Grasping at "Principles"

Friday, February 02, 2007

Via Instapundit, I have learned that self-described "libertarian conservative" Arnold Kling hopes to address a little problem Objectivists have known for decades concerning libertarianism: its unprincipled approach to politics. Here is how Kling puts it.

I invite readers to participate in an Ideological Affirmation Task Force (IATF). The first Request for Comment (RFC) is given below. It is a draft document that attempts to articulate a set of principles for contemporary libertarian conservatives. To comment on these principles on your blog, write a post that includes the phrase "IATF RFC." [Okay, Mr. Kling. --ed] I will use that phrase to search for comments. Please elaborate on the wording that most appeals to you and the wording that needs the most improvement. There are certain to be revisions, and comments themselves are an important part of the conversation.


To the extent that a set of principles serves to clarify who we are, it can be a tool in the ideological war. Our principles can be used to connect with our friends in other English-speaking countries, but they could also be translated into every language and posted on street corners around the world. [bold added]
Since my inclusion of "IATF RFC" may draw some attention to this post, let me start with a disclaimer before I move on. I am neither a libertarian nor a conservative. I am a radical capitalist. I am also not particularly interested in quibbling over the wording of a libertarian/conservative "manifesto" or "statement of principles" or whatever else the end result of this effort will be called for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Why? Because freedom at my home in America and abroad is in dire trouble for deeper reasons than the fact that lovers of freedom are unable to "connect". I am afraid that the time is too early -- as the history of the Libertarian Party in America demonstrates (See Peter Schwartz.) -- for a political movement to come to the rescue. No culture on the face of this earth would suffer real freedom for long because too many people cherish notions incompatible with liberty. This includes many who consider themselves friends of freedom, but because they are unclear on what the concept means, support political ends (e.g., environmental regulations or anarchy) that would injure or destroy freedom if implemented.

For one thing, many who profess to love freedom cannot even agree on what the term means. Since I consider myself an Objectivist, I'll start off by citing what I have heard called the "Objectivist point of view" -- this passage from a condensed version of the Schwartz pamphlet I cited earlier.

(Yes. This is from a polemic against Libertarianism. Those genuinely concerned with freedom should take this as "tough love" and follow me to my point.)
So while Libertarians believe there are many avenues to their notion of liberty, they apparently draw the line at Objectivism -- and they are entirely right to do so. Objectivism is incompatible with Libertarianism, on every philosophical issue. Objectivism says: live by reason, follow a rational code of morality, practice self-interest as a virtue, establish the principles of limited government to define the appropriate uses of retaliatory force. As its name implies, Ayn Rand's philosophy upholds an objective reality, objective cognition, objective values, and objective law.

Libertarianism's relationship to Objectivism is not merely that of an enemy, but of a parasite. Without Objectivism, there would, ironically, be no Libertarian movement today. It is Objectivism that has offered a moral defense of liberty -- which Libertarianism has stolen and mutilated. It is Objectivism that has imbued so many young people with a deep commitment to capitalism -- which Libertarianism has seized upon and corrupted.

Libertarianism seeks to appropriate some of the fruits of Objectivism while trying to uproot the tree. Its anti-conceptual nature makes it consistently desire effects without causes -- politics without ethics, liberty without reason, social change without philosophy. It wants to use the words of Objectivism's noninitiation-of-force principle, but not the ideas that give them meaning. It wishes to feed off the by-products of Objectivism's defense of capitalism, while repudiating the nature and roots of that defense. (332) [bold added]
The bold here is crucial. And, given that Kling has opened up a discussion on the subject of "principles", it is completely on topic. In fact, Kling himself demonstrates why in this very article, not to mention in his previous work.

Consider point (1):
We weave a thread of self-reliance into a sturdy fabric of interdependence. By respecting the law, we reinforce impersonal justice. By competing intensely and fairly in an impersonal global market, we raise our standard of living through specialization and innovation. By upholding Constitutional principles for limited government, we sustain our individual freedom.
What on earth does Kling mean by "interdependence"? At best, he means that human beings can profit through specialization by freely trading with one another, which this paragraph seems to imply.

At worst, "interdependence" means that the rich (people or nations) are somehow obligated to aid the poor. (Indeed the first sentence of Kling's next "principle" would seem to indicate this: "We are creative and pro-active in helping one another."

If "interdependence" means trade, this participation in a capitalist economy is a form of self-reliance into which there is no need to "weave a thread of self-reliance": There is only the need to remove the poisoned thread of government controls from the economy. Although Kling has bad things to say about government welfare programs, his list of principles does not rule out other ways for the government to violate our rights, such as the "market-based" controls on fuel consumption so many conservative libertarians seem to like.

So why not simply state that we should achieve laissez-faire capitalism? Does Kling not actually favor this? Does he fear antagonizing those libertarians who do not want it? Or does he hope to convince advocates of laissez-faire that his actual advocacy of a mixed economy is somehow the same fight for freedom. Your guess is as good as mine.

