Outgrowing Ayn Rand: The Need for Ethics in a Libertarian SocietySubmitted by MCShowers on Wed, 11/14/2012 - 21:29
Note to DP readers: This began as a response to a specific article, it then became an essay for a personal thought exercise, then it became a note on my Facebook page in which it was well received by friends of varying ideologies for various reasons. I now think I would like to do a series of these for the general public if I can find a venue, but first I would like to pilot it here on DP. My piece on RP and Plato's "The Cave" was well received a few months ago. Also I particularly felt some resonance on this topic in Dr. Paul's farewell speech today. I took that as a sign. Here is my "apology" typos and all. Tell me what you think DP'ers.
Author's Introduction: In the wake of an election, and in the face of a political climate that grows ever more tense, and a lack of civil discourse between those who claim ideologies of varying nature, I have taken it upon myself to attempt to be an apologist for my own political creed. I use "apology" in the classical sense, meaning 'to explain oneself'. I do not hope to prove my libertarianism to be infallible or 'the right way' though I certainly think it is. I seek to explain my way of seeing the world, the nature of the individual, the importance of individual liberty, and the proper role of a government in any society. In doing so, I hope to better understand myself and not only to find flaws in my own reasoning but also to find common ground with those who have different ideology. If we know ourselves first, we can begin to know each other. Here is my first attempt. Here it is, a first draft, typos and all.
Lately as I look around I see more and more use of the"L word." No, no, not THAT one! Ha! My God, if only! I'm talking about "libertarian". With the emergence of the nearly successful Ron Paul-headed Liberty Movement coup at the 2012 Republican National Convention and Libertarian Party presidential candidate and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson raking in over a million votes this past presidential election, more people are turning a curious eye toward the libertarian philosophy and the Libertarian Party. However, I see public perception of libertarians (lower case 'l', mind you) as something like this article Emily E. Smith wrote for the Washington times, which identifies libertarians as being psychologically unable to empathize or relate to others and utterly lacking in compassion: Here is a link to read see for yourself: (http://m.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/oct/16/all-about-libe...). Smith goes so far as to suggest, however subtly, that most people referring to themselves as 'libertarian' are 'autistically' inept at caring for others. I find it hard to believe that all libertarians are cold reasoners who are lacking in compassion, but I am not surprised that Smith would think so as this article makes such an assessment while continuously citing Ayn Rand as the main source for insight into the libertarian mindset. Smith is not completely in error here but I believe she has an incomplete picture.
I submit, in response to Smith, that first of all she is likely looking at a very small sampling of self-proclaimed 'libertarians' who better qualify as 'objectivists'. Secondly, I submit that 'Libertarianism, though seeming to be one dimensional on the surface has actually evolved and matured as a movement and become an ideology that has more moral and ethical implications than is commonly understood. Finally, I have a criticism of the libertarian movement, in which I include and convict myself. However, this last criticism is a constructive one, unlike most critiques the libertarian ideology and Libertarian Party has grown used to absorbing.
