, because the Objectivist politics flows directly from its moral theory.

In fact, Barnett revels in the fact the libertarian politics can be defended by both “moral rights” theorists and “consequentialists” (e.g., utilitarians). He states,

…[I]f both methods tend to reach the same results in entirely different ways, then each method can provide an analytic check on the other. Because any of our analytic methods may err or may be used to deceive, we can use one method to confirm the results that appear to be supported by the other. Analogously, after adding a column of figures from top to bottom, we sometimes double check the sum by adding the figures again from bottom to top or by using a calculator. Just as we rely upon institutional rivalries between branches of government to protect against error and deception, we may rely upon “conceptual rivalries” between different methods of normative inquiry for the same reason…(Pages 6-7.)

Of course, if Objectivists reject the validity of these various alternative philosophical foundations to ethics (such as utilitarianism or consequentialism), does the fact that these theories lead to the same political conclusions really add any certainty? In Barnett’s view it does, whereas I must disagree.

There’s a huge difference between double-checking one’s conclusions by testing them via multiple correct methods (which are based on the same underlying principles and give the same results for the same problems) vs. testing them via multiple incorrect methods (where the underlying principles are divergent from the start and yield radically different results when applied to very simple problems).

Hence (to extends Barnett’s analogy), using incorrect and incompatible philosophical methods to double-check the correctness of one’s final conclusions would be comparable to double-checking one’s arithmetic by using three different broken calculators. If those results happened to agree, would that really give one more confidence in the correctness of the answer, if one already knows that the calculators are unreliable?

(Also, note the implied skepticism in “our analytic methods may err” and the adoption of the equivalent of the “coherence theory of truth” by appealing to agreement between incompatible methodologies to validate one’s conclusions.)

Finally, Barnett states,

While neither denying morality nor adopting a relativist moral stance, Libertarian political theory transcends different conflicting approaches to morality… Libertarians seek a political theory that could be accepted by persons of diverse approaches living together and interacting in what Hayek called the Great Society. (Pages 23-24.)

In other words, this pluralistic or “Big Tent” approach to morality is one of the explicit goals of libertarians, not just an incidental outcome. In my experience, most avowed libertarians are not explicitly subjectivist, in the sense of altogether denying any need for a moral foundation for their political views. But they do adopt this more subtle form of methodological subjectivism, namely the position that underlying moral views are unimportant as long as one supports “liberty” as a political goal.

If one agrees with Objectivists that a proper political theory must be grounded in a proper moral theory, then the libertarian approach is anathema.

On the other hand, if one thinks that holding the correct moral theory is unimportant (and that any one of a number of incorrect and philosphically incompatible moral theories can lead to the correct political philosophy), then this is a direct rejection of the Objectivist approach to epistemology, which states that truth can only be arrived at by a process of reason applied to the facts of reality, integrated with respect for proper context and hierarchy. (This is covered much more extensively in Leonard Peikoff’s book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.)

As an aside, the folks at the TOC have long been aware of the problems with Barnett’s views and the fact that they are incompatible with the principles of Objectivism. In 1998, Eyal Mozes (in my opinion, one of the best of the TOC-aligned thinkers) wrote a review of Barnett’s book The Structure of Liberty for the TOC Navigator magazine. In his review “Must Politics Rest On Morality?“, Mozes correctly criticized Barnett for failing to “defend liberal justice and the rule of law independently of a specific ethical foundation”.

Furthermore, Barnett is an explicit anarchist. As Mozes noted,

Barnett argues against what he calls the “Single Power Principle,” the principle that the retaliatory use of force must be in the hands of a monopoly organization, i.e., a government. Barnett objects to the “single power principle” on two grounds: (a) enforcing a monopoly on the use of force violates the right of freedom of contract, for those who wish to contract for private use of force to enforce justice and the rule of law; and (b) acceptance of the single power principle makes the problem of enforcement abuse insoluble.

