Not So Quick Quickies

 Posted by on 19 July 2002 at 5:24 pm  Uncategorized
Jul 192002

Much thanks to various folks for interesting and thoughtful comments about my report on the Colorado LP Convention. Here are a few quickies in response, some not so quick.

1. In the comments, Noho-missives asks: “Is it not rational for me to give money to the government in exchange for setting and enforcing fair rules of trade?” Well, I’m not an anarcho-capitalist, so the question really boils down to what is meant by “fair rules of trade.” Governments certainly do have a legitimate role in banning fraud, enforcing contracts, prosecuting theft, protecting property rights, and so on. But as for all the rest of government regulations of business, the answer is a short and sweet but forceful “No!” All people have the capacity to determine what sorts of trades with others are or are not in their best interests. Poor people are not made stupid or helpless as a result of their poverty. No government bureaucrat (or army thereof) has special knowledge or understanding of the world that makes his interference in the voluntary trades of others legitimate. So the “fair rules of trade” are pretty limited in my view.

2. Noho-missives also comments on whether the Right and the Left do actually hate capitalism. Ah, clarification seems to be in order. Neither the Right nor the Left defend consistent and principled capitalism, which is of the laissez-faire variety. The Left is openly hostile to it for the most part. The Right appears to defend some form of capitalism, but does so with arguments that only give ammunition to the critiques by the Left. Of course, some people from both sides of that political spectrum have a better grasp of the delights and wonders of freedom of trade than their compatriots, but they are rarely (if ever) consistent defenders of laissez-faire. Just as an example, politicians on both the Left and Right support government schooling, the welfare state, environmental regulations, and so on. They might quibble over the details, but the underlying support for these programs never questioned. However, none are consistent with genuine capitalism. QED. :-)

3. While I still would say that the income tax and all its accoutrements is the greatest violation of rights we suffer here in the US, I’ve at least been convinced that the Drug War likely comes in second. Having known too many druggies and drug dealers, I’m still not too concerned about people’s right to get high, but the Drug War does certainly serve as a convenient justification for all manner of tyranny. Pondering the matter from my comfy philosophical armchair, I would guess that the various regulation of business (through the EPA, OSHA, licensing, the FDA, minimum wage laws, and so on) probably comes in third. These burdens are obviously unevenly distributed onto business owners, leaving the rest of us blind to their likely substantial effects upon prosperity and innovation.

4. Walter in Denver posted some interesting commentary on my report too. I agree with his comments about the need for activists. Philosophers like me tend to like to stay in our cushy armchairs, thinking about the public good problems of political activism. :-) However, I do have qualms with the following objection to the basic premise of my speech:

There are many ways that a person can come to a generally libertarian viewpoint, that people have the right to do as they please, as long as they don’t interfere with others’ right to do the same.

Well sure, people can come to a libertarian viewpoint from all sorts of ways… but will they stay there? Let me explain…

Speaking philosophically, people’s new ideas about politics tend to be abandoned over time as they come into conflict with more fundamental philosophical views. So a person might initially gravitate towards ending welfare based on economic arguments about poverty and private charity, but return to their original position as moral considerations of fairness (“everyone has to pay their fair share”) and universality (“we can’t let anyone fall through the cracks”) reassert themselves. This scenario is particularly likely if the person encounters any one of the multitude of arguments for statism designed to pump people’s (misguided) underlying philosophical intuitions, like that kindness means supporting welfare or that opposition to racism means supporting affirmative action.

That being said, I have absolutely no problem with people coming to the libertarian ideal from any number of directions. I’m not arguing that a person must start in a rational metaphysics, work their way through epistemology, then ethics, and finally derive their political conclusions. That would be silly. I’m not even saying that Libertarians ought to be Objectivists. That’s an unnecessarily deep philosophical commitment as far as politics are concerned. Rather, I’m saying that Libertarians need a basic understanding of the philosophical foundation of libertarianism. They need to make sure that their underlying philosophy is not at odds with their political ideals. If they don’t, those libertarian political ideas are unlikely to endure.