So far, all I have shown is that I find these "principles" vague at best. That is true, but I also completely reject the IATF RFC, this whole "ideological affirmation", on principle. It is doomed to fail because it is actually an effort -- like the libertarian movement as a whole -- to pretend that political principles exist in a vacuum apart from deeper philosophic principles.

Consider again the following passage, in which Kling explains why he thinks an "ideological affirmation" is necessary:
To the extent that a set of principles serves to clarify who we are, it can be a tool in the ideological war. Our principles can be used to connect with our friends in other English-speaking countries, but they could also be translated into every language and posted on street corners around the world. [bold added]
Certainly, it is crucial to be clear about what one stands for in a cause, in order for others who might join that cause to be able to understand it. But principles are not just important as a means of convincing other people to join a cause. They are also important to individuals -- to you and to me -- as guides to action. In their outward-focused zeal to "educate" others, libertarians consistently fail to appreciate the fundamental role of philosophical principles in man's life.

Should I join my cause with that of Arnold Kling, and if so, why? I can answer that question only by recourse to philosophical principles.

Kling claims to value "liberty". And like many libertarians, he is quick to point out that government controls are ineffective at securing the welfare of human beings. But what is the welfare of a human being? Well, that depends on what a human being is, doesn't it?

Before we return to Kling, let's see where a few different answers to that last question might lead us.

Suppose I feel that as a human being, I am God's property to do with as he pleases. Obviously, those who think that God wants humans to become bombs or missiles will not regard Arnold Kling's vague idea of freedom as an ideal since it could thwart God's will by forbidding us to injure infidels. Indeed, such a person might regard "true" "freedom" (from temptation, or impiety, or whatnot) as impossible except in a totalitarian Islamic state!

But what of those who think God likes free markets -- as long as they are under the "stewardship" of a "nongovernmental" Council of Elders that will not levy taxes, but will "only" enforce tithing to religious charities -- oh, and "objective" standards -- revealed by God -- of decency in broadcast media? How do we know what God's will is? And if there is some conflict between what God wills and some lowly human's idea of what constitutes a free market, whose desires should settle the debate? This person's idea of "freedom" may or may not resemble Kling's, but ultimately, his ideal society will only allow citizens to act in ways that do not displease God's self-proclaimed "representatives".

Or what of those who reject religion, and think that we should all be "free to do our own thing"? On what basis will they accept a government's placing any limitations on what they do? Suppose a pederast thinks that laws governing age of consent are "intrusive". On what basis will a libertarian pederast with his eye on young Jimbo and Jimbo's father be able to agree on what constitutes the proper role of government? Or will they just reject the whole idea of a central government a la the Lew Rockwell crowd and leave Jimbo's fate to which village he happens to live in, or even to whether the pederast or his father is better-armed or a more clever tactician?

Clearly -- as libertarians see -- a huge variety of different kinds of opinions are held by the citizens of any society. But contrary to the libertarian "big tent" approach, the vast majority of these views do not lead to the idea that we should have a government which refrains from violating the rights of individuals within our society.

However, in my experience, the standard libertarian tack is to paper over all of this and pretend that the desirability of freedom is as uncontroversial as that of taking another breath of air or imbibing water on a regular basis. In fact, they often do not even bother to define "liberty" (or "freedom" for that matter) -- an obvious deficiency of the Kling piece.

The result of all this is that whatever good there might be in a position a group of libertarians start out with, it eventually gets watered down as the various factions in the "big tent" contest whatever aspect of that position they do not like. The goals of an Islamofascist, a fundamentalist Christian, a pederast, and someone who knows and appreciates what freedom is are not the same because they hold different answers to questions that precede "What is the ideal political system?"

So before I answer the question, "Should I join my cause with that of Arnold Kling, and if so, why?", I must answer many other more fundamental ones. Here is a quick and dirty summary of those answers:
At the root of our individual rights is the fact that man is the rational animal. His mind is his tool of survival. His mind can be rendered ineffective by other human beings only by the initiation of force on their part. We form governments by ceding our right to use force in self-defense to the government, whose sole purpose is to protect our rights. A proper government protects our ability to profit from the unfettered use our own minds, but does not feed us, clothe us, provide us shelter -- or make us do any of these things for other people.
In other words, "freedom" is the condition in which I do not have to fear others depriving me of my ability to exercise my rational faculty to further my own survival.

Note that the method -- reason -- by which I reached this definition entailed asking what I am, as a human being, and that both the answer to that question and my method of answering it lead to the conclusions about whether we should have a government and what its purpose -- and hence its limitations -- are.

Note also that other very common methods -- like faith or whim -- will lead to arbitrary conclusions that may or may not sound like my answers, but do not provide a rational basis for arguing in favor of freedom or defending it intellectually.

What kind of outcome will we have in an "ideological war" in which we give the pass to anyone and everyone who claims to support the idea of "liberty" -- including those who define it incorrectly or fail to define it at all?

