"Anything That's Peaceful"

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Via Instapundpit is an article the Glen Reynolds touts as an exploration of how the right and Libertarianism diverged. That may be an interesting, not to mention debatable subject for some. Nevertheless, as usual with the political movement that names itself after something it can't even define, the truly interesting question isn't how some movement that pays lip service to free markets has "diverged" from one that pays lip service to morality. (Both are converging to threaten liberty from different angles, but that's a post, perhaps, for another day.) The interesting story is how far Libertarianism "diverges" from aiding the cause of freedom, and why this is the case.

Since the article is as much a panegyric about "consistent modern libertarian" Leonard Read as anything else, perhaps the most straightforward way to examine this pregnant question might be to contemplate Read's own interpretation, as presented by Brian Doherty, of Libertarianism, which Read conveniently summarizes as "anything that's peaceful". Furthermore, although this may sound counterintuitive at first, our journey becomes even easier if we take it in reverse.

Doherty's last point about Libertarianism is its pacifism, particularly with respect to Communism.

To Read and those who hewed to his libertarian line, the warmaking powers of the state were one of the most horrible things about it, and they did not believe it was a proper duty of the American government to go abroad to destroy international communism, or to legally crush domestic communism.
Note the package-dealing of the "warmaking powers of the state" with government censorship (which is the only way I can imagine how a government could attempt to crush an ideology). Note also the context-dropping required to do so. A proper purpose of a government is to protect the lives of its citizens from foreign threats. It does so by waging wars against foreign aggressors. Not that war is pretty, but what is so "horrible" about the fact that one's life is defended from this type of threat?

One cannot object that Read simply felt a normal, healthy dread of warfare. He felt that we should not have intervened militarily in North Korea. Had we complied with Read's wishes, I suppose that once the anti-communists among our allies in the South were executed or holed away in dungeons far from earshot, you could say that it would have been more "peaceful" in Korea. That would have been the clear result of implementing Read's war plan. Don't blame the messenger for telling you what "peaceful" would have looked like in Read's world.

One also cannot object that Read merely disputed whether fighting in Korea was really all that helpful to American security, at least based on this article. He objected to the Korean War not because it was not in America's best interests to fight it, and not because our forces were hamstrung by bad strategy or an irrational policy. No, he opposed this war (and apparently any military confrontation with Communist nations) because "No overseas communist military could really harm the U.S.", and "Communism....is a philosophy to be despised and explained away.... It is not a military threat to be feared and shot away."

Never mind that through past and present foreign aid and espionage, Communist states were dangerous and becoming more so. And never mind that there was no freedom of speech within those nations that would admit of any meaningful opportunity to debate the merits of Communism. We would explain Communism away at home and watch it miraculously wither away abroad. I guess the empirical evidence of its failure (to do what?) amassed by the autocrats of the communist world would sink in after a few more million deaths from state-planned famines and the commissars would suddenly become "consistent modern libertarians". Peaceful rulers, peaceful -- quiet, anyway -- "evidence". Yeah. That's a win-win.

In fact, it's not even that rosy. Not too long ago, Libertarian Arnold Kling, exhibited the same Pollyanna-ish assumption that, contrary to evidence, everyone is open to evidence. He did this and showed the same kind of thinking Read did about Imperial Communism when he proposed as an "experiment" that several states adopt socialized medicine. The goal was for the resulting dead bodies and mangled lives to provide enough "evidence" for Democrats to finally shut up about socializing medicine. (What a "peaceful" way to settle an argument!)

Read's commissars would come to their senses just like Kling's Democrats would accept the results of his "experiment" (or do accept the data already obtained from overseas Guinea pigs the world over). And Read's commissars would experience epiphanies of global capitalism just like all of Europe is preparing to admit the error of its ways and privatize medicine. And just like Americans are laughing themselves silly right now at all those crazy Dems mouthing nonsense about socialized medicine again and expecting us not to notice because they keep saying "universal coverage".

This is not to say that there is not a war of ideas to be fought. It's just that failing to protect the freedom necessary for such a battle will not hasten its progress one bit. Oddly enough, a willingness to wage wars of self-defense abroad has the exact same rationale as our not imposing censorship at home. If the government can threaten you for the ideas you discuss, you are not able to learn everything possible about your position in order to evaluate it objectively. But somehow, Read wants to prevent our government from censoring Communists, and yet not defend our citizens from totalitarians abroad, who would censor some of them and everyone else if they could. Until I encountered Mr. Read, I had no idea that contradiction was so "peaceful".

Well, yes. I am aware that what Read objects to is government coercion as manifest in warfare and censorship. But I am also aware that he is ignoring the difference between government force initiated against the innocent (of which censorship is an example) and government force used in retaliation for force initiated against the citizenry (of which a war of self-defense is an example). This blindness to the moral difference between the initiation of force against others and the retaliatory use of force leads me to my next point: the "moral and prudential arguments", as Doherty calls them, that "run through the libertarian movement".