Libertarianism and Randian "Obejectivism":
First, let us examine the Libertarian ideology and contrast its similarities and differences with Objectivism. Truth be told, the Libertarian movement itself has its genesis in the wake of Ayn Rand's publication and popularity in the 1970s. The movement has since struggled to define itself throughout four decades of existence consisting of a loosely united hodge-podge of anarchists, minarchists, and classical liberals who found Rand's work appealing and/or even refreshing for their varying reasons. Therefore there are indeed some common denominator's between libertarian ideology and the ideology of the randian purists who are better and more appropriately known as 'Objectivists.' But to stop here and identify one ideology as synonymous with the other is to paint an incomplete picture. Before we go any further let us make clear the most important difference between the two ideologies. 'Libertarianism' concerns one thing and one thing alone, the role of government in the life of the individual. 'Libertarianism' is and has been since its inception strictly a political philosophy, referring solely to government policies at the local, state, and national levels. 'Objectivism,' on the other hand, is an all encompassing worldview centered around the individual's perception of an objective reality that exists independently of him/her regardless of how he/she may feel about it. The only reliable guide that he/she has to deal with and navigate his/her existence is his/her reason. Upon this premise, Rand built a philosophy that places the individual as the first and foremost concern of his/herself and takes it in what has been called a cold and heartless direction. As Smith cites in the Washington Times article I mentioned above, Rand does indeed argue against Auguste Comte's 'Ethical Doctrine of Altruism' (the notion that sacrificing oneself for the good of others is heroic) in the construction of her comprehensive worldview and has even authored an entire work of philosophy entitled "The Virtue of Selfishness." According to the Ayn Rand Institute, the body of objectivist academics and thinkers who continue to uphold Rand's legacy, Objectivist Ethics are summed up concisely as follows:
"Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life"
I do not intend to lay out an entire explanation of Objectivism here, but I have often heard it summed up with this one sentence, which I shall use as my overall definition of randian philosophy: 'You, yourself, are the most important thing in the universe, and you should therefore always put yourself first.' Naturally, a philosophy based on such a selfish premise, however cleverly worded, would lead to conclusions like self-sacarificing for the benefit of others is laughable, and even taking advantage of others is noble. This use of cold reason to promote selfish behavior as the only acceptable and defensive actions one can undertake most definitely describes the people whom Smith's article refers to.
Because of the objectivist's reliance on the singular moral principle of 'Liberty,' which as Emily Smith cites in her article one of six universal morality principles, it stands to reason then that many objectivists would define their political persuasions as "libertarian" because the ideology of Libertarianism respects personal liberty and an individuals sovereign control over their own life more than any other ideology. However, this being said, it does not follow that all 'libertarians' are necessarily objectivists, in fact quite the opposite. Not only has Libertarianism outgrown and distinguished itself from it's Randian roots, but it now carries nearly an entirely different set of implications that objectivists would find laughable and off-putting. In fact as early as 1981 Rand is said to have referred to the emerging libertarian movement as "a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people" who "plagiarize my ideas when that fits their purpose."(http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=education_ca...).
I can hardly see how Rand could fault libertarians, or anyone at all, for acting in a way she considered 'selfish' since they would have been practicing exactly what she preached. Then again, Ayn Rand was never very fond of anything other than Ayn Rand. But the fact is that since the libertarian philosophy was formed, and the Libertarian Party was clumsily thrown together in the early 1970s, Libertarianism has grown to include ideas new and old that focus on less government intrusion in people's peoples lives and has furthermore grown to imply more than it actually says. This is only natural since any philosophy that fights for a person's sovereign right to have the final say over what they put in their body and do with their life would never tell them how to live it. Therefore it is likely that objectivists would gravitate toward a philosophy that leaves them to be cold, isolated, selfish, and even offensive with no fear of physical repercussion.Then again, this is because under a libertarian government one is allowed to be. But this is along with the right to be many things one might choose to be. Libertarianism allows one to be objectivist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Homosexual, Heterosexual, Hippie, Hipster, Intellectual or Athlete, the possibilities are really endless. But while the objectivists could behave selfishly in a libertarian world, they would be ignoring greater implications Libertarianism has since grown to discourage by its ethical implications. I shall elaborate on the implied morality of libertarian philosophy next, but let me sum this section up by saying this. This is exactly why the subtle but profoundly important differences between Randian Objectivism and Libertarianism must further be emphasized, examined, and discussed between opposing ideologues all political persuasions and, more importantly, between fellow libertarians.