As an alternative, Barnett argues that the effective way to address the problem of enforcement abuse is by a “polycentric constitutional order,” with multiple private agencies competing in two separate functions: the power to adjudicate disputes; and the power to enforce the laws, with each law-enforcement agency choosing the body of law that it will enforce. Agencies in both these areas would be required to adhere to “the competition principle”: “Law-enforcement and adjudicative agencies should not be able to put their competitors out of business by force” (Barnett, p. 258).

Of the logical problems I see in Barnett’s position, perhaps the most glaring is that “the competition principle” is self-contradictory. If law-enforcement agency A adopted a body of law that forbids other agencies from operating, and then tried to enforce its law by forcibly closing law-enforcement agency B, it would be in violation of “the competition principle”; but if agency B tried to defend itself, then it would be trying to forcibly prevent agency A from carrying out its business and enforcing its laws, so B would then itself be violating “the competition principle.” Barnett never addresses this logical problem. In a chapter devoted to a projection of how a polycentric constitutional order would operate, he describes a scenario in which corruption in one private agency is discovered by the other agencies, and the agency is then forcibly put out of business; he never considers how this scenario can be reconciled with “the competition principle.”

Yet these issues (i.e., his anarchism and his subjectivist defense of liberty) did not stop the TOC from inviting Barnett back as a speaker a year later in 1999; in fact, this was part of the TOC’s deliberate outreach to the non-Objectivist libertarian community.

Now to the best of my knowledge, Barnett has never claimed to be an Objectivist, and he has always been fully open and honest about his philosophical views. Hence his inclusion at a conference supposedly devoted to Objectivism should not be regarded as his fault, but instead the fault of the sponsoring organization.

And as a final footnote, when Diana was a TA for the undergraduate Applied Ethics class last semester at University of Colorado, one of the professor’s assigned readings was Barnett’s article on criminal justice entitled “Restitution: A New Paradigm of Criminal Justice“, in which Barnett argues that the primary purpose of the criminal justice system should be restitution for the victim, and that it should specifically not concern itself with punishing the criminal per se.

This is of course, in direct opposition to the Objectivist concept of the purpose of criminal justice. As Don Watkins nicely summarized,

A man who commits a crime against one individual is thereby an objective threat to society as a whole. Society, as represented by the government, therefore has every interest and every right to punish him. The government’s aim here is not simply to restore health to the victim, but to inflict painful consequences on the perpetrator: to force him to experience the painful effects of the causes he enacted. Writes Rand:

The law should: a. correct the consequences of the crime in regard to the victim, whenever possible (such as recovering stolen property and returning it to the owner); b. impose restraints on the criminal, such as a jail sentence, not in order to reform him, but in order to make him bear the painful consequences of his action (or the equivalent) which he inflicted on his victims; c. make the punishment proportionate to the crime in the full context of all the legally punishable crimes (Rand, Letters of Ayn Rand, 559).

(Emphasis mine, not Don’s or Rand’s).

In summary: Modern libertarians deny the need for the proper philosophical foundation for their politics. This is explictly stated in the works of respected libertarian scholars such as Randy Barnett. Because of the subjectivism inherent in this “Big Tent” approach, the logical consequence is that libertarians will be drawn to any number of conclusions which will be diverge significantly from the Objectivist political and legal philosophy (as well as from each others’). As one example, Barnett is a defender of anarchism and he also rejects the need to punish criminals for their bad actions. Other libertarians may disagree with Barnett on those particular conclusions, but will diverge from the Objectivist position on other important issues (such as intellectual property rights). Yet all are welcome under the rubric of “libertarian”, and are regarded as defenders of liberty.

Hence, anyone who believes that libertarianism and Objectivism are compatible (for example those who agree with Nathaniel Branden’s article “Objectivism and Libertarianism” in which he argues “Folks, we are all libertarians now; might as well get used to it”) would be well-advised to re-examine their views.

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