Back in May, I gave a speech to the Colorado Libertarian Party Convention on the philosophical underpinnings of capitalism. I wrote up some thoughts on the experience immediately afterwards, but just never got around to editing and posting them. So now I’ve done both…
First off, kudos to Ari Armstrong for putting together an excellent convention. Apart from the (apparently usual) Libertarian time delays, all went smoothly. Ah well, one minor gripe, of which Ari was aware: The microphone was attached to the podium, so speakers were forced to boringly stand in a single spot during their speeches. During my speech, all of my Toastmaster training was screaming in protest at my lack of movement. Unfortunately, the more mobile microphone was of fairly poor quality, so stuck we were.
I was pretty pleased with my speech, in that I wasn’t just regurgitating the usual libertarian dogma. I argued that there are four philosophical ideas that serve as “pillars” of freedom of trade: reason, egoism, harmony of interests, and mind-body integration. Rejection of any of these pillars leads to a particular form of statism (respectively): the paternalistic state, the welfare state, the egalitarian state, and the theocratic state. People who deny any of these philosophical ideas see economic arguments about the prosperity of capitalism as irrelevant; only philosophical arguments can save the day. So, as I said, it wasn’t just the usual libertarian blah-de-blah. (I might propose an expanded version of this speech for the TOC summer seminar in 2003.)
Before I arrived at the convention, my basic worry was that I was presuming too little, that these philosophical issues would be old hat to most people. But after a few casual conversations and a sampling of the other lectures, I began to worry that perhaps I was presuming too much, that these philosophical issues would be foreign and undigestible to many.
My flip-flop was largely the result of my total lack of contact with purely Libertarian Party folks. I’m no neophyte to the libertarian movement, but my associations have been almost entirely though think tanks like The Cato Institute. (In fact, my only prior LP event was the Colorado LP’s annual banquet last fall.) So, up until very recently, any big-L Libertarians I knew were also either Objectivists or super-smart policy wonks. Of course, I had heard all the usual stuff about the suits and freaks of the LP. But I expected the vast majority of attendees to be at least fairly well-educated about the substance of libertarianism. But many more than expected seemed to be fairly clueless. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m not looking to bash LP folks as a whole, as lots of people there were clearly smart and informed.)
Most noticeably, far too many people seemed to be more anti-government than pro-freedom. Perhaps the most popular speech I heard was Douglas Bruce talking about his multiple fights and lawsuits with the government. The immense delight of the audience, I think, came largely from his tweaking the big bad authority of government, rather than his actually accomplishing anything worthwhile in the fight for freedom. It all smacked too much of the glee of an adolescent rebellion against authority. (And really, I don’t have anything against Bruce, despite his stupid comment about my talk being sponsored by Enron.)
(As a contrasting side note: Shortly after the convention, I read this excellent piece by Ari on the dangers of the big brotherish ideas promulgated in a popular anti-methamphetamine video. Unlike Bruce, whose presentation focused almost entirely on his personal fights with government officials, Ari’s commentary was all about the facts. His unpleasant run-in with the Larry Blunt, the News4 anchor who contributed to the video, merely served as an amusing and puzzling epilogue. That’s the way it should be done.)
Also noteworthy was the fact that ending the war on drugs seemed to be a top priority for a great many people. Let me rephrase that: gaining the freedom to get high seemed to be a top priority for a great many people. Now, I’m all for ending the drug war. People have the right to put whatever substances they want into their bodies. And the drug war, like prohibition before it, promotes crime and fosters the worst in government. But the drug war is hardly the worst violation of rights we suffer here in the US. So by focusing heavily on the drug issue, Libertarians come off as a bunch of druggies just looking for an easier high. Of course, I suspect that that’s precisely what a great many of them are.
Overall, I have to admit that I left the convention underimpressed with a great many of the participants and with the Libertarian Party as a whole. But I am grateful for the invitation from Ari to speak. Perhaps my speech got a few people thinking about some deeper philosophical issues.
Update: Today, I would not speak to the Libertarian Party, nor to any libertarian group. For my reasons why, see the second half of my blog post Stinky Garbage on Islam and my husband’s essay The Fable of the Cardiac Surgeon and the Organization of Health Practitioners or Why I Don’t Support Libertarian Organizations.