Libertarianism's implied morality
Likely because of it's overlap with Objectivism, Libertarianism is often misconstrued as promoting pure Anarcho-Capitalism; meaning little to no government at all and a complete optimism in the judgment and behavior of the private sector. The ideological opposites of the libertarians, the 'socialists' or the 'socialisticly inclined,' often portray Libertarianism in such a light and the libertarians themselves as opportunists, social-Darwinists, and thinly veiled anarchists who are only out for themselves in a manner befitting of Rand's Objectivist teachings. This stereotype of a people universally lacking in compassion and believing that only the strong can/should survive might be true of objectivists, most if not all of whom would call themselves politically 'libertarian,' but when applied universally to Libertarianism as a whole this assessment could not be further from the truth. Libertarianism is, in spirit, more akin to this frustrated quote that was once used to counter similar accusations by early socialists. This quote was furthermore written before 'Libertarianism' was even a term:
"Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. "
— The Law, Frédéric Bastiat, 1850
Again, let us emphasize Libertarianism as being strictly a political philosophy and it merely refers to government's responsibility and jurisdiction. What Libertarianism directly says is that the government should do few things, and does not need nor should it necessarily do many other things. At the core of libertarian thinking there is one very simple, uncompromising, and very humanitarian principle. 'Libertartianism's 'Non-Aggression Principle' (NAP) (sometimes called the "Non-Aggression Axiom") is very much a live-and-let-live stance. Furthermore it is a governing principle at heart and implies the need fora government body and, by extension, a state. Most important of all it is made out of a very real concern for the well-being of all members of society and while it does not dictate how all people should act in any great level of detail, it certainly implies, very strongly, the necessity for individuals to respect each other. To paraphrase the NAP: 'You should have the freedom to do whatever you wish with your body and life without fear of intrusion by a governing entiy or another individual provided that you do not bring, or intend to bring, physical harm to others or impose upon the freedom of another individual. You can find this paraphrased principle in many places, here is just one such example: (http://www.lewrockwell.com/block/block26.html). Incidentally, theft and fraud are often understood to be criminal as well in this sort of society, just in case anyone was worried that they don't cause physical harm.
The NAP principle may have generated from economic theory but it is, at it's very core, intended to protect individuals against potential harm done in the self-interest or 'selfishness' of others; a notion that flies in the very face of Ayn Rand and Libertarianism objectivist roots. Libertarianism tends to rely on a government to enforce the NAP, which is where anarchists, now calling their philosophy Voluntarism aim their sharpest criticisms. The libertarian does indeed therefore realistically recognize the need for government, he/she simply believes that this is the single reason for government to exist at all and this is mostly, if not solely, all that the government should be put in place to do. In other words, the government exists primarily, if not solely, to protect and defend the rights of individuals. The government is not there to run the lives of individuals, modify their behavior, or in any other way impose upon an individual's sovereignty over their own body and life.
Furthermore the NAP has been and continues to be cited to oppose social and moral injustices such as pre-emptive war, or for that matter any kind of war other than a defensive one. This is not unlike St. Augustine's treatise on just war, and it was used by the libertarian leaning Republican congressman Ron Paul in the 2008 Republican primaries where he tried to persuade the stacked jury of Republican candidates that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were futile and immoral (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbn2-LfHXgM). I would like to note that during the days leading up to the Iraq War the CATO institute (a well respected think-tank of libertarian academics and philosophers) spoke out against the Bush administration's invasion based upon the NAP and the nebulous evidence presented to serve as the invasion's premise. The CATO institute has since come out with the same stance on the call for aggression on Iran (http://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/bottom-line...). Meanwhile, the objectivists in the Ayn Rand Foundation (CATO's objectivist counterpart, spoke up in favor of war, and continue to in the case of Iran on the logic that elimination of any possible or potential threat, no matter the cost (in money or human life), was justifiable. (http://www.aynrand.org/site/News2?id=533_&news_iv_ctrl=1221&...). So here we have an example of what began as a concern for oneself evolving and, dare I say, maturing into concern for others freedom and well-being.