Such a process of philosophizing isn’t onerous, as there are just four key philosophical ideas that I identified in my talk: reason, egoism, mind-body integration, and harmony of interests. (David Kelley made a good case that arguments for liberty are untenable without the first three in his famous lecture Objectivism and Struggle for Liberty.) Gosh, it is really a big problem for people to ponder questions like “Are people fundamentally irrational? Do they have the capacity to determine their own best interests?” and “Is pursuing my own happiness a moral and worthy goal? What should I do when others object that I’m being selfish?” on their commute to work? Given that these issues come up in daily life all the time anyway, I hardly think so.

Now, someone might object to this line of reasoning, as Walter in Denver so presciently did in arguing along the following lines: Neither Democrats nor Republicans really have a deep understanding of their own underlying ideology, so why should the Libertarians? Or, in his own words:

Go to a gathering of Democrats and poll them on the theories of Keynes. See how many respond, “Who?” Try a similar experiment at a Republican convention. Ask them if they’ve read Goldwater’s ‘Conscience of a Conservative.’

Well, sure, Democrats and Republicans might not be well-versed in the literature. But, as I’ve said, I’m not arguing that Libertarians need to read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. But more to the substance of the prescient objection, Republicans and Democrats (respectively) do tend to share a core ideology. The driving force behind the Right is the pre-Enlightenment ideals of faith, family, duty, and tradition. The driving force behind the Left is the anti-Enlightenment ideals of subjectivism, communal self-expression, emotionalism, egalitarianism, ludditism. Of course, not every Republican or Democrat agrees with all of these ideals. (But then again, the Republicans and Democrats are more interested in attracting the necessary numbers to get elected than in being consistent or principled.) Nevertheless, these pre-Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment ideas are definitely the dominant themes in the ideologies of the Left and Right. In contrast, the dominant theme of the Libertarians ought to be the same Enlightenment ideals of reason, happiness, individualism, progress, and so on that gave rise to limited government in the first place. And yes, the unjust expansion of government power can be fairly clearly traced to failures to understand and defend these core Enlightenment ideals adequately. (The “three cultures” idea comes from David Kelley and is explained in this interview.)

So the basic point of all that was simply that people do need at least a basic understanding of their philosophical premises in order to remain committed to libertarian ideals. Such understanding is also essential for convincing others of the validity of those ideals — in other words, for political activism. After all, people are not convinced of libertarianism by mere assertions that people ought to do as they please, so long as they leave others free to do the same. There needs to be some argument, some rationale for adopting that proposition. So people who can articulate clear reasons for that libertarian ideal, both moral and economic, will be in a much better position to actually win over others to their viewpoint.

Looking at the darker side of this issue, we can see that bad justifications for libertarian ideals may lead others to the erroneous conclusion that there is no decent philosophical justification for liberty. For example, many libertarians rely upon the skeptical subjectivist argument for liberty. That argument says that we can’t ever be certain that an idea is true or false or that an action is moral or immoral, so we ought to leave people alone to make up their own minds and choose their own actions, so long as they don’t interfere in the liberty of others to do the same. But this argument is self-defeating in a very important way: If we are genuinely ignorant about truth and morality, then there can be no reason for me to refrain from initiating force with whomever I please. Who is to say that initiating force is wrong if we can’t know right from wrong in the first place? The skeptical subjectivist libertarian might attempt to argue for parity between people, but if I’m mighty and you’re weak, why should I care about any sort of parity? A thinking person will see through these self-defeating skeptical subjectivist libertarian arguments — and probably not bother with libertarianism again. So bad philosophical foundations for liberty can inhibit the spread of libertarian ideas.

Whew! That’s all my musings for the moment!

Update: My views on libertarianism changed substantially since I originally wrote this post. The details can be found on my web page on The Many False Friends of Objectivism. In particular, 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.

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