We need only look at some of Arnold Kling's earlier work to find out. Not long ago, I encountered Kling arguing for a sort of "give-and-take" with the Democrats in which he was willing to basically run medical experiments on the populations of entire states without their consent. Quoting Kling:
For example, I would welcome an experiment in which four or five diverse states adopt single-payer health care. My guess is that if people were to experience single-payer health care for ten or fifteen years, that would provide powerful evidence that it is a bad idea for the United States.
So much for Arnold Kling as a staunch defender of individual rights. You can read my objections in detail at the above link. As to why he is open to such "experiments" in the first place, we have this quote from an earlier article of his ("From Far Left to Libertarian"):
My goal as a libertarian is to counter the heavy-handed marketing by politicians of bigger government. I want to constantly remind people that personal responsibility and free markets are more powerful forces for progress than is government. For those people who are still on the Far Left, my advice is to study the consequences of policy, not simply the motives and intentions of those who advocate the policy. Once one understands and corrects for the Fundamental Attribution Error, the passion for better public policy translates into a support for libertarian principles. [bold added]
Or, in my words:
So we have a huge welfare state not because people overwhelmingly think that the role of government is to make everyone take care of one another -- but because people in the government are such good "marketers" of "government solutions". (And never mind that for crime and military invasion, government is ultimately the only solution.) And the big problem with someone like Noam Chomsky is not that he hates or ideologically opposes freedom, but that he just hasn't considered the consequences of, say, cutting off all military aid to Israel. Freedom is self-evidently desirable, everyone wants it, and if they'd only observe cause-and-effect, they'd stop "blundering" into massive mistakes like Vietnam or the welfare state.
It is clear from all this that Kling completely fails to grasp the role of philosophical principles in leading to politics and even in effecting political debate! If getting people to accept limited government is just a matter of crunching numbers, the whole world should have become a laissez-faire paradise ages ago! And there would be no need to create a laundry list of principles anyway.

Kling's lip service to "principles" to the contrary, he does not regard fundamental principles as having any bearing on the political debate or on his own course of action with regard to advancing the cause of freedom. This is why he proposes medical experiments on American citizens rather than learning why socialized medicine is immoral and impractical and arguing from those grounds that it is completely unacceptable.

If one cannot (or will not) even define "liberty" in a list of principles for "conservative libertarians", then plainly one does not understand or care about the actual importance of philosophical principles. And as a consequence, one will not make a convincing intellectual case for freedom or acquire actual allies in a fight for freedom. Indeed, one might even find himself making the case that some individuals must lose their freedom or their lives for the sake of a hare-brained "experiment".

Do I really need to answer the question, "Should I join my cause with that of Arnold Kling, and if so, why?"

Until more people realize what they are and why they need freedom as a result of what they are -- that is until our broader culture becomes more rational -- our freedom will constantly be in peril. A political movement that attempts to avoid this fact will waste the time and effort of genuine advocates of freedom, give undeserved credit to some of her enemies, and even succeed in "selling" statism under the brand of "capitalism" (e.g., "markets" in carbon tax credits).

While concrete political action -- like opposition to the latest socialized medicine scheme (Didn't we all know that was impractical back in 1994? Why is this coming up again, Mr. Kling?) -- is necessary to preserve freedom for as long as possible, these will only be holding actions and broader political change for the better will not occur simply because we wish that principles didn't matter.

What has to be done is to learn what we are, why ideas are important, and what the correct ones are so we can continue to live. We need to do this for our own sakes first, and only then will we have any hope of convincing others who might be open to our ideas. Kling is correct that this is an "ideological war", but it cannot be fought with the the muskets and bayonets constituted by an empty lip-service to "liberty". It has to be won with the nuclear arsenal of rational philosophic ideas, one active mind at a time, and throughout our culture.

It is not just the various leaders of Iraq who, as Kling points out, do not "have what it takes to live in an open society". It is the people who elected them. And that is true to a lesser extent throughout the world.

We need to work to make more people understand why freedom is necessary for a proper human existence. After we do, the politics will more or less take care of itself.

-- CAV


Andy said...

Hey Gus: I have read Kling's stuff before and it is incredibly shallow.

A good socialist or religious fundamentalist could chew him up. Why do human beings need "liberty"? Could he defend that? Could he identify the fundamental nature of human beings and associate that with liberty? No. "Our ideology allows us to live in peace?" How? "But we recognize that freedom is not ours to give when community leaders are not ready to seize the opportunity that it offers." How does this happen Arnold? Can you explain? No.

His attempt at ethical principles -- childish. "Ongoing conversation". "New moral ideals". Can Kling identify a single moral ideal necessary to human life or is what floats by at the moment sufficient?

Communism was a "failure"? Uhh, yes, but is that the best he can do under the heading of "Ethical Principles"? Apparently. Can Kling make a definitive moral statement? As in "immoral, murderous, anti-human, slave state?" No.

Is he even familiar with metaphysics and epistemology? Apparently economics is all this guy has. I bet "efficiency" is his "moral" ideal.

The good news is that his IATF RFC will fail -- just like Communism. : )

See ya,


Gus Van Horn said...

It will fail, like Libertarianism, but not before wasting the time of some and discrediting capitalism for others.