Doherty then discusses an incident in which Ayn Rand, who worked with Read for a time, objected to the inclusion of an article in their organization's publication.
Rand was outraged that the Friedman/Stigler pamphlet seemed to say that rationing through government action was morally equivalent to rationing [sic] through free markets, merely less efficient. [She actually also objected to the term "rationing" being used to describe the allocation of goods through a free market. See below. --ed] The resulting foofewaw, in which FEE added a footnote against Friedman and Stigler's wishes disagreeing with them on some points, was a great encapsulation of the wars between moral and prudential arguments that have run through the libertarian movement ever since.
Indeed, this "foofewaw" was, but to understand why, we need to take James Valliant's advice, and consider what Ayn Rand herself had to say about it.
No, this booklet alone will not convert people to the cause of property socialization. It's not direct propaganda -- collectivists never work through direct propaganda. It's groundwork-laying. To the extent which this booklet has any influence, is taken seriously or makes any point at all -- to that extent it will prepare the ground (the necessary intellectual confusion) upon which the demand for socialization can be planted, when the right time comes. The booklet itself is just a little drop in the bucket. All the successes of collectivist propaganda have been achieved through just such little drops, carefully planted in systematic progression. (The Letters of Ayn Rand, pp. 325-326.)
Earlier in the same letter (to Read's collaborator, Bill Mullendore), she describes the payoff:
[W]hen the groundwork is ready, a collectivist says to the Average American: "Don't fool yourself, brother. You've always lived under a system of rationing and always will. The only choice you have is this: Do you want to be rationed by selfish, greedy capitalists for their own private profit -- or would you rather be rationed by a public authoritywho will have no motive except your own good and the general welfare?" [bold added] (ibid., p.323)
Before I go on, a question: Just how practical is it to sow intellectual confusion about the nature of capitalism among the general public when one advocates capitalism? Doherty implicitly dismisses Rand's side in this dispute as being impractical. Apparently, Read implicitly disagreed with Rand since he went ahead with the objectionable article, merely adding a footnote of disagreement.

Morality is merely a system for deciding how to live one's life. Ayn Rand's genius in the field was the realization that reason can be used to discover morality.
... Ayn Rand begins by asking what man is, and why he needs a code of morality. Using this approach, she sees right away that man, a rational animal possessed of free will, is a living being and as such must perform certain actions in order to survive. Because man does not have instincts, he must learn everything, including what these actions are.

And because reason allows man to keep track of countless individual concretes efficiently (as well as any important similarities) by means of concepts, it allows him to essentialize the countless similar existents he will face as he goes through life. In particular, man can evaluate various situations (and his actions) conceptually. The science of making such evaluations (and guiding them by considering the evidence for what he needs to live (and flourish) is ethics, or morality.
Ultimately, this means that the moral is the practical. It also means that when one sees a "conflict" between the two, that one's grasp of the both is slippery. Hmmm. I didn't know until today that intractable arguments over life-and-death issues were "peaceful". I guess they are when the parties don't appreciate the stakes. That must be why Doherty called them "foofewaws".

So far we have seen that Read did not make a proper moral distinction between force misused (i.e., initiated) by the government and force properly used (i.e., used in retaliation). On top of misunderstanding the role of government, Read grandstands against American military action against communist nations, calling it "murder", and he does so even though his confusion would hinder discussion about the merits of capitalism as explained above. But when urged not to include an obviously bad passage in his "pro-freedom" literature, he apparently decides that omitting it would be "impractical" and runs with it anyway. Is acting on whim "peaceful", too?

If you're Leonard Read, probably so. This last passage is very illuminating, given that this man basically ignored a warning from his "heroine" about "planting seeds" in people's minds:
Woe betide someone sitting next to Read on an airplane who wasn't in the mood to hear about how coercion could never generate creative activity, or how various government officials ought more properly be called, say, secretary of external violence, or secretary of predation.
If this is literally true (and considering some of the proselytizing Libertarians I have been acquainted with, it wouldn't be a stretch) then Read exhibits a fundamental problem shared by many Libertarians: They do not appreciate the importance of reason as man's tool of survival. (They also have a strange idea of what constitutes a "peaceful" plane ride.)

Consider what proselytizing is. It is the attempt to gain recruits for a cause. There is nothing inherently wrong with that so long as it is not one's primary focus. But consider the difference of focus between attempting to persuade someone of the truth of one's position and attempting to get him to "become one of you". If we suppose that a Libertarian is pro-capitalist (despite what we have seen above) and opposes, say, a zoning ordinance, what difference does it really make if someone is a Libertarian if he ends up buying your argument and voting against the ordinance? None. Conversely, what good is it if you convince someone to "become a Libertarian" if his notion of "free markets" includes carbon credits that will drive you out of business -- not to mention potentially confuse anyone he speaks to about what capitalism is? None.

So for starters, someone focused on getting other people to call themselves something shows a misunderstanding of the importance of ideas in guiding action and of others understanding one's ideas. But that's not all. If one really does think a system of ideas is important, shouldn't one be concerned first and foremost with understanding those ideas himself? What good is your message if the messenger doesn't understand it himself? And how can you fully profit from ideas you don't fully understand? This last includes, but is hardly limited to the question: "How can you profit at all if you unwittingly create enemies of freedom by confusing them about the nature of freedom?"

This focus I see in so many Libertarians on converting other people over really understanding what freedom is and why it is important tells me they do not really understand what they are calling "freedom". The naive notion that people just need "evidence" that freedom "works" shows that Libertarians take reason for granted (or at least assume that the opinions in someone's mind are somehow determined by the evidence it is exposed to).

The failure to ask (or anticipate) questions like, "Works? For what purpose?", shows a failure to grasp the connection between the moral and the practical. This amorality leads to common, blatant errors among Libertarians about the purpose of government, including the sophomoric question of whether we should have one at all. And above all, the formulation that Libertarianism is "anything that's peaceful" summarizes the dumbed-down banality of the whole movement.

Man needs freedom because without it, he cannot take full advantage of his rational faculty. Given how little many Libertarians seem to appreciate the importance of reason, is it any wonder they feel contempt for the very idea of arguing in terms of fundamental principles? And is it any wonder they miss the whole point of the principle that the initiation of force is the fundamental way to violate rights and how this principle must be applied to a theory of proper government?

Freedom is neither simple nor universally desired nor uncontroversial. It can not and will not be advanced by those whom Ayn Rand called "hippies of the right". Freedom is, however, both moral and practical. It deserves better promoters and defenders than Libertarians.

-- CAV


: Several edits for clarification near end.

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