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.

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