One might say that the libertarian promotes a philosophy of self-respect that by extension requires a respect for others as well, while the objectivist preaches pure and utter selfishness and actions that preserve one's self-interest with no respect for others. While both philosophies might begin down the same progression of logic regarding the celebration of the individual and the sovereignty one should have over one's own life, they fork and diverge here at a crucial junction. Be this as it may, there is another concern to address from the critics of Libertarianism. Many would say that merely harboring a concern for others is not enough to run a nation on. Thought without action is meaningless for many people, these same people would likely tend to prefer more self-sacrificing and pro-active political ideologies such as Socialism in which government redistributes wealth and provides services above and beyond it's aforementioned duty of simply protecting people's sovereignty. This is a well meant and noble notion, but dare I say it is often as deeply flawed and overly romanticized to the degree libertarians are often accused of regarding their own ideology. But, in any event, let us now discuss how libertarians should meet this ideological criticism. I might ad that until recently libertarians, myself included, have been utterly failing to consider this on any meaningful level.
The need for an emphasis on ethics, morality, and compassion in a libertarian society
Let us revisit Frédéric Bastiat's statement I cited above. Opponents of Libertarianism often seem to think that because the libertarian objects to government doing something or carrying out a service, then he/she objects to its need or necessity and existence at all. This might be a true perception of the objectivist view, but Libertarianism, as I believe I have shown, is not the same thing. Libertarianism will, and should only be, concerned with one thing, and that is whether or not a government's actions are in line with its intended function. In reference to Bastiat's quote above, which is more a direct liberal appeal to socialists, is that some things are not necessarily the government's job or in keeping with what w deem to be its proper role. This being said and understood, the question most thinking people will have now is 'what if no other source is offering the services needed or meeting the needs'? But the criticism libertarians must be receptive to is that if no one is fulfilling the service or need in question, and if it is vital to the existence of many individuals, then should a government NOT step in to fix the issue? This is where, I feel like I can confidently claim, socialism and Libertarianism often find themselves at odds. But I hope to demonstrate here that there is actually room for compromise and a very good chance for cooperative problem solving.
What I have been waiting for someone to point out for some time now is that public options (the key operative word here being, "options") are not inherently against libertarian philosophy so long as the choice to take advantage of said option, or not to take advantage of it, remains in the hands of the individual. This is where the primary libertarian qualm with the health insurance reforms of the Obama administration have their genesis. Due to the mandate (now upheld as a tax) that penalizes an individual for choosing to risk opting out of purchasing health insurance, the libertarian must disapprove due to the intrusion upon one's sovereign domain over their body and life. Frankly, the idea that most would not purchase affordable health insurance seems rather unfathomable unless one thinks very lowly of the average person. Granted, most libertarians would tend to prefer a more free-market oriented solution to the problem 'Obamacare' was enacted to fix, but lacking that, a government run public health insurance option the next best thing.
Liberty minded thinkers who have inspired and fleshed out modern libertarian thinking were certainly of this mindset. One of them was cited in the article I referred to at the beginning of this essay. In her article, Smith cites Jeremy Bentham as an example of an emotionally inept reasoner.
"Two of the leading moral thinkers of Western history — utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and deontologist Immanuel Kant — were also incredibly gifted systemizers but deficient empathizers. Today, Bentham and arguably Kant would might be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome
What she does not mention is that despite his reliance on reason over emotion he was a champion of social reform and an architect of a Public Education system. Bentham felt that good government could be measured in the happiness and prosperity it brought to as much of its populace as possible. Does that sound like the act of an 'autistic' person, or perhaps to put it more appropriately, an uncaring person? The fact is that while Smith draws all the attention of her reader to Bentham's rationality over his empathy, even posthumously diagnosing him with Asperger's, was one of the founder's of 'Utilitarian Liberalism.' Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines this manner of thinking as follows.
The Classical Utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, identified the good with pleasure, so, like Epicurus, were hedonists about value. They also held that we ought to maximize the good, that is, bring about ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number’.
Utilitarianism is also distinguished by impartiality and agent-neutrality. Everyone's happiness counts the same. When one maximizes the good, it is the good impartially considered. My good counts for no more than anyone else's good. Further, the reason I have to promote the overall good is the same reason anyone else has to so promote the good. It is not peculiar to me.
This does not sound like a philosophy that lacks much empathy or has little concern for people's well-being, even if it was pure reason that brought men like Bentham to this conclusion. Bentham was furthermore an advocate for public programs that were solely in place for the public good. Public access to no-cost primary education owes its existence greatly in part to Bentham's advocacy, as do other public institutions (http://www.iep.utm.edu/bentham/); (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/). 'Utilitarian Liberals' have a growing modern-day counterpart in what has been fleetingly referred to as ''Public Option Libertarians.' This group has no issue with, and even promotes the existence of Government programs and public options so long as it retains a respect for the individuals choice to participate. More Libertarians would do well to vocalize government-run or government funded options such as education. Public schools, state universities, and community colleges function alongside private schools, private universities, and proprietary schools. The individual can utilize any one they deem more fit for their economic situation and life goals. This is liberty at work in a free environment where liberty is allowed and encouraged to thrive.
Furthermore, government's role in protecting individuals has expanded among many self-proclaimed, and widely accepted, libertarians. Gary Johnson himself recently elaborated on this in a Reddit AMA (Ask me Anything) session:
"Government exists to protect us against individuals, groups, and corporations that would do us harm. Rules and regulations should exist to accommodate this. The EPA protects us against those that would pollute, and without them a lot more polluters would be allowed to pollute."
Providing a government program for the protection of individuals or to allow an individual and opportunity to better themselves or meet their potential is not in great conflict with Libertarian thinking. However, each government or public program would be subject to cuts depending on the available resources, as should be the case with anything of that nature, and they should be constantly analyzed, managed, and administered according to cost/benefit analysis. If any are concerned about money being available to sustain such programs, I will point out that the U.S. military budget currently consumes more than 50-60% of the overall national spending, therefore cuts can likely be made there (http://www.accuracy.org/release/is-the-military-budget-reall...).
More libertarians need to vocalize areas where they agree with government's existence in similar fashion if they are to remain politically relevant. The Tea Party's Stigma as a party of 'no' has hurt their public image and their overall public approval. There is plenty to trim in government and plenty of bad legislation that must be blocked, but if the new libertarian limits him/herself to merely an obstructionist then he/she will be dismissed as little more than a gadfly. In a democratic or republican government (not the parties mind you, but the forms of government from which the parties get their names) favorable public opinion is a must-have, and true liberty can rarely thrive in any other form of government.
So with the proper role of government and its acceptable uses having been discussed, let us finally address Bastiat's final concern in his brief quote. He points out that there is an important difference between government and society. So I will therefore finish my essay with one final point that is directed more toward my libertarian brethren than anyone else. The non-objectivist libertarians distinguish themselves, whether they consciously realize it or not, as more hopeful and optimistic about human nature, human compassion, and the human spirit than they realize by the mere fact that they trust a society more than its government. Libertarianism is inherently optimistic that communities will look out for their own in the absence of a great abstract 'nanny-like' entity coordinating relief. This is based solely on the fact that they are more suspicious of the latter, and also that they trust their own fate to a limited-government environment. The only group more optimistic about human nature than the libertarians are the advocates of Voluntaryism whom I referred to earlier. I have no hard evidence to cite this but if the reader will trust my own experience just a little bit I will submit that libertarian ideology seems to trust smaller communities greatly for just this reason.
In other words, the local soup kitchens, the local churches or other religious institutions, the individual themselves giving a homeless man or woman some excess change or a blanket or a meal is more reliable and effective than massive, bureaucratically choked government programs. I would therefore ask a libertarian reader to ask themselves, as I have been lately, what have you done for your fellow man lately? If we do not need extensive government programs, if society can do it better, then what have we done lately to prove this fact? The naysayer will call it a romantic notion, a pipe dream, or will simply feel that the government can and will do a further reaching and more efficient job than would otherwise be done in its absence. If they are wrong, then how can the libertarian community show otherwise. Frankly almost all that the libertarians have done up to this point, not unjustly mind you, is point out how government can fail to solve all social problems for good, corrupt politicians with the power it endows them with, or simply waste money on inefficient programs with bureaucratic over-complication. Very well then, but what have we ( I am now talking to other libertarians) done to prove that there is another, better way?
If we are all not objectivists and social-Darwinists, and we do in fact want to see minimized suffering, I would ask what we have each done lately. Should a church not organize to give to the needy and downtrodden? Are private charities not helping? Should we not give an extra dollar or two that we will not miss to a homeless person? Have we given our blood? Have we donated old clothes? Are we not people who help others of our own free will? It would do the libertarian movement good to make themselves known in this way. When most Americans think of churches lately, they think of hate-speech against homosexuals. When Americans think of the financially better-off, they think of greed and a skewed view of 47% of Americans. When they here capitalism, they think of exploitation by unscrupulous corporations instead of the 'Protestant work ethic' Max Weber wrote about. The greatest weapon the people can have against an imposing government is to show that it is not as needed as many Americans have been led to think it is by pure desperation. The Church of Latter Day Saints recently did much to reform their image with the " . . .and I'm a Mormon" ad campaign, could Libertarians not do something similar? The fact is that examples are all around us all the time. Here is a photo of the Occupy movement filling gaps in relief left by FEMA after the devastation of Sandy: (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-marans/occupy-sandy-vol...). And then there is Mali's gift economy that you can see here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ELNsQdSMOc), which has risen up in the wake of their government's collapse. For a brief History of the nation of Mali, I would direct you here: (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13881370).
And now, my final note. Government, being made up of individuals, is not infallible in policy-making. It is subject to prejudices and bad judgment. Iraq was invaded on bad intelligence, banks were rewarded for bad business, and then there is this news story that again came in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Take this news story as an example of government preventing society from working together as the libertarians believe it can (http://now.msn.com/hard-to-swallow-bloomberg-bans-food-donat...). I doubt Bloomberg can feed all his homeless and storm-victims, and out of his misguided pride he has blocked charity and humanitarian tendencies within society from functioning. I doubt any good has or will come from this. The fact is that libertarians acknowledge the need for government. Libertarians do, however doubt that we need it to the extent we are often told we do. Government is not necessarily the best nor is is the only option. Each case in question will be debatable. But as to whether it is always inherently a bad thing, I, like many emerging libertarians would likely have to realistically admit that it is not. But real change must come from a society. Good values cannot be mandated, nor can morality. We cannot legislate prejudice, racism, and immoral character out of existence any more than we can mandate compassion and cooperation. We can only ever hope to punish a divergence from agreed upon ethics by lengthy trials. If libertarians wish to prove a society as they envision can work, then they must be the example, and the whole country must see.
Regardless of whether I am completely correct or not here, I am a hopeful libertarian. I stand for a person's right to choose for themselves where it concerns themselves, and I believe most of us know right from wrong when we see it. Furthermore, I believe most people choose right more often than wrong. I also believe we can organize through government to protect each other from harm and in some cases to provide individuals the opportunities to better themselves but that this is all it should really be. Moreover, I do believe we as a society can take care of each other if we make the time to do so in our own lives instead of attempting to pass the duty to care for the needy off to an all-powerful abstract entity like a government that is made up of individuals to begin with. Let us not waste the freedom we have solely on ourselves. Let us choose to be the example that leads the government, not make government the example we are to follow.
"The Founders warned that a free society depends on a virtuous and moral people. The current crisis reflects that their concerns were justified."
- Ron Paul, Retirement Address to the U.S. House of Representatives, (12/14